Saturday, November 11, 2017

On Veterans, Homily 31st Sunday A, Nov. 5, 2017

            I was just 3 yrs. old, but I remember vividly the two soldiers approaching front door of my grandparents’ home to tell them that my uncle Freddy had been killed in action.  I can still hear the wailing of my grandmother and my aunts when the message was delivered. 
            I never knew Freddy. I did have the opportunity to read the letter a chaplain wrote to our family some months after the death.  People say Freddy was a really good, young guy, a terrific artist.  I have taken up art myself and feel a real communion with him when I paint.
            Today Freddy is a veteran in the afterlife.  He will always be a veteran.  And I can’t help but wonder if a veteran in transition to the afterlife suffers anything like our veterans do here on the long and often difficult journey of adjustment to life after military service.  Do veterans like my Uncle Freddy, on the way to the afterlife, carry their physical, emotional and spiritual wounds with them?  Did Freddy, after having fallen in battle, have to deal with his veteran issues like many veterans here today?  Is that, perhaps, what a soldier’s purgatory would be all about?
            Why did Freddy, a young American boy, go to the service?  As I listened to the readings of the Word today, God gave me some insight.
            The first reading from prophet Malachi (1:14b-2:2b, 8-10) is all about the responsibility of Israel’s priests to help the Jewish people keep clear on the their mission in the world. These priests were to be teachers about God as the Father of all humanity.  They were to be teachers as well about the duty of human beings to keep faith with one another.  Lamentably, according to the prophet, the priests weren’t doing their job,
            When America goes to war, it goes as a teacher, like the Jewish priest.  When something in human family has broken down, something needs to be retaught.   And sometimes the teacher needs to act with tough love—war, if it has to be, is an act of tough love.
            Did my Uncle Freddy see himself as a U.S. soldier-teacher?  As veteran on his way to the afterlife, did he go through purgatory about this?  What was it like for him?  Was it a painful moment of reviewing his war experience?  I can imagine him asking himself:  how well did I do as an agent of America the teacher?  Even as I bore arms, did I stay true to my teaching mission there?  Was it always my intention to help refresh the Creator’s design, even in the violence?  Did I engage in military service to help the world learn more about being truly human, as God created it to be?  --Purgatory can be painful place to be thinking in for veterans.
            In our second reading from his first letter to the Thessalonians (2:7b-9, 13) Paul talks about himself as being like a mother to his community, about the
gentleness and affection of a mother who shares her heart and life with her children.
            When America goes to war, she goes to give birth to and nurture a better world, like a mother.  She makes sacrifices, sometimes the ultimate sacrifice, to assure a good future for the human family.   If war is necessary, if military engagement is the only way to clear a part of the world of forces destructive to the future of humanity, then America goes with the intention of participating in the rebuilding of a truly human society, like a mother who restores her family after a tragedy.
            Surely Uncle Freddy, with his artistic sensibilities, could see himself as a soldier-nurturer, preparing the ground for a rebirth, giving the good life new possibilities for everyone on earth.  As a veteran on the way to afterlife, was his purgatory an opportunity to face himself about his true intentions for military service?  I can hear him asking himself:  Even if I had to bear arms, did I, deep inside, keep my heart open even for the enemy, boys, who I could see, were very much like me, fighting like me for their future, the future of their families and their country?  Did I always do what was at times agonizingly necessary with the intention of creating hope for a future for the whole human family?  Despite the violence of war, was it my ultimate desire to nurture the future of human life?  --Purgatory can be an uncomfortable space for veterans with such questions.
            At end of today’s Gospel (Mt. 23:1-12), Jesus speaks about service, about a humility that practices what it preaches, about being compassionate with weak and broken people.  It’s not how the Pharisees were.
            When America goes to war, it goes as servant of the best human ideals, the ideals of freedom and respect for human dignity, the ideals about a fair and just human society, ideals about ways to organize life and live together in peace.
            Did Uncle Freddy go to war as a servant of what was best about humanity, even if war seemed to be at odds with all of it?  As a veteran on his way to afterlife, was purgatory for Freddy a challenging moment to evaluate his conduct on the field in terms of his intentions to promote what is best about human life?  Did he have to ask himself:  In the fright and chaos of the battle, did I keep my mind clear about my purpose?  Despite the contradictions in what I sometimes had to do, was I acting out of compassion for the weak and broken people of my own society and the society of my enemies?  If the bullets had to fly, were my best intentions still to be a servant of all that is true, good and beautiful about the human race?  --Purgatory can be unsettling for the conscience of a veteran.
            If Freddy had a purgatory after falling in battle, it surely must have been something like what I now imagine.  Purgatory purifies people in passage toward eternal life.  Purgatory would purify Uncle Freddy, too.  Purgatory would prepare him, a veteran on the way to eternal life, for enjoyment of the reward of an American soldier who remained true to being teacher, nurturer and servant in the often-disturbing circumstances of war.  Only Uncle Freddy and the merciful God know the course of his purgatory.
            Perhaps for a good number of the veterans here today, the struggles of adjustment to life after military service can be looked at as the beginning of a purgatory rather than the condemnation to hell that it often seems.  Purgatory is not punishment.  Purgatory is preparation for reward.  May God’s Word today give us new insight and hope in our struggles to recover, especially from the wound of moral injury.  Like my Uncle Freddy, what you have been as soldiers, in some very mysterious way, was part of how God has taught and nurtured and served the best interests of our human life, often with tough love, sometimes at the cost of ultimate sacrifice and always in service of life. 
            Despite the darkness and desperation that sometimes come over us, we need to remember that God overlooks weakness and failure and rewards the good intentions and the valiant efforts, even the unsuccessful ones.  Our sufferings can be our purification.  But even more, our many wounds are badges of honor that remind everyone else of the truest mission of military service—and the price someone has to pay for its success.  Through our wounds, we remain soldier-teachers, soldier-nurturers and soldier-servants.  We can still be the best of America for the world.
             I want to say to my Uncle Freddy today, in all sincerity, “Thank you for your service.”  And I want to say to God at our table this morning “Perhaps, Lord, you can now find a way other than war to get the job done.”  Amen.

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