Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Advent 2 - 2 Peter, Waiting

Advent 2 - 2 Peter

2 Peter 3.8-15a

Therefore, beloved, while you ware waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace… (2 Peter 3.14)

Waiting… one has more experience waiting than Palestinians.

In America, waiting signifies failure. Finding ways to avoid waiting is a national pastime. A few years ago I signed up for Amazon’s two-day shipping, and when the free trial period expired I paid the annual fee to keep getting my books instantly. We add lanes when our superhighways start backing up. The apps on my iPhone give me instant access to restaurant information, weather, and even my own adult children. When people camp out overnight to wait for post-Thanksgiving bargains, it makes the national news.

While I gripe about the injustice of having to sit through two red lights, the Palestinians wait. They have been waiting for justice for more than sixty years. At the end of the war that erupted when

the UN recognized the State of Israel in 1948—on land that already belonged to olive growers and sheepherders and teachers and doctors—the Palestinians assumed that a peace agreement would soon allow them to return to their homes. When they fled, they carried their house keys with them. In exile, they hung these keys where they could look at them every day. With the passage of years, as Jews took over their villages, moved into their fully furnished homes and cut down their olive groves, the Palestinians began to realize that return was unlikely so they began to wait for compensation—either for land in other parts of Palestine or financial compensation for the land and homes that they lost.

The Palestinians of the Christmas Lutheran Church practice a theology of waiting. Like the writer of 2 Peter admonishes, they have found peace in the waiting. This does not mean that they no longer need the justice, or that they have given up the struggle. But they have found a way to live in peace and provide a future for their children even as they wait. They do not put their hope in the world’s obligation to provide justice for them.

Their latest project is the college—the first Lutheran college in the Holy Land. Pastor Mitri Raheb says that they are preparing leaders for the future of Palestine, so they will be ready when peace comes. They are starting small. The first classes to be offered focus on media and the arts, which have long been strong Palestinian traditions. The media classes help them share their stories and aid them in their struggle for human rights. Music and art programs help keep Palestinian culture alive. Their hope does not rest in a brighter future tomorrow, but in God’s promises of faithfulness.

God of waiting, you reveal to us your way of patience, and your mercy in giving us time for repentance. You have promised new heavens and a new earth where righteousness will reign. Help us to wisely use the time you have given us. Amen.

***Come support the building of the college in Bethlehem—Lessons and Carols for Advent, Sunday, December 4, 7:30 pm at Augustana Lutheran Church, 5000 E. Alameda, Denver, or contact me about making a contribution:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Advent 2 - Isaiah's vision for Jerusalem

Advent 2 - Isaiah

Isaiah 40.1-11

for Sunday, December 4

The grass withers, the flower fades;

but the word of our God will stand forever. (Is 40.8)

The writer of these words probably lived among the exiles in Babylon—Israelites who had been conquered in 587 BCE, forced from their homes in Jerusalem and marched to Babylon. There they spent 50 years mourning their beloved Jerusalem and doing what exiles always do—finding ways to feed their families and carry on their traditions in a strange land. When Cyrus conquered the Babylonian empire in 538, he issued an edict which allowed these exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple.

The Palestinians know exile and longing for home. 700,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes and villages in 1947-50 as the Israeli paramilitaries, the Haganah and the Irgun, roamed the land. They rousted villagers out of their homes at gunpoint, forcing them onto the roads and either blowing up the buildings or guarding them to prevent the return of the people.** An additional 300,000 Palestinians were displaced during the 1967 war. These statistics are disputed, but the ones I’ve used are averages. [See a detailed description of Palestinian refugees on Wikipedia:]

Today their descendants, 4.7 million Palestinians, are registered as refugees with the UN. They live primarily in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. They are still waiting for the edict allowing them to return home.

Like the ancient Israelites in Babylon, the Palestinian refugees live their lives while

they wait. They marry, raise children, bury their elders and create businesses, schools and civic organizations. They March in protest against the building of the separation wall, which, in the Bethlehem district, has taken all but 13% of the land for the wall and for the building of new Israeli settlements

The people of Bethlehem and people from all over the world who visit the wall have created works of art on the 24-foot-high concrete barrier. Some of the artwork protests the wall; some of the outsized figures minimize the wall; slogans express the people’s longing for freedom. Near our hotel in October I walked along the wall as it meandered in and out, cutting off streets and shops.

