Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Memorial Weekend - Know Your Story and Remember It

Preached on Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend, May 28, 2017

Scripture reading: Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Once there was a group of tourists visiting the historical sites from the Revolutionary War. One day their guide took them to an old church where George Washington had worshiped.
Memorial Day Celebration
Live Oak CA
Their guide pointed out the very pew that had belonged to Washington, and he went on to describe the church services of those days: how, sometimes, they lasted two hours or more. Hearing this inspired one member of the tour group to comment, “So, George Washington slept here too!”
Our scripture reading this morning describes part of an annual celebration in which the people of Israel gave recognition to God’s blessings upon their land. They gave thanks for what God had given them.
It was a little like Thanksgiving, a little bit like Independence Day, but it was also a little bit like Memorial Day, too. It taught them to remember how they had got where they were, and why they had what they had.
They were taught to remember that they were part of a much bigger story than themselves. They were taught to celebrate what God had done through their friends, and parents, and grandparents, and so on, for many, many generations.
The people celebrating in the old Tabernacle Tent, and in the Temple had worked, and maybe even slaved and fought, to get, or to keep, what they had. But many, many others (more than anyone could count) had done the same, each in their generation.
Our scripture reading is about a Thanksgiving that memorialized this. The most important thing memorialized was the plan, and the work, and the power, and the faithfulness of God. The Lord had spoken to at least some of the members of all those past generations. God encouraged them. God made great promises to them, and kept those promises.
There was a time when their ancestors were only wandering Arameans. (That means belonging to a generic sort of people in the area of what is now Syria and Iraq. It, sort of, means being nothing special.)
Anyway, when they were nothing special nomads in the desert, or slaves in Egypt, it didn’t always look like God was there at work. In spite of that, the Lord did have a plan, and the plan was going forward, even when they couldn’t see it. Those worshippers who brought their offerings to the altar came there to remember, and to tell the story of how God made, and kept, his promises to their nation, and their tribes, and their families.
They came there to confess, for the record, that they were witnesses to God’s plan. They were witnesses to the story of God’s faithfulness, and they confessed that they were part of that plan themselves.
A memorial is a reminder.
Memorial Day started in the South, as a way of remembering and honoring those who had died for the confederate side of the Civil War. There, it was surely a sad day: a day for remembering those who sacrificed themselves for lost causes. There’s more to remember than we think.
I’ve served in some places where it’s common for most people to go to the local cemetery, on Memorial Day, to decorate the graves of all their family members who are buried there. This happens in old, small towns. I’ve seen parents leading their kids among the gravestones, telling them how they were related to each person buried there, and telling them stories about how those people came to that place, and where they had built their first homestead shack, and what had happened to them afterwards. There’s more to remember than we think.
God’s people are called to look forward in faith and hope. Today’s scripture reading instructs God’s people to remember. There, it was the people of Israel remembering their life with God, or God’s role in the story of their life.
In their case, they weren’t only God’s people, as we are. They were also God’s nation with a history, and they were to remember that God wanted them to be a certain kind of nation. God’s people, in any nation, are taught to remember that God wants them to be a certain kind of nation.
Israel was also a family with a tradition, and they were to remember that God wanted to lead them and nurture them, as a family, so that they could be the kind of family God wants all families to be. God wants us to remember this, too.
God wants us to be good rememberers, and to make a habit of being able to understand and retell how all the things which God has done have come down to us. God wants us to search the history of our nation, and to search our family stories, to find out where the Lord has been at work. God wants us to remember people whose lives and sacrifices have benefitted us; or taught and influenced us.
Sometimes it seems that we hardly know anything about what God has given us through others.
The sense of things in our society not working, or falling apart, has happened because too many people have forgotten how to look around them, and at themselves, and think seriously about what the Lord has given them. We have forgotten what the Lord wants to do through us in our families, and our nation. We have forgotten that this is all a gift.
It’s hard for us to remember that our nation, our people, our family, and our friends are a gift if we don’t also realize that God himself is a gift. The One who created everything to be a gift has made a gift of himself to us. 
As citizens of the Kingdom of God, we have many Memorial Days to keep clearly in our mind what God has done for us, himself, so that we can learn to love the gifts that people remember on Memorial Day.
All the celebrations of the church are memorial days. Christmas is a memorial to the Lord coming down from heaven and becoming one of us, to be a humble Savior and a Servant King. Palm Sunday is a memorial of the Lord coming to his own people, in which we remember that some of his welcomers turned against him. Good Friday is the memorial of the Lord offering himself as a sacrifice to take away our sins, and the sins of the whole world. Easter is the memorial of the victory over sin and death, that the Lord shares with us, so that evil and death can have no lasting power over us. Pentecost is the memorial of the Lord sharing with us his Holy Spirit, so that we can be supernatural people with supernatural resources.
The remembering means that what God wants from us is more than memory verses. God wants us to remember how great he is (as great as we need him to be), to know what he has done for us, and for everyone, and to repeat it so that others can learn.
Since this is Memorial Weekend I want us to be like the people in small, old towns, or in families with long memories, who remember how God has shaped us through all those who have given of themselves, whether in the life of our families, or family members serving our nation in war.
Let me tell you a little bit about my Grandpa Evans. He was very good with his hands. He could work on heavy machinery. He had experience as an industrial photographer, and he could work on cameras. During the depression, he got a job adjusting navigational instruments for a shipping company in New York Harbor, and he accomplished something that none of his predecessors had done before. He got completely caught up on all of the company’s boats and ships at the same time. When this happened, it being the Depression, the company realized that it wouldn’t need his services, for a while, and so they laid him off. He had to find another job, and he never went back to them.
He was forty-one when we entered World War II and he enlisted in the Navy. He was a reconnaissance photographer in the belly of a navy bomber in a battle over the Aleutians and his plane got shot down.
Since the Navy hadn’t thought that it was important to train him in the use a parachute, he was smart enough to know about pulling the cord, but not how to hit the ground. He landed on an island in the middle of a battle and broke both his legs and had a very harrowing escape.
I think my Grandpa Evans represents a family tradition of conscientiousness, neglect, hardship, bad luck, good luck, and survival.
The Israelites would repeat the story, “My Father was a wandering Aramean, and we were slaves in Egypt.” It became a story of their remote past, and yet the tradition, and their need for that tradition, went on and on.
Their heritage often repeated itself. It told them what God was able to do for them when they felt like they were wandering aimlessly and didn’t know where they would end up. That’s what heritage is for. That’s what remembering and what memorial days are for.
In the seventh, eighth, and ninth chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses warned Israel never to fool themselves about their story and how they were able to succeed. “Don’t think it was because you were larger, or stronger, or better than other nations, because you weren’t. You succeeded because God loved you and helped you when you needed him.”
The Lord wants us to remember the things that make us humble and human as a nation, and as a family.
As a kind of memorial, I want to read part of a copy of a letter that my family has kept from a long departed relative, writing to my great-great grandfather from the front at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1862, during the Civil War. “My beloved brother, although I have written to you last, I cannot wait for another from you, as we were paid off a few days ago. I think you may need the money, and even if you do not it is not safe for me to keep it for we expect to have a big fight and when we move from here there is no telling how soon I shall have the opportunity of sending a letter to you again. I think we shall be paid off again in a short time, say two weeks – for another two-month’s pay is due to us tomorrow night. I send this draught of eighteen dollars which is the biggest lot I have sent before. I think I shall have my debts all paid by the time I get out of this, I guess.”
This brother of my great-great grandfather died not long after sending his pay. He wasn’t even born in this country. They were both born and raised in a poor working-class family in England and they came to America to improve their lives. This soldier enlisted to pay his debts. He was surely a hero.
One of my heroes, from that time, is Abraham Lincoln, who was really placed by God in the right place at the right time. Lincoln thought and prayed about forgiveness and compassion, and the horrible idea of using war as a cure, even for such an evil as slavery. I realize that my relative, fighting the rebels down in Virginia, probably gave those things hardly a thought. He was just trying to get along as best he could.
And yet, both Lincoln and my old relative had a lot in common. They were both familiar with poverty. They were both in serious trouble. And they both needed the Lord’s help.
If we were better at remembering who we really are, and how we got here (especially the stories of those who have gone before us and given us our heritage) we would realize that we have the same thing in common with them.
They have something to say to us. They say, “You’re just like us. You need help.” Then, the Lord tells us, “I will help you, that’s what my strength is for.”
“Remember the original Wandering Aramean,” says the Lord. “Look at Abraham. I gave him a goal, a promised land. He didn’t know where it was or how to get there, and I got him there. You don’t know where to find your promised land, but I can lead you to the real thing. Look at the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. For generations, they were slaves. They forgot how to think for themselves. They forgot how to live without fear and suspicion. But I taught them how to have courage. I taught them how to be free people. I taught them how to live by faith. I can make their story your story. I can teach you to maintain courage and faith. I can teach you how to be free.” Thus says the Lord.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)
William Barclay once wrote about some missionaries who travelled through the villages of India with a slide show of the gospel story. With a projector hooked up to a generator, they showed the pictures of the life of Jesus on the white-washed wall of some house on a village square, with all the people sitting on the ground. One night, they reached the scene of Jesus dying on the cross. A man in the crowd jumped up and shouted, “Jesus, come down from the cross. I should be there, not you.”
That man had received a new memory. He had been given a new story, and a new heritage. The story of Jesus on the cross became part of him and his own story. That new memory would change his life.
The Lord is a Savior: a helping, rescuing, life-changing God. Knowing this God (whom we meet in Jesus) and trusting him in your life, and trusting his ability to work in your family, and nation, and world (whatever the needs may be): that is what is really glorious.

It’s a different kind of glory than we would have chosen for ourselves, or our family, or our nation. It’s the glory of needing help and finding it. It is by the Lord taking over our stories, in our need, that we have something worth remembering.

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