Sermon: Living Stones

Delivered by the Rev. Roger Scott Powers at Light Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore on Sunday, May 18, 2014
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10

Last Sunday, I had just returned from a ten-day trip to Israel/Palestine with more than 100 Presbyterians from across the U.S. We were there together for a Mosaic of Peace Conference organized by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. I talked about what it was like to visit the Holy Land, to see the places we read about in the Bible, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. I focused on the Holy Places, such as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the oldest church in the Holy Land, which is built over a cave where it is believed Jesus was born.

I mentioned the archaeological excavations that uncovered the stone foundations of the first-century village of Capernaum, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, including the house of the apostle Peter, where Jesus probably stayed.

And I talked about the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, believed to be the site of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, and the site of the tomb where his body was laid and from which he rose.

These are the physical sites of the Holy Land, hewn out of rock or built out of stone and mortar. They are the places we visited to deepen our understanding of and connection to the origins of our Christian faith.

But there was more to the Mosaic of Peace Conference than a simple tour of the Holy Land. We also heard from a variety of speakers – both Israelis and Palestinians – about what it is like to live there today. These are what Father Elias Chacour calls the “living stones” of the Holy Land in contrast to the holy shrines. “Living stones” are the people who inhabit the Holy Land here and now, the people who give voice to the current reality in Israel/Palestine.

Father Chacour is Archbishop Emeritus of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Israel and president of Mar Elias Educational Institutions. He was born in 1939 in the Palestinian village of Biram in Upper Galilee. When he was ten years old, Jewish soldiers evacuated his village ostensibly out of concern for the Palestinians’ safety. But their homes were ransacked and the displaced residents were never allowed to return. This happened to hundreds of Palestinian villages before and after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. An estimated 700,000 Palestinians were displaced, many of them fleeing to the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, where they have lived as refugees ever since. Consequently, what Israelis celebrate as Israel Independence Day, Palestinians commemorate as Nakba Day, meaning the Day of the Catastrophe.

Chacour’s family took refuge in the neighboring village of Jish, and consequently they became Israeli citizens after the establishment of the new state. He went to

school in Haifa and Nazareth before going to seminary in Paris. He returned to Israel in 1965, was ordained to the priesthood, and served the struggling parish of Ibillin for 38 years until Pope John Paul II encouraged his selection as Archbishop. Given that a majority of his parish were children and youth, his ministry focused on education, overcoming great obstacles to build first a high school, then a college, then a kindergarten, elementary school, and junior high. The Mar Elias Educational Institutions serve Christian, Muslim, and Jewish students, and in so doing they encourage mutual understanding and reconciliation across religious, ethnic, and political lines.

Father Chacour describes himself as a Palestinian Arab Christian living in Israel – an incredibly complex identity. While he holds Israeli citizenship, as someone of Arab ethnic descent, he is subject to more than 50 discriminatory laws that apply only to non-Jews living in Israel.

Some people, when they learn that Father Chacour is a Christian Arab, ask when he converted to Christianity, assuming that he was formerly a Muslim. But, in fact, he pointed out that the opposite is usually true – Christianity predates Islam in the Middle East by more than 500 years, and many who are now Muslims actually converted from Christianity. Given that his family has been rooted in Galilee for centuries, he joked with us, saying: “Sure, my family was converted, but it happened about 2,000 years ago, and the missionary was a man named Jesus of Nazareth!”

We also heard the story of Alex Awad, a Palestinian who serves as the dean of students of Bethlehem Bible College and senior pastor of East Jerusalem Baptist Church. He was two years old and living in Jerusalem when the 1948 war began. He lost his father to a sniper’s bullet, leaving his mother on her own with seven children to support. His family fled to Palestinian-controlled East Jerusalem and started life anew. Later, in 1967, he was living in Bethlehem when the Six-Day War occurred and Israeli forces took control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria. With Israeli soldiers in control of Bethlehem, Alex Awad once again found himself living in Israeli-occupied territory. At 21 years old, he decided to study abroad in Switzerland, but when he had finished his studies Israel didn’t want him to return and Switzerland didn’t want him to stay. He was a man without a country. He was able to get a college scholarship to continue his studies in the United States. And having lost his right of citizenship in his home country, he went through the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. Now he lives and works in Bethlehem and East Jerusalem on a one-year visa as a mission worker of the United Methodist Church. That means that every year, he has to stand in line to renew his visa to live in his own home country.

