Love Wins: Memorial Day Meditation

9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything
that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.
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Years ago, I used to have this dream.  I was fighting in the jungles of Viet Nam.  I was frightened. I couldn’t see anything but trees and leaves and vines.  I could hear gunfire. The only thing I had to hide behind, in the middle of the jungle, was an ironing board.
I think that dream is pretty easy to interpret.  I didn’t get one of those infamous numbers in 1971 for one reason:  I was a woman.  Being  users of ironing boards, aprons, stoves and sewing machines, my gender was protected from the military draft.
I have always been thankful that I was never called into combat. It may seem like a trivial comment on a trivial dream. It’s not that women can’t serve in the military; my own mother is a veteran of World War II.  She served in the Navy and was stationed at Great Lakes. We are all proud of her and we will make sure Taps is played at her funeral.
I have read countless books about war; before we had kids, we belonged to the Military Book Club.  We took our kids on vacations to visit battlefields. I’m pretty sure we’ve watched every war movie ever made.
I don’t know that this says anything good about me.  It can mean that I have romanticized and glorified war through it’s depictions in fiction. It could mean that I see only the happy endings and don’t give much thought to the reality of war.
But that dream about hiding behind an ironing board in the jungles of Viet Nam haunts me.  It’s not that I never knew anyone who  served in or near combat.  Uncles, classmates, friends new and old come to mind.  I can think of friends and classmates and relatives who were made widows by war. I think of mothers whose sons and daughters come home from war as strangers.  I think of children who can’t understand how to get along with their fathers.
Every generation hopes for an end to war, but every generation also finds a reason to wage war.  Not all of us can go to war; not all of us have the skill or the courage or the passion to defend our country.
But we aren’t happy about it.  We feel guilty because we were allowed to sit comfortably at home while a chosen few put their lives on the line for us.  Or is it just me?
The thing is, we have to do something. We can’t ignore the lives that have been given, willingly, charitably, lovingly so that we can keep what we have.
Decoration Day gives us the opportunity to say thank you, to confess that we are grateful that someone else was willing to die so that we could continue to have picnics and vacations and family reunions.
That’s the irony of Memorial Day. Memorial Day has become the unofficial opening day of  summer. Memorial Day is used as a hook to get us to buy hot dogs, lawnmowers, boats, sunscreen, mattresses and t-shirts. Memorial Day puts us in the mood for road trips, camping, family picnics, and sunny days. Because Memorial Day falls at the same time as the end of the school year,  the party atmosphere starts with open house invitations from high school seniors and ends when the last piece of stale graduation cake is fed to the birds.
But in the middle of these festivities, many of us take the time to acknowledge who is really the sponsor of all these activities.  Every soldier who died as a result of service, every soldier who lived with  “soldier’s heart, ” “shell shock,”   “war neurosis,” or PTSD is a reminder to be grateful.
So, why am I reviewing this information in a sermon?  If this is a national, state holiday, why are we observing it in a church?
I, personally, am a stickler for separation between church and state. I like the Liturgical Calendar.  I like to celebrate obscure church holidays like Ascension Day, which was last Thursday. I don’t like to use my allotted time on Sunday to celebrate Hallmark Holidays or National Holidays.  But  I live in an age when, if it weren’t for the church, the national scene would be very different. I look as far back as Jesus Christ.  Many of his followers wanted him to follow the political, military  route and overthrow the Roman government.  Short run, that would have been a good idea for a few people. In the long run, it would have been just another in a series of conquer now, be conquered later, over and over.
I know plenty about war and nothing about war.  I have my own political opinions about war, which can be summed up in one sentence: war is stupid.  Everyone time I see live footage, every time I see news that shows mistreatment of our veterans, I ask myself why humans can’t find a better way to resolve conflicts.  I know the answer to that, of course.  We haven’t found a better way to protect ourselves, our way of life, our interests at home and abroad. So we are forced to sacrifice our sons and daughters, our grandchildren.
What does Scripture say about war?  Well, the Old Testament is full of war. Deuteronomy 20 gives advice on how to wage war; much of the advice is practical, including who should stay home, and to not cut down the fruit trees.  But there is also the part that makes me cringe a little:
Before you attack a town that is far from your land, offer peace to the people who live there. If they surrender and open their town gates, they will become your slaves. But if they reject your offer of peace and try to fight, surround their town and attack. Then, after the Lord helps you capture it, kill all the men. Take the women and children as slaves and keep the livestock and everything else of value.
Whenever you capture towns in the land the Lord your God is giving you, be sure to kill all the people and animals.

