May 27, 2020
A blessed Wednesday to my faith family,
There are a number of images from this most recent Memorial Day weekend that are burned into my consciousness. They all relate to the meaning and purpose of one’s life, and of one’s death.
The first is the sight of EMT units, fire trucks, and half a dozen police vehicles blocking off our Street starting just four doors to the south of the parsonage. They had already rolled out the yellow “Police Line Do Not Cross” tape by the time I noticed something was going on and had made my way outside. The tape had been pulled all the way across the street, looped around a couple of trees on the other side and then back to the home where whatever it is that happened had taken place.
Neighbors gathered in little pods of two or three at the ends of their driveways and stood talking in hushed tones. Nobody knew what exactly had happened, but all supposed it to be something quite tragic. The next day, we received notification through our neighborhood watch group that confirmed folks’ worst fears. Just a few homes away, the day before our nation would remember those who gave their lives in service to this country, little August Hoeppner tragically lost his life. Today’s communication from our neighborhood watch group included the boy’s photograph. He couldn’t have been more than three or four years old. That image was more ore jarring than the first, confirming not only that there had been a tragic loss, but that it happened to one who was just a sweet child.
There’s another very different Memorial Day image that refuses to be expunged from my mind’s eye; video from a waterpark in Missouri showing a densely- packed pool seething with activity. There they were, a happy mass of pool partiers gathered in the midst of a pandemic, throwing caution (and reason) to the wind. They were intentionally engaging in activity that we who are well schooled in social distancing could net help but consider to be expressive of a cavalier indifference. They did not care about the potential for infection and loss for those they with whom they shared the pool, or those to whom they would return when they went home. There will be suffering as a result of their choices, and there will be needless death. They will have thrown away their lives and the lives of others. I see nothing honorable or redemptive about that.
The Third image was a brief Memorial Day video clip from Arlington National Cemetery. I have visited that cemetery several times and on each occasion have been taken by the seemingly endless rows of simple white arch-topped tombstones. The view is at once a testimony to the massive scale of the losses suffered and the sum total of the sacrifices made, and a reminder of the unthinkable pain borne by the families of each one of those whose names are etched upon those stones.
Of course the losses to which those tombstones testify, while tragic, speak not just to the underlying tragedy, but also to the pursuit of some larger purpose and some greater meaning in death. I was thinking of my dad (himself interred in a veteran’s cemetery in Iowa) and the tombstones that marked the fallen from his generation. Their lives were given in the midst of a war that they believed to be about the preservation of life and freedom. Their efforts and the offering of their lives were their response to the, right evils of Nazism -wing uber-nationalism and fascism; menaces that many believed their efforts to have vanquished forever. In view of the current global political landscape, we see that the flow of such bad fascist blood, though stanched for a time, still courses through the veins of some unscrupulous leaders, and frustrated followers. The battle was won… but the war continues.
Still, irrespective of whether the victory was enduring or final, there was something quite noble about those lives that were offered and those deaths suffered in the effort to confront the evils of the day. Though the battles of World War Two and the lives that were lost in the effort, were not spiritual battles per se, there is something that feels holy to me about any life that is given for the sake of the other or in the confrontation of evil. It is no mystery why that is so. Lives given in that manner reflect for me something of the life of the one whom I follow; the one who gave his life “in order that the whole world might be saved” and who counseled his followers, “The one who saves his life will lose it, and the one who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel will find it.”
There are many ways to live and many ways to die. Some deaths, like little August’s, are simply unbearably tragic. Others, like those that will surely take place some weeks from now as the result of foolish choices of pool partiers in Missouri, those will be deaths that are both tragic and unnecessary. Some deaths will reflect the pursuit of larger noble purposes and will proclaim a deep concern for others.
But there is one life and one death that we Christians know is not simply tragic, or unnecessary and wasteful, or even a death that only represents self-sacrifice for the common good of the sort that we contemplated on Memorial Day. That death went beyond self – sacrifice and concern for the common good, proving to be fully redemptive and life giving. There is an image associated with that life and death too. It has been seared into my heart and soul from the day of my baptism.
Jesus’ life was given in a way that was not just honorable or laudable, and not just to achieve some greater end. He gave his life in a way that brings life and redemption. His life, death and resurrection bring with them the power to restore, to rebuild, to generate new life. And unlike the victories we win on this earth that are destined to be partial and temporal, His victory is complete, and eternal.
We rejoice in the truth that by Jesus’ death and resurrection, all lives and all deaths have meaning. We rejoice in the truth that he came in order that we might have life and have it abundantly, and that the whole world might be saved. We give thanks for his gracious life-giving embrace by which he draws all people to himself – those whose deaths are tragic, those whose deaths are wasteful, and those whose lives are given in service to others.
In closing, I want to encourage you to offer your prayers for this world where lives are a gift of God, and death brings us all grief. Pray for the Hoeppner family and all who, like them, suffer losses that are unfathomably tragic. Pray for those who gather in crowded pools in Missouri and bars in Wisconsin and who foolishly put their lives and the lives of others in danger. Offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the many who have given their lives on behalf of others, sacrificing self-interest for the love of the larger good.
There are a number of images from this most recent Memorial Day weekend that are burned into my consciousness. They all relate to the meaning and purpose of one’s life, and of one’s death and all of them are quite powerful to be sure. There is, however, another image that eclipses all of them. I invite you to join me in remembering the image of the cross on Easter Sunday draped in white testifying at once to Jesus’ death and to his resurrection. Let that image sink in so that it proclaims from within you the redeeming love of the Lord and the victory by which all death and all grief are swallowed up forever.