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Sermon 5.26.24 Memorial Day and Human Memory



Good Morning St. Andrew’s and Happy Memorial Day, Happy Trinity Sunday.

A special greeting to our veterans this morning as we memorialize the gifts that sacrifice have bought our country.

We’re glad that you are part of our here and now.

And so today, I’m moved to preach to you about Memorial Day and Human Memory.

More on this in a bit, but first;

Have you ever noticed that we often have two words for the same thing?

Some of them come from the same base word like prudence and providence, but end up being different conceptually.

Did you know that those two words are different pronunciations of the same Latin word, providentia? (They both have to do with seeing things ahead of time, but one is usually associated with humans and the other with God)

Some of them come to our language, because the English language is a hodge podge of different languages all brought together over time.

They look different, but end up being the same or very similar to one another.

An example of this are the words ghost and spirit, which when combined with the adjective “holy” refer to the same divine person interchangably, but which ordinarily have very different connotations.

Spirit, like providentia, is a word that comes to us from Latin, spiritus.

Ghost is a word that comes to us from German, geist (anyone ever seen or heard of the movie Poltergeist? Polter means to “rumble/quake,” geist means “spirit.”)

These first two examples are two ways that we get different words that mean similar things in English.

Of course, as you can see in these examples, once we get these similar words into the language they begin to take on slightly different meanings over time.

If we are native speakers of the language, when we hear them, we can usually separate out the nuanced differences between the words in question.

On the other hand, there are a class of words that mean very similar things, but we may have a more difficult time explaining the difference between them.

In this category, I would put the words brain and mind. They look different, we know that they are different, but may have a hard time saying exactly why.

These two words came into English a very long time ago; one from proto-germanic languages, gemynd, the other from proto-indo-european, braegen, and may be related to the Greek word, brekhmos.

Now, of course as I said, we know the difference between a brain and a mind, don’t we?

Okay, help me preach then, I want you to turn to your neighbor and tell them the difference, just real fast…

I know, I know, if I gave you time in Bible study, we would be able to talk this out and come up with differences, but as Trevor Noah used to say when discussing the news on the Daily Show, “we ain’t got time for that.”

Sorry, that a little like telling someone you have a knock-knock joke for them and then saying, “Okay, you start it.”

 

Maybe this will help. We say, “Oh, I didn’t have that in mind” or “I was of two minds on that one.”

Would we ever replace that with brain?

“I was of two brains, I didn’t have that in brain.”

It sounds weird.

That’s because the word brain is associated with the body part, and the word mind became associated with that body part’s function and the Greek concept of nous.

(Here’s a fun party trick, if you ever meet someone who likes to wax lyrical ad nauseum, tell them that they’re very noetic)

We know that a brain and a mind are different, but they are so closely associated that it is difficult to imagine one without the other.

One thing that Christianity has recognized from the beginning, something that is brought to bear in Paul’s letter to the Romans, is that there is this close relationship between the body and the mind; the flesh and the spirit.

Each has an effect on the other.

If you are sick in spirit, your body will most likely suffer.

If you are sick in body, it can often deplete your spirit and cause maladies of the mind.

We know this. Anyone who has been in the hospital knows this.

Many writers over the centuries - and in fact not just centuries, but millennia - have discussed this connection.

Of course, it started with noticing the effects that war has on soldiers.

In 2014, historians Walid Khalid Abdul Hamid of  Queen Mary University and Jamie Hacker-Hughes of Anglia Ruskin University in England wrote an article about the antiquity of our understanding of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

In that article, Abdul-Hamid and Hughes challenged the view that the disintegration of body and mind known as PTSD was not a widely known phenomenon in the ancient world.

Most scholarship on PTSD in the ancient world has centered around a single account from the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.E between the Greeks and Persians.

The Greek Historian Herodotus discussed the case of a single man named Epizolus who became blinded by the stress of battle and never recovered his sight.

Now in science and historical studies, one case is never enough to prove anything.

What Abdul-Hamid and Hughes show, however, is that there were actually hundreds of descriptions of PTSD in the cuneiform medical inscriptions of ancient Uruk (which today is southern Iraq) and how to cure it.

Going back to at least 1900 B.C.E., the scribes of one of the greatest ancient empires, systematically documented cases and symptoms of how the body affects the mind, and how the trauma-laden mind affects the bodies of soldiers.

In our modern world, James Baldwin tells us that memory is not just a thing that happens in the mind, it is something that the body remembers.

For Baldwin, the body always remembers, even if the mind tries to forget.

In this, Baldwin reminds us of what the ancient medics knew.

What was described by these ancient writers, and what was described as “shell-shock,” or “battle fatigue” by doctors in World War I; what was known by James Baldwin is the deep connection between body and soul; brain and mind.

The problem, of course, is that PTSD and other types of trauma have often been stygmatized in our culture of individual responsibility.

We love to go out in public and say to our soldiers, “thank you for your service,” and “freedom isn’t free,” and to extol the value of valor and sacrifice.

