Reflection by the Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt
I thought I’d better write this early – not because I have a sermon ready for Sunday (hardly!!) but because I have spent considerable time over the past two days reading and watching resources that are shaping what I am likely to preach on Sunday. I share this with blog readers, in hopes that you will read this, maybe be inspired to look up some of the references I have found, and to add your own thoughts. Perhaps for this Sunday we need a communal blog post.
At the Odyssey Network Scripture site, I found a helpful piece by Barbara Lundblad (with a link to a video conversation as well). She notes how challenging it is to read the Exodus lesson of the death of the Egyptians in the Red Sea on this Sunday of all Sundays. It is precarious to read this lesson; do we not fear it will allow people to evoke feelings of vengeance and triumphalism? “Why couldn’t the Exodus story have ended earlier?” she writes. “Did we have to see their bodies dead on the seashore?”
I found it helpful that Lundblad then introduced some midrash, where rabbis over the centuries had struggled with this same discomfort. Lundblad writes, “In one story from the Babylonian Talmud angels were watching as the sea covered the Egyptians: ‘In that instant the ministering angels wished to utter song before the Holy One, but He rebuked them, saying, 'The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you would utter song in My presence.!’ ‘” The midrash would never contradict the text, but in struggling with the militaristic implications of it, she continues, “A new word was spoken. … Delighting in the death of enemies is not a paradigm for every generation. The rabbis found a way to live with the tension: to hear the text of Exodus, yet also to hear God chastising the angels for singing songs of victory.”
Two contemporary rabbis wrote wonderful pieces as well, using different pieces of Jewish tradition to make sense of this tenth anniversary commemoration. Rachel Kahntroster wrote in the Huffington Post,
“The Fast of Tisha B'Av, which begins this year on the night of Aug. 8, has been a way for the Jewish community to confront and contain trauma through the telling of stories. First established to commemorate the destruction of First Temple in B.C.E. 586, it has become the day to relive the trauma of many other national calamities. … The rabbis tell the story of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua visiting the ruins of the Second Temple after it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Rabbi Joshua bursts into tears, anguished that the place where Israel atoned for its sins had been destroyed. Rabbi Yochanan comforts him, declaring that deeds of lovingkindness (chesed) had more power to achieve atonement and heal a broken world than sacrifice ever could. Chesed is not just something God shows us; it is our obligation to our fellow human beings in light of unimaginable tragedy. Chesed and not hatred or revenge.”
Arthur Waskow, author of the 1960s “Freedom Seder,” and a sage of our modern times, noted that in 2011, the Jewish feast of Sukkoth came three weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Poignantly, he compared the fragility of a sukkah booth with our vain attempts at fortress building:
“For much of our lives we try to achieve peace and safety by building with steel and concrete and toughness: Pyramids, air raid shelters, Pentagons, World Trade Centers. Hardening what might be targets and, like Pharaoh, hardening our hearts against what is foreign to us. But the sukkah comes to remind us: We are in truth all vulnerable. If ‘a hard rain’s gonna fall,’ it will fall on all of us. Americans have felt invulnerable. The oceans, our wealth, our military power have made up what seemed an invulnerable shield. We may have begun feeling uncomfortable in the nuclear age, but no harm came to us. Yet yesterday the ancient truth came home: We all live in a sukkah.”
I also found this comment on Psalm 114 illuminating. Marcia Brown-Ludwig (of the UCC Massachusetts Conference wrote
“At the time this was written, the God of Jacob supposedly belonged to the Israelite people – but now at least three faiths claim this same God as the One God: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As we consider how divided people of faith remain at our time of history – especially on the anniversary of a day when so many felt it was one religion against another (September 11, 2001), may we remember that the Earth is home to all of us, these three faiths and all the rest of the people who live on this planet. May we not then be like the Earth, and all of us tremble in humility, skip with sheer joy, together in the presence of our God?”
Given the Gospel, forgiveness must be the central focus of the day, it seems to me. Kate Huey, also of the UCC, whose commentaries I read weekly, quoted this memorable line:
"We know too well that the little boat in which we are sailing is floating on a deep sea of grace and that forgiveness is not to be dispensed with an eyedropper, but a fire hose" (Thomas Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).
Fire hose. The most unorthodox “commentary” on the text and on 9/11, and in some ways the one that has shaped my thoughts the most today, was watching the series finale of Rescue Me Wednesday night on television. The firehouse crew, emotionally scarred with survivors’ guilt, somehow manages to say good-bye and move, with resilience, to new lives. Never maudlin or mawkish, the show paid tribute to the heroism and courage of those first responders, who finally began to see a future not trapped by the loss and tragedy of the past.
Summing all my thoughts up are reflections from Rob Voyle, whose workshop on “Restoring Hope: Appreciative Strategies to Resolve Grief and Resentment” I attended last fall. When I preach this Sunday on forgiveness, I will preach on how it is we who forgive are freed – freed from our imprisonment to our anger and resentment, freed from living and re-living that painful past in our heads and hearts. We cannot forget that these terrible things happened, but we can let go of them enough so they do not determine our future. We can imagine the future God has in store for us, and we can imagine how we can build our lives in order to get to that future. Even the Rescue Me firefighters, drowning their survivors’ guilt in alcohol, food, sex and danger, can move beyond that horrendous past into a future in which they can live and thrive.
Finally, if you have an hour to spare this week, listen to the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 of “A Service of Hope and Healing” from Washington Cathedral. Sam Lloyd, the Dean and preacher, said this:
“In a world as interconnected as ours it could not be clearer, that unless we human beings learn to deal with one another with respect, understanding, and even compassion, the fate of the human race on this small planet is uncertain. … Hope for our world lies in the religions of the world embracing their deep and best convictions that we human beings are made to be repairers of the breach, as Isaiah says, to care for the least and lost, as Jesus taught, to live lives of compassion, as Mohammed declared. The test of any person’s faith in the coming years will be this: Does it make the world of the believer larger, more generous, more embracing of God’s vast world, or does it make the believer’s world smaller, more shrunken, more like ‘them’? 9/11 opened the door to a new world, but the shape of that world has yet to be determined. … May we learn to love as the God of all nations loves. May we be people of compassion as the God of the universe is compassionate. May we recognize in the face of the stranger the face of the One who made heaven and earth, and every one of us.”