Pentecost 25, Proper 27
November 11, 2018 Veterans’ Day
The Rev. Dr. Paul Moore
Last week I attended the funeral rosary for a 30-year old man who died of sclerosis of the liver. He was family to one of our families, and we baptized one of his daughters. His wife had been to see me more than once as well. I went to see him in the hospital just before the end. He was emaciated and terribly weak. We prayed for peace and healing, and the peace and healing granted was the end of his earthly life.
After the rosary there was an open-mike time. His sister stood up and spoke more than once. She told stories, of course, and talked about how he made them all crazy—mostly in a good way, that they were all crazy, but that they loved one another, and now she wishes she had told him more clearly just what he meant to her. She was living in two worlds at the same time: Yes, she was crazy, the family is crazy. We’re all crazy. We’re broken and tarnished and embarrassed by our past—or we ought to be. Any argument about claiming the high moral ground is always a bit suspect. On the other hand, we do have the power to love, even in our broken, crazy way, and love is of the very nature of God. It’s the power that holds the universe together, and the only hope for humanity is to somehow, stumbling and fumbling, try to learn to love just a fraction of the way we have been loved by God.
“Crazy” and “Love” are two kingdoms we live in at the same time.
Fifteen hundred years ago the world was as crazy as it is today. The Romans had ruled the western world for most of a millennium, first as a Republic, and then in 27 BCE, an Empire. West of Asia, the Romans had been the only real team on the field, but Rome had gone the way all things go, and it was crumbling from within. It was not helped, of course, by marauding bands of Germanic peoples, the so-called Barbarians, sweeping down to repeatedly sack the Eternal City, leaving it bleeding and broken, to the point where sacking it yet again was pointless. Clearly, the old ways were proving impossible to sustain and incapable of facing the future.
Not quite four hundred years earlier a small sect of Jews had an experience with a man who they claimed to be the Son of God. Not like the Emperor, great divine king that he was supposed to be, this man had died and risen again to save the world. The movement grew rapidly, in spite of persecution, challenging the ancient ways of Rome with a new ethic and a new way of relating one to another. Soon it had claimed the loyalty of Emperor Constantine, and for a couple of centuries most of the emperors, for what they were worth, were Christian. All of a sudden, the persecution stopped and everyone wanted to be a Christian, facing the Church with growing pains it had not known before. Talk about crazy!
There were brilliant thinkers among the Christians, but one stood taller than the rest at this juncture in history. Augustine of Hippo gathered together the ideas of others of his age in such a way that in many ways laid the foundation for the emergence of a new world, the Medieval Age. He wrote a book called The City of God. In it he describes almost in parable form, two great cities, the Kingdom of this earth, and the Kingdom of God. The kingdoms of this earth will never become the Kingdom of God, because we are broken, sinful people, but it is the divine calling of all kingdoms of this earth to strive for that heavenly ideal, and it is the role of the Church to teach the people just what that might look like. He really talks about a two-sided world, where earth is crazy and heaven is loving and we live in the dynamic tension between the two.
Augustine’s thinking thoroughly rooted in Scripture. You can see it reflected in today’s lessons. In the Old Testament Elijah has just predicted three and a half years of drought. The drought represents the broken craziness of this world. To preserve his prophet, God has sent him to Sidon, to the house of a poor widow. The widow recognizes that this man is not just any ordinary man. He represents a world above her own world, the world that can cause it to rain at his command. In faith she feeds him and her family on a miracle for three and a half years. In the Epistle lesson the author of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus died and rose again on earth, and has entered, not a temple made with human hands (a reference to the temple in Jerusalem) but the heavenly temple, of which the earthly one is a shadow, a replica, a branch office, if you will. That world is the real one, this is the shadow. In the Gospel lesson Jesus is constantly trying to jar the Scribes and Pharisees into seeing the world more deeply. First, he warns his disciples against an earth-oriented piety that doesn’t really take God’s ideas into consideration, and then he astounds them all by claiming that the poor widow actually gives more than the “blessed ones,” the wealthy, because of her faith (hear echoes of Elijah here?) Jesus is saying, “You can see the world in two ways here, the crazy one that values people for their money, or the loving, faith-filled one that sees the greater gift in this poor woman’s great faith.
Today is Veteran’s Day, a day that calls us to think about our country and our faith, and the ones who have served our country in the Armed Forces, especially those who claim the Christian faith. We remember especially those who have fought in defense of our country and those who paid the ultimate price for her. We have just heard from someone for whom being a soldier and being a Christian is a personal experience. In a day when the separation of Church and State is one of the hot-button topics, how does one talk about faith and country in the same breath without giving offense? At the risk of offense, I believe that such talk is not only possible, but essential—especially now.
We can borrow from the readings for today, and from Augustine to help us understand. I am an American citizen and proud of it, yet I am not always proud of what my country does. While living overseas, I have seen the foreign policy of the U.S. from the other side, so to speak, and I know that our government is often really more interested in self-preservation than justice, in spite of the rhetoric of the day. This is crazy.
I was in Killeen, Texas, during the Gulf War, and I saw the casualties return. The most tragic were those whose wounds were not seen, but known in the mind and soul, soldiers for whom the horrors of war had stripped them of their humanity and left them broken and feeling hopeless. I remember the sense of betrayal I felt when we heard that in the end there were probably no weapons of mass destruction. To this day war veterans are disproportionately represented among the homeless and mentally ill. War is hell, there is no other way to put it, and those who choose war as a way to settle international disputes choose to put men and women through hell. This is crazy.
On the other hand, I am an American citizen, and I know fine, upstanding servants of their country who have acted in Christlike ways for the sake of the good of others and in the name of the United States. I know agents of change working for our government in distant lands who truly seek the good of the local people, using our tax dollars to do good things in dark corners of the world. I know soldiers who, in the day of decision they risked for the sake of others, willing to do what Jesus did and lay down their lives for their friends, family and country back home. Guided by an ethic larger than their command, they truly surrendered their own persons for the sake of others. I cannot think of a more loving, Christlike attitude.
Adversity can bring out the best or the worst. It is only with that higher vision before us that we can help to move our country toward a greater reflection of that heavenly kingdom. We should never imagine that any country will ever be heaven on earth, including ours, and it is never appropriate to measure ourselves against another state in this regard, but we grow worse when we lose sight of the City of God and we reach beyond ourselves in Christlike ways when we keep her shining gates clearly before us.
There is plenty of adversity to challenge us today. With the elections behind us, there are those who are crowing and strutting, and there are those who are seething with disillusionment. Do not make the mistake of thinking that these are the two sides of the world. These two sides just show how crazy, broken and mixed up the kingdoms of this earth are. The Kingdom of God lies as a shining light behind and beyond both of them. This kingdom calls us to humble, loving self-giving.
In the days leading up to the elections there were senseless acts of crazy violence. I think especially of the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg. When Robert Bowen was taken to a largely Jewish hospital and attended to by Jewish medical professionals who treated him like any other patient in spite of his anti-Semitic rantings, and in full knowledge of the carnage and desecration he had just caused in their holy place, they lived out the love that lies at the heart of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is now more than ever that we must work to make the horrors of the wars of our times bring into focus the Kingdom of Heaven. It is now more than ever that we must keep the vision of the heavenly kingdom before our eyes. It is now that we must remember that we are all in this boat together, that humility and true, earnest listening, compassion and community are Christlike virtues that our global society needs so desperately.
May the Church live up to Augustine’s challenge of showing the world what the Kingdom of God might actually look like on earth, not in political structures, for these are the kingdoms of the earth, but in ways of being human together, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.