Archives For Violence

When Potter Becomes Clay

Jason Micheli —  September 11, 2016 — 3 Comments

fullsizerenderFor this weekend’s sermon, in view of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I chose to use all of Jeremiah 18, a passage that begins with the familiar Potter/Clay metaphor but ends in a visceral, spittle-on-the-lip prayer for vengeance against enemies.

Special props to my dear friend, Laura Paige Mertins, who worked at her potter’s wheel while I preached (and distracted everyone from anything I said). You can find LP’s work for sale at her Etsy shop here. You get this blog for free so you should at least make up for it by buying something of hers.

     ‘Just what the blankety blank is your problem?! Reverend?!’

Because it was New Jersey, at first I thought she had a problem with my holding the church door open for her.

Her sorta, kinda of a question had been loud enough to stop the worshippers ahead of her on the front steps outside. And she was obviously angry enough that everyone behind her in line suddenly weren’t in a hurry anymore.

‘Just what the…is it with you?! she asked exasperated.

Little did I know then how that would become the defining question of my pastoral career.

She had close-cropped Terri Gross hair and the kind of horn-rimmed glasses you expect to be distributed by the Democratic National Committee.

I’d seen her come in to the sanctuary as the service began; I’d never seen her before. Like most of the crowd who gathered that evening she was a stranger, a visitor, a mourner, searching for meaning in a place she hadn’t searched before.

It was Wednesday evening, September the 12th, 2001.

The day after.

I’d been working in the campus mailroom at Princeton, my supervisor, Vince, on the phone with his wife who was in the hospital dying of cancer.

The nearest TV was mounted in the corner outside the dining hall. The TV was on mute. And for a while all of us standing there staring up at the buildings we were on mute too.

Until the tower fell and the silence became a chorus of whispered ‘Oh my God’s.

Then we watched what everyone else everywhere else watched.

     I remember Vince, a Catholic, his fair-skinned face turned a splotchy red as he pointed angrily at the TV and said through clenched teeth: ‘God damn them!’ 

     In the moment, it struck me as faithful a thing to say as anything.

 

I was still just a student at Princeton. I was approximately 7 weeks in to my first gig as a solo pastor at a small church that’s no longer there.

Irma, the church organist, and Les, the church accordion player (yes, the church had an accordion player) had helped me put up some xeroxed signs around town that morning.

I didn’t really know what I was doing other than to think offering a worship service might be a good idea.

‘Service of Lament’ read the xeroxed signs I stapled into telephone poles.

The small sanctuary was Christmas crowded that evening, filled with bloodshot eyes and tear-stained faces I’d never seen before.

My preaching text that night was that ‘For such a time as this’ line from Esther, a little book rife with violence and ethnic hatred and where God seems present NOT at all.

The other scripture passage I used I used as the opening prayer: a lament. A clench-fisted, spittle-on-the-lips cry for vengeance.

Vengeance against our enemies.

I took the lament from the Book of Jeremiah. Chapter 18.

Jeremiah 18, as you heard, begins with that beautiful- and possibly even flattering- metaphor of how we’re like clay in God the Potter’s hands. But only a dozen verses later Jeremiah turns ugly:

“Pay attention to me, Lord; listen to what my enemies are saying…

Enough! Let their children starve;

let them die by the sword.

Let their wives be barren widows;

let their men be slaughtered

and their youth struck down

in battle.

Let their screams be heard

from their homes

when you suddenly bring armies

against them.

They have dug a pit to capture me,

set traps for my feet.

By you, Lord, you know

all their sinister plots to kill me.

Don’t overlook their wrongdoing;

don’t cleanse their sin

from before you.

May they stumble before you;

when you become angry,

do something about them.”

Look it up.

Because I used Jeremiah’s prayer as the opening prayer, we ended it by saying ‘Amen.’ As in: ‘May it be so.’

It seemed the kind of prayer that captured how everyone felt that day. I didn’t notice the volume go soft before we got to the amen.

So I was caught off guard when the woman with the short hair and arty glasses met me at the front doors with: “What in the…is your problem?!”

“Um, excuse me?” I replied.

“Praying for God to wipe out our enemies?! Isn’t that the same kind of religious fanaticism that led to yesterday?!”

As is my habit, I tried to diffuse her anger with ill-advised humor.

So I said: ‘“Oh no, ma’am, it’s much worse than that. That word ‘stumble’ in the prayer it’s the same Hebrew word from the flood story. It’s actually a prayer for God to do to our enemies what God did to all those who didn’t make the 2×2 cut.’

I was new to ministry, but I could tell I’d just stepped in it.

“Christians aren’t even supposed to have enemies!” she shouted softly. “They’re supposed to love everybody.”

Then she pointed her finger at me scoldingly and asked:

“Do you really think Jesus would approve of you praying something like this?”

 

I’d thought the lament from Jeremiah an appropriate scripture for the day after.

After all, Jeremiah’s own career as a prophet coincided with a date seared into the collective memory of God’s People every bit as much as 9/11 is scarred into our own.

587.

587 BCE

Five- hundred and eighty-seven years before Jesus.

The date Babylon attacked and invaded the Promised Land, burning the City of David and razing the Temple, the symbol that Israel was, literally, ‘one nation under God.’

Not long after the attack there were deployments. Deployments of the nation’s best and brightest and, too often, the tragically young.

The Bible names the deployments “Exile.”

587: Jeremiah’s 9/11.

So what better piece of scripture to pray on the day after the 11th, I thought, than one of these six laments woven throughout the Book of Jeremiah.

Except-

That woman with the Terri Gross hair and the horn-rimmed glasses, she had hit upon a problem.

She’d greeted me by asking what was my problem, but what she’d hit upon with her question was our problem.

As in, you and me. Christians.

What do we do with a scripture passage like that? A foam-in-the-mouth prayer that desires the destruction of our enemies?

Because, of course, we don’t just believe we’re clay in the Potter’s hands. We believe the Potter became Clay.

We believe that the Creator became a Creature, that God became flesh.

In Jesus Christ.

And we believe that, in Jesus, God the Potter displays what it looks like for us to be his earthen vessels. And, of course, a big piece of that is what Jesus tells us to do about our enemies. To LOVE them.

So…what do we do with a passage of scripture like Jeremiah’s prayer against his enemies?

Would Jesus really approve of a prayer like that?

What do we do with it?

 

Of course, for the heretics and anti-semites among us, the easiest thing to do is just dismiss Jeremiah’s nasty prayer for vengeance and violence against his enemies.

You know, roll of the eyes and dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts. One of those angry, jealous, wrathful God passages. One of those Old Testament texts.

