Monday, August 27, 2012

Sermon for new YAGMs
by Fred & Gloria Strickert

Sermon for new YAGM installation:
“Where else would we go?”

It was only a short time ago – last January-- when we were reading the Gospel story about the call of the disciples—Peter and John in particular--to leave their boats, their fishing nets, and their families, to follow Jesus and dedicate themselves to lives of commitment and service.  And then things happened so fast, it was a whirlwind of activity going here and there trying to keep up with this Jesus of Nazareth walking from one village to the next and proclaiming the kingdom of God.  And all that led to a hillside near the Sea of Galilee and an afternoon lunch of loaves and fish with crowds beyond numbering—John says there were about 5,000 present and adding women and children that could mean 10, 15, 20,000 or more.  It’s good to get caught up in the crowds and to feel comfortable, to feel secure, especially when the menu lists foremost the bread of life. 
For five Sundays we’ve been reading Gospel lessons from John 6 with Jesus expounding upon the meaning of this bread come down from heaven.  Yet slowly, slowly, the crowds dissipate. Many return to their homes and daily routine, others trickle off a bit bored and looking for excitement, and others yet are starting to criticize Jesus’ words and find offense.  So by the end of John chapter 6, it appears that we’re back to the starting lineup.  And Peter says it well, “We signed on for the long haul.  Where else would we go?  Lord, you have the words of eternal life.”  ( John 6:68)


