Next Friday evening, if you care to see a minor spectacle, you can come out to see me ride on horseback through the city with the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, whom I serve as Assistant Chaplain. It is quite a thing to see the Troop riding in formation – with their braided and buttoned tunics and epaulets, their high black boots, and their helmets topped with a swoop of bear fur. I, however, will be wearing basic black.
It will be hard to tell on Friday that many of the men you see have recently served with the National Guard in deployments in Bosnia, Iraq, and Egypt, and their next deployment will probably be to Kuwait or Afghanistan in 2012. They will appear to be playing the part of soldiers from a bygone age, when in fact, many of them are real soldiers, at least one weekend a month.
I was reminded of this fact recently when at a gathering of some of the men, we heard recounted again the story of the most recent Purple Heart awarded to a Trooper during the deployment in Iraq. That story (a harrowing one to my ears) is told, among this set, with some laughter and barely concealed admiration. And, perhaps for obvious reasons, this morning’s gospel reading put me in mind of it, in a more serious way. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom,” Jesus warns, as he warns, too, about earthquake, famine, and plague, and personal betrayal, as time moves toward the fulfillment of God’s intentions and a new era of the reign of his kingdom.
Many Christians – probably many of us – do not really know what to make of these kinds of warnings, or what to think about what God’s intentions for the future time might be. But we hear a crazed insurrectionist note in what Jesus says this morning that puts us on edge. And we may worry that it has become all too easy to interpret the various lunatic wars we are part of or can read about as a part of God’s plan.
But to my ears the single most important part of Jesus’ warning is this: “But not a hair of your head will perish.” How can this possibly be? Amongst all the violence and catastrophe Jesus predicts, can all his disciples expect to be kept safe?
That is a question I do not know the answer to. But what I hear in what Jesus teaches is the assurance of two things: first, that the violence of the world we live in is to be expected before God’s will takes a more perfect hold on us all. And second, that God’s children will be protected when God’s time is fulfilled.
I think about the story of that Purple Heart, and the man I ride with, to whom it was awarded. And I think about the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers that have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan in the past eight years, and about the thousands who only came home to be buried. And I want to know why all the hairs of their heads were not kept safe. I want to know why they were not protected from harm, why their lives were cut so tragically short. To what end? I want to know.
But the answer to that question eludes me. And I am able to reach only one conclusion: that none of this warfare is part of God’s plan. Jesus’ accurate prediction of wars and catastrophe does not mean that the violence they wreak is part of his plan. For God’s plan is that not a hair of our heads should perish.
It brings me a feeling of shame to think that good men and women – thousands and thousands of them – have been asked to fight in wars that most Americans do not believe in and would not fight in, indeed that most of our leaders do not believe in and would not fight in. And when I ride beside men who have been called to take up arms, and who will be called to do so again, it is with a singular intention: so that I can pray, sometimes audibly, that God’s will may some day come to fruition, and not a hair of their heads will perish.
May God protect all his children in every place where wars and disasters threaten them.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
14 November 2010
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia