Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Cheryl McFadden For our Veterans’ Day Service on Sunday, November 15, 2020.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Excerpts from Captain Ryan Kelly, thirty-six years old, Denver, Colorado in an email to his mother from Camp Buehring, Kuwait, December 2003.
These selections from letters, e-mails, journals, and personal essays, by soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines who served or are serving in the current war in Iraq, are part of a project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts called Operation Homecoming, which invited American troops and their families to write about their wartime experiences. The centerpiece of Operation Homecoming was a series of fifty writing workshops, conducted by distinguished American writers, and held at twenty-five military installations here and overseas. Most of the six thousand troops who participated in the workshops had just rotated out of front-line combat. They were told to write freely, without fear of official constraints or oversight. Since Operation Homecoming began, on April 20, 2004, more than ten thousand pages of writing—nonfiction, fiction, and poetry—have been sent to the N.E.A. An anthology of the work, edited by the historian Andrew Carroll, will be published this fall; a TV documentary based on the material will air in 2007; and the entire collection will eventually be housed in an open government archive. (Audio recordings of the soldiers reading, along with their photographs from Iraq, are at NewYorker.com.)
Captain Ryan Kelly, thirty-six, Denver, Colorado. E-mail to his mother, from Camp Buehring, Kuwait. December, 2003.
The worst thing here is not the searing heat or the cold nights. It’s the waiting. Waiting for the wind to quit blowing and the sand to quit grinding against your skin. Waiting for a moment of privacy in a tent packed with seventy other men, in a camp packed with seven hundred other tents, in a base packed with fifteen thousand soldiers, all looking for a clean place to go to the bathroom. . . . Waiting for the bone-rattling coughs from dust finer than powdered sugar to stop attacking the lungs. Waiting for the generals to order the battalion to move north, toward Tikrit, where others—Iraqis—are also waiting: waiting for us. . . .
A quick look around my tent will show you who is fighting this war. There’s Ed, a fifty-eight-year-old grandfather from Delaware. He never complains about his age, but his body does, in aches and creaks and in the slowness of his movements on late nights and cold mornings.
There’s Lindon, a thirty-one-year-old, black-as-coal ex-Navy man from Trinidad who speaks every word with a smile. His grandfather owned an animal farm and lived next to his grandmother, who owned an adjacent cocoa field. They met as children.
There’s Sergeant Lilian, a single mother who left her five-year-old daughter at home with a frail and aging mother because nobody else was there to help.
There’s Melissa and Mike, two sergeants who got married inside the Fort Dix chapel a month before we deployed—so in love, yet forbidden, because of fraternization policies, even to hold hands in front of other soldiers. But if you watch them closely, you can catch them stealing secret glances at each other. Sometimes I’ll see them sitting together on a box of bottled water tenderly sharing a lunch. They are so focussed on each other that the world seems to dissolve around them. If they were on a picnic in Sheep Meadow in Central Park, instead of here, surrounded by sand and war machines, it would be the same. War’s a hell of a way to spend your honeymoon.
There’s Sergeant First Class Ernesto, thirty-eight, a professional soldier whose father owns a coffee plantation in Puerto Rico and whose four-year-old daughter cries when he calls.
There’s Noah, a twenty-three-year-old motocross stuntman, who wears his hair on the ragged edge of Army regulations. He’s been asking me for months to let him ship his motorcycle to the desert. I keep telling him no.
There’s Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jerry, the “linedog” of aviation maintenance, whose father was wounded in WWII a month after he arrived in combat. On D Day, a grenade popped up from behind a hedge grove near a Normandy beach and spewed burning white phosphorus all over his body, consigning the man to a cane and special shoes for the rest of his life. C.W.O.4 Jerry lives out on the flight line, going from aircraft to aircraft with his odd bag of tools, like a doctor making house calls. He works so hard that I often have to order him to take a day off.
There’s Martina, twenty-two, a jet-black-haired girl, who fled Macedonia with her family to escape the genocide of the civil war in Bosnia. Her family ran away to prevent the draft from snatching up her older brother and consuming him in a war they considered absurd and illegal. A few years later, the family, with no place else to run, watched helplessly as the U.S. flew their daughter into Iraq. She’s not even a U.S. citizen, just a foreigner fighting for a foreign country on foreign soil for a foreign cause. She has become one of my best soldiers.
There is William (Wild Bill), a twenty-three-year-old kid from Jersey with a strong chin and a James Dean-like grin. The day before we went on leave, he roared up in front of the barracks and beamed at me from behind the wheel of a gleaming white monster truck that he bought for fifteen hundred dollars. Three days later, he drove it into the heart of Amish country, where the transmission clanked and clattered to a stop. He drank beer all night at some stranger’s house, and in the morning sold him the truck. Kicker is, he made it back to post in time for my formation.
There’s Top, my First Sergeant, my no-nonsense right-hand man. He’s my counsel, my confidant, my friend. He’s the top enlisted man in the company, with twenty-eight years in the Army, and would snap his back, and anybody else’s, for that matter, for any one of our men. Last year, his pit bull attacked his wife’s smaller dog—a terrier of some sort, I think. As she tried to pry them apart, the pit bit off the tip of her ring finger. Top punched the pit bull in the skull and eventually separated the two. A hospital visit and half a pack of cigarettes later, he learned the blow broke his hand. He bought her a new wedding ring in Kuwait.
