September 24 Sermon: The Rest of the Story

  • Tonight’s door with last night’s key.

This sermon builds on last week’s message. For those who weren’t here, and for those who were here but forgot, here’s a quick recap:

  • My story: 200 combat missions, about half in a dive bomber where, too often I’d pull off from a run and see nothing but my bombs going off. Realized my sense of patriotism had been used in a way that was shameful. Got through it with the help of the 139th psalm. Paired nicely with…
  • Scripture about Egyptian soldiers, dying for a Pharaoh as the Israelites left Egypt. Which led to…
  • The Matthew scripture where Jesus called for forgiveness by the gazillions…Forgiveness, Forgiveness, Forgiveness.
  • Your responses were overwhelming. Hard stuff to think about, but you did. Grateful to this congregation for your caring interest, & encouragement.

But honestly, as I put last Sunday aside and began to pray about this Sunday’s message, what came back was that Jennifer and I didn’t quite get there. We did get into it. Learn to love enough to end war. Recognize that we’ve been taught something else, carefully. Or maybe we just prefer to fool ourselves. Still, I didn’t tell you the whole truth of my story, so I want to come back to that a bit later, but also, let’s think a little longer about what really are today’s key’s to peace.

Let’s try something: Who’s in favor of the US being involved in a war somewhere? Raise your hand. OK, now who would rather America would be at peace?

And yet, look at our recent history. Something’s going on here; wars without end, practically from WWII to today. It seems to me that, at some level, we’re trying to re-live our history from WWII. At an emotional level at least, the American people learned the wrong lessons from WWII, and we’ve been making mistakes ever since. Maybe the most common of yesterday’s keys.
How many of you are following the Ken Burns Vietnam documentary on PBS?

I’ve watched a little so far, but frankly, I’ve got the same problem with it. For all the painful imagery, it’s still a history lesson. And that’s not how most people make important decisions in their life. Important decisions are, at their center, emotional commitments. So, good TV? Sure. But probably not today’s key to peace.

Same with Just War theory, that suggests that wars are sometimes necessary, but whether they are just or not depends on – a whole bunch of stuff. It’s carefully reasoned theologically with a long thoughtful history, but it hasn’t stopped us from relying on our weapons to solve our problems. Yet another key from yesterday.

So let’s look again at our scriptures for today. Maybe they will get us closer.

  1. In today’s Exodus story of the Israelites in the desert, they’re grumbling about how hard it all is. It seems like last week that they were grumbling about the hard conditions they lived with in Egypt. Yesterday, they were given their freedom in an escape that was nothing short of miraculous. It seems like only Moses understood that there would be some hardship along the way, but that they were being called somewhere better by God. A moral compass if you will, and I think pointed clearly for Moses from his ongoing conversations with God. A moral compass built from what had to have been an incredibly emotional experience. What the rest of Israel didn’t seem to understand was that, if they wanted to reach the promised land, if they wanted to live in peace and prosperity, there would be some suffering. Suffering: one of the keys?
  2. Then, let’s look again at our Gospel scripture from today. As I read this parable, I think it’s clearer if we forget about the money. The people that had worked all day were basically all up in arms about fairness. “I’ve been treated unjustly.” Doesn’t that sound uncomfortably like how we have all come to think about justice? Where our passion takes us? “It’s not fair – to me!”

    A couple Saturdays ago, I went walking around the peace and justice fair at Esther Short Park, and I saw much the same definition of Peace and Justice in the booths there. “I’m here to promote MY justice, addressing MY injustice.” Our booth was the only church I saw that made clear they actually stood for something. Beyond the church booths, though, I only found one booth that focused directly on ending war as essential to peace and justice.

    It’s as if peace-loving people everywhere have given up on stopping war (understandably, given our recent experience) and moved out from the center of the subject – tending the branches and the flowers, but not feeding the roots of peace and justice. Of course, there can be no Peace without Justice. But actually, there can’t be justice without peace, either.

Last week, I suggested that learning to love more fully was the answer. Problem was, we have been carefully taught something else. And often, we don’t even notice, because it’s so skillfully done. That’s how we let ourselves be manipulated into supporting these wars, at least at the start. Remember weapons of mass destruction? The post-9/11 declaration of “war on terror.” At times like that, or for that matter, times like Pearl Harbor, it’s too easy to get us to believe that we need to hate, or at least stand up and fight back. No matter the cost.

But last Sunday, you also got a taste of the illumination that can come from these combat stories. If we are willing to face these painful moments together, mourn together, that makes possible a new paradigm – instead of leaving history to be written by those who have nothing to lose by sending our children and grandchildren to the next war. Otherwise, those moral injuries are passed along as a mistake for future generations. It may be hard, even impossible, for your veteran. But it’s powerful medicine for a war-crazed America.

I’m very aware that this isn’t easy, or natural. Americans have never been good at suffering. But after a year in Compassionate Warrior Training for Reintegration, I am convinced that it’s the only medicine strong enough to break the cycle of violence that extends now from Korea to Vietnam to El Salvador to Bosnia to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and maybe back to Korea.

So, because of your response to last Sunday, I’m ready to trust you now with the rest of my story.


But before I start, I want to take a moment to show you why your brother, your father or son or daughter, may not be able to do this. At least not yet. And why, even after a year of training to be compassionate with myself, this isn’t easy.

Close your eyes for a moment.

