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RNS-HOLIDAYS-INTERFAITH bThe grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

Our lesson this morning comes from the prophet Isaiah. As has been foreshadowed for some time, the nations of Israel and Judah are doomed. The prophets have warned about this, that the people’s unfaithfulness to their covenant with God will be their undoing. Isaiah has joined his voice into the chorus of doom. But now, Isaiah preaches comfort.

God will not abandon you, Isaiah tells them. You will face national humiliation. The Temple will be destroyed. You will be torn from home and into exile. But God is still God. And you, despite evidence to the contrary, will be God’s people.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

We often end up reading Isaiah during the season of Advent, as we await the Christmas celebration and the birth of the Word made flesh. We see Isaiah’s teaching about a “voice crying in the wilderness” as speaking of John the Baptist. We hear his preaching about the suffering servant as pointing to Jesus himself.

And Isaiah’s message of both uncomfortable truth and truthful comfort is reflected in Jesus’ own ministry, where he challenged the unjust status quo and embraced those who have been cast to the side by “decent society”. Jesus, too, prophesied the destruction of the Temple while encouraging those who might listen to repent, return to God, and be faithful. Much like the Rabbinic legend of Isaiah’s being sawn in two by the order of the King of Judah, Jesus is crucified as Herod looks down from his throne. And in both cases, God’s truth cannot be stopped by death.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

Every day, it seems, we are brought the news of this or that terrifying trend in our world. Gun violence, terrorism, racism – all of these seem to us to be immediate threats to our way of life and proof that we need to barricade ourselves in order to maintain the status quo. Nothing can dissuade us from this opinion, not even the overwhelming evidence that we are safer now than at any other point in human history. Don’t get me wrong: injustice and violence are very real. There are awful trends that are on the rise. And yet, even accounting for all of this, as a whole, we are living longer and safer lives than we ever have. What is also different, unfortunately, is that we are living in a world of 24-hour news and social media where any knucklehead with a smart phone can broadcast his ignorance to the world, and where every threat seems like it’s next door. We hear about things we never would have known about before. Add to this the fact that fear sells, and business is booming.

And it is in this context that our calling as a church finds its voice.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

There is, I believe, a line of continuity from Isaiah through Jesus and into the Church. We are the ones who call Jesus both Lord and Savior. We try to follow in his footsteps while keeping healthy doses of mercy, recognizing that we will never do it perfectly. And we are those who find continued purpose, meaning, and direction in the word of our God.

In other words: we should be able to distinguish between those things that are temporary and those that are permanent and place our value accordingly.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

Friends, none of this is permanent. Church buildings may last a long time, but they don’t stand forever. Music may be remembered fondly, sermons may be quoted, but they are still relatively fleeting in the grand scheme of things. We may have live lives, but we are not immortal. Neither borders nor nations are fixed. Languages may grow, shift, change, and adapt, but they also die. There is one thing, and one thing only, that is eternal: the word of God. And in this season of Advent, it is really the only thing for which we should faithfully wait. Christmas Eve can be lovely. Candlelit hymns achieve beauty. Christmas mornings can bring joy. But none of them are really, truly, in that ultimate sense, worth waiting for.

What would it look like if we lived as though the word of God was the only thing that mattered? How would our lives be different if we put everything in service of God so that whatever else we did was filtered through its unique lens and seen through its focus? What would it mean if our faithfulness and obedience were to Christ, and Christ alone?

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

This past Wednesday night, as reports came across of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, I did something I regret: I followed the news on Twitter. I’m not a big fan of Twitter, but I have come to learn that it has value in getting breaking and local news. It also, it turns out, is where the world goes to vent its hateful spleen.

There was little information, but a great deal of conjecture, about what happened. It felt like everyone was gleefully cheering for the “right” kind of shooter. Many were trumpeting that the attack had all the hallmarks of a right-wing extremist. Others were sure that it was Islamic terrorism. And still others were convinced this was a workplace dispute turned deadly by lax gun laws. As I watched this “conversation” taking place, I was appalled by what I saw. And I was convinced that we were going to end the evening in an all-out American Uncivil War.