Like the passage in Samuel where, because God is holy and we are not, a boy named Uzzah is struck down dead for accidentally touching the ark.

Jeremiah 18- we could say- it’s like that, one of those Old Testament texts.

The problem though is that those Old Testament texts, warts and all, are stuck on to every promise God makes to his People Israel. And if you dismiss those, you’re left with a Jesus in the New who has no promises for you.

So what do we do?

Do we chalk it up to context? Put it in perspective?

Do we say that this prayer, Jeremiah 18, gives voice to the voiceless? That it’s anger and rage and lust for payback are exactly what you’d expect to hear from an impoverished and exploited people?

It is. And it does.

So we could chalk it up to context and remember that the people who proclaimed and prayed Jeremiah’s lament weren’t like us at all and maybe feel a little better about this bible passage.

At least until we remember that over and over again God promises to be on the side of people like the ones who prayed this prayer.

People who, on most days, are not like us at all.

And that puts me right back feeling a little queasy about what I should do with a passage like Jeremiah 18.

Maybe we could go the other way with this passage. Just say no.

No, Jesus would not green light the defeat and destruction of your enemies.

But, no worries, because that’s not what’s going on in this passage.

It’s not as troubling and incongruent as it sounds at first, we could say.

Because praying to God to avenge you- as ugly and visceral as it seems- IS  a way of acknowledging that vengeance, no matter how bad you want it and how justly its deserved, isn’t yours to mete out.

Praying to God to avenge you is a tacit recognition that vengeance belongs to God alone.

And so we could say that a passage like Jeremiah’s prayer isn’t as nasty as it sounds. We could say that giving over your vengeful rage to God is a way of giving up your claim to it.

That it’s better to put your hate and violence into prayer than into action.

I think there’s something to be said for that.

But the words still stick in the throat, don’t they?

“Let their children starve;

let them die by the sword.

Let their wives be barren widows;

let their men be slaughtered

and their youth struck down

in battle.

Let their screams be heard

from their homes

when you suddenly bring armies

against them.”

Even if it’s about putting your anger into prayer not action, it still doesn’t sound very Jesusy.

It’s hard to imagine the Potter who commanded us to love our enemies green-lighting the wailing of their children.

 

‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of a prayer like that?’

The Terri Gross doppleganger asked me a second time.

She’d upped the ante with the anger in her voice.

But I was just a 3rd semester theology student. Just in my 3rd month of ministry. I hadn’t yet been dressed down by an exiting worshipper as I am by He Who Must Not Be Named here at Aldersgate every week.

So I didn’t know what to say.

Not knowing, I simply told the truth:

“Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that,’ I said, ‘Jesus prayed prayers like that.”

She shot me the kind of look I’d reserve for Joel Osteen and she walked out. Disgusted.

But it’s true.

As a Jew, Jesus would’ve prayed 3 times a day, the shacharit in the morning; the minchah in the afternoon; and the maariz in the evening.

3 times a day.

And each of those 3 devotions would’ve included at least 1 prayer from his Bible, what we call the Old Testament. And of the prayers contained in Jesus’ Bible, the single largest genre are laments- prayers for vengeance against enemies.

So do the math:

At the very least, Jesus prayed a prayer like Jeremiah 18 every 50 days.

At a minimum, Jesus prayed for the defeat of his enemies 7 times a year.

When you do the math, you discover that as Jesus hung on the cross and said ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ he had prayed for the defeat of them at least 210 times in his life.

That means when Pontius Pilate executed a gathering of Galileans for worshipping Yahweh and mixed the Jews’ blood with the blood of animals as a final insult, chances are Jesus had prayed something like: ‘By you, Lord, you know all their sinister plots to kill me.’ in the past month.

210 times.

That means when King Herod conscripted the poor in Galilee to construct his palace at Sepphoris, a sentiment like “Don’t overlook their wrongdoing; don’t cleanse their sin from before you” had only recently been prayed on Jesus’ lips.

And when Herod took John the Baptist’s head, it wasn’t long after that Jesus prayed a prayer that ended just like Jeremiah’s in chapter 18: ‘Do something about my enemies.’

Like any good Jew of his day, Jesus would’ve had them all memorized.

210 times.

Jesus prayed such prayers.

For the defeat of his enemies.

So I said to Terri Gross:

“Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that, Jesus prayed a prayer just like that.”

But I was just a student, still only a rookie pastor. I didn’t know what to say.

Because if it’s true that Jesus the Jew prayed a prayer just like Jeremiah’s, then the better answer to her question would’ve been another question:

Who do you think Jesus had in mind when he prayed like Jeremiah?

Who do you think Jesus pictured when he prayed for the defeat of his enemies?

 

It’s the better question.

Because to ask ‘Who did Jesus have in mind when he prayed his Bible’s laments?’ is but a way of remembering that Jesus had enemies.

I mean- we know Jesus had enemies, but so often we act as though Jesus didn’t know he had any enemies.

Which of course makes the cross an abstract, a-historical solution to our spiritual problem: sin and salvation.

Or worse: it treats the cross as inadvertent, unhappy end that Jesus didn’t see coming.

So often we act as though good, loving Good Shepherd Jesus never had an impolite or unkind thought in his head. Not so.

To ask ‘Which enemy did Jesus have in mind when he prayed prayers like Jeremiah’s?’ is but a way of remembering that he had them.

For Jesus to be fully human- as human as you or me- in 1st century Galilee means that Jesus had enemies. Enemies he wanted to defeat. Enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel.

It’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies whose defeat he prayed for that you’re able to hear his gospel the way he intended it to be received.

Because when Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, there’s a 1 in 3 chance he was thinking of King Herod.

And when Jesus commands his followers not to resist evil and violence with evil and violence of their own, the odds are even better Caesar and Pilate immediately came to everyone’s mind.

And when Jesus commands them to forgive a fellow believer who’s wronged you, I’m willing to bet the Scribes and Pharisees were on Jesus’ mind. They plotted against him at least that many times.

It’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat that you’re able to hear his gospel rightly.

But maybe we don’t want to hear it.

Because once you hear his gospel rightly, you can’t help but notice how Jesus does exactly as he says.

For when the Scribes and Pharisees finally condemn Jesus and come for him in the Garden, Jesus tells his followers to put away the sword.

And when Jesus is mocked, beaten and scourged, he makes good on his commandment.

He doesn’t retaliate.

He turns the other cheek.

And when Pilate and Herod and Caesar and the priests and the soldiers and the crowd and you and me crucify him- when his enemies crucify him- Jesus responds by loving them: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’

He dies rather than kill.

He doesn’t resist evil with evil.

He suffers it.

