I am back in the States. After a whirlwind of leaving Palestine, visiting beloved family and friends in Minnesota, my sister’s engagement in Texas, and moving my entire life to North Carolina, I am tired. I often times find myself missing the place and people I called home over the past year. The word “home,” in fact, has become much more complicated for me. All of these changes, coupled with my natural tendency to constantly reflect, make for quite the mess in my head right now. I often process through writing, conversation, and theological reflection, and the opportunity to deliver a sermon at St. Barnabas (one of my sending congregations) afforded me the chance to do all three.
This sermon is messy. It is not neatly tied together. There are clear loose ends – much like the loose ends in my heart now.
It is real. And, I hope it is faithful to both my experience and the experience of those I love in Palestine. It is the least I can do, given how much their hospitality, grace, humor, friendship, and love touched the deepest parts of my soul.
Finally, I hope it is faithful to the story of the God who called us together.
Sermon, St. Barnabas Lutheran, Micah 6:1-8, 7/14/2019.
You reach into your closet located in the living room below your host family’s – the Haddads – parsonage home, and pull out the thickest blanket you find, throw it into the back of the car, and head outside the city. The moment you lay the blanket on the ground, you pray that no spiny plants will jab up through it and elicit a yelp of pain. You and your friends, a young man and woman whom are originally from a town outside Jerusalem called Lifta but grew up in Ramallah, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan due to the violence of military occupation, settle again into one of your favorite escapes, a place called Ein Qinia. Birds sing. A breeze – carrying the pleasant aroma of innumerable flowers – drifts past. The quiet, juxtaposed with the chaotic buzz of the city, is deafening.
Discussion wanders between Ibrahim’s longing to visit Lifta, his ancestral village that is only eleven miles away outside Jerusalem, impossible due to restrictions on movement imposed by the Israeli government, to the results of your last Jackaroo board game match together. The sun begins to set, brightening with a deep orange the horizon of the sea and the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv and the minarets of Palestinian villages and the guard towers outside Israeli settlements and the outlines of olive tree-covered rolling hills. It is all right here.
Humans. Ideologies. Love. Hate. Hope. Despair. Grief. Laughter. The Land.
In this sermon, I invite you to engage, with me, the living power of scripture and Christ’s Gospel through the lens of the lived experience of Palestinians in the context of Jerusalem and the West Bank. This is born out of my time spent as a Young Adult in Global Mission (a.k.a. YAGM) this past year in Ramallah, Palestine. In particular, I hope to explore the idea of “ascent,” and how it relates to accompanying those in their pursuit of loving kindness, doing justice, and walking humbly.
I want to, at the beginning, be clear about what these next few minutes will not be. This is not a presentation on my time living overseas. This is not me coming from on high with the solution to conflict in the Middle East. I am not here to neatly wrap up with a clean theological bow just how we, as privileged American Christians, are exactly to respond to the reality of injustice both domestically and abroad. This is not an exposition of how all Palestinians or, frankly, any Palestinian, actually thinks about their life in the Land.
I am here as a fellow wayfarer trying to grapple with the story of a God who became a human – a human who lived, healed, wept, suffered, listened, laughed, died, and resurrected – in light of my experience with the “living stones” (as they like to call themselves) who reside in the land we call “holy.” These stones bear names. Imad. Ibrahim. Majd. Rula. Mays. Naseef. David. Barhoum. Aseel. Salameh. Scarlett. Daniel. Mansura. Aicha. Jamal. Maha. Eli. Reem. They span religions and degrees of religiosity.
Yet, they have changed the way I experience God and destroyed the illusion that we can approach scripture from a somehow elevated, analytical position where we can discern exactly what God is speaking in these words that were pieced together in a particular historical context and in a particular community for a particular purpose, all the while overcoming our own biases that may cloud our interpretation.
Palestinians, and in particular the Lutheran community in which I spent the majority of my time this past year, are honest. Often brutally so. Pastor and Theologian Mitri Raheb from Bethlehem told our YAGM cohort one time that Palestinians are interacting with the Bible with their situation as an oppressed, displaced people in their own homeland, in mind. In fact, many Palestinian Christians read scriptures with the mindset that they are, in fact, the people of Israel in the Bible, a people who lived under the dominance of various empires spanning from the Babylonians to the Romans.
In the context of the passage from Micah we read today, the ancient Kingdom of Israel (which I would, for many reasons, distinguish from the nation-state of today) was recently conquered by the Assyrian King Sennacherib. Micah, the traditional author of the book, was a contemporary of biblical figures such as the Prophet Isaiah, King Hezekiah, and the Prophet Hosea. In it, he is grappling with the devastation wrought by the Assyrians, God’s action in it all, and the proper response of the people of God. This book is often cited for its prophecy regarding the Messiah’s future origin from the barely-regarded city of Bethlehem.
Micah 6 starts with an indictment that the prophet calls for the mountains to hear. This brings to mind the topography in the Holy Land, in particular around Jerusalem and Ramallah. The psalms of ascent are the traditional spiritual songs sung while on the way to Jerusalem for worship. Ascent implies elevation, which necessitates inclines – a reality I became very acquainted with this past year, especially when walking (thankfully) down the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday with the Bishara family and two fellow YAGMs, Eli and Calla. That family generously invited us to accompany them as we processed among church leaders, international pilgrims, and Israeli soldiers primed to arrest anyone who dared to fly a Palestinian flag. The weight of one and a half year-old Wa’el on my shoulders and the laughter of Salameh Bishara will never leave my memory.
