The Bible is a complicated and sprawling book, but you could actually sum it up in as little as a single word. If I asked you to give a one-word summary of the Bible, what would you say? Love? Grace? God? Jesus? Chosen?
The American Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gives a less obvious but perhaps just as apt answer. His one-word summary of the Bible is “Remember.” “Much of what the Bible demands, he says, “can be comprised in one imperative: Remember!” Rabbi Heschel is Jewish, obviously, and he says memory is particularly important for the Jewish people. “To us,” he says, “recollection is a holy act; we sanctify the present by remembering the past. To us Jews, the essence of faith is memory. To believe is to remember.” I thought that would be a worthy consideration on this Memorial Day weekend.
“Much of what the Bible demands can be comprised in one word: Remember.” The Book of Deuteronomy is a case in point. Man, I bet you all were jumping for joy when you realized this morning’s Scripture lesson was coming from Deuteronomy; it’s not exactly one of the Bible’s most beloved books. It is essentially a collection of speeches Moses delivered to the Hebrews just as they are about to take possession of the Promised Land. They’ve been wandering in the wilderness for something like 40 years, and now there they stand on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to cross over to this land flowing with milk and honey, God’s promise of freedom, home, and prosperity.
But before the Hebrews march in to wage war with the current inhabitants of the land, Moses tells them to sit down for a sermon, a long sermon, about 9 times as long as one of my sermons (I did a word count on my computer), actually several sermons rolled up into one.
And the passage I read this morning is the great summing up. It has become known as the Song of Moses, his last benediction to the Hebrews before his death on Mount Nebo, the legacy of the greatest leader in the history of the Jewish people. Over and over again the message of Moses to the Hebrews in the Book of Deuteronomy is “Remember.” Remember. Whatever else you do, don’t forget God.
And here in the Song of Moses, the great general recapitulates his theme once again. With the irritating monotony of a stuck laser beam on your CD player, Moses says it over and over again: Remember God. When you become rich and fat and happy in the land which the Lord your God gives you, don’t you ever forget what you were before God got God’s hands on you. You were nothing; then God came along, and now you are something. You were slaves, and now you are free. You were sniveling cowards trembling in the shadows of the pyramids, and now you are conquerors–because of God, only because of God.
Do you see what Moses is trying to tell the Hebrews on the brink of a splendid future? He is trying to warn the Hebrews that so often in the lives of the nations, the inevitable byproduct of security and prosperity and happiness is amnesia, a regrettable forgetfulness of the source of one’s serendipitous benedictions. These Hebrews: once they were slaves in Egypt, and then for 40 years nomads wandering around from watering hole to watering hole in the god-forsaken desert, and now they are conquerors in a land flowing with milk and honey. These nomads who once had nothing to their names but the sandals on their feet and a water bottle made of animal skins, now they survey a lush hillside blanketed with vineyards as far as the eye can see. And the tendency is to think, “I’ve earned it. I deserve it. I worked hard for all of this. I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps.”
You know, it’s true in our world as well as theirs. You know how it is, you work hard and save lots and finally you squirrel away enough to buy a home in Winnetka, and then a few years later another in Sarasota, a car for every driver in the family, a great job where they pay you to watch a computer monitor and talk on the phone to your friends all day and fly to Seattle or Rio once a month–go ahead, take the family–a formidable portfolio of stocks and bonds and mutual funds, you become lord of all that you survey and pretty soon you begin to think that you’re self-sufficient.
There is nothing so productive of amnesia as prosperity. And Moses warns the Hebrews, he predicts what will happen in the future. He says, “Jacob ate his fill. Israel grew fat and bloated and gorged himself on the good things of the land. You abandoned God. You became unmindful of the Rock that bore you, you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
Moses says, “To lose your memory is not only to lose your mind, but to lose your life.” Faith, you see, is nothing but memory. Faith is the recollection of God’s gracious acts of mercy in the past and the solid confidence that God will act just so in the future.
“Much of what the Bible demands can be summed up in one word: Remember.” I reintroduce you to the book of Deuteronomy this morning because for the next several days, beginning with Memorial Day and culminating on the 70th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, Americans will invest enormous intellectual energy in the effort to recollect the national narrative that tells us who we are.
Operation Overlord was the largest and most complicated invasion in history. Churchill and Roosevelt had been planning for it since the beginning of the war, biding their time and building their strength till the opportune moment. To succeed, the Allies needed complete secrecy, meticulous timing and teamwork, and a good deal of luck–or providence–to land 100,000 soldiers and 20,000 vehicles in 5,000 ships covered by 12,000 planes, on the exposed beaches of Normandy, all under withering fire from Germany’s most seasoned troops.
Within hours on Omaha Beach, by far the most harrowing place to be on June 6, 1944, 2,500 were dead, ten times the number at Utah, the other American beach. Before it was all over, 10,000 Allied soldiers were dead, which sounds shocking, but is a casualty rate of less than 10%. As bloody as it was, it could have been far worse; General Eisenhower had prepared to lose 25% of his troops. Some predicted that 70% of the paratroopers might die as or after they floated into the farmlands of France from drop planes and gliders.
It was the Longest Day. Did you know it was Nazi General Erwin Rommel who first put it that way? “The first 24 hours will be decisive…For the allies, as well as for Germany, it will be the longest day.”
