Acts 10:44-48 and John 15:9-17
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Last Sunday morning, while all of you were hearing a good word from Amy, I was sitting in the pews of St. George’s church, an Anglican cathedral in East Jerusalem. The place was packed but I found a seat between two of my traveling companions, Rabbi Jamie Gibson from Pittsburg and Rabbi Lenny Gordon from Congregation Mishkan Tefila here in Chestnut Hill.
As we settled in I felt grateful to be in such a beautiful and peaceful space. And I was looking forward to the sermon on Jesus’ final teaching to his disciples from the Gospel of John that our reading for today continues.
But when the preacher began to speak, I could not understand a word he was saying. It turned out that the sermon is first preached in Arabic and then preached again in English.
As I listened to what I could not understand, a little boy caught my eye. He was a little guy, probably not more than seven, seated a few rows in front of me with his mother wearing a bright blue bike helmet. I smiled, remembering that quote from Annie Dillard who says we should all be wearing crash helmets when we go to church. For so powerful is God and so powerful the good news that we should really be ready to be shaken up a bit and have our life changed.
But then I remembered where we were and that here in this conflicted land, far too many people have worn helmets for far too long. Here in this conflicted land far too many people have had their lives shattered by violence and far too many live with unhealed wounds.
The purpose of my trip to Israel was to step into the conflict of the land in order to more fully understand it. Traveling with Interfaith Partners for Peace, we were Christian clergy and Jewish Rabbis who came to study the narratives of our faiths and to listen to the narratives of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, both of whom understand themselves as having a deep and defining claim to the land. These are peoples who have been intertwined for a long time in a narrative of conflict.
Now you know how it is when two people have been together for a very long time; when they know each other so well that the other can answer the question before the one has even finished asking it. Or when one can finish the other’s story because it is their story too.
What came home to me on this trip is that there is another way that we finish each other’s sentences and complete each other’s stories. And this other way is born not out of intimacy with another but out of ignorance about the other.
What I heard from the numerous people we met, was how each people, the Israelis and the Palestinians carried, a story about the other. Each had written the other into their own narrative. We heard how each side was certain of the other’s hatred and murderous intention. For the Israelis, the Arabs were dangerous and out to get them and for the Arabs, the Israelis were dangerous and out to get them.
As we know too well, the tendency to write the narrative of the other resides not just in the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. While we were there we heard of the protest in Baltimore where there continues to be a pernicious tendency in our country’s law enforcement to write a hate-filled and murderous narrative about African American men.
Reflecting on the news of Baltimore, I was reminded as well about the conflict two years ago, right here in Newton, over a proposal to turn the Engine 6 firehouse into affordable housing for people who were homeless. Many in Newton, many in Waban, were quite convinced that those people were a threat and a danger.
It was threatening and dangerous times for those first followers of Jesus, but what strikes me about the passage from Jesus farewell discourse that Jim read for us this morning is how Jesus is commanding the disciples to create right in the midst of the fear and threat a space where love abides, where those that dwell in that space are called friend and where joy is made complete.
Jesus is commanding them to make a literal space among them and a metaphorical space within them right in the midst of the conflicts they faced. A space where love abides, where one is called friend and where new narratives based not on fear and threat but on peace and care can be written.
I experienced such a space, just a few days ago on the last day of our trip. We were in the West Bank, just outside of Bethlehem. We had turned off the main highway and made our way down a narrow dirt road until we stopped before what looked like a rough temporary structure on the edge of a field. There was a large canvass tarp strung up to provide some shade. Chairs were arranged in a large circle. We made our way into the space and sat down.
This was the meeting place of Shorashim, a program that brings West Bank Palestinians and Israeli neighbors together. We were met by Ali Abu Awwad and Rabbi Hanan Schleinger. Rabbi Hanan introduced himself as a Settler, a Jew, a Zionist and a Rabbi. The narrative he told us, the narrative that defines him is that he is part of Israel, a young nation of an ancient people, reconstituting itself in the land after a long time of exile. He told us that he and others like him are the dry bones of which the Prophet Ezekiel spoke, dry bones that once again live! He told us that that’s the meaning of his life! And that even though he has said it thousand times, it still makes him cry.
