Making All Things New

Making All Things New

Sermon Offered on Sunday, November 8, 2009

First Congregational Church of Old Lyme

Mark Braverman

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

Psalm 127:1

Revelation 21:1-6a

It’s wonderful to be back at FCCOL, which feels like home, and again I am so grateful for your welcome and your fellowship, and to David for again honoring me by inviting me to the pulpit.  It’s a special Sunday for me, since for the first time I address you as the executive director of the Holy Land Peacebuilding Project of the Tree of Life Foundation, established to help continue and expand the work courageously and faithfully carried out by FCCOL under leadership of David and Carleen and Becky and all of you.  And what a turn out this weekend for the Tree of Life Conference!  What a testament to the courage and commitment of this community! The work continues.  And we will not falter or fail.

I love this building.  It’s been a wonderful journey for me, from the night that I first walked into this building just over three short years ago — a Jewish American, born in 1948, raised and schooled in Zionism, having only months before returned from my confrontation with the occupation of Palestine.  It was a day that changed my life because it was the day that I met David Good and began my relationship with FCCOL, and with all of you, and with the work that I have been privileged to be part of.

And so today I want to talk with you about buildings, assisted, of course, by the power of scripture, which today, next week and over the past month has been concerned with this business of buildings.

We read from the Book of Mark, chapter 13:

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.

What did Jesus mean?  In every generation we strive to understand anew his words, but it is as clear today as it would have been in first century Palestine.  It is about power.

The apostles, of course, ever devoted by often endearingly befuddled did not understand.  They were thinking about some kind of cataclysmic event.  Jesus, always patient with his devoted but often clueless followers, went on:  “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning.”

We have come to think about revolutions, wars, and even natural disasters – sometimes called “acts of God” as the earthshaking events.  But the true change, the true newness, the real change comes in another form.  These events, as Jesus says, are just foreshadowings.  This talk about “the end” is not about some apocalyptic end of days scenario. In fact the word in the Bible, “telos,”  doesn’t mean end in that sense.  It means the achievement or fulfillment of the ultimate purpose of actions.  Jesus was talking about the revolutionary transformation in human affairs that must come about if we are survive on this earth that has been given to us.

This message of Jesus was not new — it was delivered 800 years earlier in the northern Kingdom of Israel by the prophet Amos, Just last month the lectionary gave us this lesson from Amos chapter 6:

Seek the Lord if you want to live!

Or he will break out like fire against the house of Joseph

And devour Bethel, and there will be no quenching of it.

Amos comes right at us, what Amos is pouring out is a message about what God wants.  And what God wants is justice.  Speaking with the authority and voice of God, Amos instructs us in how the world works:

You have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them;

You have planted lovely vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.

And Amos tells us why this is so:

Because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain.

You — who do it for the money

And turn away from the sufferers at the gate.

You can acquire the wealth, you can build your houses, plant your vineyards, but:  “you shall not live in them,” “you shall not drink their wine.”  Really?  Is that now what we see everywhere in the world?  Do we not see the world’s wealthy living in huge houses while the poor languish in the open or in squalid camps?  Do we not see land taken and homes demolished to make way for cities and roads? Do we not see outright land taking, house demolition and theft, the story of Naboth’s vineyard replayed again and again?

Of course the prophet sees this.  And he recognizes our peril.  In true prophetic fashion, Amos presses the point – I know what is going on, he says to us, I can see it, better than you can.  In fact, the prophet sees nothing else. And so he presses the point, repeating the key words:

Hate evil and love good.

Establish justice at the gate.

What is this gate?  This is not the pearly gates, this is not some higher court.  The judgment that counts is that which is rendered in our towns, at the gates of the cities, where in ancient times justice was pursued at the grassroots.  It was a community.  We confront the eternal, not at Heaven’s Gate, but at the gates of our cities. This is the justice imperative. Then, says the prophet, then, and only then

Perhaps the Lord will be gracious to the remnant of Jacob.

He doesn’t say the Lord will forgive.  He says, be gracious — in other words, this is how we earn God’s love.  Doing justice, in fact, is how we know God’s love.

This is the message of the psalm that we read today, which opens with the words:

Unless the LORD builds the house,

those who build it labor in vain.

The meaning of this verse is that our work is building God’s house – it is being God’s hands on earth. And this is work that must be carried out in every generation, because every generation confronts what Jesus and his disciples were dealing with:  Oppression.  Tyranny.  The evil that seeks to grind down individuals and families and destroy the loving and supportive fabric of community.

