Sunday, December 4, 2022

HOMILY: "His Mother's Apricots"

A Meditation on Isaiah 11 (Advent 2)
Sunday, December 4, 2022
Community Church of Durham

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.


A decade ago, during my first trip to Bethlehem, I met Zoughbi Zoughbi—same name, first and last—a Palestinian whose family has lived and thrived and struggled to survive in Bethlehem for generations on end.  I’d heard about Zoughbi Zoughbi and his commitment to conflict resolution and Gandhian nonviolence and youth empowerment in the West Bank.  And I was so, so eager to watch him work.  

But Zoughbi wanted me to see the fruit trees first.  His mother’s apricots.  This seemed very important to him.  Before we talked about conflict and peace.  Before we visited his remarkable community center.  So we drove out of the city that afternoon, just a mile or two, and Zoughbi led me, by the hand, into his family’s orchard.  His mother’s apricots.  I learned then that Palestinian culture, Palestinian religion, Palestinian health is grounded in place, in that place.  Palestinian families are deeply and gratefully people of that land.  So my friend Zoughbi Zoughbi led me by the hand into his family’s orchard, his mother’s apricot trees, and the almond and olive trees he grew up climbing with his friends, and pruning and loving and harvesting with his cousins.  Like generations and generations before them.

It was a late afternoon in the West Bank, and the sunshine was warm and golden on the land.  At one point, Zoughbi noticed an old man, another Palestinian farmer, tenderly pruning an apricot branch just up ahead.  “Watch him!” he said, grabbing my forearm.  And there was a tear in his eye.  “Watch the way he touches it and knows just which branch to cut!  What love!  What love!”  And we stood there together, in the orchard just outside of Bethlehem, silently watching that old farmer pruning that old tree.  Almost like we were in church watching the priest bless the bread.  Or the groom kiss the bride.  It was a sacramental moment.  

And it struck me just then that Gandhian nonviolence begins, it always begins, in this reverence for life, this love for the land.  Particular places.  Holy ground.  There was no way I’d ever understand Zoughbi’s work apart from his devotion to those trees.  To heal the conflicts among us we must imagine a future together.  And to imagine a future together we must cherish the land beneath our feet, the paths we make together, and the trees that have always longed to feed us all.

You’ve seen in this morning’s insert that Zoughbi and his Palestinian colleagues are encouraging preachers around the world to “preach Palestine” this Advent season.  To take a Sunday and tell their stories.  To invite support, encourage solidarity.  And there are so many stories—heartbreaking stories—to tell.  The demolition of Palestinian homes continues across the West Bank—in violation of international law.  The confiscation of Palestinian lands accelerates dispossession and replaces old Palestinian villages with modern Israeli settlements.  And in Gaza, years and years of hostility have crippled the Palestinian economy, broken the spirits of a generation, and destroyed hospitals, schools beyond imagining.  

So I want to honor my friend and his big, big heart with this morning’s sermon; and I want to lift up his people’s pain, his people’s yearning for freedom and peace.  But when I asked him recently where I should begin, where that cry for freedom comes from, Zoughbi said to me: “The trees, Dave.  The trees.  Tell them about my mother’s trees.”  And thinking back to that afternoon, all those years ago, and his joy in that orchard, his weeping for the old farmer’s craft—I’m convinced that he’s right.  As he often is.  The heart and soul of Palestinian culture going back generations isn’t grievance, but love.  The heart and soul of Palestinian resistance to this day isn’t bitterness, but love.  And I want to tell you, it’s a sacramental love, a love that I’ve seen in my friend’s eyes, and so many others over the years—walking their orchards, shaking olives off their trees, challenging occupying armies to lay down weapons, and singing songs of joy. 


