The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany: February 19, 2017
Guest Preacher: The Rev. Deborah Dresser
Mother Dresser, the retired rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Newburgh, served as Chair of the Newburgh Interfaith Dialogue, which included the first public forum on Islam. She represented the interests of Jerusalem on the New York Diocesan Global Mission Commission and received the