Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day Sermon

In honor of Memorial Day I thought I'd post the sermon that I preached last year on the Sunday just prior to Memorial Day. It includes an amalgamation of some of the stories that my father used to tell me about his experience as a Naval sailor in World War II. For my siblings who may read this, your recollection of some of the details of these stories may differ from my own, probably due as much to my own faulty memory and the young age at which I heard most of these stories, as to the natural inclination for both story teller and listener to embellish and edit details over time.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet I was able to track down a rather detailed account of the wartime incident that my father spoke of the most: the bombing and sinking of his ship. For those who are interested, you can find that account here.

This is the ship that my father served on, the LST 313:

And this is his ship just after it was bombed by a German ME109 fighter plane on July 10, 1943, off the coast of Gela, Sicily.

On this Memorial Day my prayers go out to all of those who have lost their lives due to the horrors of war.

Sermon - "The Numbers Game" - May 28th 2006

I have a math problem for you to solve this morning.
When does 5 + 2 = 5,000?

What if I told you that Jesus was the one doing the math, does that make this problem easier to solve?

We're all familiar with the story of Jesus feeding the crowd of 5,000 - where he took 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish and managed to turn them into 5,000 meals.
(And this was before Hamburger Helper)
While the gospels tell us that all of the 5,000 in attendance that day accepted Jesus' meal and "all were satisfied," author and humor columnist Tim Bete thinks otherwise.
Bete speculates that in a crowd that size there must have been at least 1,000 children present when Jesus performed this miracle, and by his calculations "400 of those kids would have declared that they 'didn’t like fish', 350 would have complained that their 'bread was touching their fish' and therefore they couldn't eat it, 150 would have whined that the fish was 'inedible without tartar sauce', 75 would have asked for fish sticks instead of the whole fish, and finally, 25 would have dropped their fish on the ground and then cried because it was dirty even though they had no intention of eating it in the first place.
Because Jesus was in charge, two miracles occurred that day, first he multiplied the loaves and fish, and second, he got all the kids to eat it."

Jesus was not just a miracle worker; he was also a shrewd mathematician.
Not only did he feed 5,000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, he managed to parlay 12 apostles into a religion that reached millions.

Which brings us to the second math problem that we'll be solving today.
When does 2.1 billion + 1 = One?

2.1 billion is the number of people in the world today who identify as Christian.
When we add in Jesus, the one Christ that each Christian professes to follow, we should end up with a total of one -
one faith, one body, one church.
At least that's how Jesus the mathematician saw it.
Jesus had the ability to look to look at an infinite set of variables and see them all come together as one.
We are the variables, and the path that Jesus walked is the one on which we are all meant to converge. Jesus was a living example of how we were meant to live. His life, his teachings, were given to us as a gift. But unfortunately, like children who find reasons not to eat their fish, we find reasons not to accept what Jesus has offered us.

The scripture from the Gospel of John that we read today is Jesus' prayer for unity among all those who profess to follow in his footsteps.
Jesus said:
"Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one"

This scriptural passage has been the basis of many a sermon in Christian churches as of late, not just in our denomination, but in all denominations faced with division in their ranks.
Name any hot button issue and I'll guarantee you there's a church somewhere that is arguing about which side of the fence they should be on.
Abortion - Gay marriage - Gay clergy - Female clergy - Immigration - The War in Iraq - Political Activism - Family Values - Biblical interpretation.
It's liberal vs. conservative. Traditionalist vs. Modernist. Patriot vs. Pacifist…..Christian vs. Christian.

Tempers flair, voices are raised, tears are shed, and before long some members of the flock choose to leave the fold, joining those who stand with them, and leaving behind those who don't.
What was one church splits into two….and inevitably, lines continue to be drawn, and two splits into four, and four splits into eight, and so on and so on.

Jesus may have been a master of addition, but the church formed in his name has become a master of division.

