Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem
Preacher: Canon John Armson, Canon Emeritus
10 May 2009, 10:30 (Easter 5)
I’m just back from a visit to Israel and Palestine with Bishop Michael Turnbull, whom many here will remember with affection. Newspapers and tv tell you so much, but it’s no substitute for meeting people and hearing their stories. Like when I visited – among many other places – an orphanage. It was very touching: lots of primary-school-aged faces, some eager, some shy, but all wanting to show me round their home.
The orphanage was in Hebron – the burial place of Abraham and Sarah. 1 King David ruled there before he moved his capital to Jerusalem. 2 So the city looms large in the Jewish consciousness. But when the State of Israel was created in 1948, 3 Hebron remained in Palestine – Arab land. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a handful of Jews moved there. It now takes 1500 Israeli soldiers to guard them and, in effect, the Israeli army rules a foreign city.
While I was there, that army looted the orphanage stores and trashed its catering equipment – with utmost vehemence. (And it is crucial to seek to understand that vehemence: why it is so, and where it comes from.) Now it has done the same to a women’s workshop, making clothes – that had supported both the orphanage and the women. Now I learn the army has closed the orphanage – despite an Israeli Supreme Court ruling. I don’t know what’s happened to the kids.
Why do such a thing? To an orphanage? Because, Hamas played a part in running the orphanage, and Hamas fires rockets into Jewish towns. 4
The history and politics of the Middle East are very complicated and I’m not proposing to take sides here – though a sermon might be an appropriate place to do so. But this sermon is not about that. It is a response to the observation that on both sides the hawks of confrontation rather than the doves of compassion seem to calling the shots – literally; and the belief that that way, things can only spiral downwards.
In Israel and on the West Bank I heard voices of moderation and peace. There are voices of conciliatory reason to be heard. Outstandingly, I met Elias Chacour, Melkite Archbishop of Galilee: a man whose centuries-old family lands have been confiscated, and who is angry, but not bitter. Though deeply wronged, he speaks peaceably. 5 What voices like his – and I met others – are saying is, Jerusalem belongs to both Jew and Arab.
Thousands of years ago, long before Christ, Jews built the city – ‘the joy of the whole earth,’ says the Psalmist. But they’ve never lived there for very long before they’ve been turned out – now by this occupying force, now that one. After the Second World War, as the unspeakable horror of the Soviet and Nazi death camps became clear, the new State of Israel was created. Jews returned ‘home’.
The division agreed in 1948 has long since been pushed aside. The significant wall now is the infamous Israeli security fence which surrounds Jerusalem and which cuts deeply and painfully into previously agreed Palestinian territories, dividing homes from gardens, farmers from their lands.
But let’s go back to the orphanage and the now homeless kids. I met some other people there. They were members of the Christian Peacemakers Team: retired men and women, mostly from the UK and the USA, who spend 3 months at a time living in the hot spots. Some were sleeping in the orphanage, in case trouble brewed up there – as it did. They are armed – but not with guns: with video cameras. And if trouble looks like breaking out, everyone there knows that within an hour or two, it will be on the web for all the world to see. Thus they exercise a restraining influence.
It takes a degree of maturity ‘to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.’ But theirs is a piece of non-violent ministry of which I think any Christian might approve. And they triggered in me the conviction which I share with you in this sermon.
I’m sure Jerusalem has to be shared – not least because within her are two holy sites of immense historical and cultural – and so political – significance to both Jew and Arab.
For the Jews, the ‘wailing wall’ is all that remains of Solomon’s temple – that ancient and profound site of the Jewish faith. The Romans destroyed the rest just after the time of Christ. That wall is their ‘holy of holies’. Day and night prayer is offered there. I found it deeply moving to add my prayers to the millions of others. It is certainly a place where, as Eliot wrote of Little Gidding, ‘prayer has been valid.’
But immediately above it, on the hill where Solomon’s Temple once stood, stands the Dome of the Rock, built by Muslims 14 hundred years ago. For them, that rock is the earth’s navel, the spot on which Abraham bound Isaac, and from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. This too is a place of ‘valid’ prayer – Moslem prayer: a Muslim ‘cathedral.’
So: within feet of each other, two ‘holy of holies’, of colossal significance for Jew and Arab. An irreconcilable tension? Yes, but for the message of a third ‘holy of holies’.
Deep within the old city (though once outside it, before the city grew in size) there is another place, hidden behind the stalls of the Arab souk.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre houses the tomb from which Christ rose, and only yards away, Golgotha, the site of the cross. So it houses the symbol – and the reality – of non-retaliation; of absorbing, not reflecting, the hatred of the enemy; of trusting the Heavenly Powers to use that to heal and solve. And I desperately want to tell that to Jew and Arab – and indeed to divided Christendom. But, as Jesus, when he first saw the holy city, wept over it,
Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes. 6
I wish I had the opportunity, the wisdom, grace and authority to convey those ‘things that make for peace.’ Until they are grasped, the way, the political way, not of tit-for-tat, but of non-retaliation, Jerusalem will be divided and torn. Tit-for-tat means the innocent, not the guilty, suffer. Children become homeless orphans indeed.
Ah, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets [said the Lord]. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing ... 7
So as you hear the news and see the television pictures of fighting and rockets and orphanages closed, and hospitals damaged, and children shot, and innocent people caught up in suicide bombings, and blockades denying hospitals medicines, and people food, and bulldozers crushing buses, think how God in Christ must still weep over Jerusalem. And weep with him. Let that be your prayer, if you have no words, and do not know how to frame a petition for this wounded and wounding land; and the city which houses the shrines of all our faiths.
But if you have followed me so far, there is a consequence. For to preach and to believe is to be committed to act on what we preach and believe. So, if you speak of peace, strive to be that peace. Show it is possible.
Our little lives can be places of peace – or not. Places of reconciliation – or not. Great though the longing is in my heart for the peace of Jerusalem, of Israel and of Palestine, my sphere of influence – like yours – is tiny. But because of what I have seen, and because my longing for the peace of Jerusalem is great, it is all the more crucial that I, like you, try to be a place of shalom, salaam, peace in our little lives.
Behold how good it is [said the psalmist] when people live together in unity ...
for there the Lord has promised his blessing: life for evermore. 8
2 1 Kings 2.10
3 Along the principles of the ‘Balfour Declaration’ of 1917.
4 – towns on the Palestinian side of the 1948 border, but which Jewish immigrants have built.
5 His book Blood Brothers (Chosen Books, 2003 and reprinted in pb; 978-0-8007-9321-0) is a powerfully moving witness to peaceful leadership.
6 Luke 19.42
7 Luke 13.34
8 Ps 133