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"Saints and the New Birth of Freedom" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - November 4, 2018

posted Nov 12, 2018, 12:30 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

What lives do we honor?  And how do we honor them?  These questions underlie any celebration of All Saints’ Day.  But before looking at how we might answer these questions in the church, I want to think with you about whose lives we memorialize in our country.

Our public memorials say a lot about our values.  In the 1900’s and again during the Civil Rights Era, many communities put up memorials to the Confederacy as a clear celebration of white supremacy in the face of movements for racial equity.  For example, the University of North Carolina in 1913 dedicated “Silent Sam,” a statue of a Confederate soldier, to symbolize, as the organizer said, “The cause for which they fought is not lost, never can be, never will be lost while it is enshrined in the hearts of the people of the South, especially the hearts of the dear, loyal, patriotic women, who, like so many Vestal Virgins (God’s name be praised), keep the fires lighted upon the Altars.”

But hearts changed; and a jubilant crowd toppled Silent Sam this past August, in a scene that could have come from Eastern Europe or the Middle East; people freed from tyranny, the liberated pulling down a symbol of oppressive ideology.

The debate about old Confederate statues made me look in a new way at other memorials.  I grew up outside of Washington, D.C. Over the last several decades Washington saw numerous new memorials.  In the last few years work began on several - a memorial for Operation Desert Storm, a memorial for World War I, and a third for the Global War on Terror.  So many of us are familiar with visiting Washington to see the Vietnam Memorial or the World War II Memorial that we might miss the novelty of this war commemoration on the Mall.

Yet for the first 200 years of our democracy the Mall didn’t contain war memorials.  That changed with the Vietnam Memorial and then picked up speed in the decades since.  To me the oddity of this comes out in the Global War on Terror Memorial; we’re now memorializing wars that haven’t even ended.  And yet, somehow, we think it time to carve in marble, “mission accomplished.”

Elizabeth Meyer, vice chair of the committee which decides on new Washington landmarks, questioned the wisdom of these proliferating memorials, noting, “The Mall is a public space that symbolizes our collective national identity, and we’re more than wars. We’re more than commemorating the dead. ... What is the threshold when the Mall becomes essentially a cemetery?  A war memorial zone, with no space for anything else, for the way in which we gather together and construct our national identity through the kinds of things we do together on the Mall?”

I know other memorials have joined the Mall, most notably the Martin Luther King Memorial.  And yet I think her question remains. What we remember of the past changes our identity in the present; what does it mean to so empathetically emphasize war in our national identity?

What gets lost when we emphasize war comes into focus when we consider how differently we could tell our national story on the Mall.  For example, instead of war memorials we could have constructed memorials to efforts to expand voting rights and citizenship, creating a narrative across the expanse of the Mall that linked struggles for voting rights and equality, documenting in marble the effort to truly make America a nation of “We the People.”

But Meyer also asked another question: why put war memorials on the Mall instead of Arlington National Cemetery?  The cemetery sits on the former slave encampment that Robert E. Lee called his plantation home. During the Civil War, the Union seized the property and afterwards turned it into a cemetery for union soldiers.  To me, this makes Arlington a profoundly powerful memorial: land once worked by slaves turned into a burial ground for those who fought for freedom, the home of a traitor now the resting place of those loyal to American ideals.  And Arlington makes the costs of war clear. While many of the War Memorials on the Mall proclaim proudly that we won (Victory! Victory!), Arlington’s marching rows of white tombstones speak to the lives lost. And because internments still happen there, one walks the ground to the sound of gun salutes.  Too many war memorials look to glory; Arlington makes clear the cost.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier occupies the most poignant place in Arlington.  And from that point where we remember the unknown, one looks across the Potomac to Washington, D.C.; one’s eyes follow the hill down, across a bridge, to the Lincoln Memorial; standing at Arlington looking towards Lincoln, I hear his Gettysburg Address, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

To me this changes the ways in which we remember the fallen; it frames their loss of life in connection to the great purpose of our country: the struggle for a new birth of freedom.

But something else occurs to me as well.  In the past, people tended to raise monuments to a single person, a hero; someone like Erastus Wolcott, the Civil War surgeon whose statue stands in Lake Park.  Or we raised monuments to heroic moments, such as the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. But our recent memorials tend to enshrine lists of names, a mass of people.  The list seems to promise that everyone gets honored, but the cumulative effect feels to me like a loss of individuality; people merge into an anonymous mass.

I’m increasingly concerned about the turn in our country toward authoritarianism and what feels like fascism; what certainly is the deep revival of white supremacy as we saw in this last week of attempted bombings and shootings in Kentucky and Pittsburgh.

It seems to me that many authoritarian regimes celebrate an everyman - and, let's be honest, it usually is a man; the everyman stands in supposedly for all of us but in ways that strip away the unique identity.  This kind of everyman appears on our new memorials; like the everyman dough boy on the World War One Memorial, off to fight in Europe and returning from victory glorious.

