Sermon: Church of Reconciliation

Grace to you and peace from your brothers and sisters in Durham, where I join you from Saint Josephs Episcopal Church, and greetings from your humble servants in Centurions Guild, an ecumenical community of soldiers, veterans, and civilians wrestling between Christian faith, armed service, and national identity, for whom I speak as Executive Officer.

I have come to this beautiful house of worship at the invitation of Pastor Mark, who has invited me here as part of your fourth Peace Affirmation, that I might help you to “count the costs of war… cultivate moral imagination and discern God’s redemptive work in history.” Mine won’t be an Eastertide message, unfortuneatly. We’re gonna wander back to Holy Saturday for a bit…

~

Nine years ago this month, I rocked back and forth in the crypt of the Washington National Cathedral, tears tumbling awkwardly down my cheeks, my stomach in knots, hands wringing what was left of a speech I was to give before the New York Avenue Presbyterian church. My heart lay in pieces at the foot of a mosaic that spoke to me from beyond time and space.

Two roman soldiers were reclining at an open tomb, Jesus hovering above them with arms out-stretched. Before the mosaic was a small candelabra, a few flames flicking soft light upon Christ’s gentle features, playing devilish tricks with the faces of the two figures with whom I would most identify. You see, I spent the good part of a decade wearing another imperial uniform. From February 2000 to November 2006, I served on active duty as a forward observer for the artillery. I knew not what I did until after a 2004 deployment to Iraq. Were it not for those six years serving alongside other soldiers, what I heard from that mosaic would have been a far easier pill to swallow.

I found myself in in the belly of the beast for the same reasons I find myself here today – I was invited to share the living story of Christian soldiers to a listening Church. Earlier in the day I had read the haunting words of a friend who has since died as a result of his own service. Joshua Casteel had deployed at the very same time as I did; I as part of a quick reaction force deployable all over Iraq and he as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison. His words were bitter upon my lips, for he had recognized evil for more quickly than I had. I read an excerpt of his writings before over three thousand Christians in our nations capital, describing how it took just one mission outside the wire, after he realized he had involuntarily pointed a loaded rifle at three young boys, to see sin crouching at his door. He mastered the devil that day.

I was in Iraq for 389 days. As a member of an infantry platoon, I went on exponentially more missions than Joshua did as an interrogator. Wandering the Mesopotamian wilderness like Cain before me, my heart hardened in the desert heat like the mud bricks I watched cure in the Iraqi sun.

After reading Joshua’s confession from the pulpit of the National Cathedral, with my own hidden behind unspoken words that congregation would never hear, I fled the spotlight and quickly found myself buried in the crypt beside that martial mosaic. Kneeling to pray, tears began to flow freely, fixating as I was on the resurrected Christ. The saline spheres were not born in sadness, but anger. I raged at the soldiers I saw, the soldier I saw in myself, the hammer that saw nothing but nails.

Whatsoever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me

I couldn’t tell whether the words sprang from my heart or my head, or if they were even mine. The least of us are certainly widows and orphans, the victims of war, not its perpetrators. Before I could make sense of what I’d heard, another voice, nearer my own, took shape…

“Even these, who struck his face and cast lots for his clothes?”

Yes

All the breath in my lungs rushed out, fleeing the wickedness holding my heart hostage. Every day in war, I added a mud brick to the wall I built around my heart to protect it from the crushing weight of the guilt it was accumulating in the wilderness. Once more, words took form somewhere in my soul;

“Even these, who flogged him?

Yes.

Safe there in its cage, my soul was protected, pure, right. A third time, the Word forced his way in;

“Even these, who pierced Your very heart?”

Yes. 

Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

The cost of war is hard to calculate, much less quantify, as though, like commerce, everything has a price. Some things cannot be measured. We can’t count the costs of war any more than we can count bodies, as though we can know the worth of even a single human life. I learned that the hard way. That night in DC, I was called by God. I didn’t know it at the time; I didn’t even know it when I wrote my first book, Reborn on the Fourth of July, and you wont find any reference to vocation in the pages that I describe that event, but that night I was commissioned by God.

I read the words of another soldier, a friend whose death taught me the importance of taking a long view of Church history and redemption. Joshua died while I was on my book tour actually; just under a year after he was supposed to come to Duke for the 2011 After the Yellow Ribbon Conference. We dedicated that conference to him, a conference he would be proud of because we managed to get a lot of people in the room who otherwise would not make for polite company. To the institution where pacifism rules, we managed to get the ranking ethicist from West Point to give our keynote, a presentation that would make pacifists blush. His title captures his point well; The Beauty and Tragedy of a Combat Deployment.” He recently brushed the dust off his talk as an entry for “Ponder Christian Soldiers,” the Guild’s blog series with Christianity Today. With a more restrictive word count, he distilled his point even further; “War is Hell, But it Can Be Heaven.”

Do I sense an elevated collective heart rate…?

I mention this important point, that war is far more complex than most civilians fathom, because it is necessary if we are to actually draw upon not just pacifism and just peace, but just war and patriotism as well. The fourth affirmation is of utmost importance, but it is my experience that most pacifists do not do the critical work of engaging with their adversaries as they should. Too often, we retreat to our comfort zone, we group up with like minded people and start lobbing stones over the wall we build around the hearts of our ideological campgrounds.

One Veterans Day not too long ago, I was messaging friends on Twitter about sharing the #TenSaintsTenDays blog series. In the ten days between All Saints and Veterans Day, I was profiling a soldier-saint who blurs the categorization we sometimes overlay onto Christian soldiers; too often, Christian soldiers’ stories get co-opted to make a point for or against war, as though that sums up the meaning of their lives and service.

One friend, an activist whose work included nonviolent struggles, told me privately that reading their lives was “challenging,” and that he was concerned about receiving “a LOT of pushback” for discussing the merits of just-war traditions.

I reminded him that a theologian he and I both admire attracted numerous ROTC cadets to his classes on pacifism and nonviolence. This theologian managed to communicate effectively across political divides to cultivate conversation despite entrenched disagreements, setting what I thought was an important example to follow. In response, my friend suggested that I had been disqualified from the pacifist community and that I needed to connect ROTC types with nonviolent activists like him.

In Rome this very weekend, a conference is being convened by Catholic pacifists, one of the stated goals of which is “the explicit rejection of just war.” I would be more sympathetic had they invited contrasting voices or considered ways in which they had misrepresented the tradition by assuming the worst about war. It’s easy to be wrong when we surround ourselves with people who vehemently disagree with us. It’s harder to learn the habits of of our faith, of intellectual enemy love and long suffering. Can you imagine how hard it must be to sit down with someone who has 30 good reasons to betray you? Would we really make breakfast for the people who left us hanging to die?

“Follow me” the Word returns.

Cultivating moral imagination requires some stretching, it demands we depart our moral comfort zone. We may find that the things we once thought were repulsive actually have profound value. Insofar as nonviolent struggles, war, and pacifism involve the question of killing, addressing these important topics is a fools errand if it does not involve the voices of those doing the killing. When we are willing, able, and ready to sit down in the presence of our enemies, we may find that we are breathing as much threats and murder as they are, that the walls we’ve built around our own hearts need to fall first. It’s always hardest to be the first to drop the stones in your hand. Saul’s story reminds me that it’s even harder to hand back all the coats to those who don’t.

I was a pacifist for a long time, but I don’t know what to call myself lately. Nonviolent activists have called me a baby-killer, an orthodox priest suggested that I only went to war out of bloodlust, a prestigious theologian has suggested I be referred to as a murderer. Rarely ever are these accusations made about me directly, but I cannot escape being an member of the martial fraternity. There is no such thing as a “former veteran.” I thought I was dropping the stone from my hand when I refused to carry my weapon, I thought I was doing the right thing. But then I learned that I had merely changed sides, that fellow pacifists were just on the other side aiming their rhetorical weapons right back across a line drawn in the sand.

Maybe, that time when Jesus drew in the sand to protect a sinner, he wasn’t fashioning a line to determine sides, but an arrow pointing at the messiah, the only one who could save us from all this binary thinking.

Discerning God’s redemptive work in history forces us to think much more deeply about war and peace, and I pray that this church is up to the task. It will require that we wrestle with God and with those people whose faith does not look exactly like our own. Reading the story of salvation of history, we will encounter soldier saints and patriot pacifists who force us to expand the way we think about the question of killing. When the saints come marching in, we’ll find in their number not just the military martyrs whose camouflage uniform was washed white by their selfless sacrifice, but also pious patriots who found ways to subvert the profession of arms nonviolently.

We will also hear the blood of Christian soldiers crying out from the ground, whose ‘sacrifice’ was mental health and moral integrity. Certainly you have heard of the 20 veterans who kill themselves every day. If the wider American religious landscape is reflected in the military, if 70 percent of service members are Christian, then fourteen of the daily twenty are Christian soldiers. Suicide can often result from internalizing the kinds of comments I’ve heard in my decade of working at the intersection of Christian faith and military service. I am lucky, and I thank God for the mission he has given me, to witness with and for Christian soldiers like me, like Joshua Casteel. Centurions Guild is the vessel through which I hope the story of Christian soldiers will continue to grow and breath life into the harrowing silence that so often follows in wars wake.

Worse than those things I heard about myself was the deafening silence from so many congregations unwilling to take the risk of saying the wrong thing. These affirmations give me hope that the Presbyterian church is willing to step out and Risk Peace. I thank you for your innovative witness and also for your attention today, and I hope you’ll stay for the lunch hour to hear more about Centurions Guild. Pray for us, that we may be partners in this important work of discernment today and as you prepare for the 2016 General Assembly.

Hear now the prayer of the patron of soldiers and chaplains, saint Martin of Tours;

Lord, if your people still have need of my services, I will not avoid the toil. Your will be done. I have fought the good fight long enough. Yet if you bid me continue the work you entrust to me, I will never beg to be excused from failing strength. While you alone command, I will fight beneath your banner. Grant us your peace, that we may pass it to our neighbors as well as our enemies.

Those Treading in Darkness Have Seen a Great Light: A Lenten Sermon

 

Delivered April 5, 2014 at the Keep Making Peace conference, put on by the Michigan State University Wesley Foundation. This sermon is a blood relative of one I gave at Duke Divinity for a graduate course on Theology & Trauma

This morning, I sought to stretch your minds. We engaged academically with moral injury; its popular usage, origins, and assumptions. I suggested that moral selves are formed in community, and that diagnosing any such injury without first comprehending the body upon which its inflicted, is ill-advised. If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, then we must look to the moral communities in which prospective soldiers are formed, especially churches. It is to that body which I now turn my attention and yours. With our intellectual discussion behind us, I now seek to stretch your hearts. As with before, you might feel a slight sting, a little discomfort, a reminder that stretching involves pain. I hope you bear with that pain, a pain I’ve felt for so long and need, for all our sakes, to share.

I will offer to us gathered here a word God has given me in my heart, a heart that’s seen it’s fair share of stretching and tearing. As a worshipful expression of the church, we’ll begin with a reading of God’s word as revealed in scripture, followed by a prayerful sermon, and concluded with a brief moment of silent reflection before we enter into a time of discerning conversation.

Please respond to God’s word in accordance with your tradition.

– Read Isaiah 9:1a-7

– Read Matthew 4:1-17 

~ ~ ~

“In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…

In 2011, I was invited to speak at the national Mennonite Church’s bi-annual convention in Pittsburgh, PA. Mennonites are one of a few denominations known in the US as “Historic Peace Churches,” whose members and congregations are largely pacifist, and I had by then gained a named for myself as an outspoken Christian veteran against war. The national director of youth peace education for the Mennonite Church had invited me to speak to nearly 1000 youth group students and leaders about peacemaking and pacifism. As is usually the case with these things, I was also given free reign around the convention during the sessions for which I was not booked to speak. A seminar on masculinity and spirituality looked particularly intriguing, so I went.

During the session, participants were broken into groups and given a handful of picture cards. On the first set of cards were images of famous and infamous men, which we were instructed to rate on a scale of masculinity. The cards depicted men as diverse as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Napoleon Dynamite. In this first exercise, groups were told to determine our own rating criteria, and my group decided that “stands up for what he thinks is right” was primary of a few distinctively “manly” traits we thought up.

Then we were handed a second set of picture cards. This set had images of different jobs, including things like farmer, preacher, professor, and artisan. We were told not to worry too much about specifics, but to take the depictions are generic; it didn’t matter if it was a dairy farmer or a corn grower, for example. Our task this time was rate these vocations in terms of our stated criteria, which for our group was “stands up for what he thinks is right.”

After my group spread out all the cards on our table, my eyes settled on a drawing of a crusader knight in armor, a generic soldier. Apparently, I was not the only one who noticed. Another man in the group placed his hands decisively on the card saying, almost inaudibly, “Well, we know where this one goes,” as he proceeded to push the soldier as far from himself as his arm could reach. Were he able, I have no doubt he would politely, but firmly, remove the card from the deck altogether; ‘No value in soldiering,’ he might have been thinking, ‘no light in that dark world of war.’

I spent many years in darkness, and I may yet dwell in its region.  But dwelling isn’t the right word for those of us who carry this particular darkness about us, for we are drifters and wanderers. Bereft of any anchor, those who’ve served, fought, and killed in war drift violently about the moral tempest left of the world after we’ve seen what it can be in all its ugliness. We tread dark water and suck down big gulps of bitter brine in the sea between what should be and what could have been. At startling rates, we slip beneath the surface, our strength gone, our bodies and spirits failing. Once victimizers, we are victim to the very violence we wrought to lands whose dreams we defaulted in favor of our own. We kill ourselves at such swift speed that it is one of the leading causes of death in the martial fraternity. Beginning in 2009, there were more soldier suicides than there were deaths due to combat, which carries with it subtle hints of such double evil as boiling a calf in its mothers milk, don’t you think?

The sentiment of the Mennonite men I witnessed was not unlike another I heard at another peacemaking conference. Just months before I was to begin seminary at Duke Divinity School, I attended the Peace Among the Peoples conference in Elkhart, IN, a precursor to an International Ecumenical Peace Convocation held in Kingston, Jamaica. There, listening to an Orthodox priest give one of many papers on pacifism, I was one of only two military community members present. Speaking about peace without those who know and conduct war seemed ironic to me, but apparently not to many of the speakers. I remember the Orthodox priest because of a brief remark he made in reference to people like me, people who had visited the dark wilderness of war. “We know,” he insisted confidently, “that the reason soldiers go to war is bloodlust.”

At its uttering, I swore I heard God’s heart break with my own. Later that evening, I remember raging at God that the burden of my vocation was too great! My calling of treading between this world of war and the promise of peace, with those who’ve seen with their own eyes such a hell and await such an audacious hope, was too painful! It cut too deep, hit too close to home! I wanted to study something safely abstracted from my own personal experience.

Prominent pacifists, some of whom I would go on to study with at Duke, seemed so blinded to the beautiful tragedy that is modern combat. Their minds made up, their hearts hardened, I felt banished far from the presence and conversations of such purportedly peacemaking people.

I would go on later to earn a Certificate in Gender, Theology, and Ministry at Duke University and spend a year working as co-coordinator of the Divinity School Women’s Center as the third male to hold the position in 40 years. It was in those minority communities that I would come to learn that there is a reason the LGBT community uses the metaphor of a closet, and it has everything to do with darkness and isolation. Exilic communities, those banished to the vesper light of the margins of society, are where we will find evidence of God’s presence in the world. Whether the marginalized gay community, African Americans, draft dodgers, the outcast and persecuted, those weak and traumatized; Blessed are they, Jesus says in Matthew 5, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, those dwelling or treading in darkness, according to Isaiah, have seen a great light. Upon those who are banished to the region and the shadow of death shines a bright light. The prophet implies a contrast; it is not upon the proud, the popular, and the prominent of society, those who you would expect that the light shines, but ON THEM, on those who carry this terrible wisdom home from dark places.

Therefore “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

The author of Matthew’s gospel first places these ominous words upon the lips of the prophetically gifted John, who baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River. The passage we’ve read follows immediately upon the heels of this momentous event and Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the desert, a central text for Ash Wednesday services and the rest of Lent, the season in which we currently find ourselves. But pausing for a brief textual reflection might be in order before losing sight of Matthew’s deep respect for the Hebrew scriptures and the prophet Isaiah, whose name means “God is salvation.” After all, our passage concludes with Jesus beginning his earthly ministry with this potent portent that he uses as his presidential inaugural address; “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

Many scholars have noticed similarities between Jesus’ 40-day temptation and Israel’s 40-year test in the wildernesses. But a keen and creative (perhaps martial) reader might notice there is in Isaiah’s call story, three chapters prior to today’s reading, a metropolitan vision very similar to the one Satan shows Jesus in the third and final temptation in Matthew’s gospel. The devil brings Jesus to the top of a hill and puts on display all the kingdoms and municipalities upon the earth, in all their obvious majesty, before inviting Jesus to worship him. Likewise, when Isaiah is called to be a prophet, he is shown the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and all of their self-declared splendor. But in Isaiah, the towns were not very majestic, for verse 12 recalls that, “The Lord sent everyone far away and the land was utterly forsaken.” Nothing like the contemporary worship songs that borrow Isaiah’s words “Here am I,”[1] his actual accursed call was to harden the hearts of the people he loved, to cause them to “be ever hearing, but never understanding; to be ever seeing, but never perceiving.”[2]

In Iraq, soldiers like myself saw ancient capitals, biblical villages, desolate and abandoned, mirroring Isaiah’s apocalyptic epiphany. In Babylon of old, with the ancient prophet, we saw “The cities lay ruined and without inhabitant, the houses deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged.”[3] For war “sent everyone far away and the land was utterly forsaken.”[4] We don’t have to imagine the scene from Isaiah, for the Lord has shown us with our own eyes. Reading the bible with a soldier’s sense is both a blessing and a curse… if you don’t believe me, let’s return to Matthew.

Knowing it spelled danger for himself when his cousin suffered arrest, Jesus withdraws from the Jerusalem hills and heads toward Galilee in the north, the land of the ancient tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon. According to the Song of Deborah in Judges 5,[5] Zebulon was the tribe responsible for carrying the martial staff who, along with Naphtali, was named explicitly as those who stood prepared to give their lives bravely upon the field of battle against the enemy commander Sisera.[6] Yet, for some reason, Zebulon and Naphtali are referred to in Isaiah as those who “dwell in darkness… in the region and shadow of death.”[7] It is nonetheless to the land of these brave warrior clans that the Son of God goes “so that what was spoken by the prophet might be fulfilled.”

The region and shadow of death evokes the 23rd psalm, one of the most popular to modern combatants. Penned by an ancient warrior, King David’s own dark, crimson stained hands prevented him from building a temple for the Lord. This psalm of his insists, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”[8]

A psalm of relief for perpetrators of violence, it is often used as a reassurance of God’s protection and benevolence despite one’s captivity in the dark valley of the shadow of death. Were you to meander through any given unit in Afghanistan, a war that has surpassed every other war before it in our history for its length, you would find Psalm 23 scribbled on Kevlar dust covers, scrawled upon improved body armor vests, or penned on papers stuck in a safe place close to a soldiers vulnerable flesh. A place only the closest battle buddy would be told about, so that when necessary, “just in case,” it could be delivered to a close family member. Those of us who know war have absorbed a terrible wisdom, for war is a terrible darkness. In fact the prophet Isaiah refers to Zebulon and Naphtali in twilight terms because, as two of the northern most tribes, they were the first to be utterly destroyed and carried off by the Assyrians in 723 BCE.

But darkness is not all that war and military service is.

War transpires within great darkness, and those who walk in the martial valley of the shadow of battlefield death acquire a terrible wisdom, borne of the dark night of a soul. But darkness is not all that war is, for darkness only exists as a shadow of the light. Though borne in deep darkness, we see in veterans like J.D. Salinger deep moral conflict that violates our usual impulses about war. Salinger created the character of Holden Caulfield, who compulsively obsesses about phonies and fakes, and a recent biography of the hermetic writer and wounded WWII warrior portrays the author of Catcher in the Rye as simultaneously perpetrator and victim.[9] In its pages, one reads of Salinger’s remark to his young daughter, his participation in liberating Nazi concentration camps in mind, that “you never get the smell of death out of your nostrils.” Peacemakers must reckon with the fact that soldiers are not just perpetrators, they are also victims.

In our day, their moral agency is often compromised by the nature of the economic draft, in which the poorest neighborhoods in need of social mobility often give their young up to the fight, as Zebulon and Naphtali before them. A financial crisis here, a relational emergency there; one way or another, the young men I served with often joined out of less than ideal circumstances. Even after 9/11, it was surprisingly rare to hear of patriotism as a motivating force for enlistment. Social circumstances often necessitate service that can provide a steady paycheck and much-needed direction and discipline. Not everyone goes willing and ready for the fight, sometimes it is a decision that comes at great expense, and the costs are often counted only after the dust settles.

But pigeon-holing soldiers as ‘damaged goods’ or as being driven by “bloodlust” does them a disservice, for they have many gifts to offer the church. The virtues of military service must not be overlooked, and both the church and society would do well to value of the kind of selflessness, sacrifice, respect, courage, and obedience that military training and service cultivates, which is pounded into recruits during basic training. Obedience, even to the point of death, is one virtue of many that soldiers can teach Christians. When I stood tall in formation every weekday at 0630 for first formation, I knew the men beside me were prepared, like Zebulon and Naphtali before them, to give their lives for me in battle, and I was for them. The martial bond may be shadowy and tormented at times, but ON THEM a great light has shone! For I fail to have that same trust in those who sit beside me in the pews for weekly worship…

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

After all, soldiers do not go to war alone, and the spiritual stowaways of PTSD and moral injury are not theirs alone to wrestle with. TRAUMA IS SOCIAL; pain does not emerge from a vacuum. Soldiers have the unique burden of feeling like victim and perpetrator at once. In the military, we forfeit much of our moral agency and too often fail to recognize morally reprehensible acts until it is far too late. Victims of circumstances like operational tempo, it becomes all too easy to pervert a virtue into a vice. We are conditioned to obey, obey, obey, until we forget what it is like to think morally, to participate conscientiously within the moral framework that war requires. Satan helps us along either by pacifists declaring war devoid of morality, wringing their hands like Pilate until the skin peels, or by patriots spouting platitudinous gratitude through salivating chops with a taste for war.

No shortage of veterans have recounted in their writings that the operational tempo and moral ambiguity allowed for, if not encouraged, a rapid decline of moral judgment. Combat trauma, like any trauma, is possible only in a social context. In numerous accounts of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, testimony of the participating soldiers suggested that they did it in order to act in accordance with the soldiers on their left and their right. What begins as a small trickle of sin can easily grow imperceptibly until it is a torrent of evil. War casts a moral shadow upon those who dwell in its valley of death, but those who navigate its spurs and draws must not be forced to do so in isolation.

Bill Mahedy, a Roman Catholic chaplain during Vietnam, recounts in his 1986 book Out of the Night: The Spiritual Journey of Vietnam Veterans, that “Many of America’s vets inhabit a world of spiritual bleakness – a dark night of the soul… But their journey is [ours], their darkness is ours and so too is the path” that they must travel.[10] The Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel prophetically reminded the church of the so-called ‘greatest generation,’ “In a democracy, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” The church must walk with soldiers and veterans in their spiritual torment, for when two or three are gathered joy is multiplied and grief divided. After all, veterans sit beside us in the pews, wait behind us in line at the grocery store, and stand before us in the pulpit or at a podium. Invisible to all but the keenest observers, they walk amongst us, wandering a moral wilderness marked by sanctimonious trivialities, platitudinous gratitude, or deafening silence. Simultaneously the centerpiece of American rhetoric and the epitome of tokenizing appreciation, the military community is everything to everyone. At once “scapegoat”[11] and golden child, is it any wonder soldiers have forgotten who and whose they are?

In the face of such duplicitous depictions, sometimes we implode and destroy our own lives by drugs, alcohol, speeding, or other suicidally reckless behavior. Marine Lance Corporal Jeffrey Lucey wrote home to his family about becoming a monster, about feeling no longer human in the midst of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. After returning home and being discharged, his father found him in the family basement a day after being denied admission to a VA psych ward, hanging by a garden hose wrapped twice around his 23 year old neck. Other times, veterans explode and our misery exacts company by violent force, like when Army Sergeant Timothy McVeigh laid waste to 168 lives in Oklahoma and then politely asked for the death penalty.

The identity of soldiers exists only in caricature for a large majority of the population. If not monsters, they are typecast as heroes. But if you listen closely, even the most heroic of them refuse the title, insisting they were “just following orders.” Not reducible to either “hero” or “monster,” soldiers represent the reality of our beautifully tragic humanity, capable of both audacious acts of charity as well as the most horrific acts of hatred. With Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, you will hear the Nuremburg war criminals likewise insist, “I was just doing my job.” Always defying the rampant stereotypes and constantly shifting categories for combat trauma placed upon them, soldiers and veterans make manifest in America God’s call to be a morally integral people; to mean what we say and practice what we preach. The erratic treatment they suffer by society hints not at their own disorder, but that of the community that sends them to dark and bloody battlefields while maintaining a charade of serenity back home.

If we as a society fail to recognize the social reality of combat trauma, if we fail to accept the responsibility of sending soldiers to war, they and their stowaways will come back to haunt us. And I do not mean merely the violent acts that war-weary wounded warriors carry out, at the literal and figurative end of their rope, though there are many. Like the prophet Isaiah, soldiers embody both beauty and tragedy at once, blessings and curses alike. It was the prophet who announced God’s judgment or favor upon Israel. It should not be seen as a coincidence that Mahedy makes repeated reference in his manuscript to veterans representing a prophetic presence in America.[12]

Who and what are the prophets, then?

Abraham Heschel describes the prophets as those who feel fiercely, hate the approximate, and are sleepless and grave. They curse their own people and disdain those for whom God’s presence is a comfort and security. He says their consciences BURN; they have seen the truth and cannot remain silent, even if it means screaming incoherently in the face of injustice. Their ears hear the silent sigh of God, they are lonely watchmen and watchwomen who are strange, one-sided, and unbearably extremist. Prophets are assaulters of the mind who have been shattered by some cataclysmic experience. They are bitter with anguish, and Martin Luther King calls their vocation one of agony, whose torment can only possibly be made more severe by the proposal that they remain silent. The prophets must speak, Martin insists, but they are not words the community often welcomes.

The full passage in Isaiah from which Matthew draws alludes to the prophet’s bipolar nature, swinging from happy blessing to angry curse at the drop of a hat. In fact the reference to the martial tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali is about the twin tribes being “brought into contempt.” As prophesied, and perhaps as deserved, soldiers are looked at with scorn. Perhaps deservedly because soldiers must commit what normally would be unthinkable acts while in service to their nation. Beauty and tragedy kiss in war, blessing and curse are one. The same young man that one day might jump on a grenade for you, will another day cut the ear off a dead body as a war trophy.

Soldiers know the anguish of being “brought into contempt,” for good reason or for bad. We know what it is like to be looked down upon; obvious and outright as in Vietnam and hidden in platitudes as we know today. But we have a word to speak back to society. Mahedy states that, “the nation that believes itself to be morally correct in all that it does would do well to learn from the bitter anguish of those who fell from grace while doing their bidding.”

Trauma is social; while some might be guilty, we are all responsible

The Hebrew word for prophets means “those called,” for their role is especially involved with recognizing and passing on words from God. Each of the major prophets hear a call and answer, and very rarely is their vocation of speaking blessings and curses an enviable one.

The Church must affirm the presence, persistence, and problem of the prophetic vocation. Indeed, Mahedy speculates about how veterans might fulfill a prophetic place in church and society, how they might embody prophetic witness before the peacemaking community, including a commitment to share their bitter anguish. The gifts soldiers bring are not merely in carrying the rhetorical blessings of prosperity that their sacrifice supposedly makes possible, but in the curses they make manifest in a nation claiming “We Will Never Forget;” the very “sanctimonious trivialities” that funded a world war on terror.

If veterans represent a prophetic presence amongst us, the reading from Luke 13 this morning that Bishop Kiesey referenced should be as a thorn in our sides! Jesus weeps for a people who kills their own prophets. Our complicity is an unpleasant and inconvenient thought, but it is one we as a church within this nation must reckon with. This city upon a hill, this land our founders called a New Jerusalem, is still killing her prophets! They are no longer put to death by stones or by the sword, but by silence, disregard, and constantly shifting categories to explain away the cataclysmic experience that shattered any semblance of normalcy they once had. It certainly is not uncommon to shuffle such troubling people and thoughts away from the center of public discourse and theology.

Perhaps disturbed by the eclectic prophetic voice, Matthew omits the first line from the ninth chapter of Isaiah, “there will be no gloom for those in anguish.” In fact, verses 2-7 are the only ones in the entire chapter that speak comfort and good tidings. Verse 6 is a popular advent verse, reminding us at the start of every liturgical year that a human child, God incarnate, is given us. It might beautifully evoke humanity’s capacity to embody a holy spirit, but verses 8 onward swing heavily toward the tragic; not a child given for us, but a word AGAINST the people of God, which will “fall on” us…

[a veteran reads vv.8-17]

To sprint full speed away from the consequences of two wars fought in our name and with our tax dollars will only catapult us into a brick wall. To dress up the crumbling façade of our national foreign policy and the silent complicity of the church with “dressed stones” spells our destruction.

If God takes on vulnerable human flesh, if God indeed dwells within us, and we experience something of God in one another, then the question that Mahedy asks in his book, “Where was God in Vietnam (or Iraq & Afghanistan)?” is as rhetorical a question as Cain’s was of his being his brother’s keeper. The real question is not “where was God,” but “WHERE WERE YOU?”

Where were you when our servant the president, stood proudly upon the rubble of 3,000 lives and shouted, “I can hear you… and the people who knocked these towers down will hear all of us soon.” Tears of grief were used as cries for war, and the church failed to take responsibility for its own teachings. Being on active duty as a professing Christian, I looked for the stories of just warriors taking refuge in churches or ­­­­­of religious leaders working against easy assumptions and binary thinking. I found none, so I marched, uniformed and uninformed, off to war.

Where were you during the surge; Shopping? Studying?

Where were you for the drone war in Pakistan; Protesting?

If combat and other traumas are social, then soldiers do not go to war alone, which means the church and the state are not innocent. “In a representative democracy, some are guilty but all are responsible.” If they are anything like mine, your hands, however young and innocent they once were, have been stained a deep crimson red.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

It was violence that kept King David from being given the opportunity to build a permanent dwelling place for the Lord, for there was too much blood on his hands. It was violence for which Zebulon and Naphtali were so esteemed, for good reasons and for bad, and it was they who were carried off first into exile to be forever lost. It was violence that characterized the world of Noah, violence and corruption that grieved God so that he decided wash it all away in a torrent of water. When God raised his keshet, his archers bow, up to the sky, it symbolized that he is a God who suffers with us. Violence is far more complex than either good or evil allow for, as the ancient deluge attests. And those who commit it in our names are neither monster nor hero, for they are made in the image of a God who gives life and takes it away but who does not share our human pettiness and partisanship.

In a midrash on Exodus 14, where YHWH is first called a warrior, the medieval rabbis imagine the angels joining in the Song of the Sea, Moses’ and Miriam’s ballad in Exodus 15. But God, they say, blessed be he, rebuked the angels, saying, “The work of my hands is drowned at sea, and you wish to sing?” Far from being an absentee landlord, this God born as a vulnerable child for us, Emmanuel, suffers with his conflicted creation.

You know what haunts me most of all about my 14 months in the combat? Unlike other infantrymen in my unit, I have no concrete number that plagues me late at night, no faces that intrude my dreams. But the nature of my job as an artilleryman left me with very good reason to think that I killed people in Iraq. I think I killed people in Iraq, and it tortures me not knowing, knowing paradoxically that I’ll never know. I can only THINK that I killed people in Iraq.

But you know what else – I THINK WE ALL DID.

In Genesis, our warrior God pointed his archer’s bow toward the sky and promised to never again destroy the world by water. The promise, however, was not that destruction would never come again, just not in the same manner. On April 30, 1967, at his home parish of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin heard God saying to America “You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name.”[13]

Our worldly engagements have not gone unnoticed by the almighty. Wars without reason and without end have earned us God’s ire. Indeed, the church may be under judgment once again. America has failed to be humble but confident in her power, so that what was spoken by the prophet Martin might be fulfilled.

Since Korea, that “forgotten war” that brought us our current epidemic of soldier suicides, God has been departing from the church in America. In 1974, theologian James McClendon wrote in the introduction to his landmark book Biography as Theology; Vietnam… “forced many young Americans to question or even discard the pieties their parents had held secure… the credibility of [church and state] declined together: religion as well as nationalism, God as well as country.”

My dad, and other veterans of the American War in Vietnam, could not flee the sinking church quickly enough. The ironic gap between preaching and practice grew like the federal defense budget; too fast for its own good. Invested in maintaining a status quo requiring the blanket justification of violence and corruption, the church alienated an entire generation.

America today seems persistently obsessed with exporting any morally or emotionally ambiguous experiences. We lose in Vietnam? Blame it on the veterans! Another unjust war or two for our children? Send the poor!

God is with those condemned to the dark places beyond our happy sunshine shores, on them a great light has shone. Its credibility compromised, America is no longer “the light of the world,” a city upon a hill. The trauma that veterans express in vicariously killing and destroying is a more realistic appraisal of American life than those spouted incessantly on television, radio, newspapers, and other centers of influence. Isaiah agrees, prophesying “For those who guide this people have been leading them astray, and those who are guided by them are swallowed up.”

If King is among the prophets, and I think he is, then despite his warning, we have “in pride and in arrogance of heart” remained in our martial ways, so God’s power no longer alights upon our amber waves of grain or our purple mountain majesties, if you believe it ever did. Isaiah was called to make the heart of his beloved people calloused; “their ears dull and their eyes blind. Lest they see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”[14] God seems to have no compassion for Gold Star families, for their cries for peace go unanswered. The, “pride of our nation,”[15] “idols of our hearts,”[16] fall upon their own swords faster than our enemies swords fall upon them. Every 65 minutes, we are reminded of the double evil we’ve spawned in our modern wars.

The backbone of our power has been broken and the ruined church is a people of unclean lips and dark hearts hidden behind a façade of fabricated faith. The people that perform our violence for us are turning it on themselves because America cannot or will not accept its collective complicity. America is boiling its young men and women in the milk of their ancestors’ unrequited violence.

The plight of veterans is punishment enough and they are not cursed themselves, for “there will be no gloom for they who were in anguish.” Rather their suffering makes evident God’s anguish over a superficial church, God’s grieved departure from our hallowed naves of silence and complacency. The dark and terrible wisdom gained by veterans of war is not unlike that which we all inherit from Eden. As before, we’ve consumed the fruit and acquired profound knowledge of good and evil, but not without great cost. Forcing the poison upon soldiers by ignoring the social nature of their trauma will not spare the rest of us from its effect. And when, as Martin similarly prophesied, America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy will read “War.”

In our day, God manifests his judgment not by deluge but by disenfranchisement. Starting in 1977, Gallop began a poll to measure the American public’s trust in various professions. Initiated two years after the final withdrawal of American troops from war-ravaged Vietnam, well over 60% of Americans trusted clergy. As McClendon predicted, that clerical trust declined steadily, and last year it hit its all time low. Church membership has declined in tandem, and many clergy present likely feel the pressure to “grow” congregations in which you serve. But if we fail to see and comprehend the heart of God, from whence might such “growth” possibly come?

Violence is not the problem per se, but what we do with the violence we propose is necessary or politically responsible. For pacifists and patriots alike, binary thinking and exportation of responsibility has been the norm. But those dwelling and treading in darkness are not the problem, for trauma is social. We should be dividing this terrible wisdom amongst all responsible parties, we should be carrying this great burden with them, for “their journey is [ours], their darkness is ours and so too is the path”[17] that they must travel.

Healthy conversation has eroded in our congress as well as within congregations. We have failed to deal with who and whose we are in the midst of wars and rumors of wars. One of you says, “I follow Colbert”; another, “I follow Stewart”; and another, “I follow Maddow”; still another, “Well, I follow Olberman.” I ask you: is Christ divided? Was Pelosi crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Obama?

…there is something wrong with us, Church.

If Mahedy is right, and veterans occupy a prophetic place in the ekklesia, how we treat them says less about them than it does about the church. In that Mennonite convention years ago, was it the church that acted so dismissively? I think it was. Saint Augustine wrote that the church he saw in the 4th century was a whore, but it was his mother. I too found a whore that day in 2011; I saw and heard a monster, and it took years before I could make out the faint outline of a wounded lamb. I could see in those peacemakers a reflection of my own brokenness, not quite sure how to respond, they pushed people like me away, they insisted I was motivated by bloodlust, for the only soldiers they knew were figments of their imagination, caricatures, tired stereotypes kept alive as ideological straw men. Likewise, I had no idea that there were real examples of Christians who responded differently to war, so I did what was expected of me. But the gospels challenge us to see things upside down, to refuse to capitulate with even the subtlest of evils.

If we are to be peacemakers, who are called children of God, what is a distinctively theological response to trauma of killing, to the last 12 years or more of war in our names and with our money? What does it look like to turn from our ways if our nation is subject to Martin’s prophecy?

In Luke, Jesus cries out for his capitol city over its treatment of their prophets, lamenting that his peoples hearts are calloused, their ears dull and their eyes blind. They kill the prophets and stone those sent for their benefit. With Christ, soldiers and veterans weep over the communities that silently reject them and the painful anguish they bear. With Jeremiah, known as The Weeping Prophet, the soldier tells us the source of their deep and grievous lament. From the very first book of his Lamentations; “this is why I weep and my eyes overflow with tears. No one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit.”[18]

Restore the spirits of those who serve in your name. Be with them in their spiritual torment. If we don’t change our ways, if we don’t accept our responsibility for decades of war and rumors of war, we will continue toward the inevitable and irrevocable consequences of our military exploits. Every day, it seems, spiritual stowaways of war continue to bring hell to earth, dragging the sulfurous stench of carbon gunfire and brimstone to our shores, our homes, our …military bases. Despite Isaiah’s warning, we continue to insist “with pride and arrogance of heart,”[19] ‘we rely on drones and the multitude of our remote pilots, and in the great strength of our nuclear weapons.’[20] Continue in our ways, and we cannot expect these things to change either. With Rome, we will be overcome by the very violence we employ. Saint Augustine watched as his beloved city fell to repeated invasions by hordes of vandals and other barbarian tribes. The southern tribes of Judah and did not heed Isaiah’s warning either, and Jeremiah wrote Lamentations as he watched the temple destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. He wept as he watched it taken apart stone by stone, just as Jesus prophesied upon the 2nd temple centuries later. Luke recalls in his 21st chapter, “Not one stone was left on another, every one was thrown down”[21] as the early church looked on in 70 CE.

But it does not have to end like this. Another, more recent empire from whose rib we ourselves were fashioned, escaped the disastrous consequences of pride and arrogance. With the help of a frail Indian prophet who refused to capitulate with evil, England slowly released its death grip on increasing numbers of its former colonies and thereby spared God’s full wrath. Year by year, it incrementally receded from its former position of super power and was saved the devastating catastrophes of empires past. Gandhi may not have been a prophet, but he was a veteran whose visceral experience in the Zulu and Boer wars almost certainly affected him. The Indian people embraced his prophetic nonviolent direct action and refused to return evil for evil, interrupting the cycle of violence.

As for us, how do we treat the prophets sent to us that preach pending doom, like Jeremiah and Jesus each did over Jerusalem? Another prophet, Jonah, knew the gravelly grave he could have met with when God called him to Nineveh, the capital of the most powerful nation of his day, the Assyrians. Called to a city whose resting place is found in Mosul, Iraq, where American foreign policy has left a bloody footprint. Jonah’s story should make us wonder whether the flaming torch might be passed in that sandy wilderness to the next generation of prophets called by God to warn our own era’s most powerful nation… When they come, are we doomed as Jonah wished of his enemies, or do we repent as the Ninevites miraculously did? When the prophets speak, will we say to them “here is the number of a great therapist” or “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”[22]? Do we laugh, or do we mourn? Are we blessed, or are we cursed?

So, Church. If Isaiah’s accursed call is passed to us by the prophet Martin, that we have been made callous, blind, and deaf, then there is but one escape from the wrath of a mournful God;

See, but not with your eyes

Hear but not with your ears

Love, but not with your words

Preach, but not with your mouth

Seek first the kingdom of God.[23] Grow in grace, not in numbers.

 

Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

Amen.”


 

[1] Isaiah 6:8

[2] Isaiah 6:9

[3] Isaiah 6:11

[4] Isaiah 6:12

[5] Judges 5:14

[6] Judges 5:18

[7] Isaiah 9:2

[8] Psalm 23:4

[9] In fact, the 7th chapter is titled simply “Victim and Perpetrator”

[10] Mahedy, 16

[11] Mahedy, 60

[12] Mahedy, 163

[13] Martin Luther King Jr. “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” Sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967. Retrieved from http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article16183.htm (February 25, 2014)

[14] Isaiah 6:10

[15] FDR, June 5, 1945, on the eve of D-Day; http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/fdr-prayer.htm

[16] Mark Twain, War Prayer

[17] Mahedy, 16

[18] Lamentations 1:16

[19] Isaiah 9:9b

[20] Adapted from Isaiah 31:1

[21] Luke 21:6

[22] Luke 13:35

[23] Matthew 6:33

Sermon: Theology & Combat Trauma

*The following sermon was preached March 4th, 2014 at Duke Divinity School, upon the invitation of Dr. Warren Kinghorn, for his graduate course on Theology & Trauma. Page references are to Bill Mahedy’s Out of the Night; The Spiritual Journey of Vietnam Veterans, which seminarians were to have read prior to meeting. Rather than my habit of following the Revised Common Lectionary, I began with a line God had on my heart that evoked combat trauma; “those in darkness have seen a great light.” The sermon unfolded from there.

I hope I am a Christian. I happen to also be a veteran. At times I wish I could disinherit the latter as easily as we can the former, but that’s a matter for another time. Being a gathering of two or more, I’d like to recognize the Jesus is amongst us. I will not give a presentation or a lecture, at least not to begin with. I will instead offer to you the word God has given me for this time and place. Like any doxological expression of the church, we’ll begin with a reading of God’s word as revealed in scripture, a short prayer and the sermon, followed by a brief moment of silent reflection.

Please respond to God’s word in accordance with your tradition.

[Read Isaiah 9:1-7, followed by Matthew 4:1-17]

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…

The first day I stepped foot on Duke’s campus as a student, God’s heart broke. And no, it wasn’t because this egotistical asshole had arrived. It was the long, labored sigh of a collective transgression by his church, the body of his son Jesus Christ.

I spent many years in darkness, and I may yet dwell in its region. But dwelling isn’t the right word for those of us who carry this particular darkness about us, for we are drifters and wanderers. Bereft of any anchor, those who’ve served, fought, and killed in war drift violently about the moral tempest left of the world after we’ve seen what it can be in all its ugliness. We tread dark water and suck down big gulps of bitter brine in the sea between what should be and what could have been. At startling rates, we slip beneath the surface, our strength gone, our bodies and spirits failing. Once victimizers, we are victim to the very violence we wrought to lands whose dreams we defaulted in favor of yours. We kill ourselves at such swift speed that it is one of the leading causes of death in the martial fraternity. Beginning in 2009, there were more soldier suicides than there were combat fatalities, which carries with it subtle hints of such double evil as boiling a calf in its mothers milk, don’t you think?

As I’ve said, the day I became a student at Duke I could hear God’s heart break.

I was sitting in the very first day of orientation, only vaguely listening to the lectures as I planned out my first semester with the help of an old student bulletin online. When the representative from CAPS began, I almost felt sorry for him, the crowd was so out of it. In trying to explain the importance of taking advantage of free counseling and the protections of doctor patient confidentiality, I could tell he was trying to make light and recapture my cohorts seditious attention. Listing endlessly the things one could tell a therapist securely, he followed a noticeable and loosely humorous pattern;

“You can tell us anything,” he stressed, “you can tell us that you’ve cheated on your tests, cheated on your spouse, that you kick dogs or steal candy from babies,” he continued, the crowd finally taking notice. “YOU CAN EVEN TELL US YOU’VE KILLED SOMEONE!” he exclaimed, enlivening hand gestures and all.

…God’s heart didn’t break when the ignorant and callous joke was told, mind you, it broke when nearly 200 seminarians burst out laughing.

I learned that day that there is a reason that the LGBT community uses the metaphor of a closet, and it must surely have something to do with darkness. Exilic communities, those banished to the vesper light of the margins of society, are where we will find evidence of God’s presence in the world. Whether the marginalized gay community, African Americans, draft dodgers, the outcast, weak, & traumatized; Blessed are they, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, those dwelling or treading in darkness, according to Isaiah, have seen a great light. Upon those who are banished to the region and the shadow of death shines a bright light. The prophet implies a contrast; it is not upon those you would expect that the light shines, but ON THEM, on those who carry this terrible wisdom home from dark places.

Therefore “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

The author of Matthew’s gospel first places these ominous words upon the lips of the prophetically gifted John, who baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River. Our pericope today follows immediately upon the heels of this momentous event, with Matthew moving only slightly faster than Luke through the temptation by Satan in the desert. But pausing for a brief textual reflection might be in order before losing sight of Matthew’s deep respect for the Hebrew scriptures and the prophet whose name means “God is salvation.” After all, our passage concludes with Jesus beginning his earthly ministry, with this potent portent leveraged as his inaugural address; “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!

Many scholars have noticed the similarities between Jesus’ 40-day temptation and Israel’s 40-year test in the wildernesses. But a keen and creative (perhaps martial) reader might notice there is in Isaiah’s call story a metropolitan vision not unlike the one Satan shows Jesus in the third and final temptation. The accuser brings Jesus to the top of a hill and puts on display all the kingdoms and municipalities upon the earth, in all their obvious splendor and proceeds to beg God to be worshipped. Similarly, when Isaiah was called in the sixth chapter of the book that bears his name, God showed him the kingdom of Israel and all its self-declared splendor. But in Isaiah, the towns were not like the ones you’d find in a real estate brochure. For “The Lord sent everyone far away and the land was utterly forsaken.” (v.12) Isaiah’s accursed call was to harden the hearts of the people he loved, to cause them to ‘be ever hearing, but never understanding; to be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’

In Iraq, soldiers like myself saw ancient capitals, biblical towns, desolate and abandoned, mirroring Isaiah’s apocalyptic epiphany. In Babylon of old, with the ancient prophet, we saw ‘The cities lay ruined and without inhabitant, the houses deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged.” For war “sent everyone far away and the land was utterly forsaken.’ (Is.6:11b-12) We don’t have to imagine the scene from Isaiah, for the Lord has shown us with our own eyes. Reading the bible with a soldier’s sense is both a blessing and a curse… if you don’t believe me, let’s return to the text.

