A Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett preached on Mother's Day, May 14, 2017
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
My husband thought my sermon title this morning lacked ambition. It’s mother’s day, so I decided to go easy on myself in celebration. Everyone else is probably having brunch.
You all may know this already, but mother’s day is not just a Hallmark holiday. The first mother’s day began in 1870 with the Mother’s Day proclamation we read today by Julia Ward Howe, who is most famous for writing the song “Battle Hymn of the Republic” during the Civil War after visiting a union army camp in 1861.
Despite writing one of the most patriotic war hymns in American history, Julia Ward Howe was also known for her work for peace. In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, Howe began a one-woman peace crusade. She translated her proclamation into several languages and distributed it widely. In 1872 she went to London to promote an international Woman's Peace Congress but was not able to pull it off. Back in Boston, she initiated a Mothers' Peace Day observance on the second Sunday in June and held the meeting for a number of years. Her idea spread but was later replaced by the Mothers' Day holiday now celebrated in May.
So, in honor of the original Mother’s Day, I am preaching about war and peace, which is the Treasures of the Community auction sermon topic, as well. (The Treasures of the Community auction is coming up next weekend! You’re all coming, right?) For those of you who have never been, you should know that every year for three years, I have auctioned off a sermon topic. This year is no different. So bid high and bid early and often.
Allison and Eric Darlington bid hundreds or thousands or even millions of dollars (I can’t remember) last year to hear me preach this very priceless sermon this morning.
The Darlingtons are both veterans. They both served in the military immediately before and following September 11th, 2001. And they served, though not in active combat, in the Iraq war. Their military experience led them to many religious questions.
“The Bible says a lot about peace, and non-violence. Jesus said to turn the other cheek, that those who live by the sword die by the sword. Jesus said to love the stranger, the neighbor, even the enemy. ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ is one of the ten commandments handed to Moses by God according to our sacred texts. Eric asks: “What, then, does the Church have to say to veterans who come home from war? Is there ever a time when it is OK to kill? What is the healing message that the Bible has for those of us who have served our country in war?
Thank you, Eric and Ally, for this question. In so many ways, I am inadequate to the task of answering it. I have never served in the military, nor have I lived during a time of compulsory military service. Biblically, just like always, there are no easy answers to this question. But I do believe the church needs to respond to this question. In fact, I believe a good response saves lives.
In 2013, I gave birth to my first and only son, Isaac. And because you asked me this question, the other day I watched Isaac tenderly put his baby doll, Megan, down to sleep in a crib, singing her a lullabye. And the realization hit me like a ton of bricks that he would have to sign up for the draft when he turns 18.
The idea that I may one day send my precious child off to kill or be killed was like a knife to my heart. Just like you and Ally, we are teaching our children Christian non-violence, love, kindness, hospitality, to pray for and even love their enemies. We hope these core values make up who they are. And one day, they may be asked to fight on behalf of their country. I don’t believe my children will unlearn the values of charity, mercy and patience as Julia Ward Howe suggests. They may instead feel as though they are forced to betray them.
I know this because I am also the daughter of a Viet Nam vet. And like many Viet Nam vets, the war still haunts my father. He was never comfortable marching in Veteran’s day parades, or being asked to stand and thanked for his service. He never told me much about the experience, but I believe going to Viet Nam is one of the great regrets of his life. It is a quiet, omni-present sadness he carries.
Regardless of one’s religious or political stance on war, I think almost everyone who serves in combat agrees that it is hell on earth. It is common for the experience of war to shake one’s religious faith. In a 2004 Yale University Study of Viet Nam veterans, almost 90% Christian, researchers found that 1/3 of the participants said the experience of war had shaken their faith in God and that the church no longer provided comfort for them.
This spiritual crisis requires a religious response. It is our sacred task as the church to care for and heal the spiritually wounded, and we are too often inadequate to the task. If the Christian church acknowledges war at all, it is often with a shallow patriotism that glorifies it, or a moralistic stance that unintentionally shames and further wounds those who have participated in it.
There is a middle way that honors and heals. First we need to understand the depth of the wounds.
At the Eat, Pray, Learn we had on race last year, I was in a small discussion group. One of you had a friend who served in Viet Nam. He came across a member of the Viet Cong in the path he was walking in the jungle. He had no choice…it was kill or be killed, so he shot and killed the enemy combatant. He realized afterward that the soldier he killed was a 12 year old boy. He came home haunted by this experience. He eventually committed suicide, unable to live with what he had done.
It is estimated that 22 veterans commit suicide per day in this country, an alarming statistic.
