Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Journey to Bethlehem in Advent

Advent 4 - Week of Dec 21, Romans 16.25-27
Now to God who is able to strengthen you…be the glory forever! Amen.
It is a challenge for Palestinian Christians, grounded in Holy Scripture, to hear people cite the Bible as the authority for taking their land. Many of these families can trace their ancestry back generations, finding themselves in the stories in Acts about the early church. It might seem easier to reject the Bible and turn to political arguments.
But God speaks loudly to the Palestinians through the occupation, and the Palestinians turn to the stories of their faith for sustenance and strength. These same words have a far different message in their Palestinian context. Living under occupation, Bishop Mounib Younan, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, and Pastor Mitri Raheb, of the Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, have become excellent and practiced theologians, interpreting these texts from the perspective of people who are oppressed.
Lutherans in the Holy Land today bear this good news, giving God the glory for the strength God provides for them. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land is made up of six congregations, four in the occupied West Bank—in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour; one in Jerusalem; and one in Amman, Jordan, intent on bringing hope to their communities, even when their people often feel hopeless.
Each of these congregations has a school, because, as Pastor Mitri says, education is the key to achieving freedom and equal rights and creating a just and flourishing society. These schools, attended by both Muslim and Christian children, teach understanding and respect for other cultures. They nurture a curiosity about the world, a thirst for learning and creative problem-solving. The teachers encourage their students to resist the occupation by learning their own Palestinian culture, creating art and music that celebrates who they are and caring for their bodies with exercise.
As I walked into the Wellness Center in Bethlehem, Hamid grinned and practiced his English, saying “Hello, how are you?” When he saw my camera he made faces and jumped about, posing for a picture. His two friends walked in with their mothers for their swim lesson and he got them to mug for the camera too. I took several pictures, showed them to the boys and they giggled with excitement and posed some more. Although his English is limited, Hamid is curious about the bigger world. He wants to make friends with strangers. He has been raised to welcome the other, to approach the other without fear. He is the legacy of the Lutheran churches’ educational philosophy. The photo shows Hamid and his friends hamming it up for the camera.

Some in Israel claim election—that Israel is God’s chosen people by virtue of their ethnicity. Pastor Mitri has written, however, that God’s election is “a promise to the weak, encouragement to the discouraged and consolation to the desperate….Election is not a special privilege, It is much more a call to service, above all a service ‘to the other.’” (I Am a Palestinian Christian, Fortress Press, 1995, p 66) He cites Torah where Abraham is blessed, not for his own benefit or for the amassing of wealth, but so that “all families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12.3). God’s election is not for personal or national gain, but for the benefit of others. The formative story of Israel is the Exodus, the tale of a people oppressed and enslaved by a powerful nation, rescued by God. Palestinians today see themselves as the Israelites, deprived of their freedom by a strong military power, bent on imprisoning them. God is for them their savior, strengthening them for God’s work in the world.
—For what work is God is strengthening us?

O Lord our God, you have chosen us and made us your own. In our baptism you have claimed us. As you strengthen us daily for your work in the world, help us to discern your will and give us the courage to go out and do that work in our own community. In the name of your Son, the babe of Bethlehem, Amen.

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