Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve Sermon
by Fred & Gloria Strickert

Message for Dec. 24, 2011

Christmas Eve Service

Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem

 “Joseph also went. . . along with Mary, his wife. . . who was expecting a child.”  (Luke 2:4-5)

As we have come together for worship, early on a December evening, here in Bethlehem, we are warm here inside Christmas Lutheran Church, sheltered from the cold, the wind, the rain so common this time of year.  Please, all come inside, find a seat, sit close together as you try to stay warm.  Sit close together and try to imagine what it was like that day when Joseph and Mary arrived outside the small village of Bethlehem.  When Joseph and Mary arrived without reservations, without a hotel confirmation number, but with a dire need for shelter.  When Joseph and Mary arrived knowing only that God always provides, and that God provides best through generous, welcoming, and hospitable people.

Today on Christmas Eve, Dec, 24, 2011. five thousand miles to the east of Bethlehem in the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Illigan more than one thousand have died from the Philippines typhoon and 275,000 are homeless, all vulnerable and dependent on the good will of others. 

Today on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2011, several hundred miles to the north of Bethlehem, Syrian families are packing up their belongings and trying to get out of the way of escalating violence and conflict.

Today on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2011, two thousand miles away south from Bethlehem in the northeast province of Kenya,
one thousand people arrived in Dadaab refugee camp,
just as yesterday another one thousand arrived,
and tomorrow another one thousand will arrive,
all having traveled a week or two from their homes
because of the famine from the extreme drought affecting the Horn of Africa. 
(photo: Paul Jeffry, ACT Alliance)

They have been coming well over a year since the United Nations asked the Lutheran World Federation to expand this older Dadaab Refugee camp, originally equipped for 40,000.  They have come empty handed, only carrying with them their faith, their hope, their dream that something waits for them.  Now 700,000 have found welcome with food, shelter, safety, no different from Joseph and Mary arriving in Bethlehem two thousand years ago—a refugee camp with few resources of their own but providing hospitality for the stranger, hope for those without reason to hope. 

Among those arriving in Dadaab are mothers with small children as also expectant mothers soon to experience the birth pangs of childbirth—no different from Mary arriving in the small village of Bethlehem 2000 years ago.

(Painting: Black Madonna, Frank Wesley, India) 

This is the story of our modern world with half the world’s population living in sprawling urban centers, millions of people moving from villages to cities seeking a better life.  Emigrants seeking better economic conditions.  14 million people officially registered with refugee status.  And some of you sitting here tonight know very well what it means to carry a refugee card, like far too many of your fellow Palestinians.  In the world 27 million are classifired as internally displaced persons.  Millions of others unofficially seeking refuge from flooded homes, earthquakes, and poor economic times.  Millions of others trying to get out of the way of a humanity gone mad with war and conflict.

Perhaps I read the ancient gospel with eyes opened on this night to the plight of young refugee mothers, because on Christmas Eve some nine plus decades ago my own grandmother, single and pregnant, made her way from her ancestral village on the Rhine River to the German city of Mayen in  hope of a future in war-torn Europe among occupying soldiers.  Perhaps, I listen this way to Luke’s description of the first Christmas because I cannot forget the stories told me years ago by members of this Bethlehem congregation of Christmas 1948, when fleeing armies in Lydda and Ramle they eventually found their way to Bethlehem with only the clothes they could carry in a suitcase, leaving behind all the physical connections to the past, but prayers for a better future.  We cannot, but think of the many people in transition at Christmas 2011 when we hear the words of the Christmas story.

But these are not merely nostalgic episodes of what might have been, but testimonies of faith and hope.  People came to Bethlehem, because they knew that Bethlehemites would take them in.  What else would one expect from a town named House of Bread?  What else would one expect where Boaz welcomed the Moabites Ruth and Naomi to glean in the fields?  What else would one expect when hospitality reigns chief among virtues?  What else would one expect from people whose first words that role off their lips are Ahlan Wasahlan? 

What else would we expect from a modern city reduced to a 4 square mile plot of land surrounded by 25 foot high walls and threatening military watch towers, where the welcome of soldiers is dependent upon the Western passport we carry, yet where in the homes and stores of Bethlehem many of us ourselves have experienced from today’s Bethlehemites hospitality and a warm, generous, open-armed welcome.

