Guarding the dead

An earlier version of this post was published at the Episcopal Cafe on September 27, 2017

I had been traveling in a country not previously visited; we drove past houses, both small and a little larger, surrounded by fortressed fences, and I wondered about the fearful stories behind those defenses. Then, there was the cemetery, bounded by angles razor wire of the kind and style I am used to seeing around correctional facilities and military installations.

The proverbial banality of evil is such as to acclimatize us to a certain level of violence – that which we might consider “normal,” “occasional,” “random,” until something – some incident, scene, or someone catches our attention, provokes us to examination, self-examination, repentance, and prayer.

I wondered, in passing, why would you need to set up barbed wire fences to guard the dead?

In 2 Samuel 21, Rizpah set herself to watch over the bodies of her sons and their brothers, whom David had considered of sufficient value to pay off the wounded debts and demands of his enemies. For an entire season, she lay on the hillside, scaring the crows from their bones, until the king finally took notice and restored the dead to a place of honour and acknowledgement.

Those who kneel to watch over the dead – Armoni, Mephibosheth, Michael, Trayvon, Tamir, Freddy, Philando, Anthony and the others – they make us alive to the fact that the violence we are tempted to accept as normal, occasional, random, is nothing of the kind. It is sinful, oppressive, deadening.

Pilate set a guard against Jesus’ tomb because, he said, he was afraid that Jesus’ followers might steal his body; but perhaps he was a little afraid that the rumours of resurrection might be true, and that real justice might undo his rule of violence.

For such is the reign of God: a country in which violence does not wield power, oppression has no weight, even death has lost its sting, and war has been drowned, dissolved by the flooding rivers running down from the throne of God, washing away barbed wire fences, rolling rocks, opening at last our deadened hearts to the possibility of another life.

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You do not reward us
according to our loveableness,
thank God, you are less fair,
unlike our exacting, you err
always on the side of mercy,
balancing justice by melting down
wood and iron, recasting the scales
to create love’s crown.

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A prayer for the end of the world

Will the world end on end on Saturday?

For some, it already has. Those caught in storms of unimaginable strength & devastation. Those whose very bedrock is shaken like a jar full of beach pebbles, shattering glass, spilling blood & pain. Those gripped by the vicelike jaws of war & terror.

Will the world end on Saturday?

For some it will. For those who wake from the sleeplessness of grief to find the world transformed overnight into an alien landscape, unfamiliar & unkind.

Who will build us an ark?

Promises of rainbows are not enough, our God, to sustain us, when the waters have risen up to the neck.

I will give praise to our God, who is gracious, slow to anger, whose mercy endures forever.

Have mercy on us, our God. Speak peace to the storm; calm the mountains; settle the ocean floor. Soothe the sudden earth & let restless hearts of stone cease from creating chaos by their commotion. Make all things new.

But for those whose world is ending, in your mercy, drown with them; do not rush forward to your new creation. Do not leave us alone, at the end of the world.

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Apocalypse and Passover

The readings for the day include the first Passover meal, to be eaten hurriedly, with shoes on and staff in hand, in anticipation of Pharaoh’s frantic release of his Hebrew slaves after the devastating tenth plague hits his house.

You could be forgiven for feeling apocalyptic lately. Between wars and rumours of wars, earthquake, flood, wind, and fire; even the sun turned dark for a moment. Hundreds have lost their lives in mudslides in Sierra Leone. Entire island nations have lost their homes in the past week. Closer to home, the image of Aaron and Moses eating their Passover meal hastily, ready to run, can’t help but bring to mind those persuading themselves to leave or not to leave Florida, Georgia, the Carolina coast ahead of Hurricane Irma; those hoping that the storm might, after all, pass them by.

Just to be absolutely clear, the idea that these natural disasters are some kind of pseudo-biblical punishment upon our political or social enemies does not bear up under the weight of the gospel, is contrary to the teachings of Christ and the cross, and has no place – no place – in our churches. God so loved the world; all of it, all of us. God loves the child who died as the hurricane battered Barbuda, the first responder who drowned in Houston, the mothers crying out in Sierra Leone and South Asia. The passover that we pray for them is not a relief from punishment, but the compassion of a God who draws us out of the deep waters, and speaks peace in the midst of the storm.

A lot has happened since we last met Moses near the burning bush. His own people, not to mention the Egyptians, must have been feeling pretty apocalyptic themselves, after suffering undrinkable water, infestations, and rampant disease; aka rivers of blood, plagues of frogs, flies, locusts, and boils. Through it all, Pharaoh has barely wavered from his initial position, the one in which we found him three weeks ago when Moses was born, placing himself in the throne of God with the power of life, death, and liberty over the people of God.

