“A New Thing Springs Forth”- Fifth Sunday in Lent 3/21/10

“A New Thing Springs Forth”

Sermon for Fifth Sunday in Lent

Wyoming Presbyterian Church

Millburn, NJ

March 21, 2010

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14

It’s a joy to be in your midst and I want to thank Lou for the honor of preaching from this pulpit. And as I stand here I want to acknowledge someone who is not with us this morning, Noushin Framke, who is in London with her mother who has blessedly recovered from being very ill.  Noushin, you are with us in spirit this morning.

You know, as a Jew who grew up in the synagogue, preaching from a prescribed set of scripture reading is very familiar territory.  Every Sabbath we read a section from the Five Books of Moses – it’s a one-year cycle, we divided it into 52 portions – and a selection from the prophets.  But when I discovered the lectionary I was so delighted – what an embarrassment of riches for the preacher!  There is the Old Testament — with a psalm as a bonus, and Gospels, and Epistles. And for me, especially – this you need to understand —  growing up I was not supposed to read the New Testament, and talk about Jesus was out of bounds. In fact walking into a church was out of the question – it was actually considered a dangerous place – such was the legacy of Europe. And so to bring the scriptures together into a whole is a miraculous coming together for me, a reestablishment of wholeness, a wholeness and coming together in faith, I submit, that is a matter of the utmost urgency to us today.

I was recently advised by a friend who is a retired Episcopal priest about how to do a good sermon. He advised me, borrowing the words of his seminary professor, to choose one passage, even better one verse, through which God is speaking to you, and develop your message on that. It’s good advice for a homily.  But I can’t do it.  The lectionary is a whole, the pieces fit together into a whole that asks a question and provides a map in the search for an answer. The lectionary tells a story.

Especially today, this fifth Sunday in Lent.  In fact, the whole cycle of Lenten readings tells a compelling story. And it’s the story of God’s covenant with the Jewish people entering into conversation with history, specifically the dramatic developments of the first century – Jesus’ time.  And what does this have to do with repentance?  That’s the question – and the work that the lectionary sets us to is to find the answer. The Old Testament readings for Lent present the story of God in partnership with humankind in the stewardship of earth – the Abrahamic covenant. It’s the dream, the vision of perfection. And it begins with the story God coming to one man, one family. And the land promise is the centerpiece of the covenant. In week 1 we have the commandment in Deuteronomy of the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple, affirming and declaring God’s faithfulness in giving the land to his people.  This powerful scene of physical bounty and ritual is set alongside of Paul’s stirring declaration in Romans 10 that faith alone affirms the God-human bond, and his astonishing statement that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all. Physical offering over here, confess with your lips over here.  Chosen people over here, vision of universal love over here.  What is going on?  And then in Lent 3 we have the account in Exodus of the burning bush set alongside the story in Luke 13 of the fig tree that would bear no fruit. Again, the burning bush is the promise, the perfection – God coming to man, beginning the tribal narrative of the Exodus and the possession of the land.

Fast forward to Jesus’ time and we have the parable of the fig tree, which is the Jewish people trying to survive in the inhospitable soil of empire by clinging to their sense of specialness – recall Jesus’ rebuke just prior to the telling of the parable,  to those Galileans who fancied themselves less sinful than those who had been killed by Pilate.  Do you think you are so special? He asks them. If you are looking for true repentance, Jesus is saying, if you want to survive the depredations of empire, you must be faithful to the overarching issue of social justice for all.  Get to work — water the tree that will bear fruit. And today, as we turn to our readings and at the same time confront the challenge that history has set before us, we ask, what is true repentance?  How have we have strayed, how do we return to God?

So let us turn first to the psalm for today.  It is one in a series of poems that that carry the notation “A song of ascents.”  There is some dispute about what this notation means, but to a Jew reading this psalm, there is no doubt about what it is about:  return to the Holy Land, pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  One does not emigrate to Israel, one makes aliyah:  “goes up.” These psalms are believed to have been composed in the Second Temple period, in the historical context of the return to Zion. And I have to tell you that for me, this psalm has particular impact and is about as imprinted in me as a poem or hymn can be.  As part of the Sabbath liturgy I sang it – sang it – three times a day for a good portion of my life as a boy and as a young man.

