"As I mused, the fire burned"

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Soldiers, lamp oil and faith in action

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Soldiers, lamp oil, and faith in action.  St John the Evangelist Edmonton,  9 November 2014 – final version
Psalm 78:18, 1 Thess 14:13-18, Matt 25:1-13 wise/foolish bridesmaids

Today we gather as the Body of Christ, and worship, with a moment of remembrance for the cost of violence to all those who are touched by it, but particularly for soldiers. I served for just over 20 years in uniform as a soldier, working mostly with fighter aircraft (most assume I was a chaplain…nope, that came later). I specialized in air weapons and explosives…and if I was still on a fighter squadron in Cold Lake I would be over in Qatar right now as a part of the Canadian mission against ISIS. Part of my ongoing ministry is to bring this image of the soldier forward, and to use a soldier’s perspective to talk about our shared faith, for much of what I understand about faith I learned in uniform.

This is not to say that we as the Body of Christ celebrate the things that soldiers are called to do, by virtue of their willingness to serve. Jesus provides us with a nonviolent alternative, the way of the peacemaker…but I am a pragmatic Christian and I acknowledge that in a broken world like this, we will not see the end of violence until the promised remaking of all of creation. This is as Jesus told us it would be, and that we would continue to hear of wars and rumours of wars until his coming again (Mark 13:7). We will not create that place through our own efforts to fix the brokenness of the world. Our vocations in Christ are a call to continue that working out in the world here in the reality of wars and rumours of wars. We are each individually called to make a difference, some large, some small, but all are called: Christian faith is faith in action, in doing.

Our largest challenge in Western Christianity is how we have become conditioned to expect things in an instant (oh wait, I have a text) and have correspondingly short attention spans. Eugene Peterson calls this the ‘tourist mindset’ where we expect to be entertained, but have no taste for the long apprenticeship and the patient acquisition of virtues in the quest for holiness. Peterson terms this a long obedience in the same direction. Our Gospel reading today brings us the parable of the wise and unwise bridesmaids – 5 bring no extra oil, while the wise are prepared. When the bridegroom’s late arrival is announced the foolish bridesmaids ask the wise to share, and are rebuked. As they go off to find a late-night oil merchant, the wedding banquet begins and they are locked outside…unrecognizable to the master. It seems like a harsh parable, in the failure to share.

This is not what is at work here. First note is that this is a parable, not a factual story. This is a parable about what the kingdom of heaven will be like on Christ’s return. The ten bridesmaids are already called into the kingdom, they’ve all been invited to the party at the end of time, they’re all disciples, but the two groups of five have realized that discipleship in very different ways. You’ve been invited to a wedding banquet, but you have a specific job to do, which is to light the way for the bridegroom. Lighting the way requires preparedness to anticipate the things that might happen along the way. What if the bridegroom’s arrival is greatly delayed? To ask the question in Peterson’s terms – are you in this Christian thing for the long haul, for total transformation of what you are, or are you a church vacationer looking for some distraction?

Soldiers are in it for the long haul, and can teach us something about obedience, and about training for decisions that have literal life and death consequences. They can also teach us something about community. I worked with people I did not really like, but I knew I could count on them with my life. That sort of community, filled with real sometimes difficult people who trust each other with their lives, well, that’s the sort of community the church is called to be, isn’t it? But we live in this place of tension about the use of violence in our broken world, and how we quickly opt for violence as a way to solve our problems. Too many times we blame the soldier as an instrument of violence, much the same way we blame firearms when someone is shot.

Violence in our world is not only the violence of artillery and air power, those are just the most immediately apparent forms. Rather it is about the violence that we are willing to do on a daily basis through the economy, through our own lifestyles. I’m not going to get political, but it is interesting to look at the ongoing conflict between government and First Nations communities over the routing of pipelines. We’re happy to say they have the right to traditional use of the land, but it is interesting what happens when our economic needs to run a pipeline clash with that traditional use of the land. Before we condemn the soldier as a tool of violence, we need to think about our culpability in the cycle of violence.

One day I received a call from a friend, a pastor in an old parish, one of those rare prairie stone churches. His parish had World War I memorials on the walls, in fact, two of the wooden crosses that had been erected on Vimy Ridge by the soldiers right after the battle. The local regimental association had called him and asked if they could hold a memorial service including a re-dedication of these memorials. My friend, who had been raised in the Mennonite tradition, called me because he was in conflict. His question, “How can I be party to the glorification of war through a church service?” He thought he had no choice but to refuse.

