Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday Sermon

Lord and Master of my life!take away from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. Yes, O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother (or sister.)For thou are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen
This prayer is called the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian. It takes us back to the roots of our Christian heritage, or at least as far back as the fourth century, which is a while ago. I commend it to you as we journey through this holy season of Lent, perhaps even as a prayer you use at the beginning or end of each of these next forty days.  

Ephrem (or more accurately the translator of the prayer) uses two rather old-fashioned words here: sloth and chastity. You don’t tend to hear a lot of sermons in The Episcopal Church on either one of them. But let’s have at it…

Sloth is one of the seven deadly sins. It sounds like such an old-fashioned word that perhaps many of us don’t immediately even identify as a sin that we ought to be asking God to deliver us from. We feel so busy after all, so over-extended and perhaps even so exhausted. Surely we cannot be guilty of sloth, can we?

But the true meaning of sloth isn’t exactly laziness. It literally means “spiritual or emotional apathy or carelessness. You and I are called to be passionate about our lives, and compassionate to others. For Christ’s sake. We are called to be faithful stewards of our time and our talents and our treasure, as gifts from a generous God. To be careless with our lives, or apathetic, is to be slothful.

Thomas Aquinas defined sloth as a “sluggishness of mind which neglects to begin good.” That may be a definition we can work with. The challenges we face in this world, as a nation, and even in this congregation seem huge and perhaps overwhelming to us. It’s tempting to sit back and hope someone else with super powers will take care of things and set things right. We can get busy with so many distractions to keep us from doing the work that God has given us to do, focusing on the urgent but not very important and neglecting the tasks that matter. We can be tempted to sit around with John Mayer, waiting for the world to change, rather than taking up our crosses to follow Jesus and in so doing to become the change we seek in the world. To at least take that first step toward the good, toward becoming repairers of the breach.

Now is the acceptable time, St. Paul says. Now is the time to begin to do the good we can do, the good we are called to do. Because we don’t have all the time in the world on this earth, we remember today that we are dust. Which is just another way of saying let every day count and that we can only live this one wild precious life we have been given one day at a time.

As I try to pray Ephrem’s prayer, which I first discovered a few years ago, it seems to me that he is identifying faint-heartedness, lust for power, and idle talk as bullet points about sloth. As examples of how sloth plays out. Sometimes we are just too timid or too afraid to act. Sometimes we are too focused on ourselves. Sometimes we are too busy with trivialities. But all of those things can keep us from keeping first things first and from doing the work God calls us to do. We come here today, stepping back from our fast-paced lives to get some clarity as we begin this journey together, as we move one step at a time toward the Promised Land – toward the renewed life that Christ offers each of us.

Ephrem prays that God would take away sloth, and replace it with a spirit of chastity. That word, too, requires some further defining. Our fixation on sex makes us hear that word far too narrowly, as if chastity were only about sex. But again, the much older meaning of chastity is purity. As Jesus once put it, blessed are the pure of heart. Katharoi kardia in Greek. Katharoi can mean pure but also clean and even clear. We seek a kind of clarity, I think and we know it when we see this in others – those who mean what they say, and say what they mean. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “the essence of chastity is not the suppression of lust, but the total orientation of one's life towards a goal.” (Letters and Papers from Prison.)

What would it look like for us, all saints, in this next forty days, to totally orient (or re-orient) our lives toward the goal of loving God and neighbor? To claim and to reclaim our orientation to the Baptismal Covenant? If we define chastity in this way, then we begin to realize that Ephrem’s prayer isn’t some quaint relic from a distant past. We ask God to take away apathy and give us clarity of focus.

What he is praying for goes to the very heart of what ails us and of what this holy season is for: true repentance and amendment of life. Not paralyzing shame or fear, but new and contrite hearts that lead us toward true north. Lent is an invitation to re-orient our lives toward God. Only in our turning (and returning) to God are we are able to discover (and rediscover) who we are and what the Lord requires of us. As we move from apathy toward a more purpose-driven life can we begin to claim the gifts that this Lenten season offers to us.   

What are the marks of this chaste life? Ephrem asks for three: humility, patience, and love.  Humility is what this first day of Lent is all about: a reminder that to be human is to be formed of the humus of this good earth, to which we will all one day return. We are creatures and not the Creator. We cannot do it all and we aren’t asked to! It is the height of arrogance to think it is our job to bring peace on earth and good will to all. That job is already taken! But it is our job to bring peace and good will to our own homes and to our neighborhood and to this Christian community. That is not work delegated to the clergy or the wardens or the vestry. Every member of this parish is called to do what we can. With humility.

Because we cannot do everything, we must do something. But it takes time, so we need patience. Like good old Johnny Appleseed, our work is to plant seeds, knowing full well that we may not live long enough to enjoy the fruit that grows from the seeds we plant. Jesus was a first-century Middle-Eastern Jew, not a 19th century American from Leominister. So he talked about mustard seeds rather than apple seeds. But it’s the same wisdom. We plant the seeds of peace and justice, hoping that our children and children’s children will reap what we have sown. We take the long view. We don’t get stuck in our fears of the present moment.

And it is all done in love. If there is not love, it is not of God. It’s that simple. If we do not love our neighbor whom we see, how can we pretend to love the God we do not see? Our neighbor is close by. We show love by how we speak to one another, how we care for one another – in this congregation and around the neighborhood.

Ephrem prays and I invite you to pray over the course of these next forty days that God would take from us a spirit of sloth and give to us a spirit of chastity. But there is one more very important petition in this Lenten prayer. He reminds us that we aren’t called to confess other people’s sins in Lent, but to look in the mirror and take our own spiritual inventory. I know it is way more fun to confess other people’s sins, I enjoy that too. It’s just so much easier to do. But this is the hard work of Lent: to look in a mirror. Lent is a gift because it gives us an opportunity to work on our own stuff, with God’s help, and to ask for the help and support of the community along the way.

Sometimes it is easy to know our own sins. We speak spiteful words when it would be better to bite our tongues, and we know it immediately. We act out of an old wound and take it out on someone who isn’t really to blame.

But sometimes we are blind to the real hurts we cause. I think this is because we know our own motivations and usually we don’t mean to cause someone else harm. But it is na├»ve to think that we don’t. We didn’t mean it and I’m really sorry if you were hurt by what I said or what I didn’t say. But get over it already!  

Conversely, if someone hurts us very badly, it is all too easy to attribute the worst of motivations to that person: clearly they acted to inflict pain on us. In fact, they may well have acted out of their own pain or ignorance and blindness. This is not to excuse them. It is simply to say that holding people accountable for their actions and presuming to understand the motivations behind those actions are two very different things.

If we aren’t careful we can maximize the sins of others and minimize the sins we commit. I think that Jesus, in his humorous but insightful way, is saying just that when he says that we spend way too much time finding the splinters in other people’s eyes when there is a beam in our own to take care of. Lent is the time for us to stand in front of a mirror and find those beams in our own eyes. So Ephrem prays simply that God would help him to see his own mistakes rightly and not to be so hard on others.

It seems to me that if we can make this prayer our own for the next forty days, then this will be a holy-enough Lent. Less apathy. More of a sense of purpose. Less time spent on trying to fix other people and more time working on getting our own act together.

Always with God’s help. Blessed be God’s holy name. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

A Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany

Today was the Annual Meeting at All Saints Church, where I've been helping out lately. The readings for the day can be found here. This is what I said. 

Do you know the story about the synagogue that was in a real mess? They were divided right down the middle over a bitter liturgical conflict.The Shema is at the heart of the Jewish liturgy and indeed of Jewish faith:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.

One faction in the congregation felt that you should stand when the Shema was being read as a sign of respect and reverence. The other faction felt certain you should be seated, the posture of a student. So they tried to resolve the conflict by appointing three standers and three sitters to go see Mr. Finkelstein, the oldest living member of the congregation.