During that first visit in 2008, after some time in the orchard, we returned to Zoughbi’s car.  But, before getting in, he pointed beyond the trees, to a huge concrete wall, looming now in the distance, slicing through the West Bank, carving Palestine into ghettos.  At that point, the wall was four or five years in the making.  What it’s doing, Zoughbi said, is cutting off Palestinian farmers, Palestinian families from their trees, from their lands and their livelihoods.  By design.  Slab by slab, acre by acre, town by town.  Its architects once called it a security wall, but it’s always been an instrument of division, a strategy of despair, a way to separate Palestinians from one another and their dreams.  An apartheid wall.

And indeed, in the years since that first visit, I’ve seen that the wall now slices through Zoughbi’s orchards.  He can’t take friends to walk those precious paths anymore.  Now the wall cuts off his children from the trees their ancestors loved and pruned and harvested every fall.  It also prevents pregnant women from getting to hospitals they need in dire emergencies.  There’ve been deaths.  And it prevents husbands from living with their wives and seeing their kids every night.  Family separation.  And it forces some Palestinian workers to drive 60 miles to a job that’s just a mile away.  It’s an apartheid wall, and its intention is to demoralize and discourage whole communities.  That’s what walls do.  

The next time I visited Zoughbi, in Bethlehem, his family had been without running water for 21 days.  In fact, the whole city had been without water for 21 days.  Again, by design.  Israeli policy.  In the hills around Bethlehem, however, Israeli settlements—illegal by any measure of international law—build huge apartment complexes and lush green playing fields, with more than enough water to feed the Zionists who’ve come to occupy what used to be Palestinian villages and orchards.  To occupy and possess.  To colonize and settle. 

And here’s the part our Palestinian friends want us—in the American church—to understand clearly and directly.  This is an occupation that we Americans continue to bless and subsidize: gifting Israel upwards of 3.6 billion dollars every year in economic, military and security assistance.  Most of the weapons Israel uses to enforce that occupation (again, illegal by any international legal standard): most of those weapons are made and paid for in America.  Most of the technology Israel uses to control checkpoints and intimidate families and incarcerate children—it’s designed and paid for in America.  

And for all that, Israel has, for decades, been immune to moral persuasion and international resolutions, and continues to demolish Palestinian homes and hospitals, continues to confiscate and occupy Palestinian lands and orchards, continues to drive Palestinians with any means at all into a far-flung diaspora.  American tax dollars and American companies make this occupation possible.

Zoughbi's Center in Bethlehem
My friend Zoughbi Zoughbi could have sold his small house, packed up his dear family, and left Bethlehem, left Palestine years ago.  There are teaching jobs in the U.S., and others in Europe, he might have taken and even enjoyed in exile.   Many of his colleagues, dozens of his friends have done just that.  Instead, Zoughbi remains in Bethlehem, where his office in the center he founded looks out on the latest and ugliest stretch of that apartheid wall.  Occasionally soldiers in protected towers fire tear gas cannisters into the playground Zoughbi’s team created years ago for neighborhood kids.  Why not?  Scare the Arabs a little.  See if they run away.  Once, I picked a discarded cannister off the ground under a swing set.  “Made in the U.S.A.” it said in tiny print.  “Made in the U.S.A.”  The point, it seems, is to cripple Palestinian society and so diminish Palestinian presence in the Holy Land that Israel controls it all.  I really can’t blame Palestinian friends or Israeli allies for offering that this is nothing other than ethnic cleansing.  The Israeli historian Ilan Pappé has recently published a book using just that language.

I asked Zoughbi once, on our way to mass at his Melkite parish: I asked him why he stayed, why he didn’t leave the tear gas cannisters and the water shortages and the wall itself behind.  Maybe he could find an audience in the U.S., tell his people’s story, gather support for international action and political change.  He smiled.  The kind of smile a friend smiles when he’s feeling a little sorry for American privilege and naïveté.  And then he pointed to the hills and said, “My mother’s apricots.”  Just those three words.  “My mother’s apricots.”  His life, his family, his hope, his religion is grounded in that place.  He loves that place and those people.  So he stays.  And from his office, in the shadow of that wall, he asks for our friendship, yours and mine; he prays for us, and for our courage in speaking up and acting out.  


