Sermon for the Commemoration of the War Dead and 90th Anniversary of the Memorial Church

The Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D., Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in the Faculty of Divinity. Video and photos by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications


Full Sunday Sermon 



By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in the Faculty of Divinity

(The following is a transcript of the service audio, Nov. 13, 2022)

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight. Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

So today we do commemorate, as has been said several times, the 90th anniversary of this church. The 90th anniversary of its founding. It's our birthday. So please do join us downstairs for birthday cake at our reception. We're celebrating this community's presence in our larger Harvard community, and 90 years of it.

But as you've also heard in many of our prayers and the prayers thatRoni just read, the founding of this church 90 years ago was in 1932, was on the 10 year anniversary of Armistice in Europe. This towering spire, this lovely church at the heart of this campus, all was built here as a memorial, as you know, to the war dead. I have to tell you, when I was appointed to this position, that was the responsibility that weighed most heavily upon me.

I have committees and all these other kinds of things I have to do around the university as part of my role as the minister of this church but the first time I walked into this church as its minister and saw the names on the wall to your right and understood myself as the steward of those memories, of those lives that were not fully lived, that was the thing and remains the thing, the responsibility that weighs most heavily upon me for obvious reasons, but also because as many of you know, I served in the Navy. My dad retired from the Navy, my brother was in the Air Force. My younger brother is still in the Navy. I feel great admiration and respect for those who serve and who still serve.

So as I reflected this week on the 90th anniversary of this church, I thought about that day 90 years ago, and I wondered what that dedication event must have been like. The feeling that those who gathered here to dedicate this church must have felt putting 10 years behind them. Not that anything could compensate for the loss of all those whose names are on our walls, but there must have been a great feeling of both grief and relief to see this soaring church erected in their memory. I want to speak more about that moment, that moment of this church's dedication and our own moment 90 years later. But first, let me talk about our gospel lesson, which also speaks to us today and maybe to those moments as well.

So what we have from the gospel of Luke this morning is, formally speaking, an apocalypse. There's a lot of bad stuff going on if you listened to Roni Yadlin read the passage, wars and insurrections and persecutions and violence. I'm teaching a class on apocalypse now and in fact, our faith in life forum this fall is on apocalypse. In particular in this passage, Jesus calls or prophesied the destruction of the temple. So the disciples come in to Jerusalem and just to kind of bring you back up to speed on what's going on in the gospel of Luke, Jesus has been traveling the whole time since we've been back here in this church this fall. We've been hearing the story of Jesus traveling to Jerusalem and he has finally arrived. In the chapter prior to this passage, he goes and he cleanses the temple. He throws the money changers out. Then he's in the temple teaching and he's being challenged.

Then in this moment, his disciples, they look up at this temple and it was a magnificent building. The most magnificent building. Herod, it was his glory and the disciples are looking at the temple and they say, basically, they're starstruck, awestruck. "Look at how big these stones are. How was this built? Look this thing," and Jesus says, "This will all fall down. And also here are all the things that will happen to you." And we have this apocalyptic passage and it goes on. If you were to keep reading in Luke, there's about another chapter of Jesus ascribing the bad things that will come.

What's important for us, I think, who receive this message today is to understand that this gospel of Luke was not taken down as dictation as Jesus spoke it. It was written many years later. It was written, in fact, after the destruction of Jerusalem. After this temple was destroyed. This giant, beautiful building with its magnificent stones that looked like they could never be moved had all been brought down.

I think many of us who are not familiar underestimate just sort of the trauma and devastation the siege of Jerusalem entailed. Not just was Jerusalem burned and not just was the temple destroyed, not just was this heart, the center of culture for the Judean and Jewish people destroyed, but tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of Judeans were enslaved. Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands were killed. There is fairly reliable historical evidence that dozens, maybe even hundreds of people were crucified every day during the siege of Jerusalem.

The people who were reading the gospel for the first time had seen everything Jesus is describing already. They had survived it. The story of this man who is crucified comes into different relief when heard by people who had seen hundreds of crucifixions as the city was destroyed.

Which makes the ending of this passage and some of its advice, I think, so difficult or tricky. "Not a hair on your head will be harmed. By your endurance you will gain your souls." In particular, one thing that really struck with me was this part in the middle of Jesus' advice, when he says, "Make up your minds not to decide what to say beforehand. You'll know what to say. When the time comes, you will know what to say." The reason that advice kind of landed oddly for me is I found myself asking what to say, as if speech was any sufficient defense against swords. As if the Romans coming into that city could have been sent away with a witty comment or the exact right retort.

What was needed was not the right words or knowing what to say. What was needed was courage. Something terrible was coming and Jesus was right to say to those folks who don't know what's coming, "You can't predict what's coming. What you need is courage. Courage to face what we don't know. Courage, sometimes, to face what we do know is coming."

That got me thinking about that word, courage. The word courage in English just means from the heart. The French word coeur means heart. Courage just means heart. Actually, those of you who know my sermons may have anticipated this, I'm going to turn to the Greek. Jesus doesn't say, "Make up your minds," in this passage. That's our English translation. Jesus says, "Set your hearts." The word here is not minds. It's "cardíacas. Hearts. Set your hearts.

