Easter 2017 – 7th Sunday of Easter – Memorial Day Weekend
Generation to Generation Click here for audio
Psalm 71:1-6, 17-18; II Timothy 1:1-14
Pastor Donna Buell
This being Memorial Day weekend, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about cemeteries, and I have been remembering the cemeteries that I have known in my life. There is the cemetery right next to the junior high school I attended, which I could see out the window of my 6th grade classroom. There is the cemetery on the site of the first Shaker community in America which I rode past on the school bus each day on my way to and from 9th grade. There’s Coles Cemetery which sits on the hillside in Derry, Pennsylvania, where my parents and grandparents are all buried, and there is the cemetery next to the Woodbury United Methodist Church where many of Marty’s relatives are buried, including his father. There are the countless cemeteries I have simply driven past in my journey through life, including military cemeteries like Fort Snelling where all the markers are alike and are lined up as if in marching formation. And there’s the huge cemetery that lies right alongside the Bronx Queens Expressway that we pass on the way from LaGuardia Airport to my sister’s apartment in Brooklyn. I also found myself thinking of cemeteries we saw while we traveled in Ireland 17 years ago, many of which were built in and around the ruins of old churches and monastic communities.
As pastors we have the opportunity to be in more cemeteries than most people. During over 30 years of ministry we have officiated in the burial of many people in the cemeteries in and around the communities we have served.
From a distance, each cemetery has its own distinctive quality and character. And once I find my way into a cemetery it is the distinctive character of each stone that strikes me. They range from the simplest old rectangular marker to the most elaborate of modern memorials. And when I have taken the time to read the names and dates and to notice other details, I find myself doing a lot of reflecting about life and death.
I remember taking a walk in the Redwood Falls City Cemetery during the week before Memorial Day a number of years ago. There was only one other person in the cemetery that day. He was placing small American flags at the graves of those who had served in the military. As I wandered among the stones I came across a number of names that were familiar to me from the community and from our congregation. And I had memories of the individuals whose funerals Marty or I had a part in. I found I was even able to remember the bright warm sun or the frigid cold and snow, the driving rain or the gusting wind in which we had stood with family at the graveside to offer scripture and prayer at their burial.
As I walked among the gravestones that afternoon, I remember experiencing a powerful sense of reverence and calm, for to me cemeteries are not morbid places, they are sacred spaces. Each marker represents a person who had family and friends, and who experienced joys and celebrations, struggles and sorrows. And as I looked at those markers I was given hints about those lives. There were those who had lived long lives, spanning most of a century of years. There were those whose lives had been cut short in their prime. And then there were the simple markers of infants, some of which recorded only a single date.
Each cemetery marker holds the story of a unique person. And if you consider all of the lives touched by each of those persons, you realize that there are, in fact, many, many stories to be told. And so as I walked through the cemetery that day, I remember wondering about all of those stories of lives lived, of loves shared, of sorrows born, and of time spent, however brief, upon this good earth.
In this morning’s reading from Psalm 71, the Psalmist wrote as one who was elderly, looking back on a long life, and acknowledging the protective presence of God throughout the entire span of life. He wrote of God who brought him forth from his mother’s womb, who protected him in his youth, and who continued to be with him in his “old age and grey hair.”
With the benefit of years of lived experience, the Psalmist was able to recognize that God had been with him through it all: as a refuge and a fortress in times of trouble; as a rescuer in times of distress; as one who had done great things for him throughout his life; as one who had guided him, protected him, comforted him, and lifted him up out of the depths in times of struggle. And now the Psalmist was crying out again to God for help. And I find, in his words, an overwhelming sense of trust and dependence which had been forged over a lifetime of experience. There is a confidence in God here, which outweighs all the concerns and all the troubles, so that ultimately the Psalmist was moved a little later in the Psalm to write:
“I will praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, O my God.
I will sing praises to you with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel,
my lips will shout for joy when I sing praises to you,
my soul also, which you have rescued.”
As I reflected upon the confidence and trust expressed in this Psalm, it reminded me of my own reflections in that cemetery. I thought of all the people I have had the privilege of knowing, who learned to depend upon God’s faithfulness to them as they lived their lives, as they experienced the wonder of love, as they celebrated joys, and even as they suffered their own grief and loss and tragedy.
A number of years ago I remember reading a piece in the Sunday Star Tribune written by Calvin Roetzel, who at that time was a professor of religious studies at Macalester College. He was writing about the day his extended family spent in the long-neglected family cemetery on a farm in rural Arkansas. Professor Roetzel wrote these words:
“Almost in unison we attacked the wild forces violating this sacred place. Chain saws hummed; a lawn mower buzzed, brush was piled, briars were snipped, poison ivy cut and saplings pulverized by a bush hog. Broken markers were mended, lichen covered monuments were washed, and weeds hacked away. And when we tired a picnic lunch arrived, and there we all sat in the middle of the cemetery, eating our lunch and telling stories about the dead.”