And then sitting there under the tent in the field he continued saying that his truth had blinded him to the truth of the Palestinians, until 15 months ago when he was invited by a Christian Pastor to a gathering that was going to take place not far from where he lived. For some reason he said he accepted and walked 20 minutes from his house in the settlements to the field in which we were sitting. There he met an Arab for the first time. He said that that encounter changed his life. Talking late into the night he heard his Arab neighbors tell their story and speak of their fears of Israelis. He said he was speechless. For him it was the Arabs who were to be feared and who were a threat to him. Now he was hearing that he was feared, that he was a threat.
Then Ali spoke. He began by telling us that the political management of Judaism in this land is his problem. It has made his life miserable. Born as a refugee he witnessed much violence and participated in some. In October of 2000, while coming home his brother got into an argument with an Israeli soldier and was shot to death. Ali said he remembered feeling so angry that all he wanted to do was to seek revenge, but his heart he said was arguing with his head. His mind was asking the question “how many must I kill to make up for the murder of my brother?” “How many mothers will have to cry as payment for the tears my mother sheds.” He said he was broken until one day, his mother received a visit from a group of parents who also had lost a child.
Many of those in the group were Jewish. He was 31 at the time but remembers feeling shocked to see these Jewish parents crying. He said he did not know Jew’s could cry. Suddenly, he had to face for the first time, he told us, that the Jew was a human being with a heart and with tears.
And so Ali and Rabbi Hanan come together under the tent, in that field, in the West Bank, on the edge of Bethlehem, to write a new narrative. There under the tent where they call each other friend and they invite Palestinians and Jews to come together to tell their truth and to work together to create a new shared reality and to envision peace. It was an astonishing visit. It was an astonishing place.
I came away thinking I could use a bit more astonishment in my life. And in turning to the scripture from Acts this morning, astonishment is exactly what Peter and the circumscribed believes get. They were astonished to find the Holy Spirit upon those who they had considered to be the other, the Gentiles — who those early disciples had thought were outside of their narrative and beyond the reach of God’s grace. But God’s tent, it turns out, is large.
When we look out over the world and across our communities, and see such conflict and entrenched violence it is easy to become discouraged. It is easy to think that peace will never come; that far too many people will continue to put on helmets; that far too many people’s lives will be shattered by violence; and far too many people’s body’s and souls will be marked by wounds not healed by time.
And yet, what I experienced last week has made me deeply hopeful. I have come to believe that peace is possible, because I have seen it emerging in lives that are being transformed in spaces and places created as sanctuaries where something new can happen, where love can abide and where once people who were called enemies now are called friend. I saw it there under the tent there in the West Bank. I saw it there in a bilingual Arab Israeli elementary school and I felt it there in worship last Sunday at St. George’s where shoulder to shoulder with my Rabbi friends we listened to a sermon preached in Arabic about Jesus’ call to abide in love.
Our job as peace makers, is to do as Jesus commands. It is to create such spaces among us and within in us where love abides. It is to create a place of hospitality and encounter.
So here is what I’d like to ask. What if we commit in the days or weeks to come commit to sitting down with someone we do not know or someone we think we do not have much in common with? Perhaps even, someone you don’t particularly like? Perhaps someone who may have a very different story than our own? What if we sit down with that person and ask to hear their story and tell our own. Could we create with that person even if it is just for an hour or so, a tent, a space, a place where love abides? And could we allow ourselves the possibility of being astonished? It may sound like a little thing but I am quite convinced that in this small way we are contributing to a greater peace.
And as a final note, at the end of the service last Sunday communion was celebrated. As we stood in the line approaching the altar to receive the bread and cup, I saw the mother of the little boy reach over, unbuckle his helmet and leave it behind on the floor. Thanks be to God. Amen.