reflections on veterans day 2016...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this coming Sunday, November 13, 2016.  My
first draft was completed before the stunning upset in the US race for President.  So after prayerful quiet and deep reflection, I reworked the conclusion to include the call to solidarity and discipline as yet another gift we might learn from our veterans in these divisive times. In the case of those who follow Jesus, of course, our focus must be upon Christ's sacrificial love.

Today we gather in the house of the Lord to return thanks to God for the gift of life and the responsibility to use that gift compassionately. Yes, America is mostly honoring our noble veterans this weekend – as well we should – and earlier this week there were the appropriate parades and patriotic speeches. But today, Sunday, is the Lord’s Day, a festival to Christ’s resurrection from the dead and the love of God. So that makes this a unique observance – a sacred event not a secular celebration - and we would do well to honor the distinction.

Too often religious holy days are conflated with patriotic holidays creating blurred allegiances and even confused loyalties. In preparation for today’s message, I read through about 20 Veterans’ Day sermons on line and almost all of them suggested that love of God was akin to love of country. Now there are parallels, to be sure, there are similarities, without a doubt, and people can honestly love both God and country with integrity and valor. But we step into dangerous and potentially destructive territory whenever we insist that love of God is the same as love of nation. Back in the grim days leading up to World War II, the public theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr observed that: “Our tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan values (creates) the source of all religious (and political) fanaticism."

That’s one of the truths I’ve learned from the veterans I’ve loved in the four congregations I’ve served all over this great country. Their faith in the God made flesh in Jesus Christ gave them the strength to do the hard and some-times impossible deeds asked of them on behalf of America. Their commitment to a love greater than self gave them perspective, their experience with grace gave them patience, and the ethical demands of their faith gave them the moral compass necessary to search for the good and holy even as they walked through the valley of the shadow of death for their country. So this morning, as we give glory to God, I want to consider with you why it is also important for contemporary people of Christian faith to return thanks to the Lord for our veterans.

It is NOT, from my vantage point, about sloppy, uncritical patriotism or a spirituality that confuses the will of God with national self-interest. Rather I think it has to do with the paradox that lives at the core of this celebration, a complex truth that our veterans comprehend with existential clarity: they know in their flesh – and honor with their lives – the intricate contradiction that is a part of our quest for freedom, justice and peace.

Once again, Niebuhr got it right when he wrote: Goodness armed with power is always corrupted while pure love without power is destroyed. Do you grasp the nuanced truth in Niebuhr’s insight? Did you hear the brutal honesty of our dilemma? Goodness armed with power is always corrupted while pure love without power is destroyed. Such is at the genius of Christian realism – faithful engagement with the hard issues of the world – informed by humility, love and God’s grace.

Few people know this truth better than our veterans: we ask them to do things in pursuit of our safety and security that would curdle our blood if we knew the details. And they do it, thanks be to God! We also ask them to keep these hard and often horrible things to themselves – and they do that, too – often at great cost to themselves and their loved ones. Their silence, in addition to their heroic duty, is one of the invisible sacrifices they make on our behalf. And this is the first reason I believe we must honor Veterans Day: America could not survive without this unspoken vow of action saturated in silence. These women and men know that “goodness armed with power is always corrupted while pure love without power is always destroyed.”

When I was a kid growing up in Connecticut – and later Sudbury, MA – I didn’t know anything about the military – and I had no idea the burden our vets carry in silence. I played soldiers with my buddies, watched “Combat” and “The Gallant Men” on TV and knew that most of my uncles had been to Korea while my Poppa Phil had served in France during WWII. But my dad had a student deferment because I was born in 1952, most civilians in our neighborhood wanted to move past the sacrifices of war and nobody who ever saw active duty ever talked about their experiences with non-vets, right?

And that’s still mostly true even today: vets keep a lot bottled up inside and only go public with their feelings and experiences when they feel safe and respected. More often than not this only happens in the company of other vets where judgment is banished. Civilians tend towards either/or thinking with black and white solutions while those who have been on the battlefield know there is no such thing. In combat, you do what you have to do in order to survive – you care for the sister or brother in arms beside you with all your heart and soul – and then you move on and do it all over again for as long as is necessary. One former Marine put it to me like this: few civilians really know what Jesus meant when he said, “Greater love has no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

He was right. We don’t know what that means, and that’s the second reason I believe Christians are called to pay their respect to veterans on this national holiday. They conscientiously sacrifice themselves in ways we can never comprehend. And they do so with grace and courage under fire without complaint. Of course, there are always some loose cannons who act like belligerent bullies, but that is true for civilians, too: nobody has a monopoly upon virtue this side of the Cross. And yet, after having been given the privilege of sharing just a bit of the inside world of some veterans lives, I’m convinced we civilians could learn a lot about what it means to love one another sacrificially from these men and women.

