Thursday, June 11, 2009

That We All May Be One

The Gospel for the 7th Sunday of Easter is John 17:6-19.

“Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it commemorates U. S. men and women who died while in the military service. First enacted to honor Union soldiers of the American Civil War (it is celebrated near the day of reunification after the Civil War), it was expanded after World War I to include American casualties of any war or military action.”

Yes, this sermon is brought to you today by Wikipedia. That’s where I found this passage from General Orders No. 11, issued by the Grand Army of the Republic, the G.A.R., “a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army who had served in the American Civil War. The G.A.R. was among the first organized interest groups in American politics.”

Hear the Orders: “The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but Posts and comrades will, in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

“We are organized, Comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, 'of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers sailors and Marines, who united to suppress the late rebellion.’ What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead? We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.

“Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains, and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledge to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon the Nation's gratitude—the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.”

While 20th and 21st centuries have conditioned us to think of war as international, remember that all of this language from the founding of Memorial Day speaks of our own American internal regional war between the states, a war fought largely over competing economic interests.

Back to Wikipedia: “According to Professor David Blight of the Yale University History Department, the first memorial day was observed in 1865 by liberated slaves at the historic Washington Race Course (today the location of Hampton Park) in Charleston. The site was a former Confederate prison camp as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who died in captivity.”

(It was in South Carolina that the very first regiments of armed fugitive slaves were sent into battle. In essence, it was at that moment that the slaves were freed.)

“The freed slaves disinterred the dead Union soldiers from the mass grave to be inhumed properly reposed with individual graves, built a fence around the graveyard with an entry arch, declaring it a Union graveyard. A daring action for freed slaves to take in the South just shortly after the Union's victory. On May 30, 1868, the freed slaves returned to the graveyard with flowers they had picked from the countryside and decorated the individual gravesites, thereby creating the first Decoration Day. Thousands of freed blacks and Union soldiers paraded from the area, followed by much patriotic singing and a picnic.

“The official birthplace of Memorial Day is Waterloo, New York. The village was credited with being the place of origin because it observed the day on May 5, 1866, and each year thereafter.”

But I suggest we keep the birthplace of Memorial Day that Union graveyard carved by freed slaves out of a Confederate prison camp. I find that a powerful reminder of the foundation of our unity. I find in this founding story the mutual regard that developed, however imperfectly, between Northern soldiers who may have been almost as racist in their attitude as their Confederate enemies, but whose hearts were opened to discover a unity of purpose as armed slaves fought on the same field as their white allies, and fought famously and bravely on the riskiest fronts. Together, they paid the cost of a free and undivided republic.

It would take time—far too much time—for a reunited nation to determine that black ex-slaves were as human in their being as white people, that they deserved to be considered people. Even in the north, this would take years and decades. In the south, decades close to a century. In our nation as a whole, it would be said of World War II, ending 80 years after that first Memorial Day, that soldiers and sailors came home with new attitudes to race by having served in integrated companies and crews.

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” So Jesus prayed for his disciples, and so for us.

“In your name” appears to mean “in that same identity and character of God revealed in Jesus Christ.” Jesus’s revelation of God shaped the identity and the mission of the faith community of those first disciples, and in this prayer we hear the plea that God keep secure the community’s grounding in that same character of God.

No other than God who delights not in the might of an army, or in the miter of a prelate, but in the widow’s mite, the full self-offering that commits the whole of life into the hands of God.

No other than God who lifts up the lowly and is glorified by an unexpectedly pregnant Mary who trusts and gives birth to his Word, glorified by a woman of the street who anoints this Messiah, glorified by Magdalene, the first to witness his resurrection.

No other than God who empowers his people with courage to be peacemakers, courage to lay down their lives for their friends, courage to be so universal in their friendships as to treat every person as equally human and hence equally holy, without regard to how they are named, how their skin is colored or what their social status, sex, or ethnic claims may be, or how they believe and practice the life that is in God.

No other than God whose costly love for the poor and the rich frees them both for social responsibility by sanctifying them in truth, the truth that demands change of heart.

“Holy Father, secure them in your name, in your character, in your identity, in your nature that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” As Jesus prayed for his disciples, now he advocates for us in all our dimensions of human community: in our interior world of conflicting selves within the self, in our social world of marriages and families and friendships, in the political world of our nation within a struggling community of nations, and in our one world with its delicate threatened tissue of life that demands a finer stewardship.

His prayer, in which all our prayers are swept up, is that we may be one as he and his Father are one, and that we may be sanctified in truth that will make us free.