March 13, 2022

Second Sunday in Lent

“Covenant” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

Like pastors all over the world, I’ve been struggling for the past few weeks to figure out what I could possibly say about the war in Ukraine. I discussed it my last two pastor’s letters and, if the responses I received since writing them are any indication, it’s a topic that’s been on a lot of people’s minds. And so, I feel compelled to talk about it today too.

For those of us who lived through the Cold War years, this whole situation has dredged up some dreadful memories and brought into the present a host of fears and feelings that we thought we’d left in the past. For all of us, the ubiquitous news coverage of our current age has provided a difficult and vivid lesson in real time about how awful war is — as if we needed such a lesson.

I could stand here and state the obvious — perhaps I ought to do that: War is hell; it’s wrong for one country to invade another; innocent people caught in the middle of conflict between nations shouldn’t have to die a violent death; heck, no one should have to die a violent death. All of this is true.

Peace is the condition to which humankind should aspire; we ought to work to make the day that the prophet Isaiah described a reality for all people — you know, the one on which we’ll beat our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks, when nation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they learn war any more. May it be so. But to preach this to you here today feels a bit like singing to the choir, and I’m not sure what the point of doing that would be.

In the letter I wrote for Tidings last week, I shared with you one of my most vivid memories from a Cold War childhood — a song from 1985 by Sting called “Russians.” It debuted just a few years before the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall — when the threat of nuclear annihilation was as real as ever. The final words of that song, which have haunted me for almost forty years now, are as follows:

“We share the same biology, regardless of ideology

But what might save us, me and you

Is if the Russians love their children too.”

Back then it all seemed so simple to me; there was right (America and NATO countries) and wrong (the Soviet Union and the nations of the Warsaw Pact). Then along came that song, which made my black-and-white world look much, much grayer.

For the first time in my life, I began to have an inkling that the powers-that-be and the people they claim to represent are not necessarily one and the same. Don’t get me wrong — governments and the governed have proven themselves capable of doing some pretty terrible things throughout history. But Sting made me think about the fact that, when empires collide, people on all sides become casualties in a variety of ways, small and large. 

Every day on my drive to the office I go past a strip mall, outside of which is one of those folding signs with a business advertisement on it. Because people tend to fly right by that location, the designer of the sign wisely decided to keep it’s message brief, and so it says simply this: “Russian Massage: Walk-ins Welcome.”

Up until a few weeks ago, the only thing about which that sign made think was what Russian massage might actually entail — what makes it different, say, from Swedish massage, or Shiatsu massage, or any other kind of massage for that matter. Now all I can wonder is what that proprietor’s business might be like these days. The sign is still there, same as it ever was, but attaching the name “Russian” to absolutely anything right now seems like a dubious marketing strategy.

I have no idea who owns the place, and so I don’t know where they stand with respect to Russia’s leadership or it’s recent actions; I don’t know if they have any kind of connection to Russia at all; I don’t know if they just did some homework and concluded that Russian Massage was superior to other varieties; I don’t know if they simply saw a business niche here in the Salt Lake Valley that needed to be filled. But I do feel pretty safe in saying this: people are looking at that sign very differently than they did just a short time ago — and probably not in a good way.

The news has been full of stories about people the world over trying to dissociate themselves from all things Russian. And while I get the whole idea of sanctioning oligarchs and not buying Russian energy because doing so directly supports the country’s war effort, there are other things that make less obvious sense to me.

Netflix has stopped production on four Russian television series, including a retelling of the classic novel Anna Karenina, though I’m not sure we can really blame Tolstoy for any of what’s going on right now.

In New York, it’s much easier to get a table at the Russian Tea Room these days. But the restaurant was opened in the 1920s by a Polish immigrant who named it the Albertina Rasch Russian Tea Room — after a ballet dancer who was mistakenly assumed to be from Russia, but was actually from Austria.

Such gestures, such statements against all things Russian probably make someone somewhere feel like they’re taking a stand against something that seems otherwise beyond their control. But there are wide-reaching, unintended consequences to doing such things in a world that’s as interconnected as ours is — just ask the waiter at that restaurant in New York who’s about to lose the job they needed in order to pay rent and buy food.

American companies like McDonalds have suspended operations in Russia in order to take a stand, though this will likely hurt Russia’s leaders and oligarchs far less than it will the workers in Moscow who were slinging Big Macs and fries for minimum wage.

Look, I recognize that none of this even remotely compares to what the people of Ukraine are experiencing right now. What the leadership of Russia is doing to the people of that country is horrific and unconscionable. But pain and hardship honor no bounds, and so when lines between us and them, between good and bad, between hero and villain are drawn, all sorts of people in all sorts of places tend to get hurt in all sorts of ways. And, at the end of the day, should suffering really be a competition?

Of course, we sympathize with the plight of the Ukrainians. What human being with a soul wouldn’t? But what about your average Russian, who can no longer feed their family because their economy is in tatters, who can’t protest without being beaten and arrested, whose child is being sent off to be slaughtered in a war about which they understand little because they’ve been actively misled? What about the Russians who love their children too.

In the midst of all this conflict some might ask what the church could have to say about all this (aside from the obvious), what wisdom the Bible — this book of dusty old stories from a bygone age — could possibly bring to bear upon our present global dilemma. And it’s a fair question, I suppose.

Most Sundays, I get up here and talk about a text from the Lectionary, but today I’m going to do something slightly different — I’m going to tell you about the part the Lectionary left out.

At the end of today’s reading from Genesis — where God makes a covenant with Abram, informing him that he will have descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens and promising him the Promised Land — God ends by saying this: To your descendants I give this land from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…” The end. Except it’s not. Today’s text stops in the middle of a sentence, so here’s the whole thing:

“To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, [comma – in the UCC we ought to know never to place period where God has placed a comma] the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”

“What’s the difference?” you may ask, “Who cares about yet another biblical list of hard-to-pronounce names?” Well, here’s why it matters. You see, all of those people you couldn’t give a you-know-what about — as it turns out, Abram and his people didn’t give a you-know-what about them either; they were Israel’s sworn enemies. But, you see, God cares about them, and so the covenant that God makes with Abram includes them too.

Why does this book of dusty old stories from a bygone age matter today? Maybe it’s because still we have a whole lot learn from it. Maybe it’s because we keep reliving the very same patterns that it warns us against —  patterns of hatred and division, patterns of disdain for and indifference to our fellow travelers on this earth — and the earth itself. Maybe it’s because we have yet to comprehend that God’s covenant has always reached beyond any notions we might have of “us” and “ours.” Maybe it’s because we have to show that we love one another as much as God loves us.

Is the current situation different from anything we humans have ever experienced before? Sure, in some ways. The names of places and people are different; our world is way more interconnected than it’s ever been; and we’ve developed abundant new ways to wreak havoc in each other’s lives. But the general theme of not caring enough about others sounds pretty damned familiar.

Mark Twain supposedly once said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” and I dare say that’s true. But what might save us, me and you

is understanding that the Russians love their children too.