Back in the 80s in working class Cleveland, OH was the first time I was welcomed into the hearts of a few vets from WWII. Norman Novotony with a metal plate in half his head after seeing combat in the Pacific. Ernie Huth with body tremors and staggering bouts of depression after combat against the Nazis in Europe. And Al Heimburger, a young airplane mechanic who was sent to India a few weeks after graduating from high school, to repair Allied aircraft challenging Japan’s attacks in that region.

Heimburger was the chair of the search committee that brought my young family to Cleveland. He taught confirmation class with me on and off for 12 years, too. One Sunday afternoon at our annual church picnic we sati nside the club house sipping beer and telling one another stories of our youth. After about an hour he asked if we might take a walk around the small lake – and we did. Away from family and the rest of the congregation he said: “Last summer I was in Hawaii with my wife for our anniversary. And when we got to the Pearl Harbor Memorial it was surrounded by Japanese tourists with all their cameras. They were laughing and snapping pictures and I found myself filled with a rage I didn’t know existed. Eileen and I had to get the hell away from there as fast as we could because even after 40 years, I still hated those bastards.” We were on the far side of the lake and when I looked up at him, he was weeping. Then he said, “I love the Lord, James. I study the Bible. I trust Jesus and confess my sins to him but I still can’t forgive those people for what they did to those I love… is that wrong? Will God ever forgive me for this hatred?”

People of God, most of us haven’t a clue about the hell so many of our veterans have endured on our behalf to preserve our way of life. NOT A CLUE!  So what could I say? I was a conscientious objector during Vietnam, for God’s sake, and Al’s junior by 40 years. And he wanted to know from me if God would ever love him again because he still hated the Japanese after Pearl Harbor? It was in the flash of that moment that I realized I was being given a gift by God and by Al Heimburger if I was quick enough to claim it. So through my own ignorant tears I said something like:

Man, I have no idea what you’re feeling right now, except that it hurts, and that the agony is real. I believe with my whole heart that this pain is one of the reasons why God sent Jesus to us – so that we might know that God isn’t off in heaven but right here with us feeling what we feel – that’s what the Cross says to me. It also says that God wants us to give our pain to him – put it on the Cross – so that God can do for us what we can never do for ourselves. Jesus takes our sin and suffering and makes it his own so that we don’t have to carry it any more. You just confessed your sins to me – put them on the Cross with Christ – so whether you feel it or not I need to tell you now as your pastor that in the love of Jesus Christ, God forgives you, Al Heimburger, forgives you now and forever.

What followed was a long, awkward moment of looking into one another’s eyes before he put his hand on the back of my neck and said, “God, I hope that’s true…” then we walked back to the picnic and never spoke of this again. We honor our vets as Christians because of their sacrifices for our freedom, for their courageous and silent suffering and because more than so many others, they know the worst war brings to the world. That’s the third reason I lift them up to the Lord this day: they are often the wisest and most clear-headed peace-makers we will ever know and Jesus called the peace-makers the true children of God. As a rule, vets are pragmatists when it comes to peace, not naïve or simplistically idealistic, just slow to judge and decisive when necessary.

My brother in faith, Mike Dremmell, taught me how important it can be in keeping the peace to have people of faith serving on active duty. During his first deployment to Iraq, Mike was a communications expert. That is, he was a spy who intercepted and decoded secret, enemy broadcasts. He shared this intelligence with his commanders and helped interpret what action might be taken next. He began by learning Russian and listening in to the former Soviet Union in Korea, Italy and then Okinawa. I knew his family in Tucson when he was at Davis-Monthan Air Force base and I had the privilege to be their pastor. When he was in-country we used to email one another weekly sharing stories and prayers and he once told me how his prayers defused a potentially horrible mistake.

It seems someone thought they had discovered the possibility of a sneak attack against US troops and alerted the commanding officer who was somewhat young and untested in battle. Mike was brought in and sensed that the information might not be authentic – maybe it was a foil to lure young soldiers into an ambush – so he urged patience. The communications airmen below him were certain they were right, the officers above him wanted to act quickly and halt any possible enemy advance. But Dremmell, who had 20 years experience, urged caution and kept bringing up other possibilities to stall. All the while, he told me, he was praying, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they protect me.”

And he kept on praying – and arguing – and urging a more careful read of the so-called intelligence with his superiors for about an hour until they got confirmation that the earlier intel was wrong and no combat action was required. I may have gotten some these specifics wrong, but you get my point: a time-tested warrior who trusted the Lord and knew how to pray made a huge difference. I think it was the Daniel Ellsberg who used to say that one of the unintended sad consequences of an all-volunteer army meant that too many of our civic and political leaders never learned the true costs of going to war or the value of patiently struggling for peace. More than most, our veterans know truths about peace-making we would be wise to honor. Like my ancient Celtic elders used to say: Teach the warrior to dance before sharing the sword.