The attempt to construct an everyman in our memorials doesn’t feel right.  We are not abstractions. An everyman is no man, and certainly no woman. It’s as if we’re trying to construct a crowd within which we can find our identity.  But I see danger down that road, a tribalism of falsely constructed fidelity that can’t include all of us who feel hyphenated between multiple identities.

To pull this all together: I’m concerned about the increasing focus on military conflict and victory in our public memorials, a loss of connection to the great project of giving birth to freedom, and an anonymizing trend that loses sense of the individual.

Our All Saints readings develop in us a different sensibility than our current trend in war memorials.  And to point that out I want to look more closely at our Psalm this morning.

The opening verses firmly root the divine into creation; “The earth is God’s and all that is in it.”  God doesn’t come as a power fighting, combating, conquesting. God roots in nature; “for God has founded [the world] on the seas and established it on the rivers.”  These verses harken back to the opening stories of Genesis, of God creating and forming and dwelling in the world; reminding us that the Holy practices creative goodness instead of violent coercion.

Next, the Psalm turns to the qualities of holiness; we read this Psalm on All Saints because it speaks to the characteristics of sainthood.  “Who shall stand in God’s holy place?” the Psalm asks; and we know the answer, “those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.”  The Psalm takes all 613 laws in the Old Testament and reduces them to the simplicity of “clean hands and pure hearts.” In case we don’t know what “clean hands and pure hearts” means, the Psalm then repeated those concepts in parallel phrases: clean hands - do not swear deceitfully; pure hearts - do not lift up souls to what is false.  This makes holiness something possible and ordinary; something we can do; not requiring extraordinary devotion or courage but an everyday attention to decency. But it also points out the great dangers we face; the idolatry and falsehood that can lead us astray. And what is white supremacy but a false idol before which too many lift up their souls?

In Christian spirituality we usually read the final verses as describing the resurrected Jesus, a victorious king returned.  And hearing the story that way transforms the martial imagery into something else. It sounds militaristic: “Who is the ruler of glory?  God, strong and mighty, God mighty in battle.” But imaging this as Jesus transforms it for me: Jesus as the one who suffers, as the one who confronted injustice, as the one who welcomed all and witnessed for equity.  And behind him come not battalions but a movement of all those with clean hands and pure hearts. Twice we heard, “Lift up your heads, O Gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the Ruler of Glory may come in.” The Psalm speaks of a city wall with an imposing gate; secure against any marauders, doors locked for fear of caravans.  But the Ruler of the Saints says, “open up.” Not just a small door to let one in; throw open the gates so all can come. Just as the line of sight from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to Lincoln’s Memorial makes clear the project of American struggle - birthing freedom - so too this Psalm connects the ordinary decency of the saints with Jesus’ grand project - open the gates, welcome all, make an inclusive city.

The Psalms point to a different way to remember than that of our culture at this point: to remember our rootedness in nature; to celebrate our ordinary saints; and to see ourselves as part of Jesus’ great movement to throw open the gates.  Later this morning we will remember friends in our congregation and people in our neighborhood whose memorial services our church celebrated this past year. Ordinary; but all saints in their own way; not perfect, but part of God’s great movement of love and joy.

Some you might know well; like Becky Adlam, who always found ways to connect people who wanted to volunteer to some of the deepest needs in our community.  As a leader in the nonprofit community, she worked to open doors for younger leaders who came up behind her. And long after she retired, continued to be someone who deeply connected with people.

Some we didn’t know nearly long enough; like Kristen Carter, who joined our congregation only a few years ago; yet even in that brief time, her great joy and reclaimed faith late in life shone bright even as cancer overwhelmed her body.

And others you probably didn’t know; like Robert Lee Collins, whose widow asked us to have his service because they voted here.  But in life we’d recognize him as a fellow traveler; because this man opened his home for foster children, investing in their lives in a way that changed their futures.

And this year we mourned the death of Dan Hackbarth, who’s gruff goodness made him a reliable friend.  Jody Holbrook - who could say “it gets better” because she faced down many challenges to come to a place of grace in her life and then found a way to so deeply love her grandchildren that each experienced that grace with her.  Leone Karow, who showed great dignity and love even as age and illness weakened her body, teaching that immobility can’t contain us. And Tom Pexton, who might have been best known for his puns here; but in his service as a pastor worked in the south to bridge racial divides and helped form an NAACP chapter in his Ozark town.

This year we also celebrated the life of Carolyn Zeidler - who amazed me with her ability to turn a city lot into the Garden of Eden; and yet even more, Carolyn created an abundance of friendships, including forming friendships across our racially divided city through a quilting group at Mt. Zion Baptist Church.

Ordinary saints whose lives left an extraordinary impact on us; each in their own way sharing joy and love.  Ordinary people whose lives pointed to the extraordinary work of God; each in their own way working for a new birth of freedom.  Alleluia and Amen.


  • Feasting on the Word (Commentary on Psalm 24)

  • Montgomery, David, “A wave of war memorials is coming to D.C. Are we all at peace with that?” Washington Post, July 31, 2018