The Rev. Dr. David W. Peters
As an Army chaplain, who has celebrated Holy Communion on the hood of a Humvee, I say with the disciples in our Gospel Lesson, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”
In the final days of Jesus life, he says, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place.”
I can say that I was not alarmed when I heard a rumor of war during the summer of 1994. I spent the summer at Parris Island, SC, Marine Corps boot camp, becoming a Marine. During that summer we heard a rumor that North Korea was doing something, I can’t remember what, and our Drill Instructor told us to get ready for war. We had been training for war for several weeks already.
I was excited. I wanted to be part of it. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, I just wanted to see if I had what it takes.
We had just given up our freedoms. The first thing to go was our hair. Next it was our civilian clothing, and then it was how we spoke with each other. We had to use the third person, “Sir, this recruit requests permission to speak to the Drill Instructor, Sir.” The next thing we gave up was part of our morality.
From childhood, we were taught to be nice, to be kind, to share.
“Don’t hit your brother.”
“Say you’re sorry.”
Morality is formed by our parents very early, before we learn to speak words. All that was unlearned. We learned how to kill. We ritualized this leaning by stabbing and thrusting with our bayonets, all together, as one. We learned how to die. We learned that our lives mattered only in relation to the Marine Corps, the Nation, and the other lives around us, the guy to our right and to our left. We ritualized our violence so there would be no hesitation in the moment of truth.
When there’s a rumor of war, the Marines get ready. We did. But it was just a rumor. Many years later, I found myself in Iraq, serving as an Army chaplain in Baghdad. This was the real deal, no rumors, a real war.
There were real enemies, real threats, real fears, and real…well, in Baghdad, I don’t know what was real. Soldiers in a war only see what’s right in front of them. The tunnel vision of combat eliminates all politics, all comforts. The tunnel vision of combat often eliminates truth, it eliminates right and wrong.
What is wrong in a war? What is right in a war? I puzzle over this, even now, many years later. Certainly, the morality I learned as a child in a loving family were not always valid.
So Jesus says, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.”
The closest four disciples ask him for the secret knowledge, the inside scoop. Jesus has just told them this beautiful Temple will be thrown down, stone by stone. So he tells them not to be fooled by what they see.
There are many strange sights to see in a war. Many things that make no sense—that we ponder over and over as we become old women and men in just a few months of a deployment. There is a reason why the word ‘Veteran” is from the Latin word, “old.”
I wonder how I endured what we experienced, and I barely recognize the young person that shouldered that heavy burden to defend our nation. I ponder these things all the time, especially in the evil hours, after the sun goes down.
When I came home from Iraq, after spending a year of my life there, everyone I knew asked me what it was like. Im a talkative person and I love conversation, so I started talking. My mentor and friend, an army chaplain I met in Baghdad, Fr. Stuart Kenworthy, the Interim Vicar of this Cathedral. He cautioned me to take some time to reflect when I came home. I ignored his counsel. I started talking. I talked about how little I knew about Iraq and how hot it was there. I talked about my unit’s mission and what I did every day there. I didn’t talk about the codes of my soul I had broken. I didn’t talk about what I didn’t do. I didn’t talk about how I didn’t ever do enough. Nothing that came out of my mouth made sense to me.
How can you talk about dying and being in the underworld? How can you tell a child about the grave? Who would do such a thing? The words that came out of my mouth were so strange sounding that I stopped talking about it. I stopped because no one understood what I was trying to say, most of all me.
And then, everything in my life fell apart. My marriage crashed and burned. I lost control of my life. I was angry and afraid, hyper alert and numb to the world around. I went through the motions, dead. I was still in Iraq, still over there, hanging on to what I knew, and all I knew was that place, that place of death and darkness. I tried to go back. I wanted to go back.
I was proud of serving my country. I still am. I also know that whatever it was I experienced, changed me. It took me a long time to find my way back to the light. I felt that I had wasted the good things in my life, and now I was no longer good. I was numb, I didn’t care for other people. I went through a string of relationships, never happy, never content, running away as soon as anyone would start to see what, or who, I really was.
When I was stationed at Walter Reed, right over there, I used to run through the park. I would run obsessively, trying to accomplish something, trying to prove I was still worth something. I would run up this street back here and into the Bishop’s Garden. I rarely came inside. It was too holy. I would stay out with the trees and bushes. One day, I came upon the sculpture of the Prodigal Son. The Father is embracing the son. I knelt before it, thinking about what my life was at that moment.
I knelt there, oblivious to who was strolling the garden, and I wept for the first time in a long time. I felt the father’s embrace and, for a brief moment, I felt his love. It didn’t let me go.
Jesus says to us in this Gospel, “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.’
Everything bad that you can imagine might happen. Everything bad that you can’t even imagine might happen. The horrific events, great and small, in Paris, Beirut, in this Land and around the world scream this at us all the time.
And we scream back for revenge and justice. Sadly, there will be some who want revenge. A disproportionate response to wrong. There will be justice, an equal response, and much of it will be achieved by the women and men I love in our Armed Forces. They cannot pretend that the world is safe. They will also be wounded by what they do.
The war memorial Chapel is a testament to this. When I came here with Fr. Randy Haycock, with some wounded warriors from Walter Reed in 2010 I saw that sculpture of Jesus over the altar. The altar is surrounded by reminders of all the wars our nation has participated in.
I had participated in one of these wars, and one of these wars had participated in me.
I could feel that on the night we came here and sat in that chapel and talked about the young men and women who we saw die.
I looked up and saw the sculpture of Jesus of that chapel. He didn’t have any arms or legs, much like many of the men and women I was spending my days and nights with at Walter Reed.
Could what I had been through—could what we had been through—mean something. Could Jesus understand when no one else seemed to understand what I couldn’t say?
Jesus says to these confused disciples, “This is just the beginning of birthpangs.” He takes their worry, anxiety, and fear, and holds it. He re-interprets it to say that new life is coming into the world though this pain and anguish.
Now that is different indeed, and it is hard to take. I tremble as I say it to you today, in the wake of all this loss.
But Jesus said it.
But Jesus has the credibility to say such things. Just look at him hanging on that cross. Look at him without arms or legs.
The writer of Hebrews in our second lesson tells us the Sanctuary of God is opened for us through the curtain (that is, through Jesus’ flesh). So, when Jesus opened the curtain of his flesh, it was done with a Roman spear in his side.
That Roman spear pierced him. It was a ritual move that soldier had learned during his first week of combat training.
When Jesus comes back from the dead, the first thing he does is show the disciples his wounds. The five crosses that comprise the Jerusalem Cross, found all over this cathedral and on the front cover of your bulletin, remind us of these five wounds. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s how we know who he is.
Through his wounds he gives birth to a kingdom of love and peace. You and I pass through the curtain of his wounds and find that our wounds have meaning too in this kingdom.
I found this out right here in this Cathedral.
And you and I, Veterans and Citizens, who have borne these long years of war here in our Nation’s capital can have hope. You can have hope because we know that birth doesn’t happen in an instant. There are pangs, spasms, and great pain. We can’t always trust what we can see—but we can trust Jesus who died and rose for us. We have hope because we trust Jesus who is known to us in the breaking of the bread and by his five wounds. Amen.