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“Decoration Day”

Decoration Day, as it was originally named, dates back to the 1860’s during the Civil War era in our country. The earliest occurrences of mostly women decorating the graves of soldiers were in the South prior to and during the Civil War. What began as a local family time of honoring, spread from those first memorializations to larger and more widespread celebrations. Of course, we find some dispute over when and where the initial decorating happened, and not surprisingly, the North and South both claim to have originated the practice. Our competitive partisanship is not anything new! There is a lengthy list of potential firsts, actual organizations who have researched the topic, and a winding path to the 20th century by which time it had become a national observance. Memorial Day, as it has been dubbed, became a federal holiday, placed on the last Monday in May on our calendars, to honor those who have served in the military and made the ultimate sacrifice, dying in service to our country. While some protest the idea of turning it into a “three-day holiday weekend,” claiming that it diminishes the solemnity of the occasion, we are none the less reminded on this weekend in May of the lives that have been given in order to ensure our freedoms.

So I want us to take some time to consider that sacrifice today, to acknowledge those people in our lives, be they family members, past or more recent, or those who were close to us, important persons in our memories, to honor their memory today. I invite you to take a moment to recall those folks and to share their names. Let’s take a breath. If there is someone you want to remember today, please raise your hand and I will call on you, and you can say their name. I will light a candle here in their memory and we will take a breath again in between.


Holiness within and around us, we honor these souls who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us, for our nation, for an ideal. May their memories be a blessing. Amen.

I want to talk a bit about this idea of sacrifice and of sacrificing for an ideal. We have been witnesses to such horrible atrocities in Ukraine over the past few months. Entire cities devastated. Families torn apart as women and children are shuttled off to safety beyond the nation’s borders. The men remain to take a stand for the freedom of their country. Men of all ages, saying goodbye at the train, not knowing if they will ever see their loved ones again. And they do so willingly because they believe in a sovereign Ukraine, in a homeland, perhaps for themselves, but all the more so for their children. They believe in a future that is different from what exists in the moment, a time when it is safe once more to live your life in peaceful communities, where values of respect and hopefulness are upheld. A place built on strong foundations unique to a people. And so, they stay and fight for what they hope for, for the ideal in the midst of the real.

This is only one example, and it is fresh and alive in our hearts and minds, so I offer it for us today as we ponder these ideas. There are others and in your own lifetimes you have been witness to so much, you who are the wizened elders among us. We are grateful for your presence and your recollections and your sharing, we of later generations. History has its way of coming around again and again until we get things straightened out.

Conversations of late here at UUMH have been circling around the concept of “we.” That’s “we” as opposed to “me.” And I hope there is more of such talk among us! The idea of “we” seems to be lacking somewhat in our land and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by those of us with a mind toward connection, toward the good of the whole, toward beloved community. A dear friend spends a fair amount of time in Spain for months at a clip and was there during the initial pandemic lockdowns. What she noticed and lifted up in her sharing on Facebook was this sense of a larger whole in European countries. They were focused on the “we,” willing to set aside the comfort of the “me” in favor of what made the most sense for their people, for all people to come through this time well. Leadership referred to the “we” when they talked to the people, and the people talked about themselves collectively as opposed to individually. They were prepared to make whatever sacrifices were deemed necessary for the good of the whole.

Similarly, I heard an interview the other night with Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, speaking about that country’s decisions around guns in the wake of just one tragedy. Just one – not the hundreds that Americans can list with ease. She kept referring to “we” – we are a pragmatic people, we saw something that we didn’t want to ever see again, we had the hard conversations and made the needed choices. “WE” “WE” Over and over again, not once referring to herself or her leadership or to a particular party. It was about the good of the whole, about letting go of the one in favor of the many, about making a sacrifice of sorts to ensure the future of the people.

Those who sign up for military service do so for many reasons, but they do so knowing that they are preparing to fight and even die if necessary for the ideals that America holds dear. Things like liberty and equity and justice that are talked about in our founding documents, however far from those goals we may have come by now. And I wonder, if for no other reason, don’t we owe it to them, those among us willing to sacrifice their very lives for such things, don’t we owe it to them to be making strides in that direction? So often we hear when a soldier is killed defending these ideals, that they were doing what they loved, what was most important to them – the values of a land of freedom for all. Don’t we owe it to them to be working toward what they were fighting for? In MacLeish’s poem, “The Young Dead Soldiers” he leaves it to us to make meaning of their sacrifice – having done what they could, they realize it is not finished. Ours is to carry it forward, to complete the task at hand. May we act so that their lives are not given in vain.

The problem I see is that America struggles with a sense of a collective we, and as I said, I hope we here can talk about that more in the coming months. The problem has a tendency to trickle down and to take root in our institutions; religious institutions are not exempt. And we would be foolish to think that in our progressive liberal faith, there is not also a tendency to put the “me” ahead of the “we.” We are as human as the next! Last week Rev. Susan Frederick Gray talked about covenant and promises and the ideal of beloved community that we strive for as a faith tradition. She talked about a coming together around the things we value most and about promising ourselves together to those causes.

We here at UUMH will have some time in the coming seasons of our journey to talk about the “we” of us, about what we value and what we want for this place, this faith to thrive on the hill in Chatham. I hope our conversations about the bigger “we” can translate into similar exchanges about the “we” of this faith community. The truth of the one reverberates in the midst of the other. It is, after all, a part of an interdependent web of existence.

While we mark Memorial Day tomorrow, I want to remind us that our Community Outreach donations this month are to support the Cape & Islands Veteran’s Center, which provides services to those who have been fortunate enough to have returned from military service, but who may struggle with reintegration - with food or housing or counseling in the aftermath of war. Our offerings to this organization are another way to pay tribute to those who made themselves available to further our ideals as a nation. The collection basket is on the back table.

On this day we gather and pay our respects to those who have given their lives for the good of the whole. We honor their memories as we decorate the graves, place flags on common grounds, stand in silence and in song. We look to a day when such sacrifice is no longer necessary, when war is no more a solution to human conflict. In the midst of today’s realities and in the presence of our collected memories, we promise ourselves to the ideal of a beloved community.

May it be so and Amen.

Rev. Tracy Johnson

UUMH Chatham, May 29, 2022



​Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham
Sunday Services  10:30 AM

819 Main Street
All MAIL To: PO Box 18​​
Chatham, MA 02633
(508) 945-2075

Serving our Cape Cod Community in Chatham since 1986

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