Here’s a Memorial Day weekend sermon from the vault. The text was a smattering of verses from Colossians 1 and 2.
The argument I attempted to make in the sermon is indebted to two books I recommend:
Lt Col Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society
Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity
Central to Hauerwas’ work is the assertion that war presents a powerful counter-liturgy to the Cross that the Church must always reframe in light of the Cross and Resurrection. Such reframing is what I attempted to do in the sermon.
My Grandpa died this spring, just before Holy Week.
Maybe it’s because I preach so many funerals, but I’ve learned that when it comes to death this paradox is true: while no amount of words can ever do justice to a person’s life, sometimes a single sentence can encapsulate the essence of a person.
The paradox is true in my Grandpa’s case.
If you want to get a sense of my Grandpa, a sense of who he was and how he was to the world around him, then really you just need to learn my Grandpa’s favorite joke.
“Why don’t they send donkeys to college?”
Answer: “Because no one likes a smart-ass.”
That my Grandpa had occasion to repeatedly tell this joke to me will probably not surprise anyone.
I remember once when I was a boy we were eating burgers at a diner near the stockyard where my Grandpa had been buying some cattle, and I remember I’d said something snarky and sarcastic, and my Grandpa responded by saying ‘Remember, Jason, why they don’t send donkeys to college.”
And little elementary-aged me replied innocently: ‘Gee, Grandpa, did they come up with that policy after you went to college?’
And my Grandpa stared at me and then slowly knit his eyebrows and then like a tire with too much air he suddenly burst out laughing and pounded the table as if to say:
Like Grandfather, like grandson.
My Grandpa went to Drexel in Philadelphia for college, an opportunity made possible by the GI Bill. My Grandpa was part of what Tom Brokaw called the ‘greatest generation,’ a description that embarrassed my Grandpa.
My Grandpa fought in the Pacific in World War II.
He never spoke about the war, which sort of taught me never to ask about it.
He only spoke about it to me once, in fact. So rare was it that the memory has always stuck with me.
I was in Middle School and, after my Grandma moved into a nursing home, my Grandpa moved out of their big, brick Georgian in Downtown Norfolk and into a condo .
The moves rearranged all the familiar furniture and knick-knacks. Thus, hanging on the wall in the new condo was something I’d never seen before. A medal.
‘How’d you get that?’ I asked him, pointing to the medal.
‘Ah,’ he waved it off, not saying anything
I just stood there, waiting for more of an explanation behind the medal. But none was coming.
So I asked him- what it was like, being in the war.
And I remember, he looked at me like you do when you want to warn a little kid away from touching a hot stove and he said:
‘What was it like? Scary as hell.’
In his Letter to the Colossians, St Paul makes the audacious claim that on the Cross Christ has made peace.
That the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross was a sacrifice not simply for our individual sin but rather the Cross was a triumph- a Roman military term- over all the Powers of Sin and Death (with a capital P, S and D).
Paul says here in Colossians what the Book of Hebrews means when it says that the blood of the Cross is a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice that eliminates the necessity for any further, future sacrifices.
Including the sacrifice of war.
In other words, what Paul and Hebrews are getting at is the counter-intuitive claim that Christians are people who believe that war has been abolished- a claim that would seem to be rendered false by something as simple as that medal on my Grandpa’s wall, whatever he earned it for.
Christians, Paul is claiming, believe that war has been abolished.
The grammar of that is very important; the past tense is the point.
It’s not that Christians work for the end of war. It’s that Christians live recognizing that in the Cross of Christ war has already been abolished, that Christ has made peace.
But what does that even mean?
After all, many of you know first hand as my Grandpa did that war is anything but absent from our world and sometimes its presence is unavoidable.
So what does it mean to believe that on the Cross Christ abolished war?
To believe that on the Cross Christ has made peace once-and-for-all means that we live as faithfully as we can to that reality even though the “real world” doesn’t seem to corroborate what we confess.
But to live and believe what scripture tells us about Christ’s Cross begs the question, especially this weekend:
How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?
How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has abolished war?
Notice- the suggestion is not that it’s wrong for Christians to observe Memorial Day.
Instead the suggestion is that how we observe Memorial Day should be different from how others observe it.
Others who haven’t pledged allegiance to Christ the King.
A King who established his Kingdom by giving his life rather than resort to taking life.
How we observe Memorial Day should be different from how non-Christians celebrate it.
Because non-Christians are not caught in the tension between remembering those who’ve died in war and remembering that we believe on the Cross Christ has won a once-for-all peace.
That tension- it’s been with Christians from the very beginning.
For instance, for the first 3 1/2 centuries of the Church’s history soldiers could not be baptized until after they resigned their commission, a position the Church changed when they decided that sometimes responsible citizenship demands war as a last resort.
The tension has been with the Church from the very beginning.
For example, in the Middle Ages the Church recognized that one of the dangers of war is that we forget who and whose we are.
So during the Middle Ages the Church insisted that during feudal wars certain days on the calendar be set aside- called the Truce of God- when the warring parties would cease and desist, abstain from all violence.
The Truce of God was the Church’s way of reminding Christians that even when war is a necessity and peace is not possible our ultimate identity and loyalty remains.
To the Prince of Peace.
I remember my Grandpa giving me that ‘don’t get too close to the fire’ look when I asked him what it was like, being in war.
And in an almost confessional tone he said: ‘Scary as hell.’
‘Scary because you thought you might die?’ stupid, Middle School-aged me asked.