And then the press conference started. The San Bernardino Chief of Police and an FBI Spokesperson fielded questions with the kind of care and caution that good police work and investigation demand. They refused to speculate or jump to conclusions that weren’t sure yet. And they reiterated, again and again, that they would follow where the evidence led them. It almost restored my faith in humanity – almost.

By now, it seems certain that the attack was religiously-motivated. The couple did not appear to have had any formal connection to Daesh (that is, ISIS), but were rather inspired by them. Gauging by the reactions I have seen, this conclusion has done little to dissuade people from believing what they had already believed. Those who were anti-gun are still anti-gun. Those who were anti-Muslim are still anti-Muslim. Those who were anti-immigrant are still anti-immigrant.

I don’t know if anything I say will convince any of us to change our minds about any of this. That’s up to each of us on our own, and whether we are truly open to being transformed. But here is the question that I want to ask each and every one of us: what is it that God wants you to do? What is it that faithfulness to the eternal word of God calls us to do?

Fear is powerful. But it pales in comparison to faith in the God we know in Jesus Christ. The challenge is to ask ourselves constantly what God would require us, even – and especially – when we are afraid and terrified. It is when we stop asking for God’s wisdom that we risk putting ourselves in the service of the things that will not last.

This afternoon, a few of us will be heading over to Mercer’s Tucker campus for an interfaith gathering called “We Refuse to Be Enemies”. If you’re interested in coming along, please let me know.

I, for one, am going because I have developed friendships in the Atlanta interfaith community. I have learned a great deal through these friendships. We do not gain anything by using our differences to build barriers around our communities. Nor do we gain anything by pretending that there are no differences. Instead, what strengthens us is being honest about those differences while opening ourselves to the possibility that we might be changed for the good – me by them, and them by me.

In short, I am not going because I believe it is an easy thing to do, or a polite thing to do, but because I believe it is a faithful thing to do. The word of God calls us to cross boundaries, because God is the God of all peoples. It calls us to recognize and embrace the dignity inherent in each person, because we are all created in the eternal image of God. And it calls us to go into places of discomfort not for the sake of following our own desires, nor the desires of our tribe or nation, but the desires of God. Those are the only desires that matter in the end.

However it is that this moment in time speaks to you, the one thing I commend to you is to seek God’s desires prayerfully. That is where you will find true faithfulness. And when we bring those Godly desires together, as the church, we cannot be stopped.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

My friends, we are the Church. We are the body of Christ. We are the people of the Word. We are the ones for whom we wait.

Amen.

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This came in my email inbox today. While my heart has been breaking for the people of Gaza, I have been wrestling how to respond to yesterday’s news about people flooding into Egypt. When I read this, I thought it well worth sharing.
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POWER TO THE (PALESTINIAN) PEOPLE!
Jeff Halper  

January 23, 2008

The people of Palestine have done it again, taking their own fate in their hands after being let down by their own “moderate” political leadership and, indeed, the entire international community in their struggle for freedom. Early this morning they simply blew up the wall separating Gaza from Egypt, breaking a siege imposed on them by an Arab government in collaboration with Israel.  

We, the peoples of the world, should take great pride and encouragement in this quintessentially civil society refusal to accept subjugation, to abandon their fate to governments, including their own, for whom the lives of ordinary people are simply grist for their political charades – Annapolis and its subsequent “peace process” being but the last cynical expression. For the Palestinians represent far more than just themselves. Their refusal to submit to the dictates of governments, or to governments’ lack of interest in the well-being of people in general, reflects the desire of billions of oppressed people for identity, freedom, a decent life and actualization of their collective and individual rights and potentials. Most of the oppressed, the “wretched of the earth” as Franz Fanon called them a half-century ago, are too preoccupied with the daunting daily struggle for survival to organize and resist. Others do resist in a myriad of ways, but are most often repressed by their own political and economic “leaders,” disappearing anonymously from view. In a few cases they have managed to mount effective resistance to oppression, even to prevail – though the billions spent on “counterinsurgency” warfare by the US, Europe, Russia, Israel and many “developing” nations augur ill for peoples attempting to overthrow oppressive regimes.  

In this the Palestinians stand at the forefront, in the front lines of peoples’ insistence everywhere that their rights, well-being and fundamental values as human beings be respected by governments. And they do so (and I write this as an Israeli with great sorrow and shame) against one of the world’s strongest and most ruthless military powers – a power that has dispossessed them from 85% of their land, which is trying to transform its occupation into a permanent regime of apartheid, which has spent decades impoverishing and disenfranchising them; the fourth largest nuclear power which nevertheless casts itself as the victim. Not only have the Palestinians experienced the dehumanization all oppressed and colonized peoples experience, not only have they been made into the embodiment of the rich and powerful’s greatest fear, evil “terrorists” who may tear down their privileged “civilization,” but they have been turned into guinea pigs. Israel is able to gain an edge in the counterinsurgency industry and win entree into the heart of the American military/hi tech complex by turning the Occupied Territories into a laboratory for the development of fiendish weaponry and tactics intended for use against people.    

And yet the Palestinian people – and in particular those who remain sumud, steadfast, in Palestine – continue not only to resist but to surprise and confound its would-be Israeli master at every turn. Despite unlimited control, a complete monopoly over the use of force, utter callousness and a vaunted Shin Beit, Israel’s military intelligence, Palestinians vote as they want, resist, carry on their daily lives with dignity – and blow huge holes in the walls and policies constructed in order to imprison and defeat them.   

All this is not on the minds of those desperate people who surged into Egypt today. They may not have the “Big Picture.” Yet they deserve the respect and gratefulness of every person who cherishes a better world based on human rights and dignity, a world that is inclusive. As an Israeli Jew, I have been saddened and mortified that my own people, after all they have experienced, cannot see what they are doing to others. But on a larger scale, not as an Israeli Jew but as a human being, I take heart in the Palestinians’ active refusal to be ground under a global system that is producing unimaginable wealth and power for a few at the expense of the growing ranks of the wretched.  

I am not a Palestinian; I am not one of the oppressed. I only hope I can use my privilege in an effective way in order to redeem the gift the people of Gaza have given all of us: the realization that the people do have power and can prevail even in the face of overwhelming power. We may each express our responsibility towards the people of Gaza in whatever way most suits us, but as the privileged we must do something. We owe the Palestinians and the Palestinians writ large at least that.  

(Jeff Halper is the Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).

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All of us here have been shaken by the news coming out of the Jordanian capital of suicide bombings in three hotels. Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility, saying that the attack was meant to target the “Jews and Crusaders.” This is the kind of rhetoric which feeds the assumption that we are facing what Bernard Lewis has famously phrased a “clash of civilizations,” a massive conflagration between East and West.

Yet the deadliest of the attacks hit the heart of a Muslim wedding party. The next day, at the same hotel a Christian wedding party took place. It seems to me that this points to a struggle not between East and West, but within Islam itself. Scholars like Reza Aslan (e.g. his book No god but God) and Mohammad Sammak see the dividing lines between those seeking radicalization and those seeking modernization. My own experience with the Palestinian Islamic community underscores this analysis.

Half of those killed in the wedding party were Palestinians from Jenin. In Jerusalem, all news seems to be local news.

I did take the opportunity yesterday to walk the ramparts of the Old City walls, a walk that was closed during my time here “due to security reasons.” It was an amazing walk that takes you half way around the city. On the left, you see the life outside the walls (and the architectural beauty that the walls themselves are). On the right, you see life within the Old City: houses, churches, playgrounds, settlements, schools, workshops. It is a helpful reminder that Jerusalem is not just a symbol, not just an idea. It is, first and foremost, a place where people live. It is for the sake of these people that we should seek peace.

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