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"My Jerusalem Moment" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - January 20, 2019

posted Jan 23, 2019, 12:20 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Earlier this month I visited Israel.  I’m still reflecting on what I learned and experienced on the trip because in so many ways it touched on questions of spirituality.  Which is not surprising - one can’t go to the birthplace of three major religions and not think about spirituality.

But beyond the overt spiritual moments, many mundane things about Israel struck me too.  I knew enough about Israelis and the Middle East to expect the drivers to be aggressive. But it’s one thing to expect it, and another to feel like your taxi driver wants to personally see if a camel can go through the eye of a needle.  Drivers gave no quarter when it came to the road; fearsome. In a place where two cars can’t merge into one lane, it’s no wonder we can’t find peace in the Middle East.

Even more, I didn’t expect how Israeli drivers would react to pedestrians.  As aggressive as they drive, cars stop on a dime on the mere suggestion of someone crossing the street.  You might be cut off in traffic; but walking? Everyone stops.

Now, back in America, I realize how little regard we give pedestrians.  American drivers seem to always assume the next driver will stop. I’ve heard forever about pushy and aggressive Middle Easterners; why don’t we tell stories of their decency too?  That in a nutshell was Israel - a place of expectations and surprises, where I found the aggressive Middle Easterners I expected were more decent than Midwesterners as I walked around.

Israel surprised me, not just in what I learned about Israel but also in what I learned about myself.  My visit caused me to think about spirituality. I’d heard lots of stories - the pastor who went to Jerusalem and sobbed with spiritual pathos at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; so I went with expectation: when would I have my Jerusalem moment, my spiritual moment?

I timed my visit to coincide with the Feast of the Epiphany, the day when we celebrate the visit of the Magi to baby Jesus.  I particularly love the story - the pageantry - and longed to celebrate it in Bethlehem. Epiphany, while not much of a holiday in America, is, in other parts of the world, bigger than Christmas.

Sometimes the events can be contentious in the West Bank.  Last year on Epiphany, residents of Bethlehem pelted the Greek Orthodox Patriarch with eggs and shoes because of accusations he leased church land to Jews.

This year the Patriarch decided not to come to Bethlehem; but thousands of other pilgrims came instead.  Seeing the crowds, I longed for a Disney Fast Pass. Luckily, my tour guide thought the same. She lived in Bethlehem and seemed to know everyone, including the guy guarding the door of a covenant.  He looked the other way as she sneaked us through the cloistered courtyard. Sadly, I didn’t have to disguise myself with a wimple, debuting as a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence.

The covenant had a backdoor into the Church of the Nativity, putting us in the front of the line.  Still, the supposed site of Jesus’ birth could only be entered by going down a series of semi-circular steps - basically, a funnel.  So our group merged in with pilgrims from around the world, a scrum of the faithful; what says Merry Christmas more than a Russian babushka shoving you forward?

Once down in the lower level of the church, we each got a few seconds to kneel before the “manger” until a monk pushed us on.  Many around me felt it all very spiritual; but my introverted spirit needed space.

Which I found later in the Galilee and the Golan Heights, a much more rural (and green) part of Israel. I am a city boy, but my spirit soars in wild places.  There I took in the same sights as Jesus and his disciples. I remembered how Jesus would take time apart from his friends, to go to a deserted place to pray.  Surely I found the place, the grassy hills of the Golan, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, all the towns spread out around the shore.

One of the towns, Tiberias, became the center-point of Judaism after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.  An ancient synagogue sat nearby the Roman theater. Dr. Amit Lotan, a local historian, pointed out the mosaics in the floor of the synagogue.  Jewish synagogues long held a prohibition against showing human figures, least someone think the Jews worshipped pagan deities. But there on the floor one could plainly see a picture of Helios, the sun god, surrounded by the zodiac signs.  Clearly the Jews who built the synagogue felt comfortable enough with another religion to incorporate it in their designs, to see the Greek mosaic not as a dangerous pagan element but simply beautiful ornamentation. And with the synagogue built so close to the theater, surely Jews and Romans mingled, living beside each other, praying and laughing, creating their life together.

The Jews and Pagans and Christians of long ago Tiberias knew the reality of what Martin Luther King taught.  “I can never be who I ought to be until you are who you ought to be; and you can never be who you ought to be until I am who I ought to be.”  Even thousands of years later, their foundation of acceptance can be seen in the mosaic floor of their synagogue.

Yet a major gash marred the mosaic.  A religiously motivated vandal, ultra-orthodox, had destroyed part of the mosaic.  The vandal only wanted to remember a “pure” past and so desecrated an ancient site that witnessed to a blended spirituality, or at least a spirituality comfortable with other faiths.  What a parable of today, when it seems like too many religious people only find the sacred in the pure. But I find my spirituality like the long ago sages of the Sanhedrin, who studied Torah in a building decorated with the image of Helios.

I tried the sacred Christian sites once more when back in Jerusalem.  Centuries of Christian pilgrims developed a walk through Jerusalem called the “Via Dolorosa,” Latin for the Way of Grief.  It traces the Stations of the Cross, 14 moments of Good Friday. Station 1: the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Then stations marking his painful journey with the cross, stumbling as he went, meeting people on the way to Golgotha.  Ending with death and burial.

