Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Remembrance Day

I am happily into my vacation in Languedoc-Roussillon, having arrived a little fatigued on Friday (American frm JFK to Madrid, long wait at Madrid/Barajas, and then a little less than an hour to Toulouse). My friend Tony Jewiss, with whom I am staying, is the priest for the Anglican congregation in these parts, a delightful group of expatriate British who meet in the old Augustinian convent church in Limoux. I will preach there this coming Sunday. Sunday the 13th was Remembrance Day, which is sort of like Veterans' Day but with a lot more to it. C of E Churches generally make a thing of it, and it's a reminder of how much more closely the C of E represents the official English culture than the Episcopal Church does the American. Morning Prayer with sermon. A turnout of about 35 or so. A good coffee hour (with actual coffee) afterward, and then more than a few repaired to the Limoux town square for an aperatif.

I thought Tony's sermon was quite good, and asked him if I might share it on this blog. So here goes:

Zephaniah 1:7,12-end
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30
Psalm 90:1-8

A friend of mine is the organist at West Point Military Academy, not far from the Monastery at West Park where Fr. McCoy lives. The chapel at West Point, coincidentally, has the largest organ in a public worship space in the country.

Meredith plays every Sunday and for many events throughout the year. There, as in most places boasting elite branches of the services, graduation is a spectacular event. Massed marching, bands and plenty of pageantry – not quite as much as you are used to perhaps, but a good attempt to imitate England’s undisputed superiority when it comes to marching about, accompanied by bands, anyway.

Even organ music, as the chapel is used for ceremonial events as well.

Meredith knows hundreds and hundreds of cadets and officers by name. She sees them arrive, all gangly and awkward, from hometown wherever it may be, and sees them whipped into shape, taught to walk ramrod straight, turned out to be officers, then sent off to war.

Not war really. Actually, there are no wars at the moment. War requires formal declaration and that in turn establishes some rules. The many conflicts around the world right now fall into other categories – in the case of the ones we hear about most, Iraq and Afghanistan, these are technically Interventions. There are no rules for Interventions. The War on Terror is just a loose use of words, made all the looser by the absence of a War on Illiteracy, a War on Poverty or a War against human trafficking.

Meredith’s duties at the Military Chapel have another dimension, and it is to play the funerals of some of her cadets who come home in a box. There are usually several every week, and occasionally, several in one day. She says it is rare for her not to be able to recall the name of the young man or woman now being eulogized as a hero,
and then put to rest.

In the western world, these events are solemn and restrained. Grief is controlled, losses borne stoically, and usually with great dignity.

A small town in the UK welcomes each cortege that passes through, bearing the bodies of fallen servicemen and women from their arrival at the nearby air base. It is their ministry, their expression of solidarity and sympathy. It is quiet and very moving.

The last few years have given us very graphic images of how different things are in the Middle East. The loss of an Arab boy or girl results in noisy crowd scenes, women throwing themselves over the open coffin being borne, lurching precariously through the streets. Young men fire rifles into the air, and it is chaos.

Yet mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and children everywhere are equally devastated at their losses. All ask the same question, and it is the very question we must also keep before us as we are gathered here to do honor to, and pay respect to, those who have died in the service of their country.

I do not like the expression – “gave their lives for their country.” That to me implies some kind of intention to go and not return. Armed conflicts have always relied upon that sense of invulnerability that the young enjoy, to send them with a certain eagerness to play a role in the Army or the Navy or the Air Force. I think, and hope, that all of them have every intention of coming home fit and well, appreciated by their country and with a sense of having furthered the cause of peace. But even among the survivors, it is not always that way.

In my last job in New York I was asked to be on the selection committee to choose a national chaplain to oversee the activities of the Church’s corps of service chaplains – several hundred of them stationed all over the world. The candidates were narrowed down to three, and it was a hard choice as they were all very well qualified. Each candidate told us things we did not know. Things that change and expand the ministry of chaplaincy in terms of scope and in terms of longevity. They all spoke of the very substantial percentage of service men and women who came home with devastating injuries. In times past they would have all died, but now modern field medicine saved their lives, but not their limbs.

Thousands of them suffer brain injuries caused by their heads being banged about in those large and instrument-laden helmets – designed as much to provide tactical information and communications, as they are to protect the head.

We don’t think much about this aspect of the lives and work of those who fight for us, even on days such as Remembrance Day, although we should. Nor do we think deeply about who these men and women are. The life in service is not for every one, no, not at all. If it is for the sons and daughters of the rich and famous at all, it is through the portals of officer school and the privileges of rank.

