I was in Santa Cruz, CA to speak at a conference organized by Friends of Sabeel North America, an ecumenical organization devoted to bringing the voice of Palestinian Christians to the United States, and to mobilizing the church to work for the liberation of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis both from the evil of apartheid in our times. See this article for the story surrounding that conference — not an uncommon story these days, but the good news is that times are changing as the controversy heats up.
I was asked to stay on an extra day to preach at a local Presbyterian church. Yes, I’m Jewish, but so far the invitations to speak at synagogues, much less preach from the pulpit, have not been forthcoming. But since my return from Israel and the West Bank in 2006 and what has become, apparently, my ministry to help Christians take a faithful stand for human rights on this issue, despite the very real risk (really the inevitability) of being charged with committing or supporting anti-Semitism, the invitations to preach on Sundays have continued to come. See my website for a selection of my sermons. Of all my writing, I think these have given me the most pleasure. I may have been exiled from the synagogue, but not from my love of scripture and my penchant for homiletics.
In this case, even though the pastor was very willing for me to preach, several people in the Session blocked this, saying that my voice would be too “political” and the topic too “controversial.” As a compromise I was invited to present a “Moment for Mission.”
So I preached.
Moment for Mission
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Santa Cruz, CA
May 1, 2016
Thank you, Pastor Evie and to all of you for welcoming me into your midst and asking me to present this Moment for Mission. I’m looking forward to our discussion group after worship.
Today’s reading is one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible.
In the spirit the angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.
I have a powerful connection to Jerusalem, not the New Jerusalem of Revelation, but the earthly Jerusalem of today, where my grandfather was born, in the Old City within the ancient city walls, growing up steeped in the Jewish tradition, praying in a synagogue in the shadow of the remains of Solomon’s Temple, playing in the streets with Christian and Muslim children with whom the Jewish community shared the city and the land. My grandfather emigrated to the U.S. as a young man and so it was that I was born a second generation American, growing up in the freedom of mid-twentieth century America, heir to the rich Jewish tradition, which included an attachment to and love for the land where my grandfather was born, a land to which, according to the Jewish liturgy which I recited daily, my people longed to return – and to even rebuild the Temple!
But I also grew up in the shadow of the disaster that had befallen my people in the very decade in which I was born – the near destruction of the totality of European Jewry by the Nazi Regime. The horror – and, I was taught – the lesson of that catastrophe, that Shoah, that the Jews would never be safe without a land of their own, was in contrast with the life of freedom that I lived — freedom from fear, freedom from anti-Semitism, a life in which all the opportunities and advantages of the world lay open to me. A life I could share with peoples of all faiths and nationalities. But the shadow of the Nazi genocide, and, I was taught, of 2000 years of persecution and slaughter, darkened that other vision, teaching me that although I could move freely in this world, I could never feel safe, and I could, and should, never trust. Outwardly, I could act like a citizen of the world and an accepted member of society, even talk to Christians (we didn’t know much about Muslims in those days), but always remember that the world was not safe for Jews, that below the surface of an open, friendly society, there was a foundation of anti-Semitism that could turn on me, even murderously.
I was born in 1948, the year of the establishment of the State of Israel. I was taught that I was blessed to have been born in a time in which redemption had finally come to my people. We had our haven, had been granted our ancient homeland, the millennia of suffering and insecurity were over. As a young man I visited Israel, met my extended family, lived there for a time, and fell in love with the people and the land.
I was proud of the miracle of modern Israel – of what my people had done, creating this vibrant country out of the ashes of Auschwitz. My Israeli family – religious Jews — warmly embraced me. But even as I embraced them in return, I realized that they talked about “the Arabs” in the same way that whites talked about black people in the pre-Civil Rights Philadelphia of my birth. I realized then as a young man that something was fundamentally wrong with the Zionist project. Still, I held to the Jewish narrative: the Occupation, although lamentably abusive of human rights, was the price of security. Then I went to the West Bank.
Traveling in Israel and the Occupied Territories the summer of my 56th year, my defenses against the reality of Israel’s crimes crumbled. Witnessing the Separation Wall, the checkpoints, the network of restricted roads, the extrajudicial assassinations, the collective punishment including midnight raids on families and the imprisonment of children, the the massive, continuing construction of illegal Jewish settlements and towns, and the vicious acts of ideological Jewish settlers, words like apartheid and ethnic cleansing sprang to my mind, unbidden and undeniable. And I met the Palestinians, saw that they were not my enemies but my victims, paying with their land and their human rights for my people’s quest for security. I saw all that, and my relationship to Israel changed forever. My eyes were opened.
I went to Palestine, indeed to Jerusalem itself, intentionally to meet the Palestinians, because I was looking for a way back to the Judaism, the Jewishness, that was at my core but that had been obscured — I will say it — poisoned, by the ethnic nationalist project of building a state for Jews on the ruins of a living culture, on the ethnic cleansing of another people. And when I saw it, I was in agony. I was healed and made whole through the work and writings of a Palestinian Anglican priest, Naim Ateek, himself a dispossessed Galilean, who introduced me to a Jew of 2000 years ago, a Jew who sought to liberate his people from tyranny, a Jew who stood firmly in the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power, a Jew who called the leadership of his own people back to Torah, back to equality, back to compassion for the most vulnerable and oppressed. A Jew who stood in front of the Temple itself and said this must fall, to be replaced with the Temple of my body — one humanity joined in love, compassion and equality. That summer changed my life, and I began my work for the liberation of both Palestinian and Jew from the evil of apartheid in our time. I hasten to assure you, I have not “become a Christian.” I have become a better Jew.
I believe that if there is to be a future of dignity and peace, not only for the Palestinians, but for the Jews of Israel, who are home and deserve better, that Israel must become, as its Declaration of Independence states, a state for all its citizens, no longer privileging one group over others, no longer pursuing its relentless taking of the entire land.
I believe, along with an increasing number of Jews, young and old, many of them Israelis, that our deepest values and the priceless heritage that we gave the world demand that we forgive ourselves for what we have done in pursuit of safety and freedom, and that we open Israel to the wonderful people with whom we share the land, that we make it truly a democracy. That only then will we be safe, only then we will obtain the security we desire, a safety grounded in fairness and faithfulness to our deepest held values. I believe that as U.S. citizens, of all faiths, we have a responsibility to demand that our government pursue this goal in its policies toward Israel, instead of what it has been doing, which has been to help Israel sink deeper into the hole it has been digging for itself. I believe we have to do for Israel what the world did for South Africa 30 years ago. It was an act of love, for black and white alike.
I believe in the vision of the New Jerusalem that we read today, that this fulfilment of the trajectory of the entire Bible, beginning with God’s revelation to Abraham and his command to settle in the land, that this is the ultimate vision of what that land was to become – not a grant to one family or one people, but a place of universal love and healing. I believe that the future, not only for Jews and Palestinians, but for all of humanity and our planet depends on it.
And so we return to our text for today, the vision in Revelation of the New Jerusalem:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
God Bless you.