Bill Hattendorf, Lay Preacher
Prelude: An aside before we start with the biblical lessons at hand: Tomorrow is Memorial Day. We don’t say Happy Memorial Day, because it honors the dead who gave their lives for their country. Come November, you can say Happy Veteran’s Day to all the living veterans who served.
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, as a day to decorate the graves of the fallen veterans. Observance started in remembrance of those who died in the Civil war, known in some Southern circles as the “War Between the States,” or the “Recent Unpleasantness.” Those who sacrificed their lives in the service of our nation in any war were added after their wars, and since 9/11, there has been more mention of those who died in the line of duty in emergency services.
I’ve been fortunate, not losing anyone in my recent ancestry, although every generation has served in some war up through Vietnam. My great-grandfather, John Pender McLeod, served in Gettysburg and elsewhere, belonged to a Vermont Regiment he joined in Brattleboro.
Tonight I will be up in Keene, New Hampshire, on the town square, helping fellow veterans light candles that we put out in red Solo cups all around the square, more than two thousand of them. (cleaning up whatever is left at dawn.) Each candle represents someone who died in the service of his or her country, mostly from New England, but some from beyond as well. We read the name of each person as we take the flame out to a place in the square. One of the candles will represent Fred Hopson, my best buddy in the Army: we trained side by side through Basic and Advanced training, sat next to each other on the plane to Vietnam, served in country together, but he was killed during the Cambodian campaign. I still miss him, and I will honor him and others this Memorial Day who gave their last full measure for God and Country.
Now on to today’s lessons:
Just prior to the beginning of today’s first reading from Acts, Paul and his companions seem to be at a loss for where to go next with the preaching of the gospel. They stumble around the region running into one barrier after another, blocked, we’re told, by the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of Jesus. In today’s reading from Acts, Paul receives a vision in the night, a vision requiring interpretation; requiring a community of faith. The early church faced a tough question as it worked to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission – the spread of the Gospel to all the world.
Some evangelists in the early church understood this Great Commissionas a call to require Gentiles to convert to Judaism, specifically through circumcision – a move that caused many to reject the Gospel. The Council of Jerusalem was called to consider the question, and in the end, this Council of apostles and elders decided that Christ had sent them not to convert the world to Judaism as such, but to bring salvation and the forgiveness of sins to all people, where they were and as whom they were. They were required to transfigure their hearts, not their physical appearance in any way, and accept Christ not as the messiah of the Hebrews but as the savior of the whole world. The invitation is to share the divine Trinitarian life, as it’s
imagined in our second reading today from Revelation 21.
In today’s Gospel of John, it is the last evening that Jesus spends with the disciples before his death. Here, Jesus tries to show them two elements of reality that are difficult to hold
together: he is going away, yet he will not leave them orphaned.
Jesus says, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me / because I live, you also will live.”
The disciples have questions, of course, like: “How is it
that you’ll reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” maybe expectating Jesus to reveal secrets.
But Jesus isn’t interested in hiding knowledge from anyone. While the world will not see him any longer, it will see his followers. To keep the word of Jesus means to keep his commandments. It is to wash one another's feet, to love one another. As the disciples keep the word of Jesus, they will be a community characterized by mutual regard, love and service.
Throughout Jesus’ farewell message, he makes it clear that followers love him by serving others. Jesus' love language here is “acts of service.” Although we might distinguish between loving Jesus and keeping his word, and imagine that we can do one but not the other, Jesus doesn’t recognize that distinction. The clause here in John is a condition of fact: “Those who love me will keep my word” ... Love for Jesus is love in action.
Whether the disciples know it or not, to live that kind of love, they will need the constant presence of God in their midst. Jesus offers that presence with three different promises.
First, he says of himself and the Father about those who love him: “We will come and make our home with them.” From the first chapter of this gospel, we’re told that prior to anyone's love for Jesus, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” It’s saying that no one would be able to love Jesus if the Father had not first loved the world enough to send his Son into it.
The “cohabitation” that Jesus speaks of is not a reward for good behavior. It is simply a statement of where God likes to spend time. It hearkens back to the first chapter of the gospel as well as forward to the future imagined in Revelation where it says: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” So Jesus speaks of the home that the Father will make with those who love him. He promises the guidance of the Holy Spirit as his followers remember him.
Second, Jesus announces the advent of the Spirit among the believers. During the time between his leave-taking and life in the new Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit “will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” The Holy Spirit was to guide the disciples and the church about their experiences of Jesus, and it guides us as we seek to let our love for him show up in the ways we relate to others. The Spirit helps all of us disciples understand Jesus and his word and to love Jesus by keeping his word on behalf of the world.
Finally, Jesus gives his own peace to those he is about to leave. The gospel of John includes no mention of peace until Jesus speaks it here, on the eve of his death. He describes the peace he offers as his own and says that he gives it “not as the world gives.” He will offer it again and again as he appears to the disciples after the resurrection. While he doesn’t describe the peace he offers, from his words here in John, we may conclude that his peace offers the disciples both comfort for troubled hearts and courage in the midst of fear. Throughout the events of his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, as well as in the resurrection, Jesus will embody the peace he offers here.
So why tell the disciples all this now? Recall the disciple’s question: “How is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” It tells us that there are three ways those who love Jesus will continue to see and know him after he goes away:
• In the home that the Father and the Son make with them,
• In the work of the Spirit to call to mind what Jesus taught, and
• In their ongoing experience of peace that comes from him and not from the world.
Jesus tells them ahead of time so that they may believe.
As the events of the immediate – and distant – future unfold, Jesus' followers will be able to trust that God – the One who loved them enough to send the Son – still loves them and still seeks to dwell with them. They will know they are not orphaned.
Maybe the most profound moment in this passage – and probably the most familiar – comes in verse 27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Peace is a commodity we sorely need in our world and is absent for far too many. But into this talk about his upcoming absence, Jesus reassures the disciples, who were fearful about his
departure, that they won’t be left alone, and he bestows peace on them.
He doesn’t just gently wish them peaceful lives – he gives them peace. This is not a wish. This is a gift. It is a gift of
profound importance at this moment in that journey of Jesus and the disciples. Surely he could foresee the turmoil they’d face when he was gone, and he does all he can to prepare them for the next part of the journey. Peace is such an important element of John’s gospel. And, like love, peace is a mark of true
discipleship that is required of disciples – both then and now.
This is not a passive peace. It is an active working toward peace in multiple situations. This Spirit and peace will propel the disciples and the church into active discipleship and mission. It is with the presence of this peace, given by God in Jesus, which enables the disciples and us to live lives of faithfulness.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid,” he said. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”
In recent weeks we’ve been shocked, again, by the latest mass shooting (this time in New Zealand); we see the stunned people in the midwest losing everything in historic flooding. We get nightly reports on the horrors of war – wherever it is this week. A refugee crisis seems to be a constant somewhere. It’s not unlike the old Kingston Trio song about “They’re rioting in Africa, they’re starving in Spain …” On top of all that, many of us suffer tragedies on a more personal level.
It seems quite natural for us to ask then, “Why?” Why did this have to happen to this person? Perhaps the victim was a good, loving person. Meanwhile we hear of scoundrels who live in relative happiness and prosperity. We question God’s goodness and fairness. Sometimes we might even doubt His existence. It’s the classic philosophic problem of evil: How can an all-good and all-powerful God allow good people to suffer and wicked people to prosper?
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus gives us some answers to these difficult questions.
In the context of the Gospel of Luke, in the chapter just before this, Jesus used an illustration of a man who is going to be dragged into court with a losing lawsuit against him. If he is smart, Jesus says, he will quickly settle with his opponent before it’s too late. His point being that we all have a debt of sin toward God. If we are aware of our situation, we will be quick to get right with God before we come into judgment.
Now in today’s Gospel, Luke reports, “on the same occasion,” people reported to Jesus about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. The idea of Pilate's mingling the Galileans own blood with their offerings must have meant a massacre of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem. We don’t know the why, but it corresponds with other historical writings about Pilate's brutality. And the verse does offer an ominous characterization of the Roman governor in advance of his appearance in Jesus' trial.
