Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Paying Tribute to a Fallen Officer

I've lived in the city of Guelph now for twenty-two years, and in all that time I can count on the thumb of one hand the number of police officers that have died in the line of duty. Two weeks ago was the first (and hopefully the last) time our community has had to mourn a fallen officer. Constable Jennifer Kovach died while en route to a call. Her cruiser went out of control on an icy curve and crashed into a bus. Thousands of police officers, firefighters, EMS personnel and citizens, not only from Guelph and the surrounding area but from across the continent, turned out to honour her last Thursday, at a funeral that saw a parade down one of our main streets, and the local arena filled to overflowing, with those not able to find a seat accommodated at the River Run Centre close by. The funeral was broadcast live on local television. And it had at least one local letter writer asking why the spectacle. In a letter to the Guelph Tribune, David Nash asks: Is not the life of a construction worker, who died "in the line of duty," just as precious? Or the pilot who died in Alberta, or the fishermen who died off the east coast? Why no elaborate, state-funded funerals for them? Was this simply not a display of "statism", and not an honour to the deceased constable at all? Now, Mr. Nash does not come off as someone who denigrates police officers, or does not appreciate what they do. He is, instead, asking a valid question, one which I struggled to answer myself in the days following the funeral. And I believe that no, the death of a police officer is not the same as the death of a construction worker, pilot, miner, or fisherman. No, the funeral was not a display of force by the state, but a fitting tribute to one of those few who are asked to give up much and risk all to keep the rest of us safe. A fisherman, a construction worker, a pilot, a miner--all of these occupations are covered by laws designed to keep them safe. While the death of any of these workers is indeed a tragedy worthy of note, it is not quite the same as the death of a police officer in the line of duty. Because a police officer, a firefighter, an EMS worker or a soldier are all lacking one thing that the rest of us take for granted--the right to refuse unsafe work. A police officer's work is by definition unsafe. Constable Kovach was rushing to the aid of another officer who was confronted by a routine traffic stop turned into a drug bust. She did not have a right to refuse this dangerous assignment--it's a condition of her employment that she engage in potentially life-risking actions. On the other hand, the construction worker and the fishermen and the pilot all had employers who were bound by law to keep them safe, and were themselves responsible for telling those same employers that they would refuse to work if the work was deemed unsafe. In addition, the construction worker, the pilot, the miners, the fishermen, if employed by someone else, all have the right to strike to improve working conditions. Constable Kovach did not have that right, either. Persons working in such an environment necessarily develop an extremely close bond. When your life depends on the actions of your comrades, you draw closer to one another for mutual protection. When one of those co-workers dies in the line of duty, it can be much, much more devastating than the death of a co-worker might be to an ordinary worker. I saw the pictures of lines of officers, firefighters and other uniformed personnel to be not a display of statism, but a display of solidarity for a fallen comrade. Each one of those uniformed personnel was intensely aware at the moment the hearse passed them that they could be the next one so honoured. As for the fact that her funeral was state-funded, I feel that is only appropriate. Our police officers and other emergency personnel give up a great deal in order to keep us safe. They give up the right to strike, the right to refuse unsafe work, and even the right to work sane shifts, as someone must be on duty 24 hours a day, every single day of the year. They give up Christmas and Easter and birthdays and holidays with their families. Constable Kovach gave up her right to be with her family to celebrate the birth of her brother's new daughter in order to work the shift that killed her. They deserve our public honour and recognition.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Nothing Lasts Forever

A note to my readers: I haven't posted in this blog for a while, because I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do with it. I've decided that I will indeed continue posting in this blog, but that it will be for sermons and scholarly reflections, whilst my other blog, Yeshanu's Fabulous Over Fifty, will be home to my reflections on life and living. This sermon was preached on March 14th (the date is important, as you'll soon find :) ), at LaPointe Fisher Nursing Home. The texts used are Isaiah 43:16-21 and Mark 12:38-13:2. Nothing Lasts Forever I opened my fridge today to check what was in it, and found, in the back, a container of sour cream. Best before February 2, 2013. Knowing me, it was probably lucky that the date wasn't February 2, 2012. I then checked my library account on line, and found that I had a whole whack of books due March 13th, and as you may know, today is the 14th. Not good. The big news today, of course, is the papal election. Pope Francis I is the 266th leader of the Roman Catholic church, and has observers asking: Is this a new era for the church, or same old, same old? No one knows--the only thing certain is that Pope Benedict is no longer in charge, and Pope Francis is. In our lifetimes, we have seen many changes. Things we thought or even hoped would last forever have proved to be transient. The Berlin Wall has fallen, the USSR is dissolved, Apartied has ended. The World Trade Center was destroyed, and has been rebuilt. People we thought were good and noble have proved to be, well, just people like us, and sometimes not very good people. Conrad Black, honoured by the queen herself with knighthood, was disgraced and spent time in jail. Martha Steward, that goddess of the household, reputedly decorated her jail cell very nicely. And we won't even talk about the myriad of politicians and Hollywood stars and prominent ministers of God who have been brought low by scandal and corruption. Our gospel reading this afternoon has Jesus teaching in the temple, and he warns against worship of that which is human. Don't desire to be like the so-called holy people, who walk around in fancy robes and have the best seats at the table, he says. Their fame won't last, and they will be condemned for the evil they do. He watched people put money in the temple treasury, and he tells those he is teaching: Do you see those rich people? They put in lots of money, but it's only a little bit to them--they still have lots of money left to live on. But that poor woman, who puts in just two little copper coins? She's given everything she has, and that's really impressive! Then he looks around the temple at the walls. Do you think these walls are strong? he asks. They are, but they won't last forever. In a few short years, every single stone will be thrown down. Isaiah, in our Old Testament passage, was preaching to the people of Israel in exile. The Babylonians had conquered and divided the people, and the people were mightily discouraged. How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? they lamented. And Isaiah tells them that the Lord says: Don't worry about what you've lost. I will do something new. Something better is coming. Nothing lasts forever. Not the Roman Empire, nor the World Trade Center. Not fame, or fortune, or disaster, or slavery. Only God is immortal and eternal, and God's love. As we sit here today, we wonder about the church and its future. Argentina, the land that gave rise to Pope Francis, is a land where more than 90% of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, and where fewer than 10% go to church on a regular basis. It's a familiar story in many places in the world today--as education and income increase, people feel that God is no longer relevant, or that God does not even exist, and they put their time and energy into making what they consider to be a better life for themselves and their families. Until the stock market crashes. Or a military dictator takes control. Or floods invade even New York City itself, hallowed ground of capitalist America. Until once again, a beloved or respected leader or financial advisor crash-lands, victim of overwhelming greed or lust or love of fame. Is there any hope, or do we travel towards a cross with no resurrection at the end? I am about to do a new thing, God says to us. I will make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert to give drink to my chosen people. And the temple has fallen, and the Roman Empire as well, but faith in God endures. In Christ, God has done a new thing, and we Christians are the result of that. But the wind of God's change does not stop, and new things keep arising. The Reformation gave rise to new things. The Second Vatican Council gave rise to new things. Liberation Theology gave rise to new things. The United Church of Canada, to which I belong, gave rise to new things. And new things inspired by God are continually arising, often in the most unexpected places, changing what was into what shall be. Nothing of this world endures forever, and God is continually at work, creating new things. So I say to you, do not mourn what is gone, or worship things of human making. Rely on God, and God's love, and you can't go wrong. What has passed is gone forever, for good or for evil. But God's love, God's promise, endures forever. God is making new things, better things for us, in this life, and in the life to come. Amen.