The sitters pleaded with him: “tell us about the days when this congregation was founded, surely everyone then sat when the Shema was read, right?” But Finkelstein told them he just couldn’t remember for sure.

“Think hard,” the standers implored. “Surely when this congregation was founded, everyone stood for the Shema!” “I’m sorry, I just cannot remember,” Finkelstein responded.

Both sides started yelling at once. “This is tearing our congregation apart,” they shouted. “Everyone has picked sides and no one is speaking with anyone on the other side, and it’s a huge mess!”

“Ah,” said Finkelstein. “Now that I remember.”

I’ll come back to that story. But let me get there by way of the Mount of the Transfiguration, where God is made manifest in Jesus, who is the Light of the world.

God very often speaks on mountaintops in the Bible, maybe for the same reason that so many of us feel closer to God when we hike up a mountain and look out over the vista. We speak of “mountaintop experiences” as a metaphor for our spiritual epiphanies because the landscape itself very often helps to open our eyes to see God’s hand at work in the world around us. In such moments we may have the experience of knowing God more fully and of being more fully known by God.

There is a shadow side here, however; or at least a temptation. Such moments are fleeting. It is tempting to want to try to hold onto them forever, and maybe even of trying to make them normative. But to do that is a form of idolatry

I think this is primarily what is going on in the disciples’ desire to build booths on the Mount of the Transfiguration. In truth, every moment is fleeting. The good times, the hard times—time is an ever flowing stream. Mountaintop moments in our lives are precious and a gift, for sure. But the journey of faith is not one long extended mountaintop experience. And you can’t just hit the pause button. We are called to listen to the Voice of God in this story, which makes clear that we are called to listen to, and then follow, Jesus. We do that by putting one foot in front of the other. We are a people of the Way, and specifically we are a people called to follow Jesus on the Way of the Cross, and beyond that to the empty tomb. Liturgically, the wisdom of remembering the Transfiguration today is that it sums up what these weeks of Epiphany-tide have all been about, even as it prepares us to take the next steps in the journey of faith into Lent which begins this Wednesday as we resolutely set our faces toward the holy city of Jerusalem.

I want to interrupt this sermon for a commercial:  an invitation to please make time to be here on Wednesday when we remember together that we are dust, which is simply to say that we do not have all the time in the world and therefore we need to make the most of it. For Christ’s sake and for our own sakes, I invite all of you saints, in the name of the Church, to journey with me into a holy Lent. That journey begins this Wednesday.

Now there is one caveat I need to share with all of you. Everything that I have said to you so far today is shaped by the Western Christian liturgical calendar. While there may be differences between Methodists and Lutherans and Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, we all follow this same basic path from Three Kings Day to the Jordan River and ultimately to the Mount of the Transfiguration and from there to Ash Wednesday and ultimately to Easter morning where “cross and Easter day attest, God in man, made manifest.”

While my own experience of the Christian tradition has been quite ecumenical, it has mostly been very western. I have recently been in the Holy Land for my fourth visit, however, where I was again reminded of the rich traditions of Orthodoxy that are rooted in the Church’s experience in the east: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and others. One of the surprises, especially in the old city of Jerusalem, are the ever-present reminders that Christianity is, at its roots, an eastern religion that spread to the west, not the other way around. You feel that and you smell it and you see it when you walk into a place like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher!

Alexander Schmemman was the Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, New York, a leading liturgical scholar in Orthodox Christianity in the twentieth century. A few years ago I read his book on Orthodox Lenten practices, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha.  As much as I love the Epiphany season and find this journey we have been on is familiar to my western mind, reading Schmemman’s book challenged the way I thought about preparing for Lent.

