Death in the Narrow Places - John Bergen, September 6, 2020
Today’s scripture is a snapshot from the story of Exodus. This 10th plague, the angel of death, marks a turning point in the freedom journey of the Jewish people out of Egypt. In Hebrew, the word for Egypt is “Mitzrayim,” which means both the literal land, and more metaphorically, “the narrow place.”
And so, this week, I have been thinking about narrow places. I have been thinking of the narrow place that Felix Rosado has been in for the past 25 years: A prison cell. And this week, as he had his commutation hearing to release from a life-without-parole sentence, he faced a narrower place, which he described in his own words in an email he sent out Friday night: “Two long van rides, [a] half day cuffed and shackled inside DOC headquarters, a... late-night Zoom interview with an exhausted Board of Pardons, a few hours of half sleep, then all of today sitting in a room [waiting].” I’ve been thinking about the narrow place that is the mindset of the Board of Pardons, where five people get to speculate publicly about the state of someone’s soul, and then in five words - yes, no, no, yes, yes - judge their fate. The narrow place that every incarcerated person must try and fit in if they are to be considered “redeemed” and eligible for commutation or parole. The narrow place of denial.
I have been thinking about the narrow place where Carmela, Fidel, Keyri, Yoselin, and Edwin live, caught between violence in Mexico and the violence of ICE. The literal narrow place of the walls of our church. The narrow place that immigrants and refugees have fought for in which to be human, to have agency, to have any semblance of control. The narrow place for them to breathe.
I have been thinking about the narrow places, the valleys of the shadow of death, through which many have had to crawl in order to make ends meet. The narrow places where blackness thrives in a world of white supremacy. The narrow place of the homes that many of us have been quarantined inside of for the past 27 weeks. The narrow places where we grieve death on zoom funerals, or alone in our rooms. The narrow places where we have boxed up our grief, too busy, too overwhelmed, too crowded to feel the pain of our world fully. The narrow places in our relationships, where many of us have had to face up to unhealthy patterns and toxic dynamics with those we love. The narrow places of addiction, and unhealthy coping, and shame, and spiritual death.
What, then, to do with this story of liberation? We could pray for God to bust in as the avenging angel of death. The lectionary pairs this text with Psalm 149, which includes the line, “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands.”
Maybe you are in a place where you need a God of revenge right now. But maybe you are hearing too clearly “a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead,” and you are searching for a different God. Maybe you are wondering how many times, in their four hundred and thirty years of enslavement, God had visited the homes of the people because their firstborn had died.
This story is so rich in history and tradition, and so it asks more of us than simple vengeance, or simple rejection of vengeance. God asks the people to mark their doorways with blood so that when God passes over, death shall not darken their doorways.
What, then, to do with Exodus and the angel of death?Maybe we can say simply this: Death is a part of the journey through the narrow place to freedom.
God asks the people to mark their doorways with blood, with death. To acknowledge publicly that something—a lamb, this time—has died. Death is an inevitable companion on the path to liberation. This isn’t good, or bad, it’s just true.
How many times in the past few months has death darkened your door, or your neighbor’s door? Or the door to your heart? If it hasn’t already, it is inevitable that it will. In this long season of grief and narrowness, we know that death will be with us.
And we know that God will be with us, too. As the commutation decisions were announced on Friday evening, my phone never stopped buzzing. Congratulations, swear words, prayers, rage, consolation. All of it sacred. We called each other. Some of us met in the park that evening to grieve and breathe. In his email to his supporters that evening, Felix, wrote, “I actually didn't think I'd be writing anything tonight. I tried flipping through the channels. But in the end, talking with you all is all I want to do.” He signed it, as he always does, with this quote from Audre Lorde: “Without community, there is no liberation.”
There is no way through the narrow place alone. In some way, death has darkened each of our doors. This is an inevitable part of the journey from narrowness to God’s freedom. But without community, without solidarity we cannot walk this path. We need each other.
So this fall, we will be experimenting with some ways of walking together. In our worship, we will spend October reflecting on practices of hope amidst hopelessness. In preparation for All Souls Day on November 1st, we will build a physical outdoor space where we can individually go to collectively mark our grief, loss, and pain. We will deepen our commitments to the internal work of liberation and anti-racism, and learn with humility and openness. We will continue to support Carmela and her family, and Felix, and many others in their struggles. We will find new ways of gathering and holding each other.
Just as death is inevitably a part of our freedom journey, so too God promises that their spirit will not leave us. In our narrow places, we are not alone. And it is in community with God and each other that we find our way through.