A sermon preached on November 8th, 2009 based upon Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17 and Mark 12:38-44. The sermon anticipates Veteran’s Day.
There was a disturbing irony to the story that came out of Fort Hood in Texas this past week, coming as it did, just a week before the day our country sets aside to honor those Americans who serve in the military. An army major became unhinged — an army psychiatrist no less — apparently randomly opening fire. Thirteen lives were lost; countless more were wounded.
There are a number of different story lines that the news media has followed up on in the aftermath of these terrible shootings, including speculation regarding what role the major’s religion may have played in the rampage. All I would say in this regard is that I hope that, rather than leading to a greater intolerance, this terrible story challenges us to seek greater understanding of one another.
For me, the thing I would like to focus on is simply the incredible stress soldiers are often under, especially in a time of war. These pressures are rarely fully appreciated. The culture of the military emphasizes the admirable qualities of self-control and discipline. Focusing on doing their duty, soldiers are slow to give voice to the pressures arising within them. But the shootings in Fort Hood remind us just how much pressure they are in fact under, and to appreciate anew the sacrifices they make for our country.
As a psychiatrist in the army, it was the job of the man accused of the shootings to listen daily to the traumas experienced by soldiers who had returned home from the wars, and in a certain sense absorb them. Apparently the doctor had recently learned that he was to be sent to the war himself.
And so apparently last week he snapped. As is often the case in this kind of story, the violence that erupted from the army psychiatrist was described by those who knew him as distinctly uncharacteristic of him.
Sadly, in our society at large, stories like this are rather common. There was another story in the news this past week of a 40 year old man who, frustrated by being out of work for two years, took a gun to his former work place and opened fire.
Such violent acts fill us with horror, but part of the reason they do so is that on some level we recognize that sense of “there but for the grace of God go I.” We all live under a fair amount of stress and pressure which we manage well enough to keep ourselves from erupting violently. But we know that should the circumstances of our life conspire to intensify the pressure, piling stress upon stress, well, we don’t really know what we’re capable of.
That’s why we pray each week, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” because we know we are not as strong as we pretend to be.
And yet, here’s something to think about: How often do people come close to the breaking point, only to be brought back from the edge by unseen grace expressed by some anonymous act of simple kindness and courage? How many “walking time bombs” are there in our midst that somehow manage to get diffused before they reach the headlines. More, I suspect, than we can imagine.
The two scripture stories for this week lead me to think about this, because they both describe the sort of anonymous faithfulness of which I’m talking – simple faithfulness that, generally speaking, goes under the radar screen, so to speak.
The heroes in both of our stories are poor women, relative nobodies in male-dominated societies. In the temple, just days before he will die, Jesus pauses to notice what nobody else notices: a poor woman giving her two copper coins to God – all she has. This, he says, is worth far more than all of the offerings of the rich given so ostentatiously.
The Old Testament lesson tells the story of a young woman named Ruth, who suddenly finds herself widowed in a culture where women are pretty much lost without a man. She is poor, as is her likewise widowed mother-in-law, an old woman named Naomi. Naomi, a Jew, had been forced by a famine to seek refuge with her sons in the land of the Moabs, where she crossed paths with Ruth. Now that her sons have died, Naomi decides to return to her homeland. She assumes her daughter-in-laws will not accompany her.
Indeed, from the point of view of her own survival, it would be better for young Ruth to stay in Moab where there would be a good chance she could to find another husband. But Ruth has grown to love her mother-in-law; their souls are connected. In simple faithfulness to this old woman, Ruth chooses to go with her to a strange land she does not know. In concern for Naomi, she chooses what appears to be the harder way to go, and in turn is blessed, becoming the vessel through which grace flows. The descendents of Ruth will include first King David, followed by Jesus himself.
In April of 1943, a young US army flight navigator named Harold Gantert found himself in a plane flying at 15,000 feet above Germany when suddenly it was struck by enemy fire. The plane will not survive, the crew has no choice but to parachute to earth below. Preparing to evacuate the plane, Harold notices that one of his fellow crew members — the bombardier — has been stunned by the explosion that rocked the plane. He isn’t reacting as he should to the situation. Harold stops to help the man, to guide him to the escape hatch so that he can make the jump that is his only hope of survival. Having done so, Harold says a little prayer to God for help, then jumps himself. He finds himself in a remarkable state of grace, of peace, strangely calm as he drifts to earth. Above him the plane he had just jumped out of explodes; beneath him awaits an uncertain fate which at the very least will include becoming a prisoner of war. Although he will endure great hardships in the coming year before finally returning home, he does so with a quiet sense of assurance that everything will be okay.
It is in such simple acts of faithfulness, kindness and courage that the glue that keeps this world together is found.
Harold Gantert is a long time member of the Parsippany United Methodist Church, who, at 88 remains faithful and kind.