But the command to pursue justice – to tumble down the stones and walls of tyranny and build the house of God — must be constantly re-examined and re-learned. And today I want to talk about one of the challenges that we face today in our work for justice in the Holy Land.  It concerns the relationship between Christians and the Jewish people.

Sixty four years ago, Christians stood before the ovens of Auschwitz-Birkenau and said, “What we have done?”  There ensued a project to rid Christian theology of what one prominent theologian has called “The Christian sin:”  anti-Semitism.  In traditional Christian theology, sometimes called displacement theology, the Jews were depicted as the cursed of God – scattered over the earth as proof that they had rejected God. Modern Christian thinkers realized – correctly – that this theology had set in motion the great evil of Jew hatred over the millennia, and that it had to be corrected.  In the new theology, the Jews were seen no longer as the darkness but as the light.  No longer displaced by the “new Israel” of Christianity, the Jews were now reinstated as God’s elect – the original covenant between God and Abraham was in force.  Generations of theologians and clergy have been educated in this revised theology.  But in the current historical context, there is a problem with this theology, in particular with respect to the issue of the land promise.

Recently in my reading, I came across an example of this problem.  In the June 2009 edition of Cross Currents, Fr. John Pawlikowski, Director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago wrote about the Vatican’s 1993 recognition of the State of Israel. With that act, he writes, “the coffin on displacement/perpetual wandering theology had been finally sealed.”  I find this an astonishing statement. Consider: recognizing the Jewish state corrects Christian theology!  Not that this particular aspect of Christian theology did not need fixing, but consider the implications of this:  It’s not only that the Jews are OK, that they are not damned and deserving of eternal punishment.  It is that, in fact, God loves them best, and that the proof of that is the establishment of the State of Israel. God has restored the Jewish people to their land, and this is proof of their election as God’s chosen. The original covenant is valid and in force.

There is more.  In the Christian reenvisioning, the worship of God was no longer tied to a geographical location.  The land was lifted out of the original tribal context, becoming a symbol of a new world in which God’s love is available equally to all of humankind. You can understand Jesus’ image of the stones of the Temple coming down in this way. But Pawlikowski tells us that this message of Christianity was wrong because it was a repudiation of the covenant with the Jews.  By spiritualizing the land, he claims, Christians were depriving the Jews of their birthright. In other words – and this is widespread in Catholic and Protestant thinking today —  the fact of the State of Israel has theological power – God has returned the land to its rightful owners. This to me is an astonishing argument. The whole point of spiritualizing the land was to transform it from a key clause in the covenant between God and one particular people into a universal symbol.  This is not to say that Christians at different times in history have claimed the land for “their” exclusive God. But that is the point – that was wrong.  If it was wrong for Christians then it is wrong for Jews today.

We have to be very concerned about this.  The Christian desire for reconciliation and atonement has morphed into theological support for an anachronistic, ethnic nationalist ideology that has hijacked Judaism, put the continued existence of Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land at risk, continues to fuel global conflict, and has produced one of the most egregious, systematic and longstanding violation of human rights in the world today.

It’s a tragic irony. Vigilance against anti-Semitism has come to trump commitment to social justice when it comes to the plight of the Palestinians.  This goes against God’s will. This theology is wrong. God requires justice. The times call out for the prophetic.  We need no better evidence of that than the shameful vote recently in the House of Representatives condemning the Goldstone report as “irredeemably biased and unworthy of further consideration or legitimacy.”  And no greater evidence of courage than the 36 who voted nay.  No greater evidence of the need for the new than the absence of Areeg Kassis, our friend from Bethlehem, prevented from being with us by the Israeli authorities who would not permit her to travel from her home to join us – And no greater evidence of courage – sumud – than Areeg’s daughter Dunia who has come on her own to grace us with her presence and her spirit.

Yes, walls are going up – but the stones are being thrown down, dislodged and tumbled down by the power of the spirit as expressed in nonviolent resistance. What is happening today in the Holy Land has global significance. A whole school of Christian Bible scholars and theologians are now beginning to unpack the parallels between our own time and the situation of the Palestinians (i.e. Jews) of Jesus’ time. They understand the gospels as the record of a movement of social transformation and of nonviolent resistance to the evil of empire.  And they have made the connection between the Rome of the first century and the American empire of the 21st.  Only now, however, do we see these writers drawing the even more obvious parallels between the government of Israel and the colonial aims of the Roman Empire.

