I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on October 6, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the First Letter to Timothy and the Gospel of Luke.
I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, and thank you for having me back.
Now that the weather has finally turned cooler(-ish), it’s beginning to feel like October. The Halloween advertisements and displays begin to make some sense: the gently spooky ones that combine pumpkins, the changing color of leaves, ancient headstones, bed-sheet ghosts and big bags of chocolate candy.
But truth be told, the candy seems like an inadequate bribe for the ever-present truth that life ends. The pretty red and orange leaves will soon dry out and fall. We see the pumpkins in their patch because the green leaves that fed them have withered away. For new life to thrive, it means that old life has to give way.
And yet the dead are present with us.
Washington, more than most places, is stuffed with constructed memorials: Greek temples, pavilions, engraved stones, benches, ceremonial walls and pathways, grottoes, pillars and obelisks, statues and fountains. Not to mention lecture series, endowed faculty chairs, scholarship funds, arts centers, even commemorative walls and plaques. We are surrounded by remembrances of the dead.
There are also the burial places, both those as famous as Arlington National Cemetery, but also the private and religious cemeteries that ring this and most cities. Places where even the rock-ribbed cry.
And then, as in every town or city, there are the informal, spontaneous memorials — made up of candles and flowers, pictures and signs, made up of teddy bears and crosses and too many tears — those memorials that that pop up on street corners and plazas or on lonely stretches of highways when something terrible happens, like when someone dies violently or senselessly. The dead may be gone, but we put up a fight to keep them.
Some of the memorials were created after a life of service or a moment of heroism, and are the people’s thanksgiving. Others were secured by substantial philanthropic giving. Some are homemade, the loved-one known by relatively few in this life. And each is evidence of dedication and love, that the dead may have their “part and lot with all thy saints.” We even pray in this memorial church, one of many in D.C. in dedicated that way.
So, who really, is the Universalist National Memorial Church a memorial to? John Murray? The people mentioned on the fading “scrolls” in the lobby? Someone else? That answer is now out of the hands of its builders. Because before the stone constructions, before those flowers laid, before a child’s toy left with sobbing, before any visible reminder were words. Perhaps thought and not spoken, because voices crack under grief. But words that say I loved her, and she’s gone. I miss her. I will remember her.
So in this church and all temples, at heroic monuments and roadsides, the memorial begins with our words, and our words become our prayers.
Memorials aren’t necessarily religious, but the answer to the questions they raise are. And in a Christian setting, the answers to those questions relate to God’s relationship and promises to us. Why do we make memorials of word and stone? Will they touch the heart of God?
I didn’t pull this theme out of the air. The first Sunday in October is, or was, Universalist Memorial Sunday, “for commemorating those friends who, during the year, have been taken away by death.” Although I don’t know of any churches that still celebrate it. It was one of a number of observances commended by the Universalist denomination that became a part of today’s Unitarian Universalist Association.
It was originally combined with All Souls Day, on November 2 or the nearest Sunday. All Souls, however, is an ancient observance, and served a different purpose. Ecumenically, it is for those Christians not included the day before, on All Saints Day. In the Episcopal Church is is officially called the “Commemoration of All Faithful Departed”. But it could also be to remember all who lived. That second one is the Universalist take.
It’s hard not to see the bigness of All Souls Day if it includes everyone who has ever lived and arguably everyone who will yet live. Possibly angels, too, possibly pre-human ancestors, maybe beings on other worlds if they exist, perhaps all that lives. There’s a vastness and inclusion in this vision of God’s reconciliation of all souls. So great perhaps that our own personal need to remember those we love gets lost in its vastness. What about Grandma and Cousin Joe? So in the 1870s Universalist Memorial Sunday became a thing. The memories of the Civil War must have been fresh and raw; in any case, it must have been perfectly clear that life was fragile. Our religious ancestors needed to say so in their own words.
Speaking of the Civil War, of the monuments on the National Mall, I think the greatest among them is the one dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. Having been brought up mostly in the South, where Lincoln is not as revered as he is in other parts of the country, I nonetheless choke up a little when I see the words above the seated statue of Lincoln there:
“In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”
And his memory is a blessing.
When I think of Lincoln, Washington, D.C. and the Civil War, I also think of Walt Whitman. In part, because May 31 was the two hundredth anniversary of his birth. In part because I see his poetry every time I take the subway (more about that later). In part because a new commemorative stamp came out last month: a portrait of Whitman with a lilac bush and a hermit thrush, a reference to one of his more famous poems, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” That’s the one many of us read in school, about his grief and the nation’s grief over the death of Abraham Lincoln.
Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d womenstanding,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.
I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.
Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.
Whitman gave us a new, free way to feel and so to speak. He gave people words to grieve by. He came to Washington during the Civil War to look for his not-very-hurt brother: a soldier listed as a casualty at Fredricksburg. He stayed (ten years in all) to care for the broken and dying in the hospitals as something of a one-man volunteer morale officer.
Washington was swollen during the war. Universalist ministers started holding services here, perhaps in response to members relocated from the north, and Whitman attended services in that period. (A note. Ford’s Theater; the Lincoln death house; Whitman’s hospital, now the National Portrait Gallery; the Masonic Temple, the site of the Universalist services in D.C.; and Clara Barton’s missing soldiers bureau are within a short walk of each other, and all are still standing, if you wish to see for yourself.)
If you came today by subway, that inscription around the north entrance of the Dupont Circle Metro station is from the end of his poem, “The Wound-Dresser” and shows us what he saw and felt, but earlier he writes:
But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.
Let us thank and remember Walt Whitman, a poet for the living and the dying.
I’d like to talk about the two lessons today.
As those of you who’ve heard me preach before know, I use the Revised Common Lectionary, an ecumenical reading list for worship. It’s one of the few places Unitarian Universalist Christians have had an impact in the ecumenical church for decades. It keeps me from cherry-picking lessons, and in return there are a lot of resources out there, as so many churches use in world wide. Today’s lessons are from the Revised Common Lectionary, and I didn’t want to avoid the passage from the Gospel of Luke just because it was hard. The fact there’s no obvious tie to Universalist Memorial Sunday doesn’t help.
The thing that sticks out is the reference to slavery; that you wouldn’t thank a slave for doing their job. Formal legal slavery was the norm in the Roman Empire and would remain a formal part of human relations for centuries. There were slaves in these lands four hundred years ago, with first-hand survivors of American slavery surviving into the middle of the twentieth century. The echoes of the African slave trade continue to this day: people who too often have to be remembered en masse, for there was nobody to write their names, save the Almighty, who inscribes them in the book of life. The recognition and memorials to slaves owned and sold by Georgetown and George Washington Universities, though relatively few in number, multiply in the mind to how many millions of lives were disrupted and destroyed by the slave trade. Of the many losses, sufferings and indignities the enslaved faced, I’m thinking today (in connection with memorials) of the broken connection with home. To never know what happened to the kidnapped, and to those left behind. To have families broken as a commercial transaction: the grief without recourse and without resolution.
And that makes me think of migrant children separated from their parents today. Or of those kept in human trafficking: modern slavery. Will they ever be reunited with their families? Will that break be healed? It’s not history, it’s not even the past. Something could be done about it. It’s not really the point of the passage from Luke, but if it sensitizes us to what must be and what must not be, then it has given us a blessing.
The passage from the second letter to Timothy is closer to the theme. While internally attributed to St. Paul, the consensus is that it (with the first letter to Timothy and the letter to Titus) weren’t written by St. Paul but together make up a set of letters offering advice to the very early church. So, we heard:
I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
The rest of the passage is about remaining firm and strong in faith. This is the only place in the Bible we hear about Eunice and Lois, and given the context we might think that they were both dead, but remembered and respected. What’s true of Timothy is true of us; he could hold on their memory as encouragement. We also carry traces of the characters of those who influence and molded us. When we act out of those influences to do the good, we honor the memory of those who went before us. Which doesn’t mean necessarily mean those influences started good. Take pigheadedness, for instance. You can transform pigheadedness into perseverance to defend the what’s right. Or remembering someone who struggled and faltered with addictions. That might make us more compassionate toward someone who struggle, knowing that some challenges can’t be wished away, but are are extraordinarily difficult to overcome. My point is this: someone doesn’t have to be perfect to deserve our memory, and those who are the most imperfect need it the most. That includes ourselves. We can and should pray for one another. For in prayer we witness to one another before the living God.
What then, will touch the heart of God when we remember those who have lived before us, and especially those whom we love? Nothing we can add. We trust that God already leans towards us. Our memorials of stone and candle and prayer reach to the mystery of God call out, and say “hear us.” “Hear us, and make us whole again.” God waits to hear. We are bound together across life and death, by love, and by God “whose nature is Love” for whom time is no thing.
Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.
May God bless you all, this day and forever more.