Sunday, April 13, 2008

Seeing through the eyes of others ... seeing through the eyes of Jesus

A sermon preached at Highbury immediately following a fortnight in the Holy Land on 'A Journey of Reconciliation' at the Tantur Institute in Jerusalem and in Galilee

To sit in silence together is very moving.

To sit in silence together in a boat with the sound of the water lapping at its sides links you to nature in a very special way.

To sit in silence together in a boat on the Sea of Galilee as I did only three days ago moved me in a way I did not expect.

Everyone who has visited the Holy Land and sat maybe in that boat as the engines were turned off has told me how moving it is.

I don’t think I quite believed them.

I do now.

It was intensely moving in a way before experiencing it I couldn’t begin to believe possible.

The silence was preceded with a reading from Matthew 14. That chapter contains three stories. Those three stories captured for me something at the heart of all that we have shared in this last couple of weeks.

The first was the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. It wasn’t the story so much, or its location far from anywhere we visited. It was its brutality that registered with me.

The bulk of our time in the Holy Land was spent at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute. Tantur simply means ‘Hill Top’ and its location on a hill top overlooking the check point through which you have to pass to get from one side of the wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem … unless of course you are an Israeli Citizen or a Palestinian who lives and works in Bethlehem and the West Bank in which case you are not permitted to pass through the check point.

That was the most frightening and brutalising thing of all. To meet Palestinians who are not allowed to meet and talk with Israelis, and with Israelis who are not allowed to meet and talk with Palestinians living in the West Bank.

I saw through Israeli eyes as our Israeli Jewish guides took us on wonderfully informative tours of the old city of Jerusalem with its historic sites, the bustle of the Arab quarter and the quiet of the Jewish quarter. The pride they took, albeit critically, of the Knesset, the Supreme Court and the institutions of state.

I saw through Palestinian eyes as I stood on the roof-top of a house built on the site of the tents his parents had been moved to when their land was taken from them in 1948 and looked to nearby Jerusalem to be told he was not permitted to go there. After service in their basement church I sat with a family in the room where the 70 year old parents had been kept for 7 hours by Israeli soldiers with no access to a toilet as they smashed all the windows on the top floor to fire at nearby houses: I saw all that remains of that room now with no windows.

I saw through Jewish eyes as we heard powerful talks about the situation from a leading Jewish rabbi and another Jewish theologian. We heard of the majority of Israelis and Jews who want to share the land with their Palestinian neighbours. I heard secular Jewish people passionately denounce the settlements that are still being built now two months after the Annapolis agreement said they should cease deep within the Palestinian territories.

I saw through Christian eyes joining a good friend of Eric Burton, my predecessor here in Highbury, with the Christain Peace Maker teams in Hebron. Were they right to be accompanying the children we met in an orphanage that is in danger of being closed by the Israeli militia? Our group were divided. Were they right in insisting we walk through the road block, past the Jewish settlers in that ancient Palestinian town deep inside the Palestinian territories. It was scary. The soldiers with their machine guns were so young. How vital the role those Christian Peacemaker teams play we were told in simply being a presence for peace in one of the most volatile parts of the Holy Land.

I saw through Jewish eyes as slowly I made my way through Yad Vashen, the museum and memorial to the people who died in the Holocaust and forced myself to look at images of people I found so difficult to look at, and forced myself to hear the stories of people I would rather not have heard.

Those haunting words at the entrance to the final breathtakingly enormous gallery where rows of ring binders are carefully arranged hoping eventually to contain the stories of all those 6,000,000 people. …

Remember only that I was innocent
and, just like you, mortal
On that day I too had a face
marked by rage, pity and joy,
quite simply a human face.

I saw through Jesus’ eyes as we rounded that bend on the road down from the Mount of Olives and saw the ancient city of Jerusalem with the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. As he came near, Luke tells us, and saw the city he wept over it, saying, If you , even you had only recognised on the this day the things that make for peace!

I could understand those tears.

That brutality. And worst of all the lack of hope on the faces of so many people.

A confusion of thoughts tumbling around in the shared silence of that boat on the sea of Galilee. It was good to be there. Thinking. In the quiet.

The question that Matthew 14 addresses is not What would Jesus do? It is rather, the much more interesting, and much more powerful, What did Jesus do?

The brutality of John the Baptist’s death shook those who heard of it, not least Jesus.

“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”

After the turmoil of thinking, talking, visiting, listening, seeing that we had done in the melting pot of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, it was so good to come into the quiet place of Galilee.

It was so beautiful, the sea so calm, the hills and mountains so golden and green. We had just walked through beautiful cornfields, recently harvested.

And yet all is not as it seemed.

Galilee was a bustling place in the tame of Jesus, unlike Jerusalem and Bethlehem, it was on a major international thoroughfare. The crowds were there as well. And they sought Jesus out. They wanted to share in what Jesus had to say and in what Jesus had to do.

Jesus taught. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom. And Jesus healed.

They tracked him down. When he landed, they came in great numbers. We read, he had compassion for them and cured their sick. The second story of Matthew 14 is the feeding of the 5000.

We were well fed wherever we went. Delightful salads, wonderful meat dishes, tasty deserts. The calendar of Jewish festivals informed us that now is the time of the Citrus harvest. We had broken bread in a communion service in the East Jerusalem Baptist church last Sunday morning and then had refreshments in the shade of heavy-laden orange trees. The oranges were so juicy.

We were such a mixed group – Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, Salvation Army, URC, Congregational, House Church, Charismatic. There’s something special about eating together. I found it special to share in each other’s times of communion, Eucharist or mass, as we were able.

An Orthodox priest explained the significance of the wonderful icons we were seeing, and the symbolic splendour of an Orthodox church.

At the ruined synagogue in Capernaum, the town Jesus used as his base in Galilee, I had shared my excitement that while the splendour of Orthodox and Catholic liturgy, vestments and ornamentation finds its roots in the Temple we had been learning so much about, and charismatic churches find their roots in the charismatic church of Corinth, we in our tradition find our roots in the Synagogues of Jesus’ day. How wonderful for us each to affirm the other and celebrate that ‘diversity’ that is ours.
I couldn't resist the temptation to get one friend, Lisa to take a photograph of two friends and myself sitting on the bench in the Synagogue at Capernaum. Closest to us is Fr Ian, Orthodox Priest in Oxford, I am in the centre, Congregational Minister in Cheltenham, Matthew is furthest from us, member of a community church in South Wales.

It rained a little in Galilee and the winds began to blow. We could see how sudden storms could indeed rage on that lake with tragic consequences. The third of those stories then followed – the sharing done, Jesus withdrew to pray. The disciples got back in the boat when a storm arose and the waves battered the side of the boat. In the silence even the gentle swell resulted in a battering sound on the boat we were in. They were fearful and felt very much alone.

Then it was that Jesus came to them, walking on the water. They were terrified at what they saw. Jesus spoke to them, Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.

My thoughts went back to the point in our week when we had touched the brutality most. Hebron. In the company of the Christian Peace Makers. What a difference simply the presence of those Christian Peace Makers meant in such a volatile situation.

“It is I; do not be afraid.”

Those are the words I want to take with me from the Holy Land.
The reality of the fear so many people expressed and we could not help but share.

But over against that the reality of the presence of Jesus.

That came home to me so powerfully.

Here, in this location then. But also, here in this location now.

Wherever we are, whatever we may be doing, whatever the anxieties we face, these are the words to hear from the risen Christ.

“It is I; do not be afraid.”

The time of silence in that boat came to an end. We made our way back across to the shore. And one of the crew of the boat played his drum in a song that was a prayer for peace. Maybe it was the moment, but I found the tears in my eyes as I had done two or three times before.

Shalom, salem, Peace. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. Called to be ambassadors of Christ, in Paul’s words our call is to be ambassadors for reconciliation.

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