Thanking Veterans

From the All Souls Archives

From the All Souls Archives

A sermon for Veterans Day, November 11, 2015.

Just as our nation can’t quite decide whether Veteran’s Day is a full holiday or not, the Church sometimes sends mixed signals to veterans and to those who feel called to military service. November 11 is a good example.  On the church calendar today is the Feast of St. Martin of Tours. Martin lived way back in the fourth century. His father was a Roman officer, and at the age of 15, Martin, too, joined the Roman army.   Perhaps it was a symbol of things to come when Martin famously used his sword to cut his cloak in half, in order to help a beggar keep warm; but whatever moved Martin to it, he eventually felt that for him, faith and military service did not go together. In fact, Martin of Tours is the unofficial patron saint of conscientious objectors.

Christians can find mixed signals in the teachings and the life of Jesus. While Jesus ultimately chose to go the way of sacrifice rather than fighting, he interacted with soldiers and others in the military and did not always call them to leave their arms behind. Jesus teaches peace, but he also moves among those who keep the peace through military strength. Jesus heals the servant of a Roman officer. When a soldier asks John the Baptist how he should be faithful, John says, “play fair, don’t cheat, and be content with your pay”—hardly suggesting the man lay down arms and follow a different way.

Through the history of this parish, we have had military people and people of peace, and often they have been the same people. What has been clear in this place, and what we do today, is to give thanks for those who would serve and sacrifice on our behalf. We give thanks for those who have died, those who have been wounded, and those who are alive and well and going strong—all of whom have risked everything so that we might be safe, that we might worship freely, and that we might speak and life as free people.

The founding rector of this parish, The Reverend James McBride Sterrett, felt strongly that this church be a place of remembrance and place of honor for veterans. Perhaps because Father Sterrett fought so hard in the realm of spiritual and philosophical warfare, he had tremendous respect and admiration for those who had risked their lives in actual military service. In a sermon near the beginning of this parish’s history, Father Sterrett said, “All souls are God’s, here and hereafter, now and forever—whether home-staying sons, or prodigal sons to be drawn back into the Father’s house.” … “The desire to be remembered—not to drop out of mind and heart into a forgotten grave—that is a strong, human desire” (The Story of All Souls, p.15).

The Gospel we heard today includes the famous words of Jesus, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” A little later in this same chapter, Jesus says again, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” On one hand these could be comfortable words, words that soothe, words of hope, and words that whisper safety in the dark, in times of loneliness, in times of terror.

But they are also fighting words. To step into fear, to look into the face of fear, perhaps even to stand up to evil and to know in one’s heart, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid,” is to allow the Risen Christ to fight for us. And faith tells us the way that ends.

Christ has already fought every battle, the Archangel Michael has helped rally the troops, joined by countless angels, archangels, saints, and martyrs. And joined by those who have come through these doors, and those who have entered the doors of our hearts, and those who live among us still.

Whatever our fight may be in this world, may we have the fortitude and faith spoken of by St. Paul in his Second Letter to Timothy. Paul writes, “Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer.” In other words, remember that it is Christ that we serve, even though intervening officers may come and go. Paul concludes,

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David–that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained…. The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful….(2 Timothy 2:3-13)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived out the complexities of the Christian faith. Bonhoeffer was the great German pastor who was imprisoned by the Nazis and eventually executed for plotting to kill Hitler. In a little book called Life Together, Bonhoeffer writes,

Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. ‘The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared’ (quoting Luther). [Life Together, p. 27.]

Veterans Day gives us a sort of “pre-Thanksgiving” Thanksgiving. Let us do all that we can to say, show, and live out our gratitude to those who have served and to those who serve still.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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