Then Jesus brings up another tragedy from their recent history, “the tower of Si-lo-am,” apparently a tower in the wall around Jerusalem that must have collapsed without warning and crushed 18 hapless Jerusalemites.
Jesus comments on these news stories of his time. It almost seems a little like gossiping. Just as in our time, narratives of destruction and distress capture the attention. As always, Jesus is telling us not just to look out but is asking us to look in; He is concerned not just with what is going on in our heads but wants us to look at what is happening in our hearts and ask how God is opening us to compassion, prompting us to repentance and leading us to new life.
I think Jesus figured he was speaking here to people who probably didn’t apply much spiritual truth to themselves. From His reply, we can also guess that these men were smugly thinking that those who suffered such tragedies were deserving of God’s judgment, whereas the fact that they had been spared such tragedies meant that they were pleasing to God.
Jewish belief held that whatever evil befell a person was a punishment for sin. So the more a person had to suffer, the greater their sinning must be!
But Jesus rejects this simplistic notion and corrects the view by showing that we all are sinners worthy of God’s judgment. Twice here He drives it home asking whether those who suffered were greater sinners? “I tell you, no,” He says, “but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
In emphasizing repentance, I think, Jesus means a turning around toward God and one’s neighbor.
Then Jesus tells this parable about the fig tree that underscores the point: If you don’t repent, you will soon face God’s judgment.
This short parable about a tree speaks of imminent judgment. We’re reminded of the Advent lessons about John the Baptist as Luke uses similar images earlier in his third chapter: “Even now,” Luke quotes the Baptizer, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
These tree parables tend to reinforce ideas in the first half of today’s lesson. Here a cultivated yet unproductive tree may continue to live even without bearing fruit, only because it has been granted additional time to do what it is supposed to do. Unless it begins to bear fruit (used here as an image of repentance), the result will be its just and swift destruction.
Like Jesus' earlier words responding to recent tragedies, the parable warns against false reassurance. Just because you have not been cut down, don’t presume that you are bearing fruit.
The tone of the parable emphasizes that patience and mercy temporarily keep judgment at bay. The role of the gardener offers a crucial picture of this patience and mercy. The tree has not been left to its own devices. Everything possible is being done to get it to act as it should. Correspondingly, God does not leave people to their own resources but encourages their repentance.
It would be tempting to talk about allegorical interpretations of this parable – identifying the vineyard owner as God, the gardener as Jesus, and the tree as … whomever we wish would hurry up and repent – but I don’t know that that’s such a good idea – I think that strips the parable of its power and maybe produces some confusion.
Nowhere else in the books of the Luke author does the writer imply that Jesus tries to pacify that Old Testament God who is too eager to clean house.
Instead, I think part of the parable's power comes through the suspense it generates. Will fruit emerge in time to thwart the ax? How will this season of second chances play itself out? How do the gardener's efforts make the tree's existence a state of grace and opportunity? (Tune in next Sunday when we bring you more Days of Our Lives!)
So, rather than asking the question “Why?” with regard to suffering, perhaps we should ask the question, “What?” What does this tragedy teach me? I think Jesus’ answer is: Tragedies should teach us that since death and judgment are imminent, we need to be ready through true repentance.
You know, Jesus could have used this occasion to jump into a critique of Pilate’s cruel ways, but He’d have missed the spiritual opportunity.
He could have plunged into a philosophical discussion of the problem of evil, but His listeners would have gone away unchanged.
Instead, Jesus took this general topic and homed in on the consciences of those who had raised the subject. He applies it to them twice, and then He further drives it home with the parable.
Jesus seizes on these two calamities that were probably subjects of recent conversation around the local watering hole – one an instance of state-sanctioned terror, one a random accident. It’s tempting to compare these events with happenings in our time like nightclub fires and ferry sinkings and earthquakes and mass shootings from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Charleston or New Zealand.
