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This last Friday – February 24th, was a somber anniversary.
It was on that day, one year ago, that Russian President Vladimir Putin went on Russian television and announced a “special military operation” to “demilitarise and denazify” Ukraine” Moments later Russian missiles started hitting targets in Ukraine.
From that day, to this – now over a year – the Ukrainian people have endured a Russian invasion and endless missile strikes.
I have never lived in a place that is actively being bombed.
I wonder what is it like to hear explosions, and know that there is no guarantee that the next strike won’t hit you directly?
What is that kind of fear like?
What is it like to live in a city in which many of the buildings are either reduced to rubble, or have massive holes blown into them, where they sustained direct hits.
We have all seen the surreal photographs of the aftermaths of these missile strikes–all of the everyday stuff that supports a normal family’s life – the beds and appliances, clothes and furniture splintered and burnt amidst smashed concrete and twisted rebar.
But imagine if that was your neighbor, and you knew… you knew that a similar fate awaited you at any moment of the day or night…
It must be a strange thing – an horrifying and nonsensical thing – to live in such a place and know… know … that a human being – someone with hands and toes and elbows and eyes, even a heart – someone just like you – is actually doing this to you on purpose.
Why, you ask, would anyone
do such a thing?
God also asks this question.
Missiles do not launch themselves.
In order for a missile to explode in an area that is populated by innocent civilians, there must be a person – another human being – who has made the conscious decision to launch it.
A few months before his death in 2009, my father agreed to be interviewed by his Nephew Noaki Suzuki. Naoki recorded the interviews, transcribed them, and gave them to me. The following story is taken directly from that interview.
War started when I was 12 years old.
At the time there was a small military factory outside of Shinjuku at Juniso called Konishiroku. I was drafted and working there. The factory was a lens cleaning factory, and I was doing office work.
On March 10th 1945 the great Tokyo air raid attack happened. I was 15. I remember I was in the factory dorm in Shinjuku. The air raid attack started at 10 pm. One after another B29s flew above us and dropped bombs, and the whole Tokyo downtown was in a sea of flames. The light from the flames were so great that it lit the city as if it was daytime.
Shinjuku was outside of the attack, so we were saved, but the whole downtown had been destroyed. Me and my family went to an air raid shelter. But we were all scattered. I didn’t know where my mother was. Ichihei went somewhere too. We were all dispersed. I think Tazuko must have been with mother. Just because we were under a shelter didn’t mean we were safe.
I was running really hard. I was running alone. Then, right in front of my eyes an incendiary bomb was dropped. This was dropped where I was running towards, so had I been running a bit quicker the bomb would have hit my head and I would have been instantly dead. But the bomb went straight into the ground and didn’t blow. So I jumped over the bomb and ran. Thus I was luckily saved and ran into a neighborhood shelter. Small sparks of fire had gotten into everybody’s eyes and their eyes were swollen, so we had a hard time seeing. So we were all looking through wincing eyes. The wind would blow and this would blow fire sparks into our eyes. It was hard to breath. This also killed many people. I fortunately jumped into the small shelter and was saved. Next morning when the sun came up I searched for mother. The family got together again and we all talked about how everybody had survived.
I have never lived in a place that is actively being bombed.
But I am the son of a man who ran from bombs.
It is an odd thing to have this ancestral memory – to know that my mother’s people were dropping those bombs, that my father and his people were running from.
It is a strange thing to live with the knowledge, that my very existence – and the existence of my children – depended on that one frightening detail – the fact that in that one instant, on the night of March 9th through 10th of 1945, my father ran, just a hair slow enough, not to be hit by that bomb.
Or the fact that the bomb did not explode.
If that bomb had exploded, my entire family would not exist.
I suppose that means that each of the people who actually did perish that night, not only died themselves – their families never happened! Many thousands of family legacies ended that night.
And of course, it is true that any tragedy can have this effect. The devastating earthquake that recently took place in Turkey and Syria has also cut short the possibility of generations of people who might have been…
But an earthquake is not an event created by human beings. No one presses a button and creates an earthquake.
Bombing. Missile strikes. These are human acts.
We do this to ourselves!
The moral absurdity of this is beyond my ability to comprehend.
We find ourselves pondering this strange question:
How can a human being make the intentional choice to shoot a missile at another human being?
How is this possible?
I ask this question, and consider whether our gospel lesson can help.
Jesus is in the wilderness. He is tempted by the devil.
The devil makes three offers – each offer increases the temptation.
Jesus has been fasting for forty days so he is hungry.
Would you like some bread? That would be nice wouldn’t it? You can do it. Go ahead.
This simple temptation appeals directly to our human instinct for survival.
Surely it is not wrong to eat.
But Jesus says no. Jesus will not use his power to change the stones to bread. He will not use his power for his own purposes.
If other people cannot do this – if they cannot turn stones into bread, then Jesus will not do it either. He has come here to share our common fate and we humans – we are more than just physical bodies looking for our next meal. There is something more at stake than just our survival. We do not live by bread alone, Jesus says, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Well then, says the devil… if you are so focused on God, than let’s see what God can do for you. Throw yourself down from this high place. Surely the angels will save you.
But again, Jesus says no. He may even agree with the devil – the angels probably would save him… but that, again, would be bending the natural order for his own sake.
Jesus has been fasting for forty days. He has been wandering in the wilderness. One can only imagine that, in his hunger and deprivation, he is tired and bleary, and he probably wouldn’t mind being taken up in angel’s wings. But I think that his identity, as it is separate from the wind and sand, has been worn away. I think he is no longer motivated by the necessity to prop up his own ego, his own existence. He has moved beyond all that.
Finally, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
The great human intoxication!
Ghengis Khan, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon Boneparte, Adolf Hitler…
We certainly know how they would have responded to the Devil in this moment.
How they did respond to the devil.
Each of these men – and so many others – including Vladimir Putin, have fallen down to worship the Devil, precisely for this reason.
Power, ultimately, is temptation. It is the triumph of personal ambition over moral integrity. It is the belief that evil itself can be used to satisfy one’s own desire.
Jesus has the strength to wave this aside.
I don’t know if you have noticed this, but I almost never use the adjective “Almighty” when I speak of God.
When I pray with you, I always open with the words “Gracious and loving God.”
I never say “Almighty God.”
This is because I am the son of a man who ran from bombs.
This is because my faith depends upon this – that Jesus always leaned to love, and not power.
Love is hard.
But power kills, and Jesus would have nothing to do with it.
So Jesus did not kill.
Jesus did not send in the missiles.
He did not drop the bombs.
On this one year anniversary of the beginning of the War in Ukraine, I remind you that…
Jesus did not kill.
He was killed.
Killed because he believed, not in power,
but in love.