I was born in the United States in 1948 – the year of the declaration of the State of Israel. As such, I was raised in a potent combination of Rabbinic Judaism and political Zionism.  The two could not be separated.  I was taught that a miracle – born of heroism and bravery – had blessed my generation. The State of Israel was not a mere historical event – it was redemption.

Growing up I was steeped in the Jewish-Zionist narrative of the birth and meaning of the new Jewish homeland. The legacy of Europe that shaped my generation and the generations that followed was a sense of specialness, of separateness, and a kind of brittle sense of superiority and entitlement.  We have suffered, but because we are special, we have been selected for a special role by God, and with it comes the assurance of deliverance from oppression.  The contemporary Zionist ideology and mythology partakes of this legacy and this identity.  I embraced it.

Until I saw the occupation.

I travelled to the occupied West Bank in 2006. When I saw the dispossession and oppression being perpetrated in my name, it broke my heart and what is more important it challenged my assumptions and beliefs. I saw the wall and the land grab, I saw the impact on the psyches and souls of my Jewish cousins manning those checkpoints.  I learned about another narrative, the Nakba, and understood that this too was an essential part of my own story as a Jew today.  I met the Palestinian people, recognized them as my brothers and sisters.

I realized that if my own people were going to survive, we had to transcend our sense of specialness and victim-tinged entitlement, a sense incubated for 2000 years that had now taken the form of political Zionism — the claim to the land as our particular inheritance and right.  I realized that as a Jew I must consider hard the distinction between loving a land and claiming it as my birthright.  When you claim a superior right to a territory shared by others, whether that claim is made on religious or political grounds, you head straight for disaster.  We Jews need to take a long hard look at our willingness to invoke the land clause of the covenant. Finally, I realized that the meaning of the Holocaust was not that we had to retreat behind walls of protection.  To the contrary – the experience must lead us to a recognition of the universality of human suffering and our obligation to relieve it.

So when I return  now, as a middle aged man, to this psalm, its cadences still reverberating strongly within me, I still feel the dream of return, but I hear new things and I read the words in a new way.  What does it now mean to restore the fortunes of Zion? Who is Zion, what is Zion? And I realize that true repentance is not about return to a previous state, but rather the embrace of the new, through difficult and faithful self examination.

And so we turn to our reading in Second Isaiah, a prophet writing from the same historical context, the return of the Babylonian exiles to Judea. But this is more than a hymn of praise and exultation at the restoration of king and temple.  This is rather a prophetic message, a message not of comfort but of challenge:  I am about to do a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not see it?” What is this new thing the prophet is calling on us to see?  To what are we called to open our eyes? Isaiah is saying that it has to be something new. He is calling on us to bring the dream into conversation with history.  He is talking about repentance.

And when we turn, finally, to the emotional passion of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we are firmly in the realm of repentance, we have stepped firmly into the world of Lent.

This passage is perhaps the ultimate Lent reading.  Paul is describing his own experience, which is perhaps the ultimate act of repentance, the ultimate turnaround. Everything before my transformation, Paul writes, everything before my eyes were opened I now consider a loss, all is changed. Let us  look at the context of Paul’s letter.  In the astonishing opening, he is claiming his Jewish identity and heritage, but he is setting his Jewish readers up to think of themselves in a new way. In his reference to the flesh, Paul is referring to ritual circumcision, and warning the Philippians that some will come to urge them, if they are to remain faithful Jews, to follow the ritual law, represented first and foremost by circumcision. This law, in addition to other laws notably the Sabbath and the dietary laws, which ended up, for the reformer Paul being the dealbreakers with the Jewish establishment, serve to affirm a core quality of what it had meant to be Jewish – differentiation from the surrounding nations – the same sense of apartness and specialness that is invoked in the psalm. By focusing on this issue Paul is drawing the line clearly, just as he does in his statement in Romans about Jew and Greek.  This Jewish sense of separateness is what Paul had come to challenge.  It can go, said Paul, it must go, in the service of a call for universal justice, the Kingdom of God that Jesus had come to proclaim.

Because what was the new movement was about –  it was not, as we might think, about whether or not you believe in the divinity of Jesus, and certainly not to create a schism within Judaism or to start a new religion!  That’s not what Jesus recruited the apostles for and that is not why so many followed him in noisy, joyous song into Jerusalem. The movement was about taking the covenant where it needed to go in response to history – and that history was Rome.  The new movement was about what God required humankind to do in response to the empire and its client government of king and priest in Jerusalem that was killing the community and, in Jesus’ vision, taking people away from God’s plan of love, compassion, and social justice.

Christian Bible scholars and theologians are now beginning to understand the gospels as the record of a movement of social transformation and nonviolent resistance to the evil of empire. In a remarkable and compelling parallel, this is what we see being played out today, in the Palestine of 2000 years later.  What you see today is an indigenous population subjugated by a colonizing power, a people fighting for dignity, human rights, and justice.

This is what I saw that summer.  And it tore me apart.  I identified with the Palestinian people – everything I had been taught growing up as a Jew and as an American took me to that place. I began to find myself wanting to be in E Jerusalem with the Palestinians, rather than in W Jerusalem with my Jewish family, where I spoke the language, knew the culture down to my cells.

What did it mean?  Was I no longer a Jew?  The story of my journey to find the answer to that question begins in a small office in E Jerusalem, sitting with a group of American pilgrims listening to Nora Carmi of Sabeel, the Center for Palestinian Liberation Theology.  [Story of Nora/Sabeel]. And it brought it together for me.  Standing for justice for Palestine was the most Jewish thing I could do. For the Palestinian story is also our story, it is – must be seen as – our narrative, our urgent narrative.

During the brutal bombardment of the people of Gaza in January 2009, Sara Roy, a prophetic American Jewish voice, wrote the following:

What will happen to the Jews as a people, whether we live in Israel or not?  Why have we not been able to accept the fundamental humanity of Palestinians and include them within our moral boundaries?  Rather, we reject any human connection with the people we are oppressing.  Ultimately, our goal is to tribalize pain, narrowing the scope of human suffering to ourselves alone.

I returned from my travels in the Holy Land ready to bring this story to my Jewish community.  And the doors of the synagogues were closed to my story and my message. But in the face of the pain and injury of that, a miraculous and surprising thing happened. The doors of the churches flung open. I discovered a deep hunger among Christians for the message that peace depended on justice for Palestine.  I discovered that the church had a deep and wide social justice agenda, and that Christians know what to do when they saw injustice.  There was only one problem with moving forward with that, and it was a big one.

65 years ago, the Christian world stood before the ovens of Auschwitz and said: “what have we done?”  There ensued a faithful project to reconcile with the Jewish people for millennia of anti-Semitism. And the first job was to correct Christian theology. In the new theology that grew up after WWII, the Jews were seen no longer as the darkness but as the light. No longer doomed to wander the earth, 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 and with it the land promise. 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.

We have to be very concerned about this.  Recently I read an article by a prominent Catholic theologian who argued that the Christian spiritualization of the land was wrong because it was a repudiation of the covenant with the Jews. By spiritualizing the land, he posited, Christians had in effect claimed it for their own, thus depriving the Jews of their birthright. 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. It was to take the worship of God from a particular city, on a particular hill in a particular building, to the realm of the spiritual, a global spiritual community.  Not one stone will be left on another, Jesus said, after entering Jerusalem and standing with his disciples before the Temple. This is not to say that Christians at different times in history have not 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. Granting the land to the Jewish people out of a sense of guilt over centuries of persecution of the Jews is not the way to atone for Christian sins.

This Christian lifting up of the Jewish people and its political homeland project will not undo the horrors of the Christian past treatment of the Jewish people.  And for Jews, the return to a mythical state of national unity and political power will not redeem the suffering of millennia, or bring back the murdered children of Europe. The reconciliation project was a good thing, and opposing anti-Semitism, like the fight against all forms of racism, must continue. But in the current, urgent historical situation, we must recognize this sad and urgent truth:  through the unwritten rules about how “interfaith dialogue” is carried out, vigilance against anti-Semitism has come to trump standing up for justice in Israel-Palestine. Talking about Israel has been off the table, and the Christian project to atone for anti-Semitism has morphed into support for a political ideology that has hijacked Judaism, threatens world peace, and is responsible for the longest-lasting violation of human rights in the world today. This is bad theology. This is a tree that bears no fruit. God requires justice. The times cry out for the prophetic.

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 the attempt to destroy community and family through the taking of farms and the fragmentation of village life.  You will see the dismantlement of an agrarian and merchant economy by the imposition of illegal laws and the tread of soldiers’ boots.

But you will also see nonviolent resistance, in the refusal of farmers to abandon their land in the face of walls, fences and harassment.  You will see it in US churches at local and denominational levels proposing phased divestment from companies profiting from the occupation.  You will see it in devotional pilgrimages visiting the living stones of Israelis and Palestinians protesting the apartheid wall and settler violence.

And then, you will return to your Bibles and understand the origin of Christianity as a movement of nonviolent resistance to the forces that would remove women and men from the source of their strength and from knowledge of God’s love.

So the church is at home here.  This is the social justice agenda that permeates the global 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 question the actions of the State of Israel.  I know that it threatens relationships built up over years, especially on institutional levels. But I say to you: do not let yourselves be held captive to our struggle. Do what your faith directs you to do, even if many of your Jewish brothers and sisters refuse, for the time being, to accompany you on this ministry.  Have compassion for us, honor the painful process that we must go through as we begin to look in the mirror and consider what we must do now to be OK with God as we confront the awful consequences of our nationalist project, but do not wait for us.

These are prophetic times. As Walter Brueggemann tells us, the prophetic calls on us to acknowledge what has been broken, mourn for what has been lost, and yield ourselves up to the new thing that is being brought forth. And that new thing is all humankind united in the fight for justice.  The image of the fig tree – fulfilling the promise of the burning bush – is that of an unexpected unity of purpose.  Paul calls passionately to the Philippians to understand the meaning of the resurrection as the embrace of this new thing, to strain forward to what lies ahead, this new thing growing out of what had proven itself to be barren.

This is the fruit we must nurture. This is the prophetic that must unite us — Christian, Jew or Muslim is not important. It’s whether you are for triumphalism or community, for exploiting the poor or freeing them from poverty, for despoiling the earth or honoring and preserving it.

These are prophetic times and the church is called.  Jim Wallis has said, when politics fail, broad social movements emerge to change the political wind.  Look at the movement to end Jim Crow in America.  Look at the global movement to end apartheid in South Africa.  Where were they born, who were the leaders?  The church in the U.S. are poised to fulfill this historic calling, as it has done before in recent history.

The words of Martin Luther King, writing from the Birmingham jail a half century ago, speak to us with an uncanny resonance today:

The judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

It was on this day in 1965 that thousands of marchers, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., marched to Montgomery Alabama. By the time they reached the state capitol, there were 25,000 marchers. One of the people marching at the front of the line, arm in arm with Dr. King, was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel said: “For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

So let us march forth to this new thing.  Let us, in Paul’s words, press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God.  Let us come to know the meaning of repentance, to know the true meaning of Zion, to build the heavenly Jerusalem, and heal our suffering earthly Jerusalem.  Let us answer the call so that, in the words of the psalm,

Those who sowed with tears will reap in joy,
Those who go forth weeping, carrying with them the seed,
Will come again in joy, bringing with them the sheaves.

May it be your will.  May we, together, here, know your will.