Sunday, May 26, 2013

Cheers: A Sermon for Memorial Day weekend

Sermon preached May 26, 2013.
Scripture readings: Rev. 21:1-5; 22:1-5; Psalm 116

This weekend we remember “…those we have lost not only for what they fought for, but who they were: proud Americans, often far too young, guided by deep and abiding love for their families, for each other, and for this country. Our debt to them is one we can never fully repay…” (President’s Memorial Day Proclamation). Yet we remember not just those who died, but those who were there with them. And, of course, we remember and pray for their friends and families—all those who endured a real and painful loss when the earthly life of someone who may have been “their whole world” ended much too soon.
One Marine wrote online recently, “A toast to you (who died in combat), and a double toast to your families and friends. Blood washes off a lot easier than tears and we will never forget you.” War is hell not only for those who die…

Bloodied from battle, Lt Colonel Hal Moore stands overlooking the Valley of Death after the first major ground campaign involving U.S. forces in Vietnam. To a young reporter and photographer, Joseph Galloway, he says, “I'll never forgive myself.”

“For what, sir?”

“That my men... that my men died and I didn't.”

Later Joe Galloway would write, “We who have seen war, will never stop seeing it. In the silence of the night, we will always hear the screams. So this is our story, for we were soldiers once, and young.”

Over 2,000 years ago, Jesus gathered his disciples together and taught them—we know this teaching as the Beatitudes, the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessings to those who mourn, cheers to those who weep, hail to those whose eyes are filled with tears, hats off to those who suffer, bottoms up to the grieving. How strange, how incredibly strange.

When you and I are left to our own devices, it’s the smiling, successful ones of the world that we cheer. “Hail to the victors.” The histories we write of the odyssey of humanity on earth are the stories of the exulting ones—the nations that won in battle, the businesses that defeated the competition, the explorers who found a pass to the Pacific, the scientists whose theories proved correct, the athletes who came in first… We turn away from the crying ones of the world. Our photographers tell us to smile (Nicholas Woltersdorff, Lament for a Son, page 84).

We raise our glasses and toast those who died too young. And offer a double-toast to those who grieve, and to those who weep with those who weep, and to those who ask why. And yet, with the Psalmist, we raise our glasses in a toast to the LORD, “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the LORD…. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of one of his faithful ones” (Psalm 116:13, 15). 

If you watch the TV or read the newspapers, no doubt you have wondered and maybe even cried out in prayer in the face of tragic events. How many tragedies have there been since our last Memorial Day weekend gathering in this place? Among countless others, there was a bombing at the marathon in Boston; and a school where gunfire turned laughter into wailing, where bullets pierced the hearts of children and—in shared grief—countless others, turning joy into despair; and the path of destruction and death from the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma. 

We cannot help but ask, “Why God?” And yet we are wiser to offer the gift of shared suffering by weeping with those who weep than by trying to explain such events theologically.
I cannot answer the questions by saying there was nothing God could have done. God is sovereign. And yet I cannot fit it all together by saying God did it. God’s Sovereignty is a sovereignty of love, not a sovereignty of causality. God does not cause tornadoes to strike one town and not another anymore than God causes a man to pick up a gun and kill children.  Indeed, I could not—I would not—worship such a capricious, vengeful, hurtful god.
Jesus said, “Aren’t you more valuable the sparrows? Yes, even the hairs of your head are numbered…” And Paul wrote, “Nothing can ever separate us from the love of God….” 

Don't trust anyone who claims to comprehend the meaning of this storm. Don't trust anyone who points with absolute certainty to a single cause for this storm. Don't trust anyone who treats a tornado as anything but indiscriminate and cruel. These tragedies are not punishments or object lessons. Such natural forces do not reach their conclusion with a pat moral or a simple "they lived happily ever after." (Eric Barreto, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.)

Instead of claiming to have all the answers, as some are prone to do, instead of trying to figure it all it, we more closely follow God when we try instead to feel for one another, to be compassionate, to mourn with those who mourn. 

As the news of hundreds of dead and wounded reached stateside during the early days of the Vietnam War, the Army was ill-equipped to handle the task of notifying families. Telegrams were given to taxi cab drivers for delivery, as depicted in the film We Were Soldiers. 

On a beautiful autumn morning, a taxicab arrives at the house of Julie Moore, wife of Lt. Col. Hal Moore. She gasps audibly, then reluctantly answers the door. The cabbie removes his hat and inquires, “Mrs. Moore? Colonel Moore's wife?” Her heart already breaking, it is all she can do just to respond, “Yes.”
“I need help finding an address, says the driver, “I'm looking for—“
She interrupts, shouting, “You jackass! Do you know what this is?! Do you know what you just did to me?!”
Making his way sheepishly toward his cab, the man stops at the curb at the curb and confesses, “I don't like this job, Ma'am. I'm just trying to do it.”
“Wait. Wait!” she says, running to the cab, “I'll take it to her.” She takes the telegram and says “Tell the cab company, if there are any others, just bring them to me.”

Although in real life the wife of Lt. Co. Moore did not actually assume responsibility for the delivery of the telegrams, she did follow close behind the wake of the taxis, grieving with widows and families, attending the funerals of those who fell under her husband's command. And based on her complaints to the Pentagon and her example of Christ-like compassion, the Army almost immediately set up notification teams consisting of a uniformed officer and a chaplain.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.

It sounds too tame when we say it—we hardly know what “blessed” means anymore. It’s not just a holy pat-on-the-back. It’s real and total happiness, fullness of life, joy and delight. Being blessed is hearing God say CHEERS TO YOU

And so on the Memorial Day weekend…
A toast to those who gave their lives.
A toast to those who mourn. And to those who mourn with those who mourn.
And CHEERS to God who holds us in the palm of his hand through it all—the God who has promised a day when war will be no more, when death will be finally and forever overcome, when sorrow and pain and sickness will be no more. When all tears will be dried by the tender consolation of our Savior. 

May the time not be too distant when we meet by the river shore;
'Til then dream of that wonderful day, as we sing once more, once more:
There is a river in Judea that I heard of long ago,
It's a singing, ringing river that my soul cries out to know.

If the God who revealed life to us, and whose only desire is to bring us life, loved us so much that he wanted to experience with us the total absurdity of death, then—yes, then there must be hope; then there must be something more than death; then there must be a promise that is not fulfilled in our short existence in this world; then leaving behind the ones you love, the flowers and the trees, the mountains and the oceans, the beauty of art and music, and all the exuberant gifts of life cannot be just the destruction and cruel end of all things; then indeed we have to wait for the third day.   (Nouwen. A Letter of Consolation)

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