This Sunday's worship service will be Shawnee's annual "Freedom Celebration", where members of the armed forces, past and present, are recognized, celebrated, and prayed for by the congregation. It is also a time that we are called by the prophet Micah to remember what is required of us: To act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. As a part of the service we will be reading letters written by friends, family, and a WWII veteran to Wade Broadwater, a Marine who grew up in the Shawnee area, and in our church. My sermon is my letter to him, as we approach the 4th of July. Here it is:
I hope this letter finds you well as you serve your country in the desert sands of Iraq. I have spent time with your parents and some of your friends, listening to the stories you've told them. I've heard about the sand storms, 130 degree heat, and about the hunger that comes with living on MRE's when you are out on the field. They've talked about a brotherhood so deep that man would be invited to be a godfather to a fellow Marines' child, and the mix of fear and duty one feels when peering into the darkness not knowing who is friend and who is foe. Mostly though, I've heard a lot of people just say over and over how much they love you, are proud of you, and want you to come home safe and sound. Just to make sure you know it... you are a man rich in the things that matter in this life, meaning that you make life just a little bit sweeter for a whole bunch of folks. Know they are all pulling and praying for you.
And I mean praying for you very, very hard.
I am aware that you are working 12 to 14 hour days on electric generators broken down by constant use, unbearable heat, and sand (lots and lots of sand) on an air base 30 miles from Baghdad. Generators that your fellow soldiers count on not only to do their jobs, but to make life just a little more bearable. I also have been told that as a part of your mission you often have to go outside "the wire" which marks the security of the base, out into the field. Into cities like Fallujah, where if the news is any true indicator, chaos reigns supreme. While I have, once, stared down a barrel of a gun pointed at me (in a grocery store one night where there ended up being a robbery... I was trying to buy a box of diapers. Who knew I would end up needing one?) I have can't say that I've ever been in a situation where men who had sworn an oath to, if necessary, shoot me, walked freely with guns, hatred in their heart, ready to open fire. I also too, have never walked a city street with a rifle, ready to hunt these same men down before they killed one of my buddies. It's a scene you can only really imagine if you lived it. And it's a scene, I suppose, that can leave lasting memories, some of which a soldier would rather forget.
A man I met while pastoring in another church, helped me understand this. He grew up on a quiet farm in Northern Indiana. A gentle kid who grew up just wanting to grow corn and soybeans like his old man. But when the United States went to war in Vietnam, wanting to serve his country, he enlisted to defend liberty just as his father and grandfather. After a 12 month tour as a infantryman in some of worst fighting in the jungle, he came home to a confusing mix of anger, shame, and protest. Already reeling from the horrors of his experience, he tried burying it, and for twenty years he did a pretty good job. And then, for whatever reason, his memories came at him with a vengeance creating havoc in his life. His is now a slow, slow process of putting the pieces back together, and finding God's peace in the turmoil of his soul.
I pray that you'd be spared the grizzliest of experiences, but if you aren't, I know my friend would want me to tell you that many other people have walked the road you've walked, and are willing to join you on the journey. There's no shame in asking them, or us, for help, if you, or a fellow Marine, end up needing it.
But that's not why I wrote this letter. No, as we near Independence Day, which we'll celebrate watching the fireworks being set off at Shawnee High School tonight, I wanted this day to make sure you knew something else I think is very important.
Very, very important.
As each of us do our best in this imperfect, broken world to live out the command of prophet Micah who instructed us, "to act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God", that as you do your duty as a Marine, know that Jesus Christ knows what it is like to live life "outside the wire". To be hated and vilified. Despised and deceived. To be in the cross hairs of a group of people committed to a cause, and hellbent on removing any and every obstacle in their way. And when the moment of truth arose, his buddies, not nearly so well trained and equipped for battle as their opponents, fled, leaving him all alone. No body armor. No M-16. No air cover, or M1-A1 Abrams tanks for protection. He was just a man left facing the wrath of his own people, and the brutality that served as justice for the Roman Empire. Wade, remember...
Jesus knows what it's like to walk in the valley of death.
Jesus knows what it's like to be afraid.
You'd not believe the kind of cursing, mockery, and disrespect Jesus had to hear from Roman soldiers, who were very bit as crude as US Marines. Or, the jokes told and comments made when he walked this earth with tax collectors, fishermen, drunkards, and prostitutes. Jesus listens, hearing the pain and fear behind the bravado. It is will be in the depth of his compassion for us all when we were at our worst, that you will discover how magnificent and holy he is.
Jesus knows the sheer terror that is death.
Jesus not only witnessed the worst that can be dished out in this world, but has the scars to prove he experienced it. Suffering endured only because he told others that a world where people feel like they have to fight and kill in order to survive, isn't the world God desires for us. Instead, the world he calls us to is one where enemies can be reconciled, and violence is met with forgiveness. It was an idea so foreign to some, particularly those in power, that they thought it, and him, dangerous enough to be silenced through a humiliating death on the cross. Never, ever stop praying and ultimately working for that world Jesus talked about.
Oh... and Jesus is alive. Resurrected from the dead so we would know that death has no victory of him, what he taught, and what will free us all.
In short, no matter what you say, see, or experience, there's nothing so unbelievably horrible that your Lord can't understand, won't listen to, won't forgive, or won't heal. Even that which we aren't ready to forgive ourselves. Jesus is able to carry these burdens not just with us, but for us if we'll let him. We just need to be humble enough to let go of an arrogance that would make us think somehow our experience is too different, too horrible, for God to comprehend what we have been through. God has heard and seen it all. Draw on his great wisdom and strength.
And finally, give thanks each day that ultimately all of our sin deserves eternal punishment, but for whatever reason, Jesus loves us so much he'd bare that punishment for us. That's his justice... the end of our condemnation, so that we might live freely, serving our God and loving into existence his kingdom. That's worth celebrating. Let it be your joy.
In closing, let me say that I believe that the ultimate objective to what you are doing not just as a soldier, or an American, but fundamentally, as a Christian, is to do the dirty work of what ultimately we must all pray will be a new era of freedom and liberty for others. That this moment in time marked by intense hatred and fighting where violence is being met with aggression, will ultimately lead to a time - very soon I pray - where people will grow weary of such ugliness and begin to embrace rebuilding, healing, opportunity, and a world that's better for our children and grandchildren. A time where God's justice will call to account, evil in all its forms. A time where we discover the power of grace.
No matter how we feel about the precursors to the war or those who oppose us, this must be our prayer and objective: That our descendants here, there, and everywhere, will someday experience at time where earth is as it is in heaven.. the place where people do what God wants because they have seen his glory and know He loves us. And that eternity presents for those who trust in the Lord, never ending joy, laughter, and peace.
Keep safe. Always be there for your buddies. Never forget how many people love you. And, for the purpose of this letter, always know your church, and your pastor, are praying for you.
Don't worry, we'll keep an eye on your family, particularly your mom and dad. We'll offer shoulders to cry upon, ears that will listen, and knees willing to be calloused from prayer for your safety, and the end of this war. It's really the least we can do for a man who shows such bravery going "outside the wire" for the freedom of his nation, and for a Savior who went "outside the wire" for the freedom of all the world.
Hope to see you soon.