Come Saturday

Note: this is the sermon I referred to in last week's posting. Upon returning to Dallas, I planned on preaching it in church this Sunday, with it being Memorial Day weekend. However, I decided against that, for two reasons: I've been out of the pulpit for several weeks, and did not want to go back to that trusted place and slam folks with a message that some might consider harsh, at least not my first Sunday back. Second, Memorial Day is a civil, not liturgical, observance. There is too much blending of church and state in American society today. So, while the message is certainly prophetic and timely, and I do not discount the message the Spirit gave to me, I did not feel it appropriate to preach this sermon at this time. I would love to hear any feedback on this issue.

It was not Starbucks or KFC, but Ben’s Chili Bowl, down on U Street, where God began to speak to me. I was enjoying soul music, feasting on a half-smoke and fries when my soul began to stir. I had much to write about, the events of the previous 24 hours had been so overwhelming. I walked to Ben’s from Shiloh Baptist Church, where I had attended Sunday School and worship. I was dizzy from the feeling of hospitality from the Shiloh folk and the inspired music. I knew I had a sermon to write myself, some sort of prophetic message. And while I had several things to say from my observations over the recent past, it was not until I explored the ministry of God’s servant Joel that things began to fell into place.

I had been looking forward to Saturday all week. I was homesick last week; come Saturday, I would be able to calm down. I was tired last week; come Saturday, I would be able to rest. There was conflict in our group last week; come Saturday, we’d all be apart from each other for a couple of days. My mind was exhausted from intensive academic study; come Saturday I would journey to the Smithsonian for intellectual stimulation of a different sort. As I came up the escalator at Smithsonian station, it became clear, however, that God had other plans for my Saturday.

Turning to my left in order to adjust myself, I noticed the Eyes Wide Open display on the Mall. I had seen this on TV earlier that morning. For every American soldier killed in Iraq since the inception of the second Gulf War, a pair of combat boots is displayed. Officially, more than 2400 soldiers have been killed in Iraq over the past three years. The numbers for Iraqi civilians are exponentially more devastating: over 100,000. Many of these are unidentified, of course, and shoes of all sizes represent them. Particularly painful were the children’s shoes. After walking through the civilian display, I headed to the combat boots, nearly 5000 of them. As I walked, I was startled to see that I was in the Texas section. Of course, I am from Texas, and whether my placement here was providence or coincidence I do not know; but as I walked through and read the names of those from my home state, the reality of war was obvious.

After fifteen minutes, I decided to leave the combat boots and attend to my planned activities for the day. Walking into the Air and Space Museum was a thrilling experience. I have always been fascinated with our ability to send people into space, to learn about other worlds, to break records previously thought to be permanent. The first displays in the museum were of the early manned trips into space, and I, fighting with tourists and their cameras, gazed into those ridiculously small capsules, which supported those early space pioneers. Walking through the displays, everything from Amelia Earhart’s plane, to the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, to the Spirit of St. Louis, should have been exciting for me, but the Eyes Wide Open display had put all of this in another, painful, context. You see, after the airplanes I saw huge two or three stories tall-missiles, some of which were designed to carry nuclear weapons. I began to think: What a waste of talent. I thought of the designers of these machines, who certainly dreamed that these objects would be a benefit to humankind, a way of taking us into a new era. I wondered about the engineers, spending countless hours working out formulae in order to understand the physics correctly. How the fruit of their labors, all too often, became vehicles for the Military-Industrial Complex. What a waste.

Follow that with the American History Museum. I love American history—I have a degree in it. I briefly taught it to eighth graders before God called me to the ordained ministry. So I was really looking forward to this museum. My hopes did not hold out for long. The most prominent display that Saturday was “Americans at War.” Thinking of the boots just outside on the Mall, my heart sank. Walking through displays of every American conflict: Revolution, War of 1812, Spanish-American War, Civil War, World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam, two wars in Iraq. Intentionally or not, the museum was focusing the history of our nation through the lens of warfare. The genocide of Native American peoples was not included in the glorious history of American war. Nor the other warfare between our citizens, wars that were fought not with rifles, but with water hoses, internment camps, unfair hiring practices, and prejudice.

