A Memorial Day weekend 2011 sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill
Sermon for Easter VI (A)
May 29, 2011
Christ Church Andover
Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
Today is a day on which several different themes seem to come together in the calendars both of the church and society. It is, of course, Memorial Day weekend – a national holiday on which we remember those who have died in the service of our country, and all of our loved ones who have died. It’s also Rogation Day – an occasion that has been largely lost to us along with the agrarian way of life that made it seem so important in centuries past. Rogation Sunday is a time set aside to appreciate and recognize our dependence upon the land for our food and most importantly our dependence on God for the miracles of sprouting seeds, growing plants, and maturing harvest. Our opening hymn today was a nod to this occasion – “We plow the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land.” Rogation Sunday (today) is the 6th Sunday of Easter, which is also the Sunday before the Ascension. So, lots of different themes running through our liturgy today!
Yesterday I stood at the graveside of a WWII veteran, and just after we had said the words of the Committal service from the Prayer Book, the military honor guard played taps, then began their solemn ritual of the folding of the American flag as we all watched in silence. After it had been ceremoniously and very neatly folded, corners tucked perfectly and the sides of the triangle traced and inspected with white gloved hand, one of the sailors took the folded flag in his hands, made his way to the daughter of the deceased, walking in measured steps, and turning at precise 90 degree angles, and then he placed the flag in her hands, saying, “On behalf of the President of the United States and the Secretary of the Navy we present this flag to you as a token of our nation’s gratitude.”
I see this ritual nearly every time I preside at the burial of a veteran. And it always reminds me of the solemn dignity and highly ritualized actions of the honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Virginia, which I first saw in 1966 when I was 11 years old. It made a lasting impression on me. I remember the silence, the precise – almost mechanical – movements, the highly ritualized actions, and the solemn (almost religious) intensity with which the soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines carried out their duty in honoring those who die in battle by honoring this unknown soldier.
In our first reading today from the Book of Acts, we hear not about a tomb of an unknown soldier, but about an altar to an unknown god. And for some reason, these two things reminded me of each other.
I’ve always thought of this story as an important insight into how we as Christians might think about our posture toward other religions. Paul takes a look around Athens and observes how very religious the people are. There are temples and shrines everywhere in this city. He seems in this speech in front of the Areopagus to be commending the Athenians for their religious devotion when he says, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”
And then he points out one particular altar that he had seen – an altar to an unknown god. These devout, polytheistic Athenians, in their desire not to offend any of the myriad of gods, were covering their bases – just in case they had left one out! And Paul takes this opportunity to introduce a whole new idea into the mix. Whereas Greek polytheism honored gods who had specific roles and personalities, gods whose exploits reflected the forces of the natural world and the various qualities of human nature, Paul introduces a different kind of god – the “God who made the world and everything in it,” the God who is Lord of heaven and earth, and one who “does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”
Paul goes on to describe how this creator of heaven and earth set the boundaries of the nations and the places where people would live, “so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us.” And then Paul quotes from a piece of Greek poetry when he says, “For ‘in him we live and move and have our being’ – as even some of your own poets have said.” I’ve always admired Paul’s somewhat magnanimous and respectful tone here, and even his affirmation of their own poets. We don’t see him casting down altars like an Old Testament prophet, or hurling condemnations at idol worshippers. He seems to be much more interested in meeting people right where they are, and attempting to expand their consciousness from many different gods to the one God – the God in whom we all live and move and have our being.
I like that approach. It feels respectful of differences, while seeking to engage in honest dialogue, and expanding the terms of the discussion. I think it’s a good model for interfaith dialogue today.
But I’m afraid that if that’s all we see in this story, it might be just a little too self-serving, and we could well miss an important point. After all, it’s just a little too easy to see ourselves along with Paul as the bearers of the truth, the ones with the higher consciousness, revealing the superiority of our own religious faith to those caught in a world of allegiances to lesser gods.
And so, before we become quite so self-congratulatory, let’s ask whether we too (yes, even we who call ourselves Christians) have fallen for lesser gods. So, let’s ask ourselves: To what or to whom do we owe our highest allegiances? What are the most important things in our lives? To what do we devote our energies and our resources? Have we set up altars in our own lives – altars to security, comfort, convenience, wealth, pleasure, prestige? Do we seek our own security or comfort or pleasure without consideration for how what we do and how we live affects others? Do we look to the things we can buy to give us meaning, or do we look to our abilities and accomplishments to give us security? Do we look to our nation or our social standing to give us meaning or a sense of identity? Are these the things where we have put our trust?
Altars to many gods, indeed.
It’s entirely possible that for the modern-day polytheist the church can simply become our own “altar to the unknown god” – an insurance policy “just in case” we haven’t covered all of our bases with all those other gods we serve.
Jesus says to his disciples in our gospel today, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And what were Jesus’ commandments? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength – and your neighbor as yourself.” He even went beyond that to say “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” “Do not return evil for evil, but return good for evil.” “Bless those who curse you.”
Most of the time, it seems, we prefer to worship at other altars.
Over this Memorial Day weekend we have learned that another eight US soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, and our hearts go out to their families today. Nearly 1600 Americans have died since the beginning of this war nearly ten years ago, and thousands more have been maimed or traumatized and now suffer from physical and mental disabilities. That, of course, does not begin to account for the tens of thousands of Afghani civilians and military who have been killed or injured. And there is still no end in sight – and the question we seem to be asking more and more is “for what?” We cannot help but wonder what the name of the unknown gods we worship might be – Power? Domination? Security? – and how many lives we will sacrifice on the altars of these gods.
We as Christians are in great need of finding and using our voice on this issue. It’s true that Christians have differed throughout the ages on the matter of whether and under what circumstances war can be justified. Good people can disagree on this. But that should not keep us from continuing the conversation, and from searching our hearts and our minds for the will of God, not only in the abstract, but in the very specific situations we face today, and others that we will undoubtedly face in the future.
Thomas Merton said that “Peace demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.”
When Paul invited the people of Athens to consider a god who was bigger than their lesser gods, he was inviting them to enter a new realm outside the parameters of human possibility. Gods who simply reflect our own human propensities for violence or love or greed would not be enough. They cannot save us. But the God who made the world and everything in it can! And this is the God who has sought us out, and wants to be in relationship with us. This is the God in whom we live and move and have our very being. This is the God revealed to us in Christ, the one who overcame death itself, having offered himself willingly as a testimony against the violence of this world – the incarnate One revealing once and for all the God who is with us and in us.
“If you love me,” Jesus said, “you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”