He dies to it.

And in dying to his enemies, Jesus defeats them.

Destroys them, the apostle Paul says. Triumphs over them.

When we forget Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel, we then don’t know what to do with a scripture passage like Jeremiah’s vengeful, clench-fisted lament.

We think we need to dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts replaced by the New.

     But the confusion we feel about a passage like Jeremiah 18 is really our confusion about Jesus

Because it’s not that Jeremiah’s prayer is antithetical to Jesus.

No.

Jesus is God’s answer to Jeremiah’s prayer.

Pay attention, this is everything.

     Jesus doesn’t replace Jeremiah’s angry prayer.

Jesus enacts it.

It’s not that Jeremiah’s prayer for his enemies to be defeated is the opposite, alternative to Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemies.

     No, it’s that when the Potter becomes Clay we discover:

the love of enemies is the way the Potter defeats them.

We completely miss the revolution Jesus leads from the get-go because all our faith is in the kind of battles we wage.

Love of enemies is not Jesus telling us we should passively endure our enemies; it’s his strategy to defeat them.

The cross is not how evil defeats Jesus.

      (If that’s what you think, then why are you even here on a Sunday morning?)

The Gospel is that the way of the cross is how Jesus defeats them.

     The way of the cross, the way of suffering, forgiving, cheek-turning love is the something Jeremiah prays for God to do against his enemies.

And I know- at this point someone always wants to argue that Christ’s enemy loving offensive just isn’t effective in our world.

But today, right now, the crucified Christ rules the Earth from the right hand of the Father.

And Caesar? He just has a salad named after him.

So you tell me what’s more effective.

 

After the woman with the Terri Gross hair and horn-rimmed glasses stepped out the sanctuary doors in disgust, a few strangers later a 50-something man came up to me.

His thick white hair had a severe part on the side. You could tell from his dress that he’d come straight from work. His red tie matched the color of his countenance.

When he shook my hand, he pulled me towards him in a ‘I know it was you, Fredo’ kind of way.

And he said, angrily: ‘I’m not a religious person, but you’ve got a lot of nerve.’

‘Here we go again’ I thought.

‘Where do you get off praying that? Forgive those who trespassed against us?! Did you see what they did?! Just where did you get an irresponsible idea like that?!’

‘Uh, well, um…Jesus’ I said.

He shook his head. ‘This was my first coming to a church. I can see I haven’t missed anything.’

And he stormed out.

I wonder-

If our discomfort with a prayer like the one Jeremiah prays

If our dismissals of Christ’s commandment to love our enemies

is because we’d like to go on thinking Christians can be Christian without having enemies, or just having the same enemies everyone else has.

I wonder if our discomfort and dismissals are because we’d like to go on thinking we can follow Jesus without making enemies.

Making enemies for the way we follow Jesus, the Clay in whom we see what the Potter desires for all of his vessels.

160706064731-baton-rouge-police-shooting-alton-sterling-cell-phone-video-polo-sandoval-dnt-nd-00010108-large-169“What’s happening to America?”

I’ve overheard such comments, exasperated and worried, frequently of late. Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas, Nice, Baton Rouge again: “Has the world lost its mind?”

I sympathize with the sentiment; nonetheless, it betrays a naivete of which Christians, of all people, should not be guilty precisely because Christians, of all people, are those people who know we’re guilty. Sinners, that is.

Christians do not have the optimistic assessment of human nature or romanticized visions of our societal institutions such that we could be shocked or surprised by news stories of police corruption, racial furor, and terrorism.

During World War II, the Catholic worker Dorothy Day based her advocacy for Christian nonviolence not on utopian delusions about the Church or upon Christians’ distinction apart from the common lot of sinners but on a deep penitential awareness of Christians’ solidarity with all other human beings in sin. Day believed nonviolence was the mandate upon Christian practice not because Christians are fundamentally peaceful creatures but because we’re not at all. We’re sinner; that is, Day preached Christian nonviolence not because we’re a people who know peace is the better way in the world but because we’re a people who know we cannot be trusted with violence.

Rather than asking “What’s happening to America?” (Because, of course, the correct answer is that nothing new is happening to America, it’s just being videoed with greater frequency today), Christians should be pointing out- confessing- that it’s not just that we’re all individual sinners. We’re sinful creatures who create sinful, sin-prone institutions. Of course police departments and justice departments can be corrupt and, even, racist. Of course movements like Black Lives Matter can be not entirely innocent or have members whose motives are pure. Of course America continues to reap what it sowed in the antebellum south.

A woman who worships at my church, who’s obviously a skilled writer in addition to being a gardener, put it this way to me:

“Gardeners understand original sin because the weed seeds are already in the soil – they’ve been there for years. In fact, the work you do to break up the soil, to prepare it for something good, brings weed seeds up to the surface. All the compost and aeration you put in the soil makes it prime real estate for weeds as well as for your plants.”

Christians have a language to describe what video and social media expose with alarming regularity these days. The language of Sin. We’re all captive, as St. Paul says, to the Principalities and Powers, and we’re all from time to time, unwittingly even, in service to them, aiding and abetting, despite our best intentions, whom Paul calls the “prince of this world.”

It’s a language I hear almost no one speaking, possibly because you cannot speak it without also simultaneously confessing your own complicity. Even I, for example, perpetuate a racism that my own boys, who are not white, will inevitably be effected by one day.

Sin is the reason why appeals to unity (“We’re all Americans”) ring false and hollow. As the theologian William Cavanaugh argues:

“our mysticism of nationalism tends to occlude our class divisions such that those who point out the class divisions in American get accused of waging class warfare, which is analogous to arsonists complaining that the fire department keeps reporting to the blazes they’ve set.”

You can replace “class divisions” with “racial divisions” and Cavanaugh’s point still holds. Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas et al- when so many are shocked and anxious these days, Christians should be those people who are not surprised at all that another fire has come ablaze, for only through such an unsurprised people will others hear the news that we cannot, even in America, save, redeem, heal, or even better ourselves.

Gardening and fire-fighting are apt metaphors for the work Christians call confession, for Christians know that we’re seldom in a position to know the truth about our sin until we have made our lives available to others in a way that we might be shown the truth about ourselves, especially in matters where the wrong cannot easily be made right, which, as Stanley Hauerwas says, “is the character of most matters that matter.”

In other words, making confession is not possible apart from making the relationships necessary to expose the extent of our sinfulness. Black lives matter for, without them, white Christians cannot know ourselves sufficiently to confess our sin.

