This sermon was preached at the Roots Revival worship service at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, NC on Wednesday, November 9, 2016. It was originally based on 2 Samuel 1:17-27 with a nod toward Veteran’s Day. It was revised to respond to the 2016 presidential election results and abridged for this blog post.
My first official day on staff here at Centenary was September 15, 2012. I participated in my first funeral on September 30. The deceased was a 26-year-old man, a Marine. In a moment of inexplicable rage, he had shot his wife and then himself. He died instantly; his wife passed away a few days later in the hospital.
Every day, an average of 20 veterans die by suicide. The phenomenon of veteran suicide is so entrenched that there is an entire Wikipedia page entitled “United States military veteran suicide.” In 2012, more veterans died by suicide than were killed in Iraq. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression are often pointed to as causes of these deaths.
There are indications that the young man whose funeral I attended suffered from PTSD. He had served with the Marine Corps in Afghanistan. You’ll remember that the United States invaded Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. I was in my 9th grade biology class when the twin towers fell. Today, there are 9th graders who weren’t even born on 9/11. That tragedy has had a profound impact on my generation, because we knew the world before it and after it at formative times in our life.
Looking back, and with the help of wiser observers and thinkers than myself, I have noticed a sad pattern in times of crisis, exemplified by 9/11. To illustrate it, I’m actually going to back up almost a century before then, to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. An eight-year-old girl living in Oakland experienced the earthquake and its aftermath. Later, she wrote this about the experience: “While the crisis lasted, people loved each other. It was as though they were united in Christian solidarity.”
For a time after the earthquake, people loved each other. They reached out to their neighbors, cared for one another, and bared their humanity to friends and strangers alike. In time, however, they went back to business as usual.
I experienced 9/11 similarly. That day, my parents picked my siblings and me up early from school. We went to the church. Someone set up a TV in the office, and we sat watching the news. People wandered in, seeking prayer, solace, any kind of comfort at all. The next Sunday, the pews were full to overflowing. The nation was coming together in an unprecedented outpouring of love, unity, and solidarity.
And then, we went back to business as usual.
But it wasn’t really business as usual. America never has been and never will be the same country it was for the first 14 and a half years of my life. Despite the displays of coming together that we experienced right after 9/11, as genuine as I believe they were, we did not stay in that place of Christian solidarity. The pews thinned back out in a matter of weeks. But we did not go back to the way things were before 9/11. We went somewhere else entirely.
In the last 15 years, we have become angrier. We have become more afraid. We harbor more suspicions against one another. At times, we have lashed out at people groups and nations and organizations and religions; at times, we have crushed ourselves with our fear and anxiety. It is almost as if the entire nation has been suffering from PTSD for the last decade and a half.
Many veterans speak of the unique camaraderie they experience with fellow soldiers. Being in the military forges unbelievably strong bonds. Fighting for a common cause—or, more likely, against a common enemy—can bring out the best in us, just as a crisis or a tragedy can.
But war can and will also bring out the worst in us. War and violence necessitate the dehumanization of the enemy, and our dehumanization even of legitimately evil groups has too often spilled over onto our own friends and neighbors, Muslims and people of Arab descent and refugees and immigrants.
We have seen this spillover and much more in this election season. This election cycle has brought out the worst in us Americans. It has become permissible to voice and act upon racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia; it has become routine to dismiss and ridicule the opinions of the poor, the uneducated, and those in rural communities; it has become common practice in both camps to dehumanize and despise those on the other side of the aisle. The rhetoric we have been hearing appeals to the darkest parts of our humanity, to our selfishness, mistrust, anxiety, and anger.
Most of all, it has brought out our fear. I’d wager that if you asked everyone who voted in this election their reasons for choosing the candidate they did, somewhere in the mix would be a healthy dose of fear. Fear of what would happen if Trump won; fear of what would happen if Hillary won; fear of tyranny or of economic disadvantage or of deportation or of terrorism or of class warfare. Fear, fear, fear. I kept hearing the phrase, “Vote your hopes, not your fears” (a reference to a quote from Nelson Mandela)—but I don’t think any of us could hear the truth in that over the clanging of our own sin and shame.
Whatever the outcome of the presidential election had been, there were going to be a huge number of Americans who would be sad, angry, and/or afraid today. But here’s what I know to be true right now. My gay friends are scared. My black friends are scared. Muslims, women, victims of sexual assault, immigrants, and Latinos are all scared. If you believe they have reason to be, stand with them. If you believe their fears are unfounded, prove it to them. Do these things not just by your words but by faithful, loving action.
Because there are veterans in this country of wars other than the ones the U.S. military has fought. There are veterans of the women’s rights movement; veterans of the civil rights movement; veterans of the fight for LGBTQ rights; veterans of our expensive, destructive, and discriminatory wars on drugs and crime. All of them are tired.
When that little girl in Oakland saw how people came together after the San Francisco earthquake, she didn’t just lament that it seemed to be a temporary shift. Instead, she found in that a reason for profound hope. She went on to write, “It makes one think of how people could, if they would, care for each other in times of stress, unjudgingly in pity and love.”
That little girl was Dorothy Day. When she grew up, she founded the Catholic Worker movement, a network of communities that aim to “live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ.” It is a nonviolent movement, opposed to war and to wealth inequality. Every Catholic Worker house looks different, but they pursue social justice through the example of Jesus in their specific contexts. Many of these communities work for the homeless and the hungry, many of whom, sadly, are veterans.
In his acceptance speech, President-elect Donald Trump said that he would be a president for all Americans, that we would rebuild our infrastructure and the inner cities, and that we would finally take care of our veterans. I pray to God that he is and that we do. But I am not going to wait for the political establishment to do that for me. We can and must care for each other in times of stress—not when the right person is elected to the presidency; not when the Senate is controlled by what we believe is the right party or ideology; not when a particular vision of government or even morality is realized in our nation. We can and must care for each other right now.
Trump alluded to the words of Abraham Lincoln when he said we must bind the wounds of division. Lincoln’s words are worth repeating in whole. He said this of the warring factions in his broken nation in the wake of the Civil War: “The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes… With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
Our nation is deeply broken; her wounds are old and festering. But no elected official can save us, and none can ultimately destroy us, either. Empires rise and fall, but God’s kingdom stands forever. It stands for love over fear, peace over war, justice over oppression. It stands for the healing of the nations and of our sin-sick souls. It stands for the day not just when veterans will stop taking their own lives, but when there will be no more veterans of any war, military or ideological—because the weapons of war will have been destroyed, and there will at long last be peace.
God’s kingdom is ruled, not by any elected official, but by a crucified God who doesn’t just bind our wounds but takes them into his own body. It is ruled by the one who promises us that it’s going to be alright. I trust in that promise, and I will wait and watch and work for the day when I see it realized in our lives, in our communities, in our churches, and in our world.
May it be so. Amen.