Sermon: "The Hard Road to Life"
We are so blessed, here at Peace United, by the gifts and passions of so many in our midst. Every day I come to work, I’m stunned by the variety of ways you embrace the gospel and follow Jesus. As activists and artists. As parents and lovers. As servants and rabble-rousers. There’s that little parable in the reading this morning, about hearing Jesus’ words and acting on them, about the spirituality of integrity. Jesus is big on the spirituality of integrity. I look around this sanctuary, I look across this congregation—and I see a whole host of disciples who build their spiritual homes on solid rock. Hearing Jesus’ words and acting on them. Embracing the gospel and embodying the gospel. We are so blessed.
This morning, I want to say a special word of thanks to Dave Dodson and Beverly Brook and Pam Roby and all those who’ve planned next Sunday’s Anti-Semitism Workshop at Temple Beth El. These three, in particular, have invested precious energy and sensitivity in relationships within the Tent of Abraham, with special care and concern for our local synagogues. And I know that many of us will want to attend and participate in next Sunday’s workshop. It gets to the heart of the kind of church we want to be.
After all, when we talk about discipleship at Peace United, Christian discipleship, we’re talking about meeting bigotry head-on and doing all we can to release its grip on our politics, our communities and even our churches...
During my tenure here in Santa Cruz, I’ve taken special care to preach on anti-Semitism at least once a year, and sometimes as often as two or three times a year. As so many of you are, I’m very serious about this...Going back generations, centuries even, our tendencies are (a) to misrepresent Judaism as antiquated and its God as vulgar and crude, and (b) to demonize Jews and project our own shame and weakness onto them.
How easily we talk about the angry God of the Old Testament and the Loving (and Better) God of the New! How quickly we interpret Jewish motivation and behavior in terms of age-old stereotypes. And of course, these very tendencies have manifested in horrific violence and persistent bigotry even and especially in the supposedly enlightened West...So next week’s workshop is a crucial step on a much longer journey.
Last year, for the first time in my life, I was confronted with accusations of anti-Semitism myself. After years of doing what I could to expose it, and heal the church of its poison. Nothing in my years of ministry, really nothing in my life, prepared me for the conflict generated by our ‘Justice for Palestine’ conference in April 2016. We believed—and I still believe—that the conference highlighted a principled and nonviolent campaign, organized by Palestinian leaders for the Palestinian people. But others found the same gathering distasteful at best, and anti-Semitic at its core. We had crossed a line, they said. Sustained criticism of the State of Israel inspires anti-Jewish prejudice, they said, and authorizes it even here, in our community.
In every way, our conference was committed to human rights, democracy and liberation for all. But that message didn’t translate. And I found myself in the stormy middle of an old, old conflict. Colleagues I trusted refused to take my calls. Friends saw me coming and crossed the street, rather than saying hello. I was accused of betrayal in one synagogue and called an anti-Semite in local papers.
All of this prompted intense soul-searching on my part. I was certainly defensive at times, no doubt about that. There’s that part of me that responds to any criticism defensively. But I want to say that I pushed through that, to a deeper kind of reflection. It stings when good people—friends I trust—call my integrity, my decency even, into question. I don’t know if this happens to the rest of you; but it stings when it happens to me. So I spent a good bit of 2016 thinking hard about these things, reading up on anti-Semitism and looking at my own behavior. Were my actions consistent, really and honestly consistent, with my beliefs? Were the choices I made at odds in any way with my values and commitments, even my faith? Big questions, about ethics and integrity.
This kind of soul-searching is not the kind you do alone, in isolation. I mean, there’s some of that. I prayed, and prayed hard, to discern my motivations and question my priorities. Prayer’s been huge for me through all this. But I needed people too, conversational partners who could challenge me thoughtfully and listen to me deeply, and help me understand what was happening. What it meant. I discovered new friends, and bold ones, in a group called the Jewish Voice for Peace. I visited with its founding rabbis in Berkeley and talked to activists in Portland, Oregon. I reconnected with Palestinian organizers by phone and visited some of them in the West Bank just last summer.
With all these friends, I questioned whether our work—around the Boycott and Divestment Movement—has cast an anti-Semitic message or stirred bigotry in any way. I really wanted to know. We wondered, together, whether the initiatives we considered nonviolent and grounded in human rights could somehow replicate ancient and malicious feelings toward Judaism in general and Jewish neighbors close to home. These are big questions. Important questions. And I was blessed to find friends and colleagues who honored them, and understood their importance. From a variety of perspectives.
Through all of this—through the conflict, through the loss of friendships, through all of it—I’ve kept the Sermon on the Mount close. In my satchel going out the door. At my fingertips in the office. On my mind. At the heart of today’s reading, I think, is Jesus’ insistence that we wrestle with our choices, and with our ethics, and with our priorities in just this way. He doesn’t particularly mince words on this. He sets up this one parable simply and provocatively. Either I build my house on solid rock, and it stands the tests of storm and flood and rain and wind. Or I build my house on shifting sand, and it collapses when the wind comes hard and the rain falls fast.
Either I build my house on solid rock, or I build my house on shifting sand. Are my actions consistent, really and honestly consistent, with my beliefs? Are my priorities and choices at odds in any way with my values and my faith? Jesus isn’t kidding around. He wants us to live with his teaching, his example, all the days of our lives. He wants us to love as he loves, to pray as he prays, to forgive as he forgives. His point isn’t to scare us, but to challenge us. Lovingly, to be sure, but firmly. Because integrity is the solid rock.
