I have an incredibly VARIED resume from the time before I entered the ministry. One of those jobs involved me selling doors and door hardware. No foolin’! The place was OK to work for, but we didn’t get very many holidays off. You know- Christmas, Thanksgiving, 4th of July…that’s about it. The owner didn’t really believe in holidays. To him, a holiday was basically a day when the employees got paid to stay home and generate NO revenue for the business. Not on his list of a “few of his favorite things”! But suddenly, on Memorial Day, he would get all magnanimous. “We’re going to close on Memorial Day so that you can spend the day with your families!” WOW! I soon found out, however, that the REAL reason we were closed was that he was a HUGE fan of the Indianapolis 500- attended it every year. And he wouldn’t get back in town until later in the day on Memorial Day so…we “got the day off”! Gives me a “warm fuzzy” just thinking about it!
Isaiah 43:1-3a Family of Jacob, the LORD created you. People of Israel, he formed you. He says, “Do not be afraid. I will set you free. I will send for you by name. You belong to me. You will pass through deep waters. But I will be with you. You will pass through the rivers. But their waters will not sweep over you. You will walk through fire. But you will not be burned. The flames will not harm you. I am the LORD your God. I am the Holy One of Israel. I am the one who saves you.
What do YOU think of when you think of Memorial Day? Honestly! I mean, we all know what the RIGHT answer is…but what do you REALLY think of? My guess is things like backyard barbecues, family get-togethers and the end of school come quickly to mind! And frankly…that’s OK…as long as that’s not where you both start AND stop your Memorial Day thoughts!
In many churches, Memorial Day is downplayed because it’s not one of the official “holy days” on the church calendar. But the truth is that we have freedoms in this country, not the least of which is freedom of religion. And that freedom…those freedoms…exist solely because of the countless men and women who valiantly served their country- many of whom gave their lives for that struggle. So it’s a good thing to celebrate Memorial Day. It does, after all, call us to remember.
Remembrance is an awesome thing. All we have to do is hear a particular song or smell a particular smell and we are instantly a kid again, skipping rocks across a pond or running through a field. We’re able to relive all sorts of things from our past through the gift of memory. Some of our memories are happy, some are sad and some are painful. But all of them are transformative.
They’re also very practical. If we couldn’t remember that a red light means “stop” or an open flame means “hot”, we’d be in big trouble. The problem is, however, that sometimes we forget. Sometimes memory fails us.
John had a serious memory problem. One day, John ran into a friend he hadn’t seen in a long time. He greeted him and said, “Bill, do you remember what a bad memory I had?” Bill answered, “Well…yes, I certainly do.” John said, “Well, it’s not bad anymore. I went to a seminar that taught us how to remember things. It was great and now I have a wonderful memory.” Bill answered, “That’s amazing! What was the name of the seminar?” “Well,” John said, “wait a minute, my wife went with me. I’ll ask her.” He turned and saw his wife nearby. Then he turned back to Bill and said, “What’s the name of that flower with a long stem and thorns and a red bloom?” “Do you mean a rose?” Bill answered. “Yeah, yeah- a rose. Thanks.” John said. He then turned back to his wife and said, “Hey, Rose, what’s the name of that seminar we attended?”
We forget all sorts of things. But there are some things we should never forget. And we remember some of those things today. The observance of Memorial Day started near the end of the Civil War. And within a few years the practice of placing flowers on military graves had spread throughout the country and was called “Decoration Day.” But it wasn’t until after WW1 that it became a national holiday.
Remembrances are an important piece of the Bible. God put a rainbow in the sky as a remembrance. Joshua had the Israelites erect a monument in the middle of the Jordan River as a remembrance of their crossing. The Feast of Passover was a remembrance of when the angel of death passed over the homes of the Israelites.
Josh was driving through Chicago in his sleek, black, 12-cylinder Jaguar XKE, which was only 2 months old. All of a sudden, a brick flew out and WHUMP! – it smashed into the Jag’s shiny side door. Josh slammed on the brakes, threw that car in reverse and screeched back to the spot where the brick had been thrown. There was a kid standing there. Josh jumped out, grabbed him and pushed him up against the car. He shouted, “What are you doing? That’s my brand new Jag and that damage is going to be expensive to fix. Why in the world did you throw that brick?” The boy looked up at Josh with pleading eyes. Tears were streaming down the boy’s face. “I’m sorry, mister! I didn’t know what else to do! No one would stop. It’s my brother. He accidentally rolled off the curb in his wheelchair and fell out. I can’t lift him up. Would you please help me get him back into his wheelchair?” Moved beyond words, Josh tried desperately to swallow the rapidly swelling lump in his throat. Straining, he lifted the young man back into the wheelchair. He then took out his handkerchief, wiped off the scrapes and cuts and checked to see that everything else was okay. He then walked the boys back to their house to make sure they got all right. It seemed like a long walk back to that sleek, black, shining 12-cylinder Jaguar XKE- long, slow and painful. And Josh never did fix that side door. He left the dent there as a reminder to not go through life so fast that someone has to throw a brick at you to get your attention.
