Did you know that Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day and it was intended to honor the nation’s Civil War dead by decorating their graves. It first caught on around the country in May of 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War. On May 30th 1868 , 5000 volunteers helped to decorate the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery . This is a tradition maintained to this day where a small American flag is placed on the grave of every soldier laid to rest at Arlington and a wreath is laid at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Interestingly enough however, it wasn’t until 1971 in the midst of the Vietnam War that Congress declared Memorial Day a National holiday to be celebrated on the last Monday in May.
Memory is a funny thing. It’s funny what we remember and what we forget, what we choose to remember and what we struggle to forget. As the father of young children, I am always looking for ways to create wonderful memories for me and my kids. The other day I was planning a camping trip for Marshall and one of his friends and I was reminiscing with Marshall about a similar trip we took last year. In my mind, our trip the year before had been this wonderful bonding experience where we went fishing and swimming, hiking and exploring. In my memory, I had been a superb father teaching my son about the wonders of nature, roasting hotdogs and marshmallows over a camp fire and sleeping in a fantastic new L.L. Bean tent. With a smile on my face and my chest held out high I said, “We had a great time last year didn’t we buddy?” To my surprise Marshall said, “Not really Dad. Don’t you remember, it rained the entire time and the thunder storm in the middle of the night was so bad we had to sleep in the car.” “Oh yeah,” I said, “I guess I forgot about that part.”
Memory is a funny thing. The memories some of us relish as special milestones are nothing more than foggy recollections for the rest of us. When I was a kid, every year around this time as her June wedding anniversary approached my mother would begin to reminisce about the romantic beginnings of my parent’s relationship. She would tell me about the precise moment they met, exactly what she had been wearing, exactly what he had been wearing, what they said to one another and so on. My father, on the other hand, though he loved my mother passionately would only add – “Well I don’t know about any of that, all I remember is that she was darn good looking.”
Who we are as individuals depends a lot on what we choose to remember and what we allow ourselves to forget. Your life and my life in this present moment is in no small way defined by memories we allow to shape our individual identities. Countless veterans can attest to the psychologically destructive power of memory when the painful experiences of combat are allowed to remain unprocessed. And even more people have found it possible to survive and thrive as adults in spite of serious setbacks and disappointments in life because of the deep memories they have from childhood of their own value and self worth. What we remember is critical to who we are.
Our reading for this morning from John’s Gospel seems especially appropriate on a weekend that is meant to be all about memory. It’s as if the lectionary is trying to remind us of the essentials that the church must never forget. Love – Jesus says, it is all about love. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” It has been said that love is the central theme of most of St. John’s writings and certainly the central theme of John’s life. Exiled on the island of Patmos , John was revered and adored. It is said that even as a very old man when he was carried from church to church and could barely speak he would say to everyone who would listen – “Children, love one another. If only this is done it is enough.”
Love – it is at the heart of the good news. God and love are inseparable. Following God and being loving are inseparable. “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est,” the ancient text says – Where love and charity are there God is also. Not a “Hallmark Card” kind of love that seems harmless and sugary sweet. No, the love Jesus is talking about is love that is only real when it is placed into action. It is sacrificial love, love that acts for the benefit and well being of others and not purely for the benefit of self. The love Jesus is talking about is a love that is willing to take risks, love that is willing to speak the truth, love that is even willing to be confrontational for the benefit of another.
Our gospel is the perfect reading for the Sunday of Memorial Weekend. It is as if the scriptures are saying to us that the church needs to have its own Memorial Day to remember what being a Christian is all about. The church must remember, because to forget even for a second what lies at the heart of the faith is to run the risk that the faith will become warped and poisoned. St. Paul said it so clearly – without love we are nothing but noisy gongs and clanging symbols.
A few days ago, I was reading the news and came across a report that just about sent me over the edge. It seems that last week there was a conference of Evangelical Christians and Jewish Zionists about the future of Israel and President Bush’s “road map” for peace. About 1,000 participants including representatives from CBN (The Christian Broadcasting Network), the Christian Coalition and the Religious Roundtable, with Gary Bauer and others met to discuss Israel and the Palestinian conflict. They referred to the Bush peace process as a “Satanic road map,” and they declared that peace could only be brought about by an Israeli victory and a Palestinian defeat. In the Bible God gave the Holy Land to Israel and from their point of view this promise should trump all other concerns.
Here it seems to me is the perfect example of what happens when we forget the central message of the gospel – self sacrificing love, dedicated to the well being of others. The good news isn’t about land acquisition or some self righteous sense of which ancient people God loves the most. It isn’t about who is in and who is out, who is righteous and who is sinful. No, the good news of Jesus Christ is all about love – God’s love for this world, for you and for me and Christ’s willingness to die for that love, so that love might become stronger than death. Jesus wasn’t concerned with who possessed earthly power in Israel ; he was concerned with proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God and the centrality of love. It’s interesting what we choose to remember isn’t it? I think it is the height of arrogance for religious organizations representing thousands of Evangelical Christians to choose the supposed Biblical right to a piece of land over the Biblical imperatives to love our neighbors and our enemies, to seek peace, justice and reconciliation.
I compare this story to another piece I read in the New York Times two weeks ago. Pumla Gobodo is a black South African who was appointed to South Africa ’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a commission created to expose crimes committed during the apartheid years. Eugene de Kock (Cook) is a former colonel in the South African police force who confessed to more than 100 acts of torture and murder. He was nicknamed by his men as “Prime Evil.” On the Truth Commission, Pumla listened for hours to testimony of de Kock’s brutality and hatred and she was there when he was sentenced to 212 years in prison for his crimes. She knew close up what this man was capable of – – and yet – – as a woman of faith she thought she saw something else in this man besides evil, she thought she saw remorse. As a result, she took a risk to visit de Kock in prison. They spent countless hours together over a series of weeks and months – Colonel de Kock expressing his sadness about his actions and Pumla looking for the man behind the monster. “I was looking for hope, really,” she said. “If this man, who everyone sees as the ultimate of evil . . . can feel remorse and reach out, then there is a lot of hope for this country.” Ms. Gobodo has written about her experiences in a book entitled, A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness. This woman, who had spent months listening to testimony about the evils perpetrated on her people by the rulers of apartheid, reached out, of her own volition, beyond the hatred to find some kind of understanding, some kind of reconciliation. All because she remembered. She bore the ridicule and disapproval of her own people because she remembered the central teaching of the Christian faith that the power of love can overcome even the worst evil.
On this Memorial Day as we remember all those who have given their lives for our country – what is it that we ought to remember. First, remember that religion without love is dangerous. Religion without love is destructive. Religion without love is religion without God. Second, remember the simple truth that “Love is a free gift given to us for the sole purpose of giving it away.” Christ has commanded us – we are to love those who deserve it and most importantly we are to love those who don’t. Because, in the end, they will know we are Christians by our love. Yes, they will know we are Christians by our love. Amen.