Seeking truth in Silwan
This whole process took me back to Palestine last summer, where my daughter and I visited a community center in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. In ancient times, pilgrims would wash in the pools of Silwan before climbing the steep slope to the Temple. Today, Silwan is a Palestinian neighborhood, densely populated and colonized by aggressive Jewish settlers intent on driving Palestinian families away. Palestinian homes face a torrent of demolition orders and the economy in Silwan is handcuffed and hopeless. It’s a pretty tough place.
We were encouraged, Fiona and I, to visit Sahar Abbasi at the community center, which was founded a decade ago to help Palestinian families meet the intense challenges of occupation and police harassment. Sahar is a truly amazing woman, generous and strong, focused and compassionate; and her work with children and families offers encouragement in a climate of extreme frustration and despair.
She describes for us how Israeli police raid Palestinian homes at 2 in the morning, in the dead of night; how they bang on Palestinian doors and terrorize women and children and anyone else they find there. Tears show in her eyes as she describes the way Israeli police grab Palestinian children from their beds, some as young as 8 years old, and drag them off to detention centers and prisons. She tells us about mothers who have no idea where their children are taken, or how to even find out. And she tells us it’s getting worse all the time. More raids. More police. Most nights.
Sahar devotes her waking hours to these children and their parents. When they’re taken away, she moves heaven and earth to find out where. When they return at last, if they return, she counsels them and comforts them and offers them hope and love. This is a woman who walks her walk. This is woman who cares. Integrity is her solid rock.
We talk a bit about opportunities for political resistance and in Jerusalem. What can be done? She talks about anger in the streets, rising levels of frustration and fear.
And then, Sahar sits up and says to us: “Violence will get us nowhere. Violence will only come back to hurt my people and do us unimaginable harm.” And your alternatives, we ask? What can you do? “We can survive,” she says, with hurt and pain beyond my imagining. “We can raise our children with dignity and art and love.” And then Sahar Abassi offers the line I still think about every night when I’m falling asleep and every morning when I’m sitting down at my desk. “For us,” she says, “existence is resistance.” Existence is resistance. “So we raise our children. And we say our prayers. And we just survive.”
As we’re leaving that morning, Sahar takes us out to the street and shows us garbage piled high, bags and bags of stinking garbage. The government could care less about Silwan and its Palestinian community. The government refuses to pick up their garbage or provide schools for their kids. It’s something like collective punishment, punishment of an entire people simply because they’re Palestinian or Muslim or Arab or Christian. Which apparently makes them the enemy.
As our time together winds down, Sahar asks us what brings us to Silwan; and I tell her a bit about other trips we’ve taken and our more recent efforts to support the Boycott and Divestment Movement. We talk for a while about anti-Semitism. And she tells us about the brave Jewish peacemakers who come to her center every week, to help out, to cook for the kids, to show they care. “I am angry at the Israeli who oppresses me,” she says proudly, “but these Jews are my friends.” And then: “We can build a better life together. Jew and Muslim and Christian together!”
As we turn to go, Sahar says, “Wait, wait.” And she places a small stone in my hand, and another in my daughters. “What you’re doing gives me hope,” she says. “What you’re doing in the States gives me and my people hope.” For a moment, we talk about the Boycott Campaign, we talk about international attention, and we talk about worldwide pressure. “We are being punished every day,” Sahar says, “and the world must know. You must continue to tell the world.” And as we’re walking away, waving to our friend, she calls out: “And I know that you will.” And I know that you will.
What anti-Semitism is - and isn't
I hope—I really do hope—you’ll take advantage of both opportunities on your insert this morning: the Anti-Semitism workshop on Sunday and the important presentation by Jewish activist Mark Braverman the following Wednesday evening. I think the two events, together, encourage a deeper conversation about what anti-Semitism is and what it isn’t. One without the other really isn’t enough. So I hope you’ll make a point of attending both events. And paying attention. Listening closely. Opening your hearts.
For what it’s worth, here’s where I’m at, at least right now. I don’t find that there is anything anti-Semitic about the work we’re doing with Palestinian activists and Jewish allies to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. I don’t find that there is anything anti-Semitic about partnering with Sahar Abbasi in Silwan and Sam Bahour in Ramallah and Issa Amro in Hebron to put economic pressure on a mighty nation that oppresses an entire people and regularly dispossesses them of their lands and culture. My new friends in the group Jewish Voice for Peace remind me, in fact, that the most Jewish thing in the world these days is the action that critiques and subverts the occupation of Palestine and the shackling of Arab bodies and spirits. What’s more Jewish, they ask, than human rights work? What’s more Biblical than the struggle for liberation from domination systems and bureaucracies of harassment and intimidation?
So let’s make a distinction—and many are making it now—between the anti-Semitism we abhor and the principled criticism of a corrupt nation state. Let’s make a distinction between anti-Jewish bigotry (which is real, even here in America) and organized resistance to oppression, occupation and militarism. If we make that distinction, and we must, we can continue to work bravely and boldly against anti-Semitism in our own country and for the liberation of Palestine and the just peace that Israelis and Palestinians deserve. We can do both. We have to do both. We can dismantle anti-Semitism and divest from an immoral occupation at the same time. We have to.
I know this has all been a little long-winded, but let me just finish by bringing all this back to Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus imagines a community of disciples willing and courageous enough to choose a narrow gate, to take a difficult road to peace and justice and human healing. He knows, because he lives this way, he knows that discipleship is risky. Turning the other cheek is a risky way to live. Going the extra mile is going to wear you down. But he also knows that the power of God, the love of God, the resilient spirit of God is our constant companion on this road. The rains may come hard, the winds may blow fierce, and the storms my crash loudly on our house. But love will see us through. God will be our guide. And that, my friends, is what I’m learning on the way. Love will see us through.