And on and on and on . . .
I hope you are doing well, Mom. I’m doing my best. For them. For me. For you. I hope it’s good enough.
Can you feel the hope that is conveyed by Captain Kelly? I could share other emails, letters, and personal essays by soldiers, air men and women, sailors and marines who served in the Armed Forces in various wars and those who are currently serving, and you would see a singularity of purpose and mission among them. Although these individuals represent different walks of life and demographics, they all faithfully served or serve our country. They reflect people of various ages, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, socioeconomic status and a myriad of other differences but share a common purpose, mission and hope. Military personnel are committed to defend the U. S., its interests, and to maintain peace in our nation and the world. Our beloved sisters and brothers who have served and are serving in the Armed Forces hope for a country and world filled with peace. At this time, I ask for the veterans who have served in the Armed Forces and those who are currently serving our nation to stand and be recognized by your friends at Christ Church Greenwich. This request includes those of you who are watching via livestream. To the veterans of all branches and for those who continue to serve, thank you for your sacrifice, your bravery, and the example you set for us all. Thank you for your service and commitment. We love you, dearly. It is your commitment to peace that is the focus of my sermon today.
For those of who like data, the word “peace” appears 420 times in the King James version in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Book of Common Prayer, there is a Collect for Peace in the Daily Offices which includes Morning Prayer, Noonday, Evening Prayer, and Compline. In all of the services, Holy Eucharist, Baptism, Celebration of Life, and liturgies for special days, the celebrant bids the congregation after the Confession and Absolution, “The Peace of the Lord be always with you” and you respond, “And also with you.” Peace is sought after and called upon in both Scripture and in our Tradition. Jesus used the Jewish greeting, “Peace be with you” three times when he with his disciples after his death and resurrection (John 20:19-29). Interestingly, Jesus used this greeting of peace only after his resurrection and not before. I cannot think of a better time for the American people to use this greeting with one another, and to want peace in our lives and our nation than now. We are in the midst of not one pandemic or two pandemics, but three pandemics. I am referring to COVID-19, the racial injustice and social unrest in our country, and the extremely stressful election process for everyone. One young adult described the months leading up to the election and the days of waiting, as “really heavy.” Another millennial attributed her overwhelming anxiety and depression to the election process. So, yes, I am referring to the election process as a pandemic, attributing the negative effects as a disease that infected the people of our country.
Let me say it again, now more than ever, we need to greet one another in peace. We need peace in our hearts and in our lives, and we should want it for others. After Jesus used this greeting with his disciples, he showed them his hands and his side. In other words, he showed him his wounds. Scripture says, “Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. The disciples realized that Jesus had not abandoned them. He had not forgotten or forsaken them. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.’” Jesus seems to be saying, that yes, I have been wounded but I greet you in peace and send you into the world as my father has sent me. But I don’t send you empty handed. Jesus says to the disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23). In these few verses, Jesus does three things: He wishes peace upon the disciples, sends them out into the world with the power of the Holy Spirit, and gives them the responsibility to forgive or not to forgive. In this passage, we are reminded of our free will. My dear friends, like our veterans and those currently serving in the Armed Forces, our mission should be to cultivate and maintain peace in our nation and in the world. How can we live in peace and live peacefully with one another? We must be willing to forgive one another, time and time again? Peace and forgiveness go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. Our reading from St. Paul to the Thessalonians tells us to “encourage one another and build up each other” (1 Thessalonians 5: 11) and we do so by being at peace with one another, loving one other amid our religious, ideological, political, sociological, and cultural differences.
Jesus makes it very clear to us that we are going to have conflict in our lives and in the world. You may remember the passage in Matthew (10:34-39), before his crucifixion and resurrection, where Jesus tells us quite plainly that he did not come to bring peace to the earth but a sword. He further states that we will have conflict with our loved ones, (“For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother…) and with others. The lack of peaceful co-existence is the result of our relationships with one another being out of balance. The conflict is to right the world, to right the relationships so that we are in love with Jesus and with one another. When we get this balance right in our lives, in the world, we can live in peace.
Jesus promises to give us his peace which is very different from the world’s concept of peace. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (14:27). Jesus’ concept of peace is totally different than the world’s concept peace because it involves loving one another beyond measure and forgiving one another again and again. Often the world’s concept of peace means, “I will give this to you, if you give something to me” and further, “if you do this to me, I will do that to you.” The latter is very much like “tit for tat,” or equivalent retaliation, and that is not what Jesus means by living in peace. Jesus’ concept of peace is surreal because it involves unconditional love and forgiveness from him to us and requires us to do the same for our sisters and brothers even when we disagree with one another. As one parishioner and vestry member reminded me, we are called to love one another even when we don’t like their behavior or beliefs.
My dear friends, do we long for peace in our nation and in the world. Do we long for peace within our community, within our families, among our friends? Do we have hope for a peaceful country and world? If we do, we have to accept and embrace one another with our differences, with our uniqueness. We are diverse and beautiful people from all walks of life, like the ones Captain Kelly described in his email to his mother. There is no rhyme or reason that brings us together except the love of God, the love for one another, and the hope for peace. I pray that our nation, the people of this land, may begin to heal. May God fill your hearts with peace and love for one another and the strength of character to always offer forgiveness. Amen.