Worship: Your Testimony Belongs to Us All (Guest Post)
**The following sermon was donated to us for use on this blog by civilian ally Brett Stavlund, a seminarian at Duke Divinity School. It was a part of an academic assignment, the original of which is footnoted heavily. To request a copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will put you in touch with this very talented theologian in training.
Transformation of Hell: An Eastertide Sermon
OT: Exodus 5:15-6:9; Psalm 22 (found in gospels Mt. & Mk.); NT: Ephesians 4:1-16
In my sermon this morning, I’d like to address how the Scriptures we heard together can come to bear on the important topic of trauma, in general, and combat trauma, in particular. But first, a brief word of prayer: Lord Jesus, you swallowed death by dying so that we, your body, might swallow you in the Eucharist and live. May these words, on your descent to hell, be words of life for the sake of your body, the Church. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.
We have a decent number of men and women in our church who either have served, or are currently serving, in the different branches of the United States military. For those of you who fall into this category, I hope to speak words of healing to you this morning, as living members of our body, and point to Christ’s gifts in you as Christians. For others of you, who, like me, have no military experience, I encourage you to embark today on a journey of listening. And beyond today, continue to listen as a member of this church body, and experience for yourself the trauma of war. For what does the Scripture say? “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”
This means, dear brothers and sisters who’ve returned from war, that dealing with the traumatic aftermath of war, and your return to so-called “normal life” is not your burden to bear alone. Let me say that again (slowly): This is not your burden to bear alone. Whether the war was seventy years ago or last month, it is my challenge, as your pastor, it is the Church’s challenge, and our society’s challenge to come to terms with, and deal with, together, your experiences of war. Our body together, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” can come alongside you, listen to your testimony, and share the burden of pain, guilt, and loneliness. This collective exercise I’m calling us to is not meant to “fix” you by wiping clean your memory of trauma, but rather, to acknowledge that your experiences really matter and it is a healing act to bear witness to your difficult experiences. This is a tough road, church. There is mutuality to this process: If one member has been traumatized, then all members must be ready to be traumatized in our listening and bearing together as one body.
Our Exodus passage reveals a group of people who felt dead while they were living. In retrospect, we, centuries removed, know that God heard and responded to their cries for deliverance. But in this text, God’s promises are rightly questioned. From one angle, the story of the Exodus is about the deliverance of a traumatized people, who have no clue where God is in the midst of their trauma. Once Moses and Aaron confronted Pharaoh with God’s words of deliverance, the traumatic experience for the people intensified, leading to despair. Pharaoh heaped additional loads on the people, demanding more from an already overworked population. The lives of the people revolved completely around, and depended on, following other people’s orders – they lived not for their own future, for their own land, but for the future of the Egyptian empire projects. As a result, like those living in the midst of traumatic situations, such as war, their horizons shrunk, and their imaginations were held captive – their attention focused on the next brick they produced to make it alive through the day. Even Moses, the leader, protested against the LORD, “O LORD, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.” Moses couldn’t sense God’s presence with the people who needed God the most! Where was God for the Hebrews in Egypt? Moses, obedient to the LORD’s word, tried to convince the suffering people that God had something new in store for their future. God instructed Moses to say to the people, “I am the LORD, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.” But the Israelites were unable to receive news of their deliverance. The text states, “Moses told this to the Israelites, but they would not listen because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.” The promises of God no longer could enter the ears and imaginations of the people – they had passed from life into the territory of death.
This experience of the Hebrews in Egypt, much like veterans returning from war, is a crisis of the human spirit in the midst of, and in the aftermath of, trauma. In both cases, people are unable to imagine a future, or see God in their midst. God’s saving words of promise and hope fail to inspire. Theologians call such a state hell. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI writes,
If there were such a thing as a loneliness that could no longer be penetrated and transformed by the word of another; if a state of abandonment were to arise that was so deep that no ‘You’ could reach into it any more, then we should have real, total dreadfulness, what theology calls ‘hell.’
It is from this hell, from this state of God-forsakenness, that David composed the first half of Psalm 22 from this morning’s reading. He lamented, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” The ancient warrior had grown up with the story of God’s deliverance of an oppressed people, but couldn’t seem to locate the presence of this mighty God. David, whose sleep was interrupted by traumatic terror, found no relief despite his earnest prayers around the clock. He felt sub-human, unwelcome in society, saying, “I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads.” He was completely broken, and the threat of annihilation inflicted wounds upon his mind. Terrified, he cried out, “Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast.”
