Circle of Hope Sermon

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

8th Sunday after Pentecost 


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.


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