Sermon: Why Do We Seek The Living Among The Dead? (Memorial Day)
Scripture: Luke 24: 1-5
Date: May 26, 2019
I told you a couple of weeks ago that In my last messages before I retire I am going to say some things that I have wanted to say, but have perhaps lacked the courage to do so. I remember when I was serving my first appointment, not long after starting in that little church, the conversation in Bible Study one night turned to some of the past pastors that that church had had. It was a church that for several years had been served by students which meant that every two or three years they would receive a new pastor whether they wanted to or not. Now they were a great group of people – a little frustrating because they had given up hope that the church would ever grow again. But they took great care of the building and the property and the little cemetery that was attached to it and they liked to remember how it used to be when there was a community around the church and the pews were full. And they got along well with their student pastors – all except one. And on this night the conversation turned to the last sermon that that particular pastor had delivered. They called it the shoe sermon because he evidently felt as though these folks had walked all over him in the year that he served the church and so he brought a bunch of shoes into the pulpit and warned them up front that the other shoe was about to drop. And his sermon was all about what he found to be wrong with the church. And each time he mentioned something that he took exception to in the church, he would take a shoe from the pile and slam it down on the pulpit. Well (show picture 1) you might as well get comfortable because we’re going to be here awhile.
No seriously, when I say I am going to talk about things that might make us uncomfortable, I don’t have in mind making the other shoe drop on St. Luke. These are not gripes or concerns that are specific to St. Luke, but rather some concerns that are affecting the whole church and perhaps contributing to a general sense that the church is declining and perhaps even dying.
So two weeks ago I talked about God’s unconditional love and how we often used it to justify our behavior because we believe that no matter what we do, it is ok because God will still love us. And I said that I believed that God does love us all without condition, but most of us place conditions on it by the way we live our lives and so ultimately it is only through his forgiveness and grace that we can experience His love for ourselves. God’s love does not condone our sinful behavior or ungodly choices but rather offers redemption for all of us in spite of what we do. Well, today I am wrestling with the question of what Jesus would have done with The celebration of Memorial Day in the church. Now that may seem like an odd question, but I confess that I have always struggled with whether we should be turning what really began as a secular holiday into a religious one. Or if by doing so, we are really doing what the Angel cautioned the ladies at Easter about. Are we seeking the living among the dead? Now don’t tune me out yet. You see, all of my ministry I have heard the debate about whether Memorial Day is a religious or secular holiday. And I certainly believe that there is a place for honoring those who have passed while serving our country both inside and outside of the church. But two things have always troubled me about celebrating Memorial Day in the church. The first is that sometimes we confuse martyrdom with patriotism. Here’s what I mean by that. While many of those whom we honor on Memorial Day were certainly inspired by God to fight for their country because they believed that America has, more than any other nation been (in the words of the Declaration of Independence) endowed by our Creator God “with certain unalienable Rights” including life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and so they gave their lives in defense of a country so blessed by God. But there are also many who gave their lives to defend those freedoms who did not share the belief that those rights came from God, but rather had been won by those who went before. When we celebrate Memorial Day in the church, do we blur the lines between the sacred and the secular by assuming a faithful motivation for all we honor? And does it make their sacrifice any less important if they did it for country and not for God? And the second thing that troubles me is that outside of the church, as well as inside, we are not sure what we are really honoring on Memorial Day. It was begun as Decoration Day. The day we go and decorate the memorials to all of those who have died fighting for our country. So the President decorates the tomb of the unknowns with a wreath to honor all of those unknown, unnamed, unidentified soldiers who have died through the years fighting for our country. But the problem is that down through the years, the intent of Decoration Day or Memorial Day has changed. So now many view it as similar to Veteran’s Day and so all Veteran’s – living or dead are honored. Or we use it to honor all those who are currently serving in the military. And in recent years we have also begun to honor first responders and