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An Occasional Blog by The Reverend Grace P. Burson, Holy Trinity's Associate Transitional Pastor
It may be helpful to read this sermon with a copy of ELW at hand, open to Hymn 422.Holy Trinity, Newington
All Saints’ Sunday, Year A
November 5, 2017
O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win, with them, the victor’s crown of gold:
This is the verse that was left out of "For All the Saints," today's opening hymn, in the most recent version of the hymnal.The question of how to handle violent and military imagery in our hymns and in our scripture has been a vexed one for quite a while. It is inarguably true that many of the hymns were written in and for a culture that saw nothing wrong with converting people to Christianity at the point of a sword, and that many of the scriptures have been used for equally problematic ends over the course of history.
But to go to the opposite extreme – to eliminate all of the language of warfare from our religious language on principle – seems to me to fail to reckon with reality on several levels. (As my favorite theologian, my mother, likes to say, it’s fine to tell children that there are no monsters under the bed; but only if there are, in fact, no monsters under the bed.) The language is there in scripture, and it does no one any good to pretend otherwise, so we have to decide how to handle it there. And to stop singing, or rewrite from top to bottom, a beloved hymn because it depicts Christians as soldiers, is, I think, misguided, for reasons I hope I will make clear in the next few minutes.
If you look at our readings for this morning – specifically, the readings from Revelation and Matthew – they would seem at first glance to come from the opposite ends of the spectrum on this question. But if we look closer, I think we’ll find that they’re speaking with a much more unified voice than is first apparent.
The Revelation to John is, without question, a text soaked in violence. The few passages from this book that we hear on Sundays are carefully chosen to skirt around much of it, but it is this way because it is a text that speaks to the experience of a community being targeted with extreme violence. This is what is being referenced when the elder identifies the members of the great crowd standing around the throne of the Lamb as “those who have come out of the great ordeal” (or, in older translations, “the great tribulation”).
The communities to which John is writing are facing the wrath of an empire whose gods and rulers they refuse to worship, and they are suffering as a result; many of them have made the ultimate sacrifice. One might forgive them for wishing to see their enemies – who seem, at least by earthly standards, infinitely more powerful than they – tossed into a lake of hot lava or slaughtered by one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. But to us, living in a very different time, these images seem like they belong in Game of Thrones, perhaps, but not in scripture, which we would like to believe is more uplifting.
We might turn, then, to the Beatitudes, this well-loved passage from Matthew’s Gospel. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed area the peacemakers. These are the words we want to hear from, and about, Jesus. They sound so much kinder and gentler than washing our robes in the blood of the Lamb.
But think for a moment about what it entails to be meek. Or merciful. Or to make peace.
Meekness is not a mealy-mouthed virtue. Meekness is the self-discipline of the one who is deeply formed by the practice of nonviolence, who stands on the bridge staring down the fire hoses and the attack dogs and refuses to budge because she knows that her cause is right.
Mercy? Mercy is hard, people. Forgiving those who have hurt you, instead of lashing out at them in the hopes of inflicting similar pain, and then moving on and building a life that is no longer governed and deformed by that pain – that takes extraordinary courage.
And making peace? I have a colleague who is the executive director of an organization called Kids for Peace. Sounds charming, right? It’s a nonprofit that seeks to build peace in Israel and Palestine by bringing together Jewish, Muslim and Christian kids for camps and workshops where they can get to know each other as people and build relationships. His work is unrelenting and he doesn’t talk much about the amount of hate mail he gets, the difficult conditions when they go to Palestine, where there’s no running water and sometimes the power is only on for a few hours a day, or the fact that he and his staff are literally risking their lives some days on the job. This kind of peacemaking requires a level of self-sacrifice that goes above loyalty to one or the other side and instead places one’s trust and loyalty in Christ, the Prince of Peace.Discipline. Courage. Loyalty. These sound awfully like the virtues of, well, a soldier.
Nobody needs me, a civilian, to stand up in front of this congregation chock-full of current and former military (and military spouses and families) and explain what courage, loyalty and discipline mean. And I think we can all understand that being a soldier for Christ does not mean going out and killing people for Jesus.
We may fall in different places along the continuum of opinion on whether it’s ever permissible to use violence in pursuit of one’s aims (this question is currently known on social media as the “punching Nazi question” and as the granddaughter of a woman who shot an actual Nazi dead in her living room in 1944, I may not be the most impartial person to ask on the subject). Some of us are combat veterans; some are pacifists; heck, some may be both. All of these things are OK.
What I want us to understand this morning is that when we read the Beatitudes and then sing hymns that describe the saints as soldiers, we are not contradicting ourselves. Disciples of Jesus Christ have real and identifiable enemies. (Remember when I mentioned the monsters under the bed? Here they are.) Those enemies are not cartoon monsters. And they are definitely not our fellow human beings, all of whom are beloved children of God (yes, even the Nazis – though that doesn’t make their behavior any more excusable).
The enemies of God, and of us as God’s people, are identified in the threefold renunciation that we make at the baptismal font: the devil and all forces that defy God; the powers of this world that rebel against God; and the ways of sin that draw us from God.
It is these enemies against which we do battle, and these enemies whom the great saints vanquished in their lives of virtuous struggle. Our own greed, cowardice, laziness, and cruelty; our corporate sin, the injustice of our societies, our oppression of those who are different from us, our abuse of God’s good gifts in creation, our neglect of the poor and needy, and yes, our tendency to resort to violence at the slightest provocation – these are the powers against which we fight, and will continue to fight until we are no longer able.
The wonderful thing – well, there are two wonderful things, for both of which we give thanks today:
The first is that although the battle is often hard and frequently seems hopeless – and when the strife is fierce, the warfare long – in fact, victory is already assured. This battle is like the climactic battle in every fantasy novel ever written, when the forces of good are overwhelmed in every way and yet at the last minute, something happens to turn the tide. (It’s no accident that the original fantasy novels were written by devout, practicing Christians who were also veterans of the First World War.) Jesus has already won the victory for us: steals on the ear the distant triumph song. We may be outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, outplanned, but we will never be defeated.
And the second wonderful thing is that we are never alone. We are surrounded by the communion of saints, by that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, who know this struggle intimately and who are still there, shoulder to shoulder with us. They are blessed by God and they show us the way to that blessedness in our turn.
“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
They have fought nobly, as we still fight; and they now rejoice, as we one day hope to rejoice.
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine: