Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles

A Meditation on Abraham's Hospitality and Genesis 18
Sunday, November 13, 2011


There’s a broad pathway running across the grounds of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, and it’s lined on both sides with trees native to the Holy Land.  Israelis call it “the avenue of the righteous gentiles”; and each tree recalls the courage of a non-Jew who acted to save Jewish lives during the grim years of the European Holocaust.  Folks like Oscar Schindler and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Folks like Protestants in Le Chambon, the French Village that hid a number of Jews in that era’s darkest days.  When you walk through that memorial, when you revisit that awful history, you can’t help but wonder what made those particular heroes act as they did.  When so many others kept silent.  Where does that kind of courage, that kind of compassion come from? 

Now, last week, we’re walking through that part of the memorial that marks the deaths of one million children.  One million.  It’s a dark hall, only partially illuminated by hundreds of tiny candles.  It’s so dark we have to hold a handrail as we work our way around the room.  From above, a voice reads the names, and the ages, of the Holocaust’s youngest victims.  One after another after another, after another. 

And we emerge from that dark hall, nineteen of us, Jews and Christians, onto the “avenue of the righteous gentiles.”  I can only speak for myself, but I’m devastated.  It’s my third time through, but I’m devastated all over again.  That so much cruelty exists in the world, that a good bit of it takes cover in the name of religion, even my religion.  I’m trying to imagine one million children, one million who didn’t grow up to bless the world with wisdom and wonder.  This would be Grant Erickson’s generation, Carol Roberts’ generation, Joanna Hildebrandt’s generation.  One million.  And now I’m standing on the “avenue of the righteous gentiles.”  And I’m looking at the little plaques at the foot of each tree, the plaques with the names of those who did what they could.  Those who put their lives at risk to save others.  I’m shaken by the question that stares back at me---the question posed by each one of those plaques.  Would I have been among those risktakers?  Would I have been counted among the righteous gentiles?  What about me? 

It’s not so much a matter for speculative as it is a question of discipleship for me.  And maybe that’s why I can’t shake my memory of that day, that avenue, those trees.  What does the Lord require of me, in my own generation?  What kind of courage, what kind of compassion, what kind of public life embodies the gospel of my Christ?  In so many ways, the church was silent during the Nazi scourge.  But there were some.  And there are choices to be made now, I think, important choices about the ways we follow Jesus in our own time and place.  I don’t want to be counted among the silent.  I want to be counted among the righteous gentiles. 


What made this last trip to Israel and Palestine so powerful, I think, was the diversity of our delegation.  I walked those paths at Yad Vashem, I revisted that awful history—alongside Jewish friends I love and admire.  And when we went to the West Bank—to see something of the Israeli occupation of Palestine—we did that together too.  Jews and Christians, priests and pastors and rabbis, musicians and therapists and activists.  When we sat down to process those experiences----the Holocaust Memorial one night, the terrible consequences of occupation another----we brought very different perspectives to the conversation.  Sometimes those differences created tension, as they do.  And when they did, we chose to go slow, to listen carefully, to make space.  And always----and this is something of a miracle----always our delegation of nineteen hung in there long enough to affirm the value of our community.  Even and especially when we disagreed.  Even and especially when the heat was hot, and the stories were painful.

It takes time and effort to build that kind of community.  And it takes spiritual maturity, spiritual discipline too.  Most of us have heard of the Islamic idea of ‘jihad.’  And it’s so often misunderstood and disfigured in the western world.  But my friend Tahir Anwar----who’ll be coming to speak in worship just two weeks from this morning----tells me that ‘jihad’ is fundamentally a spiritual discipline.  I know he’ll be talking about this when he’s here.  ‘Jihad,’ he says, has to do with fearlessly examining one’s life and then removing every obstacle to spiritual devotion and compassion.  ‘Jihad.’  Examination and devotion.

If that’s what it is, I kind of think our delegation was engaged in ‘jihad’—together.  Do you see what I’m saying?  ‘Jihad’---in its deepest, truest sense---invites self-examination, self-critique, compassionate conversion.  ‘Jihad’ insists on honesty and integrity; and it resists the impulse to blame the other, to demonize the other.  And that’s what our little group did—relentlessly, for two solid weeks in a troubling place.  Day by day, night after night, we spoke honestly and listened carefully and looked for ways to practice faith and pursue justice.  Together.  Friends, if that’s what ‘jihad’ is, if that’s even part of what ‘jihad’ is, it’s hard work.  And it takes time.