As far as the rank and file in concerned, the Service life is an option when jobs are scarce and one’s social rank prevents a life in banking or commerce or politics.

Here are a few statistics that I think you will find shocking – a recent study shows that almost 60% of veterans suffered physical abuse as children, and almost 40% suffered sexual abuse. In one country, in 2010, the Army reported more deaths by suicide than deaths in the field.

Over 50% suffer some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and almost all have heightened awareness, and reaction to, excessive light and sound.

Much has been written in recent years about how congregations can help returning service people find peace and reconciliation after their field experiences. I don’t believe we have that opportunity but hundreds of congregations do, and are treating this ministry as vital, learning how to avoid clichés and platitudes and how to gently ease these men and women, injured as much psychologically as physically, back into the mainstream of community life.

Military families need support as well. It is hard to even imagine the pressures placed on a family unit as the returning veteran deals with spouse and children who cannot really conceive of the things he or she has so intimately experienced.

The words from Zephaniah may not resonate easily with us. At first one wonders what has possessed the compilers of the lectionary to choose such a reading for today. But I might speculate that they would resonate clearly with someone whose memories are shot with the terrible possibilities of which Zephaniah speaks.

The uncertainty, the apprehension, the sudden percussion, the falling rubble, the dust, the debris, the shattering noise, the blinding incendiary. Thank God most of us will never know it – but every veteran does.

The words of Paul to the Thessalonians may not resonate immediately with us either, but they are actually words of encouragement.

Certainly Paul employs some military imagery but he is really saying that there is an alternative to conflict. This reading is a kind of mirror image to Zephaniah. It shows that there is another way, another ideal, another possibility. We need to hold these peaceable possibilities in mind even as we remember those who carried those ideals into the field of conflict itself.

Last week the Prime Minister entertained the organization that offers support to veterans, at a party at 10 Downing Street. His remarks, aimed as much at the cameras as at those present, were a study in political opportunism. His speech writer had dredged up every cliché possible. Apart from his probably intimate knowledge of the line item in the national budget, it was pretty obvious that he had no real empathy with the work of rehabilitating veterans.

I wish his speechwriter had instead translated the gospel story we’ve listened to this morning into a more meaningful and more sincere message for the cameras. Even when delivered by well groomed and sleek Prime Ministers, the truth can be convincing.

The resources delegated to the servants in the story were in fact immense. The responsibility therefore delegated to them was immense as well. The talent was a huge amount of money, and the risks involved in investing it were huge as well.
Time is a crucial element in the gospel story as well. Jesus is preparing his hearers for the uncertainty of the time element – they were expecting His return to be immediate but he says that is not to be the case. Instead, that information is hidden, and therefore the need for proper preparation and anticipation.

Next, actually possessing the money in the first place is not evidence that the enterprise will succeed. The talents were bestowed because the owner believed his servants already had ability to succeed. The entrusting of the money did not necessarily carry with it the actual ability to succeed.

Then, there is the element of risk, and as we know, one of the servants did not take any risk. He kept his part of the money secure, but he did not use it to achieve anything. He did not do the work that the other two did. His was a passive engagement with the task; theirs was active.

Lastly, the issues of reward and punishment. There are consequences to every decision, every action, every engagement.

The men and women of the armed services are a priceless resource – they are people, they are real, and their value as children of God is immeasurable.

They are given tasks that do not fall into the ideal definition of life. They must take enormous risks, make value judgments and deploy their resources with boldness and with not much time to ponder decisions. There are not many rules as to who succeeds or fails to succeed – but their trajectory has to be forward. They cannot be idle, like the third servant.

All three servants respond to their own view of the Master – two are inspired to please him and to succeed in the goals he has set. The third does not trust the Master and fears his reaction if he should not succeed. It is as if he said to himself “I knew you were unreasonable, and that there was no way to please you, so I decided not even to try”.

This tells us that both conflict and opportunity must be met by people who may or not be qualified. Trained, yes, but temperamentally qualified, not necessarily.

Either way, what we ask of the women and men of the armed forces is not reasonable, yet we expect it of them anyway.

And therein lies the real reason we gather today. Rising to do the work of war is the response to an unreasonable request – and in some cases, demand. Yet veterans did respond, did grasp the higher vision, and did what we have come to call duty
despite the risks.

We remember the ones who could not return. We care for the ones whose injuries prevent their being able to enjoy a full life. And we nurture back to health the ones whose experiences have wounded them in other ways.

And we commend them to God’s loving and healing care, even as we earnestly continue to pray for the peace that they have tried to attain.