And so Joseph also went up, along with Mary to whom he was engaged, and who was pregnant.  They went up, surely with questions in their head, where will we stay?  Where will we find food and drink?  Where will our baby be born?  They went with questions, but with full confidence that God is a God who provides.  And God provides best when it takes place through humans, who are open, welcoming, hospitable.  Yes, we have to strip away the myth-makers who in their culturely foreign retelling of the Christmas story envisioned this tiny village with its own 5-star Bethlehem Inn, with its gruff, individualistic, profit-motivated, self-centered, and stingy inn-keeper, none of which is an accurate translation of the Lucan text. 

Here beneath the sanctuary of Christmas Lutheran Church are a number of caves, where people found refuge, warmth and security, over thousands of years of human upheaval.  As people settled, they built houses over these caves where they kept their livestock, cattle, donkeys, sheep, and goats. 

 It was likely in such a cave that Jesus was born.  The Katalyma of Luke’s gospel, the guest room, upstairs in the house was already crowded with travelers that first Christmas night.  Still the householders were apparently very generous people, welcoming the strangers and showing hospitality.  They would not think of turning away Joseph and his pregnant wife.  That was not the culture of Bethlehem.  They would find a place for them, even if it was in the cave below the house. 

  • A cave where the young couple could find protection from the natural elements and security.
  • A cave where they could be warm. 
  • A cave where their calls for help could be heard even in the crowded rooms upstairs.
  • A cave where young Mary could find the privacy needed during her labor.
  • A cave where the baby Jesus would find his first home—among the travelers, among the homeless, among strangers, emigrants, and refugees.  Among the most vulnerable of people, people in need of a savior. 
A savior “. . . not regarding equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptying himself, taking the form of a servant.”  Phil 2:6-7

“And so the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  (John 1:14)  Among us in our world filled with refugees and immigrants.

The child of a refugee family finding hospitality and welcome in Bethlehem, just as the church today accepts the challenge of welcoming the stranger today.  Fred Otieno, from the Church in Nairobi, recently said reflecting on his 18 hour a day, seven day a week position as camp coordinator at the Dadaab Refugee Camp, God has a purpose for us being here to make a difference in the lives of these people, so we must try and help them enjoy their stay, because at the end of the day we all need one another.”  This is the message that goes out from the Bethlehem manger, "At the end of the day we all need one another."

As we gather as community to hear this age-old story, we remember that
  • Christmas is not about how much we can accumulate and horde, but about how much we can give away, sharing with those in need. 
  • Christmas is not about walls that divide, security that intimates, and policies that humiliate, but about an attitude toward life in a spirit which loves the other as our self.
  • Christmas is not even about safe, romantic, idyllic tales of long ago, but it is about Christ coming into our midst, now, in the present moment.
  • Christmas is about welcoming Jesus into our midst, as we welcome the least among us, as we show hospitality to the stranger, for then we may discover that we have been entertaining angels unawares, or even God’s own son.

by Fred & Gloria Strickert

    Saturday, December 17, 2011

    A Light Shines in the Darkness
    by Fred & Gloria Strickert

    Earlier this week I watched an elderly Palestinian woman walk down the corridor on the second floor of Augusta Victoria Hospital. Her traditional embroidered dress suggested that she was likely from an outlying village of the West Bank, a Muslim, perhaps accompanying a grand-child hospital patient. She bore all the signs of a long and hard life, raising children, engaged in agriculture, a witness to generations of conflict. She had difficulty walking, but seemed to be on a mission as she slowly and with difficulty began descending the staircase. Then the sound of footsteps on the hard stone steps stopped. Was everything all right? I hurried over to the stairwell to check. There she was standing on the landing, taking photographs of the lighted artificial Christmas tree that greets visitors during this special time of the year.  Not the greatest tree by American standards, but a tree that brings joy to those the many who pass by each day.

    Last night in Bethlehem, thousands (both Christians and Muslims) gathered in Manger Square for the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony.  Dignataries made speeches and all spoke of unity, peace, and good will.

    Next week begins Hannukah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights, a celebration of religious freedom. So this week the Jerusalem municipality has been busy erecting Menorah on light posts leading west from the old city.
    A large Menorah will soon be erected at Jaffa gate as last year.

    The Mamilla Mall near Jaffa Gate is lit up for the occasion. With sunset in Jerusalem now at 4:30 p.m. lights are warming, revealing, and hopefully attracting.

    It’s clearly a time for us all to stand back in admiration of the gifts of religious diversity—all the more striking when similar symbols cross over from one tradition to another—as do the lights of the season.

    On Tuesday, we joined with Swedish friends for Santa Lucia day. With young white-robed girls donning candle wreaths on their heads, and younger children dressed up as gingerbread kids, a proud kipa-wearing father photographed his daughter’s participation in the choir. Such images can only give hope for a better tomorrow.