I want to turn, for a moment, to the old story we’ve read this morning.  Because it’s a story Jews and Christians and Muslims cherish together.  About a spiritual ancestor we share and honor. Above all, Genesis 18 is a celebration of hospitality and human community.  Abraham doesn’t know the three pilgrims who come wandering his way in the hottest part of the day. They’re strangers.  From strange places, with strange habits, wandering around strangely in the white-hot afternoon.  So what does Abraham do----and let’s remember, this is the great spiritual ancestor of Jews and Christians and Muslims----what does Abraham do?  He leaps to his feet, sprints to greet these three pilgrims and bows lovingly before them!  Just close your eyes for a minute.  Imagine this scene.  Let it play out.  Abraham’s sitting by the tent.  Abraham’s noticing the three dusty men in the distance.  Abraham’s leaping to his feet and running to greet them.  For all the differences among the three Abrahamic faiths, and there are differences, this is where it all comes together.  This is the tradition we share.  Abraham’s hospitality.  Abraham’s courage.  Abraham’s grace.  Remember this when the imam comes in a couple weeks.  We’re brothers, we’re sisters, and Abraham makes us so. 

There’s also a kind of delicious ambiguity in the text today.  The tale begins with the bold pronouncement that “God appeared to Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre...”  Now the old rabbis go back and forth on what this means.  Does it mean that Abraham was deep in prayer when all this happened?  That he was engaged in some kind of ecstatic experience, some kind of inspired meditation?  One or two of the old rabbis note how wild it is that Abraham turns aside from the God-event to rush out and greet the pilgrims.  Even God can’t hold his the joyful moment of he rushes from the tent to make new friends!  Here’s a man for whom hospitality is everything!

But there are other ways, subtler ways perhaps, to read the text.  Could it be that God appears to Abraham precisely in the arrival of three strangers.  That this is how God works in the world.  As we encounter difference.  As we make space for the other in our moral universe.  As we greet a neighbor and explore shared interests together.  As we wash one another’s feet and prepare feasts for one another. 

I guess I want to read the story that way: I want to celebrate here the moral genius of the three Abrahamic traditions.  The Maker of the Universe, the Creator of Huge Galaxies and Tiny Grasses, the Great I-AM: God visits us in the arrival of guests from afar.  God meets us in our concern for the other.  And most importantly, God is honored, worshipped in our turning from daily tasks (maybe even prayer) to feed and love the neighbor.  Even and especially the neighbor we don’t understand all that well.


In terms of our study this fall, our exploration of four core practices in Christian life, I’m finding in Genesis 18 a challenge, a provocation, an encouragement.  And it’s about discipleship.  It’s about taking Jesus seriously, and Moses, and Mohammed, and Abraham.  Don’t you see Jesus now as a relentless practitioner of neighborliness?  Isn’t this what his life is all about?  He’s a daring practitioner of hospitality.  No walls, no barriers, no fears.  You just can’t grasp Jesus’ ministry or his call in your life, I’d have to say, without trying neighborliness in your life.  Without experimenting with a little hospitality.

So when you walk by the COPA table after worship, I want you to think about discipleship.  Keep discipleship in mind.  Because we haven’t invested ten years, thousands of volunteer hours and tens of thousands of dollars in COPA simply to pat ourselves on the backs.  COPA is about discipleship in the 21st century: learning a new practice of neighborliness and public life; making common cause with friends in places we can all too easily avoid.  Friends in places like Watsonville and Salinas.  Roman Catholic immigrants.  Jewish colleagues.  Out-of-work union folks.  What we’re doing this Wednesday evening is taking another step toward these neighbors, another big step in building a regional coalition, another big step in neighborliness and compassionate politics.  It’s really about discipleship for me.  It’s about that ‘avenue of the righteous gentiles.’

And when you arrive here on the 27th, and you find Muslim friends gathering in this holy place, and you sit down to listen to an imam speaking about his faith, I want you to think about discipleship.  I want you to imagine yourselves on that ‘avenue of the righteous gentiles.’  Because if there’s one thing we know about our faith, it’s this.  Our faith is a hospitality faith.  Our faith is a neighborly faith.  Our faith is a footwashing, feast-sharing faith. 

And in this century, following Jesus has to mean stepping out of the comfort zone.  Following Jesus has to mean busting through walls to embrace new friends on the other side.  Following Jesus has to mean building a community in which Muslim friends and Jewish friends and Christian friends can work, and laugh, and struggle in peace.  In one big tent.  By the Oaks of Mamre.

The good news, my friends, is this: It begins with us.  We get to choose.  Praise God.  It begins with us.