William Nash, retired psychiatrist for the US Navy says that it is not post traumatic stress, but “moral injury” that explains the increase in suicides. Moral injury is defined as “damage to your deeply held beliefs about right and wrong. It might be caused by something that you do or fail to do, or by something that is done to you – but either way it breaks that sense of moral certainty.”
Nash says that he has “heard it over and over again from marines – the most common source of anguish for them was failing to protect their ‘brothers’. The significance of that is unfathomable, it’s comparable to the feelings I’ve heard from parents who have lost a child.”
Jesus calls us to care for the anguished and the lost. The church’s job the redemption, love and hope of a God who makes all things new.
It is notable that though Jesus undoubtedly preaches and teaches peace and non-violence, he does not judge soldiers unworthy of his care in the Bible. In fact, he even honors and heals them.
In our Gospel text today, Jesus heals the servant of the Centurion at his request. This is the only time in the whole of the Gospels when it says that Jesus is “amazed” by someone’s faithfulness. This is significant because of who this character is. The Centurion is a Roman soldier of the army occupying Israel—an enemy of the Jews. The Centurion would have been raised Pagan, so he is from a different religion. He may or may not even believe in the God of Israel Jesus teaches about.
Jesus recognizes and is amazed by the special spiritual gifts the soldier has. Because of his service in the military and his rank and authority within it, the Centurion understands and respects hierarchy. He doesn’t even come to Jesus directly because he feels he is “unworthy” to be under Jesus’ roof. So he sends others in his stead to ask for a healing of his servant. His faith in Jesus’ power is so strong that he believes Jesus can heal, even from afar. And Jesus is astounded by both the soldier’s humility, and his desire to care for people far below the soldier’s rank. Jesus says “not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
Soldiers have much to teach us about the practices of faithfulness.
On Veterans day week last year, I told you that we gathered for a forum with veterans of combat, to talk about how we can take care of their hearts now that they are home.
I told you then that there is something that one of our veterans, Gabe, said that will stick with me for the rest of my life. He served in (Iraq) in 2005-2006. “You have to understand, he said, that in combat, we are trained to live together. We are all colors, guys and gals, gay, straight, all religions, all creeds. None of that matters. We sleep together, we wake up together, we eat together. And we are trained to save each other’s lives. We are trained to know that we hold each other’s lives in our hands. We have a sacred duty to keep one another alive. It’s the only thing that matters…the thing we must know best how to do.”
“And then we come home, he said. “And we realize how much we have missed while we were gone. How everything has advanced without us. Everyone has a small phone in their hand that we don’t know how to use, and everyone is in front of a screen all the time, and they are staring at those screens instead of seeing us, and each other. We go from being profoundly connected, our lives wrapped up in each other’s lives, to profoundly disconnected--to everything and everyone. In war, we were holding each other’s lives in our hands, and we come home to a civilian world that is holding screens in their hands. It is the most profoundly lonely feeling I have ever experienced.”
Our veterans know about agape love: which is not a feeling, but a sacred duty to keep one another alive, regardless of rank or status, culture or creed. Frederick Buechner says: “Wherever people love each other and are true to each other and take risks for each other, God is with them and for them and they are doing God’s will.”
Eric, I hope this answers your question. God is with us when we take risks for each other. God is there wherever people love each other and are true to each other. And there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
So, I’d like to make a new mother’s day proclamation, for 2017 by Robin Wilson Bartlett:
Arise, women and men of this day! All women and men who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will neither glorify war, nor denigrate the service of the men and women who serve our country on our behalf. We will welcome them home and enfold them in our care. We will remind them about God who makes even horror into beauty; even hell into heaven. We will honor what they have to teach us about Love, and what they have to tell us about human sacrifice and courage. We will make sure they are never alone.”
Let us teach our sons and daughters charity, mercy and patience. Let us teach them that peace is possible, and that their tender hearts are a sign of strength. Let us teach them love of country, and love for the world. Let us teach them that right and wrong are not always absolute. That there will be times that their deeply held values will be transgressed, and that we will be there to hold them in the love of God when this happens. Let us teach them about forgiveness and grace, redemption and resurrection, rather than moral and ideological purity.
From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “justice is nothing to take for granted. So lay down your very lives for it. Seek peace. Learn from those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Risk it all for Love.”
Let people of all genders come together in shared love of God. Let God be amazed by our faithfulness. Let us solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each worshipping God, not country. Let each person learn our sacred responsibility to keep one another alive, to hold each other’s lives in our hands. Let us fight against loneliness and fear as the greatest enemies to humankind.
Let the church who is the expression of Christ on earth love and heal the warrior, and all those who work for peace. Together, let us love the hell out of this world.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.