police officers. And, don’t misunderstand me to say that all of these persons should not be honored. It’s just that was not the original intention of Memorial Day. And then I think that there are many in the church who equate Memorial Day with Easter Sunday. Who like the women on that Easter morning, seek to anoint the dead, to decorate the tomb, and to mourn the dead, rather than follow the risen Lord and prepare to embrace new life He offers. And so the question for people of faith on Memorial Day, and really every day, needs to be the question that the the Angel asked: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” We human beings are big on creating Memorials to help us remember people and events of our past. Think about all the great memorials that have been built honoring all types of things. People. And places. Battlefields and Wars. And cemeteries. Memorials focus on the past. Memorial Day honors yesterday. Memorials are built so that we will remember the past and those who have gone before us and draw inspiration from them as we move forward into the future. And if that’s what we are about, then By all means let’s celebrate, but the problem is that for some the church has become, a memorial to times and people and moments in our life that have gone before and they struggle to move beyond that. Have you ever gone to a church where everything was named after some one? Classrooms, and other sections of the building are named after prominent people of the church’s past. I’ve been to churches that have beautiful stained glass windows and printed right on the window there is a dedication for an individual or family who gave the money for the windows to the glory of God. Sometimes there are little plaques on individual pews saying that the pew is dedicated to a family or an individual. Everything in the church is a memorial to somebody. Sometimes whole churches are named after people. But here’s the thing. Memorials tend to focus on the past. They memorialize the sacrifice and dedication of people who are often long gone. And there is always a temptation in the church to dwell in the past. Particularly when times are difficult, we tend to retreat into our memories. To build memorials to past days and dwell there. That church I talked about earlier that was my first appointment often reverted to a Memorial Day kind of faith. I would try to encourage them to do some outreach into the community and even among their own families, and they would instead talk about the old days when the community was thriving and the church pews were full. I remember one day some of us gathered to clean up the little cemetery and out of the blue one of the older members of the church stood in the middle of the cemetery and said to me, “You know it’s sad to say, but as I look at the names on these grave stones, I realize that this cemetery is really where the church is now.” In his mind, the church had become a memorial to past days and faithful people. The first year I was a Superintendent in the Ashland District, I went to a little church that had dwindled down to just a handful of people meeting in a beautiful old sanctuary. The church was just about gone. And I went that first year to conduct the annual charge conference and in the course of the meeting I asked them about the kind of things they were doing in the community to reach new people and their answers were about what they used to do and what the church used to be like and so I asked what I could do, what the District could do, to help them in their ministry. And one of the members, looked at me across the table and said: “I hate to say it but the best thing that you can do for us is just let us alone to die in peace.” You see, for them, every Sunday was Memorial Day. And the sad thing is that we have a lot of churches that are just like them. I read that in 2018 an average of 100-200 churches died every week in the United States. Every year at the end of Annual Conference we have a time when we Memorialize the churches that had closed that year and ask any that had any ties to that church to stand. About four years ago the name of that little church that I had been first appointed to in 1980 was read and sadly I stood in remembrance of Maurice and Zelma Cosby and Mary Gray and J.B. Claunch and the others who were the church that launched my ministry, and I looked around that conference hall and I was the only one standing. Not too long after that I drove out to Mercer County and to that little church. And it didn’t really look that much different then it had 38 years ago. The white wooden siding was a little worse for wear, and the brick church sign which I had finally convinced them to put in with the name of the church and the Sunday School and worship times had fallen into disrepair. But in faded letters I could still make out the words that I had put there so many years before – “Everyone Welcome.” And I got out of the car and walked through that little cemetery and I found many of the people I remembered, that had meant so much to me. The Claunches and the Cosbys and Mrs. Gray. And I remembered. I remembered Mr. Cosby saying to me, standing in that cemetery, “It’s sad to say but this is where the church is now.” And so it was.
