Man on the Hill (2)

Jn. 17:11b-19
5/24/09
Memorial Day Weekend

When I was a child, I had a tin (lead) soldier, a bugler. He was dressed in a WWI uniform. I would fan my toy soldiers out on the rug and place the bugler up on a hill. He would oversee the soldiers on the playing field below and sound commands such as “Charge!”

Later, as a small boy, I accompanied my mother to the cemetery each Memorial Day. In the background there was a young man on a hill with a bugle (often my brother). Instead of “Revelry” or “Charge,” he would play “Taps”. My mother would look solemn, and Freddie Patterson’s mother would weep for a husband whose parachute was caught in a tree and whose life was taken by a German sniper on a hill. Even as we mourned the dead, we felt a sense of pride for our country and for the men and women who during WWII tried to shape the world to be a better place in which to live.

There have been other times and hills. As a youth I followed on T.V. our troops up and down the hills of Korea. Later my brother-in-law surveyed the hills of Vietnam looking for tanks. As a nation our moral sense bifurcated, and there were other hills: the hill at Kent State, the grassy knoll in Dallas, and the hill in Arlington where John Kennedy is buried. There have been other wars, the War in Kuwait, the War in Iraq and now the War in Afghanistan. The body bags continue to come home.

I have lived through 73 Memorial Days. Some I cannot remember at all. But each and every Memorial Day since it was first established in l868 has mourned all who were victims of war and honored those who served their country. It is frightfully important that we remember the grim reality of war. For if we forget the realities of sacrifice, horror and tragedy then we trivialize death and destruction. The soldiers who have fallen on the battlefields become for us nothing more than toy soldiers on mankind’s playroom floor.

You and I come to church this Seventh Sunday of Easter for many reasons: to worship, to give thanks, to utter prayers of petition and intercession. But most of us come to church because we feel we ought to come. We know deep down, whether by instinct, experience, or Christian formation, that the doctrines and creeds and the life of the Church speak of realities every bit as profound and overwhelming as the realities of loss and tragedy, which we honor on Memorial Day. We know that we trivialize the Gospel, the Church, and its doctrine at our peril. A bland faith of humanism and good intentions leaves us on a too human plain and does not speak to the realities of death, tragedy, and destruction. Despite its failures of past and present, the Church proclaims a Gospel and sets forth doctrines, which encompass realities that lift us above ourselves and offer hope and salvation.

On the one hand, the bugler’s “Taps” of Memorial Day call us to honor the dead who served their country and were sacrificed in war. They remind us of the reality of death, destruction, and the fragility of life. On the other hand, today’s Johannine passage gives us Jesus’ prayer for His disciples. Christ asks that His followers be protected. Jesus’ words foreshadow the coming of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s prayer challenges us to look beyond the battlefields, beyond the bugler on the hill, beyond political leaders and governments, even beyond Moses on Sinai, or the prophets upon the hilltops. You and I are called to look to a cross upon the hill of Golgotha where the Son of God is crucified. For in that death and resurrection we are offered entrance into the unfolding kingdom of God; you and I are offered forgiveness for our inhumanity to man; we are offered unconditional love; and you and I are offered eternal life. As we stand before Memorial Day, the Church does not confront us with bland platitudes, for we are not toy soldiers on a playing room floor. Rather, because you and I are precious in the eyes of God, the Church confronts us with meaningful and abiding truths that the grimness of sacrifice and death serve to underline. They are the truths of God’s abiding presence, forgiveness, steadfast love and the promise of eternal life. Amen.

–Fr. Gage