The artwork on the wall in the photo reminds me of Isaiah’s words. It shows the New Jerusalem—herald of GOOD tidings, a city shining on the hill. A Jerusalem where the reign of God’s love and compassion has broken into the world and the walls have fallen. It is a vision Palestinians cling to—their hope for the future.

God of the impossible, in this Advent season, we await your new creation, a world where your gentle reign breaks through the darkness, a world where your lambs are sheltered and cared for. Help us trust your promises and proclaim your good news to the world. Amen.

** (for a detailed history, village by village, read Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine; Elias Chacour’s Blood Brothers tells his own family’s story; a Colorado family’s story is told in The Olive Grove, by Deborah Rohan; or see

Friday, November 25, 2011

Advent 1 - Mark's apocalypse

Advent 1 - Mark
Sunday, November 27

Mark 13.24-37

But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened... (Mark 13.24)

This odd selection from the gospel of Mark is sometimes described as “the little apocalypse.” Responding to desperate times in the first century, the writer of Mark’s gospel recycled the apocalyptic imagery of the sun, the heavens and the “Son of Man” from Isaiah (13.19, 34.4), Joel (2.10, 3.4, 4.15) Ezekiel (32.7, 8) and Daniel (7.13).

Apocalyptic literature arises out of hopeless situations, times of oppression when people are suffering under wicked leaders who have no regard for God’s reign. The desperation of first-century followers of Jesus is expressed as the cosmos breaking apart (13.24). The hope is, that when the world seems to be coming to an end, God breaks in to set things right (the coming of the Son of Man).

The author of Daniel was probably writing during the Seleucid empire’s oppression of the Jews, when it was illegal even to own a copy of the Torah. For the readers of Mark’s gospel in 70 CE, the oppressors were the Romans, who had ruthlessly put down the Jewish revolt and totally destroyed Jerusalem—Rome’s final response to persistent attempts by Jewish re
volutionaries to overthrow the Roman occupation.

Apocalyptic writing expresses a dualistic worldview—the ultimate battle between good and evil. Direct intervention by God is the only hope.

These predictions in Mark remind me of the “Arab Spring” and the “Occupy” movement here in the US. People tolerate a certain level of suffering—it can go on for years. But eventually the pressure builds and their frustrations explode into the streets.

There is much promise in the ideals of the protesters in Tahrir Square, but the reality of the new government has not matched the expectations of the crowds [Our Egyptian guide Bishoy sent a text to Pastor Paul Rowold today that he is there with the crowds-see my photo of him in Abu Simbel in October]. And so it has always been with governments. Power so easily corrupts.

When I see Israel’s security wall meandering through a Palestinian farmer’s olive grove in Bethlehem, it’s easy to blame the Israelis for the misery of the Palestinians. It’s convenient to put everything into two categories, the good guys and the bad guys. But casting the Israelis as the bad guys does not explain the reality of life on the ground.

There are good guys on both sides—Jewish peacemakers who protest Palestinian evictions and lawyers who press for Palestinian equal rights. And there are non-violent protesters in Palestinian villages, standing in the path of the bulldozers clearing the way for the wall. And there are bad guys on both sides—the Israeli soldiers who beat Palestinian children and falsely accuse them of throwing stones, and Palestinian leaders who use public funds or bribes to buy a Mercedes or build themselves mansions in Ramallah.

In our soundbite culture, it is tempting to simplify the conflict and cast the characters as good or evil. Judging is easy and quick—we can admire our cleverness and be smug about our wisdom. But peacemaking—reconciliation—takes more work.

God of the new creation, we pray for those who work for justice and peace—in Israel and Palestine, in Egypt, in Libya, in Afghanistan, in the US and in all the troubled parts of your world. As they stand in solidarity with those who are suffering, give them hope and courage. Give us all wisdom and discerning hearts so that we recognize injustice, and give us all the courage to speak out. Amen.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Advent 1 - 1 Corinthians, Giving Thanks

First Sunday in Advent
November 27, 2011
1 Corinthians 1.3-9

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace that has been given you in Christ Jesus… (1 Cor 1.4)

Israel’s security wall is not finished. The first time I visited Bethlehem we could walk around the 24-foot-high concrete barrier. The next time I came, there was a checkpoint with heavy metal gates and guards who boarded our bus with their AK-47s.

