Early in my ministry, an old pastor told me "When the church becomes as effective at changing the lives of young men as the United States Marine Corp., we'll never have a shortage of pastors, or people. The only thing we'll ever run out of will be space in the pews.”
Now, I know, I am in the wrong place to be preaching a sermon that begins by saying something nice about the Marines. I'm sure that if that old pastor had lived in Crestview he would have said the Air Force, or the Army, or maybe even the Navy. I hope the point remains anyway. My own experience growing up was mostly of the Air Force. I grew up in Montgomery, AL - home of Maxwell Air Force Base and the Air War College so all my growing up my school and my church included a long list of friends who would move in to town for a little while, and then move on. After a while, I couldn't help noticing that the military families in our church were often way more involved than some families that had been around for years. They understood what it meant to serve; they liked having a purpose, and they knew they didn't have time to waste when it came to finding their place in a community. In one church I served, we had an ordained deacon we'll call Janet on staff and she had a son who was about my age and I'll never forget one night when we were meeting with a small group in someone's home and she began sharing about her son's plans for the future - or lack thereof. Janet said "I've told him he just needs to join the military so he can figure some things out." I thought then, and I still think now that this it says something important, it is some sort a moral achievement on the part of our armed forces, that a minister of the gospel should look at her son and say "the military is your best hope.”
Of course, it's not only the church that sees our armed forces as a school for virtue. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the military is that they inspire almost universal admiration in America. Every year the Gallup organization conducts a study of "American Confidence in Institutions." And in 2015 it was no surprise that out of 15 major institutions in America, the most trusted institution "the military." It's not even close. 72% of Americans say they have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in our military. "The church and organized religion" comes in 4th, at 42%. What's most remarkable is not that the military has come in first; what is really remarkable is that trust in the military has gone up by 11 points in the last thirty years. That just hasn't happened for anyone else in our country. We are a country that prizes individuals, not institutions. We naturally distrust authority. According to Gallup, the medical system, and organized labor, and television news, and public schools and organized religions are all much less trusted than they were 30 years ago. Only one other institution is more trusted than it used to be, and no one has gained more trust in America in the last 30 years than the the military. And of course, this phenomenon is not limited to American's military. Every time we approach Veteran's Day, I'm reminded that this church includes veterans of other countries, and that Veteran's Day itself is our version of the older British observance called Remembrance Day. I remember once being on the London subway, not knowing back then what Remembrance Day was, and being utterly bewildered by how everyone around me had gotten the memo to wear bright red flowers. Around the world, their is something about military service that forms an icon and an example for others.
It’s a phenomenon that transcends borders, and transcends time. Today’s scripture comes from a man 2000 years ago, the apostle Paul, who wrote it while imprisoned, usually it is assumed that he wrote it while he was in Rome, under guard of the Emperor's own Praetorian Guard. The book of Acts tells us that Paul used that time to witness to the soldiers every day, but here, as he closes out the book of Ephesians, we see that Paul didn't just witness to the soldiers, he was watchful, and the accepted their presence as an icon and a witness for him as well. In his last words to the church of Ephesus, Paul's final lesson comes from what he has seen in the soldiers he sees every day.
14 So stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate, 15 and put shoes on your feet so that you are ready to spread the good news of peace. 16 Above all, carry the shield of faith so that you can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word (Eph. 6:14-17)
Now, we could break down what each of those particular pieces means - we could talk about what faith is, and truth is, and righteousness, and the Word of God. But we would be here all day. And besides I don't think that Paul needed to see the soldiers in their armor to know what faith was, or truth. What Paul saw in the soldiers was that faith, and truth, and all the rest have a purpose.
Sometimes when we talk about the gifts of God, we talk about them as if they are collector’s items, beautiful treasures that we put behind glass so that no one steals them. But when Paul talks about God’s gifts, he talks as if he has a mission, and the only chance is has of success is to put God’s gifts to work. Paul doesn’t want faith and truth so that he can feel better - Paul wants faith and truth because he needs them if he is going to fulfill the mission in front of him. Paul looks at the soldiers, and all he sees is a mission: “My struggle is not against flesh and blood, he says, it’s against the powers and spiritual forces of this world” (Eph. 6:12). Those soldiers thought they had Paul under guard, but all Paul thought was “Great! Now they’ve got to listen to me preach.” When Paul saw the soldiers in their armor, he saw people who were totally outfitted for a purpose. And it reminded him of his own purpose.