My host father, Pastor Imad Haddad, has to undergo his own kind of “ascent” every time he enters Jerusalem. As a Palestinian, to enter Jerusalem he needs special permission from the Israeli government (called tasreiH in Arabic). He is able to secure this largely in part due to his status as a minister. I recall going with him once to Jerusalem for a large ecumenical service at the Redeemer Church in the Old City. He is prohibited from driving his car through the checkpoint, so we drove about halfway there, parked on a side street, took a large shared taxi called a service to the Qalandia Checkpoint that cuts off northern Jerusalem from Ramallah. As we entered the checkpoint together – a structure manned by soldiers armed with rifles that calls to mind somewhat of a mix between airport security and cattle pens – Imad told Eli and me to “just keep on going” if he got turned back by the soldiers.
Capriciousness, or, in other words, arbitrariness, rules the day at checkpoints. Whether or not someone is let through does not depend on how their paperwork checks out. It is contingent on the whims of the 18-19 year-old conscripted soldier behind the glass. Thankfully, that day, they let him through. We made it to the service, and to celebrate a long, late night journey back home to Ramallah characterized by Israeli soldiers boarding our bus and checkpoint-induced traffic, we got Popeyes for the whole family. A journey that should take about 20 minutes generally ranges from 1.5-3 hours, depending on the day. It’s certainly an “ascent.” A steep one. Both ways.
Back to Micah. What is God’s “indictment” of the ancient kingdom of Israel? The prophet writes:
“O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I send you before Aaron, Moses, and Mirian. O my people, remember…”
The people have failed to remember the faithfulness of God, a God who, despite their seeming abandonment, liberated them, remained with them, and gave them a name. In Palestine, memory plays a key role in the life of the church. Palestinian Christians remember their roots as the “originals” (el-asslieen): the ones who heard the angel’s song, who responded to the call by the Sea of Galilee, who ran when Christ was arrested, were present at Pentecost, and carried the message of the Gospel of Peace to our ancestors. They also weathered the coming and going of the Greeks, the Romans, the Umayyads, the Crusaders, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, the British, and, today, the Israelis.
Yes, many have emigrated given the immense difficulties imposed by military occupation and systemic discrimination. Yes, the Christian population in the Holy Land, which was 30% of the total population before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, is now less than 1%. In all of this, this community has remained faithful despite this pressure to leave. I found myself saying over and over this year “the Christian, especially Lutheran, community here punches above its weight class.” Four schools. Care for the sick and needy. Inter- and intra-faith engagement. Local and international advocacy. Exchanges with churches all over the world.
I don’t want to over-romanticize them. They’re not perfect. But, based on the past year I spent accompanying them in Jerusalem and the West Bank, they do faithfully ascend to the call of the famous edict found in Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
My host father, Imad, has to ascend every time he goes to Jerusalem. Mays has to ascend every time she strives as an assistant principal, mother, and Master’s student in a culture where women are often expected to stay at home. Daniel, my friend, has to ascend every time he seeks an American visa to visit family in the States or speak at an academic conference. Ibrahim has to ascend every time he goes to work as an underpaid engineer in a stifled economy. Aseel has to ascend as she works as a human rights advocate in an environment that, oftentimes, seems hopeless in its brokenness.
What does the idea of “ascent” look for us, though? We are American citizens, members of one of the most powerful and rich nations in the history of the world. We live in Plymouth, MN, an affluent suburb. I will surmise that most of us are not living under military occupation here, although there are, of course, profound imbalances within our society that I can see more clearly given my time in the West Bank.
What do we do? How do we “ascend?” I think the idea of accompaniment gives us a place to start. Accompaniment is the central underlying theological thrust of the YAGM program. We went to Palestine not as saviors or solution-bringers, but as fellow wayfarers invited to bear witness to their reality, meet small needs where we could, participate in mutual exchange, and, frankly, receive far beyond what we could give.
The individuals, and the populations, whom we choose to accompany, matter. Christ, when asked “who is my neighbor?” by the lawyer in the Gospel of Luke today, responded with the famous, and, frankly, terrifying story of the Good Samaritan. Our neighbor is the one whom we believe is less than human. Our neighbor is the enemy. Our neighbor is the one who is weak. Our neighbor is the Palestinian. Our neighbor is the Israeli. Our neighbor is the refugee. Our neighbor is the marginalized person of color. The list goes on.
I am now being constantly challenged by what it looks like to be faithful, and it looks more and more like making a constant choice to situate myself, in accompaniment, alongside those whom are seeking to “ascend” in their particular call of loving kindness, doing justice, and humbly walking with God. I believe this is the word that God has for us today. “Accompaniment” is one of our forms of ascent.
Accompaniment is messy. It is painful. Depending on the direction it takes you, it may cost you your life. But, I have tasted the sweetness and the beauty a life lived in accompaniment brings, and I believe that God is beckoning for each of us to prayerfully discern where a commitment to accompaniment might lead us. To downtown Minneapolis? A nursing home facility in Plymouth? An estranged family member’s front door?
It should be costly. It should take time. It ought to entail financial sacrifice. But, what you receive in return far surpasses all given, for the call of accompanying the children of God – whether they are from our religious, national, or familial “tribe” – is in step with the simple gospel, and the “abundant” life of loving sacrifice Christ promises in the Gospel of John.
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”