on Memorial Day weekend, May 25, 2008, at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston
Ark Linkletter once asked a boy who was ten, "What do you know about World War Two?"
"Oh, I know a lot," he replied. "World War Two was fought all over the world and other places."
"And do you know the countries that fought?" said Art, eager the plumb the depths of this semi-scholar.
"Sure. America and Great Britain."
"Right! Against whom did they fight?"
"Each other. That's how we got our freedom."
"Yes, I see. Sometimes they also call that the American Revolution."
"Well, as long as we're talking about that, do you happen to know the cause of the American Revolution?"
"Yeah. No taxation without recreation." (Bill Cosby, Kids Say the Darndest Things, 114)
Memorial Day weekend is a time of recreation that marks the beginning of Summer. Memorial Day is also a time of reflection we remember those who died while serving to our country.
We are terrified of death. We don't like to think about death. But death is merely a transition from one form of life to another. Think of the changes a butterfly undergoes as it transforms from caterpillar to winged insect. The caterpillar cannot imagine life as a butterfly. When the caterpillar goes into the chrysalis it dies; in a sense, it ceases to exist as a caterpillar. When it reemerges, it is the same caterpillar that reemerges--and yet it is not the same. it is entirely different. It has an entirely different life, an entirely different existence. Before it could only slide along the sides of leaves or branches, now it can fly on two beautifully colored wings. The butterfly cannot remember its life as a caterpillar, even though the caterpillar has begotten it. (Adin Stensaltz, Beyond the Chrysalis, in A Man's Journey to Simple Abundance, 405) Death is our transition from our human bodily to a resurrection body. We see this in the Gospels. The resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples many times in his resurrection body. One time he cooked them fish for breakfast on an open fire on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Another time he walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He talked with these two about what had happened in Jerusalem. The big news was that Jesus had died. The disciples did not know they were telling the risen Jesus details about his own death. Only later that evening when they broke bread around the table were their eyes opened and they recognized the risen Christ.
We see this same pattern in adolescents as they mature and come to understand their mother and father. In his book, Codes of Love: How to Rethink Your Family and Remake Your Life, Mark Bryan remembers his father who wore the uniform. This reading moves beyond stereotypes of men and women who wear the uniform. Their families have the same struggles we all face in one way or another plus the additional strains of serving in the military. Listen for how his understanding of his father changed as he matured through the chrysalis of adolescence into adulthood, as Bryan remembers.
When I was a child, my father's dress white Navy uniform was the most impressive piece of clothing I'd ever seen. I'd watch my father in front of the bedroom mirror as he dressed, his posture straight and elegant as he carefully fastened the gold buttons on the front of the shirt. In his dress whites, sometimes with a gleaming sword strapped to his side, he was someone I honored and respected without a moment of doubt. Our life could be tough at times and the frequent moves caused a lot of stress in our family, but when I saw him in his dress whites the struggle seemed worth it.
By my late teens, that same uniform had become the symbol of every way in which I had failed my father an he had failed me. After our battles of the Vietnam War, I hadn't spoken to my fatter in years. He was a rigid man, a tool of the military establishment. I blamed him for the fact that I had no really close friends and had roamed from place to place, unable to get my life together. Our Navy life had ruined my childhood, I can hear my mother saying, by moving us around so much. I saw that uniform as a straitjacket too, part of the reason he often seemed unhappy. I remembered the time my father, who was working two jobs to keep the family going, was getting dressed for an event and discovered a button was missing on the front of his uniform. Furious, he yanked the shirt open. My brother Jon and I both remember the ping of the gold buttons hitting the walls and the floor as he roared with rage.
As an adult I can see the truth of all those images of my father in uniform. Viewing them from the eyes of a child, of course, I wanted the certainty of having just one. Either there is no truth or there are several truths, but there's never just one when you look at your history with your family. Memory is malleable. We arrange the past in a way that suits our present.
Our family of origin is the chrysalis in which we are formed. Before it becomes a butterfly, a caterpillar goes through a growth stage during called "chrysalis." On the surface it may not look like much is happening, but the delicate chrysalis process changes the fuzzy caterpillar into an awesome butterfly with wings of intricate designs and intense colors. "Chrysalis" symbolizes the spiritual growth that is essential between adolescence and adulthood. That growth is as crucial for youth as the cocoon is for the caterpillar. It is that precious time of nurturing a person's faith for discipleship. Chrysalis conveys the transformation our youth and young adults may experience this Summer.
Youth is but a fleeing moment in a person's life. And too many young people have died and continue to die in war. Memorial Day commemorates U.S. men and women who have died in military service to their country. It began first to honor Union soldiers who died during the American Civil War. After World War I, it was expanded to include those who died in any war or military action. Hermann Melville authored the great novel Moby Dick and also wrote poetry, including this one from April, 1862, called Shiloh:A Requiem:
Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh—
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh—
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there—
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve—
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.
The average age of the Civil War soldier was 25 years old; in Vietnam: 23 years old; in Iraq: 27 years old. Those swallow swooping down over Shiloh remind us of the birds Jesus mentions in our text today. Jesus says, "Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today." We long for all of our young people and young adults to be able to live in a world without war. We long for them to live today and to live tomorrow. Yet, too often, we who have the opportunity to live today and to live tomorrow do not appreciate the fragility of life.
Edgar Guest wrote a poem titled "Tomorrow." It goes like this:
He says he's going to be all a mortal could be, tomorrow ...
None would be braver and stronger than he, tomorrow ...
A friend who was troubled and weary he knew and needed a life and wanted on, too
On him he would call to see what he could do, tomorrow ...
Each morning, he'd stack up the letters he'd write, tomorrow ...
He thought of the friends he would fill with delight, tomorrow ...
It's too bad indeed he was busy today, hadn't a moment to stop on the way, more time I'll give to others, he would say, tomorrow ...
The greatest of workers this man would have been, tomorrow ...
The world would have known him had he ever seen tomorrow ...
But, the fact is he died and faded from view
And all that he left here when living was through
Was a mountain of things he intended to do, tomorrow.
Tonight, tell everybody in your family how much you love them. And just before you got to bed tonight, thank God for every person who have given their life in the service of their country. As Christ said: "Greater love has no man than this: That a man should lay down his life for a friend." Service. That is what is means to be in the military. That is what it means to be a Christian. Don't wait. Lock on to that new resolve to be the best you can be.