A Message for Memorial Day Sunday
Rev. Scott Summerville

What would it be like suddenly to lose your memory? It is a frightening thought, because it is hard to separate who we are from the memories that we have. In critical ways our memories makes us who we are. Many of us have gone through the experience with loved ones who have gradually lost their memory. When someone loses their memories, those around them have to support them and surround them with their memories.

Research on the human brain has advanced to the stage where scientists have been able to identify a specific spot in a specific cell in the brain that constitutes a specific memory. How the mind stores all these memories and integrates all these memories is still quite unknown.

The core of the Hebrew Bible is the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, sometimes referred to as the Books of the Law or the Books of Moses. The Torah tells of the creation of the cosmos and the beginnings of life. It tells of the origins of humanity, the origins of the Jewish people and their early history up until the time they entered the promised land, and it sets forth the laws by which the people Israel are to live.

If you could take those books of the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, those first five books of our Bible, and distill them into one word, I suggest that the one word would be, “Remember.”

Remember your Creator.

Remember your ancestors.

Remember where you have come from.

Remember that you were at one time slaves in Egypt and victims of oppression, so act with justice, and do not oppress one another.

Remember that you were once a wandering people who had no home, so welcome and honor the stranger and the homeless among you.

Remember that you were once hungry in the wilderness, so provide for the poor among you.

Remember to live by the teachings and commandments of God in all things.

It is customary in Jewish homes to have Mezuzahs at the entrances to the home. A mezuzah is a small box containing a paper on which several passages of Torah are written. This custom comes from the last book of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy, where the Lord instructs the people to remember the teachings and commandments given to them through Moses.

We read in Deuteronomy 11:

18] “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.
[19] And you shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.
[20] And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates,
[21] that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.

Remember, remember, remember! Ultra-Orthodox Jews not only have a mezuzah at every doorway; the males strap a small Torah scroll to their foreheads in literal obedience to Deuteronomy 11:18. Throughout the Hebrew Bible the word rings out over and over: remember.

Later in Jewish history, when the Jews were ripped out of their homeland and hauled off in captivity to a foreign land, in the city of Babylon, they vowed to remember Jerusalem.

(Psalm 137): If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!

For the Jews the most important thing always is: remember, remember, remember. In the church our most important sacrament, our most important ritual, is the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament of communion. At the heart of the Lord’s Supper is the act of remembering, breaking the bread, and sharing the cup, and hearing Jesus’ words, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

At the heart of the Sabbath both for Jews and for Christians is the act of remembering. Most of us rush through the events of the week; the Sabbath is a time when we pause; we stop from all that racing of our bodies and our minds, and we remember:

We remember that life is more than the hectic events of the moment.

We remember our Creator, the One from whom we have come and the One who is the ground of our being, the source of the love and the hope that sustains our lives.

On the Sabbath we remember that the most important things in life
are not necessarily the things we’ve been thinking about and worrying about.
On the Sabbath we invite the spirit of God to shift our focus back toward the things that really matter.

Remember, remember.
This is a very spiritual word: to remember. Our capacity to remember is the source of the deepest pleasures of life. We see a child, and we are reminded of our own childhood or our own children. We meet an old friend, and there is a shared awareness of all the memories that we hold in common. We sing a hymn in church, and it brings back memories of times gone by.

Then there are things we wish we did not remember: things in our own lives and things in human history. In Germany it is against the law to deny publicly that the Holocaust took place. In this country people have a constitutional right to say just about anything they want, but in Germany they have determined that remembering what was done to the Jews and others under Hitler is so important and so necessary to prevent anything like that from happening again, that they have made it illegal to attempt to stamp out this memory. It is a deeply painful thing for the people of Germany to remember the Holocaust, but they have resolved that this is something that they must never forget.

This Memorial Day brings for all of us painful memories. For some it brings memories so painful that most of us cannot begin to imagine: memories of actual killing and death. Memories of loved ones gone. There are monuments that mark the dead of war. On these monuments the names of the dead are chiseled sharply, precisely, in orderly rows. Military cemeteries are striking for their long precise rows of identical tombstones, chalky white in graceful lines against the green grass. These monuments and cemeteries present to our eyes the image of something orderly and complete. But in fact they represent chaos and catastrophe, tragedy and irreplaceable loss.

On this Memorial Day we have a sacred duty to remember and a painful duty to remember not only those who entered the misery of war long ago and whose names are chiseled on monuments, but to remember those who in this very moment are suffering wounds to the body, to the heart, and to the mind.

On this Memorial Day we have a sacred duty to see that those who were injured in war and are returning home mentally or physically broken have all the resources they and their families need to make a new beginning. The deficiencies in the medical and psychological resources offered to our veterans is scandalous. Can you imagine doing a tour of duty in Iraq and suffering posttraumatic stress syndrome and having to wait months and months for treatment? We may disagree deeply about the wisdom of the Iraq war and its continuance, but surely we can agree that those who served and suffered should have every opportunity to mend their bodies and souls.

The gift of memory is a wonderful and mysterious thing. We experience something, and later we can return to it in our imagination. How amazing.

Memory is at the heart of love and friendship, at the heart of worship and sacrament, at the heart of what it what it means to be a family or community or a nation. There are some people in this congregation who say to me every now and then, “I remember you and Mary Ellen every morning in my prayers.” It is a beautiful thing and a sacred thing to be remembered and to remember others.

So this day, in joyful remembrance of the gifts of God, the gift of human love and divine love, and the gift of Sabbath, and in painful remembrance of all who have suffered and are now suffering the violence and devastation of war, we give praise to God and offer our prayers for peace.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.