Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A meditation given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
In 1974 I lived for a time as a student in London. While I was there, I became captivated by British World War I poetry. The Imperial War Museum had an especially powerful exhibit dedicated to the British poets whose powerful, gritty words flowed as freely as did the blood at the Somme, where over a million soldiers died. Over the years I have made my Memorial Day weekend ritual include some of their haunting words, poetry that combined the lyrical flow so typical of that era, with the horrific images of war. Listen to these words of Rupert Brooke:
These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
These had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. All this is ended.
Or this, by Wilfred Owen:
I, too, saw God through mud --
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.
Merry it was to laugh there --
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.
Or this by Wilfred Gibson:
They ask me where I’ve been,
And what I’ve done and seen.
But what can I reply
Who know it wasn’t I,
But someone just like me,
Who went across the sea
And with my head and hands
Killed men in foreign lands…
Though I must bear the blame,
Because he bore my name.
I think it’s important to remember the realities of war on Memorial Day, if, for no other reason, than to remind ourselves that war is about death and the failure of imagination. It is fortuitous that the lectionary gospel reading for today is from John’s gospel, these words so often read in memorial services. They are from what is called Jesus’ farewell discourse, the few chapters in John dedicated to Jesus’ words of comfort and challenge to his disciples, preparing them for his imminent death and teaching them, in John’s enigmatic way, how they might live once Jesus is no longer with them.
Farewell writings are not uncommon in Scripture. Several of the prophets’ writings are in the form of farewell words, as is Moses’. Some years ago I performed a funeral for a woman who died at a young age of breast cancer. She had written long letters to her children in the last months of her life, things she wanted them to know about her and their father, stories of how they met, lessons about living she wouldn’t have time to teach them. Her children are adults now. They tell me that the letters she wrote to them seem strange, as if she didn’t know them well, but they understand how important it was to their mother to write them.
I think of them whenever I read these words of Jesus. Is it more important to the writer than to the receiver to advise and give counsel just before death? Do the words seem overly optimistic? For example, in John’s Gospel, Jesus told his disciples that he would not leave them orphaned, and yet, in a very real way, he did just that. It reminds me of a poem so many people want to read at a memorial service, or send to someone bereaved. An unknown poet, and the intent is good, but it always leaves me shaking my head.
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow;
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain;
I am the gentle Autumn’s rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush.
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft star that shines at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there;
I did not die.
But you did die, my mind insists. You aren’t here when I need you, and seeing you in the sparkling snow is not the same as feeling the warmth of your hand. The stars are lovely, but they do not comfort me when I need to lay my head on your shoulder and rest. Don’t tell me you did not die and don’t tell me you will not leave me orphaned, because you did, or you will. Death will take our loved ones away from us.
That does not mean we are comfortless. Memory is a powerful force. We can remember something, quietly, without anyone aware of it, and it can make us laugh out loud, or cry, often both. Memory is a time machine, transporting us to places we may never actually see again. You know, there are significant research studies being done about memory. The multidisciplinary field of memory studies combines strands from several disciplines - anthropology, literature, history, philosophy, psychology and sociology, and to that impressive list, I would add religion. Without memory, religion could not develop into a moral force. Without memory, religious rituals are like play-acting. Without memory, we would not know how to be faithful to God. Without memory, we would be left only to grieve the death of our Savior.
In a few moments, we’ll be receiving communion, giving and receiving into one another’s hands, the memory of Jesus in the bread and cup. Remembering is what will keep us from feeling orphaned though orphaned we are. Just as remembering the war poets from WWI keeps their courage and brilliance alive, long after their blood has been shed. May memory be transformed into our own acts of courage and brilliance that one day, there will be no war, just as one day, all will be fed, all will know peace, and all will be comforted by the Spirit of God. Amen.