In Orthodoxy, the weeks leading up to “Great Lent” are very different from what I have been describing to you. In the five weeks before Lent, the Orthodox focus on five themes: Desire for God (the story of Zacchaeus), Humility (the Publican and the Pharisee), Return from Exile (the parable of the Prodigal Son), Last Judgment, and then finally, Forgiveness Sunday. The Orthodox are clearer than we have been in the west that Lent is not a time to wallow in guilt or shame, but is in fact an invitation to enter more deeply into the mystery of God’s abundant love, which then allows us to more fully embrace the Paschal mystery by becoming instruments of God’s peace and ambassadors of reconciliation as we participate in Christ’s victory over sin and death.

Sin is the experience of division, opposition, separation, and hatred. The first chink in the armor of the mighty fortress of sin, Schmemman says, is forgiveness, which opens a pathway to unity, solidarity, and love. It is a breakthrough to a new reality, to God’s reality. “To forgive,” Schmemman writes, “is to reject the hopeless dead-ends of human relations and refer them to Christ.”

Orthodox Easter falls a week later than our Easter this year. We will celebrate on April 1 and our Orthodox brothers and sisters will do so on April 8. So next weekend, February 18, will be Forgiveness Sunday, also called Cheesefare Sunday, in the varied Orthodox congregations in this city and across the world. On that last Sunday before Lent begins, there will be an elaborate kind of dance where each person in worship says to every other person there, “Forgive me, for I have sinned.”

Now I am not going to ask you to dance today, All Saints. But I want you to think about what it would look like for just a moment. What it would be like today for you to ask each person here for forgiveness. And then those beyond this room whom you have hurt as well. Now I don’t need to tell you how hard it is to forgive someone who has hurt us very badly. But at the very least, even when we aren’t yet able to forgive someone, we can remember that God forgives all who confess their sins and are truly penitent. So the liturgical response to the one who says, “Forgive me for I have sinned” is not “I forgive you”—because, to be honest, that just might not yet be true. The correct liturgical response is: “God has forgiven you.” 

Forgive me, for I have sinned. God has forgiven you. The spirit of Lent, Schmemman says, is an invitation to experience that mysterious liberation that makes us “light and peaceful” by illuminating an inner beauty that he compares to “an early ray of the sun which, while it is still dark in the valley, begins to lighten up the top of the mountain.” 

Maybe that image brings us face to face with Jesus, in whom there is no east nor west. Maybe that is where the Mount of the Transfiguration converges with Forgiveness Sunday, taking us, as Don Henley once put it, to “the heart of the matter” -  which is always about forgiveness because forgiveness “opens a pathway to unity, solidarity, and love…[and] breaks through to a new reality, to God’s reality.”

Imagine yourself both saying those words to someone whom you have hurt, and then imagine someone whom you have hurt saying these words to you. Maybe this Lent you will find you need to go say them for real and in person or in writing to someone. But for today, let’s just practice: forgive me, for I am a sinner. Listen even now for good news even if you are not yet ready: God forgives you, be at peace. Listen even now for the Easter alleluias that we’ll sing again on April 1. No fooling.

There is an Annual Meeting today, in a parish where there has been a lot of hurt over the past year. I have not forgotten the story I began with today and I hope you haven’t either. Sometimes it’s a little easier to smile at a truth we can see in others and then by the grace of God may then see in ourselves. Whether we stand or sit for the Shema may not cause a passionate argument here. But there are always things to fight about if it is fighting we seek. The work that lies ahead for you, all saints (always with God’s help) is this work of forgiveness; the work of healing and reconciliation and of finding ways for sitters and standers to live together in love. Forgive us, for we are all sinners. God forgives us, be at peace, for we are all saints.

Community is hard. People will always disagree. That’s ok. It’s part of the tradition. But be gentle with each other. Be patient and kind; not arrogant or rude. I know that there is a sense of feeling like we’re spinning our wheels a bit right now and it’s hard to know how you’ll get traction again. But you will. And I know some folks have simply slipped away, rather than staying to fight together. That makes me sad, but it is beyond my control.

