Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Third Sunday of Easter


I never caught her name, that refugee I met one evening in Dheisheh, the Palestinian refugee camp which was also her home, and had always been her home, and had been her parents’ home and her grandparents’ home before that.  Maybe her name was hard to pronounce, and that’s why I never caught it.  Or maybe she simply never told us: for she was two hours late for the appointment with our delegation, and when she did sit down, she was in no mood for small talk.  She pushed aside a warmed-up plate of food.  And she was angry.

Dheisheh Refugee Camp, West Bank
Wherever she goes in the occupied West Bank—to visit friends a few miles away, to see a doctor in an emergency, and every day to work—wherever the refugee goes, she faces a humiliating sequence of checkpoints, intrusive security pat-downs and leering soldiers.  Israel’s occupation of Palestine isn’t a complicated political crisis, not for her, but a kind of physical and emotional assault.  And she lives through that assault just about every day of her life.

That night we met, in 2008, she was just returning from work, something like a five-mile trip.  But it took two brutal hours.  Checkpoints and soldiers and grabbing and sneering.  And so, yes, she was angry.  And no, she didn’t want that warmed-up supper.

I sat down that night, with my journal, and wrote the poem you see in the back pages of your program this morning.  You’ll see the refugee’s picture alongside.  It’s called “Mother of God.”  Here’s how it goes:
      They beat my children, she cries,
      Fire in her eyes, her voice throwing sparks.
      I don’t see any moment in my life
      Without suffering.
      I can’t breathe good.
      She’s breathing fire.

      I spend three hours, waiting in the sun,
      At checkpoints, huge dogs, baring teeth,
      Sniff me up and down, my children,
      They watch.
      I am a human being, she says
      And she says it again, I am a human being.

      Can you imagine my children’s problems?

      I am a refugee.  All I think about.
      It is no life.
      She walks on shards of glass
      Through unlit alleys—
      And her children too.
      I need a safe place for my children.

      Why does Rome still rage, and Herod too,
      After Mary’s children
      In Bethlehem?

Sisters, brothers, here’s the thing.  You and I, through our tax dollars and our government, fund that refugee’s suffering.  And her humiliation.  And her people’s hopelessness.  We fund it to the tune of 3.7 billion dollars a year.  That’s 3.7 billion dollars in military and security aid to the State of Israel, every year, so that Israel can enforce its checkpoints in occupied territory.  So that Israel can annex Palestinian lands, offer them to American settlers, and cut down Palestinian olive trees.  3.7 billion dollars.  So that the refugee and her children—her beautiful, beautiful children—know nothing but refugee camps and broken windows and stolen lands and humiliation.

Are we OK with that?  As people of conscience?  As Americans?  3.7 billion dollars to openly defy international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—which was, by the way, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, in the aftermath of the devastating and horrific European Holocaust.  With the intention that it never, never happen again.  Anywhere.

That night in 2008, the refugee in Dheisheh, with fire in her eyes, said to our American delegation: “You don’t have a choice.  You have to pay attention.”  And who could argue?


Last summer, after a lot of work and a lot of discussion, our United Church of Christ stepped up.  Not just for Palestinians mind you, but for Israelis too, and for a vision of meaningful peace and Palestinian statehood in the Holy Land.  At General Synod 30, in Cleveland, delegates voted 80% to 20%, to join a Palestinian initiative of divestment and boycotts.  It was a direct response, a clear and compassionate response to the KAIROS PALESTINE letter of 2009, and the urgent pleas of Palestinian churches.  You heard some of it read aloud this morning: “These advocacy campaigns must be carried out with courage,” we read, “openly sincerely proclaiming that their object is not revenge, but rather to put an end to the existing evil, liberating both the perpetrators and the victims of injustice.”  And the UCC said, we said: “We don’t have a choice.  We have to pay attention.”
Girl in Dheisheh, 2008

So with last summer’s vote, our United Church committed to divesting from companies like G4S, Caterpillar and Motorola, companies whose technologies drive the occupation and checkpoints that humiliate refugees like the one I met in Dheisheh.  And in fact it was her face, and that little poem, that I thought of first when I heard the news from Cleveland last June.  And the other picture I took in Dheisheh: the beautiful child, watching, waiting, hoping for a better life.  That one’s in your program too.

Later this month, of course, we’re hosting a two-day conference, highlighting the Palestinian cry for justice and exploring the nonviolent movement around divestment and economic action.  It’s obviously a big deal for us.  And it’s a big deal, frankly, for Santa Cruz.  This morning, I want to encourage you, really encourage you, to join us for that weekend.  We’ve got a table outside where you can get all kinds of information and links to online registration.  This is going to be an extraordinary opportunity for all of us to watch a liberation movement in action, and to listen in as a nonviolent campaign evolves, and to support our own United Church of Christ in its world-wide mission for justice and peace.  This is who we are.  This is a big part of what makes Peace United Church tick.  So whether or not you feel informed on all the politics here, come.  Be informed.  Be a part of your church.  Be a part of our church, as we create space for conversation, imagination and the God’s passion for a better world.


