This sermon was originally preached on Sunday, May 29th, 2011 at First UU of Brooklyn for our Memorial Day Weekend service.
Happy Memorial Day everyone; or rather, I should wish us all a reflective Memorial Day… I grew up in a working class household with a Dad who had the good fortune of enlisting in the Navy between the time that the Korean War ended and before the time when the Vietnam War started. Unlike some of my friends, because of this good fortune, I both had my Dad still with me to watch me grow up, and my Dad was mentally whole and in one piece. It was a blessing and a gift that I never truly appreciated. There were times as a kid that I intellectually understood that things could have been different from war, but the emotional risks and realities of this never really dawned on me. Even now, the emotional side of war-time loss is an intellectual exercise for me. My Dad chose to serve, and my Dad happens to still be in my life. Conventionally, Memorial Day asks us to remember those who have served and those who we have lost from serving. That wasn’t my reality growing up. So most often, I would lean toward “Happy” Memorial Day rather than “Reflective” or maybe “Somber.”
While preparing these words, I took a moment to inquire into the most reliable encyclopedia I could find in my apartment. In my case, that’s wikipedia. This online resource is the culmination of the opinions and facts of the vocal majority. And yet, oddly, most of the time, its spot on. It reads,
“Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday that honors American servicemembers and is observed on the last Monday of May (May 30 in 2011). Formerly known as Decoration Day, it commemorates U.S. servicemembers who died while in the military service. First enacted to honor Union and Confederate soldiers following the American Civil War, it was extended after World War I to honor Americans who have died in all wars. Memorial Day often marks the start of the summer vacation season, and Labor Day its end. Begun as a ritual of remembrance and reconciliation after the civil war, by the early 20th century, Memorial Day was an occasion for more general expressions of memory, as ordinary people visited the graves of their deceased relatives, whether they had served in the military or not. It also became a long weekend increasingly devoted to shopping, family gatherings, fireworks, trips to the beach, and national media events such as the Indianapolis 500 (since 1911) and the Coca-Cola 600 (since 1960) auto races.”
I have the fortune of never having had to visit a graveside to remember a family member who died in the war. Until I was almost an adult, I had only known the death of one extended family member – and that to cancer. Decoration Day, as it was formally called, had no meaning to me, and I can’t say I have any interest whatsoever in car racing. So the sad truth, is that for a time it only meant “shopping” and more nobly “family gatherings.” As a long time resident of NJ, it’s always meant the beach – although we would translate that to sound more like, “down the shore.”
I can’t easily say whether I’m happy about this or disappointed. I’m grateful that all of my family have had long lives and the chance to live them with meaning and substance. I’m proud that my father chose to serve his country in the way he did; glad that he didn’t have to sacrifice more than time and living with austerity for a while. It’s a blessing that despite all the war around us – truly my generation and those after me have never known a time where we weren’t at overt War or subvert Cold War – and yet it’s not touched my life directly in ways that I recognize.
I’m disappointed that the purpose of this holiday was poorly translated by my school’s growing up. I’m surprised that my Dad and I never really talked about it when I was a kid. And the blessing that war has not directly touched my life, is a curse in how readily we can forget that it’s alive, active and well entrenched in the world around us. I can – mostly – blithely go about my day; I can read comic books, play video games, do service work, teach kids new board games, and go on dates – all without having to think about what’s happening in the Middle East, or Africa, or Southeast Asia, and on and on.
The holiday is nearly devoid of meaning to me in my saran-wrapped, boxed-lunch life; even though its purpose is to remind us of why our lives are so easy – for those whose lives are safe from violence – that may not be the same for all of us here…. I’m disappointed that it means going to the beach and packing a picnic basket; when it should mean being able to go to the beach and pack a picnic basket. I’m sad that I have to qualify between the just wars and the other ones. When are we right; when are we wrong; and can we allow ourselves to be both right and wrong – as we usually are in most things?
When I went “down the shore” and to Central Park this weekend, I remembered this year how grateful I am that this is possible in my life. I reminded myself how grateful I am that when I see the military in our NYC transit hubs carrying assault weaponry – that the look of assault rifles still are a shock to my senses. I haven’t gone numb to that image just yet. When I went to beach this weekend I remembered that this is not possible for all people within or outside our country. I remembered that we have a long way to go to making it possible for everyone – and yet we can still appreciate what peace we know in our lives as it comes.
