Remembering Saints and Veterans

November 1, 2015
Revelation 7:9-7

I appreciate your pastor’s kind invitation to lead you in worship this morning. When he issued the invitation, he suggested that I might touch on both All Saints Day – which is today – and because I am an Army chaplain – on Veterans Day, which takes place ten days from now. That’s quite a task, but I’ll give it my best shot.

Today, as the church of Jesus Christ, we remember the saints who came before us. For most of us, the saints we remember today are the ones closest at hand: parents or grand-parents, pastors, teachers, friends and mentors in Christian fellowship.

One of the most significant contributions of the Protestant Reformation is the recognition that all of God’s people are saints, declared righteous and set apart for God’s purposes not by the heroism or praiseworthiness of their own actions and choices, but solely by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Those who respond to God’s call in some heroic way are worthy of emulation, but so are those who live faithful lives as parents or spouses, business leaders or farmers, doctors or librarians – or as soldiers and engineers, like the men and women with whom I work. In short, there is no vocation which is necessary to life in this world that is less honorable than another. There is no hierarchy of “really dedicated Christians” who launch themselves into heroic tasks and those who live more ordinary lives. There are only those who know and follow Christ and those who don’t. There are only those who are more faithful and those who are less faithful to God’s particular call and work of grace in their lives.

All Saints Day remembers the millions of departed, faithful Christians who are responsible for almost everything that happens in the church. They weren’t perfect, to be sure, and it would be wrong to over-sentimentalize or over-glamorize their lives. Yet it is through millions of ordinary, imperfect Christians that the Gospel is proclaimed and disciples are made.

Veterans Day, on the other hand, is a civil holiday, not a religious one. The United States honors the veterans of its military service on November 11, the anniversary of the armistice that ended WWI. It’s certainly appropriate for the members of Christ’s church who live in the United States to remember military veterans, to thank them and honor their sacrifice.

Are there any veterans of military service of any nation here? Thank you very much!

I ask you all to remember those in our community who have laid their lives on the line for others. Assist them as they need assistance. Don’t look at them as heroes or victims. Don’t put them on a pedestal or pity them. Everyone has issues; soldiers are no exception. Their virtues and vices, their joys and their sorrows are the same as those of other people. Their experiences are just a little different.

Let them tell you as much of their story as they want to tell you, but don’t push or pry. Pray for them as you would for all people. Let them hear the good news that Christ died, and rose, and ascended to heaven, that he poured out the Holy Spirit on his church, and that he will come again to make all things new. Welcome them to the fellowship of faith and the table of the Lord.

All Saints Day is when we remember our fellow Christians who rest with the Lord, and Veterans Day is when we remember our nation’s military veterans. But I’m using the word “we” in two different senses, aren’t I? By “we”, am I referring to the fact that most of us happen to be American citizens who live in the United States? Or am I talking about the fact that we are all members of the Body of Christ, an entity that transcends all national borders, political parties and secular ideologies? Which “we” takes center stage when “we” come to worship?

When we walk in this door and come to this table, we come as those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus. There is a time and a place to praise and thank our veterans and to shine a spotlight on them, but this is neither the time nor the place.

The city of Leavenworth, Kansas where I used to live, annually holds what it claims to be the “largest Veterans Day parade west of the Mississippi.” Old soldiers stuff themselves into the uniforms of another era and parade next to bands, floats, funny cars, fire engines and all sorts of old military equipment. It is not, obviously, a religious event. The focus is on thanking all veterans for their service, and the whole county turns out. When I served at Fort Leavenworth, I would see many of the same soldiers and family members at the parade that I would see at chapel on Sunday. At the parade, we waved the flag and thanked the veteran. At chapel, God – and not the veteran – was the focus of our worship. There is a time and place for waving the flag, and a time and place for kneeling at the cross.

It’s true that military chapels are filled with national and military symbols. When the church of Jesus Christ assembles there, however, the most important symbols are the cross, the baptismal font and the table of the Lord. Wherever and whenever the church gathers together, the only one worthy of worship is the Lamb of God who gave his life for the sins of the world.

When I come to the table of the Lord, I know that it is not I or my fellow soldiers who are worthy of honor and power and might. We know our own broken humanity all too well. The nation rightly honors its military veterans for their service, but the cross of Christ destroys all of our pretensions. The story of Jesus puts me in my place and saves me from my idolatry.

It is my identity in Christ which is more important than anything else. It shapes my understanding of what it means to serve in uniform and it brings healing to my soul.

As a soldier and a veteran of war, I could tell you stories. Some of them might actually be true. (If a soldier tells you a story that begins, “There I was …,” it might not be entirely factual). I could tell you stories of courage and selfless sacrifice and the camaraderie of the band of brothers with whom I served in Iraq. I could tell you about the endless hours of boredom and loneliness. I could talk about the fog of uncertainty and the dull fear that pervades every moment in a war zone. I could tell you, but I won’t – at least not right now.

Suffice it to say, some of it was really memorable in a good way, but some of it was the kind of bad that you carry around with you for a long time.

I will say this: When I returned from war, it was coming to this table, singing hymns and confessing the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints that I found to be the healthiest and most healing things I did.

This hope, this taste of God’s eternal kingdom, often brings me to tears. This world is so, so broken. It’s not just the matter of military conflict. All of our lives are broken; we each encounter the world’s brokenness in our own way. But here, at this table, the heavens open, and I am gathered with the great multitude that no one can count standing before the throne of God.

Do you remember the movie in which Haley Joel Osment said, “I see dead people”? When I come to this table, I see living people, the countless saints of God who have gone before us who now live at Christ’s side.

When I look at this table, I don’t see the death and disease and hunger and suffering that characterize this world. Instead, I see God’s land of promise, where no one hungers or thirsts, and where all live in health and safety. I see the sick healed, the wounded made well and even the dead brought to life.

I see those who have come through life’s most horrible trials made happy and whole, with every tear wiped away from their eyes.  I see a place where everyone lives in peace under the rule of our gracious and wise God. I see a new creation, where society and nature both provide for human need.

And I don’t see the divisions that have torn humanity apart from the beginning of time. Instead, I see people from every nation, tribe, people, and language coming together with one voice to cry out: “Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

And all the hosts of heaven join in the song: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and always. Amen.”

The Bible is one continuous story from the beginning of the book of Genesis to the last page of the book of Revelation.

Thousands of years ago, God promised Abraham that he would have so many descendants that he wouldn’t be able to count them all. And when God called Abraham, he promised him that his offspring would bless the people of every nation. Here, in John’s vision of heavenly worship, that promise is fulfilled. As John observes the uncountable multitude from every language, tribe and people worshiping Jesus together, he sees God’s ancient word coming to pass.

There are echoes here as well of Israel’s worship in the Tabernacle and in the Temple. The worship that began in a tent in the desert of Sinai thousands of years ago continues in the courts of heaven today, and tomorrow and for all of eternity.

The son is eternally worshipped by all his saints. This doesn’t mean that all we do in heaven is sit around playing our harps and singing hymns. It just means that whenever we gather around the table, we are joining our voices with all God’s saints in every place and every age in a foretaste of the age to come.

Things will not always be as they appear now. Our forebears in Christ have entered that promised rest. They wait for the day when all creation will be transformed and we all will be together. With them, we will live in the peace of Christ forever.

That brings hope to this old soldier’s heart. I pray that it does to yours as well.