Today was about the flag.
After months of discussion, in the congregation and Session and Worship Committee and back to Session, the decision about what to do about displaying the American and Christian flags that were donated by a member before we moved to the new (“new,” that is, 25-year-old) building from the church on the square was enacted, to the smiling delight of some and the acquiescence of others, in the interest of keeping the bond of unity in the spirit of peace.
So today, the Sunday closest to Memorial Day, we moved the flags to the first two steps of the chancel over by the ramp, which is essentially the front of the sanctuary but not actually up on the chancel, so not on a level with the pulpit or the lectern or the table – if we had a rail, it would still be outside that.
And then someone will move them back to either side of the sanctuary doors, but a little more out in the open than they have been, so that people can actually notice them when they come in or go out of the sanctuary.
And then we will do it again on the Sundays closest to Flag Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day.
So the sermon today was focused on the theme of laying down one’s life for one’s friends, as Jesus says in John 15:12-17; there is no greater love than that. And on noting that Memorial Day is a day to remember, not “humanity” in general or brave people in general, but specific people, individuals, who laid down their lives.
I was grateful to our pastor for telling us about the story of Memorial Day, about how it came about – telling us about the women of Columbus, Mississippi, and the New York Times article about them in 1867 that reported that they decorated the graves of those on both sides who had lost their lives in the recent war and who were buried there; and how this report inspired Francis Miles Finch to write his poem “The Blue and The Gray,” and how this poem inspired General John A. Logan, a graduate of the University of Louisville, to propose the establishment of a memorial day, and how the date of May 30 was settled on because it was not a day on which any major battle had been fought, or war declared, or secession declared, or surrender negotiated, or any other memorable date, but was a date common to both sides; and how later it was extended to include the dead of the Great War, which we think of as World War I because there was, subsequently, a World War II; and how in thinking of the dead of that Great War John McCrae had written the poem “In Flanders Fields,” and then in answer to the last line of that poem, Moina Michael had written “We Shall Keep the Faith” …
“We’ve learned the lesson that you taught,” as our pastor said it. And I wondered if that was really so …
I kept trying to remember that other Great War poem, the one by Wilfred Owen, that ends with dulce et decorum est / pro patria mori. But I couldn’t.
“What lesson is that?” He asked, and answered with “I think the lesson is peace …” Because we live in an imperfect world, a world where we are called sometimes to consider what is required of us for the peace and well-being of others. And because of the brokenness of our world, sometimes people have to fight over that. And although there are issues of policy, and patriotism, and disagreements about what is really for the best, Memorial Day is not about all that, it is about remembering the individuals who died.
Because individuals … dear to someone.
Dear to God.
Bravely and generously, he said, or perhaps not bravely at all. Willingly, voluntarily, or perhaps even reluctantly and regretfully. But we remember them, as individuals, as people with names and lives that they laid down … all the same …
He named off the wars since World War II. He did not leave out Afghanistan, where our nephew was. People often do. I was grateful for that.
It is a Good Friday sense of gratitude we have on this day, said our pastor.
It is possible to bear that because we have an Easter hope.
In the prayers of the people, we named the names of those individuals we have known who have died in the service of our country.
Today was about learning more about the people we think we already know – about the grief that people carry inside of them, that never really goes away.
On a day like this, it is good to have the kind of friends who will move closer to you at the table when you are sobbing out your story, and hug you, and let you keep going.