This invocation and closing blessing were delivered at a Memorial Day observance in Lake Bluff, IL on May 28, 2018. Because I was the only clergy involved in the ceremony, these remarks were designed to serve a broader audience than only Humanists.
Clergy are invited to these moments in order to make this a “holy” occasion. What does it mean to make something holy?
Something holy demands our full attention and our deepest emotions – sadness and longing, friendship and love, respect and gratitude. Memorial Day, dedicated to the memory of fallen soldiers, indeed demands our attention and respect, but can we, ourselves, truly make this moment “holy”?
Another memorial dedication took place after the Civil War battle of Gettysburg. There President Abraham Lincoln asked the same question – what makes something holy? Lincoln said that the words of the living are fitting and proper, but nothing he could say or do would make that space any holier than the deeds of the dead had already.
…in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
Memorial Day is made “holy” by the deeds of the fallen; we are merely witnesses to what is already worthy of our deepest emotions. I invite us all now to reflect on what is most important to each of us – our beliefs and our values, our commitments and our loyalty, our memories and our respect. If our words are limited, let our silence speak instead.
In the Biblical book of Proverbs, we read Zekher Tsadik Livrakha – the memory of the righteous is a blessing.
And so it is.
The Hebrew prophets lived in an era of violence: collectively they witnessed the destruction of one kingdom, and the exile of another. Yet when some of those prophets envisioned a future, they did not hope for victory. They hoped for an end to war itself. In the Hebrew language, the word Shalom means peace, and Shalom is also related to words for completion, perfection, wholeness. The prophet Micah predicted:
They will hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they train for war. Each of them will sit under his vine and under his fig tree, with one to make them afraid.
When Abraham Lincoln stood on the brink of victory at his second inauguration in March 1865, he was not triumphalist. He pointed out that “Both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other…The prayers of both could not be answered.”
Lincoln concluded with stirring words that send us forth today on a mission to fight, not for victory, but for peace. Lincoln said,
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
When we reflect on the memories of our fallen soldiers, let us remember the blessings of peace they fought for and died for, and let us bless each other with a sign of peace, let us bless each other with wishes of Shalom.