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Posts Tagged ‘Palestinians’

I Know a Syrian …

I know this Palestinian from Syria. He is a dental surgeon. He is working at a gas station – the kind where the attendant sits inside a cubicle and people slip their money under the depression in the counter before they buy their gas.

The number of Syrians who have fled their country is in the millions. It is getting increasingly difficult for them to find a new place to call “home”. The news this morning tells me that 24 governors of American states have said their state will not accept any refugees from Syria.

The dental surgeon is married to a woman who was a High School English Teacher when they lived in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Syria. She was able to get a job as an aid in one of our local public schools.

The couple literally ran for their lives when they left Yarmouk. The handwriting was on the wall regarding the turmoil that is the result of the Assad regime. With an uncle in the US, they had a place to land. They knew that whatever they left behind they would never see again – which was not only true for their material possessions, but may well be true for loved ones as well. With their three children, they ran; and when they got to the US they had a place to land – at least for a while.

The United States has welcomed – if we can call it that – 1,900 Syrian refugees in the last four years. But if the governors of Illinois, Massachusetts and Texas – three states who have heretofore received a large number of refugees from Syria – there is no place for a Syrian to call home there. Whether or not governors have the authority to enact such a policy is debated.

The eldest of the three children had completed one year of university. While the family is seeking asylum there is little by way of assistance for them. It was a high hurdle just to get the necessary documentation for them to be able to legally work. But when that documentation came they went to work with a vengeance. That eldest child also got a job. Hoping to major in Computer Science, he got a job at a convenience store. And after a log of letter-writing, hand-wringing, pleading, he got into Champlain College on a scholarship.

Sen. Ted Cruz and former Gov. Jeb Bush say the US should admit Christian refugees, not Muslims. Pres. Obama has responded: “We do not have religious tests for our compassion. That’s not who we are.” But is that who we are becoming?

The two girls were in their Junior Year in High School upon arriving in the US. They finished at Burlington High School. Motivated, willing to work, wanting to contribute, they got jobs. One of the girls is matriculating at UVM, hoping to get into Medical School. They other is taking classes at Community College of Vermont and plans to attend UVM full time next year.

The logic behind Sen. Cruz’s concern is the inability we have to determine who is and is not a terrorist. The New York Times describes this as “The intersection of the refugee crisis with the nation’s immigration debate.” What this means essentially is that compassion has collided with politics; and when that happens empathy takes a back seat.

“This is for our children.” That’s what the surgeon-turned-gas station attendant and teacher turned aid say. Those scholarships are coupled with some loans and the entire family works to insure that rent, utilities and loans are paid every month right on time.

Technically they are Palestinians; but they have lived for decades in Syria. So I feel like I can say: “I know this Syrian …” and I have to say that I am humbled by their work ethic, awed by their intelligence, inspired by their devotion to each other, and so very grateful that they are our neighbors. I only hope they will continue to feel welcome in our midst and know they are loved.

 

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Text:   Genesis 12:1-5; I Peter 2:1-10; Matthew 17:1-9

My sister, Linda, traveled to Bosnia last year. She said it was beautiful, and she returned home with memories, stories to share, and pictures. She also took a cross-country trip with a good friend. They spent most of their nights in a tent and were gone for about six weeks. They wrote blogs and came home with memories to share about the adventures they had. And pictures. Image

My younger sister, Mary Elizabeth, went to Italy with her husband last year. She talks of the moment in the Sistine Chapel, and adventures driving, the food they had, the wines they enjoyed. They came home with stories and pictures.

In a couple months, Linda is traveling again. She and her daughter are going to Greece. And next September, Mary and her husband are also traveling – heading to France with their son for a couple weeks. Mary is brushing up on some French. Both my sisters expect to have wonderful trips, to see beautiful sights, to enjoy the traveling with their children, to taste excellent food and wine. They will come home with stories … and pictures.

When they travel, they are traveling as tourists.

I recall the first time I went to the Holy Land. We travelled with Educational Opportunities. Perhaps some of you have travelled with Educational Opportunities – to Israel and Egypt, or to England and sites special to the history of Methodism, or to Greece and various places Paul stopped on his missionary journeys. The purpose of these travels is not so much to be “tourists”, although you do some of the traditional “tourist” stuff. But the point is for the trip to be more of a “Pilgrimage”. Sacred sites are visited. When I went we had a number of lectures, and many worship services – time to sit together on holy ground and worship, and pray, and sing, and share Holy Communion. The focus was not on visiting the bazaars or amassing as many photographs as possible, though I did take pictures. The emphasis was less on the “sites” and more on the soul and what those sites represented for us personally. As a pilgrim, my faith was deepened, strengthened, perhaps even intensified for having made the trip.

So there are tourists, and there are pilgrims, and I have been both. Perhaps you have, too.