I think of those of you who have arrived here in Jerusalem most recently, especially new volunteers who have dedicated yourselves to a year of service.  I’m guessing it seems like just yesterday when you heard the call and responded with applications and letters, which you followed with a hustle and bustle of activity preparing yourself, and then, at least in the case of the ELCA- Young Adults in Global Mission who joined together with dozens of others heading to other parts of the world, together in a long discernment weekend, and then the week of orientation where perhaps you could be swallowed up in the crowd and all its group enthusiasm.  And then  the goodbyes, the long ride to the airport, the flight, and eventually the realization that only a few of you were left, and then in a quiet moment late at night a feeling of being all alone, and thoughts of “What am I doing here?”  or "Am I really up for this?" or “What next?”  And having just arrived two days ago, your eyes are still blurry, maybe confused, maybe uncertain, maybe even a little teart.  But down deep, your inner self is echoing those words of Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life?”
That blurry vision appears in one of my favorite paintings, Eugene Burnand’s "Peter and John running to the tomb on the morning of the resurrection,"  from the Orsay Museum in Paris.  This unique depiction reflects this same blurry vision, while these two disciples found themselves left all alone, now seemingly without Jesus clearly present.  Mary Magdalene had just awakened them—which explains their bad hair day--with the news of the empty tomb, and with this same question in mind, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” they take off running to the tomb with Mary following in the distance.  Running to the tomb, not knowing, full of doubts, yet believing that even after Good Friday Jesus has the words of eternal life. 
Thus the disciples with  looks of hopeful consternation, their urgent, purposeful race moves them past a well-centered frame to nearly run off canvas to the left, for that is where the light of the rising sun is taking them.  The focal point is off canvas, out of sight, still beyond recognition, beyond  perception, beyond comprehension and understanding—yet totally in realm of faith and hope. 
How appropriate this is for our context here at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, often described as just a stone’s throw from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, The Anastasis.  In my whimsy and wonder, I’d like to imagine this scene of Peter and John somewhere nearby, perhaps right in the vicinity of where we sit at this moment here in the St. John's Chapel, perhaps right under our feet, perhaps out in the street, where tourists run by every day, having been separated from their groups, and trying to catch up, where pilgrims race ahead, not wanting to miss that site or experience that will forever add meaning to their faith walk back home.
At the same time, I think how appropriate this image is for a community made up in large part by individuals on “temporary assignment,” short-term and long-term calls, and how sometimes it seems like we are racing/ running through our sojourn here.  We hit the ground running and when the day comes to leave, it seems like we had just arrived, running through our months and years here.
Yet it is significant that the artist has not chosen the Luke 24 text where it is only Simon Peter who races out to the tomb.  In John 20 it is the Beloved Disciple and Peter who run to the tomb together.  And to take a little artistic liberty, we might imagine Mary Magdalene in guise of the long distance jogger, off canvas to the right, having already completed her pre-dawn walk to the tomb, and having run back to tell the disciples, and now following breathless at a distance.  The point is that this trek to the tomb emphasizes community.  Peter is not alone.  Mary is not alone. The Beloved Disciple is not alone.  They are together in community—just as we are in this congregation.
And how interesting in the way the artist portrays a contrast in the characters!  As is almost always the case, the beloved disciple is depicted clean shaven and youthful, the youngest of the disciples, while Peter, the leader is further along in years, middle-aged, with a hint of grey, and out of breath.  And their clothes:  The Beloved Disciple in white—yes the idealism of youth, yes even the innocence of youth.  And Peter, dressed in drab earth-tones.  The two disciples contrast and yes they complement one another—just as our young volunteers and our older professionals bring various gifts to the table in this amazing community. 
Notice the hands.  Peter holding his chest with his right hand, “I think I’m about to have a heart-attack” and with the left about to make a gesture to interject a word of wisdom to John.  But the Beloved Disciple runs with hands clasped prayerfully as if he already sees something that Peter’s blurry eyes cannot. 
What happens next?  John 20 reports that the Beloved Disciple,  took off sprinting to the tomb and arrived first, yet out of respect and deference to his elder, waited outside bending to observe as best he could the grave wrappings.  Then impetuous Peter rushed in to inspect things from a different perspective—now the face cloth folded to the side—and to pause in reflection with the wisdom of age. But it all didn’t come together until the Beloved Disciple also entered, observed and believed.  Different gifts.  Different perspectives, different backgrounds, different ages, but all coming together with a single confession: The Lord is Risen.  He has the words of eternal life!
And here at Redeemer, perhaps what we offer best in community is an opportunity to pause periodically in that daily walk of accompaniment with the people of this place--that walk that is so often a sprint--to pause to reflect on the meaning of why we are here, why we seem to be running through this place, why we feel a sense of calling to follow in the footsteps of Peter and the Beloved Disciple, why we endure until the end.
With Peter & John, and also with Mary, we pause to gaze into the empty tomb, and with Mary to rest outside and hear the voice of the risen Jesus calling us, comforting and challenging at the same time—in word and sacrament we gather.  Healed and strengthened.  Yes, and then we run back to tell the others, to listen to their stories, to laugh with them, and sometimes to cry, to live in accompaniment whether walking or running alongside, to serve others, to be agents of healing to a tired and broken world.  In community, we are reminded again and again, “Lord,  You have the words of eternal life.”
Where else would we go?
by Fred & Gloria Strickert

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Laylat al-Khadr
by Fred & Gloria Strickert

Tonight is Laylat al-khadr, considered the holiest night of Ramadan.

This was the night in 610 A.D. when the angel Jibril (Gabriel) appeared to Muhammed during his fast in isolation on Mount Nur outside of Mecca.  "Recite!" were the first words from Gabriel's mouth, and what followed was the first of many revelations over the course of two decades that were later compiled as the Qur'an.

So thousands of Muslims -- tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands is more like it-- are making their way to the Haram al-Sharif in old city Jerusalem to spend the night in prayer.  The Israeli authorities announced that they would open the check point for Muslims--women, children, and men over the age of forty.  Buses and more buses fill all roads to the old city.

Ramadan, the ninth month in the lunar calendar, is, of course, the month of fasting from sun-up to sun-down.  It's not just food, but no water, no smoking, no sex, no evil thoughts or words.  Then with the setting of the sun, communities gather for an iftar, to break the fast.  First, a word of prayer, then the taste of fresh dates, and a glass of water.