 

Prayer for Omar Mateen

Jason Micheli —  June 23, 2016 — 8 Comments

2016AC-logo-color-with-UMC-flameI’m recovering from 3 plus days spent at my little nook of Methodism’s Annual Conference. Given that nearly a quarter of every dollar a United Methodist gives goes out the door of his or her congregation to the larger Church, there’s many structural and strategic critiques I could offer about how we spent our time (and I’ve already seen many of my younger clergy colleagues doing so on social media).

I won’t belabor the organizational beef. I do want to address what I took to be both a grave theological error and a personal one too. During the proceedings we debated- debated- a resolution recommending that we pray for the (gay) victims of the Orlando tragedy. We actually debated it. Christians debated praying. Full stop. For victims of murder. We eventually did so and in it we prayed for the victims and their families and, if I recall, there was verbiage spent on gun violence and gun legislation and hateful ideologies.

What was missing, I noticed immediately, was a prayer for the perpetrator. We didn’t prayer for the shooter. And that wouldn’t be odd in any other context except for a Christian one, for we are the people who believe the cross erases any meaningful distinction between victim and victimizer.

I noticed the lack in the prayer and in our debate about it, but I was too afraid to step up to microphone 10 to say anything about it. For that, I am ashamed. It’s little recompense but I offer this prayer here that I should’ve offered there:

Slaughtered Yet Risen Lord-

You forgive us from the cross with which we push you out of the world, invoking to the Father that we do not know what we are doing. Perhaps we know ourselves better than you know us, for surely we knew what we were doing.

We confess.

And, we presume, Omar Mateen knew what he was doing too by murdering out of hate (and it seems self-hate too) by wounding just as many, and, in so doing, wreaking violence on his family and any who cared for him. We presume he knew what he was doing, and so not one of us has any natural inclination to forgive him or, even, to pray for him.

We confess.

Actually, Lord Jesus, we’d rather pray for you to punish him. We’d prefer the assurance of his eternal torment, and we don’t know how to square that desire with the news that you’ve already suffered hell for us, once for all, and that you died- accursed- not for people like us but the wicked. Like Omar Mateen. We desperately do not want him to be counted among that ‘all’ for whom you died.

We confess.

We don’t want to pray for him, Lord. Maybe it’s because we don’t think he deserves it, or maybe it’s because we suspect it will prove hard to hate someone for whom we pray. We don’t want to pray for him, but you queerly command us to love enemies and trespassers and to pray for them. So we do- not because it’s a strategy to make the world more peaceful and not because we believe that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies. We do so, reluctantly, only because you commanded us, and as dumb and offensive as praying for him strikes us, you’re still the only one whose character God has vindicated by resurrection. And if you can raise the crucified from the dead, then perhaps you can raise up a People whose hates are not more precious to them than their faith.

We hope.

So against our better judgment but towards our Easter hope, we pray for Omar Mateen and any and all who, in the mysterious complexity of life, loved him. We’re told he killed in the name of righteousness; help us not shirk your command to pray for enemies in the name of righteousness. Give us grace, Lord Jesus, that in the fullness of time we may see in him, and him in us, thieves welcomed by you undeservedly into paradise.

Help us to pray for Omar Mateen and those like him. Help us to believe the Gospel that its through such practices and the communities constituted by them that you have chosen to redeem this sinful and violent world. Amen.

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“Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?”

Here’s my sermon this Memorial Day weekend on the Sunday’s lection from Galatians 1.1-12.

When I returned initially from medical leave, I was so excited over coming back to work and I was happy because (most of) you all seemed excited to have me back at church. At least, I thought that was the case.

But then, one morning while I was unpacking and organizing my new office, I heard a soft rap on my door. I looked up and my illusions of happy homecoming burnt away like so much dross. There they were, Murice Kincannon and Marcie Bowker, with a question in their eyes so obvious it bore like a bullet hole straight through me.

“We were just discussing after our meditation group,” Marcie Bowker began “innocently,” “and we thought we’d ask you.”

“Ask me what?” I said as though I was curious but I could already smell sulfur in the air.

Marcie leaned in, wraith-like, through my doorframe and with a ghoulish smile she asked me: “Do you think there’s anything wrong with having an American flag in the sanctuary?” 

And that’s when I knew not everyone was happy to have me back, at least not Marcie and Murice because why else would they have pulled the pin on a query like that and thrown it at my feet?

“Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?” That question- it’s like the theological equivalent to when your wife asks you “Does this dress make me look fat?”

There’s no good way to answer because you can tell from the way the question is put to you that there’s no way to slip loose of it without causing offense.

“Not that dress honey.”

There’s no good way to answer especially when you consider that, with Shirley Pitts’ passing, Murice Kincannon is now Aldersgate’s token liberal and Marcie Bowker is most definitely not so I felt trapped. Entrapped.

“Did the Bishop put you put to this?” I asked.

Murice and Marcie- they didn’t catch my meaning. They instead asked me their question again: “Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?” At least, I think they asked me it again. It was like that scene in Teen Wolf when an underage Michael J. Fox tries to buy a keg of beer and the crotchety guy at the counter asks for his ID. All I could hear was my own heart beating in my forehead as I watched their lips forming the question.

It was like that scene where Ferris Bueller and Cameron Frye send a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder crashing into a ravine and they see their entire future destroyed with it.

It’s the kind of question churches have split over, the kind of question theologian bloviate over, the kind of question that preachers get fired over and after my vacation called cancer I’m sort of attached to my health insurance.

So I didn’t answer their question.

Instead I did what I only do in the case of emergencies like when my wife asks me if this shade of makeup makes her look old or when son asks me if he can ask a girl out on a date. I just laughed this high-pitched, manic and hysterical, eye-twitching laugh like a Disney Store worker on an acid trip.

When I regained consciousness and picked myself up off the floor, Murice and Marcie had snuck away like ninja assassins presumably waiting, like the devil himself, for another opportune time to undo me.

So I never answered their question.

But I didn’t forget it.

—————————————

I thought of their question again a few weeks later, a few weeks ago, when Ali and I took our boys to the Nationals Home Opener.

Before the game, the entire outfield was covered, like a funeral pall on a casket, with a giant flag. The colors were processed into the ballpark with priestly soberness. Wounded warriors were welcomed out and celebrated. Jets flew overhead and anthems were sung and silence for the fallen was observed. People around me in the stands covered their hearts and many, I noticed, had tears in their eyes.

And it struck me that it felt like a kind of worship service. I mean, there was even organ music and a young family being shushed by an elderly curmudgeon, which is as close to a worship as you can get.

And that’s no great insight on my part because after the silence my oldest son, X, said to no one in particular “that was just like church.”

If there’d been an altar call my boys, my wife and I, and the Mennonite family 3 rows up might have been the only ones left in the stands.