Knowing it spelled danger for himself when his cousin suffered arrest, Jesus withdraws from the Jerusalem hills and heads toward Galilee in the north, the land of the ancient tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon. According to the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 (v.14), Zebulon was the tribe responsible for carrying the martial staff who, along with Naphtali, was named explicitly as the ones who stood prepared to give their lives bravely upon the field of battle against Sisera. (v.18) Yet Zebulon and Naphtali are referred to in Isaiah as those who “dwell in darkness… in the region and shadow of death.” It is to the land of these brave warrior clans that the son of God goes “so that what was spoken by the prophet might be fulfilled.”

The region and shadow of death evokes the 23rd psalm, one of the most popular to modern combatants. Penned by an ancient warrior, King David’s own dark, crimson stained hands prevented him from building a temple for the Lord. This psalm of his insists, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

A psalm of relief for perpetrators of violence, gangsters and soldiers alike, it is often used as a reassurance of God’s protection and benevolence despite one’s captivity in the dark valley of the shadow of death. Were you to meander through any given unit in Afghanistan, a war that has surpassed every other war before it in our history for it’s length, you would find Psalm 23 scribbled on Kevlar dust covers, improved body armor vests, or stuck in a safe place close to a soldiers vulnerable flesh. A place only the closest battle buddy would be told about, so that when necessary, it could be delivered to a close family member. Those of us who know war have absorbed a terrible wisdom, for war is a terrible darkness, as some of you might only be able to suspect. In fact the prophet Isaiah refers to Zebulon and Naphtali in twilight terms because, as two of the northern most tribes, they were the first to be utterly destroyed and carried off by the Assyrians in 723 BC.

But darkness is not all that war and military service is, as some of us well know.

War is a dark night, as you have read in Mahedy’s book. And those who walk in the martial valley of the shadow of battlefield death acquire a terrible wisdom, borne of the dark night of a soul. But darkness is not all that war is, and darkness only exists as a shadow of the light. Soldiers are not just perpetrators, they are also victims.

In our day, their moral agency is often compromised by the nature of the economic draft, for example, in which the poorest neighborhoods in need of social mobility often give their young up to the fight, as Zebulon and Naphtali before them. In over six years’ active service, the vast majority of enlistment stories I heard could only be classified as tragedy. A financial crisis here, a relational emergency there; one way or another, the young men I served with often joined out of less than ideal circumstances. Even after 9/11, it was surprisingly rare to hear of patriotism as a motivating force for enlistment. My own cousin enlisted to avoid jail time and has bounced between all but one branch of the armed forces before finally being discharged. Social circumstances often necessitate service that can provide a steady paycheck and much-needed direction and discipline. Not everyone goes willing and ready for the fight, sometimes it is a decision that comes at great expense, and the costs are often counted only after the dust settles.

But pigeon-holing soldiers as ‘damaged goods’ does them a disservice, for they have many gifts to offer the church. The virtues of military service must not be overlooked, and both the church and society would do well to value of the kind of selflessness, sacrifice, respect, courage, and obedience that military training and service cultivates, which is pounded into recruits during basic training. In the Matthean passage, the temptation account focuses on obedience as a cardinal virtue. Jesus could have ‘pulled rank’ on Satan and called down angels to feed him, protect him, and ward off the devil. Even as God the Son was tested, he remained obedient to the will of God the Father. Jesus forfeits his moral agency with the phrase “your will be done” not just in instructing us, his followers to pray, but in Gethsemane, as he doubted the cup from which he was to drink. “Roger, wilco,” the margins of a soldier’s Bible might read.

Obedience, even to the point of death, is one virtue of many that soldiers can teach Christians. When I stood tall in formation every weekday at 0630 for first formation, I knew the men beside me were prepared, like Zebulon and Naphtali before them, to give their lives for me in battle, and I for them. The martial bond may be shadowy and tormented at times, but ON THEM a great light has shone! For I fail to have that same trust in those who sit beside me in the pews for weekly worship, or in blue swivel chairs for lectures and precepts.

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

After all, soldiers do not go to war alone, and the spiritual stowaways of PTSD and moral injury are not theirs alone to wrestle with. TRAUMA IS SOCIAL; pain does not emerge from a vacuum. Soldiers have the unique burden of feeling both like victim and perpetrator. In the military, we forfeit much of our moral agency and too often fail to recognize morally reprehensible acts until it is far too late. Victims of circumstances like operational tempo, it becomes all too easy to pervert a virtue into a vice. We are conditioned to obey, obey, obey, until we forget what it is like to think morally, to participate conscientiously within the moral framework that war requires. Satan helps us along either by pacifists declaring war amoral, wringing their hands like Pilate until the skin peels, or by patriots spouting platitudinous gratitude through salivating chops with a taste for war.

No shortage of veterans have recounted in their writings that the operational tempo and moral ambiguity allowed for, if not encouraged, a rapid decline of moral judgment. Combat trauma, like any trauma, is possible only in a social context. In numerous accounts of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, testimony of the participating soldiers suggested that they did it in order to act in accordance with the soldiers on their left and their right. What begins as a small trickle of sin grows imperceptibly until it is a torrent of evil. War casts a moral shadow upon those who dwell in its valley of death, but those who navigate its spurs and draws must not be forced to do so in isolation.

Which brings us to today’s academic readings.

Bill Mahedy recounts that “Many of America’s vets inhabit a world of spiritual bleakness – a dark night of the soul… But their journey is [ours], their darkness is ours and so too is the path” that they must travel. (p.16) The Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel prophetically reminded the church of the prior generation that “In a democracy, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” The church must walk with soldiers and veterans in their spiritual torment, for when two or three are gathered joy is multiplied and grief divided. After all, they sit beside us in the pews, wait behind us in line at the grocery store, and stand before us in the pulpit or at a podium. Invisible to all but the keenest observers, they walk amongst us, wandering a moral wilderness marked by sanctimonious trivialities, platitudinous gratitude, or deafening silence. Simultaneously the centerpiece of American rhetoric and the epitome of tokenizing appreciation, the military community is everything to everyone. At once “scapegoat” (p.60) and golden child, is it any wonder soldiers have forgotten who and whose they are?

In the face of such duplicitous depictions, sometimes we implode and destroy our own lives by drugs, alcohol, speeding, or other suicidally reckless behavior. Jeffrey Lucey wrote home to his family about becoming a monster, about feeling no longer human in the midst of the invasion of Iraq. After returning home and being discharged, his father found him in the family basement the day after being denied admission to a VA psych ward, hanging by a garden hose wrapped twice around his 23 year old neck. Other times, we explode and our misery exacts company by violent force, like when Timothy McVeigh laid waste to 168 lives in Oklahoma and then politely asked for the death penalty.

The identity of soldiers exists only in caricature for a large majority of the population. If not monsters, we are typecast as heroes. But if you listen closely, even the most heroic of us refuse the title, insisting we were “just following orders.” Not reducible to either “hero” or “monster,” soldiers make manifest the very reality of our beautifully tragic humanity, capable of both audacious acts of charity as well as the most horrific acts of hatred. With Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, you will hear the Nuremburg war criminals likewise insist, “I was just doing my job.” Always defying the rampant stereotypes placed upon them as well as the constantly shifting categories for combat trauma, soldiers and veterans make manifest in America God’s call to be a morally integral people; to mean what we say and practice what we preach. The erratic treatment we suffer by society hints not at our own disorder, but that of the community that sends us to dark and bloody battlefields while maintaining a charade of serenity back home.

If we as society fail to recognize the social reality of combat trauma, if we fail to accept the responsibility of sending soldiers to war, they and their stowaways will come back to haunt us. And I do not mean merely the violent acts that war-weary wounded warriors carry out, at the literal and figurative end of their rope, though there are many. Like the prophet Isaiah, soldiers embody both beauty and tragedy at once, blessings and curses alike. For it was the prophet who announced God’s judgment or favor upon Israel. Is it any coincidence that Mahedy makes at least one conspicuous reference in his frenetic manuscript to veterans representing a prophetic presence in America? (p.163)

Who and what are the prophets, then?

Abraham Heschel describes the prophets as those who feel fiercely, hate the approximate, and are sleepless and grave. They curse their own people and disdain those for whom God’s presence is a comfort and security. He says their consciences BURN; they have seen the truth and cannot remain silent, even if it means screaming incoherently in the face of injustice. Their ears hear the silent sigh of God, they are lonely watchmen and watchwomen who are strange, one-sided, and unbearably extremist. Prophets are assaulters of the mind who have been shattered by some cataclysmic experience. They are bitter with anguish, and Martin Luther King calls their vocation one of agony, whose torment can only possibly be made more severe by the proposal that they remain silent. The prophets must speak, Martin insists, but they are not words the community often welcomes.

The unabridged passage in Isaiah from which Matthew draws alludes to the prophet’s bipolar nature, swinging from manic blessing to depressive curse at the drop of a hat. In fact the reference to the martial tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali is about the twin tribes being “brought into contempt.” As prophesied, and perhaps as deserved, soldiers are looked at with scorn. Perhaps deservedly because soldiers must commit what normally would be unthinkable acts while in service to their nation. Beauty and tragedy kiss, blessing and curse are one. The same young man that one day might jump on a grenade for you, will on another day cut the ear off a dead body as a war trophy.

Soldiers know the anguish of being “brought into contempt,” for good reason or for bad. We know what it is like to be looked down upon; overtly as in Vietnam and covertly as we know today. But we also have a word to speak back to society. Mahedy states that, “the nation that believes itself to be morally correct in all that it does would do well to learn from the bitter anguish of those who fell from grace while doing their bidding.” Trauma is social; while some might be guilty, we are all responsible

The Hebrew word for prophets is nevilim, which means “those called,” for their role is especially involved in recognizing and passing on words from God. Each of the major prophets hear a call and answer, and very rarely is their vocation of speaking blessings and curses an enviable one.

If the three fold office of Christ, the munus triplex of prophet, priest, and king, is to have anything to say to a church that ordains priests and blesses presidents and politicians, we must affirm the presence, persistence, and problem of the prophetic vocation. Indeed, Mahedy speculates about how veterans might fulfill the prophetic place in society, how they might embody perhaps the most overlooked office of the munus triplex, including the commitment to share their bitter anguish. Their gifts are not merely in carrying the rhetorical blessings of prosperity that their sacrifice supposedly makes possible, but in the curses they make manifest in a nation claiming “We Will Never Forget;” the very “sanctimonious trivialities” that funded a world war on terror.

It is an unpleasant and inconvenient thought, but it is one we as a church within this nation must reckon with. It certainly is not uncommon to shuffle such troubling thoughts away from the center of public discourse and theology. Perhaps disturbed by the eclectic prophetic voice, Matthew omits the first line from the ninth chapter of Isaiah, “there will be no gloom for those in anguish.” In fact, verses 2-7 are the only ones in the chapter that speak comfort and good tidings. Verse 6 is a popular advent verse, reminding us at the start of every liturgical year that a human child, God incarnate, is given us. It might beautifully evoke humanity’s capacity to embody a holy spirit, but verses 8 onward swing heavily toward the tragic; not a child given for us, but a word AGAINST the people of God, which will “fall on” us…

[Read Isaiah 9.8-17]

To sprint full speed away from the consequences of two wars fought in our name and with our tax dollars will only catapult us into a brick wall. To dress up the crumbling façade of our national foreign policy and the silent complicity of the church with “dressed stones” spells our destruction.

