Facing Markers Of Our Days

May 30, 2021


“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

The most important way to read and remember military history is from the vantage of land.  For the most part, almost always, the history of military action (wars, generals, battles), this history is a fight over keep land or taking land.  Someone wants to control and gain a piece of land and someone else want to keep a piece of land, not lose it.

There are certainly other aspects to the history of warfare, other dimensions, and factors.  For instance, what people believe, who people are in terms language and culture, economic trends, all of these influence and shape the fight over land.  But, with few exceptions, military history is a matter of who controls what land.

When I was in Watertown, I was invited to attend the celebration of the Army’s founding.  It’s the birthday party for the Army is how a colonel described it to me.  He could see the skepticism on my face and assured me, “this you don’t want to miss.”

And this was a black-tie affair, tuxes and gowns for civilians, dress uniforms for those serving and veterans.  Think big gala.  Lingering over shrimp and cocktails I felt like I was at any major fundraising event.  But then we got down to business.  There was an historical parade.  From our seats we watched soldiers in period uniform carry the American flag with the battle streamers from the war they represented.  The first were the revolutionary war soldiers, then the War of 1812, the Mexican American War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I and then II, the Korean War, Vietnam, and then even unto today with the Balkans and Iraq and Afghanistan. Each war was represented in uniform, but also the battle streamers, the names of the places where the battles of each war were fought.

At the end of the parade all attention fell to an empty table, where a place setting was ready, a chair leaned in to suggest it was reserved, all was perfect except there was no one there and a wine glass was laid on side.  This was the table for the one who went out, but did not come home, the one who died in battle.

You would think that the birthday party would rush pass this somber moment, but what I quickly realized is that somber remembrance was the point. After the welcoming of the politicos and honored guests, a time was put aside to consider the empty table.  And the main speaker, a retired general, continued in this vein during his remarks.  His words to the leaders of the fort and community were not, we are great, we are strong, Go Army.  His words were more along the line of remember for whom you are sacrificing.  Take care of your family, love your neighbor, or we fail to remember our purpose.

In many ways, I felt like this was a private Memorial Day more than a birthday party.  And it wasn’t just the empty table or the somber reflections of the general, it was how the battle streamers were not victory ribbons, but scars, wounds, some healed and fading, others fresh and painful.  For the streamers on the flags all had casualties and the streamers were not just the victories, but also the crushing defeats.

Walking away from that evening what I took with me was this: you need to remember your history with honesty.  We live in a violent world where we will sacrifice peace to gain more land, kill to control more land, and die trying to keep what land we have.  If we try to gloss over this or romanticize it, we fail to remember what has happened with honesty.  In the same way, if we see only senseless violence, if we try to forget our own part in greed and the desire to control, we create a fantasy far from what happened and what is happening. 

Of late there is desire for honesty, to be honest in our memory of the Civil War.  Monuments of the war have become, ironically, battle grounds.  It is hard sometimes to navigate the emotions and the rhetoric, for so much of what is being debated is not the Civil War itself, but how we remember it, and most importantly, the culture that emerged from it.  We can see this in the timing of so many statues seeking to glorify Confederate generals and soldiers.  So many were erected in the 1920s by the Ku Klux Clan.  These statues were not to lament a battle lost, but to proclaim a fight that continues.

In the same way the voices calling for the removals of these statutes are not trying to reinterpret the Civil War; they are a call to be honest about Jim Crow and segregation and the power to control the parts of a city, who has the land, who gets to swim in the pool. The monuments are a fight over memory, whose memory defines us, guides us.

Our reading from Matthew today shines a great light upon this need to remember, and how we remember, and what a failure of memory can do to us.

Often our reading today is remembered because of the line about the sparrows.  The Father knows every sparrow; not one falls to the ground apart from your Father.  This image is found in the popular hymn, his eye is on the sparrow.  Great hymn, love that hymn.  But the hymn is a terrible interpretation of what Jesus is teaching.  

The hymn is about watching over as in protecting, guarding, guiding unto safety, His eye is on the sparrow I know he watches me.  I sing because I am happy, I sing because I am free.  But if we pay attention to the teaching of Jesus, what the father knows and watches is the death of sparrows, their sale in the marketplace, the cheapest of food.  Our reading today is not about everything working out, God keeps us safe, and guides us safely home.  Our reading is about being honest about violence, remembering the powerful forces that so often destroy us.