    And then there’s the story of my Muslim physical therapist, who with her husband and teenaged daughters drove to Bethlehem just to look at the lights and Christmas decorations. This weekend they plan to go to her Christian neighbor’s home to help her decorate her tree because this widow’s only son is studying abroad and she would otherwise be alone.

    Christmas trees are not common here like in densely forested areas of northern Europe and North American. We are on the edge of the desert. In fact, is illegal for a person to cut down trees without government permission, even on one’s own property. The Jerusalem municipality does offer a service for churches in providing a few trees when thinning out is necessary. We’re thankful for enough greenery to make an Advent wreath. As for artificial trees and decorations, they are just not on the market in Israel--not even at Ikea, as a shopping trip this week revealed.  Just red and white candes.

    Now in Bethlehem and Nazareth, that’s another story.  Christmas is big business.

    Sunday night in Nazareth the Latin Patriarch led the community in its annual tree lighting ceremony.

    This year the ceremony held a special significance in overcoming the darkness of intolerance and religious bigotry--in this case that of the Mayor and city council of Nazareth Illit who last Christmas announced that Christmas trees would be banned from that neighboring city. 

    Nazareth (210,000 population) is the largest Arab metropolitan area in Israel proper, made up primarily of the city of Nazareth (67 % Muslim, 33 % Christian).  In 1954, Nazareth Illit (upper Nazareth) was built as a Jewish neighboring city or suburb although today 9 % of residents are Muslim and Christian.

    "The request of the Arabs to put Christmas trees in the squares in the Arab quarter of Nazareth Illit is provocative,"  Mayor Shimon Gapso was quoted in newspapers. "Nazareth Illit is a Jewish city and it will not happen -- not this year and not next year, so long as I am a mayor."  It was a Muslim member of the city council, Shukri Aawdeh, who defended the Christians, "Decorating a tree is just to share the happiness and cheer with other people in the town."

    In reading stories like this, we are reminded of the intolerance exhibited by some in Christian-dominated communities of Europe and the States toward religious minorities.  The mayor's blindness is a grinchlike quality that often crosses boundaries into actions that are totally unacceptable.

    Yesterday morning, when the West Bank Muslim villagers of al-Burqa near Ramallah arrived to say morning prayers, they discovered their mosque had been set on fire under the cover of darkness, burning carpets and furniture.

    Women at al-Nour mosque in village of Burqa observing the Hebrew spray-painted graffiti.

    The previous morning another mosque had been set on fire in Jerusalem, this time a historic mosque dating back to the 13th century.  The graffiti included statements like "Death to the Arabs" and "Muhammad is a pig."
    Just a week ago a third mosque was set on fire at Bruqin near Nablus and several others over the last several months, in an escalation of settler violence with destruction of olive groves and Palestinian property in the West Bank. 
    Inspecting the damage of mosque fire at Tuba-Zangaria this summer.
    All of these attacks have one thing in common, the word "Price tag," a signature by Jewish settlers (many American immigrants) illegally occupying West Bank Palestinian land.  They have put the Israeli government on notice that any attempt to limit their actions and their expansion will be met with violence toward Palestinians whom they wish cleansed from the land. 

    This flare-up of violence follows reports published this week in Haaretz newspaper that settler crimes in the West Bank against Palestinians over the past five years have rarely been punished and that IDF soldiers now claim settler violence against Palestinians far exceeds Palestinian violence against settlers.  As evidenced by Haaretz Op-Ed pieces, many Israelis are embarrassed and are publicly separating themselves from the out-of-control settler problem.  Others continue to look the other way. Ehud Barak used the term "terrorism" to describe these actions.  Yet when Prime Minister of Israel Netanyahu, the chief promoter of settler expansion, was asked to issue a strong statement, he noted that this is not terrorism, but more a boys-will-be-boys type of vandalism carried out by "a small group that does not represent the public that lives in Judea and Samaria." 

    And back in Iowa where caucuses are only days away, such stories seldom see the light of day while politicians, press, and pundits continue to pretend and preach, stumbling through an unenlightened mythic realtiy that leads only deeper into the night.

    As the dark awaits the dawn,
    so we await your light,
    O Star of promise scatter night,
    loving bright, loving bright,
    til shades of fear are gone. (ELW 261)

    by Fred & Gloria Strickert

    Saturday, December 3, 2011

    What is it with American news media?
    by Fred & Gloria Strickert

    "What is it with American news media?" the question was addressed to me by an American tourist this past week.  Visitors often raise similar questions.