I want to speak briefly, but directly, to the matter of anti-Semitism; because anti-Semitism is a profoundly urgent concern in America and in the church, and because anti-Semitism is sadly and painfully on the rise in our midst.  We have Donald Trump to thank for that, but also White Nationalists nurturing hatred for Jews and their brazen allies in some Christian quarters.  Who only seem to egg them on.  With demonic visions of a Christian America—purged of all others, cleansed of all others.  

We can and we must stand side by side with Jewish friends in New Hampshire, New England and across the continent, who face these threats every day and know that there’s nothing idle or innocent about them.  This is not just a nice thing to do—it is the right thing to do, it is the faithful thing to do.  We can and we must.  Anti-Semitism is many things; but let’s be clear.  It is destructive and it is a sin.

I’m speaking to this now, of course, because there are some who suggest that any criticism of the Israeli government is somehow anti-Semitic.  That any action on behalf of Palestinian partners is somehow stoking the flames of anti-Jewish hatred, and an affront to those Jewish friends we love and cherish.  And, friends, this is just not so.  Whatever else you take from this morning’s sermon, remember that this is just not so.  Israel is a modern nation-state, a profoundly militarized one, and has weaponized fear in many of the same ways we have in the U.S.  It’s got to be held accountable for all that by organized peoples, doing organized work to lift up the suffering of the oppressed and bring about necessary change.  

I have a number of Israeli friends, by the way, who insist bravely that Palestine’s freedom is the only way to save Israel from itself.  The only way to a democratic, multicultural and just society in the Holy Land.  And I have Jewish friends here in the U.S., many of them, who remind me that the very heart of their tradition is justice and equity, and a passion for communities threatened by occupation and despair.  One said to me not long ago: “As a Jew,” she said; “as a Jew, I insist on partnering with Palestinian friends and helping them throw off the yoke of Israeli oppression.  It’s the most Jewish thing I can do.”  That struck me as so important, so prophetic, so honest.  “It’s the most Jewish thing I can do.”


So what are we to do, then, with Zoughbi Zoughbi’s pain, with his family’s grief, and even and especially with their hope?  Because in the end, Zoughbi is a remarkably resilient and hopeful man.  He believes that walls can be dismantled, that armies can pack up and return home, that the dead can rise again.  What are we to do with all that hope?  How can we keep faith with Zoughbi, with his family, with his friends?  These are questions that have awakened me often, in the deep darkness of a hundred nights, since that afternoon Zoughbi first took me, by the hand, into his family’s orchards.  

I believe, my friends, that these are faith questions: maybe the most important faith questions of all.  And I believe that the questions themselves reveal the pattern of Christian discipleship in my life.  You see, Jesus appears not so much in ancient pronouncements and brilliant theological hypotheses.  Jesus appears in the face of a friend, whose own suffering invites me to solidarity, companionship and prayer.  This is something like the incarnational edge of our tradition: that God is among us, that God is embodied between us, that God meets us face to face and reaches out for our hands and makes a claim on our time and energy.

Always, always, this kind of discipleship is human and costly and, yes, incarnational.  It’s about what we do with our bodies, with our choices, with our time and energy.  Palestinian partners ask us to join their boycott campaigns.  They ask us to leverage political power and challenge our own government to play a constructive role in a terrible conflict.  And they ask us to visit and to listen and to pay attention.  To the pain in their communities.  To the love in their hearts.  I am devoted, personally, to all these things.  

Zoughbi and his friends in Palestine—the brave-hearted friends who’ve stayed, the peacemakers who dream still of coexistence and a vibrant multicultural life there; Zoughbi and his friends are asking us to take that dream seriously.  And in their extraordinary vulnerability, I see something like the Child of Bethlehem, reaching out for our hands, offering us a beloved community, blessing us with his fragile human touch.  It’s not just true that our partners in Palestine need us, after all.  It’s just as true that we need them.  That the dream we dream together might save us all.

And that’s my faith.

Amen and Ashe.