Dispatch from Jerusalem
February 11, 2018
Psalm 121 and John 17:17-23 (Common English Version)
You walk up and up to Jerusalem. It is on the top of a small mountain, 3500 feet on one side and 5000 feet on the other side. And the Temple Mount is on the highest point in the city.
3000 years ago, Solomon built a Temple there because it was already a pilgrimage site for longer than anyone could remember. There is a rock there where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac. And over that rock, they built the first Temple. The first Temple was destroyed 500 years later, then rebuilt just before Jesus was born, then destroyed again by the Romans.
Today, what remains is the Western Wall of the foundations of that Temple Mount. And on top of it, the Muslims have built a Mosque. And just on the other side of the Mosque is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that has altars on one end at the place where Jesus was crucified and the Tomb where he was resurrected on the other end.
And every day, thousands… and on certain days tens of thousands of people walk up to the same area to pray. And they bring the concerns of their hearts. They bring people that can’t be healed. They bring situations of conflict and frustration that can’t seem to be resolved. They bring their disappointments and their griefs. They bring their distant hopes for integrity in their nation and peace across our world.
All three faiths believe that Jerusalem is one of the thin places where we are close to God. It is a place from our lips to God’s ear. And there is something plaintive and humane about the sound of all these people turning towards God, making their hearts known, seeking God’s blessing, usually praying for people who have asked them to pray for them and are thousands of miles away. So many people opening themselves to God, connecting with people they love. It is moving how inner connected the world can become.
An Orthodox Rabbi once told me a story of Jewish lore about a man that had a son who went out into the world to find himself. And the son traveled far, far away to the East in India where he tried this religion and that religion, leaving his roots far behind. He tries opium, becomes poorer and poorer.
And he never communicates with his family. Each month his mother and father become more worried about him, more anxious about what happened to him, and guilty that they hadn’t been good parents. Finally, the father decides to make a trip to Jerusalem to ask God to redeem his son.
He gets to the Western Wall, and writes a prayer to God that says, “God, I will do anything, anything, anything you ask if you will send my son Avi back to me and his mother because we are afraid and we want him to know that we love him.” He folds up the prayer and wedges it in the crack between the stones along with the millions of other pieces of paper that are wedged in the cracks between the stones.
His son, meanwhile is getting sicker and sicker and finally realizes that he has to come home and on his way back from the far East he passes by Jerusalem and he decides to go to the Wailing Wall. He gets there and he is surprised. He is aimless and despairing, dissipated and he thinks his life is worthless, without meaning. At the same time, he remembers that he is a Jew. And he hears all of the prayers that he heard as a child from people all around him. And he touches his hands to the Wall and he remembers his grandparents who had endured such suffering in their life. And he can imagine them. Suddenly he is filled with emotion as he is making a connection through his people and their suffering to the great Transcendent Force that courses through the Universe. And he feels this compassion welling in his heart that has been empty for so long he thought soul might have been dead.
And he sees all of these tiny pieces of paper wedged in the cracks, some of them so old. And he can’t help himself, he runs his hands over those pieces of paper with their prayers on them and a few of them fall out of the cracks on the ground, so he picks them up to put them back in the cracks. And with the last one, he can’t help himself, he just wants to read what they wrote. And he slowly opens it and it says “God I will do anything, anything, anything you ask if you will send my son Avi back to me and his mother because we are afraid and we want him to know that we love him.”
We are connected. Our whole world is but six degrees of separation from one end to the other. And we possess this transcendent capacity, through the spiritual profundity of love, to connect in mysterious, seemingly miraculous ways. Such is the positive power of faith to heal each other. Such is the power of faith to bless and bestow meaning and purpose. Such is the power of faith to redeem and help us all, however lost or hopeless we might seem at the moment, to find our way back to our authentic home.
The burgeoning question of our day is how the religious people in all major faiths will find a way to express inclusive understanding and facilitate cooperation so that we might develop an interfaith ethos of acceptance and social harmony that encourages reconciliation and the peaceful resolution of violence and conflict.
I leave aside Hinduism and Buddhism at the moment, just to lift up the three religious traditions of Abraham, the “people of the Book” as Muslims call us: Judaism, Christianity and Islam since they constitute over half of the world’s population.
Out of one original vision of God, where Abraham concluded that God was primarily a God of mercy, compassion and blessing, we have three different religions. All three of them believe that we are ultimately called to unity like our passage suggests this morning, ‘that we may be One.’
The vision of God and the vision of a Holy Spiritual life are remarkably similar in all three faiths.
In Judaism, God brings the people of Israel out of slavery to freedom. God hears their cries and is merciful towards them, compassionate, ‘slow to anger’ in the words of Deuteronomy and ‘steadfast in love towards us’. God gives us a moral way of living in the world, a covenant, that is embodied in the 10 Commandments. The Jews kept these in the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies inner sanctum of the Temple.
Orthodox Jews actually count 613 commandments that God has given us as a guide for how to live a life with integrity and spiritual purpose.
Jesus also teaches us that God is fundamentally loving compassion and that we should ‘do unto others as we would have others do unto us’, a spiritual maxim that summarizes the Ten Commandments.
Like Judaism, Christianity is a social faith. It is about community, so it lifts up the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation in the pursuit of a social life and family life of harmony and peace. Jesus models for us the way of humility that looks to fulfilling others first, reflecting God’s love for the world, as the way to access the higher reasons for which we live.
