No One Left Behind

As we observe Veterans Day this weekend, I hope you will join me in being particularly grateful for those of us who serve or have served in the United States Armed Forces. Thank you for your service.

As I reflect on this day of remembrance and the nature of our service, I am aware of what has changed over the years and how much has remained relatively constant.

Veterans Day has its roots in Armistice Day, which was first observed 99 years ago on November 11, 1918 marking the end of the “Great War” [World War I]. In 1954, our observance of Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day to honor the service of all American men and women.

Despite the evolving changes to the day itself, and the changes in the technology of waging war, the nature of our service hasn’t changed dramatically. If you have the opportunity to listen in on veterans sharing their “war stories” across generations, you will be struck more by the commonality of their stories than by the differences among them: the strength of the bond among those who served together even amid the diversity of their origin; the ability to recognize the absurd in their circumstance even under fire; the absolute dependence upon one another despite rank, race or creed; and, related to this dependence, the accountability to which they hold each other when they are in harms way.

Yet when the bonds forged under fire and shared trauma are severed by death, demobilization, and discharge, and we lose the structure of the community in which we served we can founder as we try to re-integrate into a society that, despite its good intentions, has other preoccupations and doesn’t really get us.

But this story isn’t just about our veterans. It is also about another kind of armistice day. In the final chapter of our Old Testament reading, Joshua is in essence demobilizing the troops following our “conquest” and allotment of the land of Canaan. He is giving us a recap of our history as a people; reminding us that we have been blessed throughout our history and lives; and appealing to us to respond in kind with reverence and faithfulness.

The reason for this earnest appeal is because Joshua knows his people all too well. Through the shared travails of the wilderness and our battles with the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites he has seen how we have struggled in our faithfulness to the Lord, even as the Lord sustains us at every turn. Joshua can only imagine how his people may stray without a common challenge to focus us. Like a good drill instructor, he lays down a challenge that just may focus us on building a new community, “You cannot serve the Lord.”[1]

Any veteran will appreciate the challenge handed down by a drill instructor that you can’t do something. It inspires you to rise to the challenge, to work as a team, and to prove your drill instructor wrong. But whereas the drill instructor may be challenging you to overcome some obstacle or obstruction by any means whatever, either fair or foul; Joshua is presenting a different challenge. Joshua’s challenge is constrained; it is one that is not on our terms but on God’s terms. Reintegrating on God’s terms may be harder and more challenging than we imagined. Nonetheless, we commit, “No, we will serve the Lord!”[2] But we also know the rest of the story; how we stumble and fall short, how we succumb to infighting and even betrayal, how we become entrenched and stubborn on matters of consequence, giving in to self-interest rather than common good. This is our story as the people of God. Yet from time to time we are offered another glimpse of the challenge and promise before us; we get another glimpse into the kingdom of heaven.

When we rally to come to church, even though we may not feel like it; through Word and prayer, thanksgiving and praise, we get another glimpse of the kingdom of heaven and the possibility before us to grow in wisdom and to help the foolish grow in wisdom as well. When we participate in the common life of our community we are reminded of our neighbors who may need our assistance and support.

May our neighbors always remind us of the presence of Jesus Christ in our midst; the master drill instructor who daily challenges us to grow in wisdom and even tend to the foolish rather than leave them behind. Every veteran knows that we endeavor never to leave anyone behind.

[1] Joshua 24:19

[2] Ibid., v. 21

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Sutherland Springs, TX

To my Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Yet another mass murder that elicits feelings of outrage and horror. It makes me want to simultaneously lash out at the causes and the perpetrator while consoling the victims.

Note that my first inclination is to lash out. Thank God that realization about myself gives me pause, but it does not offer me consolation. Still, the pause does open a door of insight that is profitable for us all to examine.

Yes, of course we pray for the souls of the murdered, for healing of the wounded, and the consolation and comfort of the survivors. But may I also suggest that we pray for ourselves as well; that we may be transformed by this and other senseless mass casualty events.

If we are not law enforcement officers engaged in the investigation, rather than speculation and judgment or rushing to exploit the tragedy for our particular interest, we need to pray contemplatively. We need to immerse ourselves quietly in self-examination of our reactions and motivations before our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. We need to offer candidly the reaction and feeling this and other acts of violence elicit from us before God, for God is the only one who can clarify our motivations or the confusion and anguish we feel.

As we remember the heartache and anguish humanity has visited upon God since the beginning of time and especially the unjustified and horrific murder of God’s own Son, we are reminded of God’s ability to redeem that horrible event and make it onto the life-giving and resurrecting event for all time.

Now, as we sit in contemplation of our reactions or motivations before the paschal mystery of that cross we can begin to find consolation, forgiveness, and healing; and we can begin to discern how Christ’s love is calling us to action.

