This Hallowed Ground

Timothy C. Ahrens

The First Congregational Church

United Church of Christ

Columbus, Ohio

May 28, 2000

Psalm 98; John 15:9-17

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.

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The most important battle ever fought on the North American continent started when a band of men from Tennessee went hunting for some shoes. These southerners came into a small town from the North and met the Union Army coming into the same town from the south. On July 2, 1863 in a small farming and college town named Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a battle began which lasted three days. When the battle ended on July 4th, more than 33,000 men were dead and the casualties of war numbered more than 100,000. This battle turned the course of the war and ultimately the course of American history.

In a stretch of the battlefield extending about the distance between our front doors and Highway 71 to the east, General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was stopped and routed on Cemetery Ridge when General George Pickett's men charged uphill through a wide valley and were stopped by General William Meade's Army of the Union - which bent but did not break that day.

Four and a half months after the battle on November 19, 1863, in his address at the dedication ceremony for the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln said, "We cannot dedicate - we cannot consecrate - we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract." Then he called on the living - in his time and for all time in this great nation to be highly resolved that "these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

"We cannot hallow this ground . . . The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract." Those words have come to life for me many times through the years. The first time was in March 1991 during a visit to Gettysburg with Susan, Luke and Daniel. There, standing on Cemetery Ridge, the section of hallowed ground which turned the tide of bloodiest war this nation has ever fought, I held each son in my arms and said to each of them (4 and 1 at the time), "boys, I pray that you will never have to fight and die in war." Even now, as I remember how sacred that moment and that ground felt beneath my feet. Like Mr. Lincoln, I knew I was on hallowed ground.

Then, last Memorial Day, my family visited Washington, D.C. on the occasion of my niece's graduation from Georgetown University. We stopped at the battlefield at Antitum, the Lincoln Memorial, the Viet Nam memorial (what I have called our nation's wailing wall), the Korean War Memorial, and the Memorial for FDR, which reminded me of those who battled in World War II. Standing face to face at the Viet Nam Memorial for the first time in my life, and holding Sarah in my arms (whose image was reflected back to me in the shining blackness of the memorial), I thought about the 60,000 plus men and women who would never hold their children in arms because of the sacrifice they made in rice paddies and Saigon streets - thousands of miles and 30 years away from us. Again, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion.

Every war has its turning points - whether the wars are waged on battlefields or waged within our souls. And in each war, there is hallowed ground. Whether the sloping hills and nearby mountains of my homeland - Pennsylvania or in the places in our lives where change happens and turns are made, hallowed ground is underfoot. Some of you have battled on hallowed ground or lost young warriors upon hallowed ground in lands far from this land. In places named Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Kuwait, and in towns and hamlets which we can barely pronounce and scarcely know. I give thanks for you and for them today.

And beyond my poor power to add or detract, I wonder today how many countless millions of God's beloved children on this planet are weeping for their brave dead who dedicated their last full measure of devotion to some cause of freedom, some piece of earth, some war torn place which embodied both despair and hope. I wonder how many men, women, and children it will take to turn fields of killing into fields of sowing and reaping the harvest of peace?

Hallowed ground. What is hallowed ground?

First and foremost, all the ground on which we stand is hallowed. The land is holy before God and belongs to God. Only on loan to us and given to our care for the time we are upon the earth, the land is God's. So what we choose to do with the hallowed ground which God has given us is crucial in the movement of our history. In his book The Land, Dr. Walter Brueggemann, makes the claim that all of biblical and human history begins with "the land." He writes:

The Bible is the story of God's people with God's land. It is the agony of trying to be fully in history but without standing ground in history. To be in history means to be in a place somewhere and to answer for it and to it . . . So, our faith (like Israel's faith) is essentially a journeying in and out of the land, and its faith can be organized around these focuses." (W. Breuggemann, The Land, Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1997, pp. 13-14).

As with the biblical story, we begin on hallowed ground. And our beginning is, in the words of Paul Tillich with our "the ground of our being" -who is God.

Secondly, as we are able to name and claim hallowed ground, God calls us to sow seeds for the harvest of faith. Indeed, we reap what we sow on hallowed ground. As we sow seeds of love and reconciliation toward our spouse, toward our beloved, toward children and grandchildren, and others in the community of faith and beyond - we reap what we sow. This week, I was reminded by Historian and friend of First Church, Russ Coil that when Mr. Lincoln spoke of a nation - "of the people, by the people, for the people" - he was speaking of a nation of people who were committed to the proposition of building and being a single community. Again, reaping what was sown on holy ground. God works through such a people and such a sowing of values for a harvest of plenty. Have you sown the seeds of the people and of God? Have you seen the harvest of faith in such sowing?

Our passage from John's gospel commands us to love God and love one another. This is no suggestion. It comes to us as a command. Thus, the seeds sown are the seeds of love. It is these seeds we are commanded to nurture and cultivate.

Finally, such cultivated seeds will produce a harvest of community. In the early part of the 17th Century, ships filled with Pilgrims landed in the northeastern part of our United States. Our forebears in faith called themselves "Old Comers" (rather newcomers or pioneers). They believed themselves to be coming into the land of ancient biblical promise. The indigenous tribal people already in the "brave new world" saw the land as given by the Great Spirit for them. They believed the land was a gift which could provide food and shelter for all comers - old and new. Although they faced difficulties understanding one another, these white and red tribal peoples shared a common viewpoint. This land - our land - was hallowed ground. Although they coexisted for the first generation in peace, other white settlers that followed saw the land as theirs (not the land of either God or the Native Americans!). As a result, much blood was shed instead of common ground being shared.

In her powerful poem, "On the Pulse of the Morning," delivered the Presidential Inauguration of Bill Clinton, January 20, 1993, Poet Laureate Maya Angelou, speaks to the ancient foundation of our nation in the image of a rock, a river, a tree. She finishes her poem with these words:

Lift up your eyes upon

This day breaking for you.

Give birth again

to the dream.

Women, children, men,

Take it into the palm of your hands.

Mold it into the shape of your most

Private need. Sculpt it into

The image of your most public self.

Lift up your hearts

Each new hour holds new chances

For new beginnings.

Do not be wedded forever

To the fear, yoked eternally

To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,

Offering you space to place new steps of change.

Here on the pulse of this fine day

You may have the courage

To look up and out and upon me,

The Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.

No less to Midas than the mendicant.

No less to you now than the mastodon then.

Here on the pulse of this new day

You may have the grace to look up and out

And into your sister's eyes,

And into your brother's face,

your country

And say simply

Very simply,

With hope

good morning.

My prayer on this Memorial Sunday - on the pulse of this new day - is that you name and claim as hallowed ground on which you worship, work, play, live, die and are buried. I pray that you recognize "The Rock, the River, the Tree, your country" as belonging to God and given to us for care. I pray that in a spiritual sense as well, we consecrate the ground of our relationships with well sown and well cultivated seeds, so that the harvest of our relationships - within the bounty of God's love - may be plentiful.

And I pray that like Moses on Mt Sinai, we take off our shoes in the presence of God. We tread lightly upon this earth giving thanks to God for the self-sacrifice of so many brave men and women who have given the last full measure of their devotion that "this nation, under God, should have a new birth of freedom." Amen.

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