Sermon: Learning War and Reconciliation

The following is the text of the Rev. David W. Peters' sermon, winner of the 2015 Reconciliation Preaching Prize Competition. You can also watch him preach the sermon on September 11, 2015 in St. Paul's Chapel below.


"And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore."

War is not easy to learn. It does not come naturally to any of us, least of all to me, a bookish teenager, whose only sport was soccer and who was afraid to go canoeing. At the age of 15, when I felt a calling to the ministry, I knew I needed to toughen up. So, the day after I graduated from high school, I was up at zero dark thirty to take a bus to Parris Island, South Carolina to go to Marine Corps Boot Camp.

I learned war that summer. The men I entered boot camp with were mostly teenagers, like me. We learned how to march, how to salute, and polish brass and boots. It seemed we were always polishing something. Mars, the god of war, is vain, flashy, showy to a fault. But this wasn't war. War is killing, and killing is a skill you have to learn. 

Signs on the side of our barracks read, "More sweat in peace, less blood in war" and "Your endurance is limited by your consciousness and your willingness to go on." These were our Scriptures. We motivated each other and the drill instructors motivated us. They would get in our faces and shout, "You can quit when I quit!"

I fixed a bayonet to my M16 rifle and practiced the almost liturgical movements in step with the drill instructor's command. Pointy end towards the enemy, "Thrust!" We executed as one, imagining, and not imagining, the bones of our enemies breaking, a sound you never forget. My DI was always grabbing us by the helmet, giving it a shake, and looking right into our eyes screaming, "Let me see your warface!"

You can teach killing, you can teach war, and I was an avid student, there in the hot sands of Parris Island.

They put us in pits with boxing gloves and, when the whistle blew, we started in on each other. We pummeled each other in 60 seconds of combat. For those 60 seconds, we had to channel every ounce of rage, bitterness, hate—we had to survive any way we could. When the whistle blew to stop us, we continued to throw punches. They always had to shove us away from each other. The DI said to us, "Use everything you have in a fight—a helmet, a shovel, your hands—never back down, and never surrender." We learned hand–to–hand combat for war. We learned how to kill a man, a person, with our hands. "Use everything you have in a fight, never back down, never surrender."

Even if we, like the prophet, had longed for the day when we beat our swords into plowshares, that activity was not authorized by the United States Marine Corps.

War is hard to learn, but it sticks with you. Being a warrior is like being a priest. With its own vestments, rituals, and beliefs. You never lose it, no matter how old, or kind, or gentle you grow with time. And, when I think about it, we really didn’t learn to do war, we learned to be war.

But that was a long time ago.

You and I know what happened on this day. On that day, the end of days—many of you were right here or somewhere near here. You smelled it. Nothing smells like it. You know what I mean.

I had been out of the Marine Corps for a couple years when 9-11 happened. I had just finished seminary and was working as a youth minister at a church in Pennsylvania. Pretty peaceful activities, mostly, except for the occasional paintball trip with the youth group.

After that day. After the world changed for us. After we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq—yes, it was us. We did this. Only a few people, usually young men, did it. Only a few young men and women are ever on the “tip of the spear.” But the whole nation, all of us, push the shaft of that spear into the enemy. Maybe we're way in the back of the shaft or up towards the front, but we're all pushing, one way or another.

Shortly after the invasion, I realized thousands of young women and men, just a little older than the kids in my youth group, were heading into a long war. I knew they would need chaplains, someone to bring God's grace in a place that didn’t have much of either.

So, I signed up as an Army chaplain, just a few weeks after the invasion. I was 27, just married, a new parent with another one on the way. I was the second youngest chaplain in the Army. I was also way older than almost all my soldiers.

On every September 11th, in Iraq, and on every Army base I’ve served on, there would be a 9-11 memorial ceremony. A general or a colonel would always say to us, "We're here in Iraq today fighting the same people who attacked us on that Tuesday morning." It was a simple connection for the military. We Army folks, at least, are simple people.

You have to keep things simple in a war. You have to know the rules. In war, we call these rules, The Rules of Engagement, the ROE. These are the rules that govern when you can use deadly force. In Iraq, when I was there, you could kill anyone who you felt was a threat to you or someone else. We all had the ultimate power, the power to take a life. You never forget what it's like to have the power and be the one who kills another human. "Use everything you have in a fight, never back down, never surrender."

