Walking the Wilderness Road
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ
May 6, 2012
1 John 4:7-21
I want to echo Daoud’s words in thanking you for welcoming us into your community. It’s an honor to be with you this morning. I want also to thank Pastor Bob for yielding his pulpit to me, and to Maryn and the Middle East Committee for organizing this wonderful morning and for all they work they do for peace.
Throughout these weeks of Eastertide we are reading from the Book of Acts, which tells the story of the birth and expansion of the church from the time of the ascension of Jesus to the arrival of Paul in Rome. A lot is going on in this book. It’s really about what to do with what they have just seen, what they have heard, what they have experienced. These were interesting and difficult times. The followers of Jesus were struggling with how to deal with at least two big issues:
1. The tyranny of Rome. This included the complicity of the Jewish aristocracy in Jerusalem -- the elite, working with and for Rome.
2. The divisions and conflicts within the Jewish community and between the Gentile and Jewish followers of Jesus. The followers of Jesus were struggling to find a way to unite the community, asking what does God require of us in these times, given the urgency of the crisis faced by the community? Especially when we are fighting amongst ourselves, and there is a power structure which is giving us easy answers: work with us, play our game, it will go well, we’ll take care of you.
Not easy questions. Not an easy road.
And so we read:
An angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.)
This is a call. It calls to mind immediately the call to Abraham: Get up and go! Leave everything behind (sound familiar?), there is a bigger thing waiting for you, an inheritance that is spiritual (the land is important, but not the point, not the thing itself, more on that in a bit). This is a journey of faith. Abraham’s was the first of such calls in the Bible – there will be many others -- Jonah, of course, who gives God, and then of course himself, a hard time about this. Things happen on the road – we think immediately of Paul, for whom everything changes on that road, even his name. Jesus, of course, issue his own call to us, to get up, rearrange and challenge our priorities, leave everything behind, and get on that road.
And it’s a wilderness road. More powerful, perhaps than this image of getting up and getting on the road is this word wilderness. It is the place of wandering, of transformation, of confrontation with the self and with God. It was forty years for the children of Israel before entering the Promised Land. Jesus goes into the wilderness, where he is tempted – where he gets very clear about who he is and what God wants him to do. Then again, after the raising of Lazarus – back to the wilderness he goes before he continues on his ministry.
So Phillip got up and went. No questions asked, he answered the call.
Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
"Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth."
The Eunuch, understandably, is fascinated, perhaps troubled by these words. He wants to know what they mean!
The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?"
Indeed. Yes. Perfect. The water is there, always, when and where you need it. The baptism, the new birth. See how the story recapitulates our own baptism, modeled after that of Jesus: In the story in Gospel, it is immediately after his baptism that Jesus goes into the wilderness, where he is tempted. After water, wilderness. After baptism, after the commitment, the saying “yes,” then begins the struggle, the transformation.
The story we read today is part of a bigger story.
Acts was written at time of great change, conflict, political, social psychological and spiritual upheaval. Things are changing. This is why we read this in Eastertide – a time when the trauma and the miracle of Easter is still reverberating. We are still a bit dazed, still wondering what to do with what has been given, how to build on this, transform this into action, in confronting the signs of the times!
He proclaimed the Good News about Jesus.
Follow me, says Jesus, follow my teachings and my example. My father has sent me to you to bring this news to you, and to send you out to bring this news to the world, which means to actively bring about the Kingdom by acting, in the world, in accordance with God’s plan of love, compassion, and social justice. Liberation theologian Walter Wink writes about Jesus’ statement, My Kingdom is not of this world. Wink points out that in the Gospel of John the Greek word for “world” is kosmos – which translates as order or system. In the Gospel accounts Jesus stands before the Temple and says: “Not one stone will be left upon another!” Translation: this old order is over. And in the Gospel of John (John 2:21), when Jesus says “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up,” the narrator, just to make sure we get the theology right, explains: “He spoke of the temple of his body.” Body of Christ: one body – humankind made one, whole, united in one spiritual community. This world, Jesus is saying, this Temple, this system of empire which seeks only to increase its own power and reach at the expense of communities, families, human health and dignity, this Empire that tears at the fabric of society, destroying compassion between people and the bedrock of social justice, administered, not compassionately in the marketplaces and the gates of the city but arbitrarily and cruelly in the halls of power, this world order will give over to the Kingdom of God – something completely different.
