Is the Lord Not in Zion? Work to be Done in Our Days

Sermon Offered on November 4, 2007
First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, CT.
Mark Braverman, Ph.D.

It is so wonderful to be back at FCCOL. Again, I want to express my gratitude to David for inviting me to preach and to all of you for welcoming me back to Old Lyme. It is a great honor and a joy.

And, indeed, we are here together in joy, and we are also here in mourning and in grief. As is fitting we will let scripture take us into that grief and show us the way through. The first reading is from the lectionary, and then, in true Congregationalist form, I will depart from what the book tells me to do, respond rather to several passages that cry out to me, that cry with me. And not all of our scripture will be from the Bible, as is also fitting, some of it will be drawn from our modern prophets.

Habbakuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you, “violence!” and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise around me;
The law becomes slack and justice never prevails,
The wicked surround the righteous – judgment comes forth perverted.

And then, in the prophet’s telling, God responds:

Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.

We face a choice.

It is a choice that is before us every day, but at some times more than at others – it is the choice of whether or not to confront wrongdoing, and, in true prophetic tradition, pursue justice. It is what Jesus meant by discipleship. For me, the choice has been, what do you do when you confront injustice, and – especially — when you see it being committed in your name?

The Protestant theologian Walter Brueggemann speaks about the prophetic imagination, the courage to see things as they are and to speak that truth, even when it brings down the wrath of temporal power, and, perhaps even more difficult, when it means taking a stand against what people want to believe is true. He talks about the willingness to mourn– to not be afraid of pain and loss but to be able to move into action from that place of truth and integrity.

This past summer, I journeyed again to Jerusalem. I stood on the Mount of Olives overlooking the city. The Mount of Olives — the place where my ancestors are buried, the very place where Jesus stood before entering Jerusalem for his final days on earth. But 600 years before Jesus it was the prophet Jeremiah who stood there, weeping over what he saw going on in that city, mourning over what he knew was to happen:

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.
Listen! The cry of my poor people from far and
wide in the land:
“Is the LORD not in Zion? Has her king deserted her?”
The harvest is past,
the summer is ended,
And we are not saved.”
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why has the health of my poor people
not been restored?
O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the devastation- the brokenness of my poor people!

This is what happened to me a year and a half ago when I first witnessed the West Bank. As I did last year at this time, I stand before you in mourning. At that time, I shared with my experience of the Ninth of Av, the day of the year in the Jewish tradition on which we commemorate and mourn the destruction of the Temple, the event of our dispossession, the beginning of our exile our Nakba. I shared with you on that day that I wept, but not for the Jews of 2000 earlier. I wept for the Palestinians who were having their Jerusalem taken from them, neighborhood by nationhood, house by house, farm by farm. I wept for their loss, and I wept for the brokenness of my own people as they witnessed their own society tragically devoted to this ethnic cleansing.

So this is what I want to share with you today, some moments of mourning, that even though painful were a kind of fulfillment, the answer to questions, prayers even. Mourning that has allowed me to begin to move through the horror, the grief, and the anger.

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you, “violence!” and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?

Jesus stood in the footsteps of Jeremiah and said, Blessed are those who mourn.” Like the Prophets who came before him, he knew what was coming, and he invited his people to discipleship, to embrace the reality of the times, to mourn for it, and to join him in storming the gates of power and injustice.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Archbishop Elias Chacour of the Melkite Church in Palestine interprets this verse as: Get up! Look around, realize what is going on, and then do something about it! Yes, Jesus was heartsick, and deeply angry at what he was seeing, and he acted on it. Just as Jeremiah had 600 years earlier, knowing what Jerusalem was about to bring down upon herself.

