A Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Caroline Smith Parkinson
St. James’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA
November 9, 2014 Proper 27 A
Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25 Matthew 25:1 – 13
I think that one of the loveliest and most painful gifts God has given us is the gift of remembering, the ability to tell our story to the next generation and thus to pass on the morals we wish to teach and the story that forms our identity, to recall the joy and the pain of the past because it will impact on the present and on the future.
In the story from the Hebrew scripture this morning, Joshua as an old man, when he was about to die, called together the people of Israel, to remember and to decide.
Joshua told the story of how God had treated the children of Israel. He reminded them that God had called Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and promised them a land of their own. He reminded them of how God had heard their cries in Egypt and had delivered them from the hands of their enemies and watched over them in the Wilderness and in the Sinai and finally brought them to the promised land. He told the story, the story that identified them as God’s people and he remembered. Then before the end of his life the last thing he felt compelled to do was to call the people to make a decision: choose today whom you will serve… the God of history, the God of creation, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of liberation, or to choose to follow the path of the nations around them and to worship their gods.
On November 11, 1919 at 11 am, the War that was expected to end all wars, the war to make the world safe for democracy was officially ended and after the next World War ended we began to mark November 11th by honoring all veterans of the wars in which America has fought. On November 9th 1933 the reign of terror that was to be called the Holocaust began as SS troops marched through cities throughout Germany breaking the glass in the shops and synagogues, trampling the Torah, marking the beginning of destruction. On November 9th, 1989 the Berlin Wall dividing the Communist countries from the Free world was brought down. All three anniversaries are this week.
Today in England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand this is Remembrance Sunday when everyone wears a poppy to recall Flanders’s field where the “poppies blow between the crosses row on row that mark their place.” Today, ceramic poppies cover the land around the Tower of London, more than 800,000 representing the men and women who died in service during that first World War.
It seems to me that as we recall our history and to give God thanks and praise for the blessings we have and in doing so to let the light of Christ shine on that history so we do not romanticize it or debunk it or falsify it.
As I cleaned out my parents’ home several years ago, I had the opportunity to read the letters my father wrote to my mother from Europe during the World War II, to see pictures of him with his tank division – the 3rd Armored Division of the 1st Army, just before the Battle of the Bulge and of him just after his return to Richmond late in 1945. Dad’s and many other letters show that as our troops entered Germany they were unprepared for what they found as they liberated the concentration camps at Dachau, Ravensbrouk, Buchenwald, and on and on, but even then it took years for the truth of horror to be revealed.
As the story of genocide began to be revealed so did the story of individuals and groups who risked their lives to rescue Holocaust victims, risking their possessions and their lives to protect those who had no one to protect them.
The reality is that the war that was fought to end all wars ushered a century of war including 70 years of Bolshevism which according to “The Black Book of Communism” written by European academics put the total number at a staggering 94 million people across the world who were victims of the Cold War symbolized by the concrete and barbed wire wall built in 1961 to divide the part of Berlin the Communists claimed and the part open to the west and freedom.
I have in my hand a small piece of concrete that is a symbol of great significance, some would say of biblical proportions. It is a small piece of the Berlin Wall given to me by an East German Lutheran pastor. Though the Wall only stood for 48 years, its fall symbolized the end of almost a century of terror. It is a century that has seen injustice and oppression, genocide because of religion, race, and nationality. Ethnic cleansing we call it. It is the century of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Khrushchev, and the list goes on. This little piece of the Berlin Wall is not much — poorly made concrete with red and blue paint on it. I have kept it to remind me of the deaths, the suffering, the sorrow, the horror and finally of the hope this stretch of land held not just for East Germans but for people all over the world. Unfortunately, though the concrete and barbed wire was torn, down millions are still ruled by Communist regimes and the battle for human dignity and freedom is still being waged every day in North Korea, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba and other totalitarian regimes around the world deny the principals of freedom we assume by right.
Symbols are outward signs, remembrances of our story, of the suffering and of the hope. We have no power over the forces of evil in this world, but we do have the power over what we choose to remember. Symbols such as this little bit of concrete can be a reminder not of how much evil there is in the world but of how much good, of how many men and women gave their time, their strength, their talents, their courage, their hopes -some their careers and some their very lives to bring life giving hope to others.
We live in a particular place in a particular time history with particular issues to face, particular uncertainties. The good and bad news is that God does hold us accountable. Our choices have consequences. The Judeo-Christian concept is that all of life is a gift of God, and that we are only stewards, given the responsibility of overseeing and guarding that which is actually God’s, not our own. We choose how we respond to God’s gracious gift in the particularity of our lives. Our choices are complicated — there are no easy answers but there are clear answers.
Our baptismal covenant insists that we enter the fray: “Will you resist evil and whenever you sin repent and return to the LORD?” “Will you strive for justice and respect the dignity of every human being?” These questions challenge the sort of prejudice that intimidates people through racism, sexism, nationalism, and every other “ism”. These questions challenge those who build walls, and ghettoes and gulags and force men and women and children to flee their homes to seek shelter in other countries even in tent cities we call refugee centers. These questions challenge those who demand the mutilation of young girls for “purity sake” and who participate in human trafficking even here in the U. S. The foe we face is not just tyranny, not just war, but also all those things that divide and separate people, all those things that lead to hatred and war.
Our baptismal Covenant challenges the evil we see on the Internet and then on TV such as the beheading of journalists and aid workers. Captured while he was delivering medical supplies, aid worker and former U. S. Army Ranger, Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig, wrote his parents last spring: “If I do die, I figure that at least you and I can seek refuge and comfort in knowing that I went out as a result of trying to alleviate suffering and helping those in need.” [Word that Abdual-Rahman Kassig has been executed was reported in the news on November 16, 2014.]
When we are at our best, we are standing more on the side of the outcast, the oppressed and the persecuted than on the side of hatred and bigotry. But fear is easier to instill than hope – fear of the one who is different, fear that some other person or group will have power. Hatred and bigotry and abuse of power are seductive and we have to take care not to sanction our prejudices against those who are different from ourselves lest our attitudes legitimize violence.
There have been so many who were willing and able to commit their lives to the betterment, the safety and the hope of those who could not themselves transform the horror of injustice and oppression. Most every veteran I know would agree: “would that I had never had to see the horrors, loose the friends, experience the terror, confronted death. But if I had not, there are other lives that would have been lost. ”
The community of faith may discern the will of God in the silences and storms of life and it may hear the voice of God in the cries of the desperate children of the world. Always those of the community of God are stewards of the gifts given and nothing in the Gospel admonishes us to smallness. No where does Jesus say sit tight, don’t take risks, and build a wall to protect yourself.
Anniversaries, days of remembrance allow us to recall our identity, they allow us to pause for a moment to thank God for the blessings of this land and for the men and women who ventured much for the liberties we enjoy and to pray for God’s grace as we face the responsibility we have to do all in our power to bring about justice and peace.
What God expects of us is obedience born of gratitude; what God gives us is forgiveness born of grace. The word of God is the Word of Hope as well as the call to justice – hope based on the unshakable conviction that God’s power is at work in the world and that God’ intent for the world is harmony.
The hope of those who have served is that each of us will work like those who gave themselves in the past to stop evil; that each of us will give ourselves to spread good today to build a better world, a world built on peace and justice for all human kind.