Saturday, November 8, 2014

I Remember (Remembrance Sunday, Pentecost 22, 9 November 2014)

Pentecost 22 (RCL Proper 32A)
9 November 2014

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

         Recently I was at an appointment.  The person whom I was meeting noticed the poppy in the lapel of my jacket.  She commented that she had yet to get a poppy and must do so soon.  I told her that, for me, obtaining a poppy as soon as possible was an obligation.  ‘An obligation,’ she queried.  ‘An obligation,’ I replied.  I then told her about the men in my family:  my grandfather fought in World War 1, my three uncles in World War II, my father a non-combat veteran of the Korean War and two of my cousins veterans of the Falkland conflict in the South Atlantic.  Two of my uncles died years after the war, but, as I look back, I think that both suffered from what we now call ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’.
         I also told her briefly about my high school classmate who died in Vietnam.  As an Afro-American in the 1970’s, my classmate saw the military as a means to obtain a university education.  Sign up.  Do your time.  Use the ‘GI Bill’ to earn your degree.  Except my classmate’s life ended somewhere far from home in a war many of his fellow citizens would like to forget.
         So I wear a poppy.  I confess that I even keep a spare one or two between Novembers, just in case I cannot find a place to buy a poppy around All Saints, my traditional day to begin to wear the poppy.  I remember these eight men, seven of whom are now dead, to honour their sacrifices.  But more importantly I remember them in order to shape the future by working in the present.  As I have said on at least one occasion in this church, we constantly face the temptation to yield to nostalgia rather than remembrance.
         Nostalgia is the emotion that fuels romanticism.  All of us are prone to romanticism when we make an event or events in the past an ideal, even an idol, and we sometimes yearn to live in that past.  In its mildest form romanticism talks about ‘the good old days’ or ‘the way things used to be’.  In this form it can be pleasant, almost an entertaining departure from the challenges of day-to-day living. 
         But sometimes romanticism takes a darker form.  In this darker form a previous era becomes the norm against which we measure the present.  This darker form of romanticism gives rise to national chauvinism, religious fundamentalism, racial and cultural prejudice.  This dark form ‘borrows’ from the past; when we are in its tendrils, we tend to stop thinking for ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for the present.  Our lives become exercises in repetition and imitation rather than genuine human experience.
         One way of looking at the parable of the so-called ‘wise and foolish virgins’ is through the lens of ‘borrowing from the past’ instead of ‘faithful living in the present’.  The story is, of course, a parable about the life of the Christian community as we await the coming of Christ.  The ‘wise’ virgins use their gifts well and exercise good stewardship, knowing that being a Christian is an exercise in ‘long-haul’ discipleship.  On the other hand, the ‘foolish’ virgins do not use their gifts well and, when the bridegroom returns, want to ‘borrow’ from the gifts of their wiser companions but are refused.
         What the ‘foolish’ virgins want to do is ‘borrow’ from the experiences of their companions.  Rather than lead disciplined lives of faith, these Christians, for that is what the image means, want to rely on the faithfulness of others.  To their sorrow, they learn that this is not the way to live into the way of Christ nor the way to live as witnesses to the coming fullness of the reign of God.
         My friends, we cannot ‘borrow’ from the past.  We can remember the past.  Notice the verb, ‘re-member’.  We can take various pieces from that past, whether they be structures, attitudes, stories and insights, but it is our responsibility to integrate those pieces with our own structures, attitudes, stories and insights.  It is only be doing so that we can be truly faithful to those who sacrificed their lives, their homes, their futures over the centuries.  They made sacrifices so that we could face the challenges of our own times.
         Our ancestors in the faith, our ancestors in the many struggles for human freedom and dignity, our ancestors from whom we take our heritage, inspire us to act according to our own insights.  One of my personal heroes, Abraham Lincoln, wrote to the Congress in January of 1863:
The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present.  The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion.  As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.  We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history.  We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves.  No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us.  The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.

         We are called to be co-workers with God by responding to the challenges of the present moment and to envision a future that builds upon the gifts God has given our ancestors and to us.  We cannot escape history because it is in our history that God acts to achieve the divine purposes.  To achieve those purposes we remember our past, not to dwell there, not to borrow from its treasury of merits, but to remember the journey of faith on which we have embarked.
         So I wear the poppy to remember.  I remember, in particular, the men of my own family and my friend who served in various armed conflicts.  I remember Corporal Cirillo and Warrant Officer Vincent and all who have served this country.  I remember them so that I will not forget who I am and what I am called to do in the here and now so that, when the Bridegroom comes, I shall not be found with an empty lamp.  Amen.

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