Any of these tragedies saw people snuffed out with little warning and mostly no clearly apparent reason. These events lead the rest of us to feel how precarious our existence is. Jesus implies that the victims did nothing wrong, nothing that caused their demise. Life is just as chancy as it can be nasty and short.
Although these events might allow Jesus an opportunity to defend God against charges of mismanaging the universe, he does not go that route. He only implies that we mustn’t equate tragedy with divine punishment. Sin doesn’t make atrocities come. They just come, no matter what some televangelists say or whom they might blame.
What life's fragility does do, Jesus says, is give it urgency. Jesus turns attention away from disasters, victims, and "why?" questions to talk to those of us who so far have survived the hazards of the universe and of human society. We shouldn’t mistake our good fortune as evidence of God’s special blessing.
When Jesus says, twice here, that unless you repent you will perish like those others did, he does not promise that the godless will be struck by an asteroid. He refers to death in the sense of the destruction of one's soul. He emphasizes the suddenness with which this death comes.
Just as the victims of Pilate or the tower or more recent tragedies did not enjoy the luxury of choosing the time of their demise, likewise the unrepentant will suddenly find they have delayed too long and lost themselves.
Is Jesus exploiting tragedy here to score theological points? Yeah, I think so – to make a point – He certainly capitalizes on recent horrors to stress the suddenness of death and the unpredictability of life. In today’s world we’re used to the fear mongering that politicians and others whip up after many a natural and unnatural disaster.)
But notice the approach that Jesus takes is along a slightly different path. He doesn’t promise freedom from calamity, but urges his audience against false self-assurances. If fragilness of life demands speed, demands urgency, that urgency shows that life itself has carved out an opportunity for us to jump on God's
graciousness, as the parable suggests.
So what are we to take away from this lesson?
I think probably we should each examine our own lives and look for fruit. There’s the fruit of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5, or the fruit of John 4:36 that you store up for eternal life. Or as John 15 reminds us that it is not possible to bear fruit apart from the Branch, Jesus, for apart from Him we do nothing.
There are many types of fruit that could be examined: the fruit of giving, praying, righteousness, forgiveness, tithing, discipling, leading others to Christ, missionary support, etc. Each is different, but in a sense, each is from the same tree, the same Lord.
Each of us is different with different gifts and fruit (I’ll refrain from likening us to fruit salad), but we are all of the same body.
Let’s use what God has given us for His glory, to bear fruit, and to further His Kingdom.
By Bill Hattendorf, Lay Preacher
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
To every thing (“Turn Turn Turn”) there is a season (“Turn Turn Turn”), and a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to reap; A time to kill, and a time to heal.
So today is a season, if you will, of honoring veterans, and in some case a hoping of healing for them.
As most of us know, today, the 11th day of the 11th month, at the 11th hour, marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great World War, or “The War to End all Wars.” The 11th of November was first called Armistice Day, and then Veterans Day, and eventually it was a national holiday. (There is a fascinating article in this past week’s New Yorker about the end of that war, titled “The Eleventh Hour,” being as strange as its beginning.)
Veterans Day is for honoring living veterans, as opposed to Memorial Day in May when we remember the fallen. But I think it’s human nature to remember the fallen ones today as well.
Let me tell you right off that I’m a veteran.
My father and my three uncles and my grandfathers and two great-grandfathers were all veterans. One of my great-grandfathers, John Pender McLeod, who fought at Gettysburg and other places joined the 14th Vermont
Regiment just up the road in Brattleboro.
My dad was a fighter pilot in WWII. In 1940, he and his brother talked the local recruiting office into promising they could serve together as pilots. It wasn’t approved policy, but somehow it all worked out and they went through flight training and duty assignments in England, Ireland, North Africa and Italy together.
We have lots of newspaper clippings written about the exploits of those “Flying Hattendorf Brothers.” Gene Autry’s weekly radio program during the war did a radio dramatization with actors and sound effects and dramatic music playing as they acted out one of their P-38 missions.
