The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
November 11, 2018
On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the guns of the Great War stopped their raging. Armistice Day. Exactly one hundred years ago today, the massacre that was World War One came to its brutal end. I say brutal, because the Armistice was actually signed earlier that morning. But the Allied generals wouldn’t agree to let the order go into immediate effect – they wanted one last attack that morning, though they knew the war would be over by lunch time.
Tragically, between the signing of the Armistice and when it actually came into effect, there was a fury of artillery fire. So much so that there were over ten thousand casualties – men who were wounded and broken and killed – in the last few hours of the Great War. And for what?
Not only should we ponder the millions who suffered in the trenches, but the suffering that ensued. And oh, what suffering it was. The Spanish Flu Epidemic raced around the world, the contagion spread by weakened and hungry soldiers returning home. That’s right, the flu claimed somewhere between 3 and 5 percent of the world’s population. Russia collapsed, giving in to revolution and communism. It was because of World War One that we invented the word, “genocide,” to describe the atrocity in Armenia. We can draw a direct line from World War One to the present day turmoil in the Middle East – September, 11th, ISIS, the Syrian Civil War all have their roots in the peace treaties that we concocted following the war. The punitive measures inflicted on Germany after the war fanned the flames for Nazis and for the even greater conflagration, World War Two. Our war in Vietnam is related to World War One. The guns may have stopped one hundred years ago today, but we are still living with its consequences. They said that World War One was so brutal that never again would humanity subject itself to such suffering. They were wrong.
The psalmist puts it so simply. “Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it.” Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it. Vanity. The vanity of wanting a larger empire, more resources, dominating other peoples, spreading an ideology. It’s all been vanity. And that vanity has cost us. It still costs us today.
Not just the cost of blood and treasure, but I mean the psychological and emotional toll it has taken on us. I mean the World War Two veteran haunted by nightmares for his entire life. I mean the ones who have come home with artificial body parts who feel the pain of their combat every day. I mean the ones who couldn’t live with the anguish and who take their own lives at an astonishing rate. I mean the grown men who still have to sleep with the light on because in the dark, they’re back in the jungle of southeast Asia. I mean my priest mentor who saw the the fields of Srebrenica in Bosnia. I mean Abu Ghraib. I mean the scandal and shame that our veterans had to endure at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I mean the public humiliation we all go through in airport security. One hundred years ago, we sent our boys “over there” so that it would never happen again. But it’s happened again and again and again.
We have built in vain. We have built armies and navies and air forces of such destructive capacity that we could annihilate ourselves in an afternoon. And for what? For vanity.
And what does the Church have to say about it? We’ve been feeble, at best, and that’s putting it kindly. Some platitudes here. A patriotic hymn there. Following the Great War, just about every church called together people dedicated to peace making. In our church, it was called the Episcopal Pacifist Fellowship. But their goals were never met, their leaders ostracized, their vision faded. I know, because I wrote my honors thesis at seminary on the group. Even with their best intentions to build a peaceful world, they were building a peaceable kingdom in their own image. And so they failed. To put it simply, they didn’t like what I had to say. Funny how that is – that in my short ministry I have managed to upset both the war makers and the peace makers. Perhaps the psalmist is speaking to me, “Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it.”
Be that as it may. Since the guns went quiet one hundred years ago today, things have not changed. And why? Because we haven’t changed. We have not allowed Jesus to transform our own hearts. As St. Paul says it, “we are still conformed to the world.” Stanley Hauerwas, the theologian, puts it this way. He says that the question we keep asking ourselves is this – what am I willing to kill for? It’s an absurd question. Just by asking that question – what am I willing to kill for? – shows how sinful we are. How seduced by power we’ve become. It assumes that we know right from wrong. It assumes that we have the authority to take life. That is the height of vanity. As our Lord said, he could have called down legion of angels to protect him from crucifixion. He could have told his disciples to arm themselves and kill for him. Jesus could have stood his ground and drew blood. But he didn’t. And we, mortal that we are, presume to sit in judgment and take someone else’s life? Vanity!
There must be a different way. The Christian question, the question that the Church ought to be asking is this – what am I willing to die for? What am I wiling to die for? That is the question posed to us by the cross. How you answer this question will show you where your heart really is. It will show you what you really believe in. God did not show great love by killing anybody for you. No, God showed great love by dying for you. That’s the whole thing right there. God’s love was made known in a cross, not in a sword. So the same must be true for us, as hard as it is to say. We can put away our swords, our weapons – both real and verbal – and ask that question of the cross; what are you willing to die for?
“Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it.” I realize full well that this sermon may sound like many things to many people. That I’m either too bellicose or that I’m too naive. That might be what it sounds like.
But no, I’m just a Christian. A Christian who proclaims Jesus Christ and him crucified. A Christian who believes that if I really say that I follow Jesus, that means that I must follow Jesus. Even to the cross. And I know enough history to see that we’ve never really tried to love our neighbors as ourselves. Because, heaven forbid, the Lord Jesus might ask us to sacrifice ourselves instead of somebody else on the altar of pride. Because, heaven forbid, we’d have to give up our vanity.
So here is what I ask, on this Veterans Day, this Armistice Day, invite God to build your house. Your puffed up ego, your bluster, your show of strength, your vanity, it’s all just an illusion anyway. God can see right through it. Real strength is found in the cross, not the sword.
Then go home and remember, and pray, and confess the horrible toll that we have taken on each other, especially on our veterans. Indeed, I have the greatest respect for veterans. I remember with fondness the long line the soldiers and sailors in my family stretching back to the old Union army; my high school friends who went to Iraq and Afghanistan, some of whom never came home; and even those in our pews right now who went “over there.” I remember the ones who risked themselves and exposed themselves to such madness. And as I have heard from many veterans, life is still not easy. There is still stigma attached to their service – it’s the VA, it’s the PTSD, it’s the pain of it all. I ask you to remember the veterans whom we have chewed up and spit out by our warring madness. Remember the vanity of it all.
And remember the story of the young American Henry Gunther, the last casualty in the Great War. It happened at 10:59 AM on this day one hundred years ago; exactly one minute before both sides agreed to cease fire. Upset that he had been demoted, Henry was determined to be regain his previous rank before the war ended at 11 AM by charging a German machine gun. Trying not to shed blood in that last minute of fury, the Germans desperately tried to wave Henry off. But as he came charging through No Man’s Land, like so many others before him, Henry fell lifeless to the ground in one final act of futility. The last full measure of vanity.
Dear God, I pray, may we have the courage to swallow our own vanity. That our children and their children may have the faith to learn the lessons we never did. As I look back over the last one hundred years, I pray with the words that Jesus prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive us, for we know not what we have done.”