Scripture: Matthew 25:1-13
In the name of one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit Amen.
There is a famous adage from Vegetius, Si vis pacem, para bellum which means, "If you want peace, prepare for war,”
This seems to be the current ethos of our military. It is not lost on me that I am preaching on a Veteran’s Day that is notably marked, with the real potential and preparation for a large-scale, multi-domain global conflict. Anyone who is paying attention to the words of the leaders of our own Department of Defense knows that our top military leaders are speaking of the distinct and close possibility of a global war that is not only in some faraway place, but that could affect even those in the relative safety of the continental United States.
This war, as they describe it, could be catastrophic, fought not using the asymmetrical styles with air and sea dominance, freedom of movement, and uncontested global logistical networks we have witnessed during the Global War on Terror – but rather, something that looks like the Second World War. Where thousands perish, not dozens – and where the US will be contested in every domain. And though I didn’t come here to give you a lecture about the geopolitical scene that many of you are probably already aware of, I do think that it’s important to preface any talk of Christians in conflict with the note that the world seems to be preparing itself for conflict again.
I have found in my theological studies that there are occasions in which Christians are called to war. Where we must remedy an injustice so great, or challenge an evil actor so urgently, that the devastation brought upon through the act of war is outweighed by the devastation of the present evil. For nearly 250 years, good people in the United States have, on every such occasion, bravely risen to this call to duty. They have, with honor, fought to defend not just our liberty, but the liberty of those across the world. We see them laid to rest at Arlington, Gettysburg, and the Cemetery of the Alleghenies, but also sitting in the pews here today, and at home living humble lives in the country they vowed to protect. Those who wore their nation’s cloth deserve great honor because there is something inherently special about the call to service that they answered and continue to answer. I am proud to recognize you all today.
But the fact that we must fight wars – that young men and women must die, is a tragedy. Out of all the ills in the world, it is possibly one of the most obvious illustrations of fallen nature. That we must resort to violence, prepare for it, or exist as a deterrent from it, should sadden us all. That people are often quicker to use those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, rather than search for the hard way to peace, is objectionable. Ever since Cain and Able, we seem to be incapable of finding a means to restore peace that doesn’t first involve destruction.
This is why, while I think when Christians go to war, we should wage it efficiently and decidedly and with a clear purpose, we cannot ever stop calling for peace. We cannot ever be so unprepared for peace that we lose the opportunity to make it. Our Gospel passage talks of two groups of women. All of these women were awaiting the coming of the bridegroom with lamps at the ready. One group was prepared for the long-haul, while the other group did not bring enough supplies. There is a misnomer that the five foolish women came unprepared. This is not exactly true however, they just prepared for the wrong thing. They thought that the bridegroom would come much sooner, and so they didn’t bring enough supplies. The other group had a better picture. They prepared for the long haul and were ready for the coming of the bridegroom regardless of the time they had to wait.
It is in reflection of this text that I wonder if, the adage, “If you want peace, prepare for war,” loses some of its teeth. I wonder if sometimes we prepare for the wrong thing – or prepare more for one thing while ignoring the other. Sometimes I wonder if we prepare for war without wanting peace. And it is here that I wonder if keeping our lamps trimmed in our current world means we must prepare for peace just as much as we prepare for war. I wonder if keeping our lamps trimmed - if bringing enough oil to a world filled with conflict involves us somehow proclaiming hope in something better – surely the bridegroom is on his way.
The Book of Common Prayer offers us that the Christian hope is, “to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world.”
In other words, we must faithfully live fully into our lives here on Earth but also look forward to the day that Christ comes back and changes everything. We don’t have time to go back and look for our lamp oil when the time comes to make the world see the light.
There is a dual duty present in this statement. First, we must go through life now recognizing that there is no closer and fuller communion with God than through Jesus Christ. In baptism, we joined this eternal family, and we experience this means of grace every time we approach the altar. And second, there is also a commitment to wait. This commitment means that we realize that this is not the permanent set-up, and instead that we can put our hope in the world that is to come.
These duties are hardly passive. Due to these duties, God requires us to enter all the terribleness of the world, every war, every conflict, and every fight offering a hope that transcends all of the things that we can imagine. Since we understand the liminality of this world, it makes it easier for us to work towards justice for our neighbors despite the earthly systems that work against that very justice, to love with abandon, and to speak prophetically to the issues of our own time, and yes – to call for peace even when we are the ones standing in the trenches. This commitment means that we are free to fully and unabashedly pursue the world that God offers a place in creating.
And so, Christians must do the hard thing. Our call is to stand in the trenches, to fight for the liberty of our neighbor, to train and to sweat, and to ask the tough questions to God. And, even while fighting, even while celebrating the justice that winning wars or being prepared for war brought, for celebrating the duty and sacrifice of those that did serve, we must look toward a world where there is no pain, where we, along with those we call enemies and adversaries, will be in the Lord forever.
So celebrate our heritage as protectors of this nation. Recognize the depth and the beauty that for 248 years men and women have recognized within themselves the ability to answer a call to justice. Celebrate your family members for their service, share memories, and be merry for all that they have accomplished in their service.
But avoid getting so focused on the commitments of this world, the responsibility of our oath, and the sincerity of our pledge that we forget to keep our lamps trimmed – that we forget to look for every chance for peace, or worse, we decide that peace isn’t possible when God says that it is; that our enemy’s heart can’t be changed and reconciling work can be done. Let us lay upon the altar the dearest and best as we strive for the paths of peace. Amen.