My own military service in the Army was in 1969-71. I did basic and advanced training at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. I got pulled out of training regularly to help with military funerals in the state, as there seemed to be lots of them there that fall. I was a military pallbearer for 22 funerals in four months, (and almost all of the deceased died in Vietnam). At the end of the graveside portion, after Taps is played, the flag is carefully folded into a triangle and is presented to the next of kin. The officer-in-charge takes a knee and says, “On behalf of the President and the people of a grateful nation, may I present this flag as a token of appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
Those words stick in my mind: “On behalf of a grateful nation” … that’s what we do on Veterans Day … we come together as a “grateful nation” to give thanks for “honorable and faithful service.”
When I got to Nam, I first served with the 75th Rangers, Company F, attached to the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi, serving in Vietnam and Cambodia. Many of my assignments were going out in six-man teams on long range reconnaissance patrols, secretly imbedding ourselves for a couple of days and nights to watch enemy movements. It was a difficult time. I lost my best friend there, Fred Hopson.
Truth be told, I was never enthusiastic about serving in the war in Vietnam, but I gave it my all, made the best of it, thinking I was trying to make my own small corner of the world a better place.
When I came home I was not spit on and I didn’t get things thrown at me like some Vietnam returnees I know did, but I came home right as the sentencing was happening for Lt. William Calley over atrocities committed in the My Lai massacre. So when I got home, all anybody wanted to ask me was how many women and babies did I kill? And even though I hadn’t killed a single woman or baby, that was not a conversation I wanted to have. I just wanted to get back to civilian life.
I literally put Vietnam away – my uniform and medals and all in a box in the back of a closet at my parents house. I asserted that Vietnam didn’t have any effect on me. I refused to count the two birthdays I spent over there.
I thought I was seamlessly reentering civilian life. Perhaps in some ways I was. But old friends, besides having aged a bit, did seem a little different. I was sure I hadn’t changed at all, of course. It took me 35 years to figure out I had some issues to deal with.
But I did. And I have. And I hope I’m the stronger for it.
To everything there is a season: a time to build up, a time to break down; a time to rend, a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak. In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus speaks – He goes on a tirade about the scribal class, although Mark is full of tension between Jesus and the scribes. Did the scribes really cheat widows out of their homes? We don’t know, but through that Mark gives us a way to connect that lesson with Jesus’s observation of a poor widow giving all she had, which seems to be more about the ways the scribes treasury consumed the means of the poor.
But the widow still gave … out of a sense of obligation, perhaps, out of a sense of hope. In ancient Israel, the poor were not required to give; they simply did so because they believed in the goodness of the institution, the goodness of its leaders, and the need for the religious institution to remain. She was serving society in the only way she was able. I relate to that personally in that I thought by accepting my military call, I was serving society as well.
To everything there is a season. This season right now, this time of year, always feels different to me; it does funny things to me. I suspect that fewer hours of daylight effect some things.
But to some me, the season we’re in right now is “All Saints,” not just the All Saints Day last Sunday. The season began the first of November or before, and it goes on through Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas, at least to Epiphany. I think of these 10 weeks or so as “All Saints Season.” During this time, manifested publicly at our house with a candle in every window, I feel I have a heightened awareness of the spiritual – I’m in an intensified period of what my Scottish grandmother called the “thin places.”
“Thin places” are those times or events in our lives when it seems like the veil between heaven and earth – or between this visible, touchable, physical world and the invisible, spiritual, eternal world is stretched very thin. It happens when the curtain between them seems more porous – thinner – and between heaven and earth – between the here and now and the there and then – communication seems to pass back and forth more easily, that we’re in a more Godly place, when we are more hyper-aware of life’s deeper meaning.
God feels closer, and we feel more interconnected. Everything that has happened before has led us to this moment, and this moment is part of a larger, unfolding future. Thin places are mystical. You can’t create them or invent them; they simply happen. They come from God. I think of them occurring mostly in peaceful or beautiful or magnificent places, but thin spaces happened for me in training and in wartime.
One of the ways armies train you for war is to debase the enemy, to make the people you’re fighting against less than human. One way of coping with war was to de-personalize those other folks (even of the good guys and the bad guys looked exactly alike).
