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The sermon for week November 15, 2015

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War and Rumors of War

Mark 13:1-8

My grandpa is Staff Sargent George Paul Benish, Army, 1st Battalion, 117th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division. He fought in World War II from 1943 to 1945, when he was wounded by shrapnel from a German Mortar.

For a kid whose favorite cartoon was G.I. Joe, this was a dream come true for me. I used to sit and ask him to tell stories. He spoke about how he landed on the second day of Normandy. How he climbed through the ranks. How he won a medal for bravery for crossing the Rhine River. He spoke of the men he led. He spoke of how he tried to spare as many lives as he could. How he would rather take prisoners than kill the Germans. This made him different from the other men. You see my grandpa spoke only Slovak until the age of 6, and he could understand the Germans as they died. He could speak with the enemy and understand them.

I’m not supposed to be here. I’m not supposed to have gone to college or become a minister. I am supposed to be in the army. I trained for it. I studied it. I had books on military history, tactics, and survival. I loved the Boy Scouts and went to the 1997 National Jamboree in part because it was held at Fort A.P. Hill; an army training facility.

Yet I’ve taken this different route, one that has surprised me. My heart is still with the military men and women. But now I have a more adult understanding of what war entails.

I play superheroes with my son Sam. I’m Batman, and he’s The Flash. We often run around and stop the villains who are stealing the poor LEGO people’s gold. A few times, Sam said, “Let’s go kill them!” I asked what killing meant and he stated, “Hitting them and stuff so we can put them in jail.”

For Sam, killing someone is like a game of tag. You get knocked out for a little bit and you wake back up. Reflecting on that, I realized that when my grandpa would tell me stories from the war, I was thinking like Sam. It was like on G.I. Joe. The bad guys would capture the good guys, but the good guys would eventually win.

I thought like this until I saw the scar on my grandpa’s leg where he was wounded. It became real. That metal is still in there some 70 years later. My grandpa makes jokes about setting off metal detectors at the airport. And that’s funny, but it’s also sad.

It’s sad because someone wanted to kill my grandpa. Not the nice “you’re out of the game for a minute or two” but rather the “you’re out of life permanently.” It’s sad because he had to kill or be killed. And he listened and understood the agonized cries of dying men on both sides of the battle lines. It’s sad because he saw things that affected him the rest of his life. He entered the war at 17; he exited the war at age 19.

He was forever changed and the effects of his late teenage years lasted with him the rest of his life. Back then, post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD wasn’t known, much less talked about. He's hard to get along with, has bouts of paranoia, and has alienated most of his family. His soul was grievously wounded by war, and I don’t think he has ever healed from it. He still carries a tangible reminder of it around with him wherever he goes in the metal in his thigh and the scar upon his skin.

I view war as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once stated, “I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen 200 limping, exhausted men come out of line—the survivors of a regiment of 1,000 that went forward 48 hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.”

We as a society are starting to understand more fully the effects of war and how war carries on in PTSD and the harm it does beyond the battlefield. I worry about this. I worry about our military industrial complex.

Maybe this is like Jesus and his disciples in today’s scripture. They are walking together in Jerusalem, and the disciples are impressed by the huge buildings.

“Look teacher! What large stones and what large buildings!” They are very impressed. They're first century tourists in their nation’s capital.

But Jesus is not impressed. “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon the other, all will be thrown down.”

What a buzz kill! What could he mean?

Jesus is saying don’t be taken in with the appearance of wealth and power. Also note that Jesus doesn’t claim to be an agent of the destruction of the building either. That is interesting.

Maybe Jesus has a different frame he’s using. Maybe he’s seeing something else than what the disciples see. In Jesus' vision of the beloved community, the measure of wealth and power look very different. If you want to be great, serve, Jesus taught his disciples. So the ideas of wealth and power are rooted in your community and how you serve others. The institutions then are almost unimportant. We won’t spend money on powerful looking buildings, instead we’d spend money on the care and in the service of people.

As my friend Army Major Shannon Bibbee told me, “You won't meet a bigger group of service-minded people than those men and women in uniform.” So many of my friends in the armed forces seek to live out values like service, integrity, loyalty, and discipline. Those are not bad things. Yet I’m worried about the state of our servants in military. I worry about how they are used, what we ask them to do, and how we treat them after they have served our country. I’m worried about our military industrial complex.

The complex that treats our brave men and women not as the service minded patriots they are but as chattel and cannon fodder to throw at resources for the sake of profit for business. The same complex that will churn out Cold War Era weapons like flat bottomed tanks, Jeeps, and Humvees that are more vulnerable to improvised explosive devices to fight a 21st century enemy and neglect the actual needs of our troops in combat zones. The same complex which will cut combat pay, family leave, and other veterans benefits for the sake of the bottom line and building bigger, more impressive buildings.

After the events in Paris, we want to act. May we stop and pray. We can’t do anything yet than pray and support those grieving. If we act out of our pain and grief we will only transmit more pain and grief. Like Mr. Rodger’s once taught, in times of crisis look for those helping and doing good. The first responders, the helpers, those who tweeted and posted on social media offering to provide shelter and safety during the attacks in Paris. Celebrate those stories.

I’m thankful for projects like Warrior’s Journey Home, a program started by a UCC church in the Akron area that seeks to create healing circles for veterans to share their stories, form community, and help heal from the wounds of war. Their mission is to provide spiritual healing and soul repair for veterans, families and the community. To Listen. To Speak. To Heal. Warrior’s Journey Home knows the healing power of community, vulnerability, and in sharing our stories.

Projects like this are serving our military men and women servants. To provide them healing. I can’t think of a better way to say thank you than putting our thank you into service. That is the community Jesus was pointing to.

And he tells his disciples, “Don’t listen to people claiming that they are me. Don’t listen to wars and rumors of wars. Your only concern will be following my teachings. Serving one another, standing with the outcast, healing, doing what I did. That is your testimony to the good news l have taught you.”

So today we pause and we say thank you to our veterans. I love Janet telling us that veterans preserve something precious and we should all endeavor to do the same.

Our military men and women are precious. May we seek to remind them of the whole giftedness of life, the wonder of life, when they can’t see it.

May we remind them of the good news of grace.

Grace is hearing your name attached to God’s name: I have called you by name, you are mine (Isa. 43:1b)

Grace is being welcomed home no matter what: The prodigal son says, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ Many of our service men and women feel this way coming home from war. They feel that they can’t be forgiven for what they have done and what they have witnessed.

But the father says to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:21-23)

Grace abounds in our life, but are we spreading this good news? Are we specifically reminding our veterans?

I hope you paused on Veterans Day this past week to do the same. I hope you’ll take a moment and read about the White Table, to visit it up close. I hope you will thank those who you know who have served and pray prayers of thanksgiving and healing on their behalf. I hope you will check out and consider supporting programs like Warrior’s Journey Home. For those who died and didn’t come home, may we hold them in prayer too. May we not forget them.

For the vision of the beloved community is where all can find their way home and be welcomed. Where no one feels alone. Where we preserve what is precious, and we know what that is.

Not buildings, not institutions, not ideologies, but people. Always people.

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