May 28, 2012: Memorial Day Service

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Memorial Day

Today we gather in places like this – cemeteries and chapels – to remember and honor those who died in wars. After the Civil War, women of both sides began a tradition of placing wreaths, crosses and flowers on soldiers’ graves. In 1868 an order was issued to establish May 30 as the day to honor all who had died in wars. A century later, Congress made the last Monday in May Memorial Day and created a long holiday weekend. Some observe Memorial as such. However it’s done, this is a day of remembrance, honor and thanksgiving for those who sacrificed their lives for us and believed in the goodness of this nation.

Memorial Day is a civic event, not religious – though life and death evoke our deepest spiritual concerns. Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, all religions, and people who claim no religion, serve and die for this country. Loss, grief and suffering are common to us all. Religion’s mission is not the mission of the armed forces. Faith and religion help us locate pain, suffering, loss and death in a larger view, and pray our Creator’s comfort, strength, hope, and new life for those who grieve. Religion at its best can bring out our best.

And let’s remember, too, soldiers who come home from war so damaged and stressed they commit suicide. They are to be honored, too. Others who return cannot find jobs. They are losing their houses and their families. As a nation we need healthy and productive public conversations and decisions to solve such problems. If we can ship our daughters and sons to war, surely we can care for them better when they come home.

I look at our present world – our national discourse – and wonder if we might not learn an important lesson from our fallen women and men. They gave all for all of us. They saw a greater good and had a larger view. They didn’t die just for those who agreed with them. They knew the enemy, and thought we did too, and it would not be one another.

Children used to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I don’t know if they still say that. In our day many carelessly toss out words that harm. Truth, respect and listening to learn from those with whom we disagree are scarce virtues today. Mistrust and hatred can grow like weeds within and among us. We begin to treat friends as enemies. I don’t think someone being told she should drink a bottle of alcohol and pills and kill herself is a comment that advances civility and public discourse.[1] Do you wonder why bullying is an epidemic among our youths? People make untrue comments carelessly, and if they say it enough we believe it. We’ve quit asking, “Is that really true?” Those who died serving our country believed the dictum of Seal of the United States: e pluribus unum. That means from many we are one, a statement that expresses unity, not division. James Madison said we owe our country “loving criticism.”[2] We may disagree with a person’s position, but we don’t need to call them idiots or liars, say they don’t love this country – weren’t born here, or want to destroy the poor. Have we forgotten civility, listening, trying to walk in another’s shoes, respect – a commitment for the common good? A TV journalist friend whose beat was Congress and the White House observes that we no longer seem to have statesmen – just sound bites.[3] Those who have given their lives will be honored this day by remembering they died for all of us – red and blue, north and south, rich and poor, gay and straight, liberal and conservative. They had a larger view for our nation than many tend to have today. And they gave their lives not for half-truths and name-calling but for our freedom, freedom of speech and freedom from hatred, so all of us can thrive and serve a greater good.

Peggy Noonan says we need a “patriotic grace.”[4] Patriotic grace takes the larger, longer view, realizes the condition of the present moment, comes up with solutions, and “eschews the politically cheap and manipulative.” To honor those who died for us we need to live as people worth dying for.

On this day to honor our fallen, remember lasting peace begins in God – and flows outward to each other. We are all made in God’s image – all, even those we don’t like and differ with: E pluribus unum.

These we honor died to make this world better and safer. They thought we are worth it. They trusted us. I believe to honor them, we can die to some unhealthy and unproductive attitudes to listen to, learn from, and respect again each other. Otherwise the lines we draw in the sand become walls and barriers that dishonor the risks, gifts, and price they have paid. We are better than that – at least they died thinking we are. They knew the true enemy – and the real wars. May we learn from them, and live in love for the hope they died to preserve.

[1] Meghan McCain, Cut It Out, Internet Bullies!, “The Daily Beast,” May 27, 2012.

[2] Jonathan Merritt, A Faith of Our Own, FaithWords, New York and Nashville, 2012, p. 162.

[3] Conversation with Neil Boggs, retired NBC anchor and correspondent; March, 2011.

[4] Peggy Noonan, Patriotic Grace, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2008.


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