For those of you who’ve seen war, perhaps you can relate to David’s experience recorded in this Psalm. Perhaps you feel trapped because you know you can’t return to life as it was before war, but you can’t imagine or understand what “future” means anymore. Or perhaps talking about “life” has become a foreign concept to you, and instead death is your closest companion that permeates all your thoughts, conversations, and experiences. You might even think sometimes that you are dead, or that a part of you died as a result of war. That’s exactly right and completely normal. You’ve paid a terrible price—a price that no one should have to pay—and we have to acknowledge, and come to terms with the fact that there is real loss, a real death involved, especially for survivors of war. And yet, you are in good company.
David’s words of God-forsakenness appear on the lips of our brother, Christ, in his hour of death. Matthew (27:46) and Mark (15:34) both portray Jesus experiencing God’s absence on the Roman cross. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries out. Through these words, “The mystery of Jesus’ descent into hell is illuminated as if in a glaring flash of lightning on a dark night.” Jesus reveals that the living death, which he experienced before giving up His spirit in physical death, is utter loneliness and abandonment. In Benedict’s words,
What appears as the innermost heart of his Passion is not any physical pain but radical loneliness, complete abandonment…What comes to light here is simply the abyss of loneliness of [humanity] in general, of [people] who [are] alone in [their] innermost being. This loneliness, which is usually thickly overlaid but is nevertheless the true situation of [humanity], is at the same time a fundamental contradiction with the nature of [humans], who cannot exist alone; [we] need company.
Can’t we all relate, at some level, to this description? My wife goes out of town for a few days, and I can’t stand to be alone without her. I long for the human connection that comes with her presence, and once she returns, the loneliness dissipates. That is the case for most of us, as “The fear peculiar to [humans] cannot be overcome by reason, but only by the presence of someone who loves [us].” But what happens if the presence of our loved ones can’t alleviate our loneliness and fear? What happens if God’s love cannot touch us any longer? This state is different than the temporary loneliness I experience when my wife goes out of town – it is final, complete, and there is no way out. This, friends, is what I mean by hell. I’m guessing this latter description more closely reflects the experience of returning from war for some of you. Participating in the sin of war, and the accompanying guilt, can lock you further in this hell of loneliness and alienation. It can be extremely difficult to make sense of the profound evil participated in, both as victims and perpetrators.
Friends, “the loneliness into which love can no longer advance is—hell.” And it is precisely this hell that Jesus entered, from his cry on the cross, through what we call Holy Saturday. For all of you, your ‘Holy Saturday’ experience of dwelling in death will last longer than one day. Entire seasons and decades of life can be Holy Saturdays. And yet, there is good news, brothers and sisters, even in the midst of dwelling in the region of hell. Yes! There is good news, the best news that we can ever be given, and that is this:
Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness…in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there he is. Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer. Neither is the same because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it.
This means that Christ does not need to somehow break into complete abandonment and loneliness—He’s already there! And he will make himself recognizable to you in time. He will show you the depths of his love, a love that dwells in the depths. The cross, thus, is a double-revelation: It reveals our own violence and sin, which crucified the Lord, and it reveals God’s love for us who put him to death. “In the abyss of human failure is revealed the still more inexhaustible abyss of divine love.” And so, as we move towards our celebration of Holy Eucharist this morning, let us recall, in our eating, the love of Christ that transforms the abyss.
Finally, brothers and sisters, it must be said that I do not have the only or definitive words on the subject of combat trauma or hell on earth. Instead, some of the most important words that need to be said and heard, as our church seeks to build itself up in love, will come out of the mouths of you, among us, who have served in the military. From our Ephesians passage, we hear that after Christ descended to hell, he gave gifts to people. The texts says, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” William Mahedy, a Catholic military chaplain in Vietnam, wrote a book in the 1980’s about the spiritual journeys of Vietnam vets. In it, he named prophecy as one of the gifts Christ gives to service members. “War, injustice, and oppression were grist for the [biblical] prophets’ utterances”, he says. “[Current] vets speak a word of prophecy in [their] collective story, and especially in [their] spiritual journey.” So those of you in our congregation who can testify to the true costs of war – the “psychic stress, moral confusion, and the dark night of the spirit,” please share it with us who are willing to listen! Your testimony belongs to us all! In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.