Well, I guess that’s good advice if you don’t want any interference from your new neighbors. And it sounds like the kind of warfare we hear about on the evening news, doesn’t it?  Rwanda, Bosnia, and Syria come to mind.
However, we Christians like to claim that Jesus taught us a new way to act toward one another.
12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Laying down one’s life for another. That’s why war works, isn’t it?  A soldier has to be willing to die.  Is that true?  I don’t know.  Is a soldier filled with so much trust, so much optimism, that death is not a possibility?  From anecdotal evidence, I know that soldiers have a relationship with each other, a dedication to each other that is unmatched in any other life situation.
Jesus was not talking about war, of course. He was talking about Himself as a sacrifice for our sins. But I’ve taken that verse out of context and put it into the context of soldiers laying down their lives for a cause, for a nation, for a passion. I think it is fitting.
God helps us survive war because God is always present in war. He is present with those who are in the line of fire, with those who are staffing the bases abroad and at home, with those who are waiting for a letter or an hour of Skyping or an email.
The book of Psalms is full of petitions asking for protection from the enemy.
Psalm 59 Save me, God! Protect me from enemy attacks! 2  Keep me safe from brutal people who want to kill me.
Psalm 124 The Lord was on our side! Let everyone in Israel say: 2 “The Lord was on our side! Otherwise, the enemy attack 3  would have killed us all, because it was furious.
This brings up another awkward point about God and war.  God is on everybody’s side.  Fr. Robert Miller wrote a book,  Both Prayed to the Same God: Religion and Faith in the American Civil War. How do we know whose side God will choose?  God doesn’t choose.
16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.
No matter where you lie in the spectrum of war, love wins, doesn’t it? Love for your fellow soldier, whether in a trench or a foxhole, in an armored vehicle or a helicopter. Love for your family, stationed near or far. Love for your country. Love for enemies as leaders seek peace.
Love for those who lie in graves that were filled too soon.

In the meantime, if we truly hate war, if we truly mourn those who sacrificed their lives in combat, then we will follow the commands that Jesus gave us.  We won’t change the national policies of a nation.  We won’t miraculously bring about world peace. But we will show others that a little peace, right now, right here, is possible if we love God and love our neighbor.

We Plow the Fields and Scatter….