Is the Lord not in Zion, Ha’Adonai ayn b’Zion? Is God absent? HaMalkah ayn la? Has Jerusalem’s king abdicated, is there no leadership, no direction, no way to turn back from disaster? This is what the prophet’s grief is about and what our grief is about as we stand in their place today and confront the evil being committed in our own time, in every place that it happens. We cry out, is the Lord not in Zion? And the answer is, of course, divinity and righteousness are present, but in us, in our choices. Jeremiah’s grief, Habbakuk’s cry, Jesus’sorrow and his rage: we stand in their place today, seeing what we see, knowing what we know, and it leads us to one thing: the requirement to seek justice.
Mark in Chapter 3 verses 31-35 tells the story of the early days of Jesus’ preaching.

Jesus was preaching in Galilee — his old neighborhood. Jesus is driving out demons and healing the sick right and left, and before long he is being followed by crowds who won’t leave him alone. He’s a superstar. His family gets wind of this, and they go out to try get him under control, because the word is, your son and your brother has flipped out, he’s gone over the edge, and furthermore, he’s getting into real hot water with the authorities. The gospel recounts:

“Then his mother and his brothers came: and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Fast forward, Tel Aviv, Israel, 2001. Nurit Peled Elhanan is the mother of Smadar Elhanan, 13 years old when she was killed by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem in September 1997..
Nurit and her husband Rami, Jewish Israelis, when faced with this evil, this crisis in their lives, responded by looking very hard at themselves and at the society that had brought this down upon them. After Smadar’s death, they opened their house of mourning to Palestinian supporters and to other bereaved parents. Years later, referring back to those days, Nurit said this in a speech in Tel Aviv:

“When my little girl was killed, a reporter asked me how I was willing to accept condolences from the other side. I replied without hesitation that I had refused to meet with the other side: When representatives of Netanyahu’s government came to offer their condolences I took my leave and would not sit with them. For me, the other side, the enemy, is not the Palestinian people. For me the struggle is not between Palestinians and Israelis, nor between Jews and Arabs. The fight is between those who seek peace and those who seek war. My people are those who seek peace. My sisters are the bereaved mothers, Israeli and Palestinian, who live in Israel and in Gaza and in the refugee camps. My brothers are the fathers who try to defend their children from the cruel occupation, and are, as I was, unsuccessful in doing so. Although we were born into a different history and speak different tongues there is more that unites us than that which divides us.“

I am often characterized – sometimes accused – of being “Pro-Palestinian.” This, of course, is in contrast to being “Pro-Israel,” which appears to mean a defender of the State of Israel from those who seek to destroy it, either through outright violence or through criticism and removal of vital support. Like Nurit Elhanan, I reject the labels, I reject the category as applied to my beliefs and my experience. What happened to me when I went to Palestine is that I discovered what I had already known, deep in my bones but not yet in my conscious awareness, what I knew to be true – that the Palestinians are every bit as much my brothers and my sisters as my coreligionists in Israel, that the land is theirs every bit as much theirs as it is mine – if we can learn how to deserve it – and that I cannot accept, cannot tolerate, can not live with, a situation in which my people has dispossessed this other people – any other people – in order to possess the land ourselves. And I do not believe that the State of Israel makes me, as a Jew, safer.

Here is another modern prophet: Kathleen Christison, a former CIA analyst:
“Peace is an empty concept without justice. The mere end of shooting is not peace. Justice does not simply come along with peace as a kind of side benefit; justice must be actively worked for, and it must be achieved before there can be real peace. The oppressed never call for peace; their struggle is always for justice.

Peace means something different for everyone, and one person’s peace is often another person’s injustice. For Israel, peace –they think – means security — even if, and perhaps particularly if, Palestinians are disadvantaged and denied justice. For Palestinians, peace means a redress of injustices done to them for almost 60 years.

Many of history’s most epic struggles for good have been struggles not for peace but for justice. White South Africa lived peacefully during much of the apartheid period. Southern slaveholders in the pre-Civil War United States lived in peace while oppressing blacks. Israel has enjoyed peace for most of its nearly 60 years, even while dispossessing the Palestinian people, occupying Palestinian territory, killing and ethnically cleansing Palestinians. But South African blacks and American slaves had no justice despite living in peace. Palestinians have had no justice since Israel’s creation.