That discussion was one of the things that convinced me that a part of my continuing ministry is to teach about soldiers, because you can’t understand the way of the soldier until you’ve lived it. The soldier is a member of a separate culture, with its own ethos, traditions and history…much of which is a mystery to those observing from the outside. A classic example of this came up recently about Corporal Nathan Cirillo, the Argyle who was shot as he stood watch over the tomb of the unknown soldier. The Hamilton Spectator published an article that was originally titled, Cpl Cirillo, Was Not a Hero…and changed to Cpl Cirillo, an Accidental Hero, after the public outcry. I’ve spoken about this before because the word ‘hero’ is not one you are likely to hear a soldier ever use. I was taught that heroes are the ones who, through the desire to be recognized, take risks that put their comrades at risk. A hero, for a soldier, is someone that you stay far away from. The greatest compliment that can be paid a soldier is to say that they did their duty – so a title like, Cpl Nathan Cirillo, He Did His Duty, is something a soldier would understand. A bit like the five wise bridesmaid’s who met their duty to be prepared for the coming of Christ.

Now, back to my friend in the parish. He called because he was torn between his role in a welcoming church, and his inability to endorse something he saw as contrary to Christ’s teachings. This is what I said: If there is anyone who really understands why Christ speaks so strongly against violence, it is the soldier. While we can sit and have lengthy theological debates about the call of the Christian, sitting in a warm room sipping craft beer, it is the soldier who crouches in a ditch in some far-away land, filthy and exhausted, bandaging his friend who has just lost a leg to an IED. Soldiers, more than anyone, understand the true cost of violence because they pay that cost in blood. I said you can preach a sermon of peace to a room full of soldiers because they understand why war must be avoided at all costs, better than we do. The purpose of a memorial service isn’t to glorify war, which is something that the warrior never does, but rather to remember friends that never returned home, families that are missing sons and daughters, fathers and mother, and to ask forgiveness for having survived when better people than you had been killed. I think I still hadn’t convinced him when I offered, almost in passing, a closing comment: Will you be the one to deny a group of soldiers access to the gospel? He held the service, preached a sermon out of the Anabaptist tradition, and wasn’t tarred and feathered by the soldiers in his midst. The church has not always been so welcoming, and there are stories of soldiers being refused entry to the church.

Following the path of the soldier is one of sacrifice and self-denial, and those attributes in particular, are the things that taught me real lessons about being a person of faith. If I really believe I need to be prepared to lose everything for the sake of the Gospel – just like a soldier on active duty is prepared to lose their life for the sake of honour, duty and their friends. In my present life of ease the way of the soldier reminds me of the real meaning behind LCol John McCrae’s words, “to you from failing hands we throw the torch”. The soldier calls to each of us – I am willing to die for what I believe, how about you? That torch thrown to us is not a call for us to be soldiers, but a call for us to continue to stand for the values that those soldiers were willing to die for. That is, a call for us to enter a life of service to others, regardless of the cost to us. What is God calling you to do?

In his book “The Blue Cascade”, US Army officer Mike Scotti writes about his struggles with PTSD after two combat tours in the Middle East. He describes in particular the orders of his Battalion Commander as they are preparing to enter a major city on their advance. This was a mechanized battle, and the key in mechanized warfare is speed. The commander said in his orders, if we meet heavy resistance in the city, B Company will deploy from the order of march to engage the threat and be expended. Scotti comments at that point that they all knew what that meant, B Company, all 150 or so of them – all sons, fathers, husbands – were to sacrifice themselves, ‘expend themselves’ in order that the rest of the unit could succeed at their mission. That’s what standing in the gap means to a soldier.

That example is meant to be an uncomfortable one to hear, and it immediately makes me ask: if those soldiers are willing to stand in the gap for their friends up to and including their lives, what is my vocational call from God calling me to do? If those soldiers are willing to expend their lives in what may or may not, ultimately be a noble cause…how much more willing should I be to give of myself in the here and now. To be even more blunt: how seriously do I take Christ’s call to carry the Word forward in the world? How willing am I to risk being ostracized and mocked for being the person that Christ calls me to be? How much am I willing to risk to be called a disciple of Christ? Am I willing to sacrifice my job if Christ calls me to stand against something that is wrong?