Today’s scriptures capture exactly this ironic challenge that Niebuhr and so many of our veteran’s confirm: the joy-filled vision of God’s shalom from the prophet Isaiah alongside the sober testimony of wars and rumors of wars in the words of Jesus. Isaiah, writing during the construction of the second Temple in ancient Israel in roughly 500 BCE, articulated God’s desire for human life: longevity and peace, prosperity and hope for the young as well as the old, joy and sharing instead of fear and scarcity. Jesus, standing on that same ground 500 years later as recorded in St. Luke’s gospel, tells his followers that human beings rarely live into the fullness of the Lord’s sacred vision: there have been wars and insurrections, there will continue to be conflicts into the future as well as natural disasters like earthquakes, plagues and even famine. Don’t listen to false prophets or doomsday charlatans in these hard times Jesus advised: Keep your heart fixed on God who is present even in tragedy and pain and refuse to give in to worry.

Our task is to love – and advance the cause of compassion in a broken world – trusting God in all things. And after Tuesday’s election the words of Jesus take on new gravitas for you and me. Fear and trembling has now become the new normal for many of us for different reasons. Tom Friedman writing in the NY Times on Wednesday said: the stark fact that a majority of Americans wanted radical, disruptive change so badly and simply did not care who the change agent was, what sort of role model he could be for our children, whether he really had any ability to execute on his plan — or even really had a plan to execute on — is profoundly disturbing and frightening. To which Jesus challenges us to stand together – especially as an Open and Affirming congregation. The fear and grief of this era compels us to fortify our faith, refuse any and all sloppy religious thinking that minimizes our present danger (because it is real), and then go public every chance we get with actions, words, prayers and symbols that embody God’s explicitly inclusive kingdom of love in this era of hate.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to remind us that in times such as these we must accept finite disappointments, but never lose infinite hope. And that may be the fourth albeit unanticipated reason I’m asking you as a Christian to honor our veterans today: they show us what focused and disciplined hope can bring to a culture in chaos. Our vets train, they practice, they study and they build a corps of comrades that they know can be trusted. That is something I sense the church as we envision it needs to relearn. American Christians are being called now to stand together and stand up for God’s love – and we can’t be too busy at this hour to deliver. Radical love requires discipline. It takes team work and presence, trust in the Lord and solidarity with sisters and brothers and allies. And right now too many treat faith as an elective – an add-on to an already over-burdened schedule – a nostalgic little extra born of white, middle class privilege.

But I submit to you that this hour is not about casual compassion, random acts of kindness or extracurricular Christian living. Now is the time to reclaim the mantle of dedication after the manner of Christ’s disciples – women, men and children living consciously as the company of the committed – rather than periodic, passive participants in public worship. And I say this because things are going to crack open and break apart all around us in the days to come. What has come to pass is a clash between two very different visions for our land. On one side are those who celebrate a: “diverse America; one where religion or skin color or sexual orientation or place of birth aren’t liabilities or deficiencies or moral defects. It was the banquet table of inclusion and connection and interdependency. It was about building bridges and breaking ceilings. It was about going high.” On the other side are sisters and brothers who embrace, “a very selective vision of America; one that was largely white and straight and fundamentalist with a message born of fear and exclusion and isolation.” 

So what I need you to hear right now - like veterans preparing for duty - is that no matter what
your politics may be, there are now millions of American citizens who emerged from the 2016 presidential campaign wounded and are now feeling very vulnerable. One of my heroes, the Quaker educator Parker Palmer, wrote: I'm thinking of Hispanic and Muslim children who suffer from bullying at school, and are fearful—along with their parents—about whether they'll ever feel safe in the country they rightly call home. I'm thinking of African American children who—along with their parents—are frightened by the fact that racists have been given license to spew hatred in private and in public. I'm thinking of women who've been subjected to speech that's left them re-traumatized by past sexual assaults and fearful that it will happen again. 

Overnight our calling became boldly public because t
he testimony of Jesus and the essence of his message is love – welcome – a safe embrace for those who are broken – and a tender-hearted, disciplined strength that is ready, willing and able to go the distance of the Cross for those in need. Do you remember how John 3:16 put it? For God so loved the… world… that He gave us his only begotten son so that all might be made whole by love. What about Matthew 11: 28? Come unto me ALL ye who are tired and heavy laden – not some – but ALL. And don’t forget I Corinthians 13: 

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. A If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. For love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrong-doing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things
. We are a people of love – for all people – and right now, to use the words of Jesus, it feels as “if the end is near.” So he reminds us: Don’t fall for any of that… You may think at times that the very sky is falling… they may arrest you, hunt you down, and drag you to court and jail. Make up your mind right now not to worry about it.

Did you hear that: make up your mind right now NOT to worry about it! You can be sad, you can be afraid, you can be angry or confused or grieving, but do NOT worry about advancing the cause of love. It is God’s way and Jesus promises us the strength and the vision to make love flesh in public IF we commit to his discipline and live by his example. This is the way of the Lord: a disciplined vow to active, sacrificial love by the company of Christ’s committed. We have some work to do, sisters and brothers, God’s work – and it starts right NOW!


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