Amazing things happen when we are totally devoted to a single purpose. Some of those good things; some of the best things - might be total side effects of that purpose. Like many of you, I’ve been reading this week about Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt Shay Haver, the first women ever to complete Ranger school. Their accomplishment is obviously a major victory for ending sexism and discrimination, but one of my favorite quotes from this last week reminds me that that was not their mission. One of their Ranger classmates was quoted aftewards as saying “When you’re given 2000 round of machine gun ammo, the last thing you’re caring about is whether your ranger buddy is a man or a women, because you’re not carrying all 2000 rounds by yourself.” That’s more or less exactly what a member of this church told me when we were talking over donuts and coffee earlier this month. He is a retired Ranger instructor, and he said, “At some point, everybody’s going to be too tired to care. All they’ll care about is doing what they gotta do.” Amazing things happen when all we care about is the mission we are here to do.
Its not only our military members, but our military families who orient their entire lives around a particular mission. The mission determines the town they live in, the hours they keep, the time they get together, and the time they spend apart. It determines the things that they fear. And it determines the sacrifices they make. When we talk about our military families, we talk a lot about sacrifice, but when I talk to those families, one of the things that strikes me is that none of them have “sacrifice” listed as their life goals. Sacrifice is just the name we give to the things they let go of for the sake of the mission.
Several months back, the chaplain at Duke Field invited me our local area pastors to tour the compound for the 7th Special Forces Group. While we were there, we got to meet the Deputy Commander for 7th Group and he gave us a simple briefing of where they serve their missions - mostly in Afghanistan and South America. I asked where we could go to learn more - I don’t know a whole lot about South American politics and governance. He gave me an answer that has stuck with me ever since:
There’s no one source that gets it right. So, first off, I’ll tell you what I tell my kids. Don’t watch ‘the idiot news,’ which is any news that’s on cable. Second, wherever you get your news, pay attention to who advertises in that magazine, or on that station. When you figure out who is paying for the news you get, you will get some insight in what sort of slant that news has. We do our jobs to serve American interests, and the news organizations always have to keep in mind they serve. That includes the readers, but it also includes the advertisers.
The colonel didn’t seem too upset about that; he just accepted it as a fact. We all have a seemingly limitless capacity for interpreting the actions of others according to our own self-interest. We say things, do things, think things because they make us feel good about ourselves.
Just before I was appointed here to Crestview I had a chance to talk with a friend who is a Nazarene pastor and retired Army infantryman. He served a church just outside Ft. Campbell. And I asked him what he had learned about ministering in such an active military area. And he told me this story.
There was this one guy who had been deployed in Iraq, when he came home we were so glad and so eager. We clapped for him in worship and so many people thanked him for his service. But a couple weeks later, about a third of the way through the service, I saw him slip quietly out the back of the sanctuary. As soon as the service was done, I went to find the darkest, most out-of-the-way corner of the church building, and that’s where I found him. I knew just what was going on, because I’d had panic attacks just like that when I came home. The first thing I said to him was “I’m sorry. I’m sorry because the first thing we did when you came home should have been to give you a safe space to confess what you’d seen, and what you’d done, and talk about where God was in the midst of that, and where God is for you right now. Instead, we felt good about the party we threw and that was that.”
If we are not careful, even this moment -in which we as the church want to bless others - could become a moment that serves our own interests. After all, the church might have a lot to gain by aligning itself with the most trusted institution in America.
In just a moment, we will pray, and we will pray a blessing on those who serve. We will do this because we believe in the power of corporate prayer and communal blessing. But the most important blessings we can give are the ones that no one will see except for those that receive them. The most important blessing is the note you’re going to write this week, or the meal you will deliver to the family with a service member who is deployed. The most important blessing is the time you take to say on your own: “thank you for being an example of the discipline and devotion it takes to put a mission above all else.”
And the greatest blessing we can offer is to be equally committed to our own mission. When Paul saw the soldiers each day, he didn’t just see their purpose, or their preparation, or their power. He saw them as people - beloved of God and in need of blessing.
May we be single-minded in blessing others, for they are a blessing to us.