Each time I have visited over the past six years, I see some portion of the wall which was incomplete on my previous visit, but now is finished. And where the wall is still unfinished, there are always bulldozers, earthmovers and Palestinian laborers setting rebar and pouring concrete—the constant hum of heavy machinery echoes across the hills of Bethlehem. In 2010 when I stayed at the Everest Hotel high on a hilltop above Beit Jala, we woke each morning to the sound of the bulldozers across the street, adding one more section to the wall.

It is depressing and it makes me very angry….and crazy to know that my tax dollars support what is happening.

So I am all the more amazed when I witness the work of the Lutherans who stay in Bethlehem and create a future for their children and a comfortable life for their elderly—even though they are held captive behind these walls. This is why I return—to sit with them in worship and soak

up a bit of the hope they have been given. They embody a deep faith in God’s promises that I do not see very often—a hope I too easily forget.

It is a hope based, not on knowing that their situation will improve, but, as Paul reminds us, on “the grace of God that has been given to [them] in Christ Jesus.”

On this last visit, I was particularly sad to hear Pastor Mitri tell us that politically he has no hope. “We cannot change the world,” he said, but he went on to say they can change the reality of life for the people of Bethlehem. He told us that the ministries of the Christmas Lutheran Church—the K-12 school, wellness center, senior program, and the new college—constitute the third largest employer in the Bethlehem area.

This is truly a grace of God—and we were there to witness this miracle as we toured the school and watched the children, Christian and Muslim, learning and playing together. And as we visited the Wellness Center and Dar Al-Kalima college, where we saw students eating in the beautiful new cafeteria, practicing in the music practice rooms and studying with their professors.

I am always reminded of the miracles that Jesus performed as he walked these same hills and encountered people who were suffering. God is working miracles in Bethlehem today through these faithful servants who have been given God’s grace for this work.

God of grace, you sent your son so that we might know you and receive your blessings. In this Advent season, help us to know the hope of your steadfast love and promises. Help us find ways to join in the work of your servants, bringing hope to hopeless people in the US and around the world. Amen.

*****If you live in Denver, plan to support these Lutherans by coming to a special service of Lessons and Carols for Advent, “On Our Way to Bethlehem,” on Sunday, December 4, 7:30 pm, at Augustana Lutheran Church, 5000 E. Alameda. It is a fundraiser for a music classroom for the College. We are raising $50,000 so that construction can be completed and loans repaid. If you cannot come, but would like to make a donation, please email me.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Advent 1 - Isaiah

First Sunday in Advent
November 27, 2011
Isaiah 64.1-9

For you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are as a father to us;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are the work of your hand.
(Is 64.7-8)

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of a savior, we also mark the beginning of a new church year—our New Year. A time to reflect—what does it mean to be God’s people? Are we living the life we intend? The life God envisions for us?

The prophet Isaiah addresses these questions—left to our own will and whims, we screw it up every time, but God does not abandon us. God, like the ideal parent, continues to shape and mold us in God’s own image.

As you look at this picture of Israel’s security wall in Bethlehem, it is easy to see how nations screw up. In the name of greater security, Israel and the US have joined forces to create a barrier that makes everyday life impossible for the people of Bethlehem.

The wall here, with its guard tower dwarfing homes and businesses, was built right down the middle of Bethlehem’s busiest street, the street where tour buses used to enter Bethlehem, stopping at the shops, where pilgrims bought their olive wood and jewelry to remember their visit.

In October, this is what the street looked like—shops shuttered, the abandoned buildings falling down. The buses do not pass these shops anymore. (Although I’ve ridden with many persistent and skilled Palestinian drivers who probably could maneuver their buses through here if they needed to!)

Isaiah’s message is one of incredible hope for the people of Bethlehem—the Israeli security wall may be enclosing their city, shutting them off from the world and even from one another, but this is not God’s plan for us. God has not abandoned us.

And our country’s military response to every threat is not God’s plan for us either. We are the clay, and God can shape us for a different response—one that does not purchase our safety with the misery and despair of people halfway around the world.

God of new beginnings, we praise you for your unfailing love and steadfastness, even when we use our power to harm others. Mold us in your image—shape us into caretakers of your good creation and caregivers for your people. Amen.