"That they may all be one" happens to be the motto of our denomination, the United Church of Christ. This motto was chosen to be a symbol of the merger that occurred in 1957, when the Congregational Christians churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, two Christian denominations which had previously merged from four, came together as one to form the United Church of Christ. A denomination that now has 1.4 million members.

In the past 200 years there have been just 53 denominational mergers in the Christian community. Of those 53, the UCC merger is the only one that involved churches that were not from the same family, that is, churches that did not share the same lineage, and its corresponding beliefs and practices. Crossing family lines is very hard to do, it takes a concentrated effort on all parties involved, and it takes an extreme willingness and openness to compromise.
A merger such as this was unique for its time and it's even more unlikely to occur today.

In February of this year the world's population reached 6.5 billion.
With 2.1 billion adherents, Christianity claims 30% of that population.
And as our confirmation class learned a few weeks ago, if you polled those 2.1 billion people and asked them what it means to be a Christian, you'd probably get 2.1 billion different answers.
You need only look at the number of Christian denominations in the world to confirm this. A denomination, in the Christian sense of the word, is an identifiable religious body under a common name, structure, and/or doctrine.
When I asked the confirmands to guess how many Christian denominations there are in the world today, their average guess was 28.
Pastor C. threw out a guess of 500, which is close to what I would have said had I not looked up the answer on the internet before hand.

The actual number of Christian denominations in the world today is 37,000…and counting.
This includes all of the main denominations: Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Congregationalists, Baptists, etc; all of the denominational sub-groups (Southern Baptist, American Baptist, etc.), and all of the independent churches which claim no allegiance to any of the organized denominations.

There are 210 new Christian denominations formed every year, which averages out to five a week.
We are a long way from "they may all be one" - in fact we're moving in the opposite direction.

This is nothing new of course. Christianity started out as a faith of factions. In the second century, not long after the gospels were written, there were several groups that claimed to be the true followers of Christ, all of which differed in both belief and practice - there were Jewish-Christians, Gnostic Christians, Marcionite Christians, and a group that scholars call proto-orthodox Christians, which is the group that eventually won the battle of beliefs and became the predecessors of modern Christianity.

The establishment of the Nicene Creed in the 4th century was meant to settle once and for all what Christians did and did not believe, but as we know, the infighting did not stop there.
The Eastern Orthodox church, the Anglican Church, the Protestant Reformation were all products of schism within the Christian community.

The formation of our country, the United States of America, was responsible for the birth of a multitude of new denominations as colonists left their homelands behind and formed new faith communities. Many of the original 13 US colonies were established by and for specific Christian denominations. Massachusetts was founded by the Puritans, Pennsylvania by the Quakers, Maryland by the Catholics, and our own state of Connecticut was first settled by two puritans both of whom were exiled from Massachusetts for their dissenting religious beliefs - one thought religious practices in the colony were too strict, and the other thought they weren't strict enough!

In the 1800's, further branching of US denominations occurred during the Great Awakening as revivalists split from traditionalists, and just before the Civil War, when the issue of slavery split entire denominations into northern and southern divisions.

Given our history, we have to ask ourselves….Is it even possible for us all to be one?
If we can't imagine one united Christian church, then can we at least envision a day when we will all work together for a common cause? This is, after all, what we Christians claim to be doing.

We all believe in God, we've all been taught that Love of God and Love of Neighbor are the greatest commandments. We all believe in our heart of hearts that we are acting as God's agents in this world, doing God's will, receiving and giving God's love as God has commanded us to do. Yet we all seem to have different interpretations of what working for this common cause actually entails.
It turns out our common cause is not so common after all.
We all have different answers to the same question.

It all comes down to perspective.
As with many math problems, the answer we arrive at depends on our starting point.
In the Christian community, God is not a single point around which we all cluster, but a continuum, a line that stretches from left to right with the extreme visions on either end, and the rest of us scattered somewhere in between.

Our particular congregation has just over 200 members. And as our website proudly proclaims, we're not all alike, and we're fine with that. In fact we actually prefer it that way.
We have 200 different perspectives on this world yet we've collectively decided that we're enough alike to come together to worship, and to function as one body, both in our community and in the wider world.

