This weekend, of course, is Memorial Day weekend. It started as a sort of groundswell movement all over the North and South during and shortly after the Civil War: a day to place flowers on the graves of those who died in battle; a day to remember those we’d lost because of that war: It has grown to become a day of Remembrance for all who died in any of the wars our nation has fought.
Now I am not going to speak about the Civil War, or how it is still being fought today in so many ways, nor even about war in general. But, I think the themes of Memorial Day’s narrative are reflected in this morning’s scripture readings – the themes of loss, and of the Love of God; and how that shapes our relationships with others, and even within ourselves.
Every death, whether expected or understandable – such as from old age, or perhaps in battle; or not understandable – such as from COVID, or a shooting in a classroom; is a loss. The uniqueness of those who died, and all the richness and beauty and potential of their lives dies with them. They are lost from the present, never to return; living on only in our memories. But, human memory inevitably fades with time, and it vanishes entirely when those who knew that person pass on themselves. I visualize this as a sort of tide, a tide of memory slowly receding from the shores of the present. Yet, in reality it is the present that is advancing. We are leaving that tide behind.
I grieve even when those who have been a royal pain to me or to those I whom love pass away – although I’ll admit, perhaps I don’t grieve quite as much.
Even so, our lack of fond memories of them does not mean they were not loved by others, nor that they did not have value as human beings. If nothing else, they were loved and valued by God. And if God loves and values them, how can we not do the same? To me, the question seems to be not whether we should love those who are in our past, but how to do so in our present.
We’ve all seen and experienced a lot of loss in recent weeks and months – and in many different ways. COVID, obviously, in all sorts of ways. Ukraine, equally obviously. Russia, perhaps not so obviously – the loss not just of the country that could have been, but the loss of so many who blindly marched into a war at the direction of their equally blind leaders, and died for it. I grieve for them, and the families and loved ones they’ve left behind; and especially for those hurt by their unmerited actions and cruelty.
Some hurts are very fresh: Buffalo; and now Uvalde. The recent passing of those whom we love. So many innocent, beautiful, people lost. So much hope for the future, dead. Parents, friends, children. Years of wonder, joy, and life, stolen from them, and us.
And, we’ve also all lost important parts of who we are – not just loved ones. Most of us have long since lost the innocence and naivete of youth; at some point we’ve all lost the trust or respect of others; some have lost themselves. Some have lost any sense of safety or home. Loss is an inescapable part of Creation.
This morning’s readings speak to this: nothing we own, nothing we value, nothing we think we control in this life, will last. Once we are gone, we cannot enjoy any amount of wealth, cannot use anything we once had to return us into present life. We remain there forever – lost in that ocean of memory with none of the riches we once treasured. We will not even have control over our own memory: everything will be in the hands of those we leave behind.
This is getting pretty depressing, isn’t it?
So, what drives us to decorate those graves of the fallen, those who made the ultimate sacrifice for us? It is the same reason why we remember all those who are gone, the reason why we cherish the memories of all that once was: Hope.
Today’s message is a seemingly simple one: don’t store up treasures in the present. That’s not what we should value, because it will all vanish. Value what is to come.
Our reading from 1 Timothy tells us to “store up for [ourselves] a good foundation for the future so that we may seize the life that is truly life.” And yet, when we die, we already know that all that we were, and all that we had, is lost to us. There is no more life. So, why bother with such “storing up” and “setting a good foundation for the future”? What future? We don’t have one. Why not just wallow in self-pity and hedonism: distracting ourselves from the losses of our past, the pain of our present, and a hopeless future?
All around us, life is uncertain and perilous. Our treasures are uncertain. But, our trust in God is certain; and God’s love and trust in us is certain.
Do I think the challenges and pain of the present will be magically healed with a wave of God’s hand? No.
Do I think that I will (as my earthly Father once said in a sermon of his own) receive a “Get out of Jail Free Card” that allows me to escape the certainty of my own mortality? Nope. – But we all secretly hope there is such a pass for us – it would be nice to have a “bye” on the great goodbye. Even so, I have Hope.
Such hope drives us to invest ourselves into the lives and world around us. I know I can bring a little bit of peace and love into the lives of those I encounter, planting a seed of Love. I can build and cherish my community, a community that will last long beyond my own lifetime, long after the reality of my own existence is no longer accessible to human memory.
Did you know that the one factor of the most importance in helping a child heal from trauma is the presence of a loving adult in their life? No skills needed, just love. Kindness, encouragement, protection, service – all are expressions of Love. They take so little effort on our part, but has a huge impact in the life of someone who is recovering from trauma.
And love is something we all do. It is the fruit of the seed placed within each and every one of us by our Creator. A seed that will not fail. It brings healing to those around us, helps them to be all God intended them to be, helps them to be happy and at peace. We are required only to love, and the seed that God gave us custody-of will bear fruit.
God never forgets. In Matthew 22, the Pharisees question Jesus about the widow who had many husbands. At the end of that passage, Jesus says to them they are in error because “God is God not of the dead, but of the living.”
God is the Great I AM. God created (and so exists) outside of time and space: Lord of the past and of the present and of the future – they are all the same and all present from God’s perspective. Our perception of the passage of time is irrelevant. God is the God who was, and is, and will always be. We are never dead to God. We are never lost. We are never forgotten. Our God always walks with us, no matter where, or when. We are never dead to God.
And so we can be certain that our hope for ourselves and those we love will never die. God calls us to walk together: working together as the Body of Christ, building God’s Kingdom here on earth. We honor those who have left us by doing as they did: building a good foundation for the future through planting the Love that God placed within us into the lives of all whom we encounter.
And so, this Memorial Day, I ask that we take a few moments to remember those who are gone. Not just those who fought in wars, but also those who fought for us at work, in our schools, and in our homes. Those who planted their love into us in so many different ways, and who now live on – forever sheltered and at peace in the arms of our Creator. That ocean of what is past, the Ocean of Memory, is vast – but not too vast for the God who created it all.
Delivered at Memorial Congregational Church UCC in Sudbury MA, May 29, 2022
Copyright 2022, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.