If God takes on human flesh, if God indeed dwells within us, and we experience something of God in one another, then the question that Mahedy rightly asks, “Where was God in Vietnam (or Iraq & Afghanistan)?” is as rhetorical a question as Cain’s was of his being his brother’s keeper. The real question is not “where was God,” but “Where were YOU?

Where were you when our servant the president, stood proudly upon the rubble of 3,000 lives and shouted, “I can hear you… and the people who knocked these towers down will hear all of us soon.” Tears of grief were used as cries for war, and the church failed to take responsibility for its own teachings. Being on active duty as a professing Christian, But if combat and other traumas are social, then soldiers do not go to war alone, which means the church and the state are not innocent. “In a representative democracy, some are guilty but all are responsible.” If they are anything like mine, your hands, however young and innocent they once were, have been stained a deep crimson.

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

It was violence that kept King David from being given the opportunity to build a permanent dwelling place for the Lord, for there was too much blood on his hands. It was violence for which Zebulon and Naphtali were so esteemed, for good reasons and for bad, and it was they who were carried off first into exile to be forever lost. It was violence that characterized the world of Noah, violence and corruption that grieved God so that he decided wash it all away in a torrent of water. When God raised his keshet, his archers bow, up to the sky, it symbolized that he is a God who suffers with us. Violence is far more complex than either good or evil allow for, as the ancient deluge attests.

In a midrash on Exodus 14, where YHWH is first called a warrior, the medieval rabbis imagine the angels joining in the Song of the Sea, Moses’ and Miriam’s ballad in Exodus 15. But God, they say, blessed be he, rebuked the angels, saying, “The work of my hands is drowned at sea, and you wish to sing?” Far from being an absentee landlord, this God born as a vulnerable child for us, Emmanuel, suffers with his conflicted creation.

You know what haunts me most of all about my 14 months in the combat? Unlike other infantrymen in my unit, I have no concrete number that plagues me late at night, no faces that intrude my dreams. But the nature of my job as an artilleryman left me with very good reason to think that I killed people in Iraq. I think I killed people in Iraq, and it tortures me not knowing, knowing paradoxically that I’ll never know. I can only THINK that I killed people in Iraq.

But you know what else – I think you did too

In Genesis, when our warrior God pointed his archer’s bow toward the sky and promised to never again destroy the world by water. The promise, however, was not that destruction would never come again, just not in the same manner. On April 30, 1967, at his home parish of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin heard God saying to America

You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name.

Our worldly engagements have not gone unnoticed by the almighty. Wars without reason and without end have earned us God’s ire. Indeed, the church is under judgment once again. America has failed to be humble but confident in her power, so that what was spoken by the prophet Martin might be fulfilled.

Since Korea and Vietnam, those wars that brought us our epidemic of soldier suicides, God has been departing from the church in America. In 1974, theologian James McClendon wrote in the introduction to his landmark book Biography as Theology; Vietnam… “forced many young Americans to question or even discard the pieties their parents had held secure… the credibility of [church and state] declined together: religion as well as nationalism, God as well as country.” Mahedy asks, “Have the churches ever come to grips with the reason so many vets lost their religious faith during their time in Vietnam? I believe the answer is ‘no.’” (p.15).

My mom was in the generation that lost their faith. In the midst of pedestrian debates about God’s sovereignty and power wrapped up in questions like “Can God create a rock so large God is unable to move it?,” she and thousands of others left. My dad, and other veterans of the American War in Vietnam, could not flee the sinking church quickly enough. The ironic gap between preaching and practice grew like the federal defense budget; too fast for its own good. Invested in maintaining a status quo requiring the blanket justification of violence and corruption, the church focused too heavily on what McClendon referred to as “propositional theology,” and what his fellow narrative theologian Stanley Hauerwas prefers to call simply “systematics.”

Obsessed with epistemological abstraction and alienating esoteric theology, few with any sway in the church stopped to think about God in incarnate terms. I heard from the lips of my seemingly heterodox mother, in the midst of the best religious education our government’s money can buy, a more profoundly theological observation than any I heard from our professors. Believing in a female God who “suffers compassionately with creation,” she made me wonder if God’s power is less a question of mere physical strength, and more one of incarnate relationality. A distinctively theological question of divine exousia is not “Is there a rock God unable to move,” but…

Is there a trauma God is unable to endure?

America today seems obsessed with exporting any morally or emotionally ambiguous experiences. We lose in Vietnam? Blame it on the veterans! Another unjust war or two for our children? Send the poor!

God is with those condemned to the dark places beyond our happy sunshine shores, on them a great light has shone. The hollow halls of prejudice that used represent the hope of the world are have lost all their credibility. America is no longer “the light of the world,” a city upon a hill. The trauma that veterans suffer in vicariously killing and destroying is a more realistic appraisal of American life than those spouted incessantly on television, radio, newspapers, and other centers of influence. Mahedy agrees, saying on p.43 that “the vets moral insights in this regard are superior to those of most other commentators, political leaders, and pundits…” Isaiah concurs, prophesying “For those who guide this people have been leading them astray, and those who are guided by them are swallowed up.”

If King is among the prophets, and I think he is, then despite his warning, we have “in pride and in arrogance of heart” remained in our martial ways, so God’s power no longer alights upon our amber waves of grain or our purple mountain majesties. Isaiah was called to make the heart of [his] people calloused; their ears dull and their eyes blind. Lest they see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed. God seems to have no compassion for Gold Star families, for their cries for peace go unanswered. The, “pride of our nation,” “idols of our hearts,” fall upon their own swords faster than our enemies swords fall upon them. Every 65 minutes, we are reminded of the double evil we’ve spawned in our modern wars.

The backbone of our power has been broken and the ruined church is a people of unclean lips and dark hearts hidden behind a façade of fabricated faith.

The prophet Jonah was called to Mosul, Iraq, the capitol of his enemies, the Assyrians. Hoping to see them destroyed in a shower of fire and brimstone in return for their transgressions. The flaming torch has been passed, and I wonder who will come from Nineveh to preach destruction to the most powerful nation of our own day, “who say with pride and arrogance of heart, ‘we rely on drones and the multitude of our remote pilots, and in the great strength of our nuclear weapons.’

The people that perform our violence for us are turning it on themselves because America cannot or will not accept its collective complicity. America is boiling its young men and women in the milk of their ancestors’ unrequited violence.

The plight of veterans is punishment enough and they themselves are not cursed, for “there will be no gloom for they who were in anguish.” Rather their suffering makes evident judgment upon a superficial church, God’s grieved departure from our hallowed naves of injustice and hypocrisy. The dark and terrible wisdom gained is not unlike that which we all inherit from the Edenic garden. As before, we’ve consumed the fruit and acquired profound knowledge of good and evil, but not without great cost. Forcing the poison upon soldiers by ignoring the social nature of their trauma will not spare the rest of us from its effect. And when, as Martin similarly prophesied, America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy will read “War.”

In our day, God manifests his judgment not by deluge but by disenfranchisement. Starting in 1977, Gallop began a poll to measure the American public’s trust in various professions. Initiated two years after the final withdrawal of American troops from war ravaged Vietnam, just over 60% of Americans trusted clergy. As McClendon predicted, that clerical trust declined steadily, and last year it hit its all time low. Church membership has declined in tandem, and many of you likely feel the pressure to “grow” congregations to which you will be sent. But if we fail to see and comprehend the heart of God, from whence might such “growth” possibly come?

Violence is not the problem per se, but what we do with the violence we propose is necessary. For pacifists and patriots alike, binary thinking and exportation of responsibility has been the norm. But those dwelling and treading in darkness are not the problem, for trauma is social. We should be dividing this terrible wisdom amongst all responsible parties, we should be carrying this great burden with them, for “their journey is [ours], their darkness is ours and so too is the path” that they must travel. (p.16)

Healthy conversation has eroded in our congress as well within congregations. We have failed to deal with who and whose we are in the midst of wars and rumors of wars. One of you says, “I follow Yoder”; another, “I follow Neibuhr”; another, “I follow Hauerwas”; still another, “I follow Jesus.” Is Christ divided? Was Obama crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Romney?

I am reminded of all that I have learned during my classes here, of which I am grateful. But there is something wrong with us, Church.

Every year I was a student, I heard Dean Hays insist during opening convocation, “We are not the church.” He might have meant that at DDS, we don’t baptize, marry, ordain priests or perform other sacramental functions of a conventional church. But church is not expressed in the sacraments, Christ is. What Dean Hays said is as close to the truth as a lie can get – for we ARE the church.

If Mahedy is right, and veterans occupy a prophetic place in the ekklesia, how we treat them says less about them than it does about the church. In that CAPS presentation years ago, was it the church that responded? I think it was. But I can be shown a whore and see a beautiful woman, my mother in fact. That day I was shown a monster, but it took years before I could make out the faint outline of a wounded lamb. I could see in them a reflection of my own brokenness, not quite sure how to respond, they laughed, for that was what was expected of them. In war, I had no idea how Christians responded, so I did what was expected of me. But the gospels challenge us to see things upside down, to refuse to capitulate with even the subtlest of evils.

If we are to be children of God, what is a distinctively theological response to trauma of killing? Do we laugh, or do we mourn? Are we blessed, or are we cursed?

So, Church;

See, but not with your eyes

Hear but not with your ears

Love, but not with your words

BE the church, don’t just study it.

Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

Amen.”

A Sermon honoring St. Maurice

The following sermon was preached at First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan on September 22nd (aka “Proper 18″), the feastday for St. Maurice of Thebes, a North African Soldier Saint from the late third century. 

The Revised Common Lectionary readings for Proper 18 are featured in bold in the text (and include Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, & Luke 16:1-13). and Maurice’s passion is drawn from heavily as well (featured in italics).

Preceding the sermon were hymns “This is My Song” (United Methodist Hymnal #437) and “When the Church of Jesus” (Hymn #592). Following the sermon was “O God of Every Nation” (Hymnal #435). 

~

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, oh God, our rock and our redeemer. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Grace to you and peace from your brothers and sisters in Durham, North Carolina, where I join you from Saint Josephs Episcopal Church, and greetings from your humble servants in Centurions Guild, an ecumenical community of soldiers and veterans wrestling between Christian faith, military service, and national identity, for whom I speak as Executive Officer.

I have come to this beautiful house of worship at the invitation of Reverend Bob, to share with you the stories of soldiers and the word of God we might have for the Church in our day, a day that has seen more prolonged war than ever before in national history. While war is not new by any means, its current length is unprecedented for those of us here in these united states.

Some people say that nothing good can come of war, and I used to think that as well. As a combat veteran, I know precisely the kinds of things that occur in war, how degrading and morally destructive acts performed in combat can be. I once heard a group of so-called peace activists shouting at soldiers in uniform, yelling “Monsters!” “Baby killers!” I could’t help but think to myself, just weeks from my own discharge, “Well, that’s half right…”

But far from being merely destructive, war produces great works of literature, provocative and inspiring oratory (including sermons), and sweeping changes in human civilization. More importantly, it produces people refined by the infernal flames that General Sherman quite astutely compared to modern combat. “War is hell,” he said, after laying waste to Atlanta upon his march south during the Civil War. I think he might be right, but if good things go into war, they sure as hell can come back out. After all, the earliest Christian creed insisted that Christ himself descended into the perditious abyss and rose to tell the tale.

Between his resurrection and ascension, we might think of Jesus as the exemplary combat veteran, if indeed Sherman was right in his comparison. Though without a doubt rough-hewn, I think Jesus as veteran is an appropriate and timely image. It certainly might speak prophetically to the 22 veterans in America who fall upon their own swords each and every day. Indeed, according to Department of Veterans Affairs internal reports, on average, a veteran will take their own life every 65 minutes. That is equivalent to one during each service this morning and another 20 besides that.

The presence and persistence of this pandemic seems a harsh word, a pill too bitter to swallow. It may be, and certainly has been. For many years now I have felt called to write it and to preach it, to make sure the people of God knew the hell that veterans bring back home with them. The whole church is to help us veterans wrestle the demons back to where they belong, to storm the gates of hell and then re-chart the maps to better navigate our route home again. Notice, however, that the wounds afflicting Jesus stubbornly refused to disappear upon his own return. Though his scars remained, Jesus’ post-deployment leave was not spent in mourning. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus suggests that until he ascends to heaven, his disciples shall not fast, saying “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” [Matt.9:15] This may lead us to wonder why and how, if our own veterans have such a hard time of it, he is able to shake the ash and brimstone from his sandals and get on about the life he was made for.

Jesus as veteran is an appropriate and timely image.

More broadly, there is much to be said for discerning the baby from the bathwater in Christian military service. It is a Word I continue to hear and speak, and I hope you will join in those conversations as they develop, through Centurions Guild or right here in your own community with those who’ve seen hell and have difficulty coming all the way home. But we should not dwell only on the dismal, for that is part of what fuels the epidemic of suicide. As much as I might harp on the subject of martial service, the goal is to eventually incorporate martially appropriate concepts into the otherwise “ordinary” life and worship of the church. Therefore, today, let us focus on one way in which a martial perspective informs our faith. For today we have been given the gift of Saint Maurice, whose passion helps illuminate today’s selection of readings from the Revised Common Lectionary.

September 22nd is the feastday for Maurice, who was the commander of a large Roman military unit of some six thousand men. David Woods, an Irish scholar, has translated the story of Maurice and his North African unit, which was drafted from Thebes, near Luxor in Egypt. Maurice and his Theban Legion served in the third century, when Christianity was still illegal and suffered under occasional persecution. It was written that the entire unit was composed of Christians, which gives us a clue that the story was probably a fabrication. But like many Christian stories, the moral is more important than historical accuracy.

Maurice is close to my heart because he is the patron saint of infantries, like the one in which I served during my deployment to Iraq in 2004.  We both served in the most powerful military in the known world: Maurice for the Roman imperial command, and I, 1700 years later, for the United States Army. During Maurice’s time, it was rare to see Christians serving openly in the military not just because the religion was illegal, but because theologians cautioned that military and national allegiance could corrode Christian identity were the faithful not very careful to preserve important distinctions. In our own day, our country is thought to be Christian and the military God’s hand of judgment, but this idea fails to differentiate the baby from the bath water, it can lead to deep confusion about the nature of our service as Christians, as though the term “Christian soldier” is redundant.

The Bible, however, is clear that the nations of the world are not one and the same with the people of God. Indeed, we hear from today’s Psalm; “The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens. Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?”

Jesus is not beholden to the nations of the world. At best, they are charged with maintaining peace and justice, with punishing evil and rewarding the good. Romans 13 reminds us that they, the nations “do not bear the sword without reason.” [Rom.13:4] Rulers and authorities are merely servants beneath God’s rule and are required to do good and punish evil. Insofar as presidents and prime ministers serve the interests of justice and peace, they are to be obeyed, but obedience is contingent upon adherence to this principal. Christians do not obey for obedience’s sake, for we know better than to “just follow orders.” Soldiers who happen to be Christians obey based upon the nature of the command and its alignment with God’s will. Maurice knew this and learned the hard way that all too often the authorities are in name only, that there are times in which they forfeit their claims to our obedience by overstepping their bounds and asking of us actions that God commands against, like killing.

The year was 287 A.D., so the story goes, and Maurice’s six thousand strong unit, “active in battle and renowned for their courage,” was on the march to help with a campaign near modern day France. Along the way, they were redirected to a place not far from Geneva, in Switzerland. There, the Caesar gave them orders to “harass” Christians in a small town along the way. With Christianity being illegal at the time, killing Christians was technically a lawful order.

Maurice, however, knew his allegiance was to a higher power than brute force. He refused to harass innocent people, and made sure his commander in chief heard of his refusal. In response, Caesar put the unit under orders to be decimated, which meant that every tenth soldier was selected to be executed as punishment for the seditious centurion’s selective objection. That day Caesar took a tithe of Maurice’s men as an example, and indeed, it is Maurice and his men who remain today as our examples. The centurion had messengers relay to the emperor this message:

We are your soldiers, but we are God’s servants first. We take arms for citizens rather than against citizens. We have always fought for justice, piety, and the welfare of the innocent. We have fought for faith.

With these words, Maurice sealed his fate and that of those under him. It is written that despite their being armed themselves, each and every man willingly sacrificed his life rather than do evil in the sight of God. The men of this Theban legion knew that earthly powers only served God by serving justice, that Christians ultimately must obey God rather than the officers appointed above them. [Acts 5:29] Such officers are in fact only middle management and, upon dislocating themselves from the divine chain of command by pursuing vengeance or retribution, forfeit any claim to Christian obedience.

When summoned, Maurice recognized that the oath he swore to the emperor was worthless if he violated his baptismal vows of rejecting all that is evil. As Saint Luke reminds us this morning, “If you have not been faithful with what belongs to another [Caesar], who will give you what is your own” (which is God’s gift of eternal life)? Maurice is in agreement, having told the emperor “what faith will we keep with you at all, if we do not exhibit faith to our God? We swore oaths to God first, oaths to the king second; there is no need for you to trust us concerning the second, if we break the first.”

The problem for Caesar is that he does not understand that Christian service is not as material and tangible as he assumes. Our fight is not against flesh and blood, but against… the spiritual forces of evil at work in the world. [Eph.6:12] It is for this reason that Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, can request “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions.” Christians debating publicly with pagan philosophers in the first few centuries frequently evoked Jeremiah 29:7 in insisting that the Church in fact prayed for “the welfare of the city” knowing that in its welfare, we will find our welfare.

In matters of war, however, the ancient faithful prayed specifically for all hostilities to cease, “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Christians prayed not for victory or defeat, for our citizenship transcends the nations of this world. We do not take our citizenship lightly, but are called to be, in a democratic sense, better citizens than those that sometimes find themselves in power. Our obedience to lesser vows like the pledge of allegiance, or the oath of enlistment, is contingent upon our lips and our lives truly reflecting the selfless and dignified interests of the nations in which we find ourselves. Maurice bears beautiful witness to this, his central concern; If we cannot even take very seriously our vows of citizenship, how is God to trust us with the gift of eternal life? On the other hand, if we mess up what belongs to God, how can we be trusted with things of this world, like Hellfire missiles or the nuclear codes? If our loyalty is only self-serving, only in the interests of our own transient national identity, how can God trust us with the great gift of life that transcends all time and places?

Here we see a glimpse of what it might mean to believe that those who serve in the military have a gift to give to the Church universal. Soldiers we would call “good” do not obey for the sake of obedience. As Nuremberg starkly made clear, “just following orders” is no defense at all. But if you listen closely to heroes of war like modern Medal of Honor recipients, their refrain is startlingly similar; often deflecting platitudes with “I was just doing my job.” Obedience, therefor is not what Christian service is ultimately about. The thin red line drawn between war criminals and war heroes is painted in the blood of innocents. The former demands it violently from others, the latter offers it lovingly from themselves. Honor in war is not earned, it is discovered in the heat of battle, when your fellow soldier has every reason to duck away from a grenade but jumps toward it instead. The passing of mere trinkets is merely a confirmation of the courage made possible in such situations. The early martyrs of the church were also given great honor, for martyrdom was called the crown of faith, and early theologians compared the crowns worn by Roman soldiers to those that innocent martyrs were given in heaven.

This begs the question, an important one that soldiers face daily, of where those “ordinary” places are in the Church that make possible the kind of courage we read about in scripture, Church history, or in the pages of military biographies. Where are those sites in which grave injustices take place in everyday life that demand the presence of exemplary Christians? If a broken world prays to God for justice, in what way is the Church being God’s answer thereto?

Consider the prayerful lives of the following saints; 

  • Florian, patron of firefighters and a captain in Caesar’s personal guard, drowned in a river after revealing himself as a CHristian and insisting upon being treated no differently than other, lower ranking Christians who were being sought out and killed
  • Sebastian, patron of athletes, martyred twice for encouraging fellow Christians condemned to death, accusing the emperor’s cabinet of deceiving him about what Christians were praying for
  • Marcellus, killed after throwing down his military attire on Caesars birthday and calling the gods deaf and dumb, whose bones are buried at a university whose motto is “God, Country, Notre Dame”
  • Maximillian, beheaded by his local draft board for refusing to be measured for a military uniform
  • Franz Jaggerstatter, who defied his bishop’s advice to tolerate being conscripted into the Nazi army and was beheaded

As these stories make clear, obedience to God does not spare Christian soldiers from grave and obscene evil in a broken world that defines for itself what it means by justice. Caesar betrayed his own duties as an earthly authority and vengefully cut down his own innocent soldiers who refused to obey unjust orders that would endanger rightful Roman citizens who happened to live an unpopular faith. Maurice’s murder, and the massacre of the six thousand soldiers who faithfully served and died under his watch, is a witness to all the Church that survival is not a virtue. Death has, in Christian terms, failed to have the last word. The day we remember Maurice is not the day of his birth, when he entered this world we know, but the day of his death, when he entered a world we do not yet know fully, but have glimpses of. Baptism is for us a new birth, a death to the flesh and new birth in the spirit.

Maximillian’s passion depicts him encouraging other Christians;

Beloved, with an eager desire, hurry with as much courage as you can so that it may befall you to see the Lord and that he may reward you also with a similar crown!

His words remind us that we have died to the world and may be given life everlasting in God’s Holy Spirit. Maurice himself prophetically reminds his commander in chief that, “from nations we may have received worldly security, but from God we have received life itself.”

Despite our political leaders acting in ways that betray our common allegiance, contradicting the very character of our constitution, we must persist in our “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings.” Furthermore, we must diligently watch for those times or places in which God waits for us to be his answer to such prayer. The stories of soldier saints like Maurice and others like him are answers to our prayers for peace in a world obsessed with war. Soldiers in our pews and in our lives bear witness to the timeless nature of martial formation. They have a gift to give the Church, if she has eyes to see and ears to hear. Let your own prayer find its response in such lives, for soldiers know all too well the beauty and tragedy of war and its profound effect on human being.

Finally, friends, I ask you to continue in earnest to supplicate, pray, intercede, and give thanks for all those who have seen this hell we call war. Be patiently faithful with these precious vessels of the faith, which and who are for the world in its brokenness. Persevering in these seemingly pointless pursuits, in the midst of rampant rumors to the contrary, assures for you the gift of God, which is our baptismal inheritance. In the end, though we must have only one master, we are called to have many friends. Hating neither warriors nor warmongers, but being devoted to God and one another.  For our love is ultimately for God and country (in that order).

Amen.

Circle of Hope Sermon

Given twice on July 22, 2012 at Circle of Hope (Frankford & Norris location)

8th Sunday after Pentecost 

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My first sermon was given July 3rd, 2011 at a church in Durham, NC. I spoke about my love/hate relationship with America right around the time I was in my first year of seminary, writing my first book. It was a year of firsts. This, then, may be a year of seconds, it seems, and thirds. This will be my second sermon and in two hours I will give my third. When I was invited to speak to you all, I wasn’t sure if I would give one sermon to both services or a unique sermon to each service. I thought about it a lot. It’s what I do.

