On the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany we follow the fictional story of four members of a National Guard unit who found themselves deployed to Afghanistan. The group includes:
- Ahmed, 28, balanced finishing a degree with his guard duties and working construction.
- Jaden finished high school last year, boot camp this fall and he was to have started at community college this semester.
- Zoey, a single mom in her early thirties is often mistaken as her high school son’s sister.
- Matt’s a married firefighter with three kids, who just turned forty.
These four had gotten to know each other through weekend guard duty and got along well considering they didn’t have much in common. They decided to go out for drinks one weekend before they were deployed, an evening filled with sharing stories, laughter and too many drinks.
If you were to have been at an adjoining table, you would have observed raucous behavior, heard filthy language, and not had a clue that the four were believers and followers of Jesus. The four would have been equally shocked because even though they shared passions and details of their lives, faith never came up in the conversation.
They had talked about how they were ready to use lethal force with vigor, each one cheering on the others, as they talked about how good it would be to destroy those wreaking havoc and violence on the Afghani people and American soldiers. There were wry smiles as they described how vile the enemy was and how they would easily kill when the time was right.
- “I hope I run across some of them that speak English so I can tell them what filthy, scum of the earth they are,” said Zoey.
- Ahmed added that he could help her out given his understanding of basic Arabic (even though most Afghani’s speak a dialect of Persian).
- Matt said that he wasn’t afraid to get blood on his hands, “hell,” he said, “it’s all in the name of freedom!”
- Jaden told Matt he’d have blood on more than his hands when he got through finally using his machine gun for real.
As the drinking continued, they talked about people they wouldn’t miss while they were deployed… and used some choice language to describe siblings, co-workers and neighbors that they didn’t think too highly of.
- Ahmed looking like he could spit nails, said he wouldn’t miss the moron misfits and idiot illegal’s his construction supervisor hired and forced him to work with.
- Jaden told Ahmed that the loser’s he worked with and the jerk of a boss couldn’t compare with his stupid family whose house he couldn’t wait to leave.
- Matt said, “you three have no idea what it’s like to have three selfish kids, all asking for $200 Nike’s, swiping cash our of your wallet, and not doing homework or helping my poor wife out around the house. They make me so mad; I could strangle them some days!
- Zoey said his life couldn’t be as bad as hers. “My son’s high school friends whistle at me like nasty construction workers… no offense Ahmed.” “None taken,” said Ahmed sarcastically, “maybe you should slap them…” then laughingly added “but boys will be boys,” as he winked at her.
Ahmed wasn’t the only one who teased Zoey or wanted to get to know her better (if you know what I mean). Jaden was still shaking his head having just learned that the cute young looking woman sitting across the table from him had a son almost his own age. And Matt, the married one of the four, had been checking her out since they had sat down.
- Zoey had sensed the increasing tension as the evening went on and caught Matt staring at her chest as he asked her a question.“Hey Matt, my eyes are up here!” she snapped.
- The two younger guys Jaden and Ahmed smirked, trying not to laugh at the situation, but ended up choking, coughing, and finally breaking out in fits of laughter which only infuriated Zoey and embarrassed Matt.
- Matt said, “Hey Zoe, I’m sorry, what do you want me to do wear blinders?” Jaden and Ahmed’s laughter now exploded and Zoey stormed off to the ladies room.
- Jaden said, “I still can’t believe she’s old enough to be my mom, maybe we should show her some respect.”
- Ahmed added, “Yeah, we’re gonna have to work together in some tough spots and close quarters.”
Zoey returned to the table and the conversation got serious. She looked at Ahmed and Jaden and said… “On the one hand, I’m flattered by your attention, but you guys are as bad as my son’s friends.” They nodded sheepishly and Jaden whispered an apology. She then turned to Matt and her tone became very serious. “You’re a married guy. Do you know how cheap that makes me feel? Your lusting is as bad as cheating… what would your wife think if she were sitting at the next table?” Matt replied he was just being a guy and certainly wasn’t looking to head to divorce court, or end up on Jerry Springer.
The evening ended with each of them swearing that no matter what happened in Afghanistan, they were glad they had a chance to toast their deployment, get to know each other a little better… even test some limits and boundaries. They promised each other they wouldn’t speak poorly of one another, lust after anyone they served with, or keep secrets from one another because they needed their fellow soldier to watch out for one another. The unit was deployed at Christmas time and after a couple of weeks settling in at Camp Eggers outside Kabul, they were sent to the field to an undisclosed location out of communication with any family or friends back here in the states. Their field experience started out in a gunfight as the four were on perimeter patrol of their small camp and came under fire.
After the fighting stopped, an eerie silence fell and the four shared that they had each used lethal force for the first time as they stepped over the dead bearded men riddled with bullets from their guns.
- “Not the gun fight of glory I expected,” said Jaden.
- Ahmed replied that the man he stood over looked like his cousin.
- Zoey said she never thought she could kill someone, “I guess they would’ve killed us if we hadn’t gotten them first.”
- Matt looked down at a bloodied body and realized his hands were blood splattered as well.
+ + +
The four were often assigned to the same Humvee as they were on one overcast January day when they were ambushed by the Taliban after the Hummer in front of them was hit in a roadside bombing. After their vehicle was stopped by the blast, they were riddle with gunfire as they tried to escape from the smoking vehicle. A grenade tossed in their direction insured that none of the four survived.
