What We Do Not See: A Sermon for Memorial Day

who-pays-1Holidays like Memorial Day are interesting in my house—it’s one of the of those times of year when my husband and I get into some interesting conversations. You see, he is a professor of political science at UPENN, and his research focuses on war. He studies war quantitatively, which means that he ends up looking at a lot of statistical data. Things like, “how many deaths occurred on this battlefield in this month between these two countries?” His computer contains excel spreadsheets that go page after page after page, detailing battle deaths for every month of every conflict going back as far as there are decent records to rely on.

But what is interesting to me is how few of those conflicts, especially when it comes to the United States, are actually considered wars by our countries. It turns out that the last time our congress officially declared war was when we entered World War II in 1942, which means that, technically speaking, every “conflict” that we have engaged in since isn’t a war by a certain standard. The Korean War, The Vietnam War, The Balkans War, the First Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan—none of them are wars, at least according to Congress.

And all I can think is: if those aren’t wars, then I don’t know what is.

Turns out there are a lot of different definitions for what counts as a war out there. And according to those definitions, right now we are currently fighting somewhere between 0 and 134 wars.

The case for zero: we haven’t declared war since 1942 so there has been no war since then.

The case for at least 6: if what counts as war is extensive military incursion, without necessarily being declared war as such by congress, then we are at war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen and Syria.

The case for as many as 134: this represents the number of countries that the United States had special operations forces in as of September 2014. These forces can be doing anything from actually fighting, to training or providing support to military forces in other countries.

It is almost as if the world is a battlefield, and we are in the midst of it.

Now, not so long ago, it was difficult to avoid the realities of war in this country. Americans felt the cost of war—Americans were drafted into military service, and families endured rationing of food and basic supplies.

Things are somewhat different today. For starters, those who serve in the military are all volunteers. Unlike Vietnam, no one serves who doesn’t wish to.

But it turns out that there is a cost to a volunteer military force—those of us who do not wish to see the war, do not have to, either. When there is no threat of a draft, it is easy to live your life as though the actions of the military have little or no consequence. In a world where rationing is unnecessary and the draft is gone, the reality that our nation continues to engage in acts of war around the world gets pushed beyond the front page of the news, until we forget that we are fighting anywhere at all.

Which leaves those who serve in our armed forces to bear the burden of conflict alone. It has been said that those who serve in the military these days comprise the “other 1%,” and that small fraction of our nation bears the cost of war and conflict in their bodies, their communities, and their families.

They are the ones who know that in 2014, we lost 60 members of our armed forces during active service. They know that this year, only two service members have died while deployed thus far.

But there is another number that tells a darker story of the wounds that our military servicemen and women bear. 288. That is the number of suicides recorded among active-duty personnel in 2014. For the last five years, that number has hovered around 300, or about 30 deaths per 100,000 soldiers, which is 2.5 times as high as the rate for the general population. And this does not even take into account the number of soldiers alive today who struggle with psychic and physical wounds sustained on the battlefield–from PTSD and traumatic brain injury to chemical weapons injuries and the loss of limbs.

How heavy must the burden be that service men and women carry. To choose to serve, and then to discover that nobody knows the cost. These men and women are the ones who see what we would rather not—they serve in places we only hear of on television, they risk their lives in response to orders from high above them, subject themselves to conditions of deep risk, uncertainty, violence. They engage with communities where malnutrition and disease regularly claim the lives of the weak. They experience untold horror of killing another human being, and of seeing fellow humans killed, and are expected to make sense of it. They see what is invisible to us, and in doing so, many of them become less visible to us. We look beyond them, for they remind us of what we would rather not know—that, in the name of peace, we continue to kill each other, and use young men and women to do so.

We who serve Jesus Christ are called not to look away from the awful truths of war. We are called to open our eyes and see the truth that violence births in the world, to stand alongside the “other 1%” and carry their burden with them. We are called not to look away from that which is uncomfortable, but rather to know the cost that military violence incurs in the world. To mourn the loss of life through conflict, and suicide, and hope deferred. To remember that Jesus, who called us to be peacemakers, called on us not only to pray for peace, but to actively pursue it. To not just imagine a world in which war is a memory, but to labor on behalf of peace until we live in a world where the total number of deaths in active service is zero.