What happened to Alex Awad has happened to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories. If they leave the country to study or work abroad, they risk losing their residency rights and their ability to return to their homes. Palestinians who remain in the West Bank live under military occupation. They are not allowed to enter Israel proper without a permit. Their freedom of movement is further limited by roadblocks and multiple checkpoints.

A 430-mile long separation barrier is being built in the Israeli-occupied West Bank to further restrict the movement of Palestinians. Now a Palestinian who used to be able to walk 100 yards to another family member’s home has to drive 45 minutes around the separation wall to see that same family member. Some Palestinians have been separated from their olive groves and can only get to them if they are able to obtain a permit to cross the separation barrier. Meanwhile, Jewish settlers, many of them from the United States and Europe, move into beautiful new housing developments built for them in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, further shrinking the territory available to Palestinians. Palestinians cannot build new homes or expand old ones without building permits, which are difficult to obtain. When they build anyway out of necessity to accommodate growing extended families, they risk the demolition of their homes. As for Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, they live under a state of siege, their borders sealed off by the Israeli military.

We also heard from Jewish voices about the situation. For example, 31-year-old Yehunda Shaul, one of the founding members of the organization Breaking the Silence, told us of his experience serving in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). He was born in Jerusalem to parents who were from the U.S. and Canada, and he was raised as an Orthodox Jew. After High School graduation he served for three years as a soldier in the IDF, fourteen months in the city of Hebron. Their role as an occupying force, he said, was to make their presence felt so that the Palestinians always felt like the Israeli military were at their necks. That meant going on patrol every night from 10pm to 6am, randomly going from house to house, waking up families, searching homes, and generally instilling fear in the hearts of the Palestinian populace. While he had some reservations about what they were being asked to do, he didn’t come to terms with it until after his three years of active duty had ended. He and some other Israeli veterans started sharing their stories of what they did as Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. They believe that the IDF should be used for national defense purposes and not for occupation and oppression. They hope that by breaking the silence and sharing their testimonies they can hold up a mirror to Israeli society and ask Israelis to take moral responsibility for what is being done in their name.

Another Jewish voice was that of Rabbi Naamah Kelman, dean of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. She was born in New York City and became the first woman to be ordained a rabbi in the State of Israel. She expressed her shame and sadness over what is being done in Israel by Israel in the name of Judaism. She wants to see the human rights of Palestinians respected and she believes that the two-state solution, in which Palestinians and Israelis would each have their own sovereign state, is still the best hope of resolving the conflict. She believes that religious extremists on all sides of the conflict must not be allowed to define or speak for their religion, and that’s why it is so important for progressive and moderate voices to speak up and not remain silent. Through her work in the Jewish community and in interfaith dialogue, she tries to promote progressive Jewish values of equality, inclusiveness, and pluralism.

We heard from other progressive Jewish voices, all of which favored a two-state solution. And, indeed, an opinion poll conducted by Hebrew University found that 63% of Israelis and 53% of Palestinians still support a two-state solution. But it has now been more than 25 years since the 1978 Camp David Accords and more than 20 years since the 1993 Oslo Accords. The Israeli government is quite comfortable with the status quo, and as long as it remains comfortable, little is likely to change. The U.S. has shown that it is unwilling to use the leverage it has over Israel to help broker an agreement for a just peace in the region. So, there is a growing international movement calling for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel (BDS for short) in order to put international pressure on the Israeli government to end its military occupation and to negotiate in good faith for a two-state solution. The BDS movement is modeled after the international movement against the apartheid regime in South Africa. And whether the Presbyterian Church (USA) will support the BDS movement by divesting from three companies that support the Israeli occupation – namely Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions – will be one of the hotly debated topics coming before our denomination’s General Assembly next month in Detroit.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians we talked to are about ready to give up on a two-state solution, particularly given the Israeli government’s continued building of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. They see a shift coming among Palestinians. Instead of advocating for their own sovereign state alongside the state of Israel, they may launch a civil rights movement that would simply advocate for full equality and human rights for Palestinians within the one state of Israel.

There is so much more I could say about the contemporary situation in Israel/Palestine, so many more voices we heard whose perspectives I could share with you. I have only scratched the surface of what could be said. But I felt it important to share with you a few stories of the living stones of the Holy Land so that you have a little better sense of what is going on there today.