Back home, when Americans woke to hear the news on the radio, they gathered in churches for prayer. Philadelphia’s mayor rang the Liberty Bell for the first time since 1835. Baseball games, Broadway shows, and newspaper ads were suspended for the day. After two minutes of silence, the New York Stock Exchange opened as usual; when it closed, the Dow Jones Index was up 142 points.
June 6, 1944, was the birthday of the American Empire, a small foreshadowing of 70 years of unparalleled military might. Before that day, no one knew what America was capable of. We kept to ourselves. We stayed on our side of the Atlantic. But once the United States ramped up its titanic industrial power for the forging of guns and ships and bombs and planes, it never paused for breath.
Today we spend over $600 billion a year on the military, 39% of the world’s total, more than the next eight spenders combined.
The thing to remember about remembering, though, is that you can remember some things so vividly that you forget everything else. The thing to remember about remembering is that there is no quicker route to amnesia than through power and prosperity. You get so rich and so powerful for so long that you begin to put all your trust in earthly things. “You become unmindful of the Rock that bore you, you forget the God who gave you birth,” as Moses put it to the Hebrews on the banks of the River Jordan. You begin to worship new gods, gods your ancestors never feared. The Pentagon god. The Nuclear god. The B-1 god. The god called Mars. When you’re strong, you tend to think that strength trumps all foes. When you’re successful in war, you start to think that war is the answer to all your international problems.
Ten years ago, near the 60th anniversary of D-Day, Alex Kershaw wrote a beautiful book called The Bedford Boys, about Bedford, Virginia, population 3000, which sent 37 young men to the European front in 1942. Farmers and shopkeepers, not soldiers, most of them had joined the Army Reserve during the Depression because it paid a dollar a day.
After 20 months of training in England, Company A of the 116th Infantry of the 29th Division was chosen to spearhead the landing on Omaha Beach. At 6:30 AM on June 6, 1944, 28 of the 37 landed at Normandy; by 6:45 AM, eleven were already dead. Eleven more would die before the Allies reached Paris. Some were wounded five times. Fifteen came home to Bedford. Many were married, but only one was a father, Earl Parker, whose wife Viola gave birth to a daughter while Earl was in England. Her name was Danny, because she was supposed to be a boy.
Have you been to the American Cemetery above Omaha Beach, and have you seen those 9,387 white marble crosses, a few Stars of David? They tell me it is a holy place. People speak in whispers there, as if it were a church, and I suppose in a certain sense it is.
At least a couple of you worship at Church of the Palms in Sarasota during your winter months, where my friend Steve McConnell is the pastor. Steve is my best minister friend. My best doctor friend Phil is here visiting us from Greenwich this morning; say hi to Dr. Phil. Steve is my minister friend. Steve is a World War II aficionado; he’s been there two or three times, once around ten years ago at or near the 60th anniversary of D-Day.
Steve tells me that on the eleven graves of the Bedford Boys who died on those beaches that day lies a single sheet of laminated paper. It is a letter from an Englishman who’d also read this book called The Bedford Boys, and he was so moved by it he decided to write down his gratitude in a letter, fly across the English Channel, and search through almost 10,000 graves before he found the eleven he was looking for.
He wrote about how he’d been just a little boy during the War, and about how almost his entire childhood had been lived in hunger, air raids,
darkness, and fear. And about seeing England fill up in 1943 with thousands upon thousands of American GI’s, and about how kind they were. From them he’d received the first candy he’d ever tasted. He wrote about how their kindness and just their presence was the first ray of hope in all the darkness of his young life.
Eleven laminated letters among 10,000 white crosses and Stars of David: recollection is a holy act. One more thing and then I’ll quit. I’m thinking of a second sacred place of memory this morning. How many of you have been to the Washington Monument? The Lincoln? The World War II Memorial? The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor? Oklahoma City? How about the National September 11 Memorial in lower Manhattan?
I was afraid not many of you have been there yet, so I captured some images of it for you. There are two parts to the Memorial–the twin reflecting pools in the World Trade Center Plaza at street level, and beneath them, 70′ down to the bedrock of Manhattan schist, the Museum, which is what just opened this week.
The Twin Pools are called “Reflecting Absence.” The water flowing down those sheer granite sides by the inexorable force of gravity is meant to evoke those falling towers. It is just stunning.
Those two square infinity pools, black as midnight, covering the footprint of the Twin Towers, of course, and lined with 2,983 names on those bronze plinths. Water cascades down those stark walls into a square and bottomless well. Where does it go? You can’t tell. You can’t see the bottom of it.
What does it mean? What does it stand for, that black nothingness? Is it The Abyss? Does it reach down to the center of the earth? Is it hell? Did their souls go to Sheol, the land of half-life and shadows?
I don’t think so. I think it stands for The Infinity and Eternity in which our little lives are held fast. I think of those bottomless wells as the Heart of God, where everything and everyone are safe. Beneath the Absence is Memory. Because God never forgets. No matter how small or short our lives, God never forgets. We are folded fast forever into the undying memory of the Almighty.
And so on Memorial Day weekend, under the compulsion to remember, we gather at the Lord’s Table, because he commanded us, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. by Susanna Heschel (New York:Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996), pg. 334.
Quoted by Alex Kershaw, The Bedford Boys (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003), p. 104.