I think we can start by listening to our brothers and sisters who have chosen to serve. I heard an interview this week with veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who shared that the best thing that we can do for servicemen and women is to get to know them. To build relationships with veterans who live in our neighborhoods, hire them in our businesses, care about them as individuals. For when we know them, when we hear their stories, perhaps we can begin to understand the cost of the wars that we all too easily ignore.

 The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of God endures forever. Amen.

One Cost of Military Violence

This list represents those who died during active, deployed service to the United States of America in 2014 through May 2015. The list is divided by branch of the military, and includes information about how the serviceman or woman died, as well as the country in which he or she was deployed at the time of his or her death. Overall, this list represents 60 deaths in 2014, and 2 in 2015 (so far). It does not include the 288 suicides of active military in 2014. The information in this list was found by searching the database of Military Times at “Honor the Fallen.”

Army

Specialist John M Dawson: died in combat, Afghanistan

Specialist Wyatt Martin: IED, Afghanistan

Sgt 1st class Ramon S. Morris: IED, Afghanistan

Staff Sgt. Matthew Ammerman: died in combat, Afghanistan

Specialist Joseph W Riley: Vehicle Borne IED, Afghanistan

Sgt. Major Wardell Turner: Vehicle Borne IED, Afghanistan

Sgt 1st Class Michael A Cathcart: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Major Jonathan D. Walker: non-combat related causes, Qatar

Sgt 1st Class Andrew T Weathers: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Major Michael J Donahue: suicide Car Bomb Attack, Afghanistan

Specialist Brian K Arsenault: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Sgt Christopher W Mulalley: noncombat incident, Afghanistan

Sgt 1st Class Matthew I Leggett: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Sgt. 1st Class Samuel C Hairstron: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Major Harold J Greene: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Staff Sgt Girard D Gass, Jr.: noncombat incident while on patrol, Afghanistan

Private 1st Class Donnell A Hamilton, Jr.: illness sustained in Afghanistan

Staff Sgt Benjamin G Prange: IED, Afghanistan

Private 1st Class Keith M Williams: IED, Afghanistan

Corporal Justin R Clouse: aircraft friendly fire, Afghanistan

Specialist Justin R Helton: aircraft friendly fire, Afghanistan

Specialist Terry J Hume: noncombat incident, Afghanistan

Staff Sgt Jason A McDonald: aircraft friendly fire, Afghanistan

Staff Sgt Scott R Studenmund: aircraft friendly fire, Afghanistan

Private Aaron S Toppen: aircraft friendly fire, Afghanistan

Private 1st Class Matthew H Walker: died in combat, Afghanistan

Captain Jason B Jones: died in combat, Afghanistan

Private 1st Class Jacob H Wykstra: aircraft accident, Afghanistan

Specialist Adrian M Perkins: noncombat injury, Jordan

Command Sgt Major Martin R Barreras: died in combat, Afghanistan

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Deric M Rasmussen: noncombat incident, Afghanistan

Specialist Daniela Rojas: noncombat illness, Germany

Specialist Christian J Chandler: died in combat, Afghanistan

Sargeant Shawn M Farrell II: died in combat, Afghanistan

Specialist Kerry MG Danyluk: died in combat, Afghanistan

Captain James E Chaffin III: died in noncombat incident, Afghanistan

Specialist John A Pelham: died in combat, Afghanistan

Sgt 1st Class Roberto C Skelt: died in combat, Afghanistan

Private 1st Class Joshua A Gray: Died in noncombat incident, Afghanistan

Specialisit Christopher A Landis: died in combat, Afghanistan

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Edward Balli: died in combat, Afghanistan

Specialist Andrew H Sipple: died in noncombat incident, Afghanistan

Staff Sgt Daniel T Lee: Died in combat, Afghanistan

Sgt Drew M Scoble: Died in aircraft crash, Afghanistan

Sgt 1st Class William K Lacey: Died in Combat, Afghanistan (rocket attack)