I left the history museum more tired than ever. I had spent five hours perusing through the displays of various museums, and needed a break. Not knowing where anything was around the Mall, I collapsed onto a park bench. A pickup game of soccer unfolded right across from me, and further down from the action, speakers at the Eyes Wide Open display began to voice their anger over the war in Iraq. Many of the voices I heard were of mothers, for whom this Mother’s Day would not be joyful. They spoke out of a common hurt and despair, frustrated at the government’s apparent unwillingness to hear their cries. The Saturday I had dreamed of was not to be; this would not be a relaxing day of renewal and rest, but one of reflection on war, and our country’s consistent participation in it. My day had been a war sandwich: from Eyes Wide Open to the glorification of war, to the cries of mothers, mourning dead sons and daughters.

People often interpret our country’s actions in terms of God’s plan, God’s will (this is especially true in Texas and the South). America is God’s righteous instrument of justice, and those who oppose us are evil. It is a very simple, if idolatrous, position. Does God think that way? Should Americans understand their country’s action with such righteous indignation? Or are we being arrogant, misusing the gifts that God gave us, like those inventors whose work is on display at the museum, unaware of how their grand dreams would be misused to inflict war?

Reading Joel’s prophecy offered a thrilling possibility. Present history could be reinterpreted through God’s liberating action. God could intercede in the collective life of a nation, as when God delivered Israel from the suffering of Joel’s time. We do not know who Joel was, nor can we give an exact date for his ministry. Some believe he was a priest, or was at the very least involved in Temple worship. Early in the book he calls on the priests to call the people to worship, to gather and confess their individual and corporate sin, to seek God’s forgiveness. The countryside has been plagued with locusts, swarms of which have devastated crops. This swarming is not unusual to the area; it often originates in the Sudan and travels northward. Joel interprets this terrible event as God’s judgment against Israel, who has turned her back on God and pursued her own desires. He even warns of an unnamed army, poised to invade and make the people’s suffering even greater. Repent, Joel says, and God will surely restore our nation.

Are we at a point where we ought to repent as a nation? To pray for God’s forgiveness for misusing the resources we have been given? To confess our often-idolatrous language that insists God is on our side? I am reminded of President Lincoln’s words during one of those glorious American wars, when he said, “I have been compelled onto my knees many times on the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go.” Is God compelling us onto our collective knees? Joel is confident in God’s mercy, knowing that God is gracious and will not turn away from our confession. In fact, God will not only restore the damaged crops and drive away the enemy: God will renew the face of the creation itself, so much that Joel calls upon the earth itself to shout God’s praises. It is time for our nation to repent and hear God’s promise for the future. Friends, the word God gave to me this day is pretty straightforward: America has been blessed unlike any other nation in history. We have all too often misused those gifts, to eliminate opposition and to protect the powerful, at the cost of our own citizens. We have corrupted the lofty dreams of inventors and engineers, making their creations into instruments of warfare, and have allowed our national history and conscience to be interpreted through the military-industrial complex. And yet there is hope.

Perhaps if Joel was here today he would challenge us as priests to gather our folk, calling them to repentance. Confession of our individual sin is vital to our relationship with God, but what about our collective sin? What fruits could corporate confession on behalf of the entire country produce? Israel suffered a wrath of locusts, and the entire countryside was devastated. Threats to the nation’s security abounded. And yet Joel’s call was for repentance, not defense. And the promise that followed was grace-filled and eloquent. Not only would God restore their losses, but also all the people would become prophets, able to see and interpret their future with their sovereign God. God has the same in store for our nation, if we would let go of our pride and arrogance.

My Saturday was far from restful, and yet it was spent in God’s presence. Walking through those empty boots reminded me of the human cost of war, and hearing the cries of many of those soldiers’ mothers made things even more real. No one was there to wail on behalf of all those Iraqi mothers who had lost so many children, once filled with the same amount of promise as their American counterparts. I heard God whispering to me that if America would turn around—truly repent—there would be blessing for us. If we began to use our resources rightly, for the good of all except for the powerful, if we stopped glorifying our wars and used them as an opportunity to lament for our pride, if we listened to the hurting among us, perhaps God would restore us, and even take us to new heights. The sort of heights not even those great machines in the Air and Space Museum could reach.