Memorial Day is a date on the civil calendar when the nation can (and should) honor the the men and women who died in battle on behalf of our nation. The weekend has come to signify things of far less significance: the opening of the public pool, the start of summer, the firing up of the backyard grill, and a day off. But all Americans…and particularly American Christians…should stop and think deeply about this weekend, include comments and prayers about it in our worship services, and pastor our nation as we remember those who died in battle.
Really? In honest conversation with younger leaders in the church, they often slightly roll their eyes at these suggestions. They want to steer clear of any and all vestiges of a “Civil Religion”. They say that America is a no longer a Christian Nation. There is no longer a link between the Bible and the Flag as there once had been. The church and its values are actually disdained by the state. “Cultural Christianity”, “Christendom” is over, or at least hobbled. Therefore the church has no state-duty to honor the state-sponsored soldiers who died in state-sponsored battles.
Okay. Christians ought to feel beleaguered by the actions and decision of the past 40 years. The culture has changed and, with the help of the education system, the media, the state has turned against traditional values: marriage, sexual morality, sanctity of life, sexual identity, etc. We see it clearly.
But I am not so quick to move away from the opportunity to reach the culture through its symbols and holidays. I think the church and its members have a chance to say something significantly Christian and deeply valuable to the nation on Memorial Weekend Sunday. In songs and prayers, sermons, announcements, and symbols, I think congregations should touch a few significant points this weekend.
- The obvious example is that of sacrifice. The soldiers who died in battle gave their lives, the paid the ultimate price for the cause of their nation. These examples of bravery and devotion should remind us all of the sacrifice, devotion, and courage of Jesus Christ to lay down His life for his friends.
- Whatever freedoms we have, we can and should be thankful for. In fact, the ability to stand against the state and denounce its decisions (of late) is a right that is actually conferred and protected by the state; bought and paid for those who served and died in battle.
- There are many people in our churches who have deep wounds from the personal losses of family and friends in recent wars. We should put aside our opinions about the justifications for a war and reach out to those who have been impacted by it. Prayers for the war dead and their surviving families can bring healing and peace to people.
- So many in our country have abandoned their faith in most American institutions: from the state to the church. But our confidence in our military of the country is high. Some of the finest believing men and women I know serve their country in the military or are veterans of its most recent wars. Why would the church ignore the opportunity to support and encourage these brothers and sisters in Christ?
For all these reasons and more, Christ Church always honors and remembers Memorial Day. Here are some things we have done and some that we will do this weekend in worship.
- We sing the Navy Hymn which asks God’s blessing on those who venture forth on air, land, sea, and space. It is beautiful and rich. We will also sing “A Mighty Fortress is our God” and “Nearer by God to Thee” and “Amazing Grace: My Chains are Gone”, and others.
- We will have a ‘word’ with the congregation at the time of the Eucharistic Prayer. We might say something like this: “Jesus died so that we may live. That is why we remember his act of love and courage for us at this Eucharistic service. The impulse to lay down a life for another is inherently Christian. And today so many here carry in their heart a sense of thanksgiving for those who have given their lives in the service of their country. We remember and honor the war dead today even as we remember the Lord’s Supper.” (This helps the immigrant population too, by the way. It doesn’t “wave the flag” at the altar…but it does honor the virtue and value of sacrificial love.)
- Our Collect of the Day for Memorial Sunday is changed to read this way: God of power and mercy, you destroy war and put down earthly pride. Banish violence from our midst and wipe away our tears. Keep in your mercy those men and women who have died in the cause of freedom and hold them in your kingdom of justice and peace. We ask this though Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (I adapted this from another other prayer.)
- During the Prayers of the People we pray this: We remember those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms which millions enjoy every day. For all who serve the cause of freedom and peace, please cover them and their families with your sheltering grace and presence. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
- The Lectionary reading of the Gospel is from Luke 7 this Sunday. It is the story of the Centurion who had such a deep faith that Jesus commended him for it. Imagine that. A man of the sword, a Roman Centurion, who served his pagan country and still honored God’s people (the Jews in Capernaum) and sought the ministry of Jesus! What a rich text to preach on this weekend.
These are obvious ways the church can observe this important weekend. Memorial Day Weekend can mean far more than the opening of a public pool. It is a civic holiday, of course. But we can highlight also that it is an intersection between a value of our Christian faith and its surrounding culture. We can minister to God’s people and yet we should always and ultimately point to the Cross of Christ.
Happy Memorial Day.