Yours in Christ’s love,

Foster+

All Saints’ Day

There is something special about All Saints’ Day. It stands out among the seven principal feasts of the church, which is saying something given the complexity of our church calendar. For example, four of the principal feasts: Easter Day; Ascension Day; the Day of Pentecost; and Trinity Sunday all occur on Sundays as determined by the full moon on or after the spring equinox. [Be glad you don’t have to do the math on that computation.] While two of the three remaining principal feasts: Christmas Day and the Epiphany are observed on the fixed date appointed for them. Yes All Saints’ Day has its appointed date, but it is the only principal feast that is regularly permitted to move to the Sunday following its appointed date. It is also one of the four days specially set aside for Baptism.

So what’s the point of this tortured lead in? Well, it appears that All Saints’ Day gets special treatment. So what’s so special about All Saints’ Day?

In part, I think it is in the eye of the beholder because it is one of those days that invites us to consider the mystery of what is in store for us as disciples of Christ. And I use the term mystery advisedly because we don’t have absolute clarity. We have lots of visionary suggestions, such as the today’s reading from the Revelation to John. But we may feel we are left with more questions than answers. So how do we proceed? Well once every three years we are given the opportunity to peal back the familiar veneer of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Matthew.

I wonder what image the Sermon on the Mount conjures up for you. If, as for me, it conjures images of Jesus standing atop a grass-covered knoll surrounded by the masses as he preaches about these seemingly contradictory blessings, you are to be excused for your confusion.

But if we listen carefully, we will realize that my pastoral image is flawed on a couple of counts. First, Jesus is not surrounded by the masses; he has climbed the mountain to get away from the crowds. It is only his disciples who are gathered with him. So this is not some pastoral public proclamation about the kingdom of heaven. It is instead a rather private tutorial for his disciples.

Second, Jesus’ teaching is structured in a way that may be foreign to our modern ears. The structure is supposed to help the pupil commit the teaching to memory. [How’s that working for you?] The use of “blessed” at the beginning of each point, and the apparent contradictory pairing of some sort of suffering with some sort of reward in each point is supposed to aid our memory. Well, I’m afraid my poor memory and lack rhetorical skill is showing because all I experience is being lost in blessedness. If this is your experience, perhaps we can be forgiven if we feel lost in blessedness and if the point is not obvious.

So let’s tease this story apart a bit. Consider that this teaching moment comes at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry; it is his first sit down with the disciples, therefore, there must be something more to it than just a sweet pastoral presentation. I suspect the answer lies in the convoluted construction of this tutorial. Those who are called blessed appear to be those who are at odds with social norms in some way: the humble; the mourners; the meek; the hungry and thirsty for justice; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; and those persecuted for justice’s sake. These are people who for some reason find themselves outside the bounds of mainstream aspirations, at least by popular culture’s judgment. Yet clearly, Jesus sees these eight attributes or tribulations as blessings because he pairs them with things that we clearly perceive as rewards: the kingdom of heaven; comfort; inheritance; fullness; mercy; the presence of God; and adoption as children of God.

But beneath the blessings, there is the underlying theme to this tutorial. That underlying theme is the kingdom of heaven. It is revealed as central to the beatitudes through its placement and its use of different tenses. With respect to placement, the kingdom of heaven as the reward of the first and last beatitudes frames the whole tutorial. In addition, as if pointing us in this direction, the evangelist refers to the kingdom of heaven twice in the chapters leading up to this story. The first comes from the lips of John the Baptist while he is preparing the way for Jesus as he proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[1] The second time occurs after Jesus hears of John’s arrest and he takes up John’s proclamation, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[2] The kingdom of heaven is not some anticipated event or place; it is has already appeared, it is here and now!

 

In contrast, the other six beatitudes are expressed in the future tense, i.e. their reward is to be realized at some future time. Perhaps these beatitudes speak to the dispositions we as disciples are to cultivate on our journey with Jesus, or perhaps these are the type of people who are to be the focus of our ministry. I suspect it is both and.

 

As we observe All Saints’ Day today, I wonder what the implications of these possibilities are. Perhaps they cause us to reflect upon our stewardship of the faith we have received. Perhaps they also remind us this is what the kingdom of heaven, as it is present in this place, is to look like. Not a community of the comfortable, but one that is inhabited by and that also ministers to: the humble; the mourners; the meek; those who hunger and thirst for justice; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; and the persecuted.

 

Perhaps Jesus is simply giving us the benchmark by which to measure the progress of our stewardship of the kingdom of heaven here and now. And perhaps John’s vision, “… a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages …”[3] is the future kingdom that will greet us when we are done realizing the kingdom of heaven here and now.

[1] Matthew 3:2

[2] Ibid., 4:17

[3] Revelation 7:9