I find myself saying to Christians who seek a devotional pilgrimage to the Holy Land:  Yes!  Go!  Walk where Jesus walked!  For, if you do go and indeed see what is to be seen, you will not only walk where he walked but you will see what he saw.  You will see land taken through the imposition of illegal laws and the tread of soldier’s boots.  You will see the attempt to destroy community and family through the taking of farms and the destruction of village life.  But you will also see nonviolent resistance represented by demonstrations against the separation wall, by families of Palestinians and Israelis who have lost children to the conflict gathering together, by Jewish men who have taken off their uniforms and joined with Palestinian men emerging from Israeli prisons who pledge themselves to reject violence and enmity.  In the work of courageous Israeli Jews and Bedouin villagers and civic leaders who refuse to allow the displacement and dispossession of Bedouin society continue unabated. You will see it in the farmers who refuse to abandon their land, even as the walls go up, the restrictions on movement tighten, and the everyday harassment and violence against them intensifies.  You see it in the faith and steadfastness of Daoud Nassar, who continues his work for peace at his center of Tent of Nations, even in the face of Israelis soldiers who this month broke down his fence, invaded his farm, and told him, his family and the international volunteers working with him that they were not allowed be there and would be required to leave.

So the church is — or should be — right at home here.  The imperative for universal justice permeates the American church – it’s not a hard call!  Except for the interfaith issue.  That makes it difficult.  I know.  I know what charges you open yourselves to when you dare to criticize the State of Israel. But I say to you:  do not let yourselves be held captive to our struggle. The Jewish people, by claiming a superior right to a territory shared by others, whether that claim is made on religious or political grounds, are heading straight for disaster, not only political, but cultural, psychological, and spiritual.  So yes, honor the painful process that we Jews must go through as we begin to look in the mirror and consider what we must do now to be OK with God.  Love us as we confront the awful consequences that have resulted from our nationalist project. But do not wait for us as you pursue your work for peace based on justice .

Today, Jewish Christian interfaith dialogue is too often been confined to polite, careful encounters that avoid the tough issues and observe strict rules against criticism of Israel. What we need is not dialogue but communion, common cause in the pursuit of justice.  There are some in the Jewish community – here and of course in Israel– who are taking the prophetic step outside the mainstream and are ready, as faithful Jews, to join with you in this prophetic endeavor. We are blessed to have some of them with us this weekend. Find us. Bind us to you. Let us together be faithful servants of God.  Let us watch the stones of the old Temple tumble down and be open to the new that is being born.

Jim Wallis has written that when diplomacy and the political process alone fails, broad social movements emerge to change the wind:  to push and to direct the political process.  It is up to us, at the grassroots, to change the wind.  Here, today, as we in the U.S. confront the reality of our government’s responsibility in this struggle, I submit to you that it now falls to the church to lead.  Without this movement, led by and located within the church, a church freed up theologically to go forward and to raise its prophetic voice, our President will have very little chance to do what he wants to do in the Middle East.  This is the mission of the Holy Land Peacebuilding Project.  This has been the mission of the Tree of Life Conference and the Tree of Life Journey.  We, here today, are walking in Jesus’ footsteps, and those of Amos, and those of Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King and William Sloane Coffin.  We are changing the wind.

In closing I turn to the famous passage from the Book of Revelation, chapter 21, which we read just last Sunday on All Saint’s Day:

I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them as their God;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

We are at a time when we cry for the new and we are witnessing it.  It is a time when the divisions between Jew, Christian and Muslim are being dissolved by the imperative to do justice.  It is a time when we must, in a real sense, see the new Jerusalem.  A Jerusalem which is not Jewish, Christian or Muslim, but built, by our hands, as God’s house.  A time when we will all, in the words of Revelation, know that “the home of God is among mortals,” know, truly, in the words of our friend Daoud Nassar, that we are God’s hands on earth.

William Sloane Coffin, in his long career as a warrior for justice, epitomized this in his ferocious faithfulness to what his faith called him to do.  Coffin wrote in his final autobiographical work, Credo:  “We see ourselves walking not alone with our Lord, but with all the peoples of the world whom we now view as fellow walkers, not as those who fall in behind.  And all are marching to Zion, to the mountain of God, where—can anyone doubt it?—God will cause the nations to beat their swords into plowshares and return to the people the peace that only God could give and no nation had the right to take away.”

My prayer is that we will all, of all faiths, heed this prophetic call, receive God’s love and know God’s will:

Hate evil and love good.

Establish justice at the gate.

And in the words of the psalm: Let our labor not be in vain. Let us build God’s house, here on earth.  Let us  be God’s hands, here on earth.