Published by Ronald Steed,
Sermon for Sunday, November 12, 2017 (Veterans Sunday)
St. James Episcopal Church, Poquetanuck, CT
Army Command Sergeant Major Roger Heinze was quoted in the Washington Post while talking to a team of soldiers in Afghanistan after a mission in which a teammate was killed: "I am not a psychiatrist, I am not a chaplain, I am just a guy that has lived through 46 years, I have been through what you have been through. I have lost a lot of troopers, and I have held that life in my hands and I have watched it slip away. But there are bad people out there that want us all dead. And you have to do what you were trained to do, you got to pick up (your) rifle and attack the ( ) enemy… then we can all go home." For veterans who have served in combat (and I am not one of them) this is the simple message: pick up your weapon and attack the enemy because they are going to attack you. This is a message about flesh and blood on both slides of war. For all veterans, the message was similar: sail your vessel, fly your aircraft, cook meals for your team, repair and clean your equipment, teach your class, do whatever it is you do that helps your unit to attack the enemy or to be ready to attack the enemy. Many vets are pretty proud of that service. There is such a singular focus to life in the military that can be incredibly satisfying, and it has a kind of endearing madness to it too. If you can get past the lunacies of "hurry up and wait", you might find yourself doing pretty remarkable things with the best people in the world. Sailing a steel tube with 130 souls a thousand miles from land and 500 feet deep is not just dangerous… it’s fun! And building one of those strange contraptions is a rush too. Big missions, big responsibilities, lots of good people getting things done. Civilian life doesn’t quite compare.
On Veterans Day, we honor all who have served in the U.S. Military. Memorial Day is when we remember those who died during military service. Veterans Day used to be Armistice Day, and recalled the ceasefire in World War I that took effect on "11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month" of 1918, 99 years ago yesterday. So there are two things we lift up today; the breakout of peace after a horrific war, and the flesh and blood people who have served in our military.
Not every vet is proud of their service, or at least "proud" is not the way they would put it. For some, there is a kind of moral ambiguity in the situations they found themselves in, and that’s putting it nicely. Some of you have relatives who have fought in combat, and it is common for vets not to talk about their war experience for their entire lives. Things they witnessed… unspeakable things they did or that were done to them… many want to forget…to put that behind them. Not every vet bears a physical wound from their service, but many bear mental wounds …moral wounds… relational wounds… spiritual wounds… for some, wounds that never seem to heal. If you have been watching Ken Burns’ films about the Viet Nam War on PBS, you get a sense… maybe a remembrance… of the moral ambiguity that service might involve.
And that moral ambiguity… those deep wounds of many kinds… happen when flesh and blood comes crashing up against the Powers of the world. A dead Marine in Da Nang was flesh and blood… the McNamara Department of Defense was a Power. The Apostle Paul put it this way in Ephesians 6: "be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is NOT against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." The application of military force is a political act by rulers and authorities. The application of Christianity is a political act too, even if we may not want to see it that way. That cross behind me is not just a nice decoration; it was an instrument of Roman torture… political torture, used by the rulers and authorities of one of the great superpowers of history to break and shame the naked flesh and flowing blood of its enemies. Do you suppose the Roman veterans who hammered nails into Jesus’ flesh and that of perhaps thousands of others over the course of their service suffered the wounds of moral ambiguity for it? I wouldn’t be surprised.
Early Christianity did not make an enemy of flesh and blood Roman soldiers. When the soldier asked John the Baptist what he should do, John told him "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages". Jesus declared that the Centurion with the sick slave was the most faithful person around, and that Centurion was praised for his righteousness by his community of Jews. Jesus did not curse the soldiers who nailed him to the cross, he prayed for God to forgive them. And it was a Roman Centurion who declared that Jesus was truly the Son of God. Enemies of flesh and blood are not what Christians struggle against.
Early Christianity DID mock the Roman Empire, its rulers and its authority. All four Gospels begin with the phrase "The Good News… the Gospel of Jesus Christ" in exactly the same way that every Roman Emperor’s edict would declare "The Good News of Caesar who declares blah, blah, blah." The same word for good news, ‘euangélion" was used. That is a political act… a Christian taunt that says "Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not". The first Roman soldier who climbed the wall of a besieged city and successfully placed the standard of the attacking army upon it was awarded a Battlement Crown, a great honor. When Paul was writing about his foolishness in Second Corinthians, he described his escape from Damascus this way: "the governor set a guard on the city in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands." That was a mockery of the Roman Battlement Crown, declaring it "foolish" in the eyes of God. When Paul says in First Thessalonians, today’s reading, that "we will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air", he is talking about the Roman practice of Parousia in which the people of a town would go out to meet the visiting Emperor and escort him back to the town. Again, Paul is ascribing to Jesus, the honor Romans would ascribe to the Emperor. To Early Christians, Rome was a Power… a spiritually evil thing Christians were to struggle against, and not the flesh and blood soldiers. The Politics of Christianity stood in opposition to the Politics of Rome… to the violence of Rome and the arrogance of Rome. The Politics of Christianity stand in opposition to the Politics of America too, and that may be hard for some of you to hear. And I don’t just mean this or that particular administration, but all administrations. The Christian weapons in this struggle… the ones we are to pick up and attack with, as Command Master Sargent Heinze puts it, are self-giving love, forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, and restoration. These are the weapons we being trained to use from this pulpit and from that table.
Will you pray with me for our Veterans? Gracious and loving God, we lift up to you this day all our veterans, those who served in the military of our nation and who gave so much for the freedoms that we enjoy. Pour your love into their hearts. Where they are wounded, heal them in mind, body, and spirit. Where they have broken relationships, reconcile them. Where they need forgiveness, forgive them. Where there is anything torn asunder, restore them. Give them grace to grow from strength to strength in your service. Raise up among them prophetic voices who will cry for peace, and put the tools of love into their hands for your mission. We thank you for their lives of service, and pray that you will help us to finish the good work here begun. Strengthen our efforts to live in a world governed by your peace, and hasten the day when we will stand before you side-by-side with our reconciled and former enemies to glorify your holy Name. Amen.