It was a kind of liturgy in that we were celebrating what’s been done for us and offering gratitude. It was a kind of liturgy in that it was discipling us into being certain kinds of people who view the world through a particular story. It was preparing us, equipping us, to respond ourselves in a certain way if and when called upon.

To be honest, looking up at the scoreboard at the pictures of fallen men and women- kids really- I even had tears in my eyes. And here’s the rub- I don’t know that I’ve ever once teared up during a Christian liturgy. Realizing that in Section 136, I thought of Marcie’s and Murice’s question again.

———————————-

Though we haven’t changed out the parament colors to observe it, Memorial Day is a delicate time for Christians. It’s a day that requires discretion not because the valor of fallen soldiers lacks honor- not at all- but because the story of America, particularly when its cast in terms of those who’ve died in its service, can become a story that is more powerfully felt by many Christians than the Gospel story.

As Christians, we have to be cautious that we’re not more moved by the love of those who lay their lives down for their countrymen than we are moved by Christ who lays his life down not for his neighbors and nation but for the ungodly.

War, as Stanley Hauerwas acknowledges, is beautiful precisely in the noble and heroic virtues it can call out of us and therein lies the danger for Christians for it presents a powerful rival liturgy to the communion liturgy.

Like all liturgy, the liturgy of patriotism forms us. It’s meant to form us.

Now, hear me out. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with any of the baseball park pageantry. I’m instead suggesting that, like any other good in our lives, Christians (at least those in America) must be mindful about seeing in it the potential temptation that is ever before us; namely, the lure to make our national story more keenly felt than our Gospel story.

Just because golden calves seem stupid doesn’t mean we’re any more immune than Israel was from offering God a qualified or confused obedience. If we can’t serve God and Mammon, as Jesus teaches, then we have to be discerning about God and Country too.

If you doubt the temptation I’ve posed actually exists, the lure of a rival counter-liturgy to the Gospel liturgy, consider how no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even to die for it. They even sing the National Anthem at my boys’ swim meets. And that’s fine.

Except

People do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’

This is hardly the fault of our troops but why is it that the only convictions we’re willing to inculcate into our children for which they might one day have to suffer and die is not our Christian convictions but our American ones?

When engaged couples tell me they plan to let their children choose their religion for themselves when they’re older, I often reply to those couples that they should raise their kids to be atheists, for at least that would require their children to see their parents held convictions for which they might have to suffer.

How is it that we consider our children’s American convictions non-negotiable, but we deem their Christian convictions something they can choose for themselves, something about which they can make up their own minds?

But if what it means to be fully human, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself just as Jesus loved how could our children ever make up their own minds, choose for themselves, until after they’ve apprenticed under Jesus?

Quite literally, they don’t have minds worth making up until they’ve had their minds shaped by Christ. I know my kids still don’t have minds worth making up for themselves.

Western culture teaches us to think we should get to choose our faith story for ourselves, but notice how that story (the story we should get to choose our faith story) is a story that which none of us got to choose.

Which makes it not just a Story but a Fiction. A lie.

It’s a lie that produces nonsense like the statement: ‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion.’ 

And its just such nonsense that should make Christians wonder if the Church is really the who the separation of Church of State is meant to protect and serve, for so long as our faith is relegated to the private then Jesus is necessarily demoted from Lord and King to Secretary of After Life Affairs.

And that’s no small thing, for as Paul argues angrily in our text from Galatians today to alter the Gospel is no Gospel, to revise the Gospel is to reverse the Gospel.

—————————————

Look-

The Church is called to reframe everything in our lives in light of the Cross and Resurrection, even our patriotism, and then to submit it to the Lordship of Christ, and ‘Christ’ of course wasn’t Jesus’ last name or even a religious word.

It was a political word.

It’s a title: King.

     The King who elects.

Us.

To be a light not to our nation but to the nations.

And so on Memorial Day that call upon us- it doesn’t mean we dishonor the sacrifices of those who’ve laid their lives down for their friends.

It instead means we remember that that love is not how Jesus loves us. Jesus laid his life down not for his friends and countrymen but for sinners, for his enemies. For the ungodly, as Paul puts it.

Our call as Christians is to remember that it’s true, freedom isn’t free, but for us, we Christians, that means “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (Galatians 1.4).

That call upon us- it means we hold fast to our commission to proclaim the Gospel, which in this instance on our national calendar means we proclaim that the sacrifice offered by the fallen, though significant, was not, in fact, the “ultimate sacrifice.”

The ultimate sacrifice was made by God himself, in Jesus Christ, on Golgotha, a death- it’s always good to point out- that was delivered up by the best and brightest of both Church and State.

     The ultimate sacrifice, we proclaim, was made God.

For the ungodly.

Jesus made/Jesus is the Ultimate Sacrifice.

He is, as scripture attests, the Sacrifice to End All Sacrifices (including- in a way we don’t yet understand- the sacrifice of war), and Good Friday 33 AD, not all our battles and victory days, is the date that changed the world.

     Maybe that just sounds like a slight linguistic matter to you, but for Christians such matters matter, for as Paul warns us today in Galatians 1 to get the Gospel wrong is to get everything wrong.

To get the world wrong, which correlatively is to get our nation wrong too. To get the Gospel wrong is to get everything wrong.

So much so that even Paul says he should be accursed if he communicated any Gospel other than the Gospel of how Jesus Christ has freed us (past perfect tense) from the present (tense) evil age.

—————————————

Such linguistic matters matter for Christians.

They do so because they help us answer questions like that question Marcie and Murice asked me: ‘Is there anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?’

Or rather, they help us to see that such a question is the wrong question. I mean, sure, if you’re more moved by the flag than you are by the cross or the cup then it might be an idol, but it’s still the wrong question.

The question about the flag is the wrong question because as Paul says here in Galatians the spatial metaphors the question relies upon (church vs. country, sanctuary vs. America)- the spatial, place-oriented categories get the Gospel wrong.

According to Paul, here in Galatians, if we’re going to remove anything from the sanctuary it should be the clock.

     We should tear down the clocks in our sanctuaries.

Because according to Paul the Gospel is that God has invaded the present evil age, that in the cross and resurrection the old age has been destroyed, and we have been transitioned into a new time in which Jesus Christ reigns with all dominion, and power, and glory.

The trouble is so much of the world doesn’t yet know it’s been transitioned into a new time.

The dichotomy that matters for Christians, the dichotomy we should be concerned with, isn’t God or Country it’s Before and After.

Before and After- Between the old age and the new.

    Christians aren’t people who occupy one space, the Church, within another space, the Nation.

     Christians are People who live under, belong to, participate in a different time.