If you set your hearts, you will gain your souls. A little bit more Greek here. I'm sorry. The word here for gain your souls means possession, to take possession of. Souls here is a tricky word. It's the word that we know in English as psyche, which kind of connotes mind in our current usage. But that's not really the way psyche was used then. It translated a Hebrew word which just meant life force. The thing inside you which gives you life. This idea of the soul, this thing inside you which gives you life has been taken up and inherited by contemporary thinkers. By the theologian, Howard Thurman, and my new colleague at the Divinity School, Terrence Johnson, talking about souls saying that the soul, this thing that Jesus is referring to is "the growing edge of hope in the midst of the most barren and the most tragic circumstances".

This is what it means to have life in you. It means to have the growing edge of hope in the midst of the most barren and the most tragic circumstances. As Professor Johnson says, it is courage in the midst of injustice. It is rooted not in a belief in a far off land, but in resolve to find meaning and beauty in the life we are given even as we face death, or loss, or uncertainty.

This is what Jesus is saying. Not make up your minds. He's saying, "Set your hearts and take courage." That's what it means to possess yourself, to be self possessed. That's what it means to gain your soul because that's who you are, you people of God. You are people who can face the future with resolve, not because you know it will end well, but because your heart is set on a cause that is just. Whether or not it ends right, you resolve to do right. Whether or not it ends how it ought, you will do what you ought. To have soul in the sense, to set your heart, to have courage is to value that for which you live more than the outcome for which you wish. Take hold of that, Jesus says.

Having said all this, all these predictions of all the terrible things that will happen and the knowledge that these things do happen, the end of the gospel of Luke is remarkable because after Jesus is crucified in chapter 14, the disciples who heard these teachings, they go back to the temple, to the temple they know will fall down and it says that they return to it every day. Every day they return to the temple they knew would fall praising God and blessing God. They went to that temple every day, not because they thought it would always stand, but because they knew they would take their stand even if and when it fell.

So let me return to that day 90 years ago in 1932 and the group I imagined gathered here dedicating this place in the midst of grief and relief and seeing the tower of this beautiful church rising above the yard in memory to the war dead. It's an attractive picture, but you historians and the congregation know it is not the full picture.

In 1932, this country was deep, deep in a devastating depression. One in four people in this country were unemployed. Perhaps more troublingly, Hermann Goring had just been made the president of the Reichstag in Germany. In November 1932 when this church was dedicated, Hitler asked to be made chancellor. They put him off for a few months. He didn't become chancellor until January 1933. In 1932, Japan had just invaded Manchuria and established a puppet state there.

In 1932 when this church was dedicated, all the walls inside the sanctuary were bare. The names were only in the memorial room. But what I'm telling you is that in 1932 when this church was dedicated, events had already been set in motion which would put the names of all those people on the wall to your right.

We have this passage of apocalypse today and our own moment is one full of uncertainty and worry. Global worry around climate change, political worry. Like many of you, I suspect, I found great relief this week after our elections. The fact that a midterm election could give me such great relief is just a sign of how worrisome things are. How worrisome they still are. We know some of what's coming. We fear some of what may come that we don't know. This is true globally, politically, but also in our personal lives. What's next for us and for those we love, for our relationships, for those we care about?

This is a beautiful church soaring above this yard and I will not predict that stones out of which this beautiful church is built, I will not predict that they will fall down one upon another. God forbid. I hope this church always stands. But looking at the names on the walls of this church, we must know, we do know that there are no institutions so secure that they cannot be brought down. But we celebrate this church and we return to it every week, not because it will stand forever, but because of the values for which it stands. The values for which the men and women on these walls died.

So this day, as we enter this church again and commemorate these 90 years and commemorate the war dead, I invite you also to remember those early followers of Jesus who went to the temple every day. A temple they knew would fall and went there blessing God, setting their hearts, gaining their souls, even though they knew the worst was yet to come. May we, like them, take courage as we face an uncertain future.

I invite you please to rise for the commendation. Please make the responses in the service bulletin.

Give rest, oh Christ, to your servants with your saints.

Where sorrow and pain are no more, Neither sighing, but life everlasting.

You only are immortal, the creator and maker of humankind and we are mortal, formed of the earth and unto earth we shall return. For so did you ordain when you created me saying, "Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return." All we go down to the dust. Yet even at the grave we make our song. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Give rest, oh Christ, to your servants with your saints. Where sorrow and pain are no more. Neither sighing, but life everlasting.

Into your hands, oh merciful savior, we commend the souls of your servants in whose memory this church has been dedicated. Those beloved members of this university community who have lost their lives in war. Acknowledge we humbly beseech you, these sheep of your own fold. These lambs of your own flock. These children of your own redeeming. Embrace them now and always into the arms of your mercy. Bestow upon them the blessed rest of everlasting peace and number them forever among the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

Into paradise, may the angels lead you. At your coming may the martyrs receive you and bring you to the holy city of Jerusalem.