Over thirty years ago, another term was introduced and became a kind of “buzz word” in Christian Circles. The term “Seeker”. While other churches were doing it, the pre-eminent congregation was Willow Creek Community Church. Their Sunday morning services were designed less for “believers in Jesus” and more for people who were seeking – unsure perhaps of exactly what they believed or where their spirituality would finally land. But they were looking, and we called the services designed for them “Seeker Services”.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield uses these three words – “Tourist”, “Pilgrim”, and “Seeker” – to describe the path we tend to take when it comes to religion. First, a word about his life.

He was born into a family that was zealous in their Judaism, but in an ethnic and ethical sense more than a religious one. Due to various circumstances, when he was in seventh grade, Brad Hirschfield had an experience, and he determined he was going to be “orthodox”. His parents were a bit surprised, but he would go on to attend an Orthodox Jewish  High School in the Chicago area, and following high school, he traveled to Israel where he ended up in a Jewish settlement in Hebron. Hebron is a politically charged city which Israel took over in the War of 1967. Hirschfield lived in a Jewish settlement there. When some of the settlers were killed, their fellow settlers exacted a revenge that ended up with several Palestinian school children shot to death. Shortly after that event, Hirschfield returned to the United States – in his words, he “came home”.

He speaks of “tourists” as people not entirely unlike his parents perhaps – not unlike who he had been until his conversion in the seventh grade. But more specifically, he thinks of the people who travelled to Hebron where he was a tour guide leading people around the Cave of Machpelah, where Abraham and Sarah and other biblical figures are buried. They came armed with cameras. Tourists, says Rabbi Hirschfield, are people on a hiatus – “taking a break from real life.”[1] It is a temporary time away from life’s “commitments, struggles, and difficulties.” And the cameras help us record experiences we don’t expect to have again, and images of places we may never visit again. Tourists visit places, and then move on – either to other places, or to go home.

When he went to live in Israel, he says he had moved from spiritual tourism to being a pilgrim. And he defines “pilgrims” as people who have a specific destination in mind. More to the point, he says pilgrims tend not to need cameras; the experiences they are having are meant to “shape [their] thoughts and actions long after [they] have left this or that place behind.” Religious Pilgrims experience an intensification of certainty. Some religious traditions such as Islam strongly encourage believers to make a haj – a pilgrimage – to Mecca.

He says when he was living in the settlement and giving tours in Hebron, he gave the tours with a bible in one hand and a gun in the other – ready to fight for what he believed his faith stood for. As he is defining “pilgrims”, we might say there is a quality of fanaticism to them that makes them sure they are right, and others are wrong. He was a “pilgrim”, he says. He had become so certain that he was right in his beliefs that he had gone past knowing other people were wrong. He was ready to fight to prove they were wrong…until he experienced the shooting of those Palestinian children.

After the shooting of those school children, he couldn’t do it anymore.

Abraham, says Rabbi Hirschfield, was not a tourist. Nor was he a pilgrim as Hirschfield defines the term. Abraham, writes Hirschfield, was a seeker. And the first thing a true seeker does is to get moving. “Even if you only have a [general] direction,” says the rabbi, “and not a [specific] destination,” you get moving. While a seeker wants to be safe, they don’t necessarily need to be comfortable.

Abram leaves his father’s house, and so we might assume he was leaving a measure of security behind. But our text tell us he had possessions of his own. Perhaps his assessment of the situation was that he had enough to keep him going for a while – time enough so that he could discern more precisely where his final destination might be.

Rabbi Hirschfield speculates that Abram was safe and secure enough in his relationship with God and his belief that God loved him that he was both willing and able to take some risks. “Movement,” writes Hirschfield, is the first sacred principal.

The second “sacred principal” when it comes to “seekers”, he writes, is Mutuality. Abram was able to question God, to debate and perhaps even argue with God. Abram bartered with God over the city of Sodom. With God bent on the city’s destruction, Abram challenges the divine plan. What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you destroy it then, he asks.[2] The negotiations go all the way down to ten people – and then Abram stops. Mutuality requires enough love so as to have the difficult conversations, but also enough humility so that you are able to let go.

Finally, Rabbi Hirschfield says seekers must have the capacity to be present to do the good work. The call of Abram doesn’t include a “Here I am” statement; but that sense is implied. There is no fight from Abram. The text simply says: “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him…” There is goodness in that kind of obedience – it has a certain childlike quality to it. And inherent in the call is the the responsibility to both receive and distribute blessing.

Tourists can be demanding, expecting at times even in the developing world the kind of accommodations they are accustomed to in America. Pilgrims can be demanding, expecting that the rest of the world will agree with their particular religious outlook on life; and those who don’t agree are easily disregarded because they are deemed to “wrong”.

