May 27, 2001
Six years ago this Memorial Day weekend, Susan and I took a 10-day vacation to the wonderful state of Virginia. As part of that vacation we spent sometime in Richmond with friends and toured, among other sites, the battlefield at Petersburg located south of Richmond.
Petersburg was critical to the defense of Richmond, which for most of the Civil War was the capital of the confederacy. If the Union Army was able to penetrate and capture Petersburg, then Richmond was vulnerable. The Union Army finally captured Petersburg and, in the spring of 1865, the confederacy was in its death throes.
One of the famous landmarks of the Petersburg battlefield is the crater. Some enterprising Union soldiers and officers came up with the idea of digging a tunnel under the rebel lines, filling it with explosives and detonating it so that a huge gap could be opened up for the Union army.
Well, it was detonated but things did not go exactly as planned. There was confusion and the Union Army suffered casualties. It did not accomplished what had been hoped for. But, Petersburg’s doom was still not far away.
There is something else about that battlefield. There are these stone monuments all around the battlefield. They serve as a reminder, first to those who served and their families, and now to those of us, who were not there, of who was there and who gave their lives for the cause.
On this Memorial Day weekend, thousands, if not millions of American flags, dot the landscapes of cemeteries, large and small, both in this country as well as in other countries as we pay tribute to those who served our nation in times of peace as well as war. On this weekend, we remember and we give thanks to family and friends, living and dead, who served in defense of freedom and democracy.
Memorials are not an American invention however. For as long as humanity has existed, there have been memorials erected for various reasons. There have been these stone reminders, dug up by archeologists, which have helped us understand the history of ancient days.
The Bible contains numerous references to places of memory that become significant to our faith and which are so noted by the placement of simple stones. Some are significant because they represent a change in a person’s direction and we can personally identify with that change.
Other places are significant because they represent key points in the lives of groups of people such as families and nations. They point out moments that we still face in the 21st century regarding our values, choices, and commitments and whether or not we are going to stick by them.
Our main Bible text for this day is the record of such an event. It is Joshua 4:1-9.
“When all the people were safely across the river, the Lord said to Joshua, “Now choose twelve men, one from each tribe. Tell the men to take twelve stones from where the priests are standing in the middle of the Jordan and pile them up at the place where you camp tonight.
So Joshua called together the twelve men and told them, “Go into the middle of the Jordan, in front of the Ark of the Lord your God. Each of you must pick up one stone and carry it out on your shoulder-twelve stones in all, one for each of the twelve tribes. We will use these stones to build a memorial. In the future your children will ask you, “What do these stones mean to you?” Then you can tell them, “They remind us that the Jordan River stopped flowing when the Ark of the Lord’s covenant went across. These stones will stand as a permanent memorial among the people of Israel.
So the men did as Joshua told them. They took the twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan River, one for each tribe, just as the Lord had commanded Joshua. They carried them to the place where they camped for the night and constructed the memorial there.
Joshua also built another memorial of twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan, at the place where the priest who carried the Ark of the Covenant were standing. The memorial remains there to this day.”
Those stones were placed there to remind the people of God’s intervention in their lives to free them from their bondage and slavery and to fulfill His purpose that ultimately led to our freedom at Calvary.
Memorializing forces us to remember. It requires us to look back, for the right and sometimes hard reasons. God wanted the Israelites to remember why they where were in the Promise Land and who it was that brought them there. That is why he told Joshua to create the memorials.
The act of memorializing is a deeply spiritual act. It moves us to tears. It makes us look deeply inside ourselves and requires us to think about what we really believe and why. Memorializing gets us off the fence. It requires us to plant a flag, if you will and proclaim, “This is where I stand.”
But, not only does memorializing requires to get off the fence, it also requires us to become responsible for the history that we make by the lives we live and also by the history that we inherit – politically and spiritually. In doing so, we face the future because we are forced to stake an allegiance
That is why Joshua said to the twelve, “In the future your children will ask, “What do these stones mean to you?” For just as we must be asked the questions about our political history and heritage of which we are reminded on this holiday weekend, we will be also asked about our spiritual heritage as well.
Some of the those questions will be theologically direct and inquiring, “Daddy, where is heaven?” and some will be theologically indirect yet just as important, “Mom, why do I have such an early curfew?” Such questions will force us back to the memorials that we claim allegiance to. What are those memorials in your life? What are those stones that you return to in you mind and heart time and time again?
In Mark 16:4 we read of another stone that is symbolic of the freedom that is more profound and important than any other kind of freedom there is. But when they arrived, they looked up and saw that the stone – a very large one – had already been rolled aside.
Freedom is an inside job. The freedom that the Israelites experienced in Egypt did not start with the great acts of God. It started in the heart of God that was moved to action by cries of the Israelites for help and deliverance.
God was moved to liberate, to free, those that would He would covenant with so that ultimately the entire human race could experience the kind of freedom that politics cannot create, which nations cannot legislate, and that people cannot recreate in their own way.
That large stone stood there – a silent yet profound witness – as a symbol of a freedom that was also paid with by a life, but a life that could not be held down by death: a life that transcended death so that we might truly live.
I would suggest this day that the empty tomb represents an emptied, not empty heart and life. The stone represents the sin that blocks the heart and life from being liberated and freed from the darkness that it contains. God, through Christ, has rolled that stone away! Freedom is possible and we remember this day and give thanks.
This weekend is called Memorial Day weekend. It is a day of memorializing, of remembering. But, we cannot memorialize our political freedom or our spiritual freedom. We must act on them. We must stay current in them.
We memorialize and remember those both living and dead who have served us in our pursuit of being and staying free. But we must also work to keep our democratic dream alive. We cannot let cynicism and despair and mistrust keep us from moving forward.
The same holds true for us spiritually. While we remember and celebrate the past, we have a mission for the future because our children and our grandchildren will ask us, “What do these stones mean to you? What does all of this mean to you, dad? How does this faith work, grandma?”
A faith that is solely rooted in the past without moving toward the future goals of love, maturity, and service that have been set down by God, will have a difficult time answering that question. Our memorials must move us to fulfill our mission as followers of Jesus Christ just as they move us to continue the mission of freedom and democracy as Americans.
There is one other type of stone. One that brings to focus the reminders that this particular holiday weekend brings to our mind and which is thoughtfully and deeply spoken of in this poem:
(The poem entitled “The Dash” by Linda Ellis and is not reprinted here due to copy write laws.)
We are going to conclude this morning with some moments of silent reflection, followed by the playing of “Taps,” and finally a centuries old prayer that is appropriate for this holiday and this moment.
During our silent moments, I want us to do five things: 1. Give thanks to God for the political freedom and blessing we enjoy. 2. Give thanks to God for the freedom from our spiritual bondage and slavery made possible through the work of Jesus Christ. 3. Reflect on the question, “Would you smile at the things being said about how your spent your dash?” 4. Reflect on the question, “What do these stones mean to you?” 5. Do what you need to do to all God to bring new life into your mind, heart, and soul so that you are ready and able to face a new week and a new chapter in your life.