Sunday, May 14, 2017

In you, I seek refuge

Psalm 31 and John 14 

Gracious God, you are a place of refuge for all who seek you. You long to gather us like a hen gathers her chicks, and when we are grown you send us out to be fearless witnesses to Jesus’  life, death, and resurrection. Speak to us now, as a mother comforts her child, but also boldly fill us with confident trust that we need to do whatever you call us to do. Amen

I’m glad to be back. For those who don’t know, I was recently away for a two-week pilgrimage to Israel and Israeli-occupied parts of Palestine. It was a wonderful trip. Funded by an organization called Macedonian Ministries, and given continuing education time through our ministry Covenant, and supported by my family who all took on extra home responsibilities, I was able to be away… That included not only visiting countless biblical sites, walking where Jesus walked (which I will try to tell you about over the coming weeks and months, so you can benefit too)… but also the gifts of rest, beautiful meals, warm summer-like weather, and long, uninterrupted conversations with pastor colleagues from Minneapolis and Scotland who became new friends. It was truly a gift to be a tourist in such a beautiful part of the world, and at the same time… we were not completely immune to the kinds of socio-political forces that formed the State of Israel and that continue today.

After a beautiful, restful week in Galilee (where there are few visual reminders of the occupation), we traveled to Jerusalem. We walked the route that Jesus walked from the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane and through the stations of the cross. We saw pilgrims from all over the world doing this same walk. It was crowded and sometimes, people pushed. We saw soldiers, young adults with automatic weapons. We were there for Israel’s remembrance day and independence day. Think fireworks, think rock music… one group’s celebration and another’s catastrophe.

We went to Bethlehem. Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus, is a part of the West Bank. Here’s a very quick summary. In 1947/1948, Israel was formed, backed by European nations and the U.S. (people newly horrified by and regretting their complacency toward the atrocities of the Holocaust where two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe was killed—6 million Jews). Israel was placed within a territory where people already lived. At the time, it was called Palestine… but the native inhabitants of this land had been occupied by various outside forces since at least 400 BC. So, the state of Israel became one more occupier… and the agreements of giving half of the land to Palestinians have never been honored. Today, a separation/security barrier (which is sometimes an electric fence with barbed wire and sometimes a 40-foot-high cement wall) surrounds and cuts people off from one another, from their fields and sources of water, as well as from means of communication (such as access to wifi). In Bethlehem, I got to meet up with Samantha Ea, who has been serving for 8 months as an ELCA Young Adult in Global Mission (tutoring English and learning Arabic, and learning far more in-depth about the joys and challenges of life in the community where the angels came and told people to spread the news that God had come among people—Immanuel—God-with-us, a God who saves.

While in Bethlehem, we had the opportunity to hear from Dr. Mitri Raheb, a prominent Palestinian Christian pastor who has done so much to empower interfaith work for peace and justice, to create opportunities for sustainable livelihood under an oppressive reality, and to increase understanding throughout the world of what Palestinians face daily. I had met him nineteen years ago and now, he is less hopeful that things can change. He asked this question in response to the injustices that Palestinians endure, “Where is the world?”

We also went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. This was my fifth visit to a Holocaust museum, and my second visit to this one. Every Israeli young adult is required to do military service, and as a part of their training, they visit this site. In the entry are the words from Ezekiel, “I will put my breath in you and you shall live and I will put you on your own soil.” So, the belief that the state of Israel is God’s fulfillment of God’s promises to the Jewish people is very clearly stated at this place. If you have ever been to a Holocaust museum before, you know that it is horrifying. The plan to eliminate the Jewish people (and all “undesirables”) was so well thought out, so planned, so hateful… In some sectors, the hatred was overt and open, in other places, the plot was to purposefully deceive others on every level. They killed millions of people in hundreds of ways, and kept and catalogued their belongings… which is why we have so much evidence to fill so many museums today…

This time through, I spent nearly all my time watching videos of people telling their stories and here’s one that I remember well. It was a man talking about his mother. He said something like this, “I don’t mean to say anything against my mother, but we were only marginally Jewish. We only worshiped on holidays. She considered herself fully German, so when the change came, the challenge came from within. She couldn’t accept that others would turn away from her. When things got very threatening, she called all her friends. She had far more German friends than Jewish friends. She called and called and called, and not one friend called her back.”
Not one friend called her back.

All the Holocaust museums and memorials were created in an effort that this kind of atrocity might never happen again. The problem is… it does still happen. Humans still separate and wall off and treat others without dignity. We still act hatefully. We can’t seem to make the connection between the evil that we suffered and the evil (or indifference) that we carry out on others.
And it’s easy to point fingers toward Israel/Palestine where this inability to find resolution is so stark—but I thought many times while there, how can this tiny land (about the size of New Jersey, our fifth smallest state) bear all these expectations? All these actors? All these powers vying for power here?

Last Thursday evening, right here at Christ, we hosted speaker Marty Brounstein who shared the story of his wife’s survival of the Holocaust. Her parents were hidden by a family in a rural part of the Netherlands, and her mother gave birth to her in their home. They claimed her (and about two dozen other Jews) as their own family during a time when to do so meant putting their own lives at risk. And Marty asked us, gathered on Thursday night, “Would you be willing to help others whose lives are in great danger, knowing if you get involved, you probably put your life (and the lives of your children) in great danger?” That’s a hard question, but the way Marty described Frans and Mien Wijnakker’s response – two faithful Christians in a rural community – was like this… Could you help?
With a shrug… “Sure!”

That feels like an embodiment of the kind of trust that Jesus invites us to practice in this gospel word from John… words that are often read at funerals… but really, words that we need as we attempt to live in God’s way, in the face of politics as usual, where people do not matter… words that we need as we try to overcome hatred and indifference (not only of those “out there,” but our own failing, those who are closest, those we are most afraid might betray us or that we might betray…)
Jesus says this in troubling times, “Do not let your hearts be troubled…” Yes, of course, there are reasons why your heart is stirred up… but can’t you imagine that in this house, God’s house, Christ is absolutely creating a place for you?

And if you need a hiding place, a refuge, you will find that in God… and in this place where we are trying to practice love like God’s… We are gathered (although we’re broken and imperfect and just as likely to experience deep fear as the next person), but we’re gathered to practice loving each other and showing up for each other through whatever may come.
This is what it means to be given faith.
It’s to trust that when God puts someone in our path who needs us, we might have the grace to respond as Frans and Mien did… With a shrug… “Sure!”
Jesus invites us to join in practicing that kind of fearlessness, that kind of love in action – here’s what Jesus says:“I tell you for certain that if you trust me, you will do the same things that I’m doing. You will do even greater things…”  

Gracious God, you are a place of refuge for all who seek you. You long to gather us like a hen gathers her chicks, and when we are grown you send us out to be fearless witnesses to Jesus’  life, death, and resurrection. Feed us now, as a mother comforts her child, but also boldly fill us with confident trust that we’ll need to do whatever you call us to do. Amen

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