“what’s worth dying for?” may 29, 2016

memorial day, ii

Responsive Call to Worship
We, the living, remember the dead.
We remember those we love who have died.
We celebrate their memory; we tell their stories.
We miss them;
their absence is an emptiness in our living.
This weekend, we also remember those who died on our behalf
serving in our armed forces—
serving in our name.
Whether we knew them or not.
Whether we were in favor
of the particular war or not
of the president and officers at the time or not.
Whether they died heroically or anonymously.
Whether they died in a training accident or by enemy hand.
We honor those who serve
and whose service resulted in their death—
in our name.
We recognize in them the image of the one who came to serve
whose service resulted in death—
in whose name we gather—
in whose name we worship—
in whose name we pray
for all those whose commitment led to their death.
May the lives we live strive to be worthy.

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Galatians 2:15-20
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners;
yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law
but through faith in Jesus Christ.
And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus,
so that we might be justified by faith in Christ,
and not by doing the works of the law,
because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ,
we ourselves have been found to be sinners,
is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!
But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down,
then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor.
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live,
but it is Christ who lives in me.
And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God,
who loved me and gave himself for me.
I do not nullify the grace of God;
for if justification comes through the law,
then Christ died for nothing.

Witness of the Open Canon, i.
Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” from Les Miz

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
We celebrate Memorial Day weekend today,
mindful that within our culture,
it’s a time set aside to remember and honor
those killed serving in our armed forces.

It’s a custom that predates any official celebration—
and that’s as it should be.
We trace the tradition
back to towns across the country
in the aftermath of the Civil War—
in the mid-1860’s—
towns remembering and grieving and honoring their dead—
enough towns that it’s impossible to name one.

Though officially we did, pick one—
looking back to May 5, 1866
and Waterloo, NY.
It was known then as Decoration Day—
all the flowers decorating graves.

By 1868 across the country,
states celebrated May 30 as Decoration Day.
Well, except in the southern states.
Such bitterness remained that they honored their dead
on other days.
Had to have been hard to remember and honor your dead
and those that killed them.

Of course others tell a different story,
looking back to April 26, 1866 in Columbus, MS.
And specifically include in the story,
that those decorating the graves of the rebel dead in Columbus,
noticing the flowerless graves of the union dead,
decorated them too.

We don’t really know.
Given the number of dead and the towns across the north and south,
both stories probably unfolded in all kinds of variations.

The term Memorial Day wasn’t used at all until 1882,
and didn’t become commonly used—
replacing Decoration Day in common parlance until after WWII.
The federal holiday Memorial Day was not officially named until 1967.

In 1968, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act
set aside the last Monday in May—
to increase the number of 3 day weekends for federal workers.
That went into effect in 1971.

Most recently in 2000 a National Moment of Remembrance
resolution was passed
setting aside a moment at 3 p.m. local time on that Monday
“to voluntarily and informally observe in their own way
a moment of remembrance and respect,
pausing from whatever they are doing
for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps’.”

O.C.S. Wallace, our seventh pastor’s step-son, Clifford Almon Wells,
enlisted in the Canadian army
while a graduate student at Johns Hopkins.
A lieutenant in the Canadian infantry—
the 8th Winnipeg Battalion,
he was killed in April, 1917,
having been wounded after volunteering with his platoon
to take out a German machine gun nest—
hit by a shell as he was being stretchered out.

Linda Anderson’s nephew,
Army Staff Sergeant Daniel M. Morris, of Clinton, TN,
of the 1st Squadron, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division
was killed November 25, 2006
when an IED exploded near his vehicle in Iraq.

I’d like to take a moment to ask,
Do any others of us have family members killed in service?

Toby’s uncle in World War I.
J.D. Schoonmaker in the Korean War.
Judy’s cousin in World War II.
Greg’s great-uncle in World War II.
Frank’s uncle in World War II.
members of Mary Jane’s father’s family.
Lynne’s great-grandfather in World War I.
Richard’s uncle in North Africa, World War I.

I’d also like to acknowledge those who have served in our armed forces—
most of whom, no doubt, remember friends, brothers in arms,
who were killed.

At a time to remember and honor
those killed in service,
I’d also like to take the opportunity to wonder with you a little,
what’s worth dying for?

For the most part—for most of us,
that’s an abstraction, isn’t it?
And I’m glad for that!
It’s not a decision we face,
but it is something to wonder about.
What’s worth dying for?
Or as I answer more readily, who’s worth dying for?
A man—
a woman—
a child—
a friend—
specific people we know and love?

What about in general?
Not necessarily someone we know and love—
a man? a woman? a child?
children in general, all children around the world?
representing our future? our hope?

I brainstormed a list of possibilities beyond whos—
beyond people—
and trying to base my list on the assumption
that each of these possible answers could be tied to actual deaths.
Is it worth dying for
fame and fortune?
money—or more money?
your reputation?
someone else’s?
an idea?
a principle?
a country?
an officer’s orders?
a commitment?
a weapons manufacturer’s profit?
an oil company’s?
the comfort and convenience of our lifestyles?
a politicians scapegoat?
our safety?
our fears?

What about when it’s hard to tell?
What about when people say it’s for one thing,
but you think it might be for something else?
Or when it is, in truth, a combination of things—
some worthy, some not?

What about a story?
a truth?
Is someone’s lie worth dying for?
How about a faith?
Is faith worth dying for?
Even that’s not so clear cut, is it?
What does it mean to die for a faith?
Are we talking martyrs here?
Does that include suicide bombers—
or does killing for your faith undermine dying for it?