I’ve been thinking so much about the conference these last few weeks, and about the controversy it’s sparked in parts of the Jewish community.  It’s intense these days.  The idea that this conference is offensive to friends, to people I love and trust, is heart-breaking for me, really and truly heart-breaking.  I may well have lost good friends just this month.  And I can’t help but ask myself why it is discipleship, this peacemaking that we do here, that we must do here, so inevitably leads to conflict and suffering and even loss.  And the question, I have to tell you, is relentless.

And it leads me somehow to the odd resurrection story we read on this third Sunday in the Easter season.  It’s a strange tale to be sure, of frightened disciples and questioning Thomas and Jesus passing through locked doors.  And when he does, when the risen friend passes through and stands before the others, he shows them his wounded hands and his bloodied side.  What do you make of that?  His wounded hands and his bloodied side?  For starters, it seems pretty clear.  Easter’s not for the faint of heart!

But there’s something here too about humility.  There’s something here about compassion.  And there’s something here about the temptation we face—before Easter, during Easter and after Easter—the temptation we face as people of faith.  Always, I think, the temptation for us is certainty; it’s pride and it’s righteousness.  We want to be right.  We want to be certain.  And we want to move out into the world with God on our side.  It’s probably so for all the world’s religions, but it’s particularly so for us Christians.  The temptation for us is righteousness.

So I’m thinking the point in the story this morning is that we’re called not to righteousness, not to certainty, not to some kind of moral superiority.  We’re not called to be great.  We’re called to be faithful.   We’re called to be attentive.  And we’re called to the Wounded Christ.  We’re belong with the Wounded Christ.  And Thomas says, in the story, “My Lord and my God!”  As he reaches out his hand and puts it in Jesus’ side.  My Lord and my God.

Castello Sforzesco, Milan
Now I’m still working some of this out.  But this is where I’m heading.  When it comes to peacemaking and the hard work of social change, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, when it comes to life, we Christians are not the world’s one and only voice of righteousness.  We’re not called to pick a side, pick a position and then defend it at all costs.  We’re not even called to be right all the time.  That’s not our calling.  Instead, we’re called to the Christ who suffers; we’re called to the Christ who wanders as a refugee in Palestinian camps and Santa Cruz shelters; we’re called to the Christ who is targeted by bigots, bullies and armies; we are called to the Christ who is our brother, our sister, our enemy, our friend.

And this leads us not to bluster and stump speeches, but to compassion and humility and (most of importantly of all) discipleship. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer—pastor and conspirator against the Nazis—insisted on something like this and called it ‘ethical humility.’  “In particular,” he wrote, “we need to abandon two typical forms of the ethical question: ‘How can I be good?’ and ‘How can I do good?’  The key ethical question,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “is: ‘What is the will of God?’”  Interesting, isn’t it?  What is the will of God?  The point isn’t to be right, or prove our own righteousness, or stand in judgment over all the world.  The point is to discern the presence of God in the suffering of the world and then to move to touch that suffering with kindness, and to bind up the brokenhearted with love.  Then we’ll discern the will of God.  Then we’ll have a better sense of what to say and do.  On the way to caring.


Where is the Wounded Christ?  What does it mean to care for the Broken and Crucified God?  These are the questions that ought to occupy us in worship and keep us up at night.  Our task isn’t to pick Palestinians over Israelis, or Israelis over Palestinians.  Our work isn’t to bless one people and curse another.  Christians are attentive to the wounded wherever they are, to the lonely wherever they are, to the occupied and oppressed and anxious wherever they are.  By their side, we discern the will of God.

So I want to tell one more story about wounds, about broken hearts, and about human courage.

A couple of years ago in Jerusalem, I met an Israeli man, a Jew, whose name is Rami Elhanan.  And Rami’s a seventh generation Jerusalemite, a graphic designer and a very, very brave soul.

Smadar and Rami
Nineteen years ago, just before Yom Kippur in 1997, Rami’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Smadar, went off with some friends to buy books for the new school year.  On a downtown bus, two Palestinian teens blew themselves up, killing five riders.  Smadar was one of them.  Rami described those first few hours for us.  “You find yourself running crazily through the streets,” he said, “going from one police station to the next, one hospital to the next, until eventually, much later in that long accursed night, you find yourself in the morgue...and you see a sight that you will never, ever, be able to blot out.”

After Smadar’s funeral, Rami and his family kept the week-long mourning period our Jewish friends call “shiva.”  Their empty home slowly and surely filled with people.  For seven days, they were surrounded by loving friends, consoling friends, even unknown neighbors, coming round with food and kindness, day after day, night after night.

On the eighth day, Rami told us, suddenly the loving crowd disappeared.  “I had to marshal my strength,” he said; “I had to get up, face myself in the mirror and decide.  What’s next?  Where do I go from here?  Where do I direct this new and terrible pain?”