Recall the moment, the event, the thing in your life that you are most ashamed of. The most guilty secret of your life. What you would least like the rest of the church to know about yourself.

Now, imagine standing where I am and telling the church. That’s what I’m about to do, so that we can share the insights that come from the story.


As it sunk in for me in the first few months of combat what I was actually doing, how I’d been lied to by my government, I also began to notice that some of my squadron mates, all good guys that would, if necessary, put their lives at risk for me, were actually enjoying this. Good guys? Heros? They seemed like good guys back stateside where we trained, but out here in a war zone? Something different was coming out of them. They weren’t bothered like me. In fact, they were enjoying it! In my heart, I knew this wasn’t the way good guys behaved. My friends were actually behaving like monsters.

That was disorienting enough. But as the missions began to pile up, as I did my job day after day, then returned to live with these guys, I began to enjoy it too! Am I a Good guy? Or deep inside, a Monster? What if I’m both? That’s REALLY why I needed PS 139! Then, and now.

So, after Sandy Hook, when the President of the NRA said, “The only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”, you can image my immediate reaction. It took me longer to see that, even Disney sanitizes fairy tales so their movies feature good folks and villains, not the more complex reality of human nature. We’ve been carefully, often subtly, taught.

Between my first and second tour, I switched from that dive bomber to a reconnaissance plane, where I would fly missions trying to make sure the bombers were hitting military targets, not some poor folk’s cooking fire. Of course, there’s little moral distinction. Thing is, no matter what you do in combat, it changes you. But at least I could sleep at night.

And of course, you’ve got a moral hand in this too. You sent me. You paid the bill. And now, we’re both sending young people to other wars with no better reasons for being fought.

And then there’s the homecoming, which in some ways is different with the public’s attitude for each war we fight. Thursday night after that OHSU/PSU Public Health event we announce here the last two Sundays, I sat with two of the Gulf war vets I have been spending time with the last year. In their language, they talked about never being able to feel “normal” again. They’ve seen too much, done too much, to ever fully be comfortable in normal society again. I get that. Every warrior, I believe, comes home with the sense that the fabric of civilized society is actually far thinner than normal people realize. We can adjust, but we’ll never be like the rest of you.

So, no wonder our brothers, our uncles and nieces and nephews don’t talk about the toughest time in their life.


(If time is getting away from you, Gary, skip to the alternate ending!!!)


What is today’s key, what are today’s keys to peace? Let me see how much I can add to last week, and draw from our experience here today.

Last week, Jennifer pointed to the Matthew scripture where Jesus told us to forgive our enemies “seventy times seven”. Shorthand for don’t stop forgiving. That’s still a good start.

Then, as hard as they are, I think it’s critical to begin conversations between people with combat experience and those of us who have been spared the pain. Nothing else will clear away all the mythology about how glorious, or unavoidable, or inexpensive war is. So don’t give up on your brothers, or your nephew or niece, if they resist the conversation. Just be gentle, and persistent.

Then be patient. We’ve taken a long time getting here. It’s not going to change overnight. Peace is likely to feel risky for every person in this congregation. It might even call for us to give up some of our safety, some of our security. So as we try to start these conversations, change these habits that came from our grandfathers, let’s also be compassionate with one another. Make America Empathetic Again.

Finally, Peace really does start with us, with you and me. I’ve got work to do just to be at peace with myself! Then compassionate with Sharon. Then with you. Gentle with other Vets, and so on. Then and only then, can we Make America as Great As It Set Out To Be. This isn’t a subject our politicians, of any stripe, can or will solve. It’s a movement that can only work from the bottom up.

Let me leave you with the most hopeful thing I learned from my work with the VA. Our brains can rewire ourselves. It does involve a little painful work along the way. My VA therapists have taught me that there’s good science behind focusing on four behaviors we all can get better at: Mindfulness. Kindness, to others and to ourselves. Generosity. Gratitude. Sounds like a pretty good church, doesn’t it?

This is a Just Peace Church, so I wanted to start this conversation, but hope it will continue, hopefully with lively disagreement.

I’m ready to lift the peace candle again. If you’re with me, please stand.


We lift this peace candle every Sunday as a symbol of our commitment to peace and the passing of that commitment from generation to generation.

Short Ending



What is today’s key, what are today’s keys to peace? Unfortunately, I’m running long here, and think we need to leave this question to another time, perhaps a class sometime. This is a Just Peace Church, so I wanted to start this conversation, but hope it will continue, and hopefully with lively disagreement.

Let me just say for now that, Peace really does start with us, with you and me. I’ve got work to do just to be at peace with myself! Then compassionate with Sharon. Then with you. Gentle with other Vets, and so on. Then and only then, can we Make America as Great As It Set Out To Be. This isn’t a subject our politicians, of any stripe, can or will solve. It’s a movement that can only work from the bottom up.

Let me also leave you with the most hopeful thing I learned from my work with the VA. Our brains can rewire ourselves. It does involve a little painful work along the way. My VA therapists have taught me that there’s good science behind focusing on four behaviors we all can get better at: Mindfulness. Kindness, to others and to ourselves. Generosity. Gratitude. Sounds like a pretty good church, doesn’t it?

I’m ready to lift the peace candle again. If you’re with me, please stand.



We lift this peace candle every Sunday as a symbol of our commitment to peace and the passing of that commitment from generation to generation.

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