Rules of Engagement, the ROE, that's what Peter wants to know in our Gospel reading. "What are the rules?" he asks. "Lord, how many times may my brother sin against me, and I have to forgive him?"

But Jesus doesn't give him a rule. Jesus refuses to make reconciliation simple, formulaic, easily reproducible in a power-point slide or in a sermon delivered in a beautiful church on 9-11.

I’m an Iraq veteran and one thing I’ve found is that most combat veterans I know have very little anger or hatred towards the "insurgents," the men who tried to kill us in Iraq or Afghanistan. Those men were just doing their jobs, we were just doing ours. But, no, our anger is more personal. Anger usually is.

My brother and sister veterans have been used in beer commercials, at country music concerts, and on carefully built stages in the shadow of our Capitol or the buildings of this city. Sometimes this makes us angry.

We also have some anger at the self-obsessed nation we came home to; anger at the God who was on our side; anger at ourselves for not doing a better job; anger at our husband or wife, for finding someone else while we were gone; anger for losing a war; for letting people in our team die; for not bringing everyone home; and for being powerless after we had the power of the gods.

The hardest person to forgive is a brother or sister or a friend. The most difficult person to reconcile with is someone close who betrayed you, sold you out, or hurt you. Peter knows this, that's why he asks it this way. Peter doesn't ask how many times he has to forgive the Romans, or the Greeks, or Herod, he asks how many times he has to forgive a member of the church. In the Greek it’s literally, his brother.

It's astounding how difficult reconciliation can be. We are smart people here today. We may have been challenged in life. We may have been successful. We know how to do things. But we are often just as childish as Peter who asks this question, "What is the bare minimum that I must do? What is the smallest number of times I’m required to forgive?”

But Jesus makes it clear. You don't do forgiveness. You have to be forgiveness. You don't do Reconciliation. You must be Reconciliation. Just like you, the Marine Corps didn’t just teach me to do war, they taught me to be war, we have to learn to be Reconciliation.

Jesus taught it to Peter with this story of the unforgiving servant. The unforgiving servant in Jesus' story is reconciled to the king and forgiven his debt, not because he made amends, not because he cleaned up his act, and not because he changed his ways. He is reconciled to the king and forgiven because the king gives him Grace. Freely, without any strings attached. The king is not stingy with his forgiveness to the servant just as God is not miserly with us. Jesus tells us, in this story, that the heart of God beats with mercy, mercy, mercy, mercy.

The God revealed to us in Jesus Christ does not dole out small portions of reconciliation to the worthy. Our God of Abundance overflows with forgiveness, love, mercy and reconciliation above what is deserved or merited. 

And that is where Reconciliation starts. With this recognition of our own Reconciliation.

But it ends there for this unforgiving servant. He goes out into the street after he’s been forgiven and chokes a man who owes him $100. He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand that, if we put a cloud of revenge and un-forgiveness over the head of some other person, that same cloud is big, and hangs over our head too. He grabs his enemy with a death grip, and revenge whispers in his ear, "Use everything you have in a fight, never back down, never surrender."

When I came home from Iraq it took me a long time to find Reconciliation. I was so angry at myself, at my ex-wife, at the Army, and the God I went to war with. I remember kneeling in a Church in Philadelphia with a girlfriend next to me. When the General Confession started, our opportunity for Reconciliation, I refused to say the words, “We confess that we have sinned against you.” I muttered under my breath, “God, I’ll confess my sins against you when you confess your sins against me.” It took me a long time to be reconciled.

Reconciliation, for me, came in little movements and big moments. It came when I realized my chokehold on my enemies was a chokehold on myself too. Reconciliation came when I abandoned the mantra I learned in war, "Use everything you have in a fight, never back down, never surrender,” and I surrendered to a God who loved me and a Savior who was with me in my darkest hour. It came when I was honest about my anger with God, and I confessed that out loud to a priest as we read the words from page 449 in the Prayer Book: The Reconciliation of a Penitent. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness.”

Today, Jesus may be calling us to give up “trying harder to do Reconciliation.” We have to be it. Jesus was. He was reconciliation. As our prayer says, "He stretched out his arms on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace."  AMEN