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May 26th, 2019
United Church of Jaffrey
An Anxious Prayer
The local middle-school band wheezed and blurted out the final notes of Stars and Stripes Forever.
An old timer stepped up to the microphone. He was dressed in full regalia – clearly a poster boy for the local VFW.
“And now,” he announced “Pastor Mark uh… Pastor Mark will offer a prayer.”
I stepped up to the microphone.
“Let us pray…”
All the good people who had gathered at the flagpole on the town green, bowed their heads.
It the first time I was asked to give the prayer on Memorial Day.
It was, in fact, the first time I’d ever been asked to do anything in which I was publicly recognized to be playing the part of a Christian minister.
It was Memorial Day 2013, and I had just begun a summer position preaching at the United Church of Acworth, in Acworth New Hampshire.
As you know, I am, generally speaking, not terribly anxious when it comes to public speaking, but on that occasion, I was nervous and a little scared.
I was also going through some internal conflict.
Memorial Day is my perfect foil.
This particular civic observance brings into stark contrast the competing allegiances that matter most me, as a minister:
As a minister, my first concern must be the needs of the community. With young men and women actively serving in Afghanistan, I had to acknowledge that the Acworth community had a lot at stake in this observance. For them it was not just about being patriotic. It was about honoring the superhuman efforts and sacrifices that their children, their siblings, and spouses were making in the service of our country.
I felt, quite clearly, that it was important that I show the utmost respect.
And yet, as a minister, it also of utmost importance that I take seriously the convictions of my beliefs.
And there is something – something about Memorial Day that makes me very nervous.
After I graduated from Bates College, I returned to New York City and got a job working in the stacks of Butler Library at Columbia University.
It was not glamorous work, but I got a paycheck and, best of all I could take classes at the university for free.
This was good because, about the only thing I knew for certain at that time of my life, was that I wanted to write.
And the only way that I could figure out how to write… and keep writing, was to take writing classes.
I’m telling you all this because of something that happened to me in a creative non-fiction class that I took.
We were workshopping the work one of the other students in the class – a man about my same age. The writer recalled the moment, in his childhood when he first learned about the Holocaust. He told of running out into the cold snow, weeping.
I didn’t like it.
The prose was overblown. The language was self-indulgent, all the weeping and carrying on struck me as altogether too melodramatic for the circumstances being described.
Everyone else in the class was, to my surprise, tiptoeing around as if the piece was something incredibly profound.
After a while of this, I decided it was going to have to be up to me to set everyone straight, so I spoke up, leveling what I considered to be a thoughtful and well-articulated critique of the piece. When I was done, though, I discovered that everyone in the room was eyeing me scornfully. The writer was looking down.
Later, when class was over, I asked one of the other students what was up.
“You didn’t get it,” the other student said.
“What? What didn’t I get?”
My friend had to spell it out for me. The writer’s father was German, and his mother was Jewish.
I thought about it as I walked home.
It slowly dawned on me that, for the writer of that piece, the Holocaust was not what it was for me — a historical event that I learned about in history class or through a TV documentary.
It wasn’t something he could take or leave.
The Holocaust was part of the story of his family.
The Holocaust was a narrative written in the blood of his mother and father.
I was filled with shame for having raked him over the coals. And as I worked through the regret of my insensitivity, I also stumbled on a liminal realization of my own.
I passed through a threshold of understanding.
I understood that my fellow student was not over-reacting.
I understood that trauma can move from generation to generation.
And finally, I realized, with a shock, that I too was heir to a painful legacy.
Half German and half Jewish, my fellow student had to live with the shadow of Auschwitz.
Half Japanese and half American, I had to live with the shadow of Hiroshima.
Introduction and Farewell
Let us turn now to the two gospel lessons this morning – one from the beginning of the book of Mark, and one from the middle of John’s gospel.
When we place these passages next to each other, something interesting happens.
First the Mark.
This passage represents the first five verses of the first gospel – the first verse even identifies itself as the first verse:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The remaining verses in this passage, though, do not actually concern Jesus – they are about John the Baptist…
So this passage is a “before Jesus” passage.
Now let us remember that John the Baptist’s role, in this story is to prepare the way for Jesus.
It is a kind of “May I introduce you to Jesus” passage.
Now if I were to introduce you to Elvis Presley,
I wouldn’t say he was a great guitar player or Hollywood actor – though he did plenty of those things.
I would pick the most important thing about him.
I’d say he is a great singer.
The same principle applies here – John has to say one thing about the great thing that is about to take place.
And this is what he proclaims: he proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…
Jesus comes for the forgiveness of sins.
That’s his reason for coming.
Now the John:
If the passage from Mark was a “before Jesus” passage, then this passage has an “after Jesus” feel.
Though Jesus himself is talking – he is talking in the future tense. Jesus seems to be addressing some anxiety that is growing about how his followers will get along after Jesus is gone…
“Those who love me will keep my word, Jesus says, and my Father will love them.
Jesus seems to try to put our minds at ease:
the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
If an introduction calls for a person’s purpose, then a farewell calls for a reassurance of what was most important.
In this case, Jesus says:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you
Jesus comes into our world with the gift of forgiveness
And leaves behind the gift of peace.
On that Memorial Day, in Acworth, one of my great fears was that the old veteran who introduced me would recognize the origin of my last name.
If, for example, the old man had fought in the Pacific theater, he might have seen my last name, and known that I have Japanese heritage.
Was it OK for a man who comes from a Japanese family, to offer a prayer to honor those who died because of Japanese aggression?
When I stepped away from the microphone, that day, the old timer patted me on the shoulder and said:
He either hadn’t noticed anything about my name, or he didn’t care. Maybe he noticed, and forgave.
Memorial Day is about remembering.
I join in honoring the memory of our lost soldiers.
But I wish that Memorial Day was also a day of forgiveness – that we could come as Jesus came – with a purpose to forgive.
For if we came, starting a legacy of forgiveness, we might….
We just might…
Leave with Peace.