For now, we who are here can keep on praying this simple prayer of confession and we can pray that it will lead us into a holy Lent, until we once again sing those alleluias and embrace the new and liberating life that is ours in Jesus Christ: the new life characterized by hope, boldness, freedom and abundant life; the new life that breaks us open to a new reality. God’s reality. 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Brother Olivier

I write this last post from Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv as we wait at our gate to board our long flight home.

It's been a rich week and this last day did not disappoint. We went to the Arab village of Abu Ghosh for lunch and then on to a monastic community of French Benedictines. When I walked through the gate I remembered the place from my last visit - a community where you feel immediately welcomed. There we spoke with Brother Olivier. To get a small sense of what we experienced, you can read a wonderful article about him and the community here.

Olivier is a Benedictine, but his ministry reminds of me of another monk in another century, Francis of Assisi, who went to the Holy Land and met with a sultan. Olivier told us several times about what it is like to be a Christian, in an Arab Village, in the Jewish State of Israel. "It's complicated," he said. But his whole person exudes joy. He is a bridge builder in a world bent making more walls and he exudes hope in a part of the world where it is easy to despair. What can one little monk from Normandy do in one little monastery in one little Arab village to make the world a better place? No more nor less than we are all able to do, with God's help.

Before visiting with Olivier, we'd been to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. That is a hard experience to find words for. While I've been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and I've been to Dachau and I've been to Ann Frank's House, I don't think one is ever "prepared." I have written here over the years about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Community at Le Chambon who resisted the Nazis. I admire and in some small measure try to emulate their clarity and their courage in the face of evil.

I was once more reminded at Yad Vashem that in the early years of Hitler's rise to power, when he still could have been resisted, that far too many people were silent and in their silence became complicit. Whether they were afraid, or could not understand, or were not "political" or said that religion isn't about politics is hard to know. Probably some mix of all of the above. But what is clear is that far too often, the Church stood idly by. The pope stood idly by. Pastors and lay people went to church, sang the hymns, but didn't act. In short, Bonhoeffer and the people of Le Chambon were the exceptions who proved the rule: the Church failed to speak up, and to show love of neighbor when it was most desperately needed.

We live in a small, small world. While my day was unfolding today, I read a sermon on the bus that was preached last weekend at Harvard's Memorial Church by the Chaplain, Jonathan Walton. You can read it here.

How do we act in the face of evil and injustice? We do what we can to act like Brother Olivier by building bridges instead of walls. We do what we can, including the small ways that our pilgrim band has shared something special together, as Christians and Jews, as people all created in the image of the living God. And then we pray that it is enough.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Architect of the Holy Land

"As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it..." (Luke 19:41)

From my very first visit to the Holy Land, and before I even knew his name, I have been drawn to the extraordinary work of the 20th century Franciscan monk and architect, Antonio Barluzzi. He was so enmeshed in Scripture that his churches tell the story of the places where pilgrims go to remember these key moments in the life of Jesus.

On previous visits I was able to see The Church of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, which we did not get to this time. This past week we did get to The Church of the Beatitudes and The Shepherds' Field Church in Bethlehem. And today I got to what I think are my two favorites, The Church of All Nations In Gethsemane and Dominus Flevit, on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus wept over Jerusalem. The picture above was taken at this last church, shaped like a tear drop.

The image above, taken of the altar (not shown is the image of the mother hen at the foot of the altar) speaks to my faith. When we take the bread and bless it and break it and give it, we do so not to escape the world around us. We do so looking out at the world around us - knowing of it's own brokenness and of our call to be peacemakers. In sharing the bread and the cup we pray that we might become what we behold, and work toward the day when there is no more crying and every tear is wiped away.

