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Hope In A Time of Trial

Peter Makari
Sun, Nov 24

Thanksgiving Sunday

Texts: Jeremiah 23: 1-6 and Luke 23: 33-43

Greetings to you in the name of God most gracious and loving, and in the name of Jesus Christ, the light of the world and Prince of Peace, whose birth we prepare to celebrate!  I am also pleased to greet you this morning on behalf of the national setting of the United Church of Christ—and Global Ministries of the UCC and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  I am grateful to Dan for the invitation to participate in worship and adult education with you this morning, and to Gay and Dick Harter, and Linda and Ken Ziebell, for their kind hospitality.  I am quite sure that you know of Gay’s efforts and enthusiasm to lead the United Church of Christ’s Palestine/Israel Network, and to expand the circle of those who seek to promote a just peace in the Middle East.  Ken is my predecessor in Global Ministries for the Europe region, and it is good to see him again.  For me, it is especially inspiring to be in the midst of your congregation, with such a history of nearly four centuries of worship and witness, and for the chance to be here, a little later than scheduled!  I was to have come in February, but Winter Storm Nemo interfered with those plans.  This morning, I want to express gratitude to you for your commitments to God’s mission through the church, and your generosity to Our Church’s Wider Mission and One Great Hour of Sharing, which make possible the ministries of many people in many places in the US and throughout the world.

In such a congregation and community as this, I know you have an appetite for global engagement and understanding.  Through your practice of faith and your involvement in the church, you appreciate the joys and challenges of access to additional perspectives of people and communities of faithful people, our partners in mission throughout the world.  In their day, the 19th century missionaries provided what has been described as seminal sources of information and knowledge of foreign cultures and societies through their personal letters and mission reports.  These forms of writing were prominent among a limited number of ways that contemporary knowledge and accurate information about the people and places of the world reached the US.  Of course, that missionary movement, for Congregationalists, was rooted right here in Massachusetts and New England.  You don’t need to be reminded, though, that the first missionaries were not 19th century North American missionaries.  Of course, Jesus was born in Bethlehem and the first church was established in Jerusalem by James.  The first Christian missionaries—Peter and Paul, Mark, Thomas, and Barnabas among others—went out from the eastern Mediterranean to today’s Iraq, Iran, and India, Egypt, Syria and Turkey, and Greece and Rome.  We in the UCC are therefore connected to people and the issues of the Middle East by our tie of history and continuity with the historic church.  Today, the Christian population of the Middle East is roughly 15 million, of an overall population of upwards of 300 million people.  We are also therefore connected through Christian kinship, and mission and partner relations with Christians, churches and faith-based organizations in the region.  The church and our partners remain a very important source of perspectives that are not often available broadly through the mainstream media, and our response to our partners witness—through prayer, spreading their stories, and action—can be transformative, just as visits can be, as Dan and Gay, who have both been to the Middle East this year, can surely attest.

This morning’s scripture reading from the book of Jeremiah takes us right to the literal and figurative heart of the Middle East.  The scripture says, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!  You shepherds have not attended to them, and so I will attend to you.  I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold…  I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”  As with much in the scriptures, we can read the text through multiple lenses, and this text begs such a varied reading.  In the specific context, Jeremiah is writing during the period of Babylonian exile, in which God was displeased with the Israelites’ disobedience to God, so they were punished by being sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon—modern day Iraq.  The Jews had not obeyed God’s covenant while in the land; they had acted unjustly towards others, had been idolatrous, and had exhibited excessive pride.  The period of exile is thought to have lasted for almost a century, and Jeremiah was called to speak the truth of their disobedience, serving as God’s mouthpiece to let the people know that God would once again take control and rectify their wrongs.

