I was asked to participate in a Memorial Day observance in the city of Troy, Michigan. I was tasked with giving the closing words and benediction. I am committed to being a peacemaker and a bridge-builder. I believe there is a place for faith in the public square. I am also keenly aware that down through history there has often been an unfortunate alliance with the public square that gives up the prophetic role in exchange for civil honors. Finding an appropriate position in this setting isn't easy, but I believe that we must at times take the risk if we're to be partners in creating a just and peaceful world. So here are my words and my prayer.
We have gathered as members of the Troy community to remember those who died in service to country. We commend them for their courage in the face of great odds. As citizens of this nation we remember their sacrifices, and those of their families and friends, with deep gratitude.
This day of remembrance traces its history back to the end of the Civil War, when communities set aside a time to decorate the graves of loved ones who died in that terrible conflict that divided a nation, and saw thousands perish. It also helped end America’s greatest sin, the sin of slavery. While the last Monday of May has become a federal holiday, it would be appropriate to remember what was probably the first such day of remembrance.
Only a few years ago a scholar rediscovered what might be the first public demonstration of remembrance following the Civil War. On May 1, 1865, just weeks after the Civil War ended, several thousand African-American former slaves chose to honor those who had died in the war that led to their emancipation by creating a cemetery outside a Confederate prison near Charleston, South Carolina, where several hundred Union soldiers had been buried in unmarked graves. These former slaves created an enclosure for the cemetery and cleaned up the graves, so that their memories might be honored. That nearly forgotten event is the foundation for what we do today, as we honor those who have died in the years since the end of the Civil War.
As General Sherman remarked after the end of the Civil War, war is hell. When we gather to remember those who have died and those left behind, we put names and faces to these conflicts. One of the most moving experiences in my life was visiting the Vietnam War Memorial. Seeing the names inscribed on the black walls of the memorial serves to remind us of the human cost that is war.
Therefore, may we honor those who died in service to country, by committing ourselves to being peacemakers that their deaths might not be in vain. May we build bridges rather than walls, so that our children and children’s children will not face the prospect of having to grieve the loss of their loved ones.
Let us therefore offer up prayers of remembrance and of peace.
Holy One, we gather in your presence as a community, in solemn remembrance of those who have given their lives in service to country. We remember loved ones and those who may be strangers to us. Each of us in our own way reaches out in prayer and supplication, seeking your solace and consolation, so that we might be agents of compassion and grace to those who grieve.
God of grace and peace we give thanks for freedom and justice, for the opportunity to join together to build a better society for the generations still to come. We give thanks for those who whether by choice or not gave their lives for their neighbors. May the memory of their sacrifices live on in our hearts and minds.
We come in the spirit of peace, remembering that war has many casualties. There are those who have died in battle. There are those who are left behind, their lives forever changed by the loss of spouse, parent, child, friend and comrade. We remember those suffer as a result of war—injury, disability, mental distress. We pray too for those who are caught in the middle of conflict—for the homeless, the refugee, the hungry, those who mourn their dead.
Even as we pause to remember those who died or who have suffered, we pray for our leaders, of this country, and every country in the world, that they might be guided by such wisdom that peace might prevail. Amen