Cultivating kindness in the shadow of death

Pastor Jennifer Scarr of the Trotwood Church of the Brethren offered a reflection at the annual memorial prayer service for homicide victims, exploring the meaning and value of going to the streets to pray for the victims of violence.

She opened by reading the Scripture story of the woman with the alabaster jar (Matthew 26:6-13).

The 26th chapter which I’ve just read from in the Gospel of Matthew locates us firmly in the valley of the shadow of death. Just before this Scripture, Jesus once again, and for the final time, told his disciples that he was going to be killed. Jesus walks the streets of Jerusalem during the final week of his life with a price on his head. With this understanding, I am reminded just how close to the heart of Jesus are those who have walked that path with Him. The path of the life taken unjustly, heartbreakingly, too soon. I find that I am grateful that Jesus understands what this is like. The threat of oncoming death moves like a cloud over the next two chapters of Matthew, and so it is present when Jesus rests in the home of Simon the leper. It is present when this nameless woman walks boldly into Simon’s home and gently, kindly anoints Jesus with this costly oil. Oil that could have been sold to care for dozens of poor, as the disciples are quick to point out. But she chose to use it for this purpose instead. For a different form of kindness. The disciples have a hard time understanding this. Perhaps they are too distracted by the threats, too distracted by the death Jesus says is coming. However, Jesus understands. He is moved by the actions of this nameless woman and he tells the disciples not to bother her, because she has done good. She has prepared him for burial. Without a word, this woman offered Jesus a priceless kindness in the shadow of death. She saw him. She anointed him. She was his witness.

More Saturdays than any of us would like, a group of us stand on the streets. On curbsides. In front yards. In parking lots. In abandoned lots or alleyways. In the valley of the shadow of death. This past year we have stood in that valley bearing witness to the passing of 45 lives taken by violence. We prayed. We sang. We created space for memory and story. We held space for families to share about the loved ones they knew, whom they will always carry in their hearts. We, along with the friends and family of the fallen, anointed the streets with our presence.

Perhaps if you’re like me, you’ve wondered from time to time if all this prayer and singing and showing up makes a difference. If it’s worth standing on another street corner for another prayer about another person killed. Does it really make any difference? Maybe my time and energy are better spent somewhere else.

But like the oil that could have been sold to the dozens of people who were poor but was instead used for kindness in the shadow of death, so is that precious hour on too many Saturdays — that could be spent on a number of other beautiful and good things but is instead used to witness for compassion and kindness in the shadow of death. By choice. Your choice.

And on my best days, I believe it’s worth it. I believe, as Jesus knew, that we are all connected, and so each one is worth being witnessed. Each and every one. Not just their deaths, as tragic as they are, but also their lives. For me, some of the most beautiful moments at those vigils are when families share the people they knew. When the person we’re remembering becomes more than a statistic, but a human. And we witness how they loved. And how they were loved. We witness the complexities and the decisions that formed each one. We witness how the divine was present at each moment, joyful or tragic. And we witness how urgently the systems that made these deaths possible needs to change.

Brothers and sisters, be encouraged. Continue to walk humbly and boldly onto the streets, the curbsides, in the alleyways and empty lots. Anoint these places — these people — with your prayers, your songs and your presence. I believe it makes a difference. Bring with you warmth, compassion, empathy and ears to listen. Bring that of God with you that acknowledges that of God in others. And then, like the nameless woman who anointed Jesus when he needed it most, you will cultivate kindness in the shadow of death. And it will be good. You will cultivate it persistently and relentlessly, until the day when the need for these vigils vanishes. Until the day when all will be God’s people in justice, love and peace. Amen.

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