Memorial Day homily

5/29/16 Epiphany, Norfolk

One of the pitfalls to staying at a place for many years – like I have at Epiphany – is that sometimes we repeat things in our homilies. If we move to a new parish every 4 or 5 years, there’s not as much chance of that happening. But next Sunday I’ll begin my 24th year with you, and even though I write a fresh homily for every Sunday I preach, I’m bound to repeat something. That’s when folks say, “He’s got 3 good sermons and he repeats them over and over.”

Two Sundays ago I talked about “Abba Father” being Aramaic for “Daddy.” Ruth Ann Campbell was with us. She was meeting with me after the service to go over material for her recently deceased husband’s memorial service at which I’m doing the homily. Ruth Ann was our organist here back in the 80s, when I was here the first time. And we also worked together at St. Aidan’s, in the late 70s. Ruth Ann said she enjoyed the homily. Then she added, “I remember that sermon from 42 years ago at St. Aidan’s.” My initial impulse was to get defensive and tell her that I had spent hours the day before, researching and writing that homily. But then I thought, “Well, if I said something like that 42 years ago, and she remembers it, maybe I did a good job.”

Since I have been preaching Memorial Day homilies for almost 50 years, I can almost promise you that I will repeat something this morning. If you remember it, I’ll feel like I did a good job.

As many of you know, I was born in Chicago at the Lying-In Hospital, which is still there, linked to the University of Chicago. The Lying-In Hospital was, and is, a welfare maternity hospital. I know nothing about my birth parents. I’m told that at 2 weeks old my adoptive mother rode the train from Cheyenne, Wyoming, adopted me, and took me to Cheyenne on the train. My adoptive father was a colonel in the Army-Air Force and stationed at Ft. Warren in Cheyenne. My first couple of years, we lived “on post”, on Officers’ Row, facing the parade field. Of course, since I was born in 1941, World War II was in full swing.

At some point, my father was reassigned to the European Front and my mother, and 3 sisters, and I moved “off post” into town. When I was 4, my father returned to Cheyenne. Soon after his return, he fell down the steps to our basement, hit his head on a brick chimney, and died. He survived the European Front, only to die at home. But my childhood, through the 3rd grade, was spent in Cheyenne, during wartime.

I have 3 fairly vivid memories – things that were etched into my mind.

First, was that we lived in fear of polio. Kids didn’t play with each other. We didn’t go to things like movies. Kids we were kept at home. Every morning when we got up, we had to bend our heads in a particular way as a test for polio.

The second thing I vividly remember was that we would somehow hear that a train was coming into town with bodies from the war. Everyone would get dressed in black and go to the train station to find out who had lost relatives. We had to walk to the train station because gas was rationed and we could not get tires for the car. So we walked a number of blocks toward the train station, being joined along the way by other families, until it was a large, somber, silent procession. I remember the emotional outbursts as names were called out from the door of the baggage car, for families to take their coffins.

My 3rd vivid memory was “Decoration Day”, now called “Memorial Day” – then on May 30th. No one went to work that day. We all dressed in our “Sunday best”, all went to church – to a packed house. Then we went to the cemeteries to “pay respects” to friends and family, and to put little flags on the graves of those who had died in military service. Then in groups, families would walk through the graveyard, reading off the markers, and sharing memories of the deceased. Then we went home to silence for the rest of the day.

About 10 years ago, I drove out to Cheyenne to confirm my childhood memories. My father is buried in a military section of the city cemetery. And I was really touched that a little American flag was on his grave. I guess the American Legion puts them there. I was surprised at how large that cemetery was, for a small town.

I tried to get “on post” to visit the graves of a sister and two nieces. Ft. Warren is now a high security base, and they wouldn’t let me on without a letter from a senator. But I could see our old house from the road that runs along the base, and I could see the cemetery. It is huge, stretching out across the prairie. These are the war heroes whose coffins came off those trains, and whose families claimed them.

I tell this story because each year there are fewer and fewer people alive with these memories. Garrison Keillor yesterday commented that it’s only in America that we would turn a somber day of remembrance into a holiday to open the summer cabin and launch the boat. Maybe it’s better that way. I would not want to still be observing the Decoration Days of the 1940s.

I picked a field of red poppies for our bulletin cover this morning. The red poppy theme actually comes from World War I. I recently saw an awesome documentary on the “Fields of Flanders.” Flanders is in Belgium, north of France. It has the largest military cemetery I have ever seen. Across an aisle of beautiful grass are buried thousands of soldiers of opposing armies. The armies face each other, and the graves fan out across the Fields of Flanders. Wild red poppies grow in the Fields of Flanders, and it’s from them that we get our “Remembrance Poppies” that have come down to us as symbols of fallen military.

A Canadian soldier named John McCrae wrote a poem known as “Flanders Fields.” I know you’ve heard it, but I want to close with it this morning, because to me, it speaks to our Memorial Day.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Amen.

Posted May 31, 2016 by Church of the Epiphany in Epiphany Moments

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