Air Force

Captain William H DuBois: Aircraft crash, Middle East

Master Sgt David L Poirier: noncombat death, undisclosed location in SW Asia

Tech. Sgt Anthony E Salazr: non combat incident, SW Asia

Navy

Commander Christopher E Kalafut:: noncombat related incident, Qatar

Lt JG Stephen Byus: Suicide Car Bomb, Afghanistan

Boatswain’s Mate Seaman Yeshabel Villot-Carrasco: non-hostile causes, Red Sea

Marines

Lance Corporal Sean P Neal: noncombat related causes, Iraq

Corporal Jordan L Spears: lost at sea, North Arabian Gulf

Sgt Charles C Strong: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Sgt Thomas Z Spitzer: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Lance Corporal Brandon J Garabrant: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Staff Sgt David H Stewart: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Lance Corporal Adam F Wolff: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Lance Corporal Caleb L Erickson: Suicide bomber attack, Afghanistan

Master Sgt Aaron C Torlan: IED, Afghanistan

Sgt Jacob M Hess: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Wyoming Natl Guard

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Andrew L McAdams: Died in aircraft crash, Afghanistan

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Andrew L McAdams: Died in aircraft crash, Afghanistan

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A Week of Heartbreak

It’s been quite the week, and I am just beginning to have the time to actually think about everything that has happened.  For starters, our church’s extended family has lost three saints (two were old age, one was sudden), and our home is down by a (great) grandmother and, as of today, one fuzzy, beloved cat.  So apologies if there hasn’t been any time to post.  I have been juggling a lot of loss, and frankly I am feeling it right about now.

We have had some time to process the deaths of our our family and loved ones, but I will admit that I am still reeling from the sudden realization that Izzy would not be coming home with me this morning.  We realized a couple days ago that she wasn’t looking well–we weighed her, and she had lost 3.5 pounds, wouldn’t eat, didn’t appear to be using the litter box, and wanted to sleep all the time. She has always been, shall we say, less active.  But this was a whole new level.  So we made a doctor’s appointment, and I spent extra time cuddling her, enticing her with tuna, etc.  She clearly appreciated the attention–she would follow me around, lay down on the ground next to me.  I tried to keep her on the couch or on my lap if possible.  But she was frail, and it was deteriorating quickly.

11205093_10103196761840475_5368645082686368366_nThis morning at the vet (the earliest appointment I could get), they did a panel of blood tests, which revealed that she was extremely dehydrated and anemic, with an elevated Calcium level, all of which was indicative of bone cancer.  The vet, who I think had been hoping that this might be reversible, came in and shared with me that there was little we could do, she was probably suffering, and that the best thing was to let her be at peace.  I had always known this might be a possibility, so I was prepared for it, but that didn’t make it any easier to hear. I had some time with her to cuddle, to say goodbye, and to cry.  I was able to get in touch with a close friend who loved her too, and that person was able to say goodbyes as well.  All of it was quiet, peaceful, and quick.  She isn’t suffering anymore, and I am grateful for that, but I will admit that it is hitting me harder than I expected.

11150831_10103196751286625_4839800192618828939_nSo I just thought I would post some pictures of my little fuzzball, back when she was healthy.  She was a pretty needy kitty, and Lord knows she put up with a lot–kids, for example, were NEVER on her bucket list–but she was sweet, and kind, and cuddly.  She saw me through the lonely days of graduate school, and made us a family when Alex and I got married.  I am grateful that I was able to limit her suffering, but that didn’t make the decision any easier.  The house is quiet, and will be for a while.  No Izzy mewing on the stairwell.  No Izzy begging to get in the bedroom one last time.

1913644_771344247815_3959268_nI don’t know how we will tell our eldest, who was worried about her.  I can only hope that grace will be enough for all of us, and the joy of the memories we had.

Rest in Peace, Izzy-Cat.  You will be missed.