And he told us there were only two options to choose from, only two paths he could imagine taking.  The first was obvious and immediate.  When someone murders your daughter, what’s in your head is rage and an urge for furious revenge.  And in Rami’s eyes, I could see that he’d been there, that he’d felt this rage, that he’d looked down that awful path.

But the first madness of anger passed, he said, and he began asking other questions, harder questions.  “If I kill someone in revenge,” he asked, “will that bring my baby back to me? And if I cause someone pain,” he asked, “will that ease my own pain?”  And the answer to both questions was no, absolutely no.

So on that eighth day, Rami Elhanan set out on a second path, a different and difficult path.  And he devoted his life to asking why.  What happened on that bus in West Jerusalem?  What could possibly drive teenagers to such anger, such despair as to be willing to blow themselves up with little girls on a bus?

And most importantly, he said, a new question took shape in his soul: “What can I do to prevent this intolerable suffering from happening to others?”

At this point in our meeting, Rami introduced his friend Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian from the West Bank who often joins Rami on speaking tours.  Bassam had his own sad and terrible story to tell.  For his ten-year-old daughter, Abir, had been killed in 2007 walking home from school, when Israeli soldiers fired rubber bullets into a crowd of Palestinians.  A stray bullet hit little Abir in the head.

The two fathers shared with us their grief and their weariness.  They looked at one another with respect and tenderness, with a kind of understanding that only parents of murdered children can share.  And they talked about the choice they make everyday to travel together and ache together and push together for a peaceful world, a world beyond such horrendous pain and violence.

“Nowhere is it written,” Rami told us, “that we must continue dying and sacrificing our children forever and forever in this holy land.”  “We are brothers in pain,” Bassam added quickly, “and our pain can be used to prevent more pain.”  Instead of choosing revenge, these two grieving fathers have chosen one another.


During the question and answer period at the end of Rami’s and Bassam’s time with us, I asked them what we could do, what Americans could do, to make a difference.  It’s the question we asked everywhere we went.  Was there anything?

Rami Elhanan, the seventh generation Jerusalemite, the Jewish father whose daughter was murdered on a bus, did not hesitate.  “I hope you’ll support the brave effort to divest from companies and to boycott businesses and to put enormous pressure on my government,” he said.  “The politics here are broken,” he said.  “Governments are in league with extremists, and very little can be done unless pressure is felt, unless the West steps up.”

Bassam and Rami
In this wounded man, in his heartbroken voice, I think I heard something like the pain of God, something like the passion of God.  For justice.  For peace.  For an end to violence and killing and city busses blowing up.  And then, boldly, Rami said: “And when they accuse you of being anti-Semitic, when they accuse you of being a bigot because you criticize my government and advocate for direct action, do not allow this.”  As I say, he was terribly tired that night, and weary of telling this same awful story to group after group, delegation after delegation.  But he wanted us to hear this from his lips: “It is not and never will be anti-Semitic,” he said to us, “to work for peace, to hope for another’s liberation, to share the land with my Palestinian friends.  I need your help.  We need your help.”  And then he reached out and grabbed his friend’s hand, the hand of another father.

That was just 18 months ago.  I recall the moment, I recall it right now, and I’m moved in the deepest way by Rami Elhanan’s courage, by his pain and by his urgency.  The point for you and me is to discern the presence of God in the suffering of the world and then respond with all humility and courage.  It is not simply or blindly to do the Christian thing, or the American thing, or even the heroic thing.  The point is to do the compassionate and loving thing.  That’s what we’re here to do.  And that’s what Rami’s asking for.


Now we’ve been urged, by some friends in town, to cancel the conference at the end of the month.  Or at least to move it off site and disassociate ourselves from it.  You’ll see in your program an invitation to a meeting Tuesday night, here at the church; and you can find special packets on the table outside.  The packets include a letter from the board at Temple Beth El: a letter in which the synagogue insists we cancel or move the event.

I trust that we’ll do neither.  I also trust that we’ll reach out to our friends at Temple Beth El with the deepest respect and gratitude for their longstanding service to this city and partnership on so many issues and concerns.  We’ll do everything we can to maintain deep ties and mature relationships with friends we’ve come to know and even love.  Please check out the packets.  Please register for the conference.  And please come to our leadership meeting, if you’re interested, on Tuesday night.

And here’s what I’m going to do.  Every morning, from now until the conference begins on April 29th, I’m going to say a prayer for Rami Elhanan and the refugee in Dheisheh whose name I never caught.  I’m going to say a prayer for their families, and for their safety, and for their future.  And then, and then, I’m going to pray that everything I do, every word I say, every action I take is faithful to their passion, to their pain, and to their courage.  To pray is to love.  To love is to act bravely, kindly and actively.

I hope that you’ll do the same.  I really do.  Because discipleship means loving persistently, loving courageously, especially in the midst of conflict.  It’s what we do.  So know this, my friends, and trust this with all your hearts:

In our fragile loving, Christ is with us.  In our imperfect service, Christ is our constant friend.  And in our honest yearning for peace, Christ is all we need.  Amen.