Sermon for Sunday, 26 July 2015
The Rev. Carrie B. Smith
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The walk to work through the hot Jerusalem streets was brutal this week. Not only was it hot, but the streets were also packed with people, especially at and near Damascus Gate. The Eid al-Fitr holiday meant that many folks who usually don’t have permits to visit Jerusalem or the sea had special permission from the Israeli government—and they used them. It was hard to imagine there were any folks left in Bethlehem or Ramallah, based on the crowds here in the Old City! I can only imagine what the beaches were like! I was still thinking (or, rather, feeling grumpy) about this situation when I arrived here to the church. My church colleague, Basaam, greeted me with his usual cheerful smile and “Sabah il khair!”
In my halting Arabic, I said hello and then something about how hot it was and how crowded the streets were. “Haram!” I said.
And then Basaam told me about his day. He told me about waiting in line for three hours (from 6 to 9 am) to get through the Bethlehem checkpoint every day since the end of Ramadan. Three hours of waiting with his West Bank neighbors for their chance to see more of this land we call holy. Three hours of standing in the heat under the watchful eye of soldiers with machine guns, boredom and frustration periodically interrupted by crying babies, shouting, tear gas, and people climbing over the fences above his head.
After all of this, instead of visiting the sea with his neighbors, Basaam then gets to sit at our church reception desk and answer tourists’ questions a thousand times a day. Questions like: “Where is the bathroom?” and “Is this the Holy Sepulcher?”
And, though he didn’t say it, I’m sure the highlight of his day is listening to an American pastor complain about the inconvenience of the heat and the crowded streets on her fifteen minute “commute” to work.
As usual, when I hear stories like this from my Palestinian colleagues, I am humbled. Who do I think I am, to complain about my walk to the church? Who do I think I am, to complain about people enjoying a rare chance to visit their holy places, when I’m free to visit them any day I want?
And then, after I was humbled, I was sad and angry—for my friend, and for his neighbors. And I wished, once again, that I could do something. I wished I could do something about the checkpoints, and the wall, and the occupation, and the whole darn mess.
Furthermore, I wished Jesus would do something about it. My friend needs a miracle, Jesus!
Since this is the week we hear about two of Jesus’ most famous miracles—the feeding of the 5,000 and his walking on water—I wonder what exactly we want Jesus to do. What miracle does my friend need? What could Jesus multiply today, instead of bread and fish?
Maybe we can ask Jesus to multiply permits to Jerusalem for our Palestinian neighbors, so they don’t all come on the same week.
No, wait – how about multiplying the checkpoints, so the lines are shorter? And maybe multiplying the soldiers who check the permits, so the wait times are less?
No, wait – how about multiplying the peace talks and dialogues and conferences and position statements from churches, so we can all feel like we are making a difference?
Is this what Jesus would multiply? Is this the miracle my friend Basaam needs?
One of the unfortunate (and unexpected) side effects of living and working in this land called holy is our lowered expectations of miracles. It’s difficult to maintain a faith in the miraculous multiplication of bread when the only thing multiplying seems to be illegal settlements. It’s difficult to maintain a faith in Jesus’ ability to walk on water when our fellow Christians must walk through cattle chutes to get to work. Visitors and pilgrims often say that being in this place forever changes the way you read the Bible—and I agree! But unfortunately, it’s not just that being here adds a soundtrack and some visuals to familiar Bible stories. It’s that our expectations of the miraculous get a little messed up. When everything around us shouts scarcity—not enough land for two peoples and three religions, not enough goodwill to make peace, not enough international pressure for leaders to make a change—then even crumbs seem like a feast. Even more permits or faster lines at the checkpoint seem like a miracle.
I was at a conference in the West Bank a few months ago where we were doing some work on community organizing and peace-building. The conference itself felt somewhat miraculous, in that it included both local and international Christians as well as Israeli and American Jewish scholars and activists. Much good and honest work and conversation was happening, as we focused on real, concrete behaviors and actions towards peace.
One of the internationals, when it was her time to speak, said her goal was to learn a few interfaith dialogue skills to use for the next conference.
But then, one of the Palestinian Christians spoke up and testified: “As a person of faith, I do believe in incremental change. I even believe in transformational change. But I also must maintain my faith in miraculous change. I believe miracles can still happen—and I hope it’s before the next conference.”
|Communion bread, baked for Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem|
Photo (and bread) by Carrie Smith
This is the kind of faith statement which comes from a deep hunger, a hunger which will not be satisfied with crumbs. This kind of hunger will not be satisfied by another conference. It can only be satisfied by a miracle, the kind of miracle which we have through our Lord Jesus Christ.
As people of faith it’s important to be honest about our hunger. We’re not hungry for better media coverage or more humane policies—we’re hungry for peace. Our neighbors and colleagues aren’t hungry for better treatment at the checkpoints—they’re hungry for freedom of movement and the removal of the wall. People in the United States aren’t hungry for a flag to be removed or new gun laws to be enacted—they are hungry for an end to racism and for a radical culture shift away from violence.
Maybe these things seem impossible. Maybe it seems foolish to expect such miracles.
But then again, it is foolish to expect God would be born among us, to a young girl in Bethlehem.
It is foolish to expect our sins could be forgiven and the world could be redeemed through an instrument of torture, which is now a sign of victory over death.
It is foolish to think that when the women went to the tomb that first day of the week, they found Jesus alive. Not just a little bit alive. Not seemed to be alive. But alive! Abundantly alive!
And it was foolish to think that five loaves and two fish could feed five thousand people. But we know that when the meal was over, not one person was still hungry—and there were twelve baskets leftover.
Perhaps it is foolish to expect such an abundant miracle in this place, in this conflict, in this world. But we are fools for Christ! And while our Gospel text for today seems to be about miraculously multiplying bread and miraculously walkable water, the real miracle is Jesus himself. The real miracle, the Good News, is that Jesus stood on the water and said to his disciples: “It is I; do not be afraid.” With those few words he revealed himself to be the great “I AM”, the King of Creation, the Prince of Peace, the One we’ve been waiting for—but so much greater than we expected. His radical love, mercy, and forgiveness is the miracle for which the world hungers.
And Jesus’ presence, in, with and among us, is why, sisters and brothers, even in this political situation where most see scarcity, we can surely testify that miracles do abound.
It’s a miracle when we experience an abundance of mercy, love, and forgiveness, for example when my colleague Basaam saw fit to forgive my privilege and my ignorance as I complained about my so-called commute in the morning.
It’s a miracle when we see an abundance of risk on behalf of the neighbor—for example this Friday, when 800 people—Christians, Muslims, and Jews, organized by Rabbis for Human Rights—showed up to march in protest of the planned demolition of thevillage of Susiya. This morning, I saw that the Israeli government “miraculously” found Ottoman era documents proving private ownership of the land—which cancels the demolition order. A miracle indeed.
Dear sisters and brothers, I still believe in miracles. I believe—for my friend Basaam, for all the peoples of this land, for myself. I believe in the power of the abundant and transformational love of Jesus. I believe, and I must testify, because I have seen it for myself.
|Posters hanging in the SOS Childrens' Village in Rafah|
I must testify that while Jesus doesn’t multiply permits or checkpoints to make this rotten system easier to bear, he does multiply our discomfort with the status quo.
I must testify that while Jesus isn’t in the business of multiplying conferences or public statements or church position papers, he is in the business of opening eyes and hearts, multiplying our understanding and love for our neighbors (sometimes through conferences, public statements, and church position papers…)
And what about bread? Does Jesus still multiply bread? Yes! “Give us today our daily bread” we pray, but dear sisters and brothers, know that while Jesus provides abundantly for our daily needs, he is at the same time increasing our hunger. Every day, Jesus increases our hunger for justice and peace so that one day, inshallah one day soon, what we will see processing through the streets of the city are not caskets for the dead but rather baskets of bread.
This is the miracle we expect. This is the miracle we are hungry for: baskets overflowing with the bread of peace, and equality, and mutual respect in this land called holy, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Then, will all the people say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”