Seekers, on the other hand, come at life with fewer answers and more questions. They have a heightened sense of the importance of hospitality; but they don’t confuse the superficial hospitality that is motivated by getting the better deal or making more profit off either the tourist or the host, with the kind of self-giving that we are to offer both neighbor and stranger alike.

Jesus was working hard to move his followers from being curious tourists, following him around for a time to watch the show, hoping they would become seekers. Ask, and you will receive. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be open.[3] But when we stop asking, seeking, and knocking on doors, we become hardened.

The gospels present us with a Christ who is moving through life without always knowing for sure where he would lay his head that evening. When asked: Where are you staying, Jesus says simply: Come and see.[4] It’s very possible that at the moment he was asked the question, he had no better answer than that. But his relationship with his Father was secure enough so that Jesus did not worry about such things.[5]

As Jesus is experiencing his transfiguration – his metamorphosis toward his perfect obedience to God – the disciples acted very much the part of the “tourists”. Let me construct three shelters, says Peter. In a sense, Peter wanted to take a picture, to have some way to capture an experience and keep it just as he saw it. Nothing makes it clearer than this moment that Peter had not come close to the kind of understanding of God that Jesus had. Have we?

But the disciples also had their “pilgrim moments”. Who is the greatest? That’s not a question a seeker asks. That is the question of someone who is both extremely insecure and falsely secure at the same time. The moment in the garden when a disciple – and the Gospel of John tells us it was Peter[6] – but when the disciple draws a sword and cuts off the ear of the high priests’ servant – that is a “pilgrim” moment. Ready to kill because we have become so insecure on one hand, and so certain on the other. Indeed – the disciples of Jesus have had “pilgrim” moments. Religious crusades where religion is imposed upon others, where we brutalize the human spirit in the name of what have labelled our fundamental religious convictions – those are the times when individuals on their own and the church in general have acted like Rabbi Hirschfield’s definition of “Pilgrim” – a certainty that is hardened and unquestioning.

Do we have some sense of God’s faithful, loving presence? When the epistle attributed to the same Peter of the Gospels writes these powerful words: Once you were no people. Now you are God’s people – maybe Peter has moved from one stage to the other – from “tourist” at the Transfiguration, to “pilgrim” when Jesus was arrested, and finally, to “seeker” after Christ’s resurrection. Peter, the Jewish zealot who has the vision of foods enjoyed by Gentiles and reviled by his religion – Peter who is taught that God doesn’t make unclean stuff – it is this same Peter who embraces the Gentile World. And he proclaims: Once, you who were no people are now God’s people.

And the issue is not so much to the individual person pinning them against the wall with the question: Are you saved? The pressing concern is addressed to a people: Are you faithful?

It is easy to be tourists – to visit when you have the time or the inclination. It’s also quite easy to be “pilgrims” as Rabbi Hirschfield uses the term – to become certain, and in our certainty, to become hardened.

But I experience in this congregation some “seeker” qualities – a willingness to engage in conversation even if we aren’t quite certain where it will take us. One of my pastoral agendas for us is that we increase our capacity for elasticity, our ability to withstand change and risk. There is, here, a love of God that makes it possible for us to doubt, to question, to wonder and even wander a bit, not because we always know where we are going, but because we believe Jesus at his word – that he is always with us.

And there is this stewardship component – Remembering that Abram had sufficient goods that enabled him to step out in faith with a measure of safety, our forebears in the faith here at First United Methodist have made it possible for us to take some risks without fear that our church will collapse in the next four weeks if we don’t get it right. Not only in terms of how we care for the facility, but also for how we engage in ministry – there is enough stability here so that we can take some risks.

As your pastor I have pushed us to take some risks with staffing and ministry. And some of you have pushed back, questioning whether it was expedient or right to do some of what we have attempted. Because we are “seekers”, we can engage each other in this tug of war, knowing that Christ is alive, that Jesus is present, and that the Holy Spirit is among us. One side or the other isn’t right; all sides have to be willing to move – back and forth. Everyone has to accept that we are sisters and brothers – we may not always agree, or even like each other. But we are in this together, and our love for God and humility with one another will see us through. And we are present – We have to be present and available to do the good work. We have to stay long enough to receive the blessings that are sure to come, and then to share those blessings with obedient abandon.

When you support the ministry of this parish in whatever ways you are able so to do, that is what you are making possible. You are making it possible for people to move closer and closer to Jesus. It may be that once we were no people. But with all my heart I believe we are making progress toward the only destination that matters – we are becoming God’s people.


[1] Brad Hirschfield, You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right. Published by Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. New York. ©2007 by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield. This quote is from Page 52. The information used in this message is from Chapter Two of the book.

[2] Genesis 18:16ff.

[3] Matthew 7:7

[4] John 1:38-39.

[5] See also Matthew 6:25 ff.

[6] John 18:10.

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