    "We never hear about these things in the newspapers or on television news."

    "We have seen it with our own eyes.  The wall.  The checkpoints.  The inequalities.  You never hear about this back home."

    "Why is American news so slanted?"

    Every week I meet with visitors from the States, who come to hear about the work of the church in Jerusalem.  Usually by the end of the conversation a hand goes up.  "But what about the political situation?"
    or "This trip has been an eye opener." 
    "What is it with our American media?'

    I don't attempt to answer the why question.  I'm not an expert on media.  I simply affirm these visitors' perceptions, relating that my experience with the media over several decades has been much the same.

    I encourage them to go online and to try to read a number of sources.  "Multiple perspectives are always good," I usually tell them.  I always point them to where a person can quickly see that in Israel a healthy debate can occur in a single newspaper, something rare in American sources.

    I get up each morning before 6:00 a.m. to read several news sites online.

    This morning on I saw the headline
    "'Get to the damn table,' Israel told."
    Now that's rather strong language.  Who might be saying that?  Someone from the UN? the European Union? Jordan? 

    If you are familiar with the CNN main webpage, there are a few photos with feature pieces in the center of the page and a list of headlines for major stories going down the left side of the page.

    "'Get to the damn table,' Israel told" was the lead headline in a list of 15.
    This was clearly considered an important story.

    I clicked to see a photo of Leon Panetta, U.S. Secretary of Defense, looking rather exasperated.

    Photo: Getty Images

    CNN caption: U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has urged Israel to get to the "damn table" in peace talks

    The story included this important quote from Panetta, "The problem right now is we can't get them [the Israelis] to the damn table to at least sit down and begin to discuss their differences."  He was talking about peace talks with Palestinians, and then went on to talk about their refusal to enter diplomatic discussions with Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan.

    What a surprise!  From my perspective, it seems like such accusations from the Obama Administration and from both houses of Congress are always aimed at the Palestinians, betraying the U.S. government as anything but "an honest broker."

    This time it was addressed to Israel: "Get to the damn table."

    The story was not written by an intern or a reporter from a Middle Eastern city, but by Jen Rizzo CNN National Security Producer.

    So what's the problem?  Doesn't this mean that CNN is out there doing its job reporting both sides of the story?
    Not exactly.

    The story is missing from the U.S. edition of the CNN website.
    It's there in a prominent position on the International edition.
    But if you are an American clicking on CNN US edition, you might never know about this piece of news.

    It surely isn't a matter of space.  The U.S. edition included 23 headlines more than the 15 headlines on the International edition.  Although admittedly the U.S. edition had to make room for
    "The week's top 10 Celeb Quotes,"
    "Gun-themed purse delays teen flier,"
    "Student smashes window with butt"
    Yet there still was not room for this rather significant headline, and if there is no link, how will the browser ever find the story? 

    Scrolling down the CNN webpage  (, I find a few more secondary headlines divided by topic:
    U.S. news:  not there!
    World news: not there!
    Poitical news: not there!
    Video stories: not there!

    But if you look at the International edition, it's the top story.

    This is not an isolated story.   As background, note two particular stories that have been front and center in these last weeks-- perhaps they have been reported in the States, perhaps not:

    1) Haaretz reported from Israeli government sources that the Palestinian Authority already submitted to the Quartet on Nov. 14 their proposal for boundaries based on the 1967 green line with 1.9 % designated for land swaps.  This came in response to the Quartet's request to restart talks when President Abbas applied for statehood at  the UN.  In other words, they have complied, while the Netanyahu government refuses to comply and has no interest in restarting the peace talks-- as stated in the Haaretz article.

    2) Leon Panetta himself has made several trips to Tel Aviv in the last month appealing unsuccessfully for Israel to give assurances that it will not act unilaterally and secretly against Iran, and he and the US military have been reported as growing impatient with lack of cooperation by the Israeli Defense Minister.

    You can just imagine Mr. Panetta uttering those words, "Get to the damn table."  It wasn't a mistake.  It wasn't a mike left on. It wasn't a misquote.  It's clear frustration.  And so it's news.  News that needs reporting.

    The story was posted  Saturday monring 05:42 GM -- that's 7:42 Jerusalem time.
    As I write, it is now 4:30 p.m. and the article still does not appear on the U.S. edition
    of America's 24/7 Trusted News Source.  Hopefully it will eventually appear, but one would think in this fast-paced world of technology, they could just push a button and link the story.

