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Confessions of a Small Church Pastor

Sermon for Memorial Day Sunday, May 25, 2008: When God Writes Your Name


When God Writes Your Name
Isaiah 49:8-16

8 This is what the LORD says:
“In the time of my favor I will answer you,
and in the day of salvation I will help you;
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people,
to restore the land
and to reassign its desolate inheritances,

9 to say to the captives, ‘Come out,’
and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!’
“They will feed beside the roads
and find pasture on every barren hill.

10 They will neither hunger nor thirst,
nor will the desert heat or the sun beat upon them.
He who has compassion on them will guide them
and lead them beside springs of water.

11 I will turn all my mountains into roads,
and my highways will be raised up.

12 See, they will come from afar—
some from the north, some from the west,
some from the region of Aswan. ”

13 Shout for joy, O heavens;
rejoice, O earth;
burst into song, O mountains!
For the LORD comforts his people
and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.

14 But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me.”

15 “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!

16 See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…

The memory is distinct, although I do not know when it happened or how old I was or whether it was one event or the memories of many moments together. My mother was a teacher, and after she and my father married, and I came along, she continued teaching.

When I would come in from playing with my friends and say things I had picked up from them, like “ain’t”, my mother would gently remind me that the proper words were “is not” or the contraction, “isn’t.” And, she continued to correct my grammar and word usage — or at least comment on it — long after I was an adult. She also taught me to read, and some of the earliest photographs in my baby book are of me reading — or at least holding — books, including the bible.

So, I am not sure if this very vivid memory is just one moment in time, or the compilation of many moments like it, but it is distinct in my mind. My mother and are are sitting at the kitchen table, an old wooden drop leaf table with turned legs that we used until I was a teenager. I’m writing on paper, or at least making some marks, so I must be in the first grade because I didn’t go to kindergarten. There was no kindergarten, and so first grade was where you learned to read and write.

We were learning our ABCs — and how to write each one carefully in lowercase and uppercase on broadly-lined tablets made of newsprint. The lined pages were neatly divided into rows of blue lines — the top and bottom lines solid, and the middle line dotted. We were to write the alphabet within the confines of these blue lines, making sure that the letters curved, or crossed, or slanted exactly at the right point on the dotted line. All of this was called “penmanship” and I was not good at it. Still am not good at it, but I get by.

I remember the daunting task of forming each letter tediously, slowly, and with care. But somehow my hand did not do what my brain wished it would, and my letters bore little resemblance to the row of upper and lowercase letters at the top of my tablet.

Frustrated with my slow progress, I remember asking my mother to write my name on my tablet. With ease she took the pencil and with graceful, fluid strokes formed the letters of my name — Chuck Warnock. (My mother was not as picky about nicknames as Pauline was!)

I remember asking, “Is that my name?” She said, “Yes, that’s your name.” And, she pointed to Chuck and then to Warnock, sounding them out as if I had never heard them before. And, there it was. This name that I had been called since birth, this name that I knew as my own, that was a much a part of me as my burr haircut or the “grandma beads” around my neck, there it was written down right in front of me. I remember a sense of awe, at least as much as a five year old can be awestruck, and thinking, “That’s my name. That’s me, right there on that piece of paper. My name.” As though my name had taken on a life of its own.

As I said, I am not sure about the details of that memory. But, I am sure about the feeling I had. A feeling that somehow I was more real, more important, more permanent because my name was written down before me. I am happy to tell you that I did eventually learn to write my own name, not well, but acceptably, and was graduated from first grade with all the ceremony accorded to six year olds. But, that’s another story.

Memorial Day Is About Names
Tomorrow our nation pauses to remember those who have given their lives in service to their country. The President has asked that the entire nation pause at 3 PM tomorrow, in silent tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for duty, honor, and country.

In thinking about this day, and this sermon, I considered reading the names of the 4,000-plus soldiers who have given their lives in the Iraq war. I calculated that even if we read one name per second, it would take us over an hour to read each name. That would put us well past 12 noon, and so that thought was dismissed. And, then it occurred to me that we really do not want our routines changed, even for the time it would take to read the names of 4,000 American soldiers. So, today we are not reading their names, although we should.

I was also reminded that we should read the names of those who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. At the memorial for the dead of that tragedy, I was moved as family members and friends came one-by-one to the podium to speak the name of their mother, or father, or sister, or brother, or nephew, or niece, or friend for all the world to hear. Why? Because we do not want their names to vanish, to disappear from our consciousness, like the dust cloud that hung over New York City on that fateful day. We do not want to “get on with our lives” or “travel and shop” as our government shamefully advised us to. We want to stop, and call the names of those who were lost, and speak their names into our collective memory so that we will never forget them.

Names I Remember
I remember the names of some fallen and dead on this Memorial Day weekend. I remember Sandy Shull. Sandy and I went to high school together, in the same graduating class — the class of ‘66. I went to college, Sandy went to Viet Nam. I don’t remember when I heard that Sandy had been killed there, but the news spread from one class member to another in that informal network that senior classes have, even after graduation. Sandy was a kind of bashful kid, athletic, popular, and well-liked. Sandy’s draft number was lower than mine, so he went, and I didn’t. Which is the way things happened then. I don’t know how Sandy died, or if he received a medal, or if he was a hero. I just know Sandy’s name is written on a gravestone in Nashville, Tennessee, and mine is not.

I remember Monte Nichols. Monte was my boss at the J.C. Penney Department Store in Madison, Tennessee, where I worked on Friday nights, and Saturdays during the last couple of years I was in high school. Monte was a young guy, good-looking, trim and fit, and making his way up the corporate ladder with J.C. Penney’s. Monte was the Men’s Department manager, and I worked for him. I came in after school, and Monte usually was on the floor when I got there. He was a personable guy, and good boss. He and I would eat dinner together some nights on our break. Monte had a dinnertime superstition which I had never seen before — he would never take the salt shaker directly from your hand. If he asked for salt, he would want you to put it down on the table in front of him, before he would pick it up. One night we were eating and talking, and Monte asked me to pass the salt. I did, and he took it from my hand before I could set it down. I said, “Monte, do you realize what you just did?” He looked a little self-conscious, and puzzled, and I continued, “You just took the salt without letting me set it down.” We both laughed.

A few weeks later, Monte was drafted. And then, months later, word came through the store grapevine that Monte had been killed in action. I thought about that salt shaker, knowing full-well that it had nothing to do with his death. But, I thought about it anyway.

In 1990, Debbie and I became area managers for the Baptist Bookstore Church Directory Service. Or, more accurately, the company that provided that service under the auspices of the Baptist Bookstore. One day we had a photography assignment at a church in Sumter, South Carolina. The pastor told me that many of their men had been deployed in the first Gulf War, known as Desert Storm. We watched families file in to have their family portraits made for the church directory — mom and the kids, but few dads. Needless to say, we didn’t sell many family portraits in that church because the family wasn’t all there. Some of those dads never came back, and that family portrait became a lasting reminder of their sacrifice.

So, Memorial Day is about names. And there is one name that I want to mention to you today — Captain Charles Herman Warnock. No, that’s not me, it’s my dad. My dad is 88 years old. He was an Army Aircorps pilot in World War II, flying paratroopers and supplies from England into France, and then in North Africa. It’s only recently that my dad seems to want to tell those stories of flying C-46s and C-47s over Europe and North Africa. Stories of how he and his crew picked up a load of steaks meant for the generals’ mess, and persuaded the quartermaster to look the other way while they appropriated enough for their own use. Same thing happened to a shipment of ice cream, it seems. I’m sure the generals and their staff wondered why their deliveries always came in short the same number each time. Which might also explain why he spent the last part of his tour flying in North Africa!

My dad, thankfully, did not die in World War II, or else you would have a different pastor today. But, he gave 4 years of his life for the cause of freedom, not only for America, but for our British friends and other allies as well. He gave a paratrooper his .45 sidearm before a jump one day, because the trooper asked him for it to use in close fighting. He replaced it with a German Lugar that he carried until the had to turn in his weapons and uniform when he mustered out. Amazingly, the Air Force never charged him for the .45, but did send him a bill for a uniform sweater he failed to turn in. My dad said he never got a sweater, so military mixups can go both ways.

Whose Names Do You Remember Today?
Now that you have given me the privilege of sharing some names I remember, would you like to do the same. Some of you served in World War II, some in Korea, some in Viet Nam, some in other arenas. Do you want to call the names of those you remember on this Memorial Day? (Allow time here for members to share names and stories.)

God Knows Our Names
This passage from Isaiah came at a time of great difficulty in the life of the nation of Israel. So much difficulty, that the nation thought God had forgotten them. So, God speaks through Isaiah to remind them that God has not forgotten them. Indeed, God is leveling mountains, raising highways, making the path back to God safe and level for His people. And then, God says, “I have inscribed you on my palms.”

Do you ever remember writing something on your palm? You did it because you wanted to remember. God did it because He can’t forget. But, how does God write our names on his palm, you might wonder? We have to look at the Gospels for the answer. Thomas had not been present when the risen Christ had appeared to other disciples. In grief and disbelief of their story, Thomas says —

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Jesus was saying, “Thomas, your name is written on my palms. Written in these nail prints, written in my own blood. Thomas, I haven’t forgotten about you.” And in the palms of Jesus’ hands are written all of our names. And Sandy’s and Monte’s and my dad’s and your friends and family members. For Jesus died with us in his heart, with our names engraved on his palms. Engraved by nails. Indelible reminders that our names are important to God.

Categories: isaiah, Lectionary Yr A, sermon, Sermon Illustrations, Sermons, The Story, Worship

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5 replies

  1. Memorial Day Sonnet

    If Liberty means anything to me,
    I will remember what my freedom cost,
    By those who gave their all to keep me free,
    Whose lives were sacrificed, but never lost.
    I will remind myself of what they did,
    And keep them dearly cherished in my heart;
    Their honor never from me shall be hid
    And I will know they always did their part
    To save our nation and its people here,
    To pledge their lives in defense of our ways,
    To show that freedom always outlives fear,
    And sacrifice is hallowed all our days.
    If Liberty means anything to me,
    I will remember those who kept me free.

    © John Stuart 2008
    Pastor at Erin Presbyterian Church,
    Knoxville, Tennessee

  2. I remember the names of some on this Memorial Day weekend who lived. I remember my dad’s brother Charley and my mother’s brother Ray. Their lives were for ever changed by the First World War. Uncle Charley was gassed in France and though alive, was never able to hold a job. Uncle Ray was clearly affected by what happened overseas. So living Veterans can also Victims.

  3. Very powerful and thoughtful. Thank you. May God continue to bless your ministry.
    Rev. Jack Waskey

  4. Thank you all for your comments. Remembering the names of those who have died for our freedom is important. I hope your Memorial Day brings memories of someone you knew and loved who gave a their lives, either in part or in whole, in the cause of freedom.

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