Most everybody remembers the story of the parting of the Red Sea. Moses led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. The Pharaoh’s Army was hot on their trail and the sea lay before them as an impassable barrier. But then Moses lifted up his staff and the power of God caused the waters to move aside so they could cross on dry ground. It’s a very dramatic story. If you’ve ever seen Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments, it’s probably etched in your memory. But, did you know that, at the end of their 40 years of wandering around in the wilderness, God also parted the waters of the Jordan River, so the Israelites could enter the land of Canaan “on dry ground.”
That’s the story behind this morning’s reading. Moses has died after passing on the mantle of his authority to Joshua. Joshua then leads the tribes of Israel into the promised land, following in a great procession behind the Ark of the Covenant. In the third chapter of the book of Joshua, it reads: “When those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap” and the people of Israel crossed through the Jordan river “on dry ground.”
Now, I don’t know how inclined you may or may not be to take this story literally, but there’s a wonderful symmetry here. The waters were parted for the Israelites to gain their freedom. Forty years later the waters were parted again so they could enter the promised land. The two partings of the waters are almost like bookends for their journey through the wilderness. And the message is clear. All obstacles were to be swept away by the power of God, so that the chosen people could enter the promised land as free people.
Isn’t it interesting though, that all these years later, while the parting of the Red Sea is a commonly told story, we almost never hear about the parting of the Jordan River. I find it interesting, especially because, the way the story has come down to us, it was clearly meant to be remembered. Before the crossing, twelve men were identified, each representing one the twelve tribes of Israel. They were told to each gather up a large stone from the Jordan’s dry riverbed when they crossed. The twelve stones were then arranged in a circle at Gilgal as a memorial to this crossing. “These stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever,” as it says in today’s reading. The crossing of the Jordan was never meant to be simply a dry and dusty historical detail. It was meant to be held in living memory, down through all the coming generations.
Memory is so important. When it works the way it’s supposed to, memory is that place where we hold on to all the most significant events of our lives, our own most cherished stories, all the information we need to navigate through our days. More than that, memory is where our sense of our own identity lives. When memory starts to fail us, we can sometimes lose track of who we are and how we fit into the world.
There’s a story I came across about Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his later years, he suffered from an increasingly untrustworthy memory. He called it his “naughty memory.” Sometimes, when he’d forget the name of some object or other, he’d work his way around the mental block by getting to it in a round-about way. If he couldn’t think of the word “plow,” for instance, he’d call it “the implement that cultivates the soil.” I’m not sure how he could remember the word “implement” when he couldn’t remember “plow,” but memory can be funny that way. Emerson’s worst problem though, was when he couldn’t remember the names of people he knew perfectly well. “At the funeral for his friend, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Emerson commented to another person, ‘That gentleman had a sweet, beautiful soul, but I have entirely forgotten his name.’” Of all the challenges of aging, not having a dependable memory may be the worst. (Emerson story from a sermon “Memorial Day: Hopeful Memory” by Craig M. Watts)
That’s why memory can’t be simply an individual thing. Our individual memories aren’t always trustworthy. When I’m out making pastoral calls, I often encourage people to tell their stories, write them down or record them somehow for the sake of their families and loved ones. Memories that are shared become part of the family, part of the community. That’s largely why we set up stones as memorials. Just like they did at Gilgal all those years ago, we set up stones as a way of marking some of the most important events of our lives. We take them out of the realm of personal memory, and make them part of the living memory of the whole community.
I had an experience along these lines back when I was serving my church in Maine. One weekend, our Midcoast Association was called together for a very special church service. After many years, the Union Church of Vinalhaven Island had decided to officially become a part of the United Church of Christ. People from all around Midcoast Maine took the ferry out from Rockland to participate in a service of welcoming. During the service, the oldest member of the congregation got up to read from their history. He said it used to be their church went along with whatever denomination their minister came from. Over the years they’d been Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, Presbyterian or what have you. But recently, they’d decided to make a permanent commitment to the UCC. He was very grateful that we had all come out to the island to welcome them into the family. It was a lovely event for all of us.