Love Is A Relationship


1 John 4:7-21

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Gospel of John 15:1-8

1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

When is the last time you felt truly and completely loved?

Odds are that you weren’t loved by an institution, or an object. You were loved by a person. You were loved in relationship.

That is the truth that we come face to face with in our scripture this morning. That love isn’t done in the abstract. Love, according to 1 John, is lived out between people, who choose to be in relationship with one another, to abide with one another, to know one another rather than to pass each other by.

Now I don’t have to tell you all that if you know somebody long enough, you can probably come up with plenty of reasons why NOT to love them.  Time together exposes our humanity, our brokenness, and shatters the myth that we can do no wrong to one another, or that love will be easy.

Which means that perhaps the challenge of our time is getting to know one another. We are so busy, it is often easier to pass one another by, to wave from the front seat of the car at our neighbor, but never truly get to know them, to love them, to abide with them.

I say all of this because I have heard a rumor lately around our little borough.  From more than a few corners of our little town, I have heard that we aren’t all that friendly. Rumor has it that we talk about one another more than towards one another. That we are quick to report one another, and slow to knock on one another’s door and say hello.

You can think what you will about how true or not this is, but there it is.  Some of our own neighbors have experienced this town that you love as a place that is lacking in the relationship department. And you may agree or disagree with them, but either way, here’s what I think. I think that this says less about the people who live here, and more about the reality that perhaps we haven’t taken the time to know one another. There has been so much change in the community of our borough in the last ten years or so, and at the same time, our lives have gotten busier, and busier, and busier. We don’t have as much time to build relationships, and so we don’t. We settle for superficial ones, we know one another’s names but not each other’s hearts. The consequence being that many of us are lonelier in the crowd than ever before.

One of the things that people in this church often say about themselves is that they see this community as a family. They find love and acceptance in these walls. They feel known. Which makes me wonder whether we are perhaps in a unique position to minister to our own community. Perhaps our calling right now is to choose to love, by taking the time to know our neighbors as individuals and as beloved children of God, loved first in Christ.

We live in a world right now that is crying out in violence, and mistrust, and brokenness.  And so much of the pain that we see on the television, as close as Baltimore and as far from us as distant continents, has its roots in broken relationships. In people who no longer trust one another, nor believe the best in one another, because there is so much evidence to the contrary. And when people do not know and trust each other, they are less likely to respect them, more likely to see the worst rather than the best of intentions in every little action.

Celeste Fremon saw this first hand when she lived and worked amongst the Mexican gangs of Los Angeles. She is a writer who was interested in the work of Father Greg Boyle. Over many years embedded in the projects with Father Boyle, she came to know the gang bangers as complex people, began to love them, to care about them. She became the sort of person she never could have imagined—someone who would run towards gunfire, because it meant someone she loved might be hurt. And she came to see firsthand how the breakdown of relationship—in the family, in the community, in policing—is at the heart of the problem. And how real relationship, real love and affection, can begin to heal young men and women who for most of their lives have felt expendable and worthless.

Do you see where I am going here? Relationship becomes the cord that holds us together, or the one that tears us apart. It is the life blood of our community, the heart and soul of our life together.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

When we choose to love one another, when we go out of our way to build real and honest relationships with one another, then we find ourselves close to the true vine, to Jesus. We draw near to God, and abide in God as God abides in us. We bear the fruit of healing and healthy community that reflects the love of God back upon one another and to the world.

We draw near to God as well in this community whenever we come to the table. For at the table, we put aside the things that keep us apart from one another, and we remember that we are inextricably linked to God and one another. At the table, we renew our baptismal promise and affirm our oneness in Christ as we find nourishment and encouragement in the elements of bread and cup.

So here’s my suggestion for this week. Get out in your front yard, and get to know that neighbor you always wave at but rarely speak to. Invite them to dinner. Go for a walk. Find out what they are passionate about, and see if you don’t plant the seeds of relationship and community when you do. Be the sort of neighbor that you wish you had, and see if in doing so you don’t create the kind of community that we all need.

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. Amen.