13 That same day Jesus left the house and went out beside Lake Galilee, where he sat down to teach. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he had to sit in a boat, while the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he taught them many things by using stories. He said:
A farmer went out to scatter seed in a field.
4 While the farmer was scattering the seed, some of it fell along the road and was eaten by birds.
5 Other seeds fell on thin, rocky ground and quickly started growing because the soil wasn’t very deep. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched and dried up, because they did not have enough roots.
7 Some other seeds fell where thorn bushes grew up and choked the plants. 8 But a few seeds did fall on good ground where the plants produced a hundred or sixty or thirty times as much as was scattered.
9 If you have ears, pay attention!
10 Jesus’ disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you use nothing but stories when you speak to the people?”
11 Jesus answered:
I have explained the secrets about the kingdom of heaven to you, but not to others. 12 Everyone who has something will be given more. But people who don’t have anything will lose even what little they have. 13 I use stories when I speak to them because when they look, they cannot see, and when they listen, they cannot hear or understand.
16 But God has blessed you, because your eyes can see and your ears can hear! 17 Many prophets and good people were eager to see what you see and to hear what you hear. But I tell you that they did not see or hear.
18 Now listen to the meaning of the story about the farmer:
19 The seeds that fell along the road are the people who hear the message about the kingdom, but don’t understand it. Then the evil one comes and snatches the message from their hearts.
20 The seeds that fell on rocky ground are the people who gladly hear the message and accept it right away. 21 But they don’t have deep roots, and they don’t last very long. As soon as life gets hard or the message gets them in trouble, they give up.
22 The seeds that fell among the thorn bushes are also people who hear the message. But they start worrying about the needs of this life and are fooled by the desire to get rich. So the message gets choked out, and they never produce anything.
23 The seeds that fell on good ground are the people who hear and understand the message. They produce as much as a hundred or sixty or thirty times what was planted.
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Jesus was a teacher. He chose to teach rather than to be a priest or a merchant or a politician. Teaching helped him to achieve his mission on earth. What was Jesus’ mission? There are several good answers to that.  He gave us a means to eternal life.  He brought us hope. He revolutionized the way we live our daily lives.  He made forgiveness of sins available to us sinners. To summarize, Jesus rescued us from our own weakness, from our own sinfulness.  He taught us how to love God and how to love each other.
Teaching seemed to come naturally to him, but Jesus could have done anything well, since he was also God. We know that he was a good teacher because we have learned from the same lessons that he taught a couple thousand years ago.
Most often, Jesus used parables to teach his lessons. What is a parable?  A parable is a story that contains a hidden truth. Parables are like metaphors or allegories in that they begin as a story about something ordinary, something with which everyone is familiar.
Parables are useful teaching tools because they use familiar ideas to explain complicated ideas.
Parables give new meanings to familiar situations.
They are religious lessons but their content comes from the everyday world.
Parables can change assumptions about what we think we know.
In Jesus’ day, everyone knew about raising wheat and fruit, about sheep and shepherds, about housekeeping, about money, about eating and drinking.  So, Jesus’ parables began with something that everyone had heard of. Then he told the parable in such a way that the greater truth he wanted to tell became easy to understand.
The Bible—and our own conversations—are full of metaphors.
John 15:5
“ I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”  From this metaphor, we understand our dependency on Jesus and that our faith is a living thing.
Isaiah 64:8
“But now, O Lord, You are our Father, We are the clay, and You our potter; And all of us are the work of Your hand.” In this metaphor, we understand that we can be shaped by God, that we don’t have to invent ourselves; God helps us to be the people we want to be.
This telling of a parable, with its retelling, is a both a lesson and an explanation of a lesson.
Jesus tells the story of the sower, the farmer, who takes his bag of seed and goes out to his field.  In Jesus’ time, the field could be first plowed, then the seed scattered, or the seed could be scattered, then plowed in. This was the broadcast method of planting. Also, I learned that the seed could be scattered and then a flock of sheep would be run back and forth across the field to stamp the seed into the ground. Not too many years ago, most every farmer planted oats and alfalfa in a similar manner, disking the field, then scattering the oats over the field, then pulling a harrow over the oats to firm then in the ground.
When we study a parable, we try to find the meaning behind each element.  In this parable we have a farmer, some seed, and a field.
There are three enemies of the seed: the birds, the thin, rocky soil, and the weeds.
Who is the farmer? The farmer is God, who gives us knowledge, through Scripture, through teaching, through worship. The seed is what God wants us to know…how to love God, how to love our neighbor.  In this parable, Jesus gives us, via the disciples, an explanation of the elements.
18 Now listen to the meaning of the story about the farmer:
19 The seeds that fell along the road are the people who hear the message about the kingdom, but don’t understand it. Then the evil one comes and snatches the message from their hearts.
20 The seeds that fell on rocky ground are the people who gladly hear the message and accept it right away. 21 But they don’t have deep roots, and they don’t last very long. As soon as life gets hard or the message gets them in trouble, they give up.
22 The seeds that fell among the thorn bushes are also people who hear the message. But they start worrying about the needs of this life and are fooled by the desire to get rich. So the message gets choked out, and they never produce anything.
23 The seeds that fell on good ground are the people who hear and understand the message. They produce as much as a hundred or sixty or thirty times what was planted.
Even though farming has changed a lot in two thousand years, people have not.  Some people hear the word of God and don’t understand it, so they reject it and never flourish.
Some people start out great.  Have you ever known of people who joined a church or organization and were super active right away?  Then, something happened that offended them, and they quit coming.  Those are the people who weren’t open to other people’s ideas. They operated on their own energy and never connected with the community.
Other people come to church, looking for the same rewards that the world gives instead of the rewards that community in Christ gives.  They leave, disappointed and disillusioned.
And then, the good news: people, who stick with it, who have had the Word grow in their hearts, who sink in deep roots, who are nurtured by the good soil of the Word and the Sacraments.
It is possible to overthink a parable, to give every component a meaning that conforms with the lesson.  That’s why we study the parables, and all Scripture, together.  We serve as interpreters for each other as we bring our own understanding to the text.
You may have noticed that this parable says nothing about weather, about too much or too little rain, about hail or wind.  Nor do we hear about the correct amounts of fertilizer or about ground temperature.  A parable can only go so far before it becomes a parody.  Jesus knew how to tell a story.  He gave just enough detail to make his point.
Something else to notice about this parable is that it is not about working hard to bring in the harvest.  It is not about what we do but about what God does. God plants the seed—in our hearts. Understanding is not a human accomplishment, but a gift from God. The lesson here is understanding not what we do, but what God does.
This parable can be read as fatalistic and as empowering.  We can feel discouraged when we work as the planter of the seed and the seed doesn’t grow.  On the other hand, we know that when we plant seed, the growth is in God’s hands.  You may invite your neighbor one hundred times to worship with us and yet never see her.  But God is not slacking off. God is still watching out for that seed.
What can a mature Christian take away from this sermon?   And what questions must a mature Christian continue to ask, so that one’s own spiritual soil remains fertile?
Once again, we learn that a parable is not like a Rorschach test, that can mean anything, but we also learn that a parable can be interpreted to help us understand our faith.
Here are some ideas I have taken to heart from this parable:
1.    Trust
that the soil is receptive
that seed is good
that the rain will come
that the birds and squirrels will find food elsewhere
“One for blackbird, one for the crow,
One for the cutworm, and one to grow.”
that the seed comes true
that the thieves will stay away

2.    Expectation
for a fruit or grain or blossom
for more to be reaped than is sown—i.e., abundance
for the rights amounts of wind and rain and sun and insects
What is our expectation for our church? Is a successful crop the number of people sitting in the pews? Is it the bottom line of the checking account?  Is it the number of people served dessert? Is it the number of people who simply know that we are here when they need us?
3.    Provision
For gardening we need seed, shovels, rakes, planters, tractors, fingers, fertilizer.
For faith, we need Scripture, we need fellowship, we need sacraments, we need cookies, we need meetings, we need workers, we need concern.
What is your biggest concern?  The weeds?  The birds? The ground?
Know that if the seed is planted, if the conditions are right, the seed will grow.  May God use us to plant God’s seed in the hearts and souls of those who  are prepared to receive God’s love.  Amen.