But we have rarely, as a country, or even as Christians who should know better have taken fully into account the damage that trauma causes to those who serve.

We blame them, when they self-medicate with drugs, alcohol, or anger.

Romans 8, our reading for today is often used in that sense, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”

We blame people for “falling into fear” when we are the ones who asked them to take it into themselves in the first place.

Our other big lacuna, is that we often make Memorial Day only about military service and choose not to include the service of our “essential” workers, who got us through the pandemic we take for granted the trauma that they experienced.

By the way, not many people add teachers to “essential” workers, but as a parent who just had kids start summer vacation, I can assure you that teachers are the epitomy of essential.

We don’t consider their service as a thing to be remembered with the same amount of gratitude.

They also should be remembered as those who helped to preserve us in our hour of greatest need.

We don’t include the young boys and girls in disinvested neighborhoods, who become the sacrifice for a society of privilege and comfort.

They wear their trauma in their bodies as well, and not only theirs, but their parent’s trauma, their grandparent’s trauma, and generation upon generation according to James Baldwin.

The symptom is often seen in their decision to pick up a gun to protect themselves from a dangerous world.

We don’t often remember police officers, who face a world that gun lobbyists have created.

According to a USA Today report this week (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/investigations/2024/05/22/mexican-cartels-supplied-trafficked-guns-from-us/73700258007/), we live in a nation where you can go and buy 70 guns in a three month period and traffic them to drug cartels, but if you want to get a cancer screening you have to wait for it to be approved by insurance.

What has almost always been assessed as “becoming enslaved and falling into fear, giving into the flesh” - being the town drunk, the hopeless drug user, the abusive parent, the lost soul –

Has come to be understood by some scientists and social workers as the affects of trauma on those who we put in harms way to protect our freedom.

In a sense, then, it’s not too outlandish to claim that these soldiers, these “essential” workers, these kids become enslaved to trauma for the sake of our freedom.

We should remember them.

Human memory, inextricably attached to bodies, means that we owe them more than gratitude, we owe them restorative action, like Jesus healing the man who was possessed by a legion of dead soldiers in Mark 5.

As those who believe that God is an intricate unity of three persons represented as a mind - God, a spirit – the Holy one, and a body – Jesus the Christ.

We cannot be the ones to ignore how memories, minds, bodies, and spirits are deeply connected in the human person.

On this Memorial Day, as we again set ourselves to remember the sacrifices of all those who endure trauma on our behalf,

Let us also remember that there is hope.

Jesus, through his healing ministries and through the wounds on his resurrected body shows us that trauma can be healed, if we take it seriously and face it head on with compassion and grace.

Through the work of Trauma-informed care providers like the folks at Back2Back Ministries and Trauma-Free World, who have begun to operate out of our church to bring healing to our neighborhood’s youth,

Through our Summer Camp Reading program, which will begin a little more than a month from now,

We can see that the work of restoration is possible; not easy, not without complications, but possible.

Together, we and God can build a new type of memory and transform the lesson of Romans 8 from a condemnation of those with trauma to a promise that we will help everyone to learn how to navigate “enslavement to fear” and come out the other side as adopted children of God.


I’d like to end this morning with that word of Hope as it is beautifully captured by Howard Thurman in his poem Life Goes On:


During these turbulent times we must remind ourselves repeatedly that life goes on.

This we are apt to forget.

The wisdom of life transcends our wisdoms;

the purpose of life outlasts our purposes;

the process of life cushions our processes.

The mass attack of disillusion and despair,

distilled out of the collapse of hope,

has so invaded our thoughts that what we know to be true and valid seems unreal and ephemeral.

There seems to be little energy left for aught but futility.

This is the great deception.

By it whole peoples have gone down to oblivion

without the will to affirm the great and permanent strength of the clean and the commonplace.

Let us not be deceived.

It is just as important as ever to attend to the little graces

by which the dignity of our lives is maintained and sustained.

Birds still sing;

the stars coniine to cast their gentle gleam over the desolation of the battlefields,

and the heart is still inspired by the kind word and the gracious deed.

There is no need to fear evil.

There is every need to understand what it does,

how it operates in the world,

what it draws upon to sustain itself.

We must not shrink from the knowledge of the evilness of evil.

Over and over we must know that the real target of evil is not destruction of the body,

the reduction to rubble of cities;

the real target of evil

is to corrupt the spirit of man and to give his soul the contagion of inner disintegration.

When this happens,

there is nothing left,

the very citadel of man is captured and laid waste.

Therefore the evil in the world around us must not be allowed to move from without to within.

This would be to be overcome by evil.

To drink in the beauty that is within reach,

to clothe one’s life with simple deeds of kindness,

to keep alive a sensitiveness to the movement of the spirit of God

in the quietness of the human heart and in the workings of the human mind—

this is as always the ultimate answer to the great deception.

 

Amen.

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