    Within a half hour of the posting of the story on CNN International, Haaretz had a watered down headline on their website, "Panetta urges Israel to 'reach out' to Turkey, Egypt, and Palestinians."  At least they reported on the gist of the discussion.

    What is it with the American news media?

    A number of years ago I was interviewed by a reporter for Newsweek or Time, I don't remember. A week later I received an email from a missionary friend in Tanzania who told me he had read the article including my quotes and was impressed by the balance in the presentation of Palestinian and Israeli sides of the story. "Maybe Americans are starting to wake up." he wrote. Not really. The article never appeared in the American edition of the weekly newsmagazine. It only appeared in the International edition. Again, it should be emphasized that this was a balanced piece, yet it did not appear in print in the States. 

    It seems that the American media know how to report the news, they just filter it for American audiences.
    And this may explain a lot when one wonders why America stands apart from much of the world.

    As far as the discrepancies between CNN US edition and CNN International Edition, it's become obvious since the day we arrived in Jerusalem.  My laptop at home is my personal laptop-- set to the CNN US edition, but the laptop in my office at church is set to the International edition of CNN.  It didn't take long to notice, that the news stories that I would read on the latter were not the same as those when I'd check at home first thing in the morning.

    On May 15, when Palestinian refuges in commemoration of the Palestinian al-Nakba (the catastrophe) tried to cross the border from Lebanon and Syria and dozens were gunned down by the Israeli army, there were two totally different stories, both presented by CNN, one based solely on official Israeli Defense Force sources and the other including IDF sources and reports on the ground by witnesses and medical personnel.
    The former was posted on the CNN- US edition.  The latter on the CNN- International website.

    The IDF wised up years ago that what matters most is getting their version of the story out first, irrespective of the truth.  And it seems that's the version that gets reported in the States while the serious journalists take a bit longer to get the real story--sometimes too late for short attention spans.

    A similar thing happened at the end of the summer.  August 25 came toward the end of a rather violent week. A terror attack had killed seven Israelis in Southern Israel--universally condemned.  Eventually, a number of individuals from the Sinai were found responsible.  The attack, however, was followed by Israel bombing Gaza, then rockets fired from Gaza against southern Israel.  Then more bombing.

    When I checked the CNN website early that Thursday morning there were two totally different accounts, one on the US edition, one on the International edition.  When I checked at 8:25 a.m. it had not changed.

    Under the headline " Israel warplanes strike Gaza," the US edition reported,
    • "Israeli aircraft were in action Wednesday morning in at least three strikes against militants who targeted Israelis, the country's military said. The Israel Defense Forces claimed a "direct hit" on Zadi Ismail Asmar, whom it said was a weapons smuggler affiliated with Islamic Jihad."
    In fairness I must say that these are just the first sentences of a longer report  that described the attacks and deaths on Israeli civilians in southern Israel and reports that the bombing of Gaza was a response. The source of the report was the Israeli military, describing the attacks on "militants."

    Under the same headlinee on the same day at the same time, the international edition reported,
    •         'Israeli warplanes struck several times Wednesday and early Thursday along the country's border with Gaza, killing three people and wounding several others, medical sources told CNN.  Early Thursday, an Israeli warplane shot missiles at a social club in northern Gaza, killing two people and wounding 20, including women and children, medical sources said.  On Wednesday, an air strike on a tunnel between Rafa and Egypt left three people seriously wounded, the sources said.  The Israel Defense Forces said that an Israeli warplane hit an Islamic Jihad militant from the city of Rafa who was involved in smuggling weapons "and sought the execution of terrorist activity in Sinai."
     Unlike the first report, this included on-the-ground sources.  It also noted that the victims included more than just "militants" but regular civilians gathered in a social club.  It would appear that this article was written later than the first.  Yet it is curious why in this age of technology, the story was not also posted on the US edition for an American audience.  I checked back several times during the day, but I didn't see the American story updated to show that ordinary Palestinians are also victims.  Maybe it was added later, but I didn't see it.

    What is it with the American news media?

    We've been asking that question for years.

    Now we face that question each week from visitors who see a great discrepancy between the way the story is reported in the newspapers, on the nightly news, and by the large cable news networks.

    The best solution is to seek multiple sources and to ask critical questions.  Check out international news media.
    americans for peace now
    Churches for Middle East Peace

    And if you want to rely on CNN, go to the upper left hand corner of your website, and choose the International edition.  Of course, you might miss the latest on the Kardashians, Demi and Ashton, and Ms. Lohan. 

    by Fred & Gloria Strickert