The New Age inaugurated by Jesus Christ. And we can live according to that time in any place.

So don’t worry about the flag, get rid of that clock because it lures us into forgetting that Christians are called by God to be the People who know what time it is. It lures us into forgetting that the time we call the Kingdom isn’t something we await far off in the future. It’s now.

And it’s here whenever we gather together to do the things that Jesus did and to proclaim what God did through him.

And that’s why what Christians do in here is the most important thing to do on Memorial Day weekend. We worship the One who sits on the throne.

If the Gospel is true, if the old age has been invaded and destroyed, if we’ve been set free into a New Age then worship is the most important thing we can do because, if the Gospel is true, then that means what’s wrong with the world (the sin that leads to war that leads to Memorial Day) is that it fails to acknowledge that God is God.

The world doesn’t know what time it is, but we do. So come, let us worship God.

 

 

I saw a friend on FB post something regarding 9/11 with the words ‘Remember But Remember Rightly.’

Oddly enough it’s the same chord I tried to strike in my sermon on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Whether it measures up to the challenge of the FB prompt I’ll let another judge.

Here it is: 9-11-300x205

Psalm 137

9/11/11

It’s a date seared into memory.

587.

587 BCE

Five- hundred and eighty-seven years before Jesus.

 

The date the unthinkable happened.

A date that would be shared by all

and yet an experience that, for each and every person who survived it,

would be incredibly personal too.

 

The date they were attacked

when they never thought they could be:

their’s was a nation too strong.

They were, literally, ‘one nation under God.’

 

And yet they were

attacked.

By an enemy from far away.

An enemy they didn’t know

and would never really understand.

 

Their enemy razed the city.

Buildings

that had once been symbols of blessing and wealth

reduced to rubble.

 

Many died.

And there was much heroism.

 

For a time

the nation appeared rudderless.

And the familiar language of faith

stuck in the throat.

 

Not long after the attack

there were deployments.

Deployments of the nation’s

best and brightest

and, too often,

the tragically young.

 

The deployments split families.

Marriages were stretched across a crucible of time and distance.

Children grew up faster than their parents returned home.

Spouses worried if their partner would ever return.

Or if they would return the same person.

 

They named the deployments Exile.

 

587:

a date that seemed to change everything.

A date they’d always remember.

 

I remember

where I was.

 

Working in the mailroom at Princeton

my supervisor, Vince, got a call from his wife

who was in the hospital dying of cancer.

The nearest TV was mounted in the corner outside the dining hall.

The TV was on mute.

And for a while all of us standing there staring up at the buildings

we were on mute too.

Until the tower fell

and the silence became a chorus of whispered ‘Oh my God’s.

Then we watched

what everyone else everywhere else watched:

the towers falling one after another

as though they were made of sand or ash

the dust-covered New Yorkers running for their lives

the firemen forsaking their lives

the bodies falling from broken windows

having chosen what they took to be a better fate.

 

I remember Vince, a Catholic,

his fair-skinned face turned a splotchy red

as he pointed angrily at the TV and asked me through clenched teeth:

     ‘Just where the hell is God right now?’ 

For the first time Vince had just realized

that ours is a God who isn’t always useful

in a crisis.

 

I fumbled some responses to answer Vince.

And that was the first time I realized

sometimes words

even religious words

just won’t do.

 

I remember that afternoon

at the elementary school where I tutored

all of us determined not to tell the children

what had happened.

The adults all had tears in their eyes

but tried to smile them away for the kids

who knew better even if they didn’t know what.

The school

like everywhere else

felt like a funeral home.

 

I remember the lanes of Route 1

running north in to NYC empty

traveled by nothing but trash blowing in the breeze.

I remember the digital DOT signs outside my apartment

blinking the auspicious alert: ‘All roads into NYC closed.’

 

I remember running into a classmate that evening.

Joseph was Egyptian.

He’d just had insults hurled at him at WAWA

by passersby too angry and too scared to learn

that he was, in fact, not a Muslim

but a cradle Presbyterian.

 

I remember my sermon that Sunday after Tuesday.

My first sermon ever.

The pews were filled to capacity.

But more notable than how many were there

was who wasn’t there

who would never be there again.

I remember the prayer list that Sunday swelled 8-fold

with lists of sons and daughters and grandchildren and nieces and uncles

and what floor of which tower they worked on.

I remember my sermon that Sunday wasn’t good or bad.

It was inadequate.

Words just wouldn’t do that day.

 

I remember my counseling professor

the Wednesday morning after.

All of us in class still shaken and numb.

Someone asked him how we should respond

as Christians.

He made mention of the prophet Jeremiah

and then told all of us who were married

that we should respond by going home

and making a baby.

I remember how that struck me

as unconventional

and maybe inappropriate.

I didn’t understand what he’d meant

until I held my son for the first time

six years after that Tuesday.

I remember the first high school graduate I ever prayed with

before he shipped off to basic training

and who knows what else.

I remember the first time I flew after 9/11

from the Newark Airport

looking around me

scared and suspicious

in a way I wasn’t raised to be

and had never been before.

I remember after I was appointed here

going to visit at Walter Reed

and understanding

maybe for the first time

both the tragedy

and the honor

in what our men and women in uniform sacrifice.

I remember the conversations I’ve had with you

5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and 9 and 10 years

since that day.

Listening to you tell me about your deployments

and learning how your work is far more complicated

than what fits onto a bumper sticker

whether its red or blue.

 

Listening to you tell me

what its like

to hold your family together

while your spouse is deployed.

What it’s like

when your little kids have trouble remembering

the parent who’s not there

what it’s like

when your teenager starts to resent

the parent who’s not there.

What it’s like

to have a baby

with your husband not there.

What it’s like

to listen to the news

everyday

on eggshells.

 

Psalm 137

is the only psalm

out of 150

that can be dated reliably.

 

Most psalms

because its poetry

you have to guess at the context.

So Psalm 51

‘Against you and you only, Lord

    have I sinned’

we guess is about David

and his sin with Bathsheba

and his murder of her husband.

Or Psalm 72

‘Give the king Your judgments, O God 

    And Your righteousness to the king’s son.’

we can guess is about the crowning of Solomon.

 

With most psalms you have to guess.

But not Psalm 137.

Psalm 137 was written just after it happened

just after the enemy

invaded

killed

destroyed

and took the nation’s strongest citizens away

to Babylon.

 

Psalm 137 is very obviously written

by those living as prisoners and exiles in their enemy’s land.

It’s written in response

to their enemy’s taunts and jibes:

Where is your God now?’ 

