For the Healing of the Nations
The Rev. Dr. Andrew R. Guffey
6 Easter 2019
In the name of the God of Peace: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + AMEN.
Do you want to be made well? Jesus asked the man who was unable to make it into the pool by the Sheep Gate when the waters were stirred, “Do you want to be made well?” Do you want to be healed? The man is desperate, but unable to do it on his own. No one seems to take notice of him, to remember that he is there. It was a sabbath day.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day. Our society treats it as a sabbath day, in fact, treats this whole weekend as a weekend of leisure. It’s a great time to pick up a new grill or refrigerator at Home Depot. And the swimming pools are opening again. But Memorial Day is not meant to be festive. Yes, it is an opportunity to enjoy the liberties we enjoy in this country. But it also offers a subtle rebuke. It ought to stick in our conscience like Jesus’s question: “Do you want to be made well?” Memorial Day is a day to remember those who have ventured much in the day of decision, as one of the collects in our prayer book says, to remember those whose lives have been poured out in military service, the tremendous sacrifices they have made, and it is a reminder that we are still not well.
Memorial Day is a solemn occasion, because it reminds us of one of the great truths of war: there are no winners. That is what makes it, in President Truman’s words, “the world’s most terrible scourge.” The third verse of Hymn 594–God of Grace and God of Glory—opens with the words, “Cure thy children’s warring madness, bend our pride to thy control,” and we end the verse by singing, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal.” War is madness. There are no winners. The continuance of war is an unholy sacrament of our damage as human societies. When we are consumed with warring, we miss the goal of God’s kingdom, so beautifully laid out for us in the reading from Revelation for today.
One way to understand teaching about the end of time in the Bible is to see it as the most cherished ideals and hopes of God’s people. In Revelation, these take shape with the New Jerusalem, which is revealed as a city of plenty, under the banner of the Prince of Peace. In the midst of the city is the river of the water of life, and on both sides of the river is the tree of life, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. The healing of the nations, the healing of the peoples, of all peoples, the cure of our warring madness. “Nothing accursed will be found there any more.” No war, no killing, no ghosts of battle can cross those gates, and those who enter them are free indeed!
That is the kingdom’s goal: peace, blessing, the healing of the nations. “People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.” Not just this nation, but whatever is worthy and honorable in all the nations, from among all the peoples of the world, no matter what flag they wave. The kingdom’s goal is the nations and peoples living before God, weaponless, because they have no need of weapons. Safe and unafraid. Revelation repeats the expectation of many of the prophets, such as the vision we find in Micah 4:
“In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills and peoples will stream to it. Many nations will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ …They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one will make them afraid. For the Lord Almighty has spoken.”
They will not train for war any more. That is, after all, the vocation of the soldier: to train for war. In Revelation no mortal ever takes up arms. I think we ought to understand that. Sure, angelic hosts wage war against demonic hordes, and there is plenty of blood in the book. But no one among the saints ever picks up a weapon. When the prophets envision the days when God finally reigns, they envision turning instruments of killing into tools for living. So, what does it say that we require soldiers? It is the soldiers we remember on Memorial Day. How will we remember them? How will we honor them?
Every Memorial Day I remember Jeremy. He was the first person I knew who died as a soldier. He was from a town five minutes from my hometown. We played on the same football team: he was really good outside linebacker. He died in a training accident, pushing a fellow-soldier out of harm’s way, to safety. I remember him. And, in some ways, I think Jeremy was more fortunate than many. He never had to kill anyone. When we ask some women and men to serve as soldiers, we ask them to be willing to die for us. We also ask them to be willing to kill for us. I am grateful—if that word does not sound too cheap—I am grateful for Jeremy’s service, which meant he died much too young, and for all those who have died in the hopes that because they stood their post the world might be more peaceful and just.
I do not quite know how to honor those who have had to sacrifice their refusal to kill, have had to sacrifice their innate sense of God’s peaceable kingdom, and take the lives of others. “Thank you for your service” doesn’t seem quite right. I feel like saying, “I’m sorry.” As we all know, many who return from war never come back. We have asked them to see things and do things from which they cannot find escape. When they train for war, they train to kill. That is, after all, what war principally consists of: killing and dying. It is hard to say which is the more difficult to bear.
There is plenty of literature on the psychological effects on our soldiers when they must kill. An Army Ranger and psychologist, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, wrote a book in the 1990s called, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, which was released in a new edition a few years ago. It is worth your time. In that book Lt. Col. Grossman explains the costs—the psychological and emotional costs—of training for war, training to kill. This Memorial Day, I think we ought to remember all the sacrifices our soldiers make, the many deaths they endure, even when it is not their own. We ought to remember what it is we ask of our soldiers. And we ought to pray like hell for peace, and work toward the cure of our warring madness.
“Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asks. Alleluia! Christ is risen. (The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleleluia!) And if Christ is risen, then we ought to be striving toward his kingdom, we need to be working to abolish war. If Christ is risen, then we know Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient; we do not need to keep sacrificing our soldiers. If Christ is risen, then all things are being made new. If Christ is risen, then let us be peacemakers. And in this work of ours, may we finally be worthy to honor the sacrifices of our soldiers. We can honor the sacrifices of blood and soul by ensuring they do not need to be made again.
For the soldiers among us: we honor you and all the sacrifices you have made. We will remember.
And in remembering, may we be caught up in the work of God’s peaceable kingdom. For the healing of the nations.