The Old Testament Book of Ruth is an interesting story. It starts with a guy named Elimelech (And by the way, you will NOT find THAT name on a keychain at The Cracker Barrel!) and his wife, Naomi. They, along with their two sons, leave their home in Bethlehem and move to a place called Moab…because there’s more food there. Good reason. Once there, Elimelech dies and Naomi is left with her two sons. They both get married. But about ten years later, they both die, too.
Now all Naomi has is her two daughters-in-law- Orpah and Ruth. Naomi tells them that she is going back to where she came from and suggests that they, too, go back to their families. Orpah doesn’t want to leave Naomi but Naomi tells her it’s OK- she’ll be fine. So Orpah goes back to her family. But no matter what Naomi says to Ruth, Ruth won’t leave. She tells Naomi, “Don’t ask me to leave. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your friends will be my friends and your God will be my God.”
So Ruth and Naomi go to Bethlehem together. And Ruth never once complains about her circumstances but instead remains a good friend to Naomi. She doesn’t expect anything in return- she just wants to help.
The story of Ruth and Naomi is a story about grief, about loss, about remembrance and about overcoming. Grief. Loss. Remembrance. Overcoming. Words that also sum up what Memorial Day is all about. There is a strong sense of grief and of loss for those who gave their lives for our freedom. There is a strong sense of remembrance over the sacrifice that was made. And for those men and women to have not died in vain, there MUST be a strong sense of overcoming. We are called to overcome daily those circumstances that threaten to hold us down. We are called to rise up and be all that God has created us to be.
My dad died in late January of 2011. He had been a widower for nearly 7 years- since my mom died of cancer in June 0f 2004. He was also a veteran. He was born September 16, 1927. That would make him underage to enlist near the end of WW2. But he wanted to serve his country. So he talked his mom, a teacher and school principal, into giving him parental permission to drop out of high school and enlist. She made him promise that he would finish his high school education when he got back.
He enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to the USS Kula Gulf- an escort carrier. He was a gunner’s mate and they were stationed in the South China Sea. He spent two years in the Navy. He was always proud of his service to his country. But like many of his generation, he was reluctant to talk about it. I got very few “stories” about his military service from him. But what I DO have is a plaque and a knife.
The plaque is hand-made by my brother-in-law, who is THE best “finish” carpenter…EVER! It has a sepia-toned picture of my dad from his time in the Navy. He was young to begin with and looks about 12 in the picture! It also has the Navy emblem. This was actually from one of the four corners of his casket. They each included a Navy emblem that’s about 4″ across. At the cemetery, the Funeral Director took all four of them off and gave one to each of us four siblings. On the back of this plaque is a card my younger son made when he was little. On the front of the card is a hand-drawn picture of my dad in uniform.
The inside of the card has a hand-drawn US flag on one side and a note from my son to his grandpa on the other side. The note says, “Dear Grandpa, My school is celebrating Veteran’s Day as you already know. I’m thankful I got to spend time with you. I’m happy you protected my country. I love you. God Speed- Hunter.”
Then there is the knife. It is a standard Navy-issue knife. It has a blade that’s 7″ long and a handle that’s 5″ long, making the overall knife a foot long. To this day, I don’t know if my dad was SUPPOSED to take this with him…or just did! But either way, here it is. One time…ONE time…he told me that, while on an island with his crew, he used it on a Japanese soldier who had snuck into their sleeping quarters in the middle of the night. He said the man ran off and he never knew what happened to him. I could tell that story was something that haunted him.
The men and women who have served this country throughout its history create a debt that we can never repay. There are SO many freedoms- not the least of which is the freedom to openly worship God- that we simply would not have if it weren’t for the sacrifices made by those who have served. We sincerely and wholeheartedly offer up our thanks for them this day.
John 14:23-27- Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love him. We will come to him and make our home with him. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. The words you hear me say are not my own. They belong to the Father who sent me. “I have spoken all these things while I am still with you. But the Father will send the Friend in my name to help you. The Friend is the Holy Spirit. He will teach you all things. He will remind you of everything I have said to you. “I leave my peace with you. I give my peace to you. I do not give it to you as the world does. Do not let your hearts be troubled. And do not be afraid.
Howard William Osterkamp, from Dent, Ohio., served in the Army and experienced heavy combat in Korea. Osterkamp was wounded in the leg by shrapnel while fighting near the 38th parallel. Army doctors misdiagnosed his injury and he was sent back to the front lines…with his leg broken in two places and stayed there for 4 months. In the end, he was awarded the Purple Heart. And it is Sargent Osterkamp who coined the phrase, “All gave some; some gave all.” One of the many things that Memorial Day reminds me of is that we are called to offer our best to God. He deserves our best and if we love Him, then we should want to give just that- our best.