Honor

Late in 1997 I got a dream job commanding the Air Force ceremonial unit in Washington, DC. For most of my career I’d served in classified assignments, with no public acclaim. But now I’d be leading the unit with the Air Force Band, Honor Guard, and Chaplains at Arlington National Cemetery, with thousands of public performances, many on national TV. Only the Thunderbirds, the aerial demonstration team, had more public visibility.

Earlier that year, a video had made national news which showed graduates of a Marine training course having their insignia, which had sharp metal prongs, being pounded into their chests. It was a secret hazing ritual among elite units called “blood pinning.” The video was hard to watch; mothers didn’t send their sons to the Marines so this sort of thing would be done to them.

At my first staff meeting, I asked the commanders who worked for me if our units did this sort of thing. “Oh no sir! We would never do that.” So, I was told.

I think it was about a month later when a large color picture appeared in The Washington Post of one of our ceremonial guardsmen in dress uniform, along with the story of how he had been hazed.   

I learned that the Honor Guard hazing ritual was called a “beat down.” Experienced ceremonial guardsman would take turns slugging newbies after their first official ceremony. The guys were tough. Most of them actually liked the ritual and looked forward to it. But that didn’t make it right.

If this was such a great thing, why did it need to be secret?

Why did a unit, whose sole purpose was to guard honor, think it was OK to lie?

Jesus Christ said it plainly: “Let your ‘yes” be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’”

The 8th commandment prohibited “false witness,” but an Old Testament system of jurisprudence had arisen which involved swearing oaths. The more important the issue, the more important the thing you would swear by. But Jesus said no. Integrity isn’t situational.

When you just tell the truth, you never have to worry about keeping your stories straight.

Looking, staring

This week I looked up a 1976 interview that then presidential candidate Jimmy Carter gave to Playboy magazine. Carter had continued to teach Sunday school in his hometown Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, and there were lots of questions about how Carter’s faith would inform his presidency. The questions were tough, wide-ranging, and professional. Over 43 years later, the interview seems so civil compared to today’s politics that it borders on quaint.

But then Carter said this: “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

And that was pretty much what everyone remembered from that interview. President Carter was widely mocked for being a prude.

This week we’re studying Matthew 5:29, the verse President Carter was referring to from the Sermon on the Mount. If you take it seriously, you’re still going to be mocked. Frankly, sometimes Christians are prudish, especially when they make known what they’re against, but can’t articulate what they’re for.

In the creation story, God lovingly created the first man and then breathed life into him. Genesis chapter two is filled with images of God’s infinite creativity, including God parading the animals before the man for the purpose of naming each one.

But the parade had another purpose, to see if one of the animals might be a “helper suitable” for the man. None were. So God put the man to sleep, pulled out a rib, and created the woman.

“Helper suitable?” Is that all?

The same Hebrew word for “help” is used of God himself. This “helper’ had a bit of God in her.

And “suitable?” A better translation would be “mirror image” or “likeness.”

The woman completed creation. Neither the man nor the woman was complete without the other, and together they reflected God’s image back to each other and to God.

We were created to marvel with the man as he got his first look at the woman: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

But then came the fall, and looking became staring, and marvel turned to lust.

Jesus is not being a prude when he warns us not to stare.

He’s not asking too much when he instead expects us to marvel.

Reprocessed anger

We’ve been talking here about God’s kingdom. God’s plan is to bring everything under his sovereign rule, but God has been doing it slowly, over centuries, so everyone will have the chance to come in.

One of the Bible’s enduring images of the kingdom is of a feast, where everyone will sit down to eat with God at the end of history. In Luke 14, Jesus builds on this image with the parable of a master who held a great banquet. Invitations had gone out and been accepted. When the big day arrived, guests were invited to take their places, but one by one they began to make excuses. The excuses were calculated to insult the host and keep the banquet from taking place.

What would the master do?

Instead of retaliating for this public humiliation, the master sent his servant out to bring in the poor, the blind and the lame. The master commanded this be done until his house was full.

Middle Eastern scholar, the late Ken Bailey, said the master “reprocessed his anger into grace.”

I just checked several news websites, and there were at least a dozen reports of insults along with the inevitable angry responses. Anger is the air we breathe.

The thing is, genuine injustice is a legitimate cause for anger; the master in Jesus’ parable had every right to retaliate. Instead he opted for costly grace. He used the anger generated by the insult to reach the folks who never could have imagined being invited to the feast. 

Jesus has sent out the invitations and the kingdom feast will soon begin.

Could it be that we are so used to anger, and being angry, that we don’t know how to respond when we experience his costly grace?