After the service, I was taking pictures outside the church. Across the street, I noticed a stone war memorial, which had been set up to honor all the war veterans that had come from Vinalhaven. The next Sunday was Memorial Day. I decided to include a comment in my sermon about the memorial on the island. When I got home, I looked online to see if I could come up with a picture or description of this memorial. I couldn’t find any, but what I did come up with was an interesting article from the Bangor Daily News written in March of 2014. Let me share it with you…
MAINE VETERANS TO VISIT NATIONAL WAR MEMORIALS
By Stephen Betts, BDN Staff
Posted March 19, 2014, at 2:09 p.m.
VINALHAVEN, Maine — Buddy Skoog said he is thrilled at the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., this weekend to see the National World War II Memorial for the first time. Skoog, a Navy veteran who served three years in the Pacific during World War II, is getting that opportunity, thanks to a new resident of the island who helped create a national organization that provides free flights to veterans to see the nation’s war memorials firsthand.
Earl Morse moved to Vinalhaven in December… [He] is retired from the Air Force and from the Veterans Administration. Nine years ago, he was working at a Veterans Administration clinic in Springfield, Ohio, where 300 patients were being served. Morse said he was talking with one of his patients, who commented that he had many friends whom he wished had been able to see the World War II memorial that opened shortly before Memorial Day in 2004.
Morse spoke with other patients who also expressed a desire to see the memorial. But as months went by, he realized because of their age and physical condition they were not going to see the memorial unless they received some assistance. Morse, a pilot, talked with the local aero club in Springfield and soon the club had recruited six pilots who agreed to fly and accompany — at no charge — 11 World War II veterans to Washington, D.C. The flights began … the word spread and now the organization, Honor Flight Network, operates in 43 states. Since its inception, the group has flown more than 117,000 veterans to Washington, D.C.
That article came out in 2014. Last May the Honor Flight Network celebrated their 14th Anniversary, by which time they had transported over 225,000 veterans to Washington. This being their 15th anniversary, I’m sure by now the number is quite a bit higher. This was a wonderful idea of a way to honor vets that started small and then, literally, took off in a big way.
I think it took off largely because people have a pretty fundamental need to honor and remember the key moments of their lives and the people who were part of those moments. This year, with the Covid-19 virus so dominating our lives, our Memorial Day celebrations aren’t going to be the same as they have become in recent years. Our backyard barbeques, beach trips and parades may still be happening for some people. But they aren’t going to be much like usual, as we all strive to keep our social distance.
Considering that our battle against this virus has been, in its own way, another kind of war, it’s not out of keeping with the spirit of Memorial Day that we hold in our thoughts and prayers, not only those who have died in more traditional wars, but those also who have been lost to this deadly disease, as well as all those who are on what we are rightly calling the “front lines” of this contagion.
In honoring all these people and remembering the sacrifices they have made for the sake of others, I find myself thinking about what honoring really is. We can certainly set up our circles of stones; our walls with names carved into them. We can and do light candles and pause in silence and prayer out of respect. We can create opportunities like Earl Morse did when he started the Honor Flight Network. And we can certainly march in parades, give speeches and set off fireworks to set the day aside as special. There are lots of things we can do when it comes to honoring our loved ones who have passed.
But, in addition to all these other things, perhaps the most important thing we can do is to live our lives well, in a spirit of gratitude and humility, remembering that the gifts of freedom, health and safety we enjoy, have in part been made possible by these sacrifices. The people we honor today, each in their own way, have done their part for the sake of all of us.
This idea of honoring someone by living well was captured beautifully in a poem by Connie F. Kiefer Byrd. It’s written from the standpoint of a personal loss, but I invite you to hear her words, remembering that the people we celebrate today were not merely members of some large and anonymous group: soldiers, sailors, doctors, and nurses. Each and every one of them was a personal loss for somebody, and we honor them best when we honor them personally.
The poem is called, “To Honor You.” Let me just close my sermon with these words…
To honor you…
I get up every day and take a breath.
And start another day without you in it.
To honor you…
I laugh and love with those who knew your smile
And the way your eyes twinkled with mischief and secret knowledge.
To honor you…
I take the time to appreciate everyone I love,
I know now there is no guarantee of days or hours spent in their presence.
To honor you…
I listen to music you would have liked,
And sing at the top of my lungs, with the windows rolled down
To honor you…
I take chances, say what I feel, hold nothing back,
Risk making a fool of myself, dance every dance.
You were my light, my heart, my gift of love, from the very highest source.
So, every day, I vow to make a difference, share a smile, live, laugh and love.
Now I live for us both, so all I do,
I do to honor you.