On this Memorial Day weekend I recall times when as a boy the whole town turned out as we marched to the high school where the plaque honoring the war dead was located. It was hot, we’d practiced with the flags, and a lot of people gave short speeches, maybe even a local politician. There’d be a clergyman there, too, who looked uncomfortable and oddly out of place.
As I grew older and listened more intently to what the clergy had to say (and even listened to what I had to say), it became less instructive and just plain irritating. The prayer usually addressed the sacrifices of those who had served–probably the only accurate thing in the prayer–but before long there was talk about “this great land”, and, “enabling this country to remain free.” It sounded like an Amway promotion. Perhaps it’s because many ministers seem to adapt on this special day, abandoning their unique societal role by awkwardly participating in this exercise of civic religion.
In our country there has always been a healthy suspicion of government. Think of this as an odd, yet noble, principal: that there be an allowance for dissent and a freedom to harass the same government, which grants protection. When it came to clergy the founding “brothers and sisters” intended that this alienation would be part of the culture. This Republic allowed for religion “to be around” but not close, advising, semi-official, but separate. In short, to act as strangers in the society.
This is the kind of attitude Samuel models in the Old Testament lesson. The prophets are unique to our faith and they distinguish it by their presence. They seem to rise from nowhere with a pure call. They tell us not to miss our real destiny with God through a sincere worship.
The selection we heard this morning is a quick glimpse of an ongoing argument Samuel had with the Israelites about whether they should have a king. Distraction and demagoguery can only result from such political commitment, said Samuel. Finally, though, he relents and anoints Saul as king. And then things get complicated.
A touching exchange is summarized in verses 20-22 where Samuel assures an anxious people that they still have God’s love, and further, in verse 23, he assures them of his prayers despite the fact they are in a worrisome state with this new earthly ruler.
Likewise, religion is a stranger in the life of America bringing about this unsettled nature of things: chaplains wearing uniforms as officers in the military, court orders about the pledge of allegiance and prayer in public schools, Congress never beginning a daily session without the chaplain offering prayer. We capture God on coinage yet we spurn religious influence in our political system.
But what else is Samuel saying?
To appreciate that, one must understand the extraordinary resistance he had to kingship. For Samuel the idea was an anathema to the very idea of God; the two thoughts could not exist in the same moment. Some might say that this was merely the more primitive religion giving way to the requirements of a civilized society; after all, neighboring states had rulers. It was necessary to take steps to move to the next level of polity.
That’s not the deeper issue here, however. It is whether they will forget God. For the Israelites this was a profound thought. They had been through challenging days when they nearly forgot God, and that is what the rumble of thunderstorms echo in their collective lives (see preceding verse 18). To forget God was to forget the very sense of themselves, entering a wasteland of meaninglessness. In that context Samuel’s gentle assurances that God is here and he, Samuel, will pray for them, has an endearing sense to it.
The Gospel lesson guarantees this continuing embrace by God in another way. It is the prayer of Our Lord at his final meal and into the Ascension itself addressing the Church as it is now and as it will be. It is the response everyone wants to hear at parting; an affirmation that no one will separated. In the course left to our side of the relationship we are to seek, find, and serve Christ.
Therefore, the prayers on Memorial Day should search diligently for the words said in the lives of those have died. It is the dead of our country who have gone to war that have much to say, helping us to reach the hidden, shut off core, the germ of our national self. That discovery will lead us to call it back into being; an innocent self of bright optimism and hope in the future, of not having the answers, yet seeking to solve them.
George Orwell observed at another time that we, in a democracy, should make our peace with the fact that rough men stand ready in the night to do violence to those who would do us harm. Gazing on the young people of our Armed Services no one doubts their grit but they seem far from such a characterization. They are the cocky, self-assured, awkward, uncertain, precious commodities that stand proudly in the shoes of the same young patriots before them.
Indeed, that is what this day also embraces: young lives now committed to service with discipline, and character. I do a lot of travelling; in addition to field deployments, I visit the post/base exchange where I meet young people, particularly at the fast food courts. There are often families, but mostly they are men and women in their 20’s; with stories of serving along the DMZ in Korea, shipping out in the Mediterranean, or warming themselves around a stove in Kosovo.
This generation is born in the Information Age, can’t remember JFK, and Vietnam was not their war. They know Desert Storm as a high tech romp. They are good with computer games and expect their training to be at least on a par with the visuals and graphics that are available in the culture. The most dominant factor in their lives? MTV. They are the “Armed Forces”, that we celebrate, not a collection of dated hardware on parade.
Ironically America hides from that of kind innocence that she recruits when Memorial Day occurs. Usually it is hidden with a posturing as a heavy weight in the world.
When I first visited the Vietnam Memorial it was near dusk. As you know the Memorial begins alongside the path that follows the granite sculpture as it grows from ankle height to well over twelve feet. As you walk only a few names accompany you at first but as you proceed the wall size increases and so do the number of dead men and women. The count grows and grows. Sometimes statistics are cited indiscriminately these days: stacking numbers up once in awhile would probably do us good. I have friend on that wall, Tony, Panel G, line 45. A strange place to seek bygone, youthful days. As the light receded it was hard to search for his name so I had to fumble around with my fingertips.
On Memorial Day we kill off parts of our national self by thrusting it into the dark. Disengaged from feeling we flounder around until the “great nation” and “make this country free” idioms are recited.
Why does this happen? I hold veterans responsible of which I am one. I’ve been known to tell some war stories in my day, but when I do, I still “soldier” those memories. Philip Caputo in “Rumors of War” wrote, “I could protest as loudly as the most convinced activist, but I could not deny the grip the war had on me, nor the fact that it had been an experience as fascinating as it was repulsive, as exhilarating as it was sad, as tender as it was cruel.”
Curiously the war itself continues to disfigure the Memory Day. Torn between fascination and repulsion, exhilaration and sadness, tenderness and cruelty most veterans find haven at one pole or the other. I don’t have to tell you which one often dominates.
I can tell you of the conversion of this veteran. It was in standing before the window in the Chapel at Camp LeJeune and reading of the Fourth Marine Division’s losses and then being on the cliffs of Saipan and Guam, seeing where the bodies fell in sacrifice. It was standing at the Baptismal Font in the Memorial Chapel where nearly every available foot of wall space has a tablet of memory and in particular reading of how some families were wiped out in conflict.
The sorrow over these deaths was incalculable and the determination, now, to search, find and hold onto their memories, without distraction, lays upon us resolute thoughts of how honored we are to have received their ultimate service. +gep
I Samuel 12:19-20, John 17:20-26