    Now that your city’s in ruins 

    Sing a song for us of your God 

    Sing us a song of Zion

    A praise song.

 

But notice

how these victims respond.

Notice what they do.

They refuse.

They don’t plaster over the pain

with piety or platitudes.

They don’t try to justify their faith.

They don’t defend God

with answers or explanations

or arms.

They don’t take the bait.

They don’t answer.

They don’t sing a song of Zion.

They don’t avenge.

They weep

and lament

and they remember.

 

They remember:

life as it was before

and should be again.

They remember:

what was done to them

who and what was lost.

 

And they plead for God

to remember them.

 

When they were victims

when they couldn’t sing

when they couldn’t praise or pray

when they couldn’t answer why this had happened

when no other words would do

God’s People remembered.

 

The psalmist even writes

if God’s People don’t remember

one day

music and praise and prayer

won’t just be difficult

it will become impossible:

‘Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

     if I do not remember…’

 

As painful as remembering is

not remembering

says the psalmist

will be even more painful.

Because without remembering

you forget the way things were

and you resign yourself

you surrender

to the way things are now.

Or you resort

to the ways of the world.

For the victims of the exile

for God’s People

memory offers hope.

Remembering is resistance.

To remember is to refuse to be a victim

Because

to remember is to not lose sight of

to not let God off the hook for

the way things should be in this world.

 

As a pastor

words are my job.

Words are what you pay me for.

Standing in the pulpit on Sundays

when something happens to you

when you come to my office looking for advice

you expect me to have a word.

 

But on days like this

I don’t much want to be a pastor.

Because on days like this

I’m suspicious of words.

 

I’m mindful that it’s religious words

murderers say to themselves

to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime.

I’m mindful that no words of mine

(or any pastor)

can answer or explain or ameliorate what happened.

I’m mindful of the preacher’s temptation

to exploit a terrible experience

just to make a pious point.

On days like this I’m suspicious of words

because I know

maybe better than any of you

how often we use religious words

to deceive ourselves

and cover-up our pain.

I could preach you a sermon

about how new life comes out of death

about how light shines in the darkness

about how God, in Christ, bears the wounds of the world

with us

about how ‘suffering produces endurance

     and endurance produces character

     and character produces 

     hope.’

And it’s not that those things are not true.

It’s not that those things are inadequate.

It’s that those words are premature.

Ten years is still too soon for those words.

After 9/11

there were many preachers who were quick

to get to the affirmation and praise.

And I suspect after this 9/11 it’ll be much the same.

But the Bible knows its own dates like 9/11.

And in the Bible

the People of God never do that.

They never rush prematurely to praise

or certitude.

Nor do they retaliate.

In the Bible the People of God

grieve and protest and complain

with sorrow and rage and anxiety

for years and years and years and years and years.

They remember.

So today I simply invite you to take this psalm as your cue

and do what people like you in the Bible do.

Remember

those who died

the heroism that was the only clear and steady thing that day.

Remember

those who’ve born the burden of protecting us in the years since

and the families who’ve born them

the children and the youth who’ve known nothing in their lives

but war and fear and terror.

Take this psalm as your cue

and remember how united we were after that day

and how unafraid we were before that day.

Take this psalm as your cue

and remember what was done to us.

Because it’s in remembering that we refuse to settle.

Take this psalm as your cue

and call on God to remember

that he’s promised us better.

When no other words will do

God’s People

remember.

09battle-pic-articleLargeThis rant cum historical excursion has been brought to you by the article I read today in the NY Times, The Holy Grail of Battle Re-enactments. 

Being in church work, I’ve gone paint-balling a few times.

Truth be told, I’m not a half-bad paint-baller. I’m not much of a strategist and I’ve got subpar aim but that’s ameliorated by my base desire to win and my rather high threshold for a hot pain that comes in the form hickey marks.

I never considered joining the military but paintballing confirms the USA lost out on an at least one gutsy commando.

On one hand at least, paint-balling with church folk is instructive.

It gives you a brief, if pretend, glimpse into which members of your flock just might be willing to lay their lives down for another.

It shows you which church people need only a momentary whiff of the chum of victory to go bat-ass crazy on an erstwhile friend.

And it reveals- or confirms- which of your would be Jesus followers are actually cheaters in Flanders’ clothes.

We’ve actually had to kick adult chaperones out of the game for cheating against children.

And shooting said children (sometimes their own children) after the whistle.

At close range.

In the face.

Or close to the border of their huevos.

(I know adults are constantly trying to recover their youth, and while the fountain of youth remains elusive, I do know paintballing is where adult men go to recover their juvenile adolescence.)

So religiopaintballing is not with out its edifying uses- I forgot to mention its ability to make an ordinary pastor look, if not cool, legit.

Nevertheless, on each occasion I left the ‘arena’ feeling infected with a low-grade moral confusion about this vicar of Christ’s participation in and de facto affirmation of faux bloodletting.

Each time and every time I’ve left feeling that paintballing is not a little like pretending to beat your wife or kick your dog. For a small fee and ammunition cost.

“Put your sword away!”
-Jesus addressing Peter in the Garden of Gethsamane

The conundrum:

If violence is counter to the way of Christ then does paintballing mock the One who would have us turn the other cheek?

Or, if Christ would have us put away the sword does pulling out an air-powered paint gun that cannot kill constitute an acceptable alternative?

Almost like Guerrilla Theater?

I’ve always felt a similar but more urgent strand of this moral quandary when it comes to war reenactments.

It’s one thing to usurp God’s sovereignty and ignore Christ’s cross (the sacrifice to end all sacrifices- Hebrews) to participate in the taking of human life when society deems it necessary, just and a last resort. But it strikes me as odd to reenact- with glee and outlandish seriousness- battles our forebears likely wished they didn’t have to fight.

civil_war_soldiers-union_confederateThis winter I even attended a parade for Stonewall Jackson’s birthday so my son could get first rate material for his report on the Confederate hero.

Confederate flags, uniforms, tearful tributes, drums and period authentic artillery were everywhere. When asked, on my iPhone camera, about Stonewall Jackson a costumed reenacter began:

‘Well, you’ve got to remember Stonewall Jackson loved the blacks…’

Like the elder Dr. Jones to Indy when they sneak about in Berlin in The Last Crusade, I said to Alexander: ‘We’re in the belly of the beast, son.’ BerlinRally

Celebrating our forebears’ selfless sacrifice is one thing.

To celebrate by simulation the very they thing regretted having to do is another. I’ve met plenty of folks who participate in reenactments (I’m from southern Richmond after all) and I can say with a modicum of authority that war reenactments have all the moral seriousness of my boys’ playing with their plastic, bloodless, lifeless GI Joe figures.

