Every year on Memorial Day, Millersport holds a parade with a color guard, American Legion members, the high school band, and a bunch of children on decorated bikes (they also hold a bike decorating contest). The parade goes from the elementary school down to the canal, makes a loop, and stops while the American Legion members shoot a volley over the canal. Then the parade resumes back up the street and turns back to the cemetery, where the band plays the National Anthem, one of the local pastors gives a speech, Taps is played, and the American Legion members fire another volley. This was my year to give the speech; below is the text of my speech.
In my upbringing, Memorial Day meant a few things. Primarily, it meant the running of the Indianapolis 500. It also meant picnics and firing up the grill, maybe for the first time of the year. For many, this is the weekend of big sales, and it’s the last gasp of Spring before Summer hits – school children are already thinking about summer break and Memorial Day always meant the end of school.
None of these things are bad. The Indy 500 is a great race. There are great sales this weekend. It’s always great to spend time with your family and friends and to get outside and enjoy a long weekend. And the end of a school year and the beginning of summer are all great things to celebrate.
But the difficulty is that when we take Memorial Day over for all of these purposes, then we dilute and forget the true reason for the observance. I’m convinced that much of our culture has a very short memory. We spend our school careers cramming as much last minute information into our brains, hoping we remember it the next day for the test, and then, once we’ve finished the test, we jettison it all. One question I asked all the time as a student, and never understood until college, was “How does this affect me?” I lived under the incorrect assumption that history was just a bunch of stories, some of which were inspirational and encouraging, others of which were embarrassing and discouraging, but really just a bunch of stories about dead people, and that those stories didn’t have any bearing on me.
How wrong I was.
Our history is vitally important for us to remember. In Reason and Common Sense, the first volume in his five-volume work, The Life of Reason, the philosopher George Santayana writes: Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve, and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
All we need to do is look in the mirror to understand that change is the only constant in the world. I cannot go back in time. I will never be the age I was yesterday. I cannot change what happened in the past. However, this does not mean I can just forget the past. Do we want to have to fight the same fights our forefathers fought, or do we want our children to have to fight those same battles?
Unfortunately our culture has a very short memory.
Today we remember those who have given their lives in service to our country in the United States Armed Forces. As we remember them, we celebrate the freedom they fought for, the freedom that we have to spend this weekend the way we want to, the freedom to gather together, and even the freedom to ignore the sacrifices made on our behalf. If we do not remember these things, we could easily end up giving away the freedom they fought for. We can too easily slip into the attitude of “let someone else do it” or “let someone else pay for it” forgetting that everyone gets to choose whether to be part of the solution or part of the problem. But we too easily forget.
Today as we reflect on the sacrifices made on our behalf, remember to remember. In the Bible, the word “remember” is found over 166 times. In Genesis, after the flood, God provides a rainbow so that Noah will always remember the covenant God made with him. In the book of Numbers, the people of God were required to have tassels on their garments, so every time they looked at the tassels, they would remember God’s commands. God commanded the Passover as a remembrance of His deliverance of His people out of Egypt. Samuel set up a stone, calling it Ebenezer, which means “stone of help” as a constant memorial of how God helped them.
On this Memorial Day, I ask you, what helps you remember? You might not know the stories of those who gave their lives in service to our country. Rediscover the lost art of reading. Go to the library and read about the heroes of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, World War I. Talk to a veteran and learn the stories of those who were there. Don’t ever think of those who gave their lives as a homogeneous group – every one of them has a name, a family, a history. Every soldier who died in service to our country left behind a legacy, the legacy of freedom we enjoy today. When we’re done here, take a moment and walk around this cemetery and notice the flags. Note the names you see, and recognize how many of those family names are still in town, how “those people” are really our people.
Which brings me to this: it can be easy to classify some people as heroes – after all, they lived heroic lives and died for what they believed in. They accomplished heroic actions and died to give us the freedom we enjoy. It can be easy to call someone a hero and to ignore the fact that when you ask a hero about his heroic measures, he will always tell you, “I was just doing my job. I just did what I was called to do.”
And when you realize that, you might just realize that every one of us is called to be a hero, too. The memories that I’m talking about today, the memories of these heroes who gave their all for us, they are only dead memories if they do not spur us all to action. To truly honor their memory, we must learn our place in the story.
Our memories require action. What are the requirements of your memories? As we reflect on the sacrifice made by our brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, neighbors, friends, and those who have gone before us, serving our country, even to death, a proper response is to serve your country as well. Some have served and continue to serve in the military. Others serve in their churches or in civic organizations. Here are some responses that we all need to take part in: Become an informed voter. Work to make your home and neighborhood a better place. Don’t just sit around and complain about how our society has gone downhill since you were young – do something about it! Don’t just complain about politicians and politics in general – work to affect them. Use the influence you have to make the world around you a better place.
Memorial Day is not about random cook-outs and sales. It is about the memory of those heroes who died bravely serving our country, and it is about our response to that memory. So as we go from this place, take a moment and contemplate how God would have you respond. Then don’t hesitate. Go and live out a fitting response. But know that doing nothing is no response at all.
Jesus told a story about a king who gave three of his servants money, telling them to put it to work. When he returned home, the king asked the servants what they’d done with the money. The first servant had doubled his money, so the king put him in charge of ten cities. The second servant had earned 50% more, and the king put him in charge of five cities. The last servant had hidden his money in a piece of cloth. He responded to the king: ‘I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’
“His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words… Why didn’t you at least put my money in a bank so I would earn interest?’ Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his money away from him and give it to the one who has ten.’
“Sir,” they said, ‘he already has ten!’
“He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away.’”
This parable is relevant to our situation today. We have all been given different amounts – but how we respond is what matters. The actions of the past demand a response today. What will yours be?