It was a radical political statement. This Empire, this system that exploits the 99% for benefit of the 1%, all this will be replaced by a system based on love and compassion. For the widow, the orphan, the poor, the dispossessed.
Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God dispenses, finally, with the concept of God’s indwelling in the land, of a particular location as the place where God is to be worshiped. In the Christian vision, the idea of the physical land as a clause in the covenant disappears. Temple -- gone. God dwelling in one place -- over. And, most important, Jesus’ Kingdom takes the next step – it throws out the special people concept. The special privilege of one family/tribe/nation that has the right to displace, conquer or oppress another people is done away with for good.
Here is where Jewish exceptionalism is eclipsed. And, by the way, so is our own American exceptionalism, the idea that our way, the Right Way, must be imposed by economic imperialism and military might. Exceptionalism is very much in the American DNA – the Puritans set that out clearly – a city on a Hill, Manifest Destiny, God is on our side and we have the right to sweep away anyone in our path. The Puritans were wrong. The displacement of indigenous peoples is not God’s will, it is not God’s plan.
And so today, in our own urgent historical context, it is essential that we Jews – and Christians as well, revisit this fundamental issue of theology and faith.
Today, we Jews have lost track of this fundamental truth in our pursuit of empowerment and security.
As a Jew born in post-World War II America, I was taught that a miracle – born of heroism and bravery – had blessed my generation. The State of Israel was not a mere historical event – it was redemption from millennia of marginalization, demonization, and murderous violence. We had survived, despite the effort, “in every age” – so reads the Passover liturgy -- to eradicate us. The ideology and mythology of the birth of the State of Israel partook of this legacy of separateness, vulnerability, and specialness. I embraced it.
Until I saw the occupation.
When I saw the dispossession and oppression being perpetrated in my name, it broke my heart and it challenged my assumptions and beliefs. I saw the wall and the land grab, I saw the impact on the psyches and souls of my Jewish cousins manning those checkpoints. I learned about another narrative, the Nakba, the dispossession of three quarters of a million men, women and children to make way for the Jewish State, a crime that continues to this day. I saw how the Nazi Holocaust was being used as political indoctrination and as justification for this project. I realized that the meaning of the Holocaust was not that we had to retreat behind walls of protection but rather to open our hearts to the universality of human suffering and our obligation to relieve it. But most of all, I met the Palestinian people, recognized them as my brothers and sisters.
That summer, I lived in two worlds – the world of West Jerusalem, where my family lived – ordered, clean, manicured, devout, Jewish. And Palestinian East Jerusalem, where I stayed with my delegation – colorful, chaotic, oriental, Muslim and Christian. I realized that, inexplicably, I was feeling more at home on the East side. What was happening to me? Was I supposed to stop being a Jew?
And then, one morning I sat in the offices of Sabeel, the Palestinian Ecumenical Liberation theology center in Jerusalem.
Nora Carmi works for Sabeel. I asked her how she deals with being dispossessed and occupied. I will never forget her answer: We follow Jesus. Who was Jesus? He was a Palestinian Jew living under Roman occupation. Faced with this situation, Jesus did not turn to hatred of his oppressors, nor to fomenting violent rebellion—in contrast, he taught love of humankind, commitment to God’s requirement to pursue social justice, and persistent, stubborn nonviolent resistance to oppression. We follow Jesus, Nora said. Empires come and empires go. We are here.
Leaving Sabeel that day, I took with me a copy of Naim Ateek’s book, Justice Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation. Naim Ateek is the founder of Sabeel. He was eight years old in 1948, when Jewish forces expelled his family from their village. In his book Father Ateek recounted how his experience of dispossession and occupation led him directly to his belief in the centrality of justice in his faith. It is a book that traces a direct line from the Old Testament prophets of my youth to Jesus of Nazareth. This spoke to me. Did I believe in the prophets’ call for justice? Had I not been taught that the core of my identity as a Jew was a commitment to compassion for all people, and the prophetic charge for social justice above all as our duty to God?
I realized that to feel outrage toward the actions of my own people was the most Jewish thing I had ever felt, and that working for justice in Palestine was the most Jewish thing I could do.