My modern doubts kicked in when I walked the Via Dolorosa.  Station four featured a spot where Jesus stumbled, including a rock with a hand-sized pock mark, made when Jesus fell against it.  As I fit my hand in the groove, like countless pilgrims, no lighting struck. Jesus might have stumbled and braced himself against a wall 2000 years ago; but this stone was part of the wall of a building built only hundreds of years ago.

The path wound closer to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Just past the gift shop - here the trinkets come at the entrance, not the exit as in America - I turned a corner to one of the holiest places in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity.  (Protestant tradition claims another place as Jesus’ burial).

A small courtyard filled with pilgrims pressed up against the church, or rather churches because the building exists with an uneasy peace between different Christian groups.  Indeed, just to the right of the main door, up twenty feet, a cedar ladder hangs on a balcony, the immovable ladder, in place since 1757. The balcony belongs to the Armenians; but the Greeks claim the cornice; and I guess the Franciscans the window.  Once a Protestant pulled the ladder back into the church but it was found, returned to its spot, and a grate installed so that it could not be moved again. Someone put the ladder there but no one can agree to move it.

(Many Christians and our church movements regularly make pronouncements about Israel.  But I wonder, if we can’t even agree to move a ladder, can we really tell Israelis and Palestinians how to make peace?)

Is that why Jesus said, “they shall know you are my disciples by your pettiness?”  But again it speaks to a challenge of spirituality today, an idea that we must fight for control of sacred space.  How odd, this idea that we can claim a piece of the sacred as ours; exert our rights over it. Perhaps that is what King pointed to in his so-called “Letter of Paul to the Americans”, the way we’ve allowed our materialism to overrun our morality.  I pulled back from the materialism of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, from this church divided among six different traditions, every inch claimed by someone - even the roof, the Coptic Christians claim it as their own; is that our vision of the spiritual, something we can have?  Ours!

I really wanted my Jerusalem moment, though; so I returned another day to the Via Dolorosa, this time for a Franciscan prayer walk on a Friday afternoon.  It began at the First Station, in an Islamic elementary school which claims to be built on the ruins of Pilate’s fortress. So there on the playground, I waited for the monks.  A crowd gathered; we would be a large procession. Looking around, I scanned the crowd, until I saw...Jesus. Unmistakable: beard and long flowing hair, white robe, sandals.

I found Jesus in Jerusalem; and I wasn’t going to make the mistake of those disciples on Road to Emmaus.  Jesus even had communion bread with him. But as I got up my courage to talk to Jesus, I realized: he would only give communion to priests and nuns, people in religious dress.  This was a harsh Savior: “the Body of Christ, not for you.

Our procession started down the lanes of the Old City; soon the alley narrowed, the crowd grew, the monks became

impossible to hear.  In the back of the crowd, I heard all the other noises of the Old City. As the Friday afternoon waned, Jewish residents rushed home from work, stopping to pick up last minute groceries before Shabbat - the Jewish day of rest that begins at sunset on Fridays.  And Muslim families rushed about too, last minute chores on their way to Friday evening prayers at the Mosques. Through the streams of people, teenage boys would try to move with their own sense of purpose. To make their way through the crowd, they say, “Hello;” not as a greeting, but a barked command: hello, hello, hello.  Teenage impatience cutting through three faith traditions.

I got back to my apartment just as night fell, Shabbat in Jerusalem.  A bustling city, the energy of Chicago, settles down to rest. Honking cars quiet.  Traffic stops. Everything slows down. As if even the bricks and mortar exhale.

Abraham Heschel, a leading Jewish thinker who supported King from the beginning, once contrasted Christianity and Judaism.  He said Christians build Cathedrals in physical spaces - like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - but Jews build them in time - Shabbat.

That evening I went out to Shabbat dinner with my friend Jody Hirsh at the home of an Israeli artist.  A varied group sat around the table, mostly Jewish, but also Ahmed, a Muslim from Houston, and myself; with a span of ages from young adult to elder statesman (literally, a retired Israeli foreign service officer sat to my left).  Our hosts blessed the Challah and passed it around the table. We ate and drank and prayed; and we talked, a lively debate inspired by a traditional prayer about the “ideal woman.” Some thought it sexist, others found it countered patriarchal ideas about women (I’m not convinced); Ahmed joined in with his thoughts as a Muslim and similar questions within his tradition.  Ahmed spoke from a progressive point of view and, through social media, he developed a broad following for a blog. Yet on his blog his identity remains hidden; he doesn’t feel comfortable being “out.” As Jesus knew, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”  But on Shabbat, people who disagreed about the meaning of scripture could sit together; people of other faiths could share blessed bread; people uncertain of being “out” at home could be themselves.


That night, as people sang the final evening prayers, I thought of Martin Luther King’s words.  “We are caught in a network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” In my Jerusalem moment, in my holy moment, I felt that sense of spiritual connection - Jewish, Muslim, Christian, young and old, each with our own understandings of faith and tradition, bound into a single garment of humanity.  Spirituality to me means those moments when our mutuality becomes tangible.

One doesn’t have to travel to Israel for such a Jerusalem moment; like my Shabbat hosts we can create this holiness of mutuality around our own tables.  Alleluia and Amen.