If we think about a just and peaceful end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, we are led back inevitably to 1948 and the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. The Palestinians’ dispossession is a fundamental injustice from which all subsequent injustices have sprung, one that can only be rectified by some mutual agreement on the Palestinian right of return. This is the only way to true peace. It is also critical to understand that Jews will not be “thrown into the sea” if Zionism and its injustices are ended — any more than dismantling apartheid South Africa meant throwing whites into the sea.”
Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa addressed the Sabeel conference in Boston just this past weekend. He addressed Jews in particular, challenging us to open ourselves to the possibility for a peace based not on fear, but on justice. He said: “Some people are enraged by comparisons between the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and what happened in South Africa. There are differences between the two situations, but a comparison need not be exact in every feature to yield clarity about what is going on. Indeed, because of what I experienced in South Africa, I harbor a vast, unreasoning hope for Israel and the Palestinian territories. South Africans, after all, had no reason to suppose that the evil system and the cycles of violence that were sapping the soul of our nation would ever change. Most South Africans did not believe they would live to see a day of liberation. They did not believe that their children’s children would see it. They did not believe that such a day even existed, except in fantasy. But we have seen it. We are living now in the day we longed for. It is not a cloudless day. The divine arc that bends toward a truly just and whole society has not yet stretched fully across my country’s sky like a rainbow of peace. It is not finished, it does not always live up to its promise, it is not perfect – but it is new. A brand new thing, like a dream of God, has come about to replace the old story of mutual hatred and oppression. I have seen it and heard it, and so to this truth, too, I am compelled to testify – if it can happen in South Africa, it can happen with the Israelis and Palestinians. There is not much reason to be optimistic, but there is every reason to hope.”

My friends, something is happening. A spirit, a voice is growing.
John 2:17 chronicles Jesus’ dramatic entrance into Jerusalem. You know the story – Jesus, like our modern prophets, made it very clear what he thought of the blind pursuit of power that had taken hold in Jerusalem The Gospel records: “His disciples, watching this in amazement, remembered that it was written in the Psalms, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” Modern-day prophets are consumed by this zeal, this overwhelming need to speak truth to power, storming the temples, overturning the tables, saying: what have you done to Jerusalem, what have you done to my house? And I want now to read to you from one of these, but first let’s take a moment to look at this Psalm, the whole piece that this curious, almost obscure snatch of a phrase is lifted from:

From Psalm 69
Save me, O God,
I’m drowning – literally, the waters have reached to my very soul.
I’m sinking into the depths, there is no foothold,
The flood sweeps me under.
I am exhausted by my crying
My throat is dry
My sight fails as I wait for my God.
It is for Your sake that I have born this disgrace,
I have become a stranger to my brothers,
Alien to my kin.
Yes, I have been consumed by my zeal – better, my PASSION – for your house.

You see why the writer of the gospel turns to this psalm. This is the prophet: he sees, he knows, he feels, he is helpless to resist the imperative of what he sees, he knows, he feels, even though it turn his life upside down, threaten to completely overwhelm him, even though it shatter his dreams and the social and kinship ties inside which he is supposed to live. This is Jesus entering the Temple. This is the person of faith – Christian, Jew, Muslim, confronting the question of what to do when confronted with evil in his or her time, confronted with a House of God turned into a machine to dispossess the powerless, rob the poor, despoil nature.

So what about my people, the Jews?

Here now is the voice of Sara Roy, daughter of Holocaust survivors:

“Judaism has always prided itself on reflection, critical examination, and philosophical inquiry. Now, these are abhorred, eviscerated from our ethical system. Rather the imperative is to see through eyes that are closed, unfettered by investigation. We conceal our guilt by remaining the abused, despite our power, creating situations where our victimization is assured and our innocence affirmed.”

