November 19, 2023
Pentecost + 25
I have been struggling, these last few weeks, between the instinct to incline my heart to the Lord and the need to reconcile myself to the atrocities which have been unfolding in the Holy Land, but also in Ukraine and in various other places … places whose names are mentioned in the Commentaries and Concerns insert, places like Sudan, but places which like the poor player who struts and frets his hour on the stage, the names often vanish from our ken, and are heard no more. But Israel, Palestine, Ukraine … they are fixed in our brains by the sheer weight of unspeakable brutality.
How do I incline my heart to the Prince of Peace. I was once a pacifist. Most of my friends in seminary were American CO’c –conscientious objectors. Those were the days of the Viet Nam War. I thought of myself as a pacificist and could make a pretty good case citing the Just War doctrine and reframing it as Just peace. But I wonder if I’m still a pacifist. The world has done so much to make me … is it angry or depressed or despair.
I served as a Legion padre for a decade and deeply honour several members of my family who served with distinction in the Great Wars. My soldier friends knew of my heart. And so, I’m torn.
The other day I had a conversation about our lectionary with an Anglican priest colleague in Newfoundland and part of our video chat centered around the story arc of the Hebrew readings which is coming to a close in these last days of the Year of Matthew. That’s a saga which began with Abraham and Sarah getting it on somewhere in the annals of ancient history, with Sarah’s laughter, that wonderful story, and the begetting of a people who would one day sack the Holy Land, in the Israelite conquest of Cannan. This is a history being written in a deep retrospective by the victors, as it always is, with a memory stretching back through several centuries of recorded and unrecorded time. In today’s bit at the end of that long arc of that ancient history, Deborah, a prophet and a judge, sets in motion the final episodes of the military conquest of the Canaanites. Prophets were not mere predictors of the future, as we often think of prophets, some were hands-on managerial. They were engineers of the future. So, Deborah.
Go, take a position at Mount Tabor, take the military high ground, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. This is tribal warfare. I will draw out Sisera, the general of King Jabin of Cannan’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon –in the great Kishon ravine dry except in the rainy season –the low ground, that’s what Wadi means– he will be there with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand. That meant slaughter.
Now this was about Israelite tribes and Canaanite tribes. The Canaanites were the relatively indigenous peoples of the time, in what we sometimes think of as the Holy Land, and our same Hebrew Scriptures describe how the Israelites tore down the indigenous worship spaces and desecrated their altars and invited the locals to worship God at the point of a sword.
This is like storming a synagogue and steeling the Torah. Or blowing up a mosque and kidnapping the Imam. Or firebombing a church and killing the nuns. Or, well, you get the picture. This is terrible, terrible stuff. And what it is is the descendants of some of the Israelites reporting out the valiant deeds of their ancestors and the triumph of their God. Oof da, as we say in Norwegian. The air being sucked from our lungs as with a full-on gut punch. Oof da.
There is a terrible thread which runs through much of, most of –all of ?– Western history and the same phrase recurs and recurs as a sign of the thread. I saw it recently in a recent World War Two movie. It was on the belt buckle of a member of the Wehrmacht, the term for the combined German Forces (air, land and sea) in WW II. And on the belt buckle “Gott mitt uns.” God with us. God with US and not with you or them. This legend would be so much rhetoric and trapping of war if it were not for the fact of the Holocaust (and, incidentally, the dispatching of dissidents like Dietrich Bonhoeffer). God with us and not with them. Not exactly the Lutheran or Roman Catholic Church’s finest hour. The Wehrmacht forces came from somewhere…
By the way, this was also the ancient battle cry of the Roman armies “Nobiscum Deus”. It was a moto of the Prussian forces two hundred years ago, and recently of Sweden of all places. In ancient Greek it was “μεθ᾽ ἡμῶν ὁ θεός” (“With us [is] God”). And sometimes the Hebrew translation in the Greek Bible is “God is with us” and sometimes it is left as a transliteration “Emmanuel”. The terrible thread is the idea that God sides with us, and not with them, rather than journeys with us, and us and them. And I believe that that must make God sick. And despair. And cry.
And so it is hard for me to incline my heart to the Lord as I seek to disentangle myself from images of warfare and to covet those of peace and the Prince of Peace, “the only side God takes” as Preston so ably challenged us / me last Sunday.
Some time ago, someone pressed into my hand a card, a holy card, which shows a picture of Jesus looking for all the world like a Norwegian cross-country skier except that you know it’s Jesus because he’s got a halo and his right hand raised in the ancient benedictory form of the name of Jesus and his left hand pointing to his sacred heart in my case pointing to my sacred pacemaker. These are very familiar to me from my French Canadian once-upon-a-time Roman Catholic roots. Family Bibles were full of them. Funerals generated them. Some were pictures of dead people. Many were pictures of Jesus or Mary. My father was ex-communicated because he challenged the Roman Catholic church of his youth and its complicity with the government of Maurice Duplessis. I remember him telling the story of the Catholic priests who were expressly forbidden from mentioning politics in the run-up to elections. But it was familiar territory for my father to hear the priest speak of the red of the precious blood of Jesus while the priest next door extolled the wonderful azure blue of the robes of the blessed virgin Mary. Red and blue. Us and them.
But you heard me say in the town hall next door, when we were contemplating the wonderful return of St. John’s Kitchen to the precincts of St. John’s: “Let’s temper our instinct to speak of us and them. We are all us.” It’s us and us.
But so with our God. It’s not our God as if we had shares in God and God were not their God. Our claim on God is not a claim of ownership or privilege or exclusivity or better or greater understanding of the mind of God. If anything, we know our poverty relative to the mind of God. Surely, a significant part of our interior confession is that we don’t know what we don’t know, such is the nature of the human journey and the person of God.
When I left my last parish, the kids in our daycare centre gave me a plywood flower with the handprints of the children in many colours. And the legend at the bottom “À Dieu”. Literally “to God” but in the fuller sense of “into God’s hands do we commend your journey even as we picture our journey.” Now I know the kids were simply told “put your handprints here.” But I know who told them. And I know what she meant.
There is something to be learned from the idea that we have no journey apart from our neighbour’s journey and no God apart from our all-loving, and God-by-many-names God. Surely that must be part of our understanding of God. Surely that’s what Jesus was on about. Surely it did not matter to him whether his fellow pilgrim were rich or poor, ill or whole, sane or not, a woman or a man, a Samaritan or a Jew… but he did care that we loved our God above all other distractions and our neighbours as ourselves. It is only in following that Jesus that I am able to incline my heart to the Prince of Peace and to understand “Emmanuel”, the incarnate God, not as God with us as opposed to them but as God with you and me, and them and us.
I can make no sense of warfare as it is brought to us by Netanyahu, Hamas or CNN. I guess that’s the takeaway. There is no sense. Only rationales and excuses and varieties of tawdry Gott mitt uns, God with us. God help us.
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in God’s sight. And may the church say “Amen.” R/ Amen.
André Lavergne CWA (The Rev.)
Honourary Assistant, Church of St. John the Evangelist, Kitchener