We have adopted the custom of sitting on our patio on the Mount of Olives overlooking East Jerusalem and the old city to observe sundown each day of Ramadan.  The streets are now deserted with only a few stragglers heading home.  At about 7:30 p.m. the sun sets over West Jerusalem (and the Mediterranean somewhere in the distance), and immediately our most-talented muezzin begins the call to prayer, followed by several others from mosques in different directions.  Then a few moments of silence while the city is enveloped in prayer.  Then our eyes are fixed straight ahead until we see a flash and a puff of smoke hovering over Saladin Street north of the old city.  Two and a half seconds later (sound does travel much slower than light!), the sound "Boom!" of the Ramadan Cannon, announcing to Muslims, "Take and eat!"

For the last 120 years the family of Ranjay Sanduka has been responsible for setting off the Ramadan cannon each evening from the Muslim cemetery just north of the old city in view of a signal from al-Aqsa Mosque.  You can read about him in this BBC article or watch him in action in this YouTube video

Ranjay pauses for a well-deserved drink after fulfilling his task of signaling every Muslim in Jerusalem that the time has come to bite into that tasty date.

We think of fasting periods in our religions--Ramadan and Lent alike--as times for giving up something.  Muslims tell us that it is a time for adding something or emphasizing the spiritual part of their lives-- especially other pillars of Islam like prayer and charity, and in the recitation of Suras from the Qur'an.   

Each evening we hear the sound of hymns raising up from Haram al-Sharif.  Each morning as I walk through the Muslim Quarter, shopkeepers are engrossed in reading their Qur'ans.  And then there is the shopkeeper across from Redeemer Church who each Friday of Ramadan shares his earnings with anyone in need, no questions asked.

To be sure Ramadan is a time for celebration-- in Jerusalem for Jerusalemites and in the West Bank for West Bank residents.

People buy gifts for their children or new clothes.  Lights and decorations are purchased to decorate homes.

toOur favorite felafel stand has been re-equipped  to make a special Ramadan pancake, called Katayeh,  for people to take home to stuff with nuts and cinnamon, and bake in dripping honey.

And for many the evenings are for celebration. 
And each Friday of Ramadan, as also on this night of Laylat al-Khadr, West Bank Muslims numbering in the thousands  line up for hours at the check-points, standing in the hot August sun without food or drink, humbling themselves in hopes of being admitted. . .

. . . for the privilege of praying at their holy shrine in their holy city.

Haaretz newspaper later reported that Israel unexpectedly increased permits from 16,700 from last year to 123,514 this year.

photo credits: Reuters news service
by Fred & Gloria Strickert

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Emigration & Statistics
by Fred & Gloria Strickert

On Friday of this week, we attended a conference at the International Center of Bethlehem, the conference center of Christmas Lutheran Church where Mitri Raheb is the pastor.  We have come to expect when Mitri is behind a project, it will be a first-class operation, it will increase our understanding, and we will leave feeling better for the experience.

The conference title printed above from the header of the conference program notes that the focus was on the Christian presence here in the Holy Land.  A conference like this could have easily been titled "Christian Absence" focusing on the dwindling Christian presence and the phenomenon of Christian emigration. The oft-quoted figure is that Christians here number less than 2 % of the population, and many of us have reflected on what Jerusalem and Bethlehem would be like if the day came when there are no Christians left and the churches became museums of the past?  What would this mean for us individually?  What would this mean for the global church?

Yet the conference was not aimed at us.  It was aimed at Palestinian Christians to reflect on the challenges and opportunites that confront them.  The language of the conference was  Arabic with tranlsation provided for the handful of us expatriates who attended.  The several hundred attendees included religious leaders, but also sociologists, historians, and educators from the Arab speaking Christian community living in Israel, as well as the West Bank.  Half of the attendees were youth--after all it is their future that is at stake.

The terms challenges and opportunities  are significant.  For decades we have been talking about the problem of Christian emigration and have been using statistics to demonstrate it.  The CBS News  60 Minutes program on the plight of Christians last April is an example that makes us sit up and take notice. 

The conference corresponded to a book launching of not one, not two, but three new publications by the Diyar Consortium on the topic of Christian emigration and the Christian presence in the Holy Land.    The books are hot of the press and will soon be available at

Palestinian Christians in the West Bank: Facts, Figures, and Trends, by Mitri Raheb, Rafit Odeh Kasis, and Rania al Qass Collings, is an updated and expanded edition of a 2008 study also published in book form by Diyar and available online in a pdf. file that can be accessed here.

Their concern was more that just the statistics, but the questions of Why? and What are we going to do about it? In the preface he wrote that the purpose of the study was so that "Christianity will survive and thrive."

Recently, there has been a lot of misrepresentation of the facts and misuse of statistics regarding Christian emigration from the Holy Land--especially having surfaced in this year's American presidential election campaign and in an Op-Ed published in the March 9 Wall Street Journal by the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.  The result was a strong campaign of letters to the editor by American Church leaders and also by Palestinian Christians.   Among the responses was one by Pastor Raheb. Yet his approach is also one of providing the information needed to present interpretations clearly and factually.  This book will be an important resource in that regard.

The book also includes an important 2008 questionaire in which Christian families who were seriously considering emigration were asked to state their reasons.  This is what they said:
  1. Lack of freedom and security --32.6 %
  2. Deteriorating Economy--26.4 %
  3. Political Instability -- 19.4 %
Churches, like the ELCJHL, have responded with strategies to provide affordable housing--such as the proposed Mount of Olives Housing Project--vocational training, and leadership development. 

For those of us in the West, one of the surprises is that only a very few (less than one per cent) listed "religious extremism" as a factor in their decision to emigrate. 

Studies like these have been available for some time, yet there are many who are convinced that Christians are being driven out by Muslims.  A current top-ten New York Times Book in fiction describes an imaginary scene of a papal visit to the Holy Land with the Pope delivering a speech in Bethlehem scolding the Muslims as responsible for the demise of Christians in Bethlehem.  Similar ideas are also spread by popular evangelical preachers who frequently make pilgrimage to the Holy Land, yet never speak to the local Christians.  The same was argued in the Wall Street Journal piece.

Arab Christians in Israel: Facts, Figures and Trends was written by Dr. Johnny Mansour, A Christian from Ibillin in the Galilee and a Professor of History at Haifa University, to present the same kind of accurate and complete information about the 151,000 Christians who are Israeli citizens.  The focus is on Arab Christians, but with the realization that the numbers of Christians in Israel also include Messianic Jews, migrant workers from places like the Philippines and Thailand, Ethiopians, and 20,000 Russian Orthodox Christians who immigrated to Israel in the late 1990s as part of the massive immigration of Russian Jews.  Charts and graphs showing the high level of education by Arab Christians, yet also high unemployment rates, low acceptance into Israeli univeristies, and similar difficulties, support the common description of Arab Israelis as second-class citizens. 

A third book presents another side to emigration--the Christian Palestinian emigration for economic reasons to Latin America at the beginning of the 20th century.  Violet Raheb has edited Latin Americans with Palestinian Roots compiling a series of new studies by several Palestinian historians and several Latin Americans who reflect on their families' experiences.  Most Iowans are aware of the large immigration to Cedar Rapids from Lebanon and Syria.
Did you know?
  • Many Christians merchants from Bethlehem brought olive wood and mother-of-pearl wares to the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, receiving business invitations to the U.S.A., Mexico, Guatemala and other countries.
  • Descendants of these early Christian immigrants (most from Bethlehem region) to Latin America now number over half a million.
  • The highest number of Palestinians are found in Chile.
  • The highest percentage are found in Honduras.
  • Several presidents of Honduras and El Salvador have been Palestinian.
  • By 1930, twenty of 58 clothing factories were owned by Palestinians.
  • 77 % of the immirgrants to Chile were male, 40% were under the age of 20.
Again the reason for emigration was economic with many young men sending back funds to help their families back home.  Others returned to their homeland after a time--the greatest number after World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. 

One of the interesting findings is the role of emigration and repatriation in the self understanding of Palestinian identity, especially as Britian officially recognized Palestinian citizenship for those who left under Ottoman passport according to the stipulations of the Treaty of Lausanne.

That early emigration influenced Palestinian architecture with Bethlehem's Jacir Palace, built by Suleiman Jacir in 1910, and now incorporated into the Intercontinental Hotel.

by Fred & Gloria Strickert