She continues:

“Jews do not feel shame over what they have created: an inventory of inhumanity. Our detachment allows us to bear such excess (and commit it), to sit in Jewish cafes while Palestinian mothers are murdered in front of their children in Gaza. I can now better understand how horror occurs—how people, not evil themselves, can allow evil to happen. We salve our wounds with our incapacity for remorse, which will be our undoing. Instead the Jewish community demands unity and conformity: “Stand with Israel” read the banners on synagogues. Unity around what? There is enormous pressure—indeed coercion—within organized American Jewry to present an image of “wall to wall unity” as a local Jewish leader put it. But this unity is an illusion— at its edges a smoldering flame rapidly engulfing its core—for mainstream Jewry does not speak for me or for many other Jews. And where such unity exists, it is hollow — built around fear, not humanity, on the need to understand reality as it has long been constructed for us—with the Jew as the righteous victim, the innocent incapable of harm.”

Sara is one of my heroes – but I disagree with her here, I think we do feel shame, we are capable of self-reflection, and it’s the right kind, the kind that leads to reflection and to action, and our numbers are growing. You will see this, hear this, today at the conference.

Let’s talk about the church a bit, or rather what is percolating in modern Christianity about this.

In his introduction to Rosemary Ruether’s Faith and Fratricide, Dr. Gregory Baum, the Canadian Roman Catholic theologian, tackles the problem of the Church’s effort to rid itself of its deeply-rooted anti-Jewish biases. The problem, states Baum, is that “if the Church wants to clear itself of the anti-Jewish trends built into its teaching, a few marginal correctives won’t do. It must examine the very center of its proclamation and reinterpret the meaning of the gospel for our times.” Baum, along with many other modern Christian theologians, ties this directly to the impact of the Nazi Holocaust:

“It was not until the holocaust of six million Jewish victims that some Christian theologians have been willing to face this question in a radical way.” Writes Baum. “In his Voice of Illness, Finnish theologian Aarne Siirala tells us that his visit to the death camps…overwhelmed him with shock and revealed to him that something was gravely sick at the very heart of our tradition….Auschwitz has a message that must be heard: it reveals an illness operative not on the margin of our civilization but at the heart of it, in the very best that we have inherited….It summons us to face up to the negative side of our religious and cultural heritage.”

In other words, the Holocaust has caused Christians to look in the mirror: “What have we done?”

I stand before you as a Jew who has had a similar experience. It’s a mirror image: many Jews – academics, theologians, clergy, laypersons – particularly those who have traveled in Israel’s occupied territories, have experienced what Baum calls a “moment of truth” confronting the State of Israel’s humanitarian crime, a crime committed in our names. It is the reaction of a now similarly triumphant, dominant group to the evidence of what our own actions have created in the form of oppression, trampling of human rights and fundamental abrogation of justice — differences in scale and (some) methods notwithstanding. And it leads to the question, “what does it mean about us, about who we are?”

Understanding anti-Semitism plays a big part in helping to answer this question.

The issue of anti-Semitism is complex and deeply embedded in two thousand years of Western history. Among liberal Christian theologians and religious leaders, Supercessionism – the concept that Christianity, embodied in the Gospels, came to replace Judaism as God’s plan for humankind – has become the Great Evil. The argument, well supported by history, is that this idea, developed in the first centuries after Christ, laid the groundwork for anti-Semitism. But in their zeal to correct the injustices of the past, and to in effect atone for anti-Semitism, Christian leaders and thinkers are in danger of losing sight of an important aspect of early Christian thought. Christianity, in its reframing of the relationship of God to humanity, produced a revolution — in effect, it moved the concept of “Israel” from the tribal to the communal. In the Christian reframing, God’s commitment to humanity through his election of the seed of Abraham – that would be us – who were then assigned a special role in history, was transformed into God’s love for humankind and the invitation to all to become part of a universal spiritual community. This was a great contribution, a great step forward, and it has special relevance today, as all religions struggle to move from “Constantinian,” power-based religions to communities based on a commitment to diversity, human rights and Justice. The choice between religion based on and consorting with political power and oppression, and religion grounded in a concept of community is one that must be faced by all the faiths. I believe that this archaic, tribal core of Judaism is at work in the tragedy of modern Israel, and the Jewish community is in denial about it. We have got to look this straight in the eye, as painful as it is. We must cast out this demon, not tomorrow, not when it’s convenient, not when it feels politically “safe,” but, as Jesus did on his very first outing in the Galilee, in the presence of his newly recruited disciples, at the moment the evil presents itself. As Sara Roy points out, we stifle this discussion at our great, great, peril.