Of course we live "in the meantime." We behold a city where the children of Abraham struggle to live together with an awareness of the dignity of one another. We commit to respect one another - and even, with God's help, to love one another. We commit to strive for justice and peace among all people.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Taking the Long View

I have not accentuated Israeli politics in this series of posts. I think that, to be very honest, I am just weary of polarizations. In past visits, I saw how deeply divided things are here. I felt the pain of the barrier that separates the Palestinian areas from Israel, and yet for a couple of years now we've been hearing about building "a great big beautiful wall" in our own nation on our southern border. I don't think walls are ever beautiful: not between East and West Berlin, not between North and South Korea, not between Israel and Palestine, not between Mexico and the United States. Nor between members of a congregation, or a family. They represent failure and they deepen fear and anxiety. This pilgrimage has not had me feeling "pity" for this nation, however, so much as worrying even more about where our own is headed...

It's easy to get discouraged. And yet, everywhere one goes, one meets people of good will. And it is possible to imagine, at least, that sanity might win the day. Our little pilgrim group is comprised of Christians and Jews. We are not all the same. We keep finding common ground and differences but they are not so much between our Jewish and Christian participants as they are about personality and experience. When we start building walls we all lose. When we listen and learn, and build bridges of understanding, we are all enriched. That's just true. It's not naive. It's hard work. But understanding the other leads to a deeper wisdom about self. So we take the long view, and we press on...

Today was a long day and our time here is now getting short. We spent a good chunk of this day learning about the Second Temple. Knowing something about that temple has implications for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, whose holy sites literally sit on top of each other. Tomorrow we'll go to the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock, as well as to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We are, as a group, moved in different ways by these differing experiences and they don't always fit neatly into our defined religious categories.

I think when religious symbols and holy places are on top of each other, they sometimes seem to be the causes of violence against those who are different from us. We may be tempted to think that the way forward is to have these symbols or places matter less. Or to become totally secular and beyond "superstition."

But this not only seems impossible to me, but counter to my experience. Rather, I think we must learn to go deeper. To take our own religious places and symbols quite seriously but to recognize them for what they are: gateways to the Divine. And then to approach one another with a kind of "holy envy." We might learn, as we have been doing here, to approach the other's traditions with wonder and curiosity and respect and to see how they, too, are gateways to the Divine. We are not the same. But we do, I think, find common ground, if common ground is what we seek. And then we can work together for peace on earth, and good will toward all.

In this photo, a priest and a rabbi are on a roof on top of the Jewish quarter of the old city of Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock is just behind us. This is not the beginning of a joke. It's the beginning of an alternative narrative to the one that says we are separate. It reminds us that we are all great-great-grandchildren of Abraham. And that the issues that separated our grandparents need not separate our grandchildren. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. And then dare to pray, "let it begin with me."

We are all called to live our faith through love of neighbor. We've made a start, here, and every journey begins with a first step.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Christian Worship at St George's Cathedral

Archbishop Suheil Dawani, me, and Rabbi Aviva Fellman
I have written before, on this blog, about Amy-Jill Levine and her book, Jesus: A Misunderstood Jew. (A nice outline of that book can be found here.)

Professor Levine, who is an observant Jew, teaches the New Testament at Vanderbilt. She came and spent some time with our diocesan clergy in Western Massachusetts a few years ago and one of the things we talked about was how preachers might become more intentional about avoiding antisemitism in our worship generally, and in our preaching in particular. "Don't say things that are going to get my kid bullied on the school bus," she told us. In a similar vein, she told us that when we preach, try to imagine her child in the back pew taking it all in...

Archbishop Dawani, the Bishop of Norwich, England, me,
and the Revs. Nancy Stroud and Meredyth Ward
Over the years, I have taken this to heart. While I cannot say for sure I always get it right, I do try to imagine how what I say about Jesus might be heard by people of different faiths, especially Jewish friends, as well as people who have no faith, or who have been deeply hurt by the Church. We need to be able to speak from an authentic place, about Jesus; but I think it is possible to do this without bearing false witness against our neighbors and in charity and love. This is particularly challenging, however, when the New Testament readings themselves have preserved first-century "family feuds" in ways that make it difficult to develop twenty-first century relationships. (Holy Week is perhaps the most challenging time of the liturgical year to do this.)

