Veterans Day Sermon - Sunday, November 12, 2017
Matthew 25: 1-13
So while we are spared the weeping and gnashing of teeth this week, our Gospel is another one of those pesky parables in Matthew, that can upon our first hearing, can sound as if ALL that stuff we dislike MOST about fundamentalism, might be actually true: Could it be that Christianity really IS a religion of requirements and rewards, with heaven as the carrot, hell as ultimate stick? And belief in Jesus -- God’s rescue operation? What if God really is the heavenly attendance taker, you know, the one who’s “got a list and checking it twice”? And what if God’s grace is conditional after all, and easily withheld from those whose faith stumbles at the wrong moment?
Read with THAT understanding of the Kingdom of God – this parable can be a terrifying story as it’s metaphor seems clear: The door is closed. The ones who ran out of oil, have been shut out. No matter how much they knock. They’re too late.
Ah, but after my heart gets racing, I take a deep breath, and remind myself there’s a reason I am an Episcopalian! We don’t just read the bible thankfully, we study it, and in so doing, we see the vast majority of Jesus’s teachings of the Kingdom of God, point NOT to the AFTER life, but about the transformation of THIS life. For Jesus, salvation was NOT an evacuation plan for the NEXT world, but about the RESTORATION of THIS world. Our work as Christians then, isn’t to get our beliefs straightened out just right so we can be saved, but to get to work, building a world where ALL of god’s children live in harmony, with justice and peace – on earth as it is in heaven.
Read in THAT light, YES, I DO read this as a parable calling us to be vigilant, but NOT so that we might escape hell at the moment of truth, but so that we would be awake to the daily moments of life, when we can ber there for others, in their moment of need. The wedding banquet of God’s Reign, happens when we serve AND seek Christ in the other and so like any big party, salvation is not an private act or my personal ticket to heaven, but its communal one. We meet Jesus not by ourselves, but through the each other, particularly the stranger …and even the enemy. My freedom cannot be at the expense of another’s, my wholeness is incomplete if it's in the midst of your brokenness. The fullness of my humanity is only discovered as I honor yours.
Last week Mother Mary Lynn read a children’s story where a mother seeking to calm her children’s fears of a thunderstorm, assures them that they are not alone, and never will be, because we are connected by an invisible thread.
The Kingdom of God happens when we live as if that were true.
Our veterans certainly know this. Who else knows better than our veterans about humility and service and sacrifice of one’s self for the sake of others. Veterans know what it’s like to put their lives in the hands of the other – and they know what it’s like to have each other’s back – to bear one another’s burdens as St. Paul says. That kinship is lived out in what is arguably the most diverse institution in the country. Our service men and women represent every corner of our country, every shade of humanity -- immigrant and native born, rich and poor, cisgendered or transgendered, Christian, Jew, Muslim, or non-believer, and on and on, -- ALL of them finding a way to set aside their differences, in pursuit common of a common mission. At a time in our country when our divisions feel more exposed and our differences less surmountable, our veterans are a living example of the oneness – that kinship to which we are called – might actually be possible. In fact, it may be one of the greatest unsung victories that our military has ever had – the breaking down of our tribalism and the walls that separate us -- and making visible of the threads that bind us to one another.
After they take off that uniform, our veterans continue to serve this country by being a living witness to what they have become, as our neighbors and community leaders, teachers and first responders, our bosses and our unassuming co-workers. They bring into their civilian life, that ethos of kinship and a willingness to serve first --- are not our veterans some of the first to come to the aid of someone in need? Are they not some of the first to stand up against prejudice in their midst?
That kinship, continues even to their final resting place. I had the honor of officiating at funeral at the National Cemetery at Miramar recently and I was immediately struck by the silent witness of the uniform rows of perfectly white headstones. It is a sight to behold. And it became even more so when it was explained to me, that regardless of your rank, or the number of medals you earned -- ALL are treated equally. Seamen are buried next to Admirals, , 4-star generals next to privates. All the markers are the same, and there is no preference or privilage about what spot you get, each family gets the next available spot. It struck me that what I was hearing was our own eucharistic theology – when we come together to take the NEXT available spot at the altar rail, we too come as one people, united in common mission, to share a common meal, and in so doing, model the kinship of the Kingdom of God in here, so that we might have a shot of practicing it, out there.
As many of you no doubt know, Veterans Day began as Armistice Day, the truce that ended WWI. On that day in 1918, on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, the war came to an end as tragically as it began. When that very morning, a young private named Henry Gunther, whose company was pinned down by German fire, decided in the closing moments of the war to on his own, charge the German machine guns. Stunned, German soldiers yelled at Gunther in broken English to stop —stop, the war is almost over! They fired warning shots, but it was to no avail. Gunther continued his charge and was killed, on the 11th day of the 11th month, at 10:59 a.m., just 1 minute before the cease fire went into effect.
With more than 16 million dead, that war was so disastrous it was named “war to end all wars” as it was believed that mankind could never fall into that abyss again. The declaration by the United States Congress proclaimed that Nov 11 would forever commemorate with prayers and thanksgiving, the “resumption of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed.” Importantly, it went on, “the day should be observed with ceremonies designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations, and friendly relations with ALL other peoples.”
And while I love banner processions and parades as much as the next, as Christians our patriotism for our country must never overshadow our passion for the Kingdom of God. In the spirit of that original declaration, I think we would be doing our veterans AND our faith a disservice, if we were fail to pray NOT just for the veterans of all wars, but the veterans of ALL countries.
And our celebrations would be a hollow tribute as well, if we were to ignore the price so many of them continue to pay. Today an average of 22 vets commit suicide every day – well above national averages - and while we’ve made good progress over the last 10 years – there are still roughly 40-50,000 vets living on our streets this very day. Two summers ago, I spent time at volunteering at the Homeless Vets Tent -- trying to connect those who qualified, with more permanent housing we were offering. Having visited many homeless shelters of one kind or another over the years, I remarked on how the veteran tent was different, how they kept their bunks so neat and their meager possessions in such order, but more importantly, I was struck by dignity respect they were able to muster. They no longer looked the part to be sure, but they carried themselves and treated one another -- AND us, with the honor and dignity befitting the uniform.
An honor and dignity we somehow still struggle to guarantee them a home.
Which brings us back to Henry Gunther. One of the questions that historians always had was why did Henry charge that German machine gun? It was common knowledge the war was about to be over. It doesn’t appear his commanders had ordered it. Why would he? As historians dug deeper it was discovered that Henry’s family were German immigrants, and he and his family had become the target of growing anti-German prejudice here at home. A local pharmacist even accused Henry’s grandmother of being a German spy – and so in the days leading up to his death, Henry had become unusually eager to volunteer for all manner of dangerous assignments -- as if to prove his loyalty. Could it be that rather than trying to kill Germans on the battlefield, Henry may have been trying to slay his own demons here at home – and take ONE LAST chance in the closing moments of the war, to prove to his country, once and for all, that he loved her as much as his own.
Henry Gunther’s tragic death, reminds us and indeed all of history, that true peace, will never be found in the cessation of hostilities on the battlefield, but in the presence of justice at home -- when we are no longer feared for our differences, but celebrated for our common humanity.
The kingdom of God happens when we live as if that were true.
God laments all death and all suffering whether it’s between combatants in a declared war, or between citizens in an undeclared war of rampant gun violence. It is all tragic. But it need not be in vain. On this Veteran’s Day Weekend, may we honor them and their families, by reminding ourselves of THEIR witness to the inbreaking Kingdom of God, revealed NOT with victory in battle, but in the kinship they model in AND out of uniform. And may we be vigilant to love and serve them, to bear their burdens now, as they once bared ours.