One of the greatest lessons I learned from that little church was that churches that spend a great deal of time remembering their past, will often get stuck there and lose any hope for the future. Churches that allow themselves to become memorials to the past, ultimately will not survive. You know when Jesus was born, the church spent a lot of time celebrating Memorial Day. The priests liked to call people back to the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. They talked a lot about the prophecies of the Messiah who would in their view take the people of God back to the glory days when King David reigned more than 1000 years ago. The Temple had become a memorial to the past. Everything they did was tied to the Law that had been passed down from generation to generation for many, many years. And they often lamented “when will the Messiah come and restore the Kingdom.” And so when the Messiah did come but not to restore the Kingdom but to establish a new Kingdom, they could not accept Him and they put Him to death and went back to what they had always known. You see, Jesus was not big on Memorials. He was much more concerned about the future then he was the past. And so when someone came to Him and said, “Jesus, I really want to follow you but my father is near death. I need to go and bury him and then I’m there with you Jesus.” He replied, “Let the dead care for the dead. I am concerned about the living.” And in another teaching time He talks about the danger of trying to put new wine into old wine skins. It will be a volatile mixture He warns that can lead to the old skins exploding and the new wine being wasted. And then there was Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin which was the Servant Leadership Team of the Temple in Jesus day. In an effort to continue to embrace the old ways of the Church while being drawn to the new ways that Jesus offered, He came to Jesus in the night. Now I can picture him hiding in the shadows until he was sure that Jesus was alone, and then stepping out and whispering: “Jesus what must I do to follow you.” And Jesus was clear. You need to let go of your old life, and embrace the new. “You must be born again, Nicodemus.” In a sense this story of the Transfiguration of Jesus highlights the tension that seemed to always surround Jesus between the past and the future. Peter wants to commemorate this meeting of Elijah and Moses with Jesus by building three memorials, in order that they could come back to that mountain and worship and remember what had happened there. But God had other ideas. Because God sent Jesus not to memorialize Moses and Elijah but rather to be the new Moses and Elijah. You see, it’s not that Jesus did not value the past, but rather He understood it’s value in the way it informed the future. His focus was not on what had been but rather what was going to be. So as they came down from the mountain, rather than respond to Peter’s suggestion that they build memorials to commemorate what had happened on the mountain, He tells the Disciples not to tell anyone what had happened. And that is often what Jesus tells those who are healed by Him – don’t tell anyone what happened here, but instead just come and follow me. Jesus did not want to be known for what He had done, but rather for what He was going to do. You see, the transfiguration was not ever intended to glorify the past but rather propel Jesus’ ministry into the future. Jesus was all about change and new faith expressions. Scripture ends in the book of Revelation by pointing the church to all that is new. The new Jerusalem. The old order of things has passed away. Behold, God says, I am making all things new. Because those that overcome all that has been, will inherit new life. Jesus was not big on building memorials to commemorate the past. In fact, in His day perhaps the greatest memorial had become the Temple itself. And so when Jesus says that in spite of the fact that it had been under construction for nearly 50 years, He could tear it down and rebuild it in three days, the priests became outraged. I suspect that Jesus wouldn’t celebrate Memorial Day in the church, because it focuses too much on the past when the church needs to be moving with great courage and conviction forward – into new life, a new future.
And then I don’t think Jesus would have spent much time celebrating Memorial Day because oftentimes our memorials focus on human beings rather than honoring God. Consider the Temple. When Solomon set about to build the Temple around 1000 B.C., it was part of a great building program that Solomon initiated throughout Israel. He desired to leave his mark on history, his legacy. And while the intent of the Temple was for worshiping and honoring God, it also became like a memorial to Solomon’s father David, and to Solomon himself. The result was a magnificent structure that became known alternately as David’s Temple or Solomon’s Temple. Not God’s Temple. It was almost like God was an honored guest in His own house. It is a sad thing indeed when individuals start thinking of the church as their church, rather than God’s. In Jesus’s day, King Herod had come to be known as Herod the Great – not because he was a great king, but rather because he was a great builder. All over Israel, he built magnificent structures as monuments to himself. And part of his building program was rebuilding the Temple so it became the largest and highest building in Jerusalem. So it became known as Herod’s Temple. Think how many of our memorials are named for individuals, Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington. For most Memorial Day is about honoring individuals. We go to the cemetery to decorate the grave stones of family members and friends, and place decorations on those individual stones. On the day of transfiguration, Peter wants to build three memorials – one for Elijah and one for Moses and one for Jesus. But in doing so, he is, in a sense, relegating Jesus to the past, pantheon of historical patriarchs. In Peter’s mind Jesus has now taken his rightful place in the history of the Jewish people. But Jesus did not come to take a place in the Old Kingdom, but rather to usher in a new one. Peter wanted to memorialize the past but Jesus came to bring in the new. Often times our desire to hold on to the past in the church, to turn the church into a memorial to days gone by, is born out of a fear of the future. But Jesus did not come to teach about the God of Moses and Elijah, as much as He did to proclaim the God of Matthew and Luke and John and all the generations that would follow. Your God and mine. Memorial Day is all about remembering the sacrifice of those who came before. But faith is all about calling us to a life of sacrifice for today and tomorrow. While I am grateful for all of those who came before us in the church and our nation, I believe Jesus is much more concerned with those who are here now and who will come in the future. You see, the church can not ever be what God needs it to be today and tomorrow, if we are spending our time remembering what it was yesterday. Memorial Day in our secular society is all about remembering what has been, but Jesus is all about remembering what He said was still to be. So sometimes I have wondered if we should even celebrate Memorial Day in the church, because I wonder if by doing so, WE are seeking the living among the dead?