My sermon this week is entitled “Community, Memory, Hope.” I could have swapped the words around to begin, as this sermon does, with memory. But the title reflects the reality that each of us begins in community. Our recognition of membership within our own congregation, the five of us who have formally joined today, is a liturgical marker translating isolation or separateness into solidarity and inclusion. We begin as members of something broader, something bigger than ourselves alone. The first step in the religious path is recognizing the simple truth that there is more to this immense universe than ourselves alone. The classic wisdom still holds true – It’s not about us. Well, to be fair, it’s not about us alone. It is about us – together. The religious journey begins and ends with the realization that we travel this world for a time, part of a wide and diverse band of souls. When we pause to commit ourselves to a broader purpose, we reunite our soul into the collective spiritual enterprise. The old school religious humanists would say (to paraphrase) that in seeking community we seek to transcend our individual egos and thereby nurture that which is greater than our aloneness. The theists among us remember that God loves all people; that we’re all children of God; and that as part of God’s family we should seek to relate as a family – as an ideal.
Whether we’re learning to place the whole ahead of our temporal wants, or we’re seeking to reconnect with our human family, this congregation welcomes us all. It is from this centered place that we can achieve new life; heal the corners of the world we live in; and come to know ourselves more deeply. The religious journey beings with community. We are not a religious tradition of solitaries, despite what the Transcendentalists might have tried to convince you. Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller and the whole cadre of Unitarian theologians and philosophers were all meeting with one another regularly to share their thoughts and insights. They were not ascetics living in the woods. Walden Pond was written with the benefit of the occasional sandwich sent by Mom. From community we can head out into the hidden places and learn the secrets right before our eyes, but we don’t start or end there.
I recall the words of one congregant at First Unitarian, Peter Volkmar. Those words are printed at the top of your order of service this morning. “A community is a group where your contributions are never so carefully recorded as your gains from membership.” When hearing those words in light of the holiday, I can’t help but think politically or patriotically. I’m reminded of President John F. Kennedy’s famous quote from his 1961 inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” (My citation thanks Wikipedia once more.) It’s almost the inverse of JFK’s quote without saying its opposite.
I believe that in our consumer-driven culture, it’s rather natural for us to “buy-into” the practice of asking ‘what do we get by being a member of this religious community?’ What are we purchasing with our pledges to this congregation or paying for with our taxes to our country? There’s sometimes a tendency to track how many things we’ve volunteered to do for the community – forgetting that most of the people around us have likewise given much of themselves to bring this congregation to this next high point in its life. Because the truth is – so many people – over so many decades – have given so much freely to get us to where we are in this moment. It’s not about us, or what extra-special service we’ve performed as members. Those things are important, but if we get caught up into thinking they’re the center, we lose the message of that first religious step. The one where the religious humanists remind us that the practice of community is helping to transcend our individual egos; whether that’s in thinking we’re so great, or that it’s all about us, or that we’re only worthy if we do this next thing. Well, we are all pretty great, but we’re all that way – not some of us. Anyone that’s ever been to any congregational meeting and listened to an extended debate knows its not about any one person there. And if your acts of service to our community are grounded in the thought that you’re only worthy by doing so, know that you have nothing to prove to any of us. Service can be done out of love, but it should not be done for the hope of love – we all already have it.
The trap is both/and. It’s a trap to get fixated on scoring what you’ve given or what you’ve done. It’s also a trap thinking that you’re only worthy if you do all that – you know – the NYC habit of overworking – it happens to volunteers also. In short – it’s not about how much we give; but rather that we give. It’s remembering that in community we have to be willing to serve as well as being willing to be served. For some congregations this last phrase is their mission statement – “To care for others and to know that you will be cared for.”
I believe, like Peter suggests, it’s not really helpful to think in terms of counting deeds, but rather being aware of how much more we can be in light of our community. When we’re isolated, or driven primarily by the small e- ego, then we’re as small as that. When we’re committed to the ideals of a community of people, a religious gathering centered on faith, hope and love – as we sing each Sunday morning, then we’re as large as that. Being part of a community, being a member, means giving of ourselves so that we broaden our impact and scope to the width and breadth of our collective vision and dream. We remain ourselves, but we begin to point to the horizon of our shared dreams. It’s in this act of pointing that we mark the trajectory of hope. Coming together, we become more ourselves, more human. Remembering we come from; being grateful for the efforts, sacrifices and energy of those part of us; we craft a way forward grounded in hope; predicated on the possibility that the whole is no less than the sum of its parts and likely much greater than those parts alone.I wish us all a reflective Memorial Day; I wish us all a somber Memorial Day. Together, from that place, may we find a place of happiness as well; because so many have given so much to get us to where we are this day.