As Cpl Cirillo fell, government lawyer Barbara Winters ran back to the memorial because she thought someone might need help – she ran back toward the sound of the guns. She gave first aid and comforted Cirillo as he died. If you’ve seen the pictures, a few others were helping him while the rest of the people were standing around taking pictures or shooting video. Barbara Winters understands what service to her fellow humans means, and her example also calls to me – what are you prepared to do to bring that glass of cool water to someone in need? For many people today our contribution ends with the posting of moral outrage on Facebook or SnapChat, along with the cool photos we’ve taken.

Christians are called to faith in action, and that includes the obligation to identify evil. We are one of the last groups remaining in the first world that maintains some idea of evil, as the general society has abandoned that label as being too nasty and exclusive. The church as a corporate body has done much the same, as we don’t want to appear judging. In a discussion last week with one of my Muslim co-workers, she commented that the message of the Imans across Canada has been a call for Muslims to reject the evil way of ISIS, the Islamic State. I was shocked to hear her say evil, and it reminded me of my obligation to stand against evil.

As much as we want to attribute acts of violence to mental illness, or drug use, or a poor childhood and feel compassion toward the perpetrator, that does not change the reality that such acts are acts of evil – perhaps not always the acts of an evil person, but we have to be live to that possibility as well. Shooting an unarmed soldier is evil, as is running someone down in a parking lot. Killing Christians because they refuse to convert, and then killing fellow Muslims because they’re either not the right type of Islam, or because they don’t embrace you particular brand of fundamentalism, is an evil act. All of our genial ways don’t change the reality that there are people in the world who would see us dead, for no reason other than who we are. G.K. Chesterson said this, “Unless a man becomes the enemy of an evil, he will not even become its slave but rather its champion.” Our willingness to use other, softer names, gives that evil a place where it may grow.

Faith in action is a risky place to be, and it calls us to do things that might be wrong. I read this recently on a blog: ‘faith is on some level the courage to risk being wrong.’ Faith is a call to action, and action has with it risks. Faith is never brought into being unless it is through action of some form. This call to action in the face of evil came clear for the Croatian Christian theologian Miroslav Volf, when he considered the question of how he could love his Serbian Orthodox Christian neighbour after the ethnic cleaning and murder perpetrated on his community by the Serbian community. He realized that if he could not answer that question, all of his life’s work as a theologian would fall apart. He arrived at an understanding of his call as a Christian, described by NT Wright this way:

Whether we are dealing with international relations or one-on-one experiences, evil must be named and confronted. There must be no sliding around it, no attempt (whether for the sake of comfort, or a quick fix) to pretend it wasn’t so bad after all. Only when that has been done, when both evil and the evildoer have been identified as what and who they are, can there be a second move toward ‘embrace’: the embrace of the wound-ed and the wound-er.

If we expect the judgement day to come in a year, or ten years’ time, might we live differently? How long should we wait for this bridegroom anyway? Some other people begin to say, I bet there isn’t any bridegroom, and this was just cooked up by the church to give themselves power. Others began to say, now that we know we’re saved, it means we can do whatever we want. Still others said, because of this great delay, I’ll worry about faith when I get closer to the end of the journey. In all these cases people are exercising their free will to choose how they will respond to the call to the kingdom. How do you chose to respond?

Are you prepared for, as Eugene Peterson terms it, ‘a long obedience in the same direction?’ The call to faith is a call to service, to action and to obedience. It’s a call to act boldly, accepting that you will go wrong sometimes, but knowing that you can always rely on the mercy of God to wipe that slate clean again. In the bridesmaid’s parable, I’m left with the impression that the foolish five didn’t really give much thought to what might happen in the hours between departing home and the coming of the bridegroom. They just went along with what was happening, while the others thought about how to best prepare for what is ahead. Are you the kind of believer that just goes along with things, because it’s easier that way? Or are you always thinking ahead, trying your best to do God’s will in the here and now and being prepared for what might come next? Is your faith one of sitting with folded hands and waiting, or is it a faith in action where you’re up to your elbows in what needs doing?

Now we come full circle, and back to the topic of the soldier’s way – a soldier is always prepared for the worst, always trained for every situation that can be anticipated. A soldier knows that her life depends on being prepared…which means knowing how to do your job in the dark, with one hand, while someone is shooting at you. The soldier’s life in peace is nothing but training for that future event, as the US Navy SEALs like to say, sweat today prevents blood tomorrow. If a soldier works so hard to be prepared for that unknown future, why do we Christians not also prepare that intently? Could it be that the soldier takes the urgency of her preparation more seriously than we do? Amen.

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Written by sameo416

November 8, 2014 at 8:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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