Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Burning Coal

22 Sunday A #124
Jer 20, 7-9
Ps 63
Rom 12, 1-2
Mt 16, 21-27

August 28, 2011

Deacon Tom Cornell

In our first reading today we hear, “You duped me, Lord….” Another translation, the Jerusalem Bible has, “You seduced me Lord, and I let myself be seduced.” I was a grown man, 31 years old before I heard these words from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, in November 1964. Thomas Merton read them to a small group he had called to his monastery, the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Merton was then and remains now, 43 years after his death, the most widely read spiritual writer in the English language. He gathered leaders of the growing peace movement (A.J. Muste, Dan Berrigan, Jim Forest, John Howard Yoder, W.H Ferry, Tony Walsh and three or four others. Phil Berrigan showed up on the last day, with a case of beer.) American military involvement in the Viet Nam war was just beginning to heat up with US Army “advisors” on the ground. The public still supported the war but some of us felt very differently.

Merton called us to answer this question: By what right can we raise our voices against this war? Merton answered the question himself through the words of Jeremiah we just heard. To paraphrase: “You tricked me, Lord. I didn’t know what I was getting into speaking your word. I don’t want to do it anymore Lord. You’ve made me a laughing-stock. I make up my mind that I will speak for you no longer. But then it’s like a coal burning in my chest and I have to speak, to let it out.”

We did it because we had to. It was uncomfortable, even dangerous, given the temper of the times. A young friend of mine, a nineteen year old boy, had just been beaten to death on a street in Rochester for wearing the peace symbol, that’s all, the same symbol that you see everywhere now. (Graham Carey carved Ivan Johnson’s headstone. It's in a cemetery on a hill in Truro, Cape Cod, overlooking the spot where his ancestors first made landfall on the Mayflower, in 1620.) Soldiers in Viet Nam would be painting it on their helmets just three years later, when they and public opinion changed. But then, in 1965, it was another story.

We took comfort in Saint Paul’s advice we also just heard. “Do not be conformed to this age.” Don’t fall in step. March to a different drummer. “Be transformed by the renewal of your understanding so that you may judge what is God’s will, what is good, pleasing and perfect.”

In today’s Gospel reading we find Jesus making clear to his disciples what is before him as they approach Jerusalem, his passion and death. Peter takes Jesus aside and says no. “God forbid that any such thing should happen to you.” Jesus answers, “Get you behind me, Satan. You are blocking my way.” This to Peter! He had just entrusted the keys to the kingdom to Peter, the Rock!

Then Jesus’ instruction: “If anyone wants to come after me, let that one take up his cross and follow in my footsteps. Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What does it profit anyone to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

More than once in the Gospel we are told to take up our cross. I used to think you have to look for your cross. No, just try to live an honest life and your cross will find you, don’t worry!

In a few moments we will pray for our men and women in the armed services, especially those overseas and those who have been killed or injured in action, and for their families. Indeed, we should, and not just today but every day. And for all victims of war and for those of our soldiers who have taken their own lives. For the second year in a row now, more active-duty troops committed suicide than were killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, (in 2010, 468, this year 462 so far) the Pentagon reports. Nearly twenty percent of the troops returned from Iraq and Afghanistan report symptoms of post-traumatic stress or major depression, according to a Rand Corporation study. Men deployed over and over again, as often as seven and eight times to a war they don’t believe in! Every poll of public opinion says the American people want out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and no sector of our population is more against these wars than our men and women in uniform. God bless them! Support our troops! Bring them home!

Is this something we should talk about in church? Yes, because it is a matter of justice! “What it is the Lord requires of you? Only this: do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6,8). Every killing in an unjust and unnecessary war is a grave sin, and in a democracy we are all responsible. God help us!

We have to say so or that word will be as a coal burning in our hearts. We can not hold it in. 

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