Sermon for Sunday November 11th

A section of an article from Stars and Stripes written by Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a 2014 Washington Post summer intern who served as a rifleman in the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2010 “Even on the short overnight ops, sometimes we talked about things we knew we'd carry home. On a cold night in March 2010, Jeff brought up the kid he'd shot a month earlier, when the battle for the Afghan city of Marjah was hot and there was no shortage of 15-year-olds picking up Kalashnikovs off the ground. Jeff had killed one of them with four shots from a heavy-caliber semi-auto that made a soft thud when the bolt released. The kid had a rifle, and even kids with rifles can kill Marines, Jeff had figured…

A few weeks later, we were on the side of the road watching for Taliban fighters digging bombs into the ground, and Jeff was telling me about it. He described the way the kid fell and how he wasn't sure he'd done the right thing.

That was five years ago. Jeff doesn't bring up that story anymore. I know he thinks about it, though, because a couple of years back he put a Remington 700 short action in his mouth and didn't pull the trigger. Rather than remaining in the flooded poppy fields of Afghanistan, the story of the kid Jeff shot stuck with him. It grew and matured just as Jeff had, until one day Jeff sat on his bed with a loaded rifle across his lap, staring at a part of his life he could no longer understand.

"I'm not crazy," he told me, and I knew he wasn't.

…Ten years ago we would have just called it post-traumatic stress disorder. Sixty years ago, it would have been combat fatigue. And in the shell-raked trenches of the Western Front, it would have been shell shock. But Jeff's dead kid was none of those things. Jeff's weight was something else — a moral injury.

Moral injury is a nebulous term that few use seriously because it doesn't read well on Veterans Affairs claims. It's a new term but not a new concept. Moral injury is as timeless as war —

…For some, it's realizing that what you choose to do or not do in combat doesn't align with the person your parents raised. The person who volunteers at rescue shelters and takes his grandmother out to lunch on her birthday doesn't seem like the same person who once reveled in the shock waves of 500-pound bombs.

Moral injury makes its mark by creating a flawed sense of who you were when you were in harm's way. This is the second self. Deployed veterans, morally injured or not, have this second self formed in war — one who can tell incoming from outgoing artillery and whose first reaction to an arterial bleed is to kneel into their best friend's pressure point.

Back in civilian life, that second self must merge with the present self — the person who wanders the aisles at Safeway and wakes up to the soft bleat of an iPhone alarm. Those months, or even years, of transition are wrought with moments that confuse the two selves. Strange moments in movie theaters when folded American flags make your breath come short and hot; or on the Fourth of July, when the muted pop of bottle rockets induces a nostalgia you can't explain. Even the smell of burning trash reminds you of a place you'd secretly rather be.

Time passes, and most of us find a way to remember the old self. …Those memories are put in boxes or hard-drive folders labeled "Spring Break Afghanistan." Your war stories become well-rehearsed scripts, and even your traumas, those hellacious days when you bore witness to the young and the dead, are scrubbed and polished and placed in a mental vault that you know how to open — or keep shut.

But moral injury makes it hard to transition from memory to the present; it confuses the old self and the new. If the injury is severe enough, it can be almost impossible to see yourself in the present. Instead, you see the person who was capable of making the wrong decision when, years later, you know you could have made a different one.

My friend Jeff remembers his old self by wearing around his neck the bullet he almost used to end his life. It is a reminder, he says, of the moment he could no longer bear the pain of what he had done that day in 2010 — and what he had to do to move on. After he didn't pull that trigger, he decided to live — and to share his experience with me and other Marines he had served with. In many ways, Jeff transfused his moral injury into the bullet.      He turned the emotional damage into a physical object — a reminder of when he strayed from his values — that he could balance in his palm and run his fingers over.

As a nation, we have spent the past 14 years at war. Men and women have returned. Some have returned broken. It is our job, as a country, to understand what broken means.

Moral injury usually stems from a precise moment in a service member's experience and is not an abstract issue, nor another name for PTSD. … "It's about reconciling that event" that sticks with you… and it's also about reconnecting with a moral community, feeling connected to your fellow human being."

To understand moral injury and address its effects, we need to recognize that it exists. If we don't, if we continue to categorize moral injury under the same umbrella we have for centuries, those who have borne our wars will have to carry their own wounded. Those faceless few with draped arms over slouched shoulders will still be trudging across the terrain of battles fought long ago.”

I want to begin my discussion on the Gospel for today by saying it is wrong to read this passage as a piece of Antisemitism, as if Mark’s purpose is to condemn the temple and all that it stands for. This passage is not a condemnation of all scribes but of a group of corrupt ones. Remember it is set next to the story of the scribe who Jesus said was not far from the kingdom of God.

Our collect for today talks about destroying the works of the devil. The need to uproot evil and see evil for what it is in our world. Not to be fooled and deceived by evil masking as good.

We have seen a lot of evil lately. We saw evil run rampant in the killing of 13 people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Evil took hold again this week when a young man who had gone to war for his country, who was commended in those war pursuits, comes home damaged and broken, deeply morally injured. And somehow our country left him to make sense of life on his own. Severe moral injury can leave individuals deeply conflicted about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, and even more conflicted about whether they are themselves a bad guy or a good guy.  One does not just get over moral injury.  Someone somewhere has to help you rebuild yourself, your identity as a beloved child of God.  Your core way of being.

Releasing soldiers who are suffering from moral injuries and just expecting them to get over it, to come back and make a life for themselves, to be alright because it is too expensive to treat them and too politically explosive to unmask this problem as a systemic problem.  Now that my friends, that is evil.

We all want to see our institutions as good, as virtuous, as working for the well being of us all and we put our trust in them. A young soldier puts his trust in the military and it proves itself untrustworthy for his life. Maybe some of you put your trust in the military and learned a different lesson. Maybe you learned in war how utterly noble and self-sacrificing humanity is capable of being. The institution did not fail you.  It supported you. But sometimes, sometimes even intentionally the institution does fail us.

Our religious communities are also institutions. A widow in Zarapheth puts her trust in an anointed prophet and she lived. Her religious institution did not fail her. That prophet did not act self servingly but honorably and faithfully. 

Another widow in Jesus’ time puts her trust in the temple authorities and we are left to ponder not whether she did the right thing by trusting. We are left to ponder whether the institution will do the right thing by her. Will it respond as the beloved scribe of last week’s Gospel did, striving to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, or as the exploitative scribes of today’s Gospel did?

As we read the Gospels, over and over again we are given the opportunity to hear Jesus warn us about the moral depravity that can inhabit our society and our religion when the institutions that were created to serve God and human beings get focused instead on serving the few or serving their own survival needs.  It is this kind of immorality that Jesus so emphatically condemns.

There is a kind of moral failure that can be seen when individuals make bad choices.  There is a different kind of pure evil that can be seen when a group of evil individual actors holding power conspire together to create institutions that lie, cheat, and steal from the very people who have put their trust in them.  And there is something in between the two when institutions simply choose to close their eyes to their deepest moral responsibilities to the poor, the wounded, to children and the elderly, to orphans and widows.

Churches my friends, our beloved churches, are institutions faced every day with many small, moral choices that can uphold the trust that has been placed in them or betray it.                        

May this community strive every day to be a community that is known for its trustworthiness, for its love of friend and stranger, its compassion for those in need, its unfailing commitment to championing the causes and needs of the powerless and the forgotten.

When the widow puts her two pennies, her last two pennies in our coffers, trusting we will care about her and for her, may we be found faithful and trustworthy in her sight and in God’s sight.