This is a real, vulnerable moment for me, because it’s not something I ever thought I’d share on a blog that I created to profile ethical fashion. But, alas, with eight years of blogging comes significant life and career change. Now that I’m in the process of getting ordained as an Episcopal priest, I thought I’d begin to share more theological and spiritual content with you. This has always been a feature of StyleWise in some way, but perhaps it will start to balance out fashion and personal style content with time, revealing the balance and recalibration I am discovering in my own life.
As this sermon will reveal, working with a veteran population often creates more questions than answers. As Tim O’Brien suggests, there are no simple narratives when it comes to war stories. There are no easy responses to those narratives either. In this sermon, I attempt to respond in a way that is true. This is the first Sunday morning sermon I’ve ever preached. I have changed some introductory details to create greater anonymity.
A sermon preached on The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 26, 2020
Readings: Romans 8:26-39 / Matthew 13:31-33,44-52 / Psalm 105:1-11, 45b
Since May 18, I have been working with hospitalized veterans as a chaplain intern. Speaking quite vulnerably, I must admit that working with veterans at their most vulnerable has challenged nearly every negative assumption I had about the people who comprise the military, such as:
- that they were, perhaps, belligerently opinionated on political issues – Only sometimes
- uncritically optimistic about military service – Never
- or, too gruff to share vulnerably – Just give ’em a few days
The fact of the matter, at least in my experience, is that many of our veterans face an intractable interpersonal situation, oftentimes bruised and betrayed by their military service – in many cases, service they either didn’t choose or chose within a complexity of family and economic concerns – only to reenter civilian society to face blank stares or outright criticism for the quote, “dirty work,” that most of us, at least in passing, endorsed. through our fears or our votes. For many vets, “Thank you for your service” rings hollow, a way to distance from the true story of veteran experience rather than seek out their humanity.
As a consequence of this, for many of the vets I meet with, social distrust, and the isolation it inevitably brings, contribute to chronic health problems, high stress, long term feelings of guilt and regret, and spiritual despair.
All veterans who use medical services find ways to cope. The question is how. Enter Mr. S.
Mr. S wasn’t my patient, but he spoke to my CPE colleague. And what he shared blew all of us away. He told my colleague one day, in the midst of a quaint conversation about meaning and spirituality, that he knows God loves him, because, and I quote, “God killed, too.”
What he meant by this is that he saw a wrathful God in the Old Testament and an apocalyptic perspective in Jesus’ words, including the words we read today in Matthew, and, instead of turning away in disgust, he replied, “Me, too, brother. Me, too.”
The reason Mr. S’ words blew us away is that we were forced to dwell in our discomfort of this exegesis of God’s apparent brutality, while acknowledging that Mr. S had been able to find total redemption in Christ, a reflection of the Imago Dei (or image of God) in himself, precisely because of such violence. It caused my little rag-tag cohort of bright-eyed seminarians to ask ourselves, for the first time in a long time, “What is the purpose of God’s wrath?”
Now, I am not suggesting that the horrific war stories one may find, say, in the book of Numbers or even in the stories of Genesis we’ve been reading over the past several weeks, are justifiable or virtuous.
However, as one of our preachers suggested a few weeks ago in her sermon on the Binding of Isaac, the violence in the Bible represents something true, in that it exists and continues to persist in contemporary society. We often see it cloaked in theory or buried in political systems, hidden from those with the power, safety, and privilege to ignore it. In the case of military intervention, we send young men and women quote “over there” to fight so that we can pretend it isn’t happening. It’s uncomfortable to look at – it makes us feel bad. Bless our hearts, Mainline Protestant communities like ours often attempt to do the same with the Bible, suggesting that things would be better if we could pull a Thomas Jefferson and remove the parts of the Bible that make us uncomfortable.
But I am increasingly convinced that it is necessary to hold a mirror to ourselves in these Biblical stories of family abuse, unthinking loyalty, and collectively justified genocide. It is necessary to be reminded that good intentions don’t excuse us from reckoning with the costs of our ignorance. I do not believe that followers of Christ are being asked to reconcile violence with God’s abiding love, but I do think that we should be careful not to reduce our faith to something without teeth, something that doesn’t look like the world we live in. To do so not only threatens to remove lived experience from our foundational stories, it is to forget what the Gospel really means.
What does it mean to hear those exultant words: NOTHING, NO ONE, can separate us from the LOVE of God – if we can’t look suffering in the face, if we won’t let it settle and ache into our bones? What does it mean to hear a message of union with God, of freedom, if we don’t understand the alternative? It is helpful to remember that the passage preceding the one we heard today in Romans deals with the consequences of sin in the world, sin that Paul says is not a result of the knowledge we have received through tradition but rather a reality of the world we live in. Rather than creating more strife, the received story of our faith – the good, the bad, and even the confusing – is intended to provide a foundation for the work we do in the world, a place to start.
In the passage we read today, Paul reminds the Church at Rome of the reality of Jesus’ death, a death that not only ameliorates our own but walks with us as we experience grief on this earth. It is this death – and the life it brings – that introduces those often-quoted, victorious words at the end of the passage. We are never counted as “missing in action,” but are named and known by Christ Jesus. The love of God is a foil to sin and death – the protagonist we never saw coming – and it remains, vigilantly, in tension with the world for as long as sin and death exist.
The LOVE of God is an act of defiance – “Christ was raised and intercedes for us.” This love defies society’s attempt to smoothe over the rough edges of injustice, supremacy, and war by showing up precisely where these things are present. It says “Remember how our living God suffered and died? See how this cycle of violence continues today?” It reminds our vet friend, Mr. S – indeed, it reminds all of us – that we have committed violence, and that we continue to do so.
But it doesn’t stop there. Jesus tells us in Matthew that the Gospel is alive, a mystery of growth and treasure discovered in the middle of a field, contained inside movements that start out as small as a mustard seed, perhaps in our congregations. God continues to be alive in the world, even in us, even in those who have killed, and especially in those who cry out in the streets as they mourn the killing. Mr. S knows, perhaps better than most, that the only way the Imago Dei includes all of us is to look the shadows of ourselves square in their avoidant faces and say, “Yes, sister, you too. You have seen death, and yet you are alive.”
In the battlefield of death, of weeping and gnashing, of Hell on Earth, Mr. S saw God in the faces of his fellow soldiers and eventually, in himself. Other vets have seen God in the face of their young enemy, right before the bullet left the barrel. In that fleeting, most human moment, what they heard was the shout of God rippling through the unmediated expanse of desert, jungle, or city under siege, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
So, what good is God’s wrath? Biblical violence exposes our propensity for the same. It reminds us that God intimately knows the worst we can do and have done, and it propels us to repent, to turn again to God’s defiant love.
As image-bearers, we bring the defiant LOVE of God into our homes and workplaces and communities. We learn with time to turn our swords into plowshares and plant our mustard seeds. We do this precisely because we know hope persists even as violence persists. We do this, with God’s help, because we know that the violence in our hearts can be redeemed, death can be turned back to life again, and nothing will separate us from the love of God.