“Grilling with Jesus”

May 25, 2014


II Samuel 1:17-27

John 21:1-14


I spent my undergraduate years at Southern Illinois University—and somewhere along the line, I learned that the first official Memorial Day was held in Carbondale, IL in May of 1868. General John Logan, fondly remembered in song by those of us from the other side of the Mississippi, issued an official proclamation after soldiers were inspired when they saw a widow bringing flowers to decorate a Civil War grave at nearby Crab Orchard cemetery.

This regional history might explain in part why this weekend has long been a big deal in my extended family.

I’m not usually able to be there for the observances, but several years ago I was down in southern Illinois, visiting my family over the Memorial Day weekend. I was out in the garden, collecting flowers with my father, and he told me how it was done: “Nothing fancy. Just a few for each bunch. We just keep it simple here,” he said, talking about the way in which my extended family goes about marking this day.

They still call it “Decoration Day” in southern Illinois—a time to put flowers on graves, most of which haven’t been visited since the previous spring. No one in my family died in battle, so we remember those who simply died. The day does have a ritual quality to it: flowers are gathered in home gardens, placed in bunches, laid on graves in small cemeteries around the countryside.

It’s nothing fancy. But it is a way of remembering, of decorating. And somehow, in my family’s austere way, it is a celebration.

Stories are told.

The past is remembered.

And when the “decorating” is done, there is food. People turn from the past and once again look to the future, asking about plans, telling of upcoming events, sharing a meal. It becomes an affirmation that life continues with all its joy and sadness. It is an affirmation that we are alive even if we live in the midst of death.

Read through the various accounts of the resurrection and of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. You’ll be struck with the way in which eating is so much a part of these stories.

A couple of weeks ago we heard how the risen Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his companions in Emmaus. “Their eyes were opened,” Luke says, “and they recognized him.”

This morning we see Jesus on the beach, cooking on an open fire. He asks Peter to add some of the fish that he just caught to the fish already there. Then with words that seem so common, so everyday, he invites the disciples: “Come and have breakfast.”

Nothing fancy. He keeps it simple.

No case of mistaken identity here—“They knew it was the Lord.”  Neither angels, nor earthquakes, but only a seaside cookout confirms the presence of the risen Christ.

Resurrection brings sharing, between the risen Christ and the disciples. More than fish, life itself is being shared.

Something new is happening here. The disciples are being commissioned to continue the work of Christ, to preach the good news of God’s love and forgiveness, to announce to others the resurrection and life offered in Christ.

Those who follow the risen Christ will no longer live on their own. Christ will live in them. Soon Jesus will no longer be present on earth in a human body. Christ will only be present by living in and through those who follow in his way.

Which brings me back around to Memorial Day.

Four years after John Logan issued the first Memorial Proclamation, Julia Ward Howe, who had boldly proclaimed, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” sought to establish a Mother’s Day for Peace on June 2 of each year. She envisioned, not the marking of graves but the end of the wars that led to such graves, saying: “Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs….The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”

Howe’s vision was not realized.

And yet, the current United States law that makes Memorial Day a holiday actually frames it as a day on which the people of the United States are called upon to “unite in prayer for permanent peace.”[1] This statute gets at the real nature of Memorial Day. Like the season of Easter, this day calls us to turn away from our preoccupation with war and death toward the future of peace that God calls on us to make.

We are still in the season of Easter—these fifty days between the celebration of the resurrection and Pentecost, which we will observe two weeks from today on Sunday, June 8. We think of Easter as a day that comes and goes. But we find a source of both wisdom and strength in taking these days, these weeks to let the good news and the challenge of the resurrection sink into our hearts and our lives once more.

We are still in the season of Easter—and we are reminded of that each week as we begin our worship with the ancient Easter acclamation of “Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!” The reason for our being here today, the reason for our actions throughout the week is our faith in God’s love which is stronger than death.

In this season of Easter, as we look ahead to the fullness of summer, we pause this weekend for memorial observances—remembering especially men and women who have died in war, recalling their sacrifice. The fighting and dying in Iraq ended at the cost of nearly forty-five hundred US lives and the lives of countless others. The fighting and dying in Afghanistan continues even after more than twenty-three hundred deaths.

A poet tells of their fate—and ours:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

It is right that we, who grow older with the passing years, remember them.

With David we remember how the mighty have fallen. It is a sacred thing to remember fallen soldiers because in handling the memory of God-given lives, we participate with God in the healing of the world.

In some strange way, the memories give life.

To “re-member” is to bring back together that which has been dismembered—to put the pieces together again.

To “re-member” is also to re-unite one who has been separated—to bring them back into membership, into community. Remembrance is a form of resurrection.

It is a sacred thing to remember fallen soldiers—not because all soldiers are necessarily heroes, not because all who give their lives die for a good cause—but because in handling the memory of God-given lives, we participate with God in the healing of the world.

In remembering, we put broken pieces together once more.

So what's the purpose of this resurrection remembering? What happens when memory lets fallen soldiers live?

As one person put it: “Remembering the soldiers of any war—friends and enemies alike—calling out their names, singing their songs, or just thinking about the fact that they fought—does make it difficult to send people into battle again. The voices of the dead cry out to us for peace.”

We also remember the hope of which David sang: how the weapons of war perished. At the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial Wall back in 1982, one veteran carried a sign that read, “I am a Vietnam veteran. I like the memorial. And if it makes it difficult to send people into battle again ... I like it even more.”

Our Memorial Day falls within the season of Easter, the time when we remember that the Christian hope moves us from death to life, from war to peace, from hatred to love. The risen Christ meets us in our grief, in our anger but does not leave us there. Jesus calls his disciples to a way of love even when the world would hate us.

The memory of war dead leads to a deeper commitment to peace.

We may keep our observances simple; we may do nothing fancy this weekend. But this weekend and every day, let us pray for peace. This weekend, and every day, let us, as those who continue the work of Christ, live lives that bring the peace of the living Christ to our church, our community, our nation, and to our war weary world.

[1] Section 169g. Memorial Day as day of prayer for permanent peace--
"The President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe each May 30, Memorial Day, by praying, each in accordance with his religious faith, for permanent peace; designating a period during such day in which all the people of the United States may unite in prayer for a permanent peace; calling upon all the people of the United States to unite in prayer at such time; and calling upon the newspapers, radio stations, and all other mediums of information to join in observing such day and period of prayer."