The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

Memorial Day

Delivered 5/28/06
Text: Joshua 3:7-4:7
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

An old story. On this Memorial Day weekend, there is the one of a young preacher's daughter who was walking with her daddy in the Narthex of the church to which he had just been called. She noticed a bronze plaque on the wall and inquired of her father what it was. He explained that it was a memorial to the men who had served their country. "What are the years beside some of the names?" she asked.

"Those are the ones who died in the Service," replied the minister.

"Which one, Daddy, the first service or the second?"

Memorial Day. Some of us are old enough to remember when it was called Decoration Day, and, for that matter, when it was always celebrated on May 30. But, as someone in the paper pointed out yesterday, it seemed a shame to waste a perfectly good holiday on a Wednesday, so now it is the last Monday in May and the unofficial kick-off to summer.

The holiday had its origins in the south with the practice of putting flowers on the graves of Confederate soldiers. The rest of the nation picked up on the idea and, after World War I, it expanded to include those who died in any war or military action. Today, many Americans use Memorial Day weekend to also honor family members who have passed away, whether they were veterans or not. A National Moment of Remembrance officially takes place at 3 PM, eastern time, tomorrow but that is not widely noted.

Of course, many people observe the holiday by visiting cemeteries and memorials. The most attention will come to Arlington National cemetery where the President annually lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and makes a speech.

The most famous cemetery speech was delivered just a bit to our south and east, outside of Gettysburg. Abraham Lincoln. November 19, 1863. It was not a Memorial Day speech as such, rather, it was the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery that was being completed by the site of one of the bloodiest engagements fought in the Civil War.

The battle at Gettysburg was a watershed in the struggle. Southern forces under the command of General Robert E. Lee had been surprisingly successful in the campaigns up till this point, but the foolhardy charge into the Pennsylvania countryside was suicidal and, following the doomed assault, George Pickett, who had been asked by Lee to reassemble the force, replied that he had no force to reassemble. Nor did Lee's opposite number, Union General George Meade, leave Gettysburg with any glory. Though he had lost as many troops as Lee, he still had plenty left as well as enough food and ammunition to pursue an enemy that was out of both and running for its life. For a solid week, despite the urgings of President Lincoln, Meade let Lee's forces sit at the edge of the flooded Potomac before finally being able to make their escape over the river.(1)

Fifty thousand troops, total, were dead, wounded or missing after Gettysburg. Despite his failure to pursue the Confederates, Meade said he had no time to "pick up the debris of the battlefield." That meant that the carcasses of 5,000 horses and mules plus the barely covered bodies of 8,000 soldiers were left to decompose under the hot July sun. Something had to be done. Pennsylvania's governor, Andrew Curtin, appointed a local banker, 32-year-old David Wills, as his agent on the scene, and so was begun the work that culminated in the cemetery that Lincoln's words would make world-famous.

Truth be told, "the Gettysburg Address" was not delivered by Abraham Lincoln, but by Edward Everett, former Secretary of State, US Senator, US Representative, Governor of Massachusetts and president of Harvard University. At that time Everett was widely considered to be our nation's finest orator, and thus the invitation to make the address was extended to him. Almost as an afterthought, Wills and the event committee invited Lincoln to participate in the ceremony to simply make a few remarks for a ceremonial "ribbon cutting."

Dr. Everett spoke for two hours, the normal length for such an oration, and most eloquently, of course. Following a hymn that had been composed for the occasion, it was Lincoln's turn. No, despite the mythology, his remarks had not been put together while on the train up from Washington, and they were not simply scribbled on the back of an envelope. The speech was carefully crafted and well thought out, and when considered in the context of its day, utterly radical.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Amazing words. Ten sentences, 272 words. "Four score and seven years ago" was the year 1776 - the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence which that said "all men are created equal." There was no mention of the 1789 Constitution, which implicitly denied that by recognizing slavery in the notorious "three-fifths compromise." With these few words, Lincoln was rewriting the Constitution.

There is some question as to how the remarks were heard by those 15,000 or more who were gathered that day. We grew up learning that there was only stunned silence following the speech, but newspaper reports of the day say the address was interrupted by applause five different times and then sustained applause at the conclusion.(2) I wonder if they realized.

"The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." It is that sentiment that is being repeated over and over and over again this weekend as those who have given their lives in defense of our freedoms are being honored. What is it that makes this nation, or any nation, worth dying for? We need to stop and remember.

The ancients understood that. Our lesson from the book of Joshua is the story of a command to the nation to REMEMBER.

As you Bible scholars know, the book of Joshua tells of Israel's conquest of Canaan, which appears to climax the long opening story of the Bible. In Genesis, God promises to give the land of Canaan to the descendants of Abraham, the people of Israel. Four hundred years of slavery in Egypt intervened. Then came Moses and delivery from bondage, but Israel wandered about in the wilderness long enough for an entire generation to die out and a new generation to take their place. Near the end of the book of Numbers, with Moses still in command, the Israelites conquer the promised land east of the Jordan River and finally arrive at their new home. The book of Deuteronomy consists of a long speech by Moses to the nation, including the last major installment of the law Moses passes on to Israel. At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses dies.

The book of Joshua continues the story from this point. First God commissions Joshua. Then, in an orgy of terror, violence, and mayhem, God takes the land of Canaan west of the Jordan away from its inhabitants and gives it to Israel under Joshua's command. Joshua, with the help of the priest Eleazar, distributes the conquered land to the tribes of Israel. Having aged, like Moses he bids his people farewell, dies, and is buried. Thus the book of Joshua explains how under Joshua's command Canaan was conquered, the Canaanites were slaughtered, and their lands were expropriated and redistributed to the tribes of Israel. As one commentator has it, "It forms a triumphant finale to the Bible's foundational epic of liberation, the savage goal toward which God's creation of Israel and delivery of Israel from slavery in Egypt appears to point from the start."(3)

Meanwhile, this instruction to establish a memorial. "So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, "Go over before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, 'What do these stones mean?' tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever."

Remember WHO you are, WHOSE you are, WHERE you came from, and WHERE you are going. Good advice to Israel, and good advice to America as well. That was what Abraham Lincoln was doing with those words that changed the world in 1863.

In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and began his "I Have a Dream" speech, itself one of the most-recognized pieces of oratory in American history, with a reference to Lincoln and an allusion to his words: "Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation." But King and the hundreds of thousands who were gathered there knew that true freedom was still not a reality. But that memory led to hope. In words that have become as famous to a new generation of school children as the Gettysburg address was to us, he said "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood...I have a dream..."

Lincoln had a dream that many of us came to share. "It is...for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain..."

Some of that dream has become endangered in our day.
  • The dream of a nation of immigrants that "flings wide the golden door" and welcomes all who come in peace seeking a better life.
  • The dream of a nation that takes justice seriously and would never subvert due process of law, and most especially with those who are our enemies.
  • The dream of a nation that places the highest possible value on human rights and would never stoop to torture for any reason.
  • The dream of a nation where citizens are free from indiscriminate, unwarranted intrusion into daily life by their government.
  • The dream of a nation where everyone has basic health care, regardless of how much money they have.
  • The dream of a nation led by statesmen, not mere politicians.
  • The dream of a nation with a government of the people, by the people and for the people, not simply of, by, and for the wealthy.
  • The dream of a nation that is respected by the world, not for its great power, but for its greater goodness.

I have a dream today. It is rooted in memory, memory of another dream, a dream that "this nation, UNDER GOD, shall have a new birth of FREEDOM...and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Have a good Memorial Day.


1. Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, (New York : Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 19

2. ibid., p. 261

3. Robert B. Coote, "The Book of Joshua," New Interpreter's Bible: Electronic Edition, (Nashville : Abingdon, 2000)

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