All Present and Accounted For
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Memorial Day • May 27, 2018
Every Sunday presents a challenge of choice: what to leave in, what to leave out, include all the scriptures read or focus on one reading, one line? Today is Trinity Sunday in the calendar of the church, the Sunday after Pentecost when preachers are invited to explore the theology of God appearing in three persons. But in our civil calendar, it is Memorial Day weekend, a day for cookouts, visits with family and time off on Monday. It is a day most especially when veterans and their families are honored and those who have died are remembered. Faced with this choice, I’ve chosen to focus on Memorial Day; we’ll talk about the Trinity another day. I know this will disappoint some; perhaps please others. All I can say is keep coming and we’ll get there!
Last week, we read the same piece of Ezekiel read this morning, the prophet’s dream of God resurrecting a field of dry bones, the leftovers of a battle, the casualties of a war. I felt there was so much more to say about this passage that I asked to have it read today, as you heard. Now I want to add to it the conclusion of this section of Ezekiel. After the dry bones, Ezekiel has another vision of a great war and then we hear this.
Therefore thus says the Lord God: Now I will restore the fortunes of Jacob, and have mercy on the whole house of Israel; and I will be jealous for my holy name. 26They shall forget their shame, and all the treachery they have practiced against me, when they live securely in their land with no one to make them afraid, 27when I have brought them back from the peoples and gathered them from their enemies’ lands, and through them have displayed my holiness in the sight of many nations. 28Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God because I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land. I will leave none of them behind; 29and I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God. [Ezekiel 39:25-29]
Let us pray that God will open to us the full gift of this passage and the full measure of the Spirit.
So, Memorial Day: where does it come from? How did it originate? Memorial Day began as Decoration Day in 1868 in the free United States of the north. The date was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of a particular battle and its focus was on remembering those who had died in the recent Civil War, fought to save the Union and free the union of slavery. During that time, Union dead were being gathered together from shallow battlefield graves into 70 nationally recognized cemeteries, mostly in the south where battles had occurred. Similar memorial day celebrations were also held in the former Confederated states, celebrations gradually blended into southern attempts to construct a romantic justification for the war and to reinstate white supremacy. The Confederate memorials were particularly centered on creating statues, symbols of resistance to the constitution and to racial justice. Today, of course, those statues are thankfully coming down. For many years the two celebrations were entirely separate.
After 1913, when former Union and Confederate soldiers came together at Gettysburg, the celebration of Decoration Day began to merge. This increased when the dead of World War 1 were included and was completed after World War 2, when Decoration Day officially became Memorial Day.
Where did Memorial Day come from? It came from graveyards. When the armies left Gettysburg on July 4, 1863, they left behind over 7,000 dead, scattered over the ground. There was no organized, national office in charge of their burial; it fell to local citizens and took until the following spring before the dead were mostly cleared. Bones are still occasionally found. Let Gettysburg stand for Antietam, Chancellorsville, Chickamauga, Shiloh, Vicksburg and so many more, all of which left the dead where they fell until someone came along to bury them.
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?
This is the dream of Ezekiel; this is the nightmare of everyone who has experienced battle. In the middle of western Europe, during World War 1, approximately one ton of explosives was fired for every square meter of ground. About a third didn’t explode. In 2013 alone, 160 tons of unexploded munitions were recovered from one section of the front. These are explosives from a century ago. About 900 tons of explosives are recovered every year. Since 1945, 630 French battlefield clearers have died. People continue to die.
Succeeding wars have all contributed to the carnage and the graves. The United States lost about 400,000 service members during World War 2; the Soviet Union lost about nine million. Germany and other places were leveled with bombs that often require evacuation today while they are defused. Each succeeding conflict adds its graves, its explosives, it’s deadly toll. Today, somewhere, a mine is being buried or a shell fired or a bomb dropped that will lie in wait. A child or a farmer, someone simple and unaware, will die from it a century from now.
How can we look out over this huge field of dry bones, dead soldiers and sailors, aircrew and marines, and so many others, and ask, first, do we remember them? Memorial Day began in memory: first of individuals for whom the wound of grief in those left behind was still fresh and pulsing. Then, recognizing the commonality of the hurt, in a shared sense of how terrible the sacrifice had been.
So the first thing for us to understand from Ezekiel’s vision is that God has remembered the fallen. Unknown, desiccated and dusty, only bones left, still the vision of Ezekiel begins with the startling fact that God has not forgotten these fallen, holds on to them, cares for them.
When a military company lines up on a drill field, they count off, attendance is taken, and there is a phrase passed forward: “all present and accounted for”. It means that even though someone might be in the hospital, someone might have been detached, every person in the company is remembered, accounted for, present in that sense.
Now Christ calls us to grow ourselves towards God. We are made in God’s image and like a child filling out, getting taller, learning new skills, becoming an adult, we are meant to fulfill that image. Part of that growth is to learn to see not as the world teaches but as God teaches. And what God teaches, what Christ showed, was that we should see everyone.
Memorial day is a reminder of this. Ezekiel lived in a moment when God’s people had been defeated in a series of wars that left dead scattered throughout the land, that left Jerusalem a shattered ruin. The leaders of the community were taken into exile. Worst of all, they came to believe their defeat was emblematic of their abandonment. by God.
Ezekiel’s startling proclamation is that they have not been abandoned, not those alive, not those dead, not those who will come to be in the future. All are still God’s people and God means to give them new life, as a people, as persons, as children of God.
The surprising word of God about all those who believe themselves lost is that God intends to find them and let them know they are found.
Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God because I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land. I will leave none of them behind; and I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God.
The graveyard of dusty bones will be transcended by God’s love into a memorial; the dead live in the love of God.
Five months after the battle of Gettysburg, when the dead still littered the ground in some places, there was a great gathering to memorialize the dead. There were bands and long speeches and the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, said these words.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate-we can not consecrate-we can not hallow-this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us-that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion-that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Almost 155 years later, we are still faced with the task for which those brave ones gave their lives. We remember them best when we struggle with them against the racism that continues to be a dark strain in our national life. It’s the same with others who have fallen. How many of us have family members who fell or fought against fascism in World War II? Then shouldn’t we in our turn fight those in this country who want to bring this demonic thing here? Remember their fight: make it your own.
When we take up the cause of freedom and justice, when we fight fascists, when we insist that faith in God means full inclusion of all God’s children, that Christian is not a synonym for exclusion, then we are fulfilling God’s vision. Then we are remembering truly. Then indeed, the spirit of Memorial Day is in us, and the armies of so many who have sacrificed are in our lives all present and accounted for, then their memorial is our inspiration.