After the smoke cleared and another period of eerie silence… the four soldiers found themselves together again trying to make sense of their surreal surroundings and what had just happened to them.
- “I’m not sure this is heaven,” Zoey said, “but that was surely hell.”
- “I agree” Jaden and Matt said at the same time.
- Ahmed pleaded, “Help us Jesus,” and his plea seemed to echo in the misty yet brightening place they were gathered.
- Matt said, “You’re a believer Ahmed?” And Zoey turned to see Ahmed’s response.
- “I am, and the three of you?” he asked.
- They all nodded and Matt said, “I can’t believe we didn’t know that about each other.”
- Zoey added that they probably should have prayed instead of telling dirty jokes and glorifying war.
Jaden nodded and the four fell into each others arms in a hugging embrace. Their sense of peace was broken by a voice unlike any they had ever heard… “We’ve been expecting you,” said Simon Peter. “Please follow me while we prepare you for what’s next.” Jaden whimpered, “St. Peter… is this heaven? Where are the pearly gates…?” Simon Peter told him to not get ahead of himself and to put aside any preconceived notion he had about where they were, or what was to come.
The four knew they were dead, but their brains weren’t able to fully comprehend what was happening. Simon Peter led them to an area that looked kind of like a classroom. They sat at desks where a pencil rested and were given a large envelope. “A test?” Jaden asked. Zoey cursed and Ahmed shook his head. Mike exclaimed, “I haven’t taken a test in years! Have mercy on us St. Pete or whoever you are.”
Call me Simon Peter please, and yes open your envelopes where you will find ten essay questions. The four still in their uniforms covered in dust and splattered with blood, did what they were told. Glancing at the test they immediately recognized that the questions were based on the 10 Commandments.
Simon Peter then told them to begin each answer with ‘yes or no’ I have or haven’t upheld Jesus teaching of the law by my [blank]. He reminded them that of course God knew the answers, but that before they could go on, they needed to reflect on how they lived. That they should be remember that the law is a gift to help us see our sins and understand that we are to fear and love God. He then asked them their questions…
Your first question is about murder. Have you killed another?
Your second is about adultery. Have you committed sinned outside of wedlock?
Your third is about divorce. Have you abandoned another for selfish reasons?
Your final question is about oaths and your word. Have you lied and given empty promises?
Jaden began to tear up when he realized that he had killed as a soldier, but also as a son, brother, and friend…
- He wrote a confession of how in his past anger with others, he was guilty of murder.
- How calling his brother an idiot and thoughtlessly yelling stupid at his sister, or much worse names put him on the brink of hellfire.
- Jaden realized that the simple fact is that words kill and remembered the Gospel that spoke of chopping off your hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly.
- Did he have to choose to have a bloody stump… or would his entire being get eternally discarded for good in the dump?
Ahmed’s guilt about lusting after Zoey overwhelmed him…
- While he didn’t go to bed with her, he’d hardly preserved his virtue by staying out of bed.
- He reflected that his heart could be corrupted by lust even quicker than his body as those leering looks one thinks nobody notices, also corrupt.
- He remembered the Gospel that spoke of plucking out your eye the moment you find it in a lustful leer.
- Did he have to now to choose to be one-eyed… or would he be dumped on an eternal moral trash heap?
Matt thought of his wife, their marriage, and how he was feeling guilty for looking forward to the separation caused by the deployment.
- Were his separation and thoughts of abandonment, although legit, faithful, fair, or right?
- He realized that his thoughts welcoming separation due to deployment… were a cover for his selfishness.
- His emotional and physical separation from his wife, divorcing her from his love could be responsible for making her an adulteress, whether if he legally divorced her or not.
- And he remembered the Gospel that spoke of how even with a legitimate yet selfish divorce, he would be an adulterer because you can’t use legal cover to cover a moral failure.
Zoey remembered the many vows, oaths and promises she had made, and particularly those she hadn’t kept, or lived up to…
- She thought of all the times she doubted, didn’t speak up, or follow through on things she had promised or said she believed.
- She thought of ways she had not lived up to her word by only paying lip-service to God, her son other family members, and friends.
- She reflected on how one can make things worse by lying like the times she said she would pray for someone and never did, or shared the peace in church, not really meaning it.
- And Zoey remembered the Gospel that spoke of how when you make a promise, say only ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ because anything else comes from the devil.
+ + +
Ahmed, Jaden, Zoey and Matt put their pencils down at the same time and looked deeply at one another. Their faces showed the deep emotions they had just re-lived and the deep understanding that they had failed to uphold the Law of Moses in the Ten Commandments, and the discipleship expectations that Jesus taught. They had let themselves and God down in the choices of their lives. Even the reflection and confession written in their essay answers, didn’t relieve them of their burdensome guilt and disappointment.
Simon Peter collected their papers and left them in silence. After some time, Jesus appeared among them and warmly greeted the four. He told them to fear not, for he had of course taken the test, and taken all of the burdens for each of them… on the cross. He hugged and reminded them that no one enters heaven because of obedience alone… but by grace.
They were welcomed into the eternal kingdom, and they walked with Jesus in light and life eternal, forever and ever. The End. Amen.