I am ruminating this day on this topic because we worshiped together at St. George's Cathedral, where I spent my last two pilgrimages to the Holy Land. It is a place that means a great deal to me, a home to Palestinian Christians who are increasingly a small number in this part of the world. I was glad to share this place of worship with our group of pilgrims today. And I was also profoundly grateful that Dean Naoum preached a hopeful, inclusive sermon inviting all of the sons and daughters of Abraham to work together for peace in Jerusalem. His sermon, I think, would have made Professor Levine proud. After church, we had an opportunity to visit with Archbishop Dawani at coffee hour in the garden. He, too, was gracious in his hospitality to our group.

Photo of the separation wall, on the Bethlehem side
This afternoon we traveled to Bethlehem, across the border to the Palestinian territory. While I've decided to focus in this post on morning worship, in previous posts from previous years I've reflected on this experience and shared some photos. You can check those out here for 2010 and here for 2016.

For now, all I'll add is that we have our work cut out for us. The work that people of faith share is about breaking down walls and building bridges. Or as one Palestinian graffiti artist puts it in the photo to the right, "nothing lasts forever."

We have our work cut out for us - not only in Israel, but in our own nation as well. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem and listen for the song of the angels to the shepherds keeping watch in their fields, singing of  "peace on earth, and good will to all."

Saturday, February 3, 2018

A Day of Rest

The Sabbath rest of God is the acknowledgement that God and God's people in the world are not commodities to be dispatched for endless production and so dispatched, as we used to say, as "hands" in the service of a command economy. Rather they are subjects situated in an economy of neighborliness. All of that is implicit in the reality and exhibit of divine rest.  
That divine rest of the seventh day of creation has made clear (a) that YHWH is not a workaholic, (b) that YHWH is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and (c) that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.  
Multitasking is the drive to be more than we are, to control more than we do, to extend our power and our effectiveness. Such practice yields a divided self, with full attention given to nothing.  
Quotes from Walter Brueggemann's Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now
Before these above quotes, of course, there was the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said that nothing in the Bible (not even the land) is holy. Only God is holy, and the Sabbath that we are commanded to remember. It is in sanctifying Shabbat as a "sanctuary in time," said Heschel, that we find the holy God.

Christians (especially those with Protestant leanings) are prone to think of what is prohibited on the Sabbath. We do well to remember, though, is given as a gift. And also that the Sabbath is not Sunday morning, given so that people can go to Church without sports conflicts. That understanding came from a place of social privilege in the United States. Rather, Shabbat is a day for something: namely to discover (and rediscover) the living God, and our neighbor whom we are called to love, and our own true selves as God's beloved. In all these things there is holiness to be discovered and uncovered as we remember that we are more than what we do.

I am not an observant Jew and I didn't try to be one today. But  in the midst of this pilgrim journey, today the pace was slower. After a leisurely breakfast, I walked to the Jaffa Gate and then into the old city. With friends, I visited the Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I savored a glass of fresh pomegranate juice.I had lunch with friends at my very favorite restaurant in Jerusalem: the Armenian Tavern in the Armenian Quarter. I took a nap.

It's been a restful day, for which I'm profoundly grateful. As the Sabbath comes to a close we reconvene as a group to study two psalms of ascent together, Psalms 121 and 122.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Shabbat Shalom

On this Feast of the Presentation (see Luke 2:22-40) we have left the Sea of Galilee to come up to Jerusalem. Along the way, we stopped at the Jordan River to remember the Baptism of Jesus, by John.

We came by way of the West Bank and again reflected on the political challenges here, reminding us that we have not come to "Bible Land" but a real place where real people continue to try to figure out how to live together.

In the photo to the left, you can see the Dome of the Rock in the distance, above Rabbi Fellman's head. We have come to Jerusalem, the city of peace, in time for Shabbat. Tonight we will all attend a Kabbalat Shabbat service together at the Masorti Keillat Community, which will be followed by a Festive Shabbat Dinner. And then on Sunday morning we will all attend the 9:30 am Mass in Arabic at St. George's (Anglican) Cathedral. Tonight we are in West Jerusalem, the Jewish part of the city. On Sunday morning we'll be in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian part of the city.