 

On the other hand, the men and women I’ve known who’ve actually served in a real, honest to goodness war are nothing if not morally serious about what we ask of and from them. We ask them not just to give their lives potentially but to sacrifice their God-given reluctance to kill. For us.

“Pilate deserves our sympathies, not because he was a good though tragically misunderstood man, but because we are not much better. We may believe in Jesus, but we do not believe in his ideas, at least not his ideas about violence, truth and justice.”

-Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace

Across the spectrum of history, Christians have nearly always held war to fall somewhere between ‘always an evil’ (Christian Pacifism) and ‘sometimes a necessary and tragic evil in which we do not glory‘ (Christian Just War Perspective).

I know, everyone likes to cite the Crusades as though that’s the eternal, definitive manifestation of Christian praxis.

It’s interesting how the Crusades get blamed on the evil institution that is the Church when every other war in history would suggest political and economic concerns agitated the Crusades…and Christians went- or were taken- along for the ride.

Speaking of the Crusades:

It’s not the golden egg of an argument people assume because even after having battled the infidels, Christian soldiers were required to do penance when they returned home. After all, even if it was a ‘holy‘ war, by taking another’s life they’d still committed sin.

The NY Times, The Holy Grail of Battle Re-enactments. details the experience, motives and COST (!!!!) behind the peopled participating in the holy grail of war reenactments. This battle simulates, down to loose teeth and concussions, the warfare of Medieval Europe, a time to which I’m sure we’d all like to return. Not.

I’ve gone paintballing enough to know that most of these folks are probably like the hardcore wannabes who show up to paint ball with their own custom weapons, bedecked in expensive gear, and armed with a nickname inspired by Deerhunter. The same guys who don’t realize Deerhunter is meant to be a tragic, critique of the war, movie. images

AKA: Guys without girlfriends.

And sadly, we all know that most fallen soldiers did have girlfriends. Or more.

Here’s the article:

Inside Craig Ivey’s travel bag are objects reminiscent of the Middle Ages.

He has a steel, rounded shield; a five-sided, wooden shield; a red, white and blue surcoat; a protective vest; a wraparound helmet, pockmarked with dents; steel pads to hide his forearms, knees, legs and hands; and a blunt-edged sword designed to inflict pain but not cut. His collection cost about $4,000.

Ivey, a fitness trainer in Atlanta, will use all 60 pounds of the equipment Thursday at an outdoor arena in Aigues-Mortes, in the south of France. He will compete in his first Battle of the Nations, a modern-day, medieval-like combat involving national teams of fighters.

“Everybody thinks I’m a little crazy,” Ivey said, without refuting the perception.

Ivey, 34, is among an estimated 500 participants from 22 countries entered in the four-day event.

Full-contact armored fighting events grew out of participation in historical re-enactments, which are largely theatrical and tame. More common re-enactment fighting involves wooden weapons in the United States. The Battle of the Nations, in its fourth year, is the first international full-contact competition of this scale that uses steel armor — a heightened risk factor that has attracted a certain breed of fighters. It has been won by Russia every year.

Many fighters are intrigued by a time when differences were settled by sword fights to the death.

“I’ve always been interested in history and war,” Ivey said. “To be able to get my mind around what it was like back then, I look at it from this perspective: If I lose the fight, that would be me dying out there.”

The Battle of the Nations consists of four fighting formats: 1 on 1; 5 on 5; 21 on 21; and all against all, in which some opposing squads join forces. Winners of each match are decided by which side has the last fighter, or fighters, standing. A combatant bows out when three body parts, which include the feet, are touching the ground. Matches involving fewer fighters are usually over within a couple minutes, while the all-versus-all match can last up to 10 minutes.

Elements of the competition have been borrowed from other sports. The referee, called the knight marshal, issues soccer-style yellow and red cards for rule infractions. Fighters are assigned positions similar to those in American football, like center, guard and flanker.

Jaye Brooks, 47, executive officer of the United States team, described the game strategy partly as keeping adversaries from getting behind a team’s players, similar to hockey and soccer.

Brooks, a senior project manager in Nashua, N.H., recruited a team of 50 fighters, including himself and his son Catlin, 25, for the event. Last year, Brooks said, participants needed to meet only two qualifications to make the squad: paying for a trip to Poland and “having the guts to do this.”

The United States finished fourth of 14 teams in its international debut last year, and 18 of the 29 members from that team returned. The average age of this year’s American players is 37. And while no woman has competed for the United States squad, Brooks said, a women’s division is being considered.

Ivey’s motivation to compete is similar to that of others who are willing to fight, with an understanding that injuries are possible. He described his mind-set as being like that of a soldier.

“If you get hurt, you get hurt,” he said.

A military background is common for the participants. At least a quarter of this year’s United States fighters have served in the military, Brooks said.

Not everyone, including friends and family members, appreciates such enthusiasm for this niche style of martial arts.

“They think I’m a little bizarre,” said Brooks, whose sports background includes football. “But if everyone was the same, the world would be an awfully boring place.”

Brooks’s teammate Bryan Cannata, 42, an information technology specialist in Augusta, Ga., regards armored combat fighting as a natural extension of his interest in the medieval period.

“It’s not something I want to do,” Cannata said. “It’s something I have to do.”

There are rules to the game, but not ones that are restrictive enough to eliminate serious injuries.

Unlike in traditional sports, equipment is inspected to ensure it conforms to a period in history that the particular competition is commemorating, based on historic findings and evidence.

Weapons must be blunted. Stabbing or thrusting, which Brooks defined as repeatedly delivering excess force to the same point of contact, is not allowed. Fighters can hit any region in the “kill zone,” which excludes the feet, back of knees, groin, back of neck and base of skull. Vertical strikes to the spine and horizontal strikes to the back of the neck are forbidden.

Injuries have included dislodged teeth and broken or severed fingers. In the United States, the athletes also undergo baseline testing to check for the possibility of concussions.

This year’s United States team will be accompanied by a support staff of 50 members, including a physician, a psychologist specialized in head trauma, cooks, armorers, knight marshals, squires and a masseuse.

But injury precautions and preventive measures can only do so much. Cannata, who has a background in fencing and martial arts, said, “The potential for life-altering injury is very serious.”

Brooks, who has torn knee muscles competing, will take any punishment that comes with recreating a period in history.

“This is the perfect sport for someone who wishes to participate in one of the roughest sports on earth, has a love of armor and weapons and Western martial arts, and a desire to be as close to being a knight of old as is possible in this modern age,” he said. “Most of us doing this sport dreamt as children of being a knight one day. Who knew we could make that dream a reality?”