There are times when we are poised for this kind of fundamental change – when nothing else will do. I faced it as a Jew confronting the horror and tragedy of what has become of the Jewish dream of redemption from insecurity and suffering, and today the church, the U.S. church in particular, faces the same moment of truth, the same call, the same wilderness road to discovery and action.
The Bible has a word for it: Kairos.
In the New Testament Kairos means "the appointed time in the purpose of God", the time when God acts (e.g. Mark 1:15, The Kairos is fulfilled.”).
In 1985, the church leaders of South Africa, confronted the crisis in their country, the moment where a choice had to be made to go along with the evil system or, once and for all, and without compromise, oppose it. And they wrote their Kairos document, calling it “Challenge to the Church”.
“This,” they wrote, “is the KAIROS, the moment of grace and opportunity, the favorable time in which God issues a challenge to decisive action.”
In 2009 the Christian leaders of Palestine, two short years ago, also named their document Kairos, “A word of truth from the heart of Palestinian suffering.” They wrote:
“The mission of the Church is prophetic, to speak the Word of God courageously, honestly and lovingly in the local context and in the midst of daily events.”
And speak it they do, naming the evil of the occupation and asserting their duty to resist as their faith requires, and calling on the global church to join them in faith and solidarity.
It is a resistance, they wrote with love as its logic. This is what we see in Daoud Nassar of the Tent of Nations, Daoud, who declares in his work that We Refuse to be Enemies, Daoud whom this church has helped support in his work for years through your olive oil sales.
Many of you have read the Palestinian document, and for those who have not, I urge you to do so. But I want to spend a few minutes with you in the world of the South African statement of over two decades ago. Because the story it tells is our story, here in America, and the Kairos it sets out is our Kairos.
I visited South Africa for the first time only 6 months ago, and I met these pastors, theologians, activists all, and it changed me profoundly.
What inspired me and challenged me to my core was what these South Africans – black and white – in response to standing before their Temple, the vast evil system of control of Apartheid. They addressed, not the obvious perpetrators of the evil in the Pretoria government, but rather their own church, their own what they named “church theology” that, they stated, was complicit in creating and maintaining that evil system. You will not need me to point out the parallels with our own Apartheid project today:
“'Church Theology' often describes the Christian stance in the following way: ‘We must be fair. We must listen to both sides of the story. If the two sides can only meet to talk and negotiate they will sort out their differences and misunderstandings, and the conflict will be resolved.’
The fallacy here is that 'Reconciliation' has been made into an absolute principle. But there are conflicts where one side is a fully armed and violent oppressor while the other side is defenseless and oppressed. To speak of reconciling these two is not only a mistaken application of the Christian idea of reconciliation, it is a total betrayal of all that Christian faith has ever meant.
In our situation in South Africa today it would be totally unChristian to plead for reconciliation and peace before the present injustices have been removed...No reconciliation is possible in South Africa without justice ...”
This was the context of South Africa in 1985. The Pretoria government on the ropes, isolated in the world, facing economic sanctions, and in desperation offering reforms and a solution --- a two state solution, the Bantustans. And the church leaders said, No! We see clearly. Apartheid cannot be reformed. This government is illegitimate! Apartheid must come down -- every stone. And the world heard them, and the churches of the world responded, and in 9 years Apartheid was gone.
We are on the wilderness road. We are called. And the roadmap is before us, as we walk in the wake of Easter and approach Pentecost, it is in the reading from first John that we read today:
We love because he first loved us. Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
This is the good news – for all. Christians, Jews, Muslims, all faiths, all nationalities. When will we get this? Can you explain the good news to me? Can we have this conversation? As the Methodists just have at their GC in their decision to divest from U.S. companies profiting from the oppression of Palestine, as the Presbyterians will, again, as they have every two years since 2004, as we are having right here at Westmoreland, and as we are about to, across the land, in a US church document about to be released called Kairos USA. Through Kairos USA the churches are mobilizing to confess their complicity in the abrogation of the human rights of the Palestinians. The churches are poised to take this on as an urgent mission, as they did in the fight to liberate South Africa from Apartheid, as they did when they led the movement to end legalized racism in this country through the Civil Rights Movement, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called on his fellow American Christians to reclaim the sacrificial spirit of the early church.
We are on the Wilderness road. It is a wonderful, miraculous journey, full of unexpected encounters. Let us pray -- that we will be ready to answer the call when we are tol as we are today, to get up and go, to take the wilderness road.