I happened upon a stash of old black and white photographs a few years ago. They weren’t mine. I don’t know whose they were. They were of people I have never met and who probably decades ago died. In the jumble were a couple formal ones of two white young men dressed up, carefully posed, unsmiling, in black face. I stared at them for a long time, shocked, trying to make out the expression in the eyes—an occupation so arresting the past few weeks on twitter—and wondering what had been the occasion that called for this manner of photograph. Then I threw them in the bottom of a bin and shoved the bin into the back of a cupboard and left them there because I didn’t know what else to do. They are not mine. They are not of people I have met. No names are scrawled on the back. I can’t leave them lying around. They are bleak, appalling to my modern and enlightened sensibilities. And so there they sit, the dark testimony of someone else’s dark past.
I remembered them this week, of course, because of some other person taking the trouble to go hunting for photographs of the governor of Virginia, who, setting aside whatever ugly postures he adopted for the camera in his younger days, this week said some very ugly things in a bland, banal, unexceptional, matter of fact tone. What should happen to a baby that’s been born, the interview asked. And he, so compassionately, thought the infant should be kept comfortable while the doctor and mother decided what to do. Was he talking about infants with grave defects? Or babies that were certainly soon going to die? It is hard to narrow down what he said to those extreme cases given the political context. The bill under consideration would have allowed a mother to chose abortion even as she was in labor. Many wondered aloud what the discussion would be about. The baby is there already. Whatever problems it might be facing, death by the medical establishment should not be one of them.
It is not just a medical question. It is a theological one. It is a question of personhood. However much everyone agrees that, when confronted with a delicate and upsetting situation the woman should have plenty of time to discuss what should happen next with her doctor, we cannot escape the core issue. Who gets to decide who lives and who dies? Who is it that brings life into the world and takes it away again?
That question is answered clearly in two of the lections this morning. And, if ever you were looking for an outbreak of providence, this has got to be it. We all trundle off to react to the news of the day, our thumbs busy and our outrage poised, but God, who is not inclined to let a good scriptural moment go to waste, arranges which texts will be read out in small, unknown churches all over North America. Anyone else can read them too, but if you happened to have struggled out of bed, and drug yourself and all your political, theological, and cultural worries with you through the piles of windswept snow, you would hear the psalmist’s prescient cry,
Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked,
from the grasp of the unjust and cruel man.
For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust,
O LORD, from my youth.
Upon you I have leaned from before my birth;
you are he who took me from my mother’s womb.
My praise is continually of you.
I have been as a portent to many,
but you are my strong refuge.
– Psalm 71:4-7
But, as if that were not enough, God ordains the favorite coffee cup verse of every Christian, those perfect words spoken by God himself to Jeremiah as a comforting balm for the sorrowing call to which he is calling him. He says,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” – Jeremiah 1:5
It’s the word ‘before’ that is so wondrous and contrary. Because we are always trying to cope with everything ‘after.’ We careen from one trial and trouble to the next, acting and reacting, trying to sort out our lives in obscuring darkness, unable to see what we ought to be doing or who we are or what is even the point.
It is after you get nominated for, and elected to, some high office that someone discovers what it was you did in your youth. It is after you have tangled up your emotions and heart and body with some other person that you are left considering what to do with another life you didn’t want and don’t know how to accommodate. It is after getting difficult and terrible news that you scramble trying to make sense of what you will do today and who even knows about tomorrow. It is after you parked on the wrong side of the street in midwinter that you have to wander around the web trying to pay your fine. It is after you get sick that you go looking for medicine, after you lose someone that you go find a therapist, after you eat half a pie that you finally decide to go to the gym.
But with God it is before. All his knowledge and plans are in advance of our wickedness. All his salvation was before we careened, blindly and angrily, out of the garden. Every human person was called into being before we had time to click on twitter at the beginning of another long day. His mercy is before. His knowledge is before. His plans are before.
And this is true for every single person conceived in the womb of a woman. For all those babies who die at our wicked hands, God knew—knows—those babies—each one of them—before we had time to take a morning lap around facebook. For each person who finds the past sidling up and derailing him from all his aspirations, God knew that before he was even born. For you failing to cope with the wickedness in your own heart, let alone the wickedness of everyone who surrounds you, God made a way from before the foundation of the world that his own son would take that dark, vulnerable home—the womb—and rescue every single person who runs to him for refuge.
Whatever you’ve done, whoever you are, go to him for a mercy that goes into the darkness of every dark cupboard, and reaches into an eternal light that never fades, is never broken, and can never be discussed away. And the best place to get it this morning is in church. See you there!