(The following is the sermon I preached on Sunday, May 30th. May 30th used to be the official day we celebrated Memorial Day until it was changed to be the last Monday in May each year.)
Last Sunday afternoon there was a meeting at Bellevue St. James United Methodist Church to help pastors and lay members prepare for the meeting of the Nebraska Conference of the United Methodist Church coming up in a couple weeks in June.
The St. James Church is near old downtown Bellevue, and also only a few blocks from Bellevue Cemetery, where my dad, Harvey Davis "Mac" McInnis, was laid to rest almost 20 years ago now.
After the meeting, I had some time before I needed to be back at our church for our last men's "Uncommon" study, so I went over to the cemetery to stop at my dad’s grave for a few minutes. When I got there, his military grave marker was dirty, from dust, grass, and inconsiderate birds. So I went to a grocery store a couple miles away and got some water, paper towels, and found a flag that I could take back and put in the ground next to his marker.
While I was cleaning it off, I was reminded of how simply my dad had lived, and yet how much he had accomplished in his short life – he died when he was 49 from cancer, possibly related to his service in Vietnam. My dad was an enlisted man; he joined the military right out of high school to escape the poverty that comes from having an alcoholic step-father and no real options in the deep south town of Bastrop, LA, other than working at a local paper mill where lots of guys went after high school.
My dad was big enough in high school that he could have played football – and probably could have gotten a scholarship to play in college. But his mother wouldn’t let him play – she was afraid he would get hurt! So the military became his ticket out of town. He used to joke that he squeezed four years of college into 17 years…that’s how long it took him to get his bachelor’s degree.
And I remember when he graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with that degree – it was during the time I was in college. And he wasn’t done yet…he continued on and in a few more years earned his masters as well, all while serving in the Air Force. When he retired after 23 years, he had also achieved the highest rank that could be achieved by a non-commissioned officer at that time, the rank of Chief Master Sergeant.
But mostly what I was thinking about last Sunday afternoon, while I was cleaning off his marker, was how much that simple military marker symbolized his whole life. He lived simply because he had a wife and four kids; he sacrificed a great deal to be faithful to his family, and also to go to school all those years.
I remember right after he and my mom got married (I was nine, my brothers were six); we moved to Duluth, MN, and he always worked a second job to makes ends meet, while my mom stayed home and took care of us kids (including my little sister who came along later). He worked at a Burger Chef and a Target store when he wasn’t doing his job for the Air Force as a meteorologist.
He didn’t have expensive hobbies or toys. He would occasionally go bowling, and he did find time to play in a league at Offutt A.F.B. once or twice, and time to play on his church softball team.
His education paid off, and after he finally retired from the military, he started working for Harris Corporation in Bellevue, going back to work at Offutt doing computer programming. He and my mom were able to build a comfortable home, and he was finally making a real salary.
He only lived in that house for around five years when cancer took his life. And for a long time after that, whenever I would see a retired couple traveling together – in an RV or somewhere together on vacation - I would think about how he never got to do those things with my mom. Sometimes it just didn’t seem fair.
But he left a legacy of serving his country, his family and his church. He left a legacy of faith. He would usher at church almost every Sunday, and also served on various committees. I know he and my mom were strong financial supporters of their church. When he wasn’t ushering, if I was standing next to him in church during a hymn, I’d hear his monotone voice; my dad would sing even though he only hit the right note occasionally – and once in awhile it even sounded like he found a harmony note there for a measure or so!
But he would sing; he would worship God with the voice he was given…I’m sure God was pleased.
(This used to amaze me, because he could whistle a tune - any tune, like crazy - and whistled a lot around the house! But he couldn’t sing a note!)
I tell you all this because, as I was cleaning off his grave marker, I was thinking how faithfully he lived, and how he left me an example to follow—and how often I fall so short of being the man he was. I know he wasn’t perfect, but he lived one of the most honorable lives I’ve ever seen…quietly, without fanfare, but it spoke, and still speaks, loudly to me. And his faith helped him do that.
And I resolved as I drove out of that cemetery to do my best to follow in his footsteps, to stay the course, to keep running the race honorably, even though the world tempts me so often to take an easier, more selfish road, and so often I give in to that.
My dad is a member of that great cloud of witnesses that we read about in Hebrews 12:1-2, which says:
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."
When the author writes, "so great a cloud of witnesses," he is referring back to all of Hebrews 11, in which he gives us example after example of those who lived by faith: Noah and his family, Abraham and Sarah, Moses’ parents (who hid him from Pharoah), and then Moses, the people of Israel crossing the Red Sea on dry land, Rahab the prostitute who repented and helped the men of Israel, also Gideon, David, Samuel, the prophets, who spoke faithfully for God over and over to an unfaithful society.
Like the men and women we honor this Memorial Day for their sacrifices for the liberty of their fellow Americans, these men and women in Hebrews 11 often proved their faith by sacrificing their lives to be faithful to God’s truth.
They are that great cloud of witnesses—not because they’re watching us—no, because we have their lives as a witness of how to live by faith in the face of persecution…we’re watching them; we’re looking at them, to see how to live by faith.
They encourage us to have courage when we want to shrink back and do what’s easy, when we’re tempted to just “go with the flow,” even though the flow of our culture is often destroying lives and breaking apart families and leading to financial ruin.
The writer encourages us not to lose heart; he encourages us to remember that Christ suffered for us—the just for the unjust—the same way that many of our military have given their lives for those who don’t appreciate it, or honor them.
But there IS a difference! Jesus suffering and death gives us a freedom that goes beyond all the freedoms we have as Americans - as wonderful and as precious as those freedoms are.
Jesus sets us free from all our past mistakes, all our selfishness that has hurt others, and all the offenses others have committed against us—those hurts and memories no longer have power to oppress and victimize us.
Jesus sets us free to live lives that are honorable and worthwhile. And yes, we may suffer in the process, like these folks listed in Hebrews 11…all of them suffered in some way because they chose to live by faith. But it was their faith that helped them stay true to God’s call, it was their faith that helped them leave a legacy for others to see and follow.
Jesus gave us all a gift of freedom that surpasses all human freedoms: the freedom to become the men and women God created us to be. The freedom from the curse of death, so that, though we suffer, and even die for our faith or for our nation, we know that we will live with Christ in the world to come, knowing glories and blessings that we cannot imagine today.
So thank you to all these who have gone on before us. Thanks to my dad, who embraced what Jesus did for him, and who then set a powerful, consistent example for me to follow—an example that raises the bar for me and encourages me to stay faithful.
As I remember him today, with this great cloud of witnesses, I’m struck again by the fact that he was, along with my grandfather, the greatest man in my life. For that, I thank him...I thank both of them.
There’s something else I forgot to tell you. Because I was nine when he and my mom got married, my brothers and I got used to calling him “Mac,” which was his nickname. Even after he adopted all three of us, we called him Mac - it’s just what we all were used to.
But as I tell you about him and honor him today, along with all our veterans, I want to say with respect, humility, and love,