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The Rev. Michael Sullivan The Rev. Michael Sullivan
The Rev. Michael Sullivan is rector of Holy Innocents' Episcopal Church in Atlanta, GA, and the author of two books.

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Holy Innocents' Episcopal Church, Atlanta, GA


Of the Song of Moses and Lover of Peace

May 12, 2011

When I was in seminary, I attended Morning Prayer each weekday.  On the mornings we said The Song of Moses, I squirmed in my chair:

            I will sing to the Lord, for he is lofty and uplifted;

                        the horse and its rider has he hurled into the sea. . . .

            This is my God and I will praise him,

                        the God of my people and I will exalt him.

(Exodus 15:1-6, 11-13, 17-18)

Then, the days we said Psalm 137, I wanted to leap from my chair and run out of the building.  I couldn't say the words and mean them. The infamous ending proclaims:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!

Happy shall they be who pay you back

what you have done to us!

Happy shall they be who take your little ones

and dash them against the rock!

 

Some days we even sang these texts or others like them, lifting our voices in song as we proclaimed the death of children, banished infants from their mothers' breasts, or celebrated the death and destruction of enemies, all in the name of God.  Our God. 

Most days, I worshipped more easily.  The Book of Common Prayer, our trusted liturgical guide, had prayers that literally felt like they were binding my wounds, proclaiming God's new day, and blessing all those in need.   Those days became part of me and their prayers began to live in me, written on the fleshy tablets of my heart.   Prayers started coming to me in ordinary life whenever I needed them, and I began to see the fruit of daily, common prayer. 

Jump forward to September 11, 2001.  I tucked our children into bed, cried over their sleeping bodies in light of the day's events, and then went into the living room to pray with my wife.  A Collect for Peace, straight from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, came from our lips:

O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know 
you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend 
us, your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that 
we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of 
any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. 
Amen.  (BCP, 99)

And then, while not easy, we also prayed for our enemies, recognizing, as the Prayer Book reminded us, that the "Son commanded us to love our enemies . . . . seek[ing] to stand reconciled [with them] before [God]."  (BCP, 816)

The revelry of recent days has taken me back to the days I sat in chapel wondering why on earth we were celebrating death and destruction. And like those days, I was thrust back into thinking I was above words of celebration, falling head over heels into the Prayer for Peace and for our Enemies.  My memories even took me back to others who supported my cause - classmates and a professor or two who refused to say the Song of Moses or read offending Psalms.  Justification was coming my way; moral superiority was indeed my friend. 

Then, another flashback came to me.   I remembered a dinner with a rabbi many years ago. Toward the end of the meal, I asked him what he thought of texts that celebrate death, that punish our enemies.  I suggested that some of us in the seminary had decided we need not say them, that they were not a part of us.  I even suggested that we needed to abandon them in our worship, packing them away to the dusty shelves of bygone days.  I will never forget his answer: "The tradition preserves the good, the bad and ugly so we will remember we are sometimes good, often bad, and many times oh so ugly toward one another.  We remember to stay honest.  We remember to know that we are not God."  I was amazed.  I was humbled.  But he did not end there.   "I'm not a Christian,' he said, "but it seems to me, you of all people must remember.  Are you not the one who crucified your God?"

Wisdom comes from those familiar enough with the stories of sacred scripture that they remind us of who we are.  Do we celebrate at the death of an enemy? Is it morally acceptable? Are we above it?  Are those the right questions?

I have heard many suggest answers to these questions.  I am not certain of all their answers.  But of one thing I am absolutely certain: the stories.  In the wisdom of those who preserved them, even the difficult ones, I find who I am.  Therein, I continually discover myself as a creature in need of prayer and totally dependent upon God my Creator; and as a Christian, totally dependent upon the one I crucified. 

So to the words of the Book of Common Prayer, that trusted little companion, I return once again, hearing clearly "Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord."  "Amen," and again I say, "Amen."


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