SCRIPTURE: EXODUS 12:2-7, 12-14; HEBREWS 11:32-12:2


In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen!


          Memorial Day is the unofficial beginning of summer. In some places school is already out – and the rest of the places teachers wish it was. When I was growing up, we kids loved Memorial Day and hated Labor Day. It had nothing to do with the meaning of the holidays, and everything to do with the beginning and ending of summer vacation.

          Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day. The observance arose in both the North and South during the civil War. It was a day of remembering those who had died in military service by decorating their graves.

          Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868, by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, and was first observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. Today, we remember and honor both those who have given their lives and served, past and present.

          Remembering is a powerful act. There are over 2000 uses of the word “remember” in the Bible. Philosopher and novelist George Sanatyana wrote those often quoted words, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The remembering we do is to deepen our appreciation of those who have positively contributed to life, and to learn from the mistakes that have been committed. The usual pattern is an act takes place and then is later remembered for its good or ill.

However, in today’s Exodus account we have just the reverse. God speaks to Moses and Aaron and says here is the way I want you to remember what I am about to do. God says “You shall” do this. It is future oriented. The celebratory practice precedes the saving act.

          A certain kind of blood is prescribed, as well as a certain kind of food, and each family regardless of position in society is to have access to the slaughtered lamb and its saving effect. The people are to eat from the lamb, put the blood on their houses, eat unleavened bread, and be dressed ready for travel.

          The people have endured 400 years of slavery in Egypt and they are to remember in perpetuity, what God is going to do to free them. God says, “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.” What was it they were to remember? It is that they were once slaves, but by God’s grace have been freed. God has gifted them with freedom. That is what we also remember today, from our own history.

          One of the reasons the people were to remember the Passover was that as slaves by God they were not to use their freedom to enslave others. They were to remember the liberating acts of God and the sacrifices of their ancestors. However, some of those freed, on entering the Promised Land, soon became oppressors. For instance, those who went to the area around Jericho fought and defeated the people who already lived there. However, those who went to the area around Schechem settled and peacefully coexisted with those already in the land.

          “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.” As we remember today, we give thanks for the sacrifice of all those who have gone before us to win our freedom, but we also remember our call is to seek freedom for others as well. Seeking a just freedom for all is the linking flow from the blood of the chalice to the blood of the battlefield and the blood in our streets.

          The writer of the Hebrews builds on the Exodus passage. What the writer of Hebrews is trying to do for us is to help us remember, remember people significant in our faith. Also, the writer is saying those who have given their lives in faith did not count the cost before they ventured forth.

          Faith never tries to calculate the result before it decides to believe or not. Some of those who are mentioned lived lives of great faith that had profound influence on others, which changed systems. Others lived their lives, and gave their lives, and it seemed to be of no avail. The writer of Hebrews says that’s as it should be. We don’t do something in faith to get a result. We do something in faith because we trust in God, and God will see things through. God will work things out in God’s own good time.

          There is a turning point in the passage in Hebrews that is appropriate for all such passages throughout scripture. After going through that great litany of all those people, after going through the categories of faith successes and faith failure, at the beginning of chapter 12, the writer of Hebrews says, “Therefore, surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run the race that is before us.” The writer is calling us. The writer is calling us to look back, but then to move forward in the struggle of our faith, doing God’s work. As we have received life from others, then we are to give life.

          When Jesus was with his disciples at the Last Supper, he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” He was telling them to remember what he had done and what he was to do for them in the hope they would also give life to others. We remember always, so that we have strength for the future. We remember the heroes of our faith, we remember our Lord, so that we thereby have strength for faithful living on our own.

          Do you see the pattern? It is consistent throughout scripture. It is consistent in the experiences of our lives. We look back so we can go forward. We look back to gain strength from those who have given life, so that we can give life in our day and through our labors.

          In the Hall of Remembrance in Canberra, Australia, a part of that nation’s war memorial is an inscription over the entryway that is composed of four, one-syllable words: “They gave their lives.” It sums it up, doesn’t it? That’s what we remember today on this Memorial Sunday, those who have given their lives. Those who have given their lives that we might have a better life, a fuller life, a life that is more complete.

          When we gather this day we remember those who have served our country, and particularly those who have given their lives in service to our country. We don’t honor war, but we honor sacrifice on our behalf. Who knows where we would be today if it were not for those who have gone before us.

          One of the core values of our nation is freedom. I am very well are that freedom is not universally experienced in this land, that it is yet to be realized in all segments of our society. Yet it still remains one of our core values. It’s what people have died for. It’s what you and I are called to live for. We are to take the energy and inspiration and the enthusiasm from remembering to insure freedom for all persons. So on this day it is most appropriate that we look back. We also must look forward, because there is a call upon our lives to do so. That call is to use the gifts that we have received for the benefit of others.

          We heard the sounding of Taps earlier in the service, a tremendously moving, very simple melody. There are several stories about the origin of Taps, as is true of many pieces of music. One is called the “Romantic History of Taps.” It says that this piece arose during the American Civil War. There was a Captain in the union forces of the North by the name of Robert Ellicombe, or in some stories his name is Ellison. He was on the front. There was a cease-fire at evening between the Union Forces and the Confederate forces.

          He heard someone moaning in the no-mans-land in between. He decided not knowing who it was, or what side they were on, that he would go and try to rescue that person. He crawled out, found the person, and began to pull him back, slowly but surely, to his own lines. When Ellicombe pulled the person into the light of the camp, he had a horrible recognition. It was his own son that he had rescued. His son was wearing a Confederate uniform. His son was dead.

          Evidently what had happened was the boy had gone to the South to study music at some conservatory. Then the war broke out. He had enlisted in the Confederate forces without telling his father. The father, going through the pockets of his son’s jacket, found a little scrap of paper with some notes scribbled on it. They were the notes that we know as Taps today. The first playing, according to this story, was for that young man’s funeral.

          There is another story that is called “The Historical Account”, which somebody obviously determined was a little more authentic by the term they have put on it. The story says there was a Union forces General by the name of Daniel Butterfield, who did not like the traditional “lights out,” or “go to sleep” as the soldiers knew it. He and his brigade bugler, a man by the name of Oliver Wilcox Norton, composed a new piece, a piece that they thought was less formal for the last call of the day. That is what we know as Taps.

          It was first played in 1862, in Butterfield’s unit of Union troops. It soon spread throughout the Union Army, and part of the Confederate Army as well. It did not become an official call until after the war was over. According to this tradition the first funeral for which Taps was played was for a Union cannoneer who was killed in the line of service. The reason it was played at his funeral was the opposing troops were so close, his commander was afraid of firing the traditional three volleys at the end of a funeral for a military person might re-ignite fighting. Instead of three volleys, he had Taps played.

          I don’t know which is the true story. Both have meaning. I think the most meaning comes from the words that have been put to those few notes. Again, there is great disagreement. There are many verses attributed to this song. Hear what is commonly accepted as the first verse and the last.

                                 Day is done, gone the sun,

                                 From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky.

                                 All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.

                                 Thanks and praise for our days,

                                 Neath the sun, neath the stars, neath the sky.

                                 As we go, this we know, God is nigh.

          On this Memorial Day Sunday, what shall we remember? We shall remember that God was nigh to all those who have gone before us and given their lives for our sake. We shall remember that God is nigh for us as we give our lives in service to others. Thanks be to God. Amen.