Ghandi, in a quote on the bulletin cover,
differentiated between being willing to die for something
and being willing to kill for it.
There wasn’t anything, he claimed, for which he’d kill.
Some don’t make such a distinction.
Some would far more willingly kill than they would die.

Or can a faith worth dying for
also mean living ever more fully into
the power challenging truths of the faith?—
confronting—challenging the status quo
its assumptions and presuppositions—
its priorities?
And does affirming a faith worth dying for—
can it mean trusting the story with your life?

What is worth their dying?
Someone else dying?
What’s worth my dying?
What’s worth my children dying?
My friends?
And what does it mean that there are, honestly,
different answers to those questions?

I may have told you all this before,
I remember in college,
walking to class,
passing by the steps to Cabell Hall,
right down the Lawn from the Rotunda,
in Charlottesville, VA.
On the steps to Cabell Hall,
there were students seeking signatures.
It was a petition to stop persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union.

And of course I’m not for persecution.
I signed the petition.

But I confess to having had an uncomfortable ambivalence.
Because in my mind, I compared
the religion of persecuted people
with the complacency of the unpersecuted,
and while, like I said, I’m not for persecution,
it can add a clarity to what’s worth dying for,
and so what’s worth living for
that most of us don’t have—
a clarity I’d like to have—
without going through what you go through to gain such clarity.
Ah, there’s the rub!

I was struck this week, in my wondering and thinking,
about how most of the movies and TV shows I watch
how many of the books I read—for fun, you know,
involve matters of life and death—
more specifically, involve the threat of death.

And that’s not just Marvel comic book movies!
It’s also Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.
It’s Rick Riordian and The Hunger Games.
It’s also Scripture.

In part it’s exciting.
It sharpens the focus.
In part it makes what’s happening—
what you focus on—that much more important.

How good to be doing something important enough
that it’s worth the risk of death.
And we appropriately honor, not just those who serve in the military,
but police and firefighters, right?—
those who put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others.

Here’s the thing.
most of us, in our common experience
do not associate death with purpose.
And purposeful death seems the point today—
and so purposes worthy of someone’s death.
Or, to put it another way,
worthy of someone’s life.

Yes, it’s the absoluteness of death that invites reflection.
In later years, O.C.S. Wallace would write
“Conditions caused by the war situation,
when many families of the congregations knew
that any day tragic tidings might come to them from overseas,
were such as no one can understand
who has not passed through experiences of this kind.
On the part of many there was a seriousness
which made them accessible to the messages of the pulpit”
(OCS Wallace, Things Little and Great Remembered in Old Age, 412).

We saw the same kind of renewed interest
in seriousness—in spirituality and worship after 9-11.
And I get that.

Where did it go?

Our faith teaches us that every day is a matter of life and death—
that life and death are not just opposites,
but two different ways of living.
We live into life or we live into death.
We, as those who live the God story,
haven’t done a great job of making that life—
that story more exciting—
and make what’s happening that much more important.

Theologically, these days on which to remember the dead,
are significant for us:
a/ because traditionally our faith proclaims
Jesus died for us (or Jesus died for our sins).
I would rather say to you, Jesus lived for us—
lived in a way that confronted and challenged
the world—the ways of the world—the sins of the world—
lived in a way that led to his death
because he was committed to that way of life.

and the more important question, anyway—
despite our Baptist tradition—
through our Baptist tradition—
for the sake of Baptist tradition—
the more important question
is not whether Jesus died for us,
but whether we live for Jesus
in his way of living.

and b/ because we affirm, remembering a death,
that death was not the end of the story—
not the end of the way of life Jesus considered worth dying for.

I’m afraid many of us in our culture
do not have purposeful lives.
Our focus is not sharpened.
We live in a haze—
a lack of focus.

We talk about what’s polite—
what’s acceptable,
or if not polite and acceptable—what’s easy—
usually shallow,
not about what’s important.

You ever noticed the energy you get
from conversations about what’s really important—
what really matters?
How you’re talking to people
and you can’t believe how much time has passed,
or how not tired you are?
But you’ve been talking about stuff that’s real—
that’s honest—
that’s important.

This weekend, we remember—
remember and honor.
We honor best—
we honor best by living lives that celebrate
the life that is life—
the life that is abundant,
and it’s not a check it off.
It’s a growing into abundance—
a growing into purpose—
a growing into life.

The hymn we sang, did you notice, included the prayers
“May God our gold refine.”
“God mend our every flaw.”
(Katherine Lee Bates, “America the Beautiful”)
Because we’ve not arrived.
We’re not where and how we should be.
There is yet more to learn—to become.

As we prioritize and consider—
as we live learning and growing in
in faith—
with God—
and with Scripture—
embracing the way of life of Jesus—
offering grace—
extending love—
sharpening life into abundance—
making of living something worth our lives.

We are growing into the fullness
of who God would have us be—
how God would have us be,
and, consequently,
how God would have the world be—
in the fullness of time.


May it be so.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Philippians 1:20-25
It is my eager expectation and hope
that I will not be put to shame in any way,
but that by my speaking with all boldness,
Christ will be exalted now as always in my body,
whether by life or by death.
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.
If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me;
and I do not know which I prefer.
I am hard pressed between the two:
my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better;
but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.
Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain
and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith,
so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus
when I come to you again.


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