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Last week, Stuart mentioned that we had tried to compose a prayer that captured the wide range of hurt and frustration we felt in the light of current events in our country. And, then, we remembered “A Prayer for the Whole Human Family,” that exquisite intercession from the Book of Common Prayer that holds together all the fragile frayed edges of our common cloth.
This prayer was new to the 1978 BCP. The 1928 prequel [of blessed memory] contained two similar and very lovely prayers: “A Prayer for Restoring Public Peace at Home” and “A Prayer for the Unity of God’s People”, both of which were also included in the 1892 BCP, which had changed but little from the 1789 version.
The legacy of these prayers reflects a sobering awareness that “unhappy divisions” among us can be deathly. They also reflect a strong connection to the current events of the time. “A Prayer for Restoring Public Peace at Home” dates back to the English Prayer Book of 1662. It was a revision of the BCP of 1549 — a pretty lame version as far as Collects go — composed fifteen years after Henry VIII established the Church of England. In the exception that proves the rule, the only petitions included in that BCP are for “Rain” and “Fair Weather.” Perhaps that was as far as Thomas Cranmer dared to go without coming to the same end as Anne Boleyn!
I will not recite a history of the current events from 1549 to 1978 that are the backdrop for each of these revisions to the prayers. But, you can summon them in your own minds — from wars between nations, to wars within one nation, to the struggle for voting rights, equal rights, and human rights.
All of this matters as background, because of our first reading this morning, the “Genesis One Creation Story.” This alternative story was crafted many years after the story about Adam’s rib, and was designed as an intentional response to a very horrible current event.
After a cruel siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army that started around 600 BCE and lasted somewhere between eighteen and thirty months, the nation fell before King Nebudchadnezzar in 597 BCE. The people were led in chains from Judah to Babylon.
For the next seventy or so years, the equivalent of two generations, the exiled Jews lived in Babylon. There, their prophets did some well-deserved fingerwagging, but as Walter Brueggemann points out, they were also “the poets of people in pain.” And in poetic irony, they comforted the exiles by admonishing them “to pray for the welfare of the land in which you live.”
Prayer would be the foundation of reimagining what life as a God-fearer would look like, now that the holy city was gone and the holy Temple, the place where God resided, was destroyed. There would be no more opportunity to offer the appointed sacrifices, no more thrice-yearly visits to affirm one’s membership in the tribe. There would be no more presentations in the Temple of male children to receive the priestly blessings. By all accounts, the Spirit of God that had resided in the ark of the covenant was lost.
Indeed, how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a new land?
What happened during that 70 year exile would change the face of the Jewish religion from that day forward.
Besides developing new religious rituals the observance of which would henceforth identity someone as “a Jew”, the people would compose a new story of the beginning of the world, a story that reflected not only the goodness of God and God’s creation, but a true sense of the moment when life began.
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 2 וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה ת֨הֹוּ֙ וָב֔הֹוּ וְח֖שֶֹׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י Gen. 1:1
תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃
Unformed and void of “set pieces”, but NOT a black hole. In our grief, we humans tend to remember only what was once there. And, it is easy to tell ourselves that now there is nothing there.
But, the truth is that we “begin” with a bunch of “holy stuff”, that has some contour – a great depth of possibility — the “tohum.” And the breath of God “flutters” “hovers” over the surface of the thick darkness of its depths.
There are times when we just have to begin again. Times when we recognize that the “unhappy divisions” between us have threatened our common survival, and caused destruction that needs to be reckoned with. But, beginning again never happens without something.
When I told my good friend Rabbi Biller I was preaching on this story, he reminded me that the rabbis say that there is always stuff swirling around — lots of “tohu vabohu.” And that the most godly thing we can do is to start separating stuff from stuff, naming it, and connecting it day by day in a meaningful and life giving way in collaboration with God who is hovering, fluttering over it all:
וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃
[The breath of God fluttering, hovering over every inch of it.]
Even after the Temple was rebuilt, the primary place of family devotion would remain the home. In short, what the Jews learned in the Exile is that God was not confined to that box, nor was the proof of their devotion to God limited to Temple presence or animal sacrifice.
The prophets’ poetic refrain would now underscore religious life – a broken and contrite heart would be the new sacrifice and one’s family and neighbors the primary opportunity to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
Wow, does that describe how I have felt this week: broken hearted, contrite over the countless ways I have contributed to an unjust society and lacked resolve in the face of the challenge to love my neighbor like I love myself. As the familiar words in our prayers comfort us today, I imagine that Jesus’ final words to his disciples comforted them, recalling the lessons from their ancestors:
There is a lot swirling around us. The most godly thing we can do is to begin separating things that do not complement each other, naming what we have, who we are, and arranging ideas and practices into a new story of fierce hope that we can live differently; that we can honor the promises we made at our baptism.
As perplexing as is the idea of a triune God, what it gives us is an image that beyond our intellectual comprehension, God is infinitely capable of being present to us and in us.
So, let us begin again. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park, LPC, PhD
June 7, 2020