It would be nice to think that Pharaoh was converted by the compassionate actions of his daughter to adopt a Hebrew child, to relinquish his racial animosity against them; but he wasn’t. It would be great if a plague of flies had convinced Pharaoh of the error of his ways, turned him to the abolitionist cause, and ended his system of slavery; but it didn’t. A few times, under extreme pressure, Pharaoh almost conceded justice for the Israelites, promising to let them go; but each time, once the pressure was off, he rescinded his orders, and resumed the status quo.

Even after this night, the night of the Passover, the Pesach, in which God had compassion over God’s people and protected them from evil and death; still Pharaoh failed to understand, and obey. If Pharaoh had learned mercy earlier, perhaps the story would have had a different ending. This is, after all, the story of a God who desires mercy, not sacrifice; a God slow to anger, and full of steadfast loving-kindness. But the bond forged by Pharaoh’s daughter’s act of mercy, drawing the infant Moses out of the deep waters, was not enough to build a bridge of mercy to connect for Pharaoh the cry of the Hebrews to the cry of the Egyptians.

But God hears their cries.

We have a tendency to read this story as though we were the people oppressed and imprisoned by the Pharaoh. We read the Passover as our revenge, and our righteousness as the lintel that saves us from the punishment of God, well deserved by Pharaoh. We tend to make the story our excuse for escaping the storms that afflict others, literally or metaphorically; we make it our justification. But when we do that, paradoxically, we become Pharaoh, placing ourselves above our neighbours, who are like us the people of God, made in God’s image. We wear our skin, our immigration status, even our geographical location as our badge of office. When we sit on Pharaoh’s throne, we fail to notice the intimate mercy that God enacts through little things like a family meal; signs of God’s love and presence with God’s people.

And perhaps it would be an occasional comfort to think that we could daub our lintels with lambs’ blood and be delivered from the effects of the hurricane, flood, or fire; but we know that it doesn’t work that way. If we thought that we could anoint our heads with oil and be protected from cancer, heart disease, and heartbreak; but that is not necessarily how it works, either. The idea that daubing the lintels of houses with lambs’ blood directs God, guides God, diverts God’s punishment away from our family forgets that God already has counted every hair on our heads. God knows us better than we know ourselves. God knows what we deserve, and what we desire.

But what if the Passover is not the story of God turning a blind eye to the people of God while wreaking devastation on everyone else in sight. What if the moral of the story of the Passover meal is not “duck and cover,” but the story told by the prophets: ‘“I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” says the Lord.’

The Pesach, the Hebrew word that we translate Passover, is about protection.[i] It is a sign of God’s mercy. We anoint ourselves with oil, we daub our lintels not to divert God away from us, but to draw God close. These signs are not to point God away from us, but they are signs of God’s covenant with us; a covenant of mercy and compassion, to bear with us and be with us through thick and thin, hell and high water, come what may.

Something terrible happened that night in Egypt, and after it was over, Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and tells them to take their people and leave; but that is not all. Something terrible happened that night, and in the darkness, Pharaoh finally saw that there was a compassion available beyond that which was his to grant. He summoned Moses and Aaron and asked them to bring him a blessing. Pharaoh, in the depths of the darkness, had finally the humility to ask for the grace of God, to recognize the compassion that he was missing, and to know that even now it was his for the asking. It is the most human face that we have seen Pharaoh wear, and it will not last till morning. Still, for a moment, his heart was broken open, and he saw God waiting on him with compassion, offering mercy.

In times such as these, our prayer is not for God to pass us by, nor to turn a blind eye. Our prayer is not to batten down our defences, but to break open our hearts, to hear the cries of those in need of a blessing; and to admit our own need of grace. Our prayer is for God to be with us, to share with us a sign of God’s covenant: the blood poured out, the meal hastily shared.

We pray for those in danger of death, dispossession, deportation, destruction. We pray for those hiding in closets and in plain sight, not that God would pass them by, but that they would hear Jesus’ promise to them: “Wherever you are gathered, I am with you.”

[i] The Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Edition (Oxford University Press, 2001), Exodus 12:11-13, text notes

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Religion and politics: a match made in heaven

This was first published at the Episcopal Cafe on September 6, 2017

I once heard a bishop tell a curious congregation that the cross is where religion and politics meet, conjuring up for my imagination a picture of the Pavement: Pilate and the people, religious and political leaders’ intersecting interests leading to the forced march through the city, and the planting of a cross on the hillside outside its walls.

People who filled the pavement with palm branches now filled the air with lament, with their longing for victory, with loud slogans of support for one faction or another; even with prayer. Did they crucify religion in favour of politics, or is politicking skewered by its own condemnation of an innocent man of God?

Most of us in religious leadership have at one time or another been accused of allowing politics to infect our religion, and/or of attempting to infect politics with our faith. The fact that the practice of religion, like that of politics, has to do not only with higher powers but with how we live together, with one another, makes it inevitable that the two will intersect.

Both are also prone to the pitfalls of false idols.

The one who pulls us out of the pit is, of course, Jesus Christ himself; a man not unfamiliar with politics and prayer.