This is an amazing thing and goes to the heart of this pilgrimage. We have been studying texts together and learning from one another. As we come to this weekend we have an opportunity to share worship with each other; not toward the goal of trying to convert the other, but toward continuing mutual respect and perhaps even some holy envy.

In preparation for Shabbat, as the city prepares to shut down and rest, we went to market. The two images here hardly begin to capture the energy.  As Aviva told our group last night, it can be a little bit hectic "getting ready" but when the sun goes down, that's it. What's done is done and what is not done is not done and at that point you "let it be." I am looking forward to this evening and to this shared experience. Tomorrow morning I plan to go exploring into the old city, and enjoy the morning without any agenda. Our days have been full and we've been taking it all in. But even God rested on the seventh day, and so shall we.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Golan Heights

Once again, a full day in the northern part of Galilee, and far too much to process in one simple post. So let's narrow it down and make it simple: war and peace? Or maybe more accurately, faith and politics?

Today we traveled to the Golan Heights. The history of the Middle East is complicated, to say the least. And one Wikkipedia post won't do that justice. Even so, if you don't remember exactly what this refers to, I encourage you to click on the link above before continuing. It'll help you make sense of the UN peacekeeper on the border with Syria, and the sign post reminding us how far various places often in the news are, and of course the tank.

It's one thing to read about and hear about the disputes over the boundaries and even existence of the State of Israel. There are many sides to consider, including and especially what justice might look like for Palestinians. But of this there is no doubt: the boundaries have been hotly contested for centuries now. And whoever controls the high ground controls water, and land.

Some people prefer their spirituality without religion. The older I get, the less patient I am with that option. It feels like a cop-out to me. The only way to do that is individually and its way easier to do the more privilege we have. We can seek our own  personal enlightenment which I guess is what is meant by "spirituality." But religion (literally "to bind together") requires community and a commitment to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God. That requires an enormous amount of effort.

I know why people don't like religion and why some days I am drawn that way myself. But religion is not usually the cause of violence. It gets manipulated and used that way but that's a different conversation. And yes, religions are made up of people who mess things up much of the time. And we get caught up in petty, silly things. All true.

But for each of the Abrahamic traditions, the deeper reality is to seek ways to connect faith and politics so that the Kingdom of God is done on earth as it is in heaven. This is the path not of hate, but of love.

All land is contested; this is why we have gated communities in the United States. But the contestation for land has been going on in this part of the world for very long time. What Christians sometimes tell me that they don't like about the Old Testament are all those battles which are about the land that it is believed has been promised by God. Joshua fit the battle of Jericho because there were people living in Jericho who weren't in on the promise that the land belonged to the Israelites.

There is no such thing as an a-political religious faith. The question is what we do with the realities of life on earth, as people of faith.  The prophets suggest that the work of faithful people is to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and to say that in a more modern way to realize a peace dividend as money is diverted from the Defense Department to Agriculture. It means that free education isn't just available at West Point or Annapolis but among those who want to learn sustainable agricultural techniques and build roads and desalination plants.  ( See Micah 4:3, Isaiah 2:4, and Joel 3:10.)

How we get there is a huge challenge. We don't need politically naive people of faith. We need committed people who are, as one rabbi once put it, as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. We need a vision and a willingness to become ambassadors of reconciliation even in a world bent on destruction. One thing is certain: we won't get there if we shy away, or forget the vision and truncate the mission as becoming "spiritual but not religious." The world is too dangerous right now for that.

I posted another photo yesterday on my post, taken at the Mount of the Beatitudes, remembering words spoken by that same rabbi mentioned above; a guy who was shaped as a Jew by Torah and the Prophets, and by being from the northern part of Galilee - a bit further away from the powers-that-be in Jerusalem and Rome or Washington. His words deserve the last word on this post.