Sunday, June 14, 2009

On Swords, Shields, and a Servant People - A Sermon for the Second Sunday After Pentecost

One of the pleasures of my job as an Anglican military chaplain is that from time to time I get to play the ecclesial tourist, visiting and sometimes preaching at local churches. This Sunday, June 14th, Archdeacon Lynn Uzans, the rector of St. James Anglican Church in Kentville, invited me to preach at the 10:30am service. St. James is a beautiful neo-gothic church in the middle of Kentville, in a neighbourhood of hilly and leafy streets and charming older homes. The choir and music director are excellent. Psalm 20, the appointed psalm for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, offered an excellent opportunity for me to reflect on my vocation and on the relationship between faith and military power in ancient Israel's time and in our own time.

A Sermon for the Second Sunday After Pentecost (Lectionary Year B)

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13, Psalm 20, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17, Mark 4:26-34

“Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God.” (Ps 20.7)

Today’s gospel lesson, on the parable of the mustard seed, offers rich if somewhat well-tilled pastures for the preacher. Even so, I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t preach on this gospel. Truth to tell, I’ve never seen a mustard plant, and I don’t have the heart for gardening metaphors at the moment. You see, when the military sent me here, I was delighted to learn that I was coming to the Annapolis Valley, the fabled breadbasket of the Maritimes. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was coming to Greenwood, which is apparently the sandbox of the Annapolis Valley. Growing things in Greenwood requires topsoil, fertilizer, water, and lots of patience, which could be the elements of a good sermon illustration for another day.

Instead, I invite you to think with me about Psalm 20, and how it speaks to us as Christians and as Canadians in a time of war. As you’ve been told, I serve as a military chaplain in the Canadian Forces. I am drawn towards Psalm 20 in today’s readings because it probably began with one of my ancient predecessors, a chaplain of the army of Israel who prayed this psalm as a blessing before the king led his warriors off to battle. The “you” referred to in the psalm was probably the king of Israel himself, and the psalm was prayed as part of a liturgy after the king had presided over the “offerings” and “burnt sacrifices” mentioned in verse 3. The psalm recognizes that the king and his soldiers are marching into danger, “the day of trouble”, but it prays that God will favour the king’s military plans and lead him to victory over his enemies, who will “collapse and fall”. In many ways, Psalm 20 is an ancestor of our own anthem “God Save the Queen” – both pray that God keeps the ruler glorious, victorious and happily ruling over us.

Perhaps those of you who aren’t fans of the Old Testament might find more reason to dislike it in this psalm. One might see Psalm 20 as an attempt to manipulate a militaristic and vengeful God into backing Israel in holy war against its pagan neighbours. I say this because I myself have heard people say that chaplains blessing warships and regimental banners represent a throwback to primitive and tribal ways that are best forgotten by a peaceful and advanced society. So I expect some people to dislike this psalm, but before we condemn it I would encourage them to look more closely at this psalm’s theology. Specifically, I would encourage them to examine the line “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God” (20:7).

What’s being said here is quite fascinating. “Horses and chariots” were the most advanced and expensive weapons systems of early biblical times. Israel was surrounded by powerful empires whose armies were far more numerous and far better equipped than the soldiers of Israel. One of the purposes of Psalm 20 was to remind the outnumbered warriors of Israel that they were called to defend God’s covenant people against what Thomas Hardy once called “ignorant armies” who worshipped strength, conquest, and death. The memory of Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, trying to drag Israel back into slavery and drowned in the Red Sea, is surely behind the psalmist’s promise that God’s “name” is greater than any earthly power. What is meant here by “the name of the LORD our God?” here? For the psalmist, “the name of the LORD” is shorthand for everything that God means to Israel. The name of the LORD includes the vision of social justice and equity and the respect for the stranger and the resident alien envisioned by the prophet Micah. It includes the holiness of worship in the temple as seen by Isaiah, so different from the human sacrifices to idols practised by Israel’s neighbours. It includes the law of Moses and the prayers of Israel’s liturgy, the means by which God creates and consecrates a priestly kingdom to represent him in the world. All these things needed to be preserved and guarded.