To my Christian sisters and brothers I say – do not, out of a sense of guilt or personal responsibility for anti-Semitism, give the Jewish people a free pass, and in so doing become enablers in this disastrous course we are on. Do not confuse – or allow others you may talk to about this to confuse – anti-Semitism with critique of Israel, and in so doing fail to hold us accountable for our choices and our actions, as members of the human community, as individuals, and as a nation state — especially as a nation state. If -when – someone implies that your questions or criticisms of Israel reveal are anti-Semitic in nature, clear this up for them quickly. You are not anti-Semitic, what nonsense! It is those Jews who muzzle any discourse about the morality, or even wisdom of Israel’s actions who are, in my view, the enemies of Judaism, a tradition that elevates social justice above all values, and which encourages dialogue and questioning. And it is those non-Jews who allow this suppression of dialogue to continue who then share responsibility for the disastrous course we are on.

Do not be intimidated, have courage, stand up for Justice. When the Presbyterian General Assembly in 2004 adopted its platform calling for divestment from all companies involved in the illegal occupation of Palestine, Rev Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran Pastor from Bethlehem, addressing the Assembly, called “a moment of truth.” And it has not been a smooth road for the Presbyterians, they have lost ground since that historic decision, responding to the very pressure Sara Roy described, and that many of us, I am sure, have experienced. But the struggle is really just beginning, the battle is joined, now by the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Congregationalists, and others. Remember: it took 30 years to end Apartheid.

“Zeal for your House will consume me.”

And so are we not all here out of zeal for His House? Sitting here, in His House, do we not realize that His House is our world, the world we create, in our homes, our schools, our communities, churches, synagogues and mosques, and, in the truest sense, in the acts of our everyday lives, in the choices we make about what kind of world we want to live in, what kind of world we can live with?

Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.

And I say to you, let us believe in it. Let us come together in our zeal for justice. Let us be consumed by this, and let us lift up those who work for this in our day.

Let us lift up Desmond Tutu, who continues the battle for justice, who joins with us, to mourn and to believe. Let us lift up Reverend Naim Ateek of the Sabeel Center for Liberation Theology in Palestine, who last weekend in Boston called the occupation “evil,” and has courageously and consistently called us to account, to live up to the best, not the worst of our Jewish tradition: “The emergence of the Zionist movement in the twentieth century,” he has written, “is a retrogression of the Jewish community into the history of its very distant past. with its most elementary and primitive forms of the concept of God.” I agree with Naim, and this is not anti-Semitism, it is out of love for my people that I embrace Naim as my teacher and my brother in the struggle for justice in the land we are trying to share. We can change.

Let us lift up the courageous men and women who will be bearing witness today at our annual Tree of Life Conference. Lift up Nurit and Rami Elhanan, Jeff Halper, the women of Machsom Watch, and the thousands of other Israelis who reach across the obscene wall of concrete and fear that separate our peoples. Lift up the courageous Americans and Europeans – clergy and laypersons, who organize protests, conferences and pilgrimages of education and support to the Holy Land, and who share their wisdom, positions, treasure and time to perform true discipleship in the face of evil. Let us lift up the young women and men of Beit Sahour Palestine who preserve their tradition, their bond to their land, and their commitment to peace and non-violence in the face of ethnic cleansing and continued oppression, in the face of the very theft of their futures.

Let us lift them up and let us, each of us, be consumed with zeal for His House. Let us mourn and be blessed in our mourning, let us rejoice in this work that is being put before us in our days.

Let us today, in the small miracle of this gathering, be astonished and astounded in what we have achieved, and in what, together, we can achieve.


Mark Braverman is a member of the Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East Peace and Jewish Voice for Peace. He serves on the Board of ICAHD-USA. He lives in Bethesda, MD with his wife, Susan. His website is