Sermon for May 28th, 2017.
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36
Memorial Day, which is observed tomorrow in the United States, began around the time of the Civil War as Decoration Day, a day when people would visit war cemeteries and decorate the graves of the fallen soldiers. Supposedly, one of the reasons that this day was traditionally observed in late May, was so that flowers would have been readily available to decorate the graves with.
Well as much as placing flowers on the graves of the dead is a laudable custom, I can’t help but feel that the timing of Memorial Day is rather unfortunate. It comes at the end of the school year for kids, the end of the program year for churches and many other institutions, at a time when everyone’s minds are turning toward the coming summer and all that that entails. Because Memorial Day has become in our culture the unofficial beginning of the Summer Season, it is those summer activities that largely command our attention on this day, and not honoring the dead. Of course, moving the holiday observance to a Monday to make for a convenient 3 day weekend has only made this worse. Now Memorial Day is known for BBQs, the beach and sales at the department store, more than it is thought of as a day for honoring the dead.
While I agree with the VFW, that returning Memorial Day to its original date of May 30th, might be better; thereby making its observance something that is intentional, and not just a convenience, still I don’t think it would be enough. The purpose of Memorial Day is to honor those that lost their lives, not just in defense of our borders or our flag, but for our ideals. Those soldiers didn’t just die to preserve lines on a map, they died to uphold the very principles that Western Society is built on: freedom, democracy and self-determination. Its true we have always fallen short of our ideals; we have never achieved true equality in our societies, but at least it is an ideal; at least it is something we work towards and long for. Those principles and freedoms that we so often take for granted are what our soldiers died trying to defend. So we should ask ourselves: what is the best way to honor that sacrifice?
Is it enough to simply place a flag or a flower on a grave, or might true honor require something more of us? Might honoring a sacrifice require us to make a sacrifice of our own?
Regardless of what day we choose to pay our respects to fallen soldiers, I don’t think we do them much justice by simply tipping our hats as we go on about our lives taking for granted the principles they died for and not paying attention to the ways in which those same principles still need defending in our own day. A simple “thank you for your service” will not do. We must be willing to make sacrifices of our own. We must be prepared to continue to defend those principles and those freedoms, because if history has taught us anything, I hope it is this: there is no such thing as a war to end all wars. We can never just rest on the sacrifices made by those that came before us, because in every generation those principles which we hold so dear, will come under attack. Every generation will be challenged with defending them and protecting them anew. Respecting our fallen soldiers must mean respecting and protecting what they were willing to die for and that is far more difficult and more complicated than simply placing a flower on a grave.
After Jesus’s death and resurrection, his followers were certain that the victory had been won, that they were triumphant and that a new kingdom was about to be established that would put an end to their suffering and their struggles. They asked Jesus: “Is this the time when YOU will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They were ready to thank Jesus for his sacrifice, for all that he had done in dying for them and to praise his victory over death. They wanted to stand their and await all of the blessings that his sacrifice was destined to bring them, but Jesus looked at them and said: “it is not for you to know when God is going to establish a lasting kingdom or an eternal peace, but YOU will receive power, and YOU are to use that power to be my witnesses to the ends of the Earth.”
Jesus may have won the ultimate victory over sin and death, but Satan wasn’t done with us yet; his work may have been finished, but ours was just beginning. There was still work to be done in the world, there was still evil to confront and fight. As he ascended into heaven his disciples wanted to just stand there in awe of what he had done, but that is not what they were called to do. They were called to go back out into the world and continue the work that Jesus had begun. That is what he gave them the power to do. It is what Jesus and the Holy Spirit give us the power to do as well.
Peter reminds us that doing the work of Christ in the world is likely to involve some suffering and sacrifice. The devil never rests. He prowls around like a lion, seeking someone to devour. We can never become complacent. We cannot simply satisfy ourselves honoring the efforts and the sacrifices of others, and paying no attention to the ways in which we may be called to defend the same freedoms and principles that they did. We must be prepared to fight the devil ourselves; each and every one of us, because until that day when Christ returns in glory, the devil is not going to stop trying to steal our joy, our freedom and our peace. He will try to turn us against each other; he will trick us into abandoning the very principles we should be fighting for; he will fool us into becoming the very thing our fallen heroes defended us from. If we truly want to honor their sacrifice we cannot let that happen. We must be prepared to resist the devil, to resist succumbing to the evil in the world. We must be steadfast in our faith; a people who are willing to stand up for what we believe.
We cannot be surprised at the suffering and struggle in the world, especially by people seeking to live in a free society or people seeking to follow the will of God. Either way the devil, or the evil forces of this world are going to try to bring you down. As Christians we have been given the ultimate freedom from sin and death; as Americans, we have the great privilege of living in a free society. We cannot take for granted the freedoms and blessings that have been won for us; and whether that freedom was won for us by Christ on the cross, or whether it was won by our grandfathers on the battlefield, we have a duty in our own lives that goes beyond merely acknowledging what they did. We have work to do to. We have sacrifices to make. We have evil to resist. And we are not alone in this fight. Peter reminds us that we have brothers and sisters all over the world who are struggling and resisting evil just like we are. It seems like we are reminded of that all the time now. This week we saw Christians attacked in Egypt and free people attacked at a concert in England. Both were painful reminders that freedom, whether in this world or in the next one, comes at a price. We must be prepared to stand not only with our fellow Christians, or fellow Americans, but will all free people in the world that share our values.
After communion this morning we will be singing “my country tis of thee”, which was a popular national song in our country, long before “the star spangled banner” became our national anthem. Of course, it is the same tune as another national anthem, that of Great Britain. Both songs are sung by free people, who have suffered and lost much to preserve those freedoms. As a tribute to our friends across the Atlantic, the choir will sing the other version of “my country tis of thee” as a postlude. You are welcomed to sing along if you know the words.
I have said before that I believe that there is really only one war: the war between good and evil. It is a war, which like it or not we all must fight. We won’t all fight it in combat or on a battlefield, but we all must fight it. As Christians, we gather here every Sunday to remember the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ in that war. We give thanks for all of the glory that he won for us, but I hope, that as we leave here and walk out those doors, that we will remember that we have a duty that goes beyond giving thanks. I hope that we can be a people who truly wish to live differently; a people who know that some principles are worth fighting for and even dying for; a people who know that the devil isn’t done with us and who are prepared to resist him, steadfast in faith. If we want to honor Christ’s sacrifice, we must carry on his work in the world, and sometimes that will mean having to make sacrifices of our own.
It is good and right that we should take the time to remember the sacrifices made by the members of our armed services, and all of those who have fought to gain or preserve freedom, but we can do more than simply say “thank you.” We can go out into the world as citizens ready to live differently, holding ourselves to a higher standard, ready and willing to do whatever it takes to preserve the principles and the freedoms that they died for. That is the best way to honor their sacrifice.