Wednesday, May 29, 2013

In Memoriam (John 15:9-17) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In an article titled Holiday Weekend Plans, there was a question in yesterday’s Union-Tribune: “What are you most interested in doing this Memorial Day weekend?”  1.  Going to the beach.  2. Having a backyard barbecue. 3. Relaxing with family and friends.  4. Honoring the nation’s war dead.   How to you think people will respond?
Listen to this story about the troops coming home: “A friend and I passed through the Dallas–Fort Worth airport. On the way to the connecting gate, we heard loud patriotic music playing and saw a group wearing colorful hats, cheering, and waving American flags. The troops were coming home, and here was their welcoming committee.  Two women encouraged us to grab flags and join in.  At first, a few soldiers just dribbled by. We whooped and waved our flags furiously. Then the pace picked up as dozens of men and women in uniform came barreling through. We kept repeating: "Welcome home! We're glad you're back! We appreciate you!" Some soldiers wiped away tears, while others displayed huge, self-conscious smiles.  We felt humbled by participating in this sweet moment of coming home. These men and women had taken oaths of faithfulness and service. They had fought courageously, lived with deprivation, danger, and disease, and took unbelievable risks, all for the good of our nation.”
Tomorrow our nation observes Memorial Day.  This day was founded on May 30, 1868 when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.  It was originally called “Decoration Day.”  Families and friends were encouraged to visit the graves of those who had fallen in battle and leave a floral tribute and to bring extra floral bouquets for the numerous graves marked “Unknown Soldier.”  
Memorial Day events locally have been scheduled at two national cemeteries – Miramar National Cemetery on Sunday and Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on Monday.  Memorial Day remembers and honors those Americans who have died in wars and made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country. 
Memorial Day is a day of mixed feelings for our nation.  It is a day of sadness and loneliness and painful memories and humility, and survivor’s guilt born by some who are haunted by the death of their comrades; it’s also a day of thankfulness and pride, of appreciation and celebration by Americans and spouses and children of veterans who returned home to be with their families.    We know that some veterans are homeless, living on the streets of San Diego.  Veterans are being cared for by our Veteran’s hospitals, bearing the wounds, physical and emotional of war, and we remember in gratitude the doctors, nurses and medical teams who care for them
Memorial Day is about sacrifice and sacrifice is at the heart of our Christian faith.  It is at the center of the gospel, the sacrifice of God’s Son, Jesus on the cross, who died for the sins of the world.  That is why we take time to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice before God in worship today. 
Our lesson from the Gospel of John speaks of love at its pinnacle, at its zenith.  “My command is this: 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.”  The word Jesus uses for love is the Greek word agape, which means self-giving, selfless, sacrificial love.   Jesus commands us as his followers to practice agape love, to love one another as He has loved us.  That’s a tall order.  We are to love others not because they are lovable, not because they are adorable, not because they deserve it or have earned it, but because Jesus commands it.  To follow Jesus, truly following Jesus, means to obey his commands.  Agape love is unconditional love, that is, love at its apex.   
You may never be faced with dying for someone else in your lifetime, but agape love can be practiced in other ways as well: making personal sacrifices for others, investing yourself in the lives of others by helping, encouraging, supporting, sharing, and giving our time or money or resources. 
This weekend we remember the courage and dedication of the men and women who have fought and died in our nation’s wars from the American Revolution until today and those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq: friends, neighbors, sons and daughters, parents, grandparents and great grandparents, who have served their nation and their God, who have sacrificed their lives for future generations to preserve democracy, freedom and peace
One of the most famous pictures from World War II is the photo of five valiant Marines raising an American flag on the island of Iwo Jima.  The young man in the center of the photo was John Bradley.  After the war, Bradley moved back to Wisconsin, married his high school sweetheart, and raised a family.  
Although John Bradley won the Navy Cross for saving a fellow soldiers’ life, he preferred not to talk about the war.  And he absolutely refused to accept the hero worship that others tried to force on him.  One of the few comments Bradley ever made about the war, he made to his young son, James.  In response to James’ remark about heroism, John Bradley replied, “The heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who didn’t come back.”  Today we honor the memory of those who didn’t come back.
The pain and horror of war of course never leaves the minds of those veterans who return.  Next week a friend of mine is coming out for a visit from Arizona.  He served in the Army infantry in Vietnam.  We were friends growing up in San Diego, went to the same church, and we wrote to each other while he was in Vietnam.   We haven’t seen each other for over 40 years and just reconnected in the last year.  We are getting together with some other childhood friends as well.  He said he is so looking forward to the visit.  But in an email he made one request – “Please do not ask me about my experiences or memories of my time in Vietnam.  That subject is taboo.”
A few years ago I had the privilege of worshipping at Christ Church in Philadelphia. It is an Episcopal Church.  It is often referred to as the Nation’s Church or the Patriot’s Church.  It was established in 1695.  During Revolutionary War times members of the Continental Congresses, Washington’s troops, and members of the Constitutional Convention worshipped there.  On July 4,1776 Christ Church publicly banished King George’s name from worship, which was just as dangerous an act as signing the Declaration of Independence.   
While there you can’t help but remember our spiritual founders and the sacrifices they made for the future of this nation.  Some lost sons in the war and others lost their lives.  Seven signers of the Declaration, such as Benjamin Franklin, are buried in the grounds of the church.  When you see the grave markers there, like many of the churches in the East, you can’t help but be inspired and be spiritually connected to these saints who gave so much.
As individual believers and as a nation we need a day like this; we need a day to reflect upon their legacy of the fallen and to remind us of our history, our story as a nation.  Our freedom has come at a tremendous price.  Memorial Day gives meaning to our national identity, and reminds us of those who believed in our future and provided us with unexpected opportunities as a nation under God.
How do we connect agape love with Memorial Day?  By praying for our service men and women around the world.   By communicating with those serving in the military today.  By supporting wounded warriors and military families.  We as parents can explain the significance of this day to our children or take them to a cemetery - for this is a way to honor our war dead, and helps to teach our children about the sacrifice made by men and women of our armed forces to protect and preserve our nation.
I ask you to remember one of the families of our congregation, Jimmy and Engrid Whisennet, who joined our church and whose son Jimmy we baptized.  They will be returning next month.  Jimmy is in the Navy.  He has been on deployment for a year.  He has been in Bahrain, where he serves on a mine tender and seeks out and destroys mines in the Persian Gulf. 
We honor our war dead when we embody Christ’s words: “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.  You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends. You did not choose me, but I chose you.  And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”  Yes, bearing fruit, fruit that will last, is a beautiful way we honor the memories of those who gave their lives for us.
There is a small cemetery on an island in the western Pacific where Americans and New Zealanders who died in battle during World War II are buried.  Near their graves is a simple, rustic marker with this inscription: “They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old.  Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.  At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we shall remember them.”    
Jesus words convey our highest calling: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Amen!

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