Texts: Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:10 & 22 - 22:5 John 14:23-29
Back when it all began, Memorial Day was not yet called Memorial Day. It was called Decoration Day. This holiday is generally thought to have begun on the first anniversary of the end of the Civil War, when people decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers, wreaths, and bows of bunting as an expression of anguish, grief, and loss.
That first deeply personal response to the carnage of war continued and two years later, in 1868, led to the first official Decoration Day gathering of veteran soldiers and sailors. They assembled that year at the National Cemetery in Arlington to honor the fallen fighters of both the North and the South. Flowers were laid on graves, hymns were sung, and prayers were said. In 1971 Memorial Day was finally set on the last Monday in May, a day to honor all people who have died in service to this country.
But there is more to the story…Decoration Day is also an even older tradition of Southern Protestant Christians who preferred a spring remembrance of the dead over the high Church celebration of All Saints Day in November. They placed their remembrance in late spring when nature proclaims resurrection. They tidied the graveyard, placed flowers on graves, and planted evergreen trees or flowering fruit trees as resurrection symbols. In fact, the graves of their kinfolk all faced east to meet the Lord in the future resurrection.
It’s interesting that the word decoration did not refer to the flowers and trees adorning the graveyards. Decoration Day was about dignity, personal reverence, and honorable intention.
In Southern Christianity the name conveyed how they conducted themselves on that day of remembrance. If this is surprising, think of the word decorum which is about an attitude and way of behaving that is above reproach.
In other words, the last thing on their minds would have been a day off work just for hanging out, grilling on the patio, sales at the local store, or outdoor events. What they did was gather at the graveyard for a day of beautification, eat a family picnic there, and tell stories about family members whose faith inspired them. They concluded with a memorial service at their local church. The pastor delivered a memorial sermon invoking resurrection stories of the bible and Christians whose faith boldly witnessed to the love of God.
And so, here we are. Decoration Day is now Memorial Day. Resting and recreating is good. A national day of remembrance is also good. That first official Decoration Day gathering in Arlington in 1868 mourned with equal measure the fallen of both sides of the conflict. It reminds us that honoring those who have lost their lives in service to our country does not require our mutual agreement on the causes, the necessity, or the outcome of our nation’s wars.
We bring to this day also our particularly Christian appreciation that, before remembrance was ever a patriotic virtue, it was a spiritual practice. Spiritually speaking, the purpose of remembrance was to change the future rather than to enshrine the past. We remember that Christ died, yes, and he was raised from the dead to show the way to new life.
In remembering Jesus we open ourselves up to his Spirit’s work in us. If we take this seriously, anything might happen! This is what we see the Christian community doing in the lessons today.
Paul’s vision of the man of Macedonia, for example, was a result of Paul’s commitment to remember and share the story of Jesus. It is a powerful story of crossing boundaries in response to a dream stirred up by the Spirit of Christ. Paul took his vision seriously and paid attention to it. In Philippi, he met Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth; someone from outside his usual circle. But Paul honored the message of his vision and shared the story of God’s love through Jesus.
Lydia was open to Paul’s story. Her offer of hospitality to Paul may seem appropriate enough to us. But in that time it was evidence of the Holy Spirit moving Lydia beyond her own circle and beyond social boundaries of the day. The love of Christ at work in Paul and in Lydia expanded them and enlarged God’s community of faith, establishing the Christian community in Philippi.
John’s revelation about the new Jerusalem is another great story of remembrance that enlarges life here and now. In the revelation, John moved across time bringing hope from the future into the present. He saw a comforting heavenly vision from God’s messenger, both for himself as an exile and his community of people suffering for their faith in Jesus.
John saw Jesus the Lamb at the center of God’s being. It’s not heaven, as is often thought, but a vision of God’s community on earth. It was Israel and Jerusalem as God meant them to be from the beginning. That is, a people and a place where there is only light and love.
John’s remark that, “…nothing unclean will enter it” does not mean keeping out nonbelievers or sinners. That would contradict Jesus’s own welcome to sinners and people who struggled to believe. Here “unclean” means any temptation that would cause God’s people to fail in keeping the covenant. The New Jerusalem is a place where people are supported in being faithful, rather than tempted to break faith. Here faithful people can live in safety.
Likewise, what John says about, “…anyone who practices abomination and falsehood…” is a specific reference to the Ten Commandments. That is, you shall have no other gods, you shall not lie or steal or cheat. Abomination refers to idol worship, not sexual practices. Idolatry was a constant threat to Israel’s spiritual health and obedience to God. Falsehood refers to all forms of lying and deceit, which absolutely cannot exist in God’s presence. Because, after all, God is Truth and Light. As you remember, Jesus said that everyone who sins does not tell the truth, prefers the cloak of darkness, and flees from the Light.
John’s revelation is a very misunderstood book of the bible. It means to unite people whose chosen identity is in God. That spirit-given identity is made visible in their decorum. God’s people live with reverent dignity, honor, kindness, mercy. And show others how to do the same.
The gospel of John brings the Word of Jesus to people who never met him face to face. But they still experienced the risen Christ alive and with them. John’s gospel says, only remember Jesus, and Jesus is here. We know Jesus in love, in keeping his word, in learning, remembering, in being at peace, in rejoicing and in believing. It’s a lot to remember, it’s true. Maybe you can take a little time this Memorial Day to practice. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.