Jesus differentiates not peace from violence, but two different types of violence.  There are those who can kill the body, and those who can destroy both body and soul.  

It is easy to see the first, the one who can kill the body.  You really need to live under a rock to miss this.  It seems like every day we live the curse of too much information, for we can know every shooting, every mass killing.  We watch it in foreign lands and our neighborhoods.  A few weeks ago, there was a terrible shooting two blocks from where we lived in Watertown, one of the people who was shot and killed was a friend.  This we know; this we can’t help but see.

What we may fail to see is who can destroy both body and soul.  And the one who has this power, who is the only one to be feared according to Jesus, this is the one who can cause you to forget, who exchanges true memory for fantasy or for unhinged patriotism.  The one who glorifies war and violence, who writes history as a victory march.  This one is the one to fear.

History is best pursued as the need for truth, the need to be honest.  We need to be honest about the taking of land, the fight over control, that our destiny was not manifest.  

History is its worst when it is a way to excuse or justify power, to explain away or hide the real forces of greed.  When we write the history of Spain and its conquests and we see the conquistador as necessary or worse as a valiant hero, then history becomes the loss of body and soul. It is a loss because the true memory is exchanged for a lie.  Falsity destroys the soul.

Memories fade.  And the past slips from our grasp.  I am mindful of this each time I walk through our cemetery.  There are many types of grave markers in our cemetery.  Some are flat; others are tall like the obelisks that so intrigue me.  Some bear witness to faith, others grief.  And there are those who simply state the beginning and end of life.  Even though there are different shapes and sizes and expressions, there are only two categories.  There are grave markers whose stone is granite and there are grave markers made of sandstone.  

Granite grave markers do not fade.  The words engraved, the sayings and names and dates are the same as if it were the day of their creation.  It is a kind of witness to what is always true; markers cut in a granite are always what they are.

Sandstone grave markers fade.  With the wind and the rain and the sun the words carved into them slowly fade.  There are grave markers in our cemetery whose words carved in sandstone are now gone, erased.  There is nothing left.  Others have a kind of shadowy, fleeting quality.  It is as if they are almost completely forgotten.

I recently discovered that if you pour water on the fading sandstone, or if you concentrate light on the marker, the words will appear more clearly.  Hence, when it rains, I make a point of looking at the fading sandstone markers, to see their words before they are lost forever.

We must remember Jesus does not promise his disciples an easy life or a life of peace or even a life less harassed, a kind of special treatment for friends and family.  He seems to be suggesting the opposite.  And when it comes down to it, what he offers his disciples is not the hope of privilege or special providence, but the power of truth.  What is covered up will be revealed.  The one who speaks the truth is the one to whom I will speak the truth.  Fear the one who exchanges truth for a lie.  This will destroy the body and the soul.  

When I walk the cemetery and go back and forth between the granite and the sandstone, I am mind of what Jesus is teaching here.  There are eternal truths in us, like the granite markers.  Love is always love; beauty is always beauty; goodness is always goodness.  They abide like granite.  They are always what they are.  And then there are our lived memories, the sandstone in us.  The risk of forgetting.

History becomes a danger when truth is exchanged for romantic fantasy or an excuse of conquest.  When we can no longer make out the words on the sandstone marker, it is a temptation to make up the truth, to invent the story, to recast events to fit our greed. 

It is important on days like today to remember how we remember.  Wars and rumors of wars, battles won and lost, this day is set aside to linger with the truth of our struggle to find peace.  This is a good thing to do.  What is better is if we live this teaching of Jesus every day.  For we forget so much.  Our lives seemed to be wiped clean again and again and the mistakes we made are repeated, the falsity that destroyed us, ruins us again.  

Jesus is calling us to find the power of memory.  Remember what is always true and remember how easy it is for us to live in forgetfulness.  We are both the granite marker and the sandstone marker.  The eternal is always in us, yet time is ever eroding our memories.  Jesus is saying, hold on to what is true, be honest above all else so your love will bring life.  

Find the power of memory today.  Within each of us we can find what is true and good and beautiful.  It is always there.  In this same power remember how our life is secured or lost by honesty.  Be honest with yourself; let us ever be honest with each other.  Amen.

Bible References

  • Joshua 8:30 - 35
  • Matthew 10:26 - 33