You see, I’m a theology student at Duke Divinity School in Durham. There is an important distinction to be made in that I am not a “divinity” student; I am not seeking ordination and am not expected to take classes on preaching. That may leave some of you wondering what I am doing here. I know it is where it left me, since I don’t know much about preaching. I was actually invited to talk about whatever I wanted to talk about, including the book I just wrote, but images of a bull whip and up-turned tables of money ran that idea out of my head.

Preaching is spoken, Spirit-filled words from God to the people of God. In many traditions, The Word of God (a name for Jesus himself as well as scripture) is read and a Psalm is often sung. The church I attend in Durham is less than 200 people, and the weekly service is given only at 10am on Sundays. You either make it or you don’t, but we all gather at one place, at one time, one cell in the Body of Christ, one member of this great family of God.

Even when I attend a church that hosts multiple services, as a creature of habit, I usually stick to one service time every week; I see the same people who often similarly stick to the same service time. In the tradition I have been calling home, we refer to our pastor as Father (which I have mixed feelings about), and to call our little church a family would not be out of place. But what if there were two congregations, two flocks that the priest pastored. It would feel a little bit like dad had two families….

I know it isn’t true, it’s just the feeling I get. But… some questions linger, like;

  • Is the first a practice for the second, making the 2nd better somehow?
  • Does the 1st one count if I can just correct all my mistakes in the second?
  • Does the size of the congregation somehow imply importance over the other?
  • Does the pastor have a favorite congregation? …Is it the one I attend?

Both of these sermons I will have preached tonight are ‘real,’ they are each the Word of God proclaimed to God’s people. Though the words themselves changed little, they are original and vibrant and new. Twice. As a vehicle for God’s Word, each and every word I share tonight is mysteriously original and authentic. None of them need to be overwritten later or awkwardly omitted after I appraise the facial reactions some of you might let slip. Nonetheless, it makes me feel weird to say the same thing twice in two different contexts. It feels oddly inauthentic. It feels rehearsed, theatrical, fake. Having multiple service times seems, on some weird level, to violate Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21 that we may be one…

Of course as a theology student, all this takes on a particular significance; I want to think it thru, explain it away, and find a satisfying answer. I feel compelled to figure out what I believe about all this.

Well, I believe strongly that with God, there are never rehearsals, do-overs, or mulligans. Every word spoken, every act performed, is a real and true interaction with God. Worship most especially. Worship is the name Christians give not just to the music and the prayers, but to the sermon, the response, and everything surrounding it all.

There is a theological word for worship services. I know it is a theological word because it appears in theological dictionaries. I know theological dictionaries are credible because they cost so much money.

The theological word for worship is doxology. Doxologically speaking (see, that is how you know I am a theology student, I added “ically” to the end of an important sounding word), there is never a word uttered in worship that is merely rehearsal. Every hiccup, each time I stumble upon a syllable or stutter on a word, God works mysteriously despite my foibles. Or so I hope, & so I prayed.

Before I began my sermon tonight, I said a prayer that asked exactly that – “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, oh Lord.” Those were not merely words from Psalm 19, they were a prayer, a living plea to a living God. They had theological substance; they were doxological.

There is another way to think about this, which happens to relate to my own specific Christian vocation, my vocatio specialis (another sure fire way to spot a theology student; they use Latin or Greek words to sound smart). My vocatio specialis has much to do with Christian faith and military service. Before studying theology, I spent six years in the US Army. As of now, it was the lengthiest formation of my life. For example, it was longer than High School, College, or any other kind of institutional formation. I was also on active duty for over six years and spent much of my time in infantry units as a forward observer for the artillery.

Not long after a combat deployment to Iraq, I wrestled with how my professional obligations conflicted with my vocation as a Christian. Something inside me compelled me to doubt that I could love my enemies at the business end of my M-4 rifle or the mortars and artillery I directed. On July 4th, 2006, I was baptized and became a Christian. At that moment, my military profession overlapped my Christian vocation and I was left to wonder what it meant to be a “Christian soldier.”

More than once or twice, I heard the mantra “it’s just a job.” But was it? Does our profession trump our vocation? Is our identity in Christ merely an occupation – is tonight a business transaction? Is all this just words and sounds, theatrics meant to entertain or occupy time? Or is there substance to it all? Said another way; is it real?

When soldiers say “it’s just a job”, what is usually going on is a vain attempt to dissolve the moral substance of what they do. It is a way of saying ‘I am not ultimately accountable for my actions.’ After all, at the close of business, or “COB” (what we called our final formation of the day), our uniforms came off and we had a normal “life” to which we returned. At 5 o’clock, my job ended, all the jargon stopped; no more “yessir, no sir, three bags full sir.” Language was one of the things that differentiated between my “life” and my “job.” Words served as degrees of separation that kept me from calling what I did anything but what it truly was; destroying people and things I was told to as an artillery forward observer.

As an artilleryman, I worked up “fire plans,” “detained persons of interest,” and sometimes “engaged targets.” Phrases like kill ‘em all, let god sort ‘em out or all’s fair in love and war worked on my conscience to deny or dismiss my complicity in eviscerating the enemies Christ commanded me to embrace.  Phrases like these deny the moral substance of war and soldiering, they keep us from the truth; No, do not kill them all, No, not all is fair in love and war.

For lack of a better word, love and war and preaching are true; they actually occur as real each and every time we perform them. God actually witnesses them and actually cares and is affected by them. Our true selves affect God. Our false selves of targets and fire plans and detentions will be stripped away – they will not last.

If that is the case, then those phrases we used in the military are false. They bring death not just to the poor souls in my crosshairs, but to my own person. In relying on them, I and other soldiers were trying to create a kind of false self, a shell of a person that could take the fall for us, to kind of stand in the way of our real complicity. Degrees of separation work only to separate us from the truth.

Soldiers need the church to remind them of the reality of their acts, of the true nature of every word of their mouth, every beat of their heart, and every squeeze of their trigger finger. We need this reminder not just for the sake of those who suffer our bombs and bullets, but for our own true, real selves. Truth, you see, catches up to us all, we cannot evade our guilt for long before it takes its awful toll.

Everyday, there has been and will be about 17 veterans who take their own lives. Men and women who fought in WWII, Vietnam, Korea, and even folks discharged after fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are taking their own lives about once every 80 minutes. In 2009 and 2010, there were more active duty suicides than there were combat fatalities in the entire Global War on Terror those years. This year, there has been an average of one active duty suicide everyday, a pace that will break the last record … set last year. Since 2005, every new year has been a new record. It is the highest rate of suicide of any recorded demographic in our country. In our entire history. Jesus even predicted it in Gethsemane, telling Peter that “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

…but more soldiers are falling on their own sword than are falling to the sword.

Jesus’ words were not a dismissive, self-righteous threat; they were a foreboding observation, a lament.

Many people don’t really know what to do in the face of this incredibly startling reality. It is instinctual to keep a safe distance, to not act until we know precisely how, to remain silent until we have the right words.

But in the Church’s relationship to soldiers, distance is an illusion, action is required, and silence is a betrayal.

Distance, for one, does not exist between the Church and the poor in spirit like those who end their own lives with such alarming frequency. Soldiers and veterans stand before you in the grocery line and sit beside you on the El Train. They may be giving a lecture from behind a podium …or speaking a Word of God to you from behind a pulpit. Safe distance between you and those who are suffering does not exist, it is false, like that shell I built around me to shield me from the truth.

Action, furthermore, is required. Faith calls us to act; Christ calls us to respond. To do nothing is not an option. I imagine each of you here have heard the call of God in your lives in some way, shape, or form. You know it has been uttered. God knows it has been uttered. Refusal to respond is an active choice that has grave consequence.

Silence then, is not an option; it is a betrayal. Silence is the inexcusable refusal to acknowledge the presence and power suffering has over this world. Words have power to create or destroy. It is The Word that has redeemed us from suffering, from death, and we are to utter words that are creative and compassionate, that break forth love in our broken and destructive world.

So what are we to do? What words does the church have for soldiers and veterans caught up in a world at war?

Well, to begin with, we have what in some traditions is known as the Eucharistic Prayer. Eucharist means “thanksgiving,” though it is hard to describe the words we utter in that prayer as words of gratitude. The last thing said in some congregations before the pastor consumes Holy Communion are “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say The Word and I shall be healed.” Christian thanksgiving is expressed doxologically by penance & hope for absolution, for forgiveness. The liturgy continues in the voice of Jesus, who tells us that communion is done “in memory” or “in remembrance” of him.

Isn’t it curious that these words we use in memory of Christ were given to us by a soldier? The words come from Matthew 8 and Luke 7, a story about a Roman military commander, called a centurion, who Jesus said had faith greater than all of Israel. This person represented The System, The Man, Big Brother, and all the institutions that oppressed and enslaved Jews in 1st century Palestine. The officer was praised, it should be noted, not for his military service, but for his humble faith; he knew that, as a man of war, he was not worthy to receive the Prince of peace.

Other words the Church has for soldiers come from the very mouth of Jesus, whom dutiful soldiers arrested and abused as a detainee, eventually even nailing his hands and feet to the Cross. These actions would not have elicited one iota of guilt, as they were certain to be simply ‘obeying orders.’ They were, after all, only doing their “job.”

Luke 23:34 records Jesus’ words for these soldiers to the Father as “forgive them, for they know not what they do.” To be a Christian means we believe that those words, among the final human utterances of the Eternal Creator, have the same power as the words “Let there be light.” The same awesome and creative force that spawned the cosmos, brought life from nothing, and sustains the entire universe is that which forgives those who act in ways we steadfastly oppose, those who we see as our enemy.

These words are true, and they are good. They remind those who hear them of their inherent very-goodness, even those who have seen Hell firsthand and can’t get the sights and sounds and smells out of their hearts and minds and souls. They remind us all that our story does not begin in Genesis 3 with the Fall, but Genesis 1. In verse 31, God calls us all “very good”; even those of us who suffer the curse of Cain, our fratricidal forbearer and fellow wanderer.

These words, The Word, remind us all that the mark God gives Cain is not one of condemnation, but protection. Cain’s curse to wander lasted all of three verses; God tells him in the third book of Genesis that he will be a “restless wanderer on the Earth” in verse 13. But by verse 16 he has settled in the Land of Nod. The mark itself was not a curse, but a promise “that none who found him would kill him.” (Gen.4:15) God promises protection to those who “know not what they do” in bearing the sword, even from themselves. Jesus, God’s Word, protects and defends, even against oneself, all the way to his own Cross. He dies even for those who kill.

These words are as true and good right now as they will be in two hours. There are no rehearsals in worship, no mulligans or do-overs. No practice rounds or warm ups. From the moment we respond to God, everything is before a live audience; human as well as divine. The time is now, the place is here. How will you respond to the presence and power of suffering in our world? How will this Church and this people undo the privilege of silence, especially in reference to people who suffer the hidden wounds of war, not thousands of miles away and cultures apart, but right here in this country called America that we love and hate…

God is there, in us, buried beneath repeated deployments and the deafening silence that greets us upon our return. Soldiers and veterans have no trouble believing the truth that “Lord, we are not worthy to receive you.” The Church must remind them of the rest of that prayer; that it takes but a Word, “and we shall be healed.”

There is no such thing as “just a job,” no such thing as “just a sermon.” This sermon is real and significant, even though I will say largely the same thing two hours from now. There is no escaping the moral and doxological reality of our sometimes mundane, sometimes martial, everyday lives. Our actions have consequences. Our words have power. God is honored or dishonored by every beat of our heart, by every breath of our lungs.

God has given us The Words to pray, now it is our turn to repeat them, again and again until we are one cell, one body, one people – until we are the answer to His prayer.  God grant us the strength to respond; with our words, with our hearts, with our actions, with our lives.

Amen.