For any group to have coherence there must be some stability in the ranks; in our case our differences are not so extreme that we can't find a way to work around them. Those who found they couldn't work around those differences are no longer here. They took a step either to the left or to the right to find a place on the continuum where they could worship in a group that shared their vision of God. This shift takes place every day, in every denomination.

On the micro, or congregational level, we Christians do function together as one, but on the macro, or denominational level, we do it in 37,000 different ways.
So how can we all call ourselves Christians?

The hymn that we sang at the start of today's service supplies one answer:
"They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love"

I remember singing this hymn in Catholic school when I was 7-years-old. It was one of my favorite hymns, mainly because its simplistic message of unity was one that resonated with my child-eyed view of the world:
"We are one in the spirit we are one in the Lord - we will walk with each other - we will walk hand and hand."
Love was all we needed to stand together.
When you're 7 you have no comprehension of just how big the world is, and you haven't yet learned to fear or segregate yourself from those who are different from you. At 7, we mix freely with our peers on the playground, not realizing that just a few years down the road we'll start separating out those who are not like us.

By the time we're 9-years-old we can point out those who are too fat or too skinny, too short or too tall, too smart or too slow, too loud or too quiet. It's about this time that those differences start to make us feel uncomfortable and we find ourselves avoiding those who embody them.

When we reach the age of 11 or 12 we begin to divide ourselves further - by popularity, social graces, athletic ability, and fashion sense. Now the kids we mixed freely with on the playground at 7 are no longer welcome at our lunch table because they're "weird" - they don't have enough friends, or they don't have the right friends, or they can't run fast or throw a ball, or they buy their clothes at Wal-Mart instead of Abercrombie and Fitch.

At 14, after we've become masters of segregation, we're thrown into the social melting pot known as high school. It's there that we encounter even bigger differences to separate us. There are the usual issues of dating, driving, drinking, and drugs - who does what and who doesn't.
And there are the wider issues that we may be encountering for the first time - racial differences, cultural differences, gender differences - All of which must be dealt with while the world is pressuring you to decide just who YOU are - where do you want to go to college, what do you want to study, just who are you going to be when you grow up?

The challenge set before us at any age, is to find a way to determine and express our identity, to say to the world "this is who I am" without feeling the need to reject, put down, or obliterate those who are not us.

As Christians, we strive to hold ourselves to higher standards, to fight against our human predilection to label and segregate others, to let love be the only qualifier for membership in this community. While our rational adult brains say this idealistic view of the world is unattainable, our dormant childhood brains say it is attainable.

When we're 7 we can sing "They will know we are Christians by our Love" and believe it.
I placed this hymn at the beginning of our service today because it represents an idealism that we all start off with as children, an idealism that we seem to let go of all too quickly.
As adults we may envision ourselves grabbing the hand of the person next to us as we charge ahead in our common cause, but eventually we realize that the person next to us is trying to march to a different beat - they may not have the same theology that we do, or they're living a lifestyle that we don't approve of, or they behave in a way that we would label as low class, or they belong to a political party that opposes everything that we stand for. We begin to feel uncomfortable, stressed, disgusted, or threatened,…and we find life is so much easier if we just let go of their hand.

We draw lines that separate our beliefs from their beliefs, yet we each envision our own line as the one that points directly towards God.

Drawing lines in the sand is something that we as human beings have done since we first arrived on this planet. This is what we do to identify ourselves as individuals.
I am me, you are not me.
Being born mathematicians we then begin to look for patterns. You're kind of like me so I'll stand with you, you're definitely not like me, and that scares me, so I'll stand against you. We sort ourselves into groups of "us" and "them", and then God forbid we decide that we both want the same thing, because more often than not, instead of sharing it, we'll fight over it. We'll even go to war for it.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, the day that we Americans have set aside to remember those who lost their lives in war. Ideally, it should be a day in which we honor all of those who lost their lives in war, regardless of the color of the flag that we place on their graves.
Memorial Day is not meant to be day where we debate the horrors or the merits of war.
It's not about vilifying war as a human atrocity or accepting war as a human necessity.