Can you imagine the Israelites hearing this message?  Did they heed Jeremiah’s warning and pay attention?  Did they begin to show regret and change their behavior to try to find God’s favor again?  Or did they write Jeremiah off as a lunatic?  Perhaps there was no consensus on how to react to what Jeremiah said.  Afterwards, of course, he came to be considered one of the great prophets—a second Moses even—showing the Israelites the way from their place of despair to a new place, one of hope, safety, and salvation through repentance.  His message is included in the Hebrew Scriptures, studied closely by Jews.  And of course, it is part of the Christian Bible, important for us as well, especially in this time of year, as we prepare for Advent, beginning next Sunday. Read through a Christian lens, Jeremiah’s words point, rather directly, to the promise of Christ as the one “who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing….  [h]e shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice in the land…  [he will be called,] ‘The Lord is our righteousness.”  In addition to being Thanksgiving Sunday, this week is also called “reign of Christ” Sunday; thus the choice of this passage’s inclusion in the lectionary, for the themes it contains.  For Christians, the text points to the coming of Christ, and an associated time marked by justice, peace, and abundance, days when the people would no longer fear or be dismayed.  This prophecy, in its religious universal, is one of hope and anticipation. Jews read it as yet to be fulfilled; Christians read it as already fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who will come again to reign forever in glory.

But there are other lenses through which to read this passage.  In my area of work and ministry, I have responsibility for our denominational relationships and mission personnel in the Middle East.  I also am engaged in interfaith relations, specifically Christian-Jewish, and Christian-Muslim dialogues.  The United Church of Christ is deeply involved in the Middle East, and especially on the issue of Israel/Palestine.  I am therefore constantly exposed to, and involved in, discussions and debates on these thorny issues.  The use of scripture to justify and rationalize various positions is extensive, to say the least.  Passages such as this one are often cited by those who attempt to minimize the political and economic aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; they seek to put the conflict in strictly religious terms.  In this passage, God, through Jeremiah, says, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold.”  See?  God will bring the Jewish people out of exile back to Jerusalem, where “they shall be fruitful and multiply.”  Such a passage, combined with other texts, is interpreted by religious Jews and some Christians to mean that the land belongs to Israel, because God promised it to them.  For many Christians, such chapters and verses, read along with others, prove that the second coming of Christ is a part of the political scenario being acted out today.  “In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.”  These Christians are marked by an end-times theology, or premillennial dispensationalism.  This theology was explored by some mainstream media this past week as they covered the anticipated keynote speech Pres. Bush was scheduled to deliver on Friday at a major fundraising event for the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute.  His appearance confirmed for many his Christian Zionist leanings, and was only mildly critiqued by some political mainstream Jewish organizations, which expressed “disappointment” and “concern.”  Read narrowly, such texts have only resulted in the perpetuation of conflict—between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  It is also because of such language and interpretations that some Arab Christians, especially Palestinian Christians, not only have been discounted by such groups, but who have such a difficult time studying and wrestling with texts in the Hebrew Scriptures.  The Bible has been used as a weapon.

There are others, though, in the Palestinian Christian community, who approach the biblical texts through the lens of a Christian or more universal reading.  For example, Rev. Naim Ateek, an Episcopal priest and founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, writes, “So often, Palestinian Christians are confronted with difficult existential situations: they are frustrated; they feel despair; they feel God is against them.  But the use of the hermeneutical key [that Jesus Christ reveals for us insight into God’s nature and character…grounded in the knowledge and love of God] can help them understand how God is active in their situation and how God is speaking to them.  God hears the cry of the oppressed; the people should live in trust and hope, grounded in faith in the living God of justice; God will inevitably vindicate what is right and just.”  Naim’s understanding of a God of hope and justice is a liberating interpretation of the words of God in Jeremiah that we read this morning.  Jeremiah offers the assurance that God will set things right; that justice and righteousness shall prevail, when the people are faithful.  It is a universal message for alienated and stray people everywhere, living in an unsettled world and not knowing when or how their circumstance will change for the better, but who trust that it will and must.

