17 September 2017

‘As I live … I have no pleasure
in the death of the wicked’

‘The Falling Angel,’ Marc Chagal (1947)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 17 September 2017,

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity,

9.30 a.m., Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, Morning Prayer.

Readings: Exodus 14: 19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18: 21-35.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I have to admit to having some difficulties sitting, listening to our readings from the Book Exodus over these past few weeks.

It was fine two weeks ago, when Moses meets God on Mount Sinai, and takes off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground.

But then last week we had very specific details about how the Passover Lamb is to be killed and cooked, with splattering of blood on doorposts and lintels, specific details about how to cook the lamb and how to eat it – tough going, and not only for this vegetarian.

And then we had the warning that the first born are going to be slain. It is an image of God that is terrifying. And then it is followed up this morning with a story in which we meet the Angel of the Lord or the Angel of Death.

The Angel of Death plays a very terrifying role in an oratorio written by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Dona nobis pacem.

The fifth movement in this oratorio is called ‘The Angel of Death.’ Vaughan Williams derived his text for this movement from a speech in the House of Commons in 1855 by the great Victorian politician and reformer, John Bright, in which he condemned the Crimean War.

John Bright (1811-1889) was almost a lone voice in opposing the Crimean War. In that speech, he drew on images in the Passover story in the Book Exodus, where the Angel of Death kills the firstborn children of Egypt, but spares any Israelite where the lintels and the door posts have been painted with the blood of the lamb (see Exodus 12: 21-32).

Of course, the Exodus story makes no mention of the ‘Angel of Death’ as the author of this final plague. But John Bright’s eloquence helped to popularise this image.

However, his speech did not stop the Crimean War, and 600,000 people were left dead.

When Vaughan Williams was writing his oratorio, Bright’s speech was finding new relevance in England with the rise of Nazism and Fascism on Continental Europe, and a fear of yet another great war.

Vaughan Williams uses these words to create an atmosphere of anxiety and expectation, which leaves us wondering whether the war will ever end, whether we shall ever find peace.

The fifth movement begins with John Bright’s words: ‘The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land ...’ In the final movement, the fearful news of the presence of the Angel of Death causes the chorus to burst into another cry for peace, but only more trouble follows: ‘We looked for peace, but no good came ... The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved ...’

These words have relevance once again today as we worry about war and threats of nuclear war involving North Korea or the slaughter of refugees fleeing Myanmar. And they may have more relevance if the European project, having saved much of Europe from the horrors of war for over two generations, collapses.

But if the image of the Angel of Death in this morning’s reading disturbs us, we are not the first.

Not only do I find myself asking why Pharaoh and his army had to drown. Why could events not take another turn so that they arrive late, after the people cross and after the waters return?

To make matters worse, Moses and the Israelites later sing a triumphant song of gratitude to God for wiping out their enemies, declaring: ‘God is a Man of War’ (see Exodus 15:3). The Bible does not get any more masculine and militaristic than that.

Why is this Shirat Hayam (‘Song of the Sea’) so violent and unforgiving?

Where is God’s compassion and mercy?

This story is part of a longer Biblical passage known to Jews as Beshalach (בְּשַׁלַּח‎ – ‘when he let go).’ It is read in synagogues on a Saturday around January or February, a Saturday that is known as Shabbat Shirah, after the ‘Song of the Sea.’

The reading calls up the contrasting images of God parting the waters of Creation (Genesis 1: 6) and God promising after the Flood that the world would never be flooded or drowned again (Genesis 9: 11). So, this is a reading that we need to search through for promises of new creation and God’s redemption.

Traditional Jewish commentaries have been sensitive to the ethical problems this story creates. The Talmud says that when they see the Egyptians drowning, the angels are about to break into song. But God silences them declaring, ‘How dare you sing for joy when my creatures are dying’ (Talmud, Megillah 10b, Sanhedrin 39b).

Rabbi Johanan says that when the Egyptians are drowning in the sea, the angels want to sing a song of rejoicing. But God rebukes them, asking them rhetorically: ‘The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and you want to sing songs?’