If we looked at the numbers we'd see that of the past 3,400 years, the entirety of humankind has been at peace for only 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history.
But arguing about whether one particular war was "just" or necessary while another is not, only serves to draw more lines in the sand.
Memorial Day is not about focusing on the lines that separate us; it's about focusing on the numbers that unite us.
Once again, we have to do the math.
We need to look at the number of lives lost…on both sides of the line.
Because when we add them together they equal one.
One great sacrifice…. for country, for ideology, for God….
One great loss for us all.

Lets look at a few of those numbers:

3,400 Americans killed in the current war in Iraq - total deaths among all combatants and civilians - 70,000. (updated figures as of May 28, 2007)
58,000 Americans killed in the Vietnam War- total deaths among all combatants and civilians - 5.1 million.
400,000 Americans killed during World War II - Total deaths among all combatants and civilians - 62 million.

Total lives lost in all wars in human history: estimates range from 250 million to 1 billion.

To honor the memory of those lost lives, I'd thought I'd share one of the stories that my father, a veteran of World War II, told me about his experience with war.
It's a story of a battle that began oddly enough with a line drawn in the sand.

My father served on a Naval Tank Landing Ship; these were the ships responsible for moving artillery, heavy equipment, and large groups of marines across the ocean, and then depositing them on the shore of some foreign land.
This particular story began with my father and several of his shipmates wandering around aimlessly on a Sicilian beachfront, just off the coast of Italy. It was July 1943, and my father's ship was in the process of unloading a group of Marines and their equipment on shore. As this wayward group of Navy sailors began to get underfoot a Marine commander ordered them off the beach, effectively drawing a line in the sand that they could not cross. My father and his buddies piled into an unattended Jeep and headed up the road to see what was on the other side of the dunes. Not five minutes later they were careening back onto the same beach they had just left.

At this point in the story my father would break into a broad smile as he imitated the now red-faced Marine Commander running toward their speeding jeep and yelling at the top of his lungs: “I thought I told you guys to get off this beach!” This was right before the commander stopped dead in his tracks as he noticed the convoy of German tanks coming up the road just behind my father’s jeep.

With no time to think my father and his shipmates made the decision to swim back to their ship which was anchored less than a mile off shore. Reaching the anchor ropes, they climbed up and landed soaking wet on the top deck. My father went below to change into a dry uniform and 10 minutes later arrived at his newly assigned gunnery post back up top…. just as a German bomb fell out of the sky and dropped right through the center of the ship. The force of the explosion blew my father overboard and into the water.
Acting on instinct he clawed his way back up the anchor rope and onto the deck of the now burning ship. As the heat from the deck burned through the soles of his shoes, the official call came out to abandon ship and my father found himself jumping back in the water he had already come out of twice before, this time with his uniform in shreds.

After treading water in rough seas for hours he was picked up by another ship, and was promptly sent back to the States to await a new assignment. Traveling home in a borrowed uniform that consisted of navy dress pants, an army infantry shirt and boots that were two sizes too big, my father made the long trip back to Long Island on a crowded and rickety troop train. Arriving in his home town he stumbled out of the station and unknowingly right into a neighboring barber shop where he collapsed with exhaustion into the first chair he saw.
The barber approached him and unwittingly placed a cape around his neck. Noticing the obvious if disheveled dress of a soldier the barber quickly broke into small talk as he began to cut my father’s hair.
“So, home for a visit are ya?” he said, “Did you see much action over there?”

I heard that story many times when I was young, as my father made every effort to share the humor of his World War II experience with his children. It wasn’t until we grew much older that we heard the version of this story that didn’t edit out the not-so-humorous parts. In this version my father had to dodge machine gun fire from German fighter planes as he swam to his ship offshore. He revealed that he was one of the lucky few on the top deck when the bomb split his ship in two, and out of the hundreds of men on board he was only one of 175 who survived. I learned that if he had been assigned to his usual post in the engine room he would have been lost as well.

