Sunday, September 4, 2011

My homily today: A few reflections on our time in the Holy Land

At Mount Tabor, the mountaintop
of the Transfiguration
Today's lessons are Exodus 12:1-14Psalm 149Romans 13:8-14 and Matthew 18:15-20. Here is my sermon for today, marking my reentry at St. Paul's.

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Shalom, Salaam, Peace.

It is good to be back among you after many weeks away.

I bring you blessings and greetings this morning from the Right Rev. Suheil Dawni, the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem.

Lori and I have completed a 22,000-mile journey to the Holy Land, taking a very circuitous route from here to San Francisco to meet our pilgrim group, then Toronto to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, back to San Francisco, Toronto, and here again. We arrived in Charlottesville at midnight last night.

I am so very grateful to be home again, and gathered among you after so many weeks away.

You were very close to our thoughts and prayers as we got snippets of news about the earthquake and hurricane here. Frankly, we felt safer in Israel.

Thank you for your prayers, your good wishes, your emails, and your good graces in allowing us to be away to take this extraordinary journey.

I am so very grateful for Ann, Nik and Heather, and all of our talented staff; and for Pam, our senior warden, and our Vestry, for shepherding this church in my absence.

I have rested well knowing you were in capable hands. Thank you.

Three weeks ago, we gathered with 27 other pilgrims from all over the world, including five from Virginia and eight from California. Others came from New York, Michigan, Australia and Canada. There were two priests, including me; a bishop from Australia and the Archbishop of Toronto.

We followed in the footsteps of two millennia of pilgrims, retracing the steps to the holiest places of Christendom. We truly became a band of brothers and sisters on the pilgrim path.

We lodged at St. George’s College, next door to St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem, our outpost in the Holy Land. Every sect – Jewish, Muslim and Christian – has an outpost in Jerusalem, and this was ours.

I have few preliminary reflections I want to share this morning about our pilgrimage.

Everyone we met – Jew, Muslim and Christian – was friendly and hospitable. Everyone went out of our way to help us; and everyone wanted to share their life with us because they wanted us – and you – to know how they live.

We were there when there was a terrorist attack on the Egyptian border. We discovered that everyone seems have learned how to live with the cycles of violence and conflict and still carry on with daily life.

Everywhere we went, everyone asked us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. At first I thought it was a line. Then I realized everyone we met absolutely meant it from the bottom of their heart.

They truly believe if there is peace in Jerusalem there will be peace in all the whole world. If there can be peace in Jerusalem, there can be peace everywhere.

And I began to believe they are right.

Yet there is so much hatred, so much animosity, so many grievances on all sides, so much distrust, that no one we met believes there will be peace in our lifetime.

Jerusalem is a divided, conflicted and tense city, and that has been so for more than 3,000 years.
Everyone claims Jerusalem and no one owns it.

Years ago, another pilgrim, Colin Thubron wrote of Jerusalem, “religion and politics forever touch hands.”

Religion and politics are inseparable in Jerusalem.

There are no agnostics in Jerusalem – it is the most intensely, overtly and stiflingly religious city I have ever visited. All of the contractions of the Holy Land are encapsulated in the biblical lessons today.

We saw massive churches built atop places where it said that Mary, pregnant with Jesus, met with Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist.

We went to a hilltop where it is said the shepherds heard the angels proclaiming Jesus’ birth, and we saw the ruins of the Church of the Holy Spasm, where it is said Mary felt her first birth pangs.

We went to a place purported to be the Upper Room of the Last Supper. With centuries of building and rebuilding it is now deep underground. The formidable Russian nun who guards it directed us: “Upper room, down.”

We also visited a Palestinian refugee camp, courtesy of the United Nations. We passed through Israeli checkpoints and the massive wall dividing Jewish Jerusalem from Palestinian Bethlehem.

The biblical past and the conflicted present merged everywhere we went.

Near the end of our pilgrimage, we ventured inside dark, almost sinister Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built atop Golgotha, the place of the crucifixion, the holiest shrine in all of Christendom.

And all the while I wondered: How does anyone know these are the precise locations?

The answer always: Tradition.

If anything, I felt the thick smoky layers of church history and hierarchy – the creedal arguments, the schisms and crusades, and the legends built on top of legends in these places. The Holy sometimes seemed buried underground.

It was not until we left the intensity of Jerusalem that I began to feel why this was a “Holy Land.”

On our sixth day, we traveled north to Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, to the place where Jesus spent most of his life.

The Sea of Galilee is a serene lake in the desert that felt to me far from the politics and conflicts of the world, and far from the chaos of Jerusalem.

On my first morning at the Sea of Galilee, I got up early and went alone to the shoreline to read Morning Prayer. The lake was green-gray, and the sky misty blue.

I sat on a pebbly beach, and the air was warm even before the sun rose burning red-orange. I could easily imagine Jesus sitting here in silence and prayer, teaching and healing, and working things out in solitude.

Soon the fish were jumping after insects, and my first reaction was wondering why good Saint Peter had such a hard time catching fish (all he needed was a fly rod).

I sat on a rock and read the psalms and biblical lessons for the day, but soon realized that the place where I sat was more powerful than any Scriptural passage.

I put down my Bible and just looked and listened.

I could almost hear Jesus sitting nearby, teaching his followers. The words on the biblical page seemed but a thin reflection of what that must have been like.

It was then that I realized something so obvious that I might have missed it – and this is the one thing I want to leave you with today:

The divine can be anywhere and everywhere. All we need do is notice; all we need do is open our eyes and ears to see and listen.

You don’t have to leave home to find the holy. You don’t have to go on a 22,000-mile pilgrimage.

You can find the holy in this church, or on the corner outside, or in the woods, or on a mountaintop, or in your backyard, or in the classroom.

You can especially meet the holy in the people you meet, the people you love, the people you work with, the people who you share your life with – and you can meet the holy with people who are complete strangers.

They might not even be Episcopalians.

The heart of this is to be heard in the gospel lesson today from Matthew:

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Today we are gathered in his name, as others have before us have done, and we will do something extraordinary that connects us with Jesus on the Sea of Galilee and with every one of his followers ever after.

We will be baptizing a young child, Isabel Rose Lopez. We will stand with her and her family, and pledge to walk with her in her life of faith.

We will set forth on a pilgrimage with her.

We will promise to renew ourselves in the prayers and in the breaking of the bread, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to respect the dignity of every human being.

The holy will be among us because the holy is always with us. And you won’t have to look any farther than the person next to you to see the holy. Our life pilgrimage can begin anew today, now, here in this place, and the holy will be among us.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

And pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Shalom, Salaam, Peace. AMEN.

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