Remembering at Memorial Day

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is a poem by the English poet Seigfried Sassoon, who fought in the trenches in the First World War. The poem is titled, “Suicide in the Trenches”:

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of run,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again….

The second reading was a poem by Elizabeth Bishop titled “One Art.” Unfortunately, copyright laws do not permit us to reproduce complete poems that are still protected under copyright.

SERMON — “Remembering”

Religions are pretty good at remembering. You might say that the central act of religion is to keep memories alive. In the Western tradition, Christianity has, for the past two thousand years, managed to keep the memory of a certain rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus; and for perhaps three thousand years Judaism has managed to keep alive the memory of the exodus from Egypt, when Moses led his people out of bondage and into the Promised Land. In Persia, the Parsees or Zoroastrians have kept alive the memory of the prophet Zarathustra for three thousand years. In India and the Far East, Buddhists have kept alive the memory of Siddhartha Gotama for some twenty-five hundred years. So religions are adept at keeping ancient memories alive.

Religions are also good at helping us keep more recent memories alive. I don’t mean just remembering our own narrow religious tradition, or the ways we remember the tiny little histories of our local congregations. I’m thinking more of the ways in which our religious communities help us to remember our own lives; to remember what is past and done but still lives on in our hearts.

We keep alive the memories of people whom we loved, whom we still love, but who are now dead; or who have otherwise passed out of our lives. I will say from my own experience that such memories are rarely without pain: it is only human to feel pain when you remember someone who has died. Our religious communities can give us a way to deal with that pain, perhaps even to make sense out of that pain. Most obviously, when someone dies, you hold a memorial service for that person. I know when my mother died several years ago, her memorial service helped me to deal with the pain and the grief. Not that such a religious service lessens the pain and the grief, but we human beings seem to welcome such ritual actions. Belonging to a religious community doesn’t necessarily lessen the pain and the grief either. But there is something about being part of a group of people who are willing to talk about death and pain and loss, especially where some or most of the people in that group have gone through their own pain and grief and loss. Being part of such a group helps you make sense out of death; not because the tenets of that religious community can adequately explain death; but because you are with a group of people who are willing to face death together.

One result of all this is that the buildings which house religious communities can wind up holding lots of memories. This church building in which we sit this morning has seen four memorial services in the past year, and hundreds of others in the 168 years during which it has stood here. These walls hold so many memories. In fact, these walls quite literally hold memories: the Tiffany mosaic behind me was given in 1911 as a memorial to Judge and Mrs. Oliver Prescott, by their three children, Oliver Prescott, Jr., Mrs. Frederick Stetson and Miss Mary R. Prescott. On the back wall of this room is a memorial, where families have put up plaques with the names of members and friends of this church who have died. We are literally and metaphorically the repository of memories; the memories of the generations.

I cannot help but add that one of the best reasons for supporting this church is to keep it as a repository for such memories. Obviously, a church building is far more than a repository of memories; it is first and foremost a home for a living community. But the members of that living community have their memories, and there is almost nowhere else in our society where we have a physical space where we can remember; the only other place I can think of would be cemeteries, but cemeteries lack the vitality that churches get from also housing a living community. In churches memories can remain as living memories; churches look backwards in memory, but also forwards to the next generations; and of course churches remain above concerned with the present.

I’ll say something else about this church. Here in this place, we make an effort to come face-to-face with the truth, even if that truth is less than comfortable. When it comes to memories, we remember, yes; but we don’t feel we have to sugar-coat our memories. Thus when we look back at our Christian heritage, we remember what is good about that heritage; but we also try to look unflinchingly on what it less than good about that heritage; we are willing to acknowledge that our Christian heritage has some unsavory episodes in its long history. This same attitude guides us when we look back at the past of our own church: we remember what is good about our church’s past, but we acknowledge that both good and bad things have happened here. And if you choose to do so, this church will support you if you choose to apply this same attitude when you look back at your own past: because we know that no human being is wholly good, we know that it’s acceptable to remember both the good and the bad things about the dead. In our faith tradition, we try to remain open to the whole truth of the world around us.

By remaining open in this way to the whole of truth, by accepting the wholeness of our memories, we are performing something of a counter-cultural act. One of the things I’ve noticed is that the society around us sometimes tries to mold the past into a more comfortable image. I see this tendency in people’s personal lives; when, for example, people blame a personal weakness on their parents instead of taking personal responsibility for their own actions. Or when, for example, rather than apologizing and saying “I’m sorry,” we see people hiding behind lawyers and law suits. We see this tendency at a national level as well; when, for example, any critical statement about United States foreign policy in Iraq and the Middle East is said to be unpatriotic and even treasonous. And we see this in our own religious institutions; when, for example, people refuse to acknowledge past problems and misdeeds in religious institutions, preferring instead to remain silent or to deny that anything bad ever happens in a church.

