Life Taken, Life Protected
As I researched the origins of ECRA, the Edgewater Community Religious Association, for our Sacred Seeds Inter-faith event later this afternoon, I came across this story that Rabbi Shaalman shared with the Edgewater Historical Society: It was after recounting how Pastor Baum of the Edgewater Presbyterian Church came knocking on his door at Emanuel Congregation some 55 years ago, and how they had struck up and friendship and first began inviting other clergy and congregations to form ECRA. Edgewater was growing, and even in those days included significant racial diversity, though less tolerant, apparently. One of the members who joined was Pastor Pomeroy of Bethany Lutheran Church who one day made Rabbi Shaalman, aware of the racial tensions over at Senn H.S., and that it seemed possible they might boil over into actual violence. So Pastor Pomeroy and Rabbi Shaalman who had become fast friends, headed over to Senn. Apparently the school was trying to address it in some sort of an open forum, but it took the “Rabbi and Pastor” actually getting in between the two opposing groups to hold them off from physical confrontation. ‘They were ready to come to blows,’ said Rabbi Shaalman, ‘and they had knives and such.’ What they – “Rabbi and Pastor” – prevented was more than we can know.
And, it is always surprising and disturbing to me, how quickly and easily life can be taken, and how hard it is to guard and protect that life.
Jesus; who was sent by God; who came to save us; and who takes leave finally at the Ascension, on the 40th day after the resurrection; obviously feels a great responsibility. “All mine are yours [Holy Father], and yours are mine; …While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one,” prayed Jesus. “I guarded them, and not one of them was lost, except the one destined to be lost, so that scripture might be fulfilled.” It is always surprising and disturbing, how quickly and easily life can be taken, and how hard it is to guard and protect life.
That one destined to be lost, by the way, was Judas, of course, the betrayer, one of the twelve apostles. Judas was just as faithful, up to that point, apparently, as the other 11 disciples. When the 12 were sent out to preach the good news and heal the sick, for example, Judas was teamed up with someone, and completed the same mission?! And so there were feelings of shock and grief when Judas died. And it was Peter, then, who “stood up among the believers,” in our Acts reading, to address the 120 gathered there – that’s 12 x 10 – and figure out a way to elect a replacement for Judas, who euphemistically describes him as, “a guide for those who arrested Jesus.” A Guide, yes, but his Betrayal was also a great embarrassment for the early church. So now choosing a replacement restores the community that Jesus had worked for, a community that would look like, and thus act like, a new kind of Israel. The 12 Apostles represent the 12 Tribes of Israel, which had been so formative for the Hebrews when they returned to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, under the leadership of Moses. Jesus’ kingdom would not be bound to one particular piece of land, but would need witnesses, to the ends of the earth, a kingdom of God, formed, however, by the 12 tribes of Jesus’ followers. A community willing to guard and protect life, which can so quickly and easily be taken away!
For better or worse, our appointed Acts reading today, omits 3 verses in the middle of this story, as you may have noticed, which contain the complicated, and the archaic story, of what happened to the Apostle Judas: basically that he bought a field with the 30 pieces of blood money he was paid, to tip-off the soldiers, who arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and then, he fell into a ravine on that plot of land, and died spilling his blood, the implication being that he deserved it, and etymologically, it explains why the field is now called, Field of Blood.
And just to complicate things a bit further, the Gospel of Matthew has a slightly different take on the Judas story: same name for the land, Field of Blood, but Judas is repentant, according to Matthew, and tries to return the money. But when the leaders explain they can’t take blood money back, Judas throws it on the ground, and goes out and ends up hanging himself.
It’s surprising how quickly and easily life can be taken, and how hard it is to guard and protect life.
This week two high profile capital sentencing cases came down at the same time. Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected President of Egypt, who was later ousted by the military after days of street protests by Egyptians, was sentenced to death.
That same day we heard the sentencing verdict in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 21-year-old who was convicted last month for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing.
Even as Christians, we have differing opinions, pretty much across the spectrum, on the death penalty. So to get my own bias out of the way, let me just say that I stand opposed to it, after some years of discernment. But it is a much larger group of Lutherans who wrote and voted on the ELCA Social Statement on the Death Penalty who Citing Scripture, said about it: the statement supports the Christian calling to “respond to violent crime in the restorative way taught by Jesus and shown by his actions” (p. 2). Restorative justice involves “addressing the hurt of each person whose life has been touched by violent crime” (p.3). Such an approach “makes the community safer for all”. … ‘the message conveyed by an execution, reflected in the attention it receives from the public, is one of brutality and violence.’ ”
It is surprising how quickly and easily life can be taken, and how hard it is to guard and protect life.
The families who lost loved ones, or who were injured by the Boston bombing, also came to various conclusions, both pro and con, about the death penalty. Though public opinion polls in Massachusetts overwhelmingly opposed it, by a four-to-one margin, as increasingly do Americans in rejecting capital punishment.
“Ultimately,” the ELCA Social Statement says, “the death penalty distracts us from our work toward a just society.” (http://www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements/Death-Penalty#sthash.2P0diWA1.dpuf)
Our work towards a just society, that’s what troubles me most about the verdict for Mr. Tsarnaev. The death penalty is mostly a “distraction” from this work. Imposing death eliminates our job of being restorers of the breach. Is the message of the gospel good news, that when the going gets tough, let’s find a victim, ousting them, eliminating them, and surely our problem will be gone! Or is it that, it is surprising how quickly and easily life can be taken, and how hard it is to guard and protect life the mission Jesus handed over to us?!
Jesus came to save us from this, eye for an eye reaction-ism, exposing on the cross our previously unseen complicity in scapegoating and blaming. Jesus stood with those we’d like to eliminate our forget about, and then opened his arms, knowing he was next in line. Remember what the criminal on the cross next to Jesus said? That he himself deserved to die for what he did, but what has Jesus done to deserve death? That is the story that convicts us every time, a story that has the power to change and convert our hearts, and eventually our minds, because it is surprising how quickly and easily life can be taken, and how hard it is to guard and protect life.
Jesus is our guardian, the creator of life, new life, and the kingdom of God. Jesus said, “Holy Father… While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.
Let us become guardians and protectors of life, in our joy, as a life-long practice of our faithfulness.