Only if it is for his sake; only if it is for the sake of his love –

love that feeds the stranger and recommends the practice;

love that welcomes the children and rebukes those who would turn them away;

love that breaks open barriers of class and caste, and in the breach finds their repair;

love that heals the sick and restores those presumed dead to life;

love that calms the storm with a word of Peace;

love that carries that strange banner, the cross, through the streets of the old city, silently protesting all that organizes against the kingdom of God;

if it is for the love of Jesus that we pollute our religion with politics, and our politics with religious fervour, then that cross-pollination bear indeed bear rare and blessed fruit.

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codified, commodified, 

corralled in free fall; if no one will 

stretch out her arms to pluck you

from the unsolid state,

unsuspended, groundless,

unfounded, such weightlessness,

spooling out forever

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The readings for today are here

The weather cannot be described in terms of good and evil. It has no conscience, no moral compass; and yet Jesus rebuked the wind and the waves, saving the lives of all aboard his boat. So maybe it is not out of line altogether to read Paul’s instruction with a weather eye towards the south, and the destruction dealt by #HurricaneHarvey since last weekend.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)

Over the past month people have joked about bringing back the old-style school desks, under which some of us were invited to “duck and cover” in case of a nuclear attack back in the day. Yes, and our children today practice “active shooter” drills and lockdowns. It’s not just about tornadoes any more, or monthly fire alarm tests.

But do not be overcome by evil. Do not be dismayed. “Do not lag in zeal,” writes Paul; “be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” (Romans 12:11)

Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (Romans 12:13)

We saw a lot of criticism this week of a certain megachurch and its leader in Houston, who was apparently slow to extend hospitality to strangers fleeing Hurricane Harvey and its wake of devastation. We saw his response contrasted with the actions of myriad smaller churches, synagogues, and mosques around the area. The world is watching to see if we mean what we say, when we say that our God is love, and that we walk in the way of the cross. So let our love be genuine.

Let love be genuine. (Romans 12:9a)

So I got to thinking about what a disaster preparedness plan for a church should look like. What does it mean for us not only to resist being overcome by evil; not only to escape disaster; not only to save ourselves, but to overcome evil with good; to contribute to the needs of the saints, and extend hospitality to strangers? How can compassion be built into a disaster preparedness plan?

Some of this could be practical stuff. Having an up-to-date phone list to check on one another in times of distress. We’ll be working on that soon with a program coming from the diocesan offices.

Last winter, a friend lamented that when the schools are closed due to weather emergencies, the children have no place to go and the parents are often at a loss for what to do, if they can’t miss work. She said, “Surely the churches should be the first to step up and open their doors,” and a lively Facebook discussion ensued about whether the churches themselves might be inaccessible due to the weather, and whether they had the right staffing and volunteers and readiness to be able to offer such help; the kind of discussions that we saw rehearsed and dismissed as excuses this week as the floods rose in Houston.

I was one of those who made excuses; but what if we were to recruit and maintain a list of volunteers willing to undergo background checks and safeguarding training; a standing corps of compassionate friends, ready to receive stranded students in case of closed schools and stressed parents?

How will we build compassion into our disaster preparedness plan?

What if we had a team of prayer partners well versed in non-violence and active listening standing ready to respond in case of civil unrest in our city; ready to respond with open hearts and clear minds, with prayerful hands and compassionate lips?

Beyond and behind the practical considerations, there is the foundational stuff. The stuff of theology. Knowing our place in the world and in God’s kingdom. Do we have the theology in place, and the relationship with God and our neighbours to combat a sudden attack of homophobia and transphobia such as the #NashvilleStatement released this week? Do we have the tools to deny demeaning words and replace them with the gospel of love? Do we have the humility and wisdom to call out the unbenevolent dictatorship of structural racism, and to clean out our own biased souls?

Does our personal disaster preparedness plan include repentance, and rejoicing in the way of the cross?

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)

We have the ultimate example of evil upended, overcome in the death and resurrection of Jesus. How much more evil does it get than to crucify the Son of God? The very sky turned dark at the sight of it. And yet Jesus would not be turned from his plan of compassion, of love and mercy, by this disaster. He would not call on forces of violence to trample the evil that faced him. Instead, he overcame evil with his own good offering of love, steadfast faithfulness, self-sacrifice.

How very good, then, to see God’s new world order: “Let there be life!” triumphing over the forces of evil and death.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let them deny themself, and take up their cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

If we are to take up that cross, that good means of victory that combats violence with compassion, smothers death with life, breaks open heaven without harming the earth; if we are to take up that cross, then we are to proclaim God’s love to the world in word and deed, as Jesus did, to the ends of our lives and beyond.

Walking in the way of the cross, our plan is for compassion; our zeal is for service; our love is for God and for our neighbours.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good. … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9,21)

Come hell or high water, hold fast to that cross. Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice for the sake of the world.

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