In the Middle East today, it is easy to find examples of hopeless circumstances and tragedy, in the midst of which the Christian communities exhibit remarkable resilience and hope.  In Egypt, just three months ago there was an inordinately high incidence of violence directed against the Christian community: church burnings, attacks on Christian shops and homes, and physical assaults on people.  This violence was prompted by events surrounding demonstrations on the one-year anniversary of the inauguration of President Muhammad Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, the failure of whose presidency mobilized tens of millions of Egyptians and led to a military takeover of power, which was visibly supported by Muslim and Christian leadership.  In the wake of the violence, our church partner, the Synod of the Nile of the Presbyterian Church of Egypt stated, “We as Christians reject violence of all its forms, and regret the suffering experienced by all Egyptians in these events. Along with all Egyptians, we have lost the sense of security, but we never doubt the presence of God with us. In the midst of these difficult circumstances, [we affirm the following]:  we trust completely in God's full sovereignty, and that [God] directs all things according to his will which is good and acceptable and perfect; we believe that the best that can be done in these circumstances is lifting up prayers and petitions to the Lord; grounded in faith, the Church cannot respond to violence with violence, or repay terrorism with terrorism...;  when evil and violence abound, the Church must intensify its efforts for peacemaking and reconciliation; the Church is not buildings and bricks; but it is the people of God who must testify about God with energy and clarity. Though some church facilities have been destroyed, still these congregations remain alive and vibrant, fulfilling their purpose to the fullest.”  To me, that is a strong expression of hope in a time of crisis and uncertainty.  Even though the situation is still very unsettled, the Christian community, including partners whom I visited in Cairo last month, remains hopeful.

 For Syrians, the situation is much graver.  The conflict has stretched almost into its third year, and regime and opposition violence has claimed more than 110,000 lives.  The civil war has forced nearly one-third of the population of 22 million to become displaced inside Syria, or as refugees in neighboring countries.  Daily, there are reports of battles in cities and regions of Syria, and more death and destruction.  Today, most Syrians support neither the regime nor the various opposition groups; they simply want the war to end and for the violence to cease.  They want justice, and they want peace for their country and for their families.  In the midst of this, the Christian churches and community, in Syria and beyond, persevere in a witness of humanitarian relief, providing basic needs—clothing, shelter, food and water, and medical assistance—to those in need, be they Christian or Muslim, pro-regime or opposition.  Our partners are deeply involved, despite the obvious danger and life-threatening risk, in living out Christ’s example of feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, and inviting the stranger to find some comfort.  And we participate with them in this witness.

And Palestinian Christians, in their 2009 seminal document called Kairos: A word of faith, hope, and love, from the heart of Palestinian suffering, described the reality of occupation in which they live.  They recognize that “depite the lack of even a glimmer of positive expectation, our hope remains strong….  Hope is the capacity to see God in the midst of trouble, and to be co-workers with the Holy Spirit who is dwelling within us…. Hope means not giving in to evil but rather standing up to it and continuing to resist… the upper hand of the strong, the growing orientation towards racist separation and the imposition of laws that deny our existence and our dignity…. In the absence of hope, we cry out our cry of hope….  We believe that God’s goodness will finally triumph… [and that] we will see here ‘a new land’ and ‘a new human being,’ capable of rising up in the spirit to love each one of his or her brothers or sisters.”

Middle Eastern Christians may look around them and see their current situation as one of despair, yet they maintain their faith in God and Jesus Christ, and their hope and expectation in a better future.  Perhaps they, too, see the suffering Christ on the cross; or more than that, feel he is next to them, bearing with them the pain of the world.  They do not mock him.  They do not mock faith, saying, as the one criminal did, “Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us.”  Instead, they endure the price of faith, the cost of discipleship, and continue courageously in their witness, reconciling themselves with the surrounding reality, by acting as agents of change, offering a better example: one of hope, knowing that God reigns, and that justice and peace will prevail.  They also pray, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and they are assured by Jesus response, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  There is indeed much to be thankful for.  Amen.

 

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