Most of our travel in Vietnam was by helicopter, but we used trucks sometimes if we weren’t going very far. About two-thirds of the way through my tour, I can remember going through a village in a convoy on the back of the last truck. Most of the people were walking in the same direction we were going. They had separated up ahead to let us go through, and I was seeing the people funneling back together behind us, all of these eyes looking up at us as we blankly stared out at them – or over them. And I’m not sure exactly what happened, but calling it a “thin place” is about the only answer I’ve ever come up with.
Somebody I told this to suggested it seemed like a “silent thunderclap.” All of a sudden, for me, this sea of humanity that I’d been seeing for the last ten months without personality or personal traits, mysteriously turned into individual people with individual faces. All of a sudden, they became real people, with personal stories, and that changed the whole nature and experience of the war for me. Frankly, It made my last months in country more difficult. More wrenching.
This time of year, in this “thin place,” I’m filled with gratitude for all of God’s blessings. High among those blessings are the sacrifices of so many veterans, living and gone. They came from farms and from cities, they came from colleges and factories. They came – white, black, red, yellow, brown – with Polish names, Italian, Jewish, Russian, African, English, or Arabic names. They answered the call from every quarter and section of our American life.
Some years ago, I encountered a “thin place” that was military related, but not about my service. My dad was involved with reunions of his 82nd Fighter Group Association. Dad was president of the group for a while, and hosted some 350 people when he brought the reunion to Atlanta one year. As the original members began dying off, they starting inviting family members along. The first one Sheila and I attended was in Hartford in 2003. There were air museum tours, a river boat ride, and a memorial service for those who had died in the last year, but the event that I remember most was the final banquet.
There were flourishes like the color guard, and presentation a rose to each lady present. The pledge of allegiance was amazingly emotional. At one point, each former service member was asked to give his name, home state, when he’d served, and what his duty was.
I think the first to talk probably seemed the oldest. Dave Hawkins was in a wheelchair with his wife beside him. From Idaho, he’d joined the Army Air Corps when his was 18, and married his high school sweetheart a week before shipping out. Their youngest daughter was with them. He’d been a crew chief.
The next person was Olin Medley, joining up part-way through college. He was a pilot, like my dad; in fact the two of them crossed the ocean together on the Queen Mary. His wife and two daughters were with him, and he was from Oklahoma City, where he still lived.
Early in those personal introductions, I had closed my eyes, not really thinking about it, as I listened to each speaker. In my mind’s eye, I could see each speaker in his youth, full of vim and vigor, these now older, senior veterans. What hopes, dreams, and visions they must have had as they answered their nation’s call. What heart-break they felt as they left careers, girl-friends, parents, children. I saw them in their former youth … and I suspected that they saw themselves momentarily back in their youth as well.
The master of ceremonies for the evening, Monty Powers, talked about how they had been part of something larger than themselves – that the missions couldn’t have happened without the P38 pilots in the air but also the ground crew on earth to keep the planes flying and all the support at home and from the allies to keep the machine of war going on to victory. He spoke of how all our common life depends upon this sense of teamwork and sacrifice.
The freedom we enjoy, this abundance of life, the liberties we so easily take for granted were paid for at huge cost. 43 million Americans have offered themselves for this freedom; two million were permanently disabled due to battle wounds, and 660,000 have paid the supreme sacrifice of their own lives.
We are – all of us – so much more interconnected than we know. Actions of veterans way back in the 1770s or the 1860s have had a huge impact our lives today (to say nothing of more recent wars)
“On behalf of a grateful nation …”
So in this season that I call “All Saints,” on this Veterans Day weekend, I invite you to acknowledge – to join me – in this “thin place” in which we find ourselves surrounded – surrounded – by so great a cloud of witnesses. Can you sense their presence? Many of them have sat in these pews and worshipped in this space. All the Saints.
Let us be thankful … for those who have gone before … and for those 25 million veterans who are still living in our midst. May we truly be “a grateful nation.” Amen.
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