And Islam refers to God as “Allah the compassionate and Allah the merciful”. Muslims greet you by saying ‘Salaam Alaikum” which means “Peace be with you”. And you respond “Wa Alaikum Salaam” which means “and Unto you Peace”. It is the same thing we Christians say in church every week. They too, believe that way of humility, opens our ego to being transformed towards our higher selves, so the faith is referred to as “Islam” which means ‘submission’ as in submission to the way of God.
And they pray five times a day, prostrating themselves on the ground to remember that they are not the center of their world, but that God is. And they too are required to give to the poor and the destitute to reflect the compassion and love of Allah in the world.
But we are not One, and religion is used far more as a source of continued division than a resource for inclusivity, especially by the Orthodox in every faith tradition.
It is largely because they spend way, way too much energy on defending the authority of the messenger rather than the intrinsic authority of the message that they brought. It ends up creating an inside and outside- we follow the true prophet and you don’t. It creates and maintains the faithful versus the heretics, the true believers versus the infidels, the righteous remnant versus the corrupt sinful world.
For Orthodox Jews it is Moses or keeping Kosher that identifies the religiously genuine. So they say that if we could keep all of the commandments of Moses for just one day, the Messiah would come and we would all be redeemed.
In our Gospel of John, the verses I did not read at the end of our passages says ‘that we might believe in Jesus’. In John, over and over, Jesus is the Way the Truth and the life and no one goes to the Father except through him. It is not enough just to point to the message, you have to see the authority of the messenger as well, the Son of God. Jesus is not only depicted as sinless in the Orthodox Christian faith, his Mother Mary is depicted as sinless as well, all to show that Jesus is so close to God that Jesus veritably is God.
And in Islam, Mohammed didn’t just have insights about Allah. Every single word that was revealed to him that makes up the Koran are the very Words of God. And although, Moses and Jesus were mighty prophets, all of their teaching has been superseded, so that Mohammed is the Final Prophet.
Instead of three becoming One, what we live is the One message of God living in three different forms of division, each pointing the finger at the others, with conflicting truth claims about which messenger is authentically authoritative.
Ironically, the bigger picture of God who is love, compassion, justice, peace and unifying, is remarkably similar and the broader moral vision overlaps a whole lot.
We in the West ask Palestinians and Israeli’s why they can’t make the peace. Then you visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. It is just about the oldest Church in existence. The floor was laid in 350, when Rome made Christianity no longer illegal but the religion of the Empire.
So we don’t really have any churches before 350 because Christians were persecuted and killed. This is almost the first church built.
There are 6 Orthodox monasteries attached to it and they have each been there from very early on: The Greek Orthodox, The Armenian Apostolic, The Roman Catholic, The Syriac Orthodox, the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox, and the Ethiopian Orthodox.
And no changes can be made to the Church without the express agreement of each of them. But it turns out that they can’t agree on much of anything, so nothing ever changes. The casual visitor will notice that above the entrance to the church, on a balcony on the second floor, there sits a cedar ladder. (show slide)
And we can’t get all 6 groups of Orthodox Monks to agree to move it. No one knows exactly how long that ladder has been up there but it appears in an engraving from 1839 and a painting from 1753. 265 years is a long time to hold a grudge.
But then you are dealing with 6 different groups of men that all think they have the Ortho (right) doxy (way to believe, way to worship). And if they are right, everyone else is wrong.
If you believe that your tradition possesses not simply truth with a small ‘t’, but ‘The Truth’ with a capital T, then the word “compromise” is synonymous with moral decadence.
And these Orthodox Monks all share a commitment to follow in the way of Jesus. That is 265 years and nothing moving. You can’t make this up.
Orthodox Jewish sects are fighting with each other with the same ferocious intensity over whether they should recognize the State of Israel and a host of splinter issues to long to list.
And of course, Shia and Sunni Muslims are at war with each other in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan- with people dying literally every day.
In every case, religion is a force of division rather than unity, it adds to the intensity of hatred and the sense of grievance fed revenge.
And the irony is that both sides in all of the conflicts that I just mentioned all agree that the higher way to live, the spiritual, the divine way to live is through reconciliation, compassion, mercy, forgiveness and love. They believe, fundamentally, that we should treat one another as we would want to be treated.
We know we need to love, but we have to be right… just a little bit more. Control, consistency, perfection and the need to be definitively, unquestionably right has triumphed for far, far too long.
And it will be transcended. It must be transcended because our world is becoming so inner connected and so interdependent that religion simply must be the force to lead us towards an inclusive quest for truth with a small “t” in a way that celebrates our diverse cultural and spiritual traditions.
The coming world is growing evermore multi-cultural and multi-faith. The spirituality of our time can no longer operate in a parochial shtetl’s, little walled communities that are insular and inwardly focused.
We have to be able to transcend the parts of our faith traditions that build walls of fear rather than bridges of understanding. We have to find our common human bond in taking our petitions up to God is more important binding us together than our separate revelations as to how our distinctive religious traditions developed.
And we must do this not because it is the right thing to do, although it is. We must do it not because we will all be more fulfilled, although we will. We must do it because our world is now too small for anything but love, understanding and reconciliation.
And the genuine spiritual leaders in the next generation simply must be willing to step beyond their traditional origins and create a new spiritual ethos for our time, one based on the shared values that we each separately hope for our children: empathy, understanding, forgiveness, compassion, reconciliation, harmony and peace.
Unfortunately, it is most likely to be born out of our shared pain, out of the mutual recognition that trauma and violence and grief deform the human spirit beyond any righteous justification for vengeance. We cannot live that way. We cannot see our children’s children suffer like that.
“I want them all to be one” said Jesus “just as we are one”. “I am one with them and you are one with me… that we may all become completely one.” That is the goal. That is the point. Amen.