The Talmud reminds us that our personal elation should never make us forget the misfortunes afflicting others (Berachot 31a). The mediaeval commentaries, the Tosafot, say this is the source for the Jewish custom of breaking a glass at the end of a wedding ceremony. And this is also given as the reason why Jews spill out drops of wine on Seder night, the night of the Passover meal, as a reminder that the cup of deliverance and celebration cannot be full when others have to suffer.

The mediaeval rabbis point out that God continues to pour out pity and mercy for the rest of life even while wrongdoers are destroyed. Even when the oppressors engage in gross evil, God is open to forgiveness.

When DreamWorks made the movie Prince of Egypt (1998), they realised it was not politically correct to show the Israelites singing for joy at the death of their foes, so they had them begin to sing the ‘Song of the Sea’ as soon as they left Egypt. The song ‘When You believe,’ which became a hit single, refers to God’s power but conveniently avoids any mention of violence.

‘The Song of the Sea,’ or ‘The Song of Miriam’, is so challenging, so disturbing, that the General Synod dropped it from the canticles in the edition of the Book of Common Prayer published by the Church of Ireland in 2004.

There is a dichotomy. If we are not happy that evil has been punished, then we do not care enough. But if we are not sad at the loss of life, then our humanity is weakened. The Prophet Ezekiel reminds us: ‘As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live’ (Ezekiel 33: 11).

Perhaps the two shores of the sea represent two sides of the one story. Perhaps, for us, we must pass through the middle, preserving and valuing life, yet not drowning in war and hate. The middle path between justice and mercy is a difficult one to tread and at any moment we can be washed away. We need to tread carefully and try not to get wet.

These are dilemmas that lead us to the ethical problems in our New Testament readings this morning, in the Epistle (Romans 14: 1-12) and in the Gospel (Matthew 18: 21-35).

I often find the call to forgive a much greater moral dilemma than some of the questions I ask about our Old Testament reading.

The Apostle Paul challenges us: ‘Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God’ (verse 10).

And in our Gospel reading, Christ calls us to forgive in a way that is so difficult that I am still wrestling with it.

Clergy in the Church of Ireland like to joke – when we step outside the rule books and do things that our bishops might not approve of – that it is easier to ask for forgiveness afterwards than permission beforehand.

Many of us grew up with language that chided us, so that when we did something wrong and said sorry, we were told, ‘Sorry is not enough,’ ‘Sorry doesn’t fix anything,’ or ‘Sorry is only a word.’ These are phrases that allow a hurt person to withhold forgiveness, to find a form of comfort in their own hurt, to control us in a way that allows us to know mercilessly how much we are in need of mercy.

But we now live in a culture of half-hearted apologies that are difficult to forgive. Politicians claim they are accepting responsibility for their decisions by resigning – which means they never have to answer for their actions. Public figures who are loose with their words later apologise half-heartedly – ‘I am sorry if I have offended you’ – so that those who are hurt now feel that they need to apologise for their response, for their reaction, for being hurt.

There are times that I have no right to forgive, when it is not my place to forgive. I cannot forgive the perpetrators of the Holocaust, because, no matter how many times I have visited places that are an intimate part of the Holocaust story, I am not one of the victims.

I cannot forgive the slaveholders or the mass murderers in wars and killing fields, because I am not one of their victims. On the other hand, perhaps, because I am not a victim, I might find it is not so difficult.

The true difficulties arise in my own personal life. The members of my own family, lost friends, near neighbours, former colleagues I think have hurt me in the past. I walk around with perceived slights, insults and hurts, as if they are some sort of crutch that helps the wounded, broken me to walk through this broken and hurting world.

But then I am reminded, time and again, by the Christ who loves me so much, of what ‘my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

I try, and I fail, and I try again, because I too need to tread carefully between the divided waters of mercy and justice and try not to get wet, so that I may turn from my ways and live.

And so, may all we think, say and do, be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Sunday 17 September 2017.

Forgiveness and love in the face of death and mass murder … a fading rose on the fence at Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)


Almighty God,
whose only Son has opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
Give us pure hearts and steadfast wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

‘Dona nobis pacem’ with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and Michaela Anthony, soprano

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