I was in my 30’s before he divulged that there were Marines who were catapulted into the water with him after the blast. Marines who were each weighted down with 70 pounds of equipment and who were clawing in desperation at my father just to stay afloat. As he clung to the anchor line, the weight of the flailing Marines began to pull him under. In an effort to save his own life he had to use all his strength to push them away to what he knew was a certain death.

As I grew older the stories that I had heard so many times before as a child began to change in form and in tone. While watching a particularly graphic war movie on TV my father remarked how he had seen men suffer much worse fates. Even though I was not a child anymore I found I wasn’t quite ready to know that my father had actually seen men die within feet of where he was standing.

Of course my father was well into his 60’s when he told us these stories and as a child hearing them I always pictured him in the story as I knew him, as a fully grown man. It wasn’t until I was grown myself that I realized that he was only 20-years-old when these horrific things happened to him.

As a young man my father was a first-hand witness to suffering that I can not even comprehend. Suffering that he was powerless to prevent or alleviate in any way. Which is probably why he spent the rest of his life giving as much of himself as he could, to his wife, to his children, to his friends, and to the job he depended on to support his family.
It’s been five years since we lost him. His suffering is now over….The untold suffering that he experienced in his youth, and the lingering suffering that he experienced in his death.

At the tender age of 20, my father witnessed first-hand the results of drawing lines in the sand...and he spent the rest of his years on this earth doing what he could to erase those lines, by treating everyone he met with patience, understanding, and kindness.

There are 200 members in this church.
1.4 million members in this denomination.
37,000 denominations in the Christian community.
2.1 billion individual Christians, 6.5 billion people in the world.
And Christ calls us all to act as if we are one.
One body. One mind. One heart.

But the question remains - How do we even begin to do this?

It's so easy to throw up our hands and conclude that we as Christians are so far apart on some issues that there is no middle ground to be found. That we as nations are so far apart in our ideologies that there is no averting the inevitability of war. That we as human beings are so far apart in so many ways that it is impossible to eliminate the lines that we draw to separate us. But perhaps we've set the bar too high, and out of futility of never reaching the goal, we've given up altogether.

No one is saying that we have to compromise on every issue, that we have to eradicate war entirely, that we have to erase every line.
I believe even Jesus would admit that our inherent humanness keeps these lofty goals permanently out of our reach.
But what we do have is the ability to try.
We have the ability to pick our battles.
To use our wisdom, our reason, our divine intuition, and God's directive that we love one another, to determine when we need to offer resistance, when we need to give in, and when we need to compromise.

To ask ourselves what are the life or death issues that we absolutely must fight for and what are the issues that we only think we need to fight for, because of pride, fear, a lack of understanding, or an unwillingness to share.

We need to draw lines because it is impossible for us not too.
We're all so different. To function as individuals we can't help but note where we end and the other begins.
But what we need to focus on are the areas where we overlap.
Because we all overlap.
We all have commonalities that make us human.
We all have commonalities that point to one source.
A source that we Christians call God.
If we learn to focus on the commonalities, on the areas that overlap, even though collectively we stretch from end of the continuum to the other, we'll see that we're all linked together as one.

We can switch congregations, change denominations, change faiths, or drop out all together…We can draw lines in the sand, we can go to war over those lines, but we can't break the bond that we share as human beings, or the bond that we share with God.
And if we could stand back and see ourselves from God's perspective we would see that yes indeed, we may be one.


Mrs. M said...

Revmocat, if I didn't think you were great before, this sermon would have clinched it. Thanks so much for posting. That was a really effective, unusual way of getting the point across.

SassyFemme said...

Two things....

One, your father sounds like a man of amazing strength and courage.

Two, I would have loved to hear you give that sermon... beautiful!