God had promised through the prophets that he will call all nations to his holy mountain in peace and unity (Isaiah 11:9) and that he would send a messiah, a prince of peace, but until that day God’s vision needed defending. God’s people required soldiers to defend them, and those soldiers required kings with plans to lead them. When those kings and leaders forgot that their “pride is in the name of the LORD”, the consequences would be disaster. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, warns the people of Jerusalem that their city is about to be destroyed because the king and his leaders have forgotten who God is and who they are as leaders of God’s covenant people.

Today our situation would appear to be very different from the world of Psalm 20. Yes, we are a people at war, as evidenced this week when we repatriated Private Alexandre Peloquin, the 119th soldier to fall in Afghanistan. Yes, we still sing God Save The Queen, even if we sing it less and less. Most of us would agree that we are citizens of a multifaith country of Canada, committed to tolerance, respect, and protection for all, even if many Canadians are not Christians Those of us Canadians who identify as Christians and as Anglicans still pray for our leaders, asking God to give them wisdom and guidance. But there the similarities would appear to end. As Christian and Anglican Canadians, we have internal differences over foreign policy and the use of force. Some of us are pacifists, standing in a long and honourable tradition of Christian pacifism, and opposed to the mission in Afghanistan. For those Anglicans who support the mission, I think we would agree that we are citizens of a multifaith country of Canada, committed to tolerance, respect, and protection for all. Most of us would rightly be horrified if our elected leaders declared that we were fighting a religious war against Islam. Most of us, I am sure, agreed with President Obama when he said recently in Cairo that our fight is not against Islam but rather is against violent extremism and bigotry.

It is a complex situation, to be sure, and much changed from the time when Psalm 20 was written, but if there are points in common, I think the most important commonalities are in the psalmist’s line, “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God” (Ps 20:7). For me as a Christian and as a member of the Canadian Forces, that line reminds me that values are more important than equipment. (Indeed, most CF members are make do without much in the way of the modern equivalents of chariots and horses). We who serve want the CF to be a force for good in the world. Most Canadian soldiers aren’t very articulate about foreign policy. They don’t go in for big explanations, but the ones who have been to Afghanistan or Haiti will tell you, in their modest way, that they did some good, that they tried to make life better and safer for innocent people. The ones who have been to other places, like Rwanda, or Bosnia, are haunted by the memory of what happened there, and by what they weren’t able to do to save the innocent. All of us who wear the uniform today are haunted by the memory of what happened in Somalia, and are determined, as soldiers say simply, to do the right thing. Our vision in the CF is not specifically Christian, but I believe that it allows the CF to be an instrument in God’s purposes for a better world.

As Christians, living in the freedom and promise of the gospel, we wait for the day when the life and light of Christ’s resurrection will be revealed to the whole world. We also know that the imperfect, war torn world of Psalm 20 is still very much with us. As St. Paul says in Romans, our world groans for its redemption, and we believe that God’s redemption, our new lives in Christ, will put an end to race and status and all that divides us. We may struggle with how this redemption will come to pass vis a vis other religions (I serve in an officially multifaith military chaplaincy with Jewish and Muslim colleagues and we haven’t figured out how it all ends either) but we pray for the grace to see the face of Christ and to show Christ to all we meet. And, as Christians and as Anglicans, even if we disagree on the mission in Afghanistan, we are called to show Christ’s love and compassion for those who serve and for their families. The Anglican Church of Canada has just published a wonderful resource entitled “Anglican Parishes and Pastoral Support for Military Members and Their Families”. As a congregation in Atlantic Canada, where a disproportionate number of men and women serve compared to other regions in Canada, I am sure that this guide will be helpful you in your ministry and outreach, and I commend it to you.

Allow me to close with a prayer from this resource which, I hope, sums up what I’ve been trying to say.

As we pray for peace on earth let us remember all who have
been called to place themselves in harm's way for the sake of
peace, security and justice, at home and abroad. Especially do
we pray God's protection for the members of the Armed Forces
of this Country who serve in distant lands (including Name of
region at this time). May their efforts and sacrifice bring peace
and hope to others. We also remember their families at home:
for those that count the days, and for those who mourn. And we
pray that the day may be hastened when war shall be no more.

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
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