Looking Back, Looking Forward

A Memorial Day Sermon
by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, May 25, 1997

Readings:

Isaiah 48:3-11 Former things and new things
Revelation 1:1-8 The Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last
Arcana Coelestia #2493 Concern for the past and the future

The former things I declared long ago; they went out from my mouth and I made them known. Then suddenly I did them and they came to pass. (Isaiah 48:3).

Memorial Day Weekend is upon us! Down on Cape Cod, where Patty and I are still living for another few weeks, hordes of weekenders have descended, and we have seen the first wave of summer people coming down to open up their places. Here in town, the Bridgewater State College graduation yesterday marked the end of the school year, the beginning of summer for the students. . . . and an opportunity for our church to make a few dollars by renting parking spaces in our newly finished parking lot. Everyone is gearing up for summer, for vacations, for summer jobs, and if nothing else, for warm weather.

But, of course, Memorial Day has another meaning besides the day that summer officially begins on our seasonal calendar of events. It is also a day set aside to honor those who have died in the service of their country. And so, another ritual that many people take part in during Memorial Day weekend is to visit the graves of family members who have passed on to the other world--who have, in popular terms, "died."

As we visit, either in body or in spirit, the graves of our loved ones who have passed on, our thoughts naturally turn to former times when those in the graves were still alive here on earth. We think of what they were like and how we got along with them. We relive old times and tell each other stories of the good times we had with them . . . and also of those memorable bad times we had with them. We laugh affectionately about some of their more curious habits, and cry over lost opportunities for closeness.

When I think of my grandparents, I often wish I had known them better. As I was growing up, they either died when I was too young to remember them or lived too far away for me to get to know them well. Only one of them, late in her life, lived nearby so that I could visit her and hear her stories. Another I knew mostly by letters. I often wonder what they were like in person, in their younger years. My ears perk up when I hear stories about them from people who knew them. These are stories that shaped my family, even though most of them happened before I was born. These are the "former things" that were declared long ago, but have now come to pass, and have passed into family history.

When we are younger, we are more likely to be looking to the future. There are times when we want to forget that we even have parents. Our parents seem old-fashioned to us--a thing of the past. But most of us, as we grow older, do look to the past of our family with a desire to know about the people that we came from. As we begin to walk some of the same steps of adult life that those before us walked, we wonder how others faced the same situations we are facing now.

We especially wonder how those whose blood runs in our veins faced these situations. When we look to our family's past, even if we are not aware of it, we are also looking within our own souls. Other people's families do not hold the same vital interest for us because we do not feel the same personal connection with other people's ancestors as we do with our own. We learn as we go along with life--and often it comes as a shock--that many of our own patterns of thinking and acting come from our parents and their parents and their parents before them. How many of us have sworn when young that we would never do such-and-such that our parents did, only to catch ourselves as adults doing the exact same thing, using the exact same words, and even the exact same tone of voice that our parents did?

Yes, many of the things in our lives today were declared long ago. They were declared by our parents, and before them by our grandparents, and so on. These former things seem to repeat themselves generation after generation. They become our family's calling cards and its character; they are "in our blood" in a way almost as literal as the passing on of our parents genes into our own genetic structure. They are the water that we swim in--water that, like a fish, we often do not notice because we are so used to it.

Sometimes when we do notice that our lives bear striking similarities to the lives of our parents and grandparents, it can be depressing. Oh, there are good things about our families--and it is good to celebrate the good in our families. But there are also those things we swore we'd never do when we grew up. There are those self-defeating and interpersonally damaging, even disastrous, habits that we picked up automatically--habits that keep us from living in the happy and fulfilling way that we would like to live. When we begin to feel that nothing at all has changed, that we have not made any progress at all beyond those who went before us, we may start feeling as if life is simply a treadmill where we do a lot of work without getting anywhere.

But even though the Lord "declared the former things long ago, . . . and suddenly did them and they came to pass" (to quote our reading from Isaiah); even though the Lord does know that we are obstinate and tend to continue making the same mistakes our parents made; that we continue to follow the idols and sacred cows of our family's history, when we are being called to follow the Lord instead; even though the Lord knows all these things about us, that is not where the Lord stops. The Lord continues on:

From this time forward I make you hear new things, hidden things that you have not known. They are created now, not long ago; before today you have never heard of them, so that you could not say, "I already know them." You have never heard, you have never known; from of old your ear has not been opened. (Isaiah 48:6-8)

If we are not content to stop where our parents stopped, then the Lord is not content with that either. Our parents themselves, if they were good parents, have cherished the hope that we, their children, would go beyond what they were able to accomplish; that we would understand deeper things, do greater things, and especially, if they were concerned for our spirits as well as our bodies, that we would develop more and greater abilities to love and serve each other.

These are the new things that the Lord is declaring to us now, if we have ears to hear them. There is no need for us to pine for the times of old, however much we may wish to remember old times with affection. The Lord is telling us that the best times are not behind, but ahead of us! The Lord is declaring that we have new ground to break, and new progress to make beyond what our parents and grandparents could have imagined. We are facing issues, both personally and as a society, that our grandparents would not have been prepared for. The Lord has allowed us to see deeper and more difficult issues--issues that are new in our day and age. If we are to face these issues successfully, we cannot simply repeat what those before us have done. Instead, the Lord calls us to break new ground.

I am convinced that one of those issues is the result of the battles that our parents (and some of us) fought--the battles that those we remember on Memorial Day died fighting. Many of our wars were against the tyranny of oppressive governments, whether our own or the oppressive and conquering governments of another country. For several generations--even several centuries--we have fought as a human race to free ourselves from the cruelty of oppression.

In some parts of the world, these battles are still going on. In other parts, the battles of blood are (we hope!) largely over, and we now wage battles on the political and social front. This is a new phase in the life of the human race. Most of us now enjoy enough political freedom that we can decide for ourselves what we will do with our lives, instead of having to look over our shoulders at what some king, emperor, or dictator of former times might have wanted us to do.

Now we have the challenge of determining what we will do with ourselves. It is the same challenge that we as young people face when we leave our parents: we are no longer under the old regime, but we must build a new one for ourselves.

The thought I would like to leave you with this Memorial Day is that the times we face today are not simply a rehearsal of what went on before. If we are willing to take the challenge--to listen to the new things that the Lord is declaring for our lives--then though we will be tested in the furnace of this life's adversity, through that testing our lives will be refined. Instead of walking in our parents footsteps, we will stand on their shoulders and reach toward deeper love and higher service to our fellow people. While we will remember the former things, the Lord will be doing new things through our lives.


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Music: How I Love You
1999 Bruce DeBoer