Second Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 4(9)C
Whether the Scouts or with Soldiers, it’s the training that creates the camaraderie, and the trust, in what is sometimes simply called, “the service.” I can’t speak personally for the military service, but I experienced it in scouting, especially at our camping Jamboree’s. Pitching tents together, cooking meals, being tested on the mission statement and core values, reading maps with your compass, and acquiring other survival training skills, is all very empowering. Working together in ‘service’ of one another – rewarding! When we took care of each other, we felt there’s nothing we couldn’t do.
And in between all the work and trust-building, out there in the wilderness, we had some fun too. Like when we stealthily launched the camp-fire breakfast’s left-over gooey-oatmeal, off spoons, at a neighboring tent! That’s about as dangerous as it got in my scouting experience.
Jesus, of course, never had the pleasure of joining Scouting, or the military. But training; and camaraderie; and trust; were strong elements of his mission, and purpose, and work, too. And so he understood immediately the discipline and level of trust the Roman Centurion had in him, when he sent his friends to request Jesus’ healing services, even from a distance, for his servant, near-death. Luke’s gospel doesn’t shy away from including those who are “in the service.”
But preaching about soldiers, I know, is often criticized for not reflecting soldiers’ real experiences in war – just as most in civilian society seems to get it wrong. Iraqi war veteran, Logan Laituri says, “Our culture too often thinks in binaries: good and evil, us and them, hero and villain. But war isn’t like this,” he says. “War builds soldiers up, and breaks them in half, and sometimes they can’t tell which one is happening to them.”
Laituri quotes a West Point ethicist, who lectured at Duke Divinity School in November of 2011, that, “there is both beauty and tragedy in war,” he says. “It is that charity and monstrosity, that exist side by side,” says Laituri. One day a soldier might see a friend abuse a detainee; the next the same friend jumps on a grenade (to save his squad). Is he a sadistic monster or a chivalrous hero?”
It is often said that American troops are among the best trained soldiers in the world. Like the Centurion in our gospel, they too, follow orders from above, and without question carry them out. And to help avoid a conflict of interest, our military’s Commander-in-Chief must be a civilian, and, to further guard against misuse of power, war must be declared by Congress, and not by the Commander-In-Chief, the President - by Constitution anyway. All of this requires, from us, more discussion, of course. But the point I’m trying to make is, that even though our leaders took us to war in Iraq on false pretenses – for better or worse, the Soldiers mostly followed orders and performed as they were trained. When you talk to veterans about the sacrifices they made, they are usually as humble as the Galilean Centurion who sent friends to tell Jesus, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. You see, the Roman Army, was very well trained, too. And the Centurion understood that “he was a man set under authority, with soldiers under him;” as our gospel says, “and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes.” The ‘chain of command’ is the backbone of any well-trained military.
Another Iraqi veteran, Derek Burchill, tells his story of returning home after being called up from the Minnesota National Guard. Burchill explains that [since being home] navigating traffic in Minnesota is unsettling …stopping -- even slowing down -- could be deadly [In Iraq]. "They would send little kids out in the middle of the road, so that the convoys would stop,” Burchill explained. “And that’s how Soldiers not on the move became sitting ducks, wide open to insurgent attacks. So, [after that],orders came down the chain of command that 'you don't stop for anything, even including little kids,' which is really sad,” says Burchill. “But it was our lives or theirs.”
I don’t think this is the kind of training and fierce loyalty to the chain of command that Jesus is amazed at, with the Centurion at Capernaum. And it is worth noting here, I think, in light of Mr. Burchill’s experience, that the month of June is now designated as PTSD Awareness month, which is a big step for the U.S. Dept. of Veteran Affairs. Because in one fashion or another, people have been pushing for this kind of service for at least a hundred years now, since the so-called, “War to End All Wars.”
Other soldiers like to emphasis the up-side, like the many kids they befriended, and sharing American candy with them. Or how they helped build roads and other infrastructure in Iraq during the efforts of the counter-insurgency. The picture is murky, not black and white. And so, who bears responsibility for all this? How do we count the costs? Who is responsible, when everyone is just following orders up and down the chain of command? What is our role in a democracy? What is our responsibility as a people of faith?
What Jesus is amazed at in the Centurion, is the trusting faith of a humble man of service, who happens to be a Roman soldier. It’s interesting that at the time Jesus entered Capernaum, there weren’t any occupying troops in that region of Galilee, and so this Centurion was probably a retired vet – a pensioner. When he was on active duty, as a commander of around a hundred soldiers, we don’t know what kind of a military man he was, but as a retired vet, he obviously had a very generous, trusting and believing side to him. In the words of the Jewish elders in town, it was he who built a synagogue there in Capernaum, for he loves our people – which sounds something like the rebuilding efforts, the U.S. soldiers point to, as an accomplishment and point of pride.
What Jesus is willing to build, are coalitions of people in service to one another. And to build them with anyone who will recognize the realm of God that is coming near in his presence, regardless of socio-religious boundaries. Healing is an important sign of God’s realm among us. And the healing power of God reaches out to all – without distinction.
In the gospel of Luke there is a threefold encounter of Jesus with the military service. In the very beginning of Luke, as Jesus has just come on the public scene, a soldier came to him on behalf of the whole military service, asking, ‘And we, what should we do’ about the nearness of the realm of God? Jesus said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ (Lk 3:14) Our retired Centurion in Capernaum, in the middle of the gospel, seems to have taken this advice to heart!
Military honor codes, the chain of command, training, camaraderie, and trust, remain important. But when these fail, as Jesus knows, due to extortion, threats of intimidation, and lies to cover up misdeeds, can we face up to the truth of what we have done? In the unusual case of sacrifice by a young American soldier in Iraq, who blew the whistle on corruption in high levels in the ‘chain of command’ -Private Bradley Manning- we know we can’t be nostalgic, or romanticize war. If the training of our soldiers was taken advantage of in this corruption, how do we hold each other accountable to such failures?
It is rather significant, isn’t it, that a Roman Centurion at Capernaum, an outsider, is welcomed as a believer, and becomes an example that Jesus employees in his training of all those who would be followers and disciples. “I tell you, not even in [my community] have I found such faith,” he says. Jesus trains us for the realm of God by always welcoming the stranger as an honored guest, just as “Abraham and Sarah entertained angels unaware,” because they were well trained by their faith community. And so we too practice this service of radical hospitality, which includes all those who come to us in dialog and discussion, in peace and when seeking healing.
Our training, is a training for service to one another, which we learn by a daily engagement with Jesus, the one who is always our host at the table. We are the guests, whether we are walking through these doors and sharing the meal for the first time, or the 5,000th time. And at that Last Supper, Jesus trained all his followers to wash one another’s feet, as a sign of how we are to be ‘in service’ to one another. Just as Jesus loved and served us; just as the Centurion had a confident trust in serving, and being served, we are invited in to the realm of God to create camaraderie, love and trust for one another.
At the end of Luke’s gospel, there is another Centurion, the one whose orders are to execute criminals on crosses. But at the cross of Jesus, his testimony is in service of the whole world, totally obliterating our binary, black & white ways of thinking. When Jesus breathed his last, the Centurion proclaims, “Certainly this man was innocent.”
How we live in service to one another, is of vital importance. Jesus’s service to us is to offer pardon and healing to all, as a way to build trust, and camaraderie. Jesus’ service to us, offers a love that is stronger than death.