Our society seems to encourage an attitude of refusing to accept responsiblity for oneself; and I see this in part as a failure of memory. When I carefully search my own memory of my own actions, I find many examples of times when I was less than a good person; and I find that the society around me offers me too many ways to excuse myself. When I look back at the history of my beloved Unitarian Universalist religion, I find instances of racially segregated churches, instances of sexism, instances of misconduct on the part of ministers, and — my personal pet peeve — instances of bias on the basis of socio-economic status. And when I look back at the history of my country, a country in which I have pride, a country which I love, I find less-than-savory episodes: I could start with killing native Americans, work my way up through the slavery of Africans, and so on up to the present day. All these things represent in part a failure of memory: if you forget that 95% of the Indians in New England died within 20 years of the arrival of European settlers, you can forget about any possible problem.

I don’t mean to imply that we each have to take all the burdens of the world on our shoulders; nor do I mean to imply that any one person has to bear the full burden of responsibility for, let us say, slavery. Nor am I saying that I want you to go out and remember only the worst things about yourself, or to remember only the worst things about someone you love who is now dead. But what I am saying is that we need to remember as honestly as we possibly can.

The first reading this morning gives an example of what I mean. The poet Siegfried Sassoon served with the English military in the trench warfare in the First World War, and he writes of a young soldier who, while initially carefree, gets worn down by the trench warfare and commits suicide. Sassoon writes: “He put a bullet through his brain. / No one spoke of him again.” That, my friends, is a failure of memory.

Which brings us to our second reading, the poem by Elizabeth Bishop, which says:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, faster:
places, names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

None of these will bring disaster. And what Elizabeth Bishop is telling us is quite simple: you can’t cling tightly to everything. Indeed, in this life of ours, we had better master the art of losing, for there is much to lose, as Elizabeth Bishop says at the end of the poem:

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Say it!) like disaster.

The art of remembering is an art of holding on; and it has to be coupled with the art of losing, or the art of letting go. We need them both. We need to be able to hold on to memories; but at times in our lives, we need to be able to let go again.

There is a difference between the failure of memory, of which I spoke a moment ago, and the art of letting go. The failure of memory in the way I’m talking about it is really a refusal to remember things correctly; it’s an attempt to create a past that never was.

The trick is to learn how to balance the art of remembering, of holding on; over against the art of losing, or of letting go. You can watch this happen inside yourself when someone you love dies. Elizabeth Bishop tells us that even when you lose someone you love, “the art of losing’s not to hard to master”; for when someone you love dies, you may feel at first as if you can’t possibly let go, and yet somehow you do, for you don’t really have a choice. And when you love is dying, or has just died, it surely does feel like disaster. And then you have to be careful to find the right balance: by not succumbing to that sense of disaster on the one hand, and by continuing to remember on the other hand.

I started out by saying that religions are pretty good at remembering, and I said that perhaps the central act of religion is keeping memory alive. A religious community gives each person in that community a context in which to hold memories; and a healthy religious community gives each person in that community assistance in letting go of memories when the time is right. To say this is merely to affirm a great human truth. When we human beings lose some person, or even some thing like an ideal or a place, when we lose that which we care for deeply, we are struck with grief. Yet we manage to move on, we manage to keep on living; and that means that some measure of grief has to slip away. Being part of a religious community is a way to help that very human process move forward in its course; because a religious community has seen this process happen over and over again, always with starkly individual differences, but always in the same grand human pattern.

And a religious community can help us keep that balance between holding on and letting go. The reason we want to keep that balance is so that we can move forward in our lives — so that we can move forward together in our communal life as a church, as a community, and a country. We don’t want to get stuck. When someone you love dies, it’s easy to get stuck in grieving; and while perhaps we never stop grieving, we must also find a way to live out our lives, to live out what was best in the life of whomever it was who died. I’d say that’s the truest expression of grief.

So, too we must keep the balance between remembering, and letting go; so that we might move forward in our communal life, in our political life. On Memorial Day, we remember all those who died in military service of our great country; we remember them, and we recall the ideals they fought and died for. And by remembering, we can commit ourselves to work for the highest of those ideals — some of the old ideals may no longer apply in today’s world, and those we can let go of — but we remember the highest ideals.

In the Unitarian Universalist church of my childhood, I learned early on what those highest ideals were, and I learned them as religious ideals. Those ideals were, and are:– the ideal of humankind learning to live together as one interconnected, interdependent community;– the ideal of each and every human being having a voice in how he or she is governed;– the ideal of a world where a person’s essential humanity means more than their race or creed or national origin.

Our religion exists in part to keep those highest ideals of humanity alive. Our liberal faith has long upheld the ideal of democratic process, and the ideal that all persons are important and of worth, and most importantly the ideal that each and every human being is worthy of respect, and of love. We have not always lived up to our ideals, both in our own religious community, and in our lives in the wider world. But we hold on to those ideals, and we remain open to new and deeper understandings of those ideals. And on this Memorial Day, we commit ourselves once again to a world where all persons shall be known as our brothers and sisters.

May it be so.