In the article Roetzel went on to describe a number of those stories about the family’s ancestors who had immigrated to the United States from Germany over a century ago. He wrote of the hardships they had endured, as well as their many joys.
Once a county judge had offered prisoners to clean the cemetery and repair the broken markers, but a cousin had objected. Roetzel continued,
“At the end of the day we were glad. Had he not done so, Vinia Kohl, now in her 80’s, would not have spent this day cleaning the grave of her parents, working as she ate, and taking such pleasure in memory’s world that she left grudgingly at the end of the day. Had others done the cleaning, 12 year old Sarah would not have stood wide-eyed before the marker of her great-great-great-grandparents and her mother Linda would not have a cutting from a plant once tenderly set on her great-grandfather’s grave by her great-grandmother.”
Mr. Roetzel and his family discovered some powerful truths about cemeteries that day. They discovered that cemeteries “are great places to tell stories.” And he wrote that “As we told these stories the dead rose up like Lazarus to visit us, to remind us of things forgotten, to teach us new things, and to share their strength.”
As people of faith we believe that what made a person who they were, what gave them life and being, is not buried there in the cemetery, but lives on in God’s love and in our own memories. Yet even so, cemeteries are sacred spaces where we can go to connect ourselves in a special way to those who have gone before us, and where we can honor those whose lives on this earth have come to an end, but whose lives, in God’s love, will never end. Cemeteries are places where we are more consciously surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses which Paul describes as being like spectators in a stadium encouraging us as we continue in the race of faith. Cemeteries are places where we can be reminded of the stories of generations past – of lives lived, of loves shared, of brokenness and healing, of struggle and tragedy, of joy and celebration. As Mr. Roetzel wrote, “As we told these stories the dead rose up like Lazarus to visit us, to remind us of things forgotten, to teach us new things, and to share their strength.”
We can be reminded and taught and strengthened through the stories of those who have faithfully lived and died. But you know cemeteries don’t have to be the only places where such stories are told. And we don’t have to wait for someone to die before we come together to share those stories. A church member once remarked to me following the funeral of another member, that she hadn’t known all of the things I had shared in my sermon about the man who had died and she wished she had known them while he was still alive.
That’s why I think it is so important for us to share our stories with one another from generation to generation. For in the sharing of our stories, we share the things that have been most meaningful to us in our lives, we share the love and the concern we have felt. We share the things we have learned – sometimes the hard way. We share the values and beliefs that have guided us, and the faith and assurance that have sustained us. That’s what Paul was referring to in the opening words of his Second Letter to Timothy, for he could see, in the young Timothy, signs of the belief and character and faithfulness that were so much a part of the lives of his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. He saw a family resemblance – a faithfulness that had been passed from one generation to the next. And Paul urged Timothy to guard this treasure that had been entrusted to him.
In this mobile society, that kind of intergenerational contact is becoming increasingly challenging. But why does that sharing have to happen only within biological families? Why don’t we spend more time sharing those stories with the people in this room? with our church family? I’ve talked about the stories that cemeteries can tell. Just imagine all of the stories that exist right here, in this very room, and throughout this church building. We could tell one another the stories of our lives, we could share the stories of our loves and joys, of our sorrows and struggles, and in the sharing we could pass on our faith, and our resilience, and lend our strength to one another.
You see, I have found that the longer we live and the more of life we experience – the more perspective we gain, the more we are able to see that in all of life’s circumstances God has been an ever present source of help and comfort. And as we come to see that, as we come to feel it, as we come to know it deep within us, we find that we too are able to look back upon our lives like the Psalmist and sing praises to God, and to trust in God’s presence in the midst of all of life, even in the midst of the most painful times when that presence does not seem very near. And I think that by sharing our life stories with one another, we can help one another to gain that kind of perspective, or at the very least to trust that someday we will.
Our family has several collections of table graces which we have used at mealtimes through the years. One of those prayers goes like this: “God of pilgrims, give us always a table to stop at where we can tell our story and sing our song.”
On this Memorial Day weekend, I pray that those of you who will spend time in cemeteries might find them to be sacred places to remember loved ones, to share their stories, and to learn from those stories. And I pray that in the days and weeks and months and years to come, each of us, no matter how young or old, might find places where we can stop and tell our stories and sing our songs. And I pray that for us, as a church family, this would be one of those places; a place where we not only tell our own story, but hear the stories of others; a place where we not only sing the songs that are in our hearts but where we also join our voices in singing the songs that touch the hearts of those around us. And together, by the power of the Holy Spirit, I pray that we may be strengthened to live our lives in faithfulness to God, as disciples of Jesus Christ. May it be so. Amen.
To help us practice telling our stories to one another, I have placed two Table Talk questions on the tables in our Fellowship Hall this morning. And I invite you to spend some of your time at those tables and at home around your family tables, sharing around those two questions: “Tell about a cemetery you were reminded of during this morning’s sermon.” And, “Tell a story about a person you are remembering this Memorial Day weekend.” Just an invitation to share stories with one another.