‘No’ he said ‘scary because I thought I might have to kill.’
Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but the fear my Grandpa gave voice to was the same aversion General SLA Marshall observed in his study of men in battle in the Second World War.
General Marshall discovered that of every hundred men along a line of fire, during battle only about 15-20 of them would take part by actually firing their weapons at another human being.
The other 80-85% would do everything they could (short of betray their comrades) to not kill.
This led General Marshall to conclude that the average, healthy individual has:
“such an inner and usually unrealized resistance to killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is at all possible to turn away from that responsibility.”
General Marshall’s observation is not, I think, a psychological insight- at least, it’s not only a psychological insight.
It is, I think, a theological one.
I believe it’s a theological insight that we heard confirmed in scripture today.
Many assume that the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is the sacrifice of their lives, to lay down their lives for us, and, obviously, that is a great and grave sacrifice.
But I think the argument of scripture and General Marshall’s study invites us to see it differently.
The Book of Genesis tells us that each of us- we’re made in the image of God.
But then Colossians 1 tells us what the prologue of John’s Gospel tells us:
That Jesus is the image of the invisible God.
Jesus is the logic, John says, of God made flesh.
Speaking of logic, scripture gives us a simple formula:
We are made in God’s image
Jesus is the image of the invisible God
We are made in Jesus’ image.
We’re made, created, hard-wired, meant to be like Jesus.
That’s what St. Paul means he calls Jesus the 2nd Adam. We’re created with a family resemblance to Christ. We’re made in Jesus’ image.
And Jesus would rather die than kill. And so would we.
If we believe the Bible, if we believe that we’re made in Christ’s image then that means the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is not the sacrifice of their lives, great as such a sacrifice may be.
No, if we’re made in Christ’s image, then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is to sacrifice their innate unwillingness to kill.
If we’re made in Christ’s image then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops isn’t the giving of their lives, it’s to sacrifice their God-given unwillingness to take life.
Too often liberals use Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies and turning cheeks and putting away swords for moralistic, finger-wagging.
That we should oppose this or that war because we should be more like Jesus.
But- politics aside- that kind of finger-wagging, I think, is to get it exactly wrong. Or backwards.
Because the claim of St. Paul and the Gospel isn’t that we should be like Jesus.
The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are like Jesus. Already. More so than we believe. We’re made in his image.
The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are not natural born killers.
We’re created to bless those who curse us, and to love our enemies.
It’s in the family DNA.
The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we’re made in Christ’s image. We’re designed to lay down our lives rather than take life.
And so when we ask our fellow citizens, when we ask our children, to (potentially) take life, we’re asking for a far greater sacrifice than just their lives.
We’re asking them to sacrifice what it means for them to be made in God’s image; we’re asking them to sacrifice their Christ-like unwillingness to kill.
And that’s a sacrifice whose tragedy is only compounded when our soldiers return home from war and we expect them to allow us to applaud them at baseball games but not to tell us about we’ve asked them to do.
That our troops are willing to make such a sacrifice for us is what the Church calls grace- a gift not one of us deserves.
That we perpetuate a world that makes such a sacrifice necessary- when the message of the Cross is that it’s not– that’s what the Church calls sin.
But I still haven’t answered my original question:
How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?
How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has already won peace?
During the Crusades, wars in which the Church played no small part, when soldiers returned home from the Holy Land they would abstain from the sacrament of holy communion for a year or more.
Even during the Crusades there was an understanding that though the act of war may be necessary and justified, the actions of war nonetheless harm our humanity.
They do damage- not just to the enemy- but to the image of Christ within us.
And so before returning soldiers would receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament of communion, they would undergo the sacrament of reconciliation in order to restore the image of Christ within them.
The Crusades are seldom cited as a good example of anything, but, in this case, I believe they have something to teach us, particularly when it comes to thinking Christianly about Memorial Day.
Because the Crusaders- for all their other faults- understood that our God-given, Christ-like unwillingness to take life is the ultimate sacrifice of war.
But they also understood that that ultimate sacrifice is not ultimate.
As in, it’s not final.
It can be healed. Reconciled. Restored.
And, as Christians, that’s what we should remember when we remember those who’ve died in war.
Because, after all, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to an abstract ideal (like ‘Freedom’) nor by pointing to something finite and temporal (like a nation).
Nor do Christians even make sense of death by saying the dead are ‘in a better place now.’
Christians make sense of death by pointing to the promise of Resurrection.
Christians make sense of death by pointing to Resurrection promise that what God does with Jesus at Easter, God will one day do with each of us, with all who have died and with all of creation.
All will be raised. All will be redeemed. All will be restored.
Such that, on that Resurrection Day, scripture tells us ‘mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’
In other words, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day all the harm done to our humanity will be healed, even- especially- the damage done by the sacrifice of war.
You see, the process of restoration that the Crusaders practiced when they returned home- it was a snapshot of our larger Resurrection hope.
Because, of course, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to a faraway Heaven we’ll fly away to some glad morning.
No, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day, the last day, Heaven will come down to Earth. God will dwell with us. And all of creation will be restored.
All things will be made new. Not all new things will be made.
All things will be made new again.
That means the promise of Resurrection is not just that the sacrifice we’ve asked our soldiers to endure will be restored.
It also means that whatever measures they took in this life for justice or peace are not lost but will be taken up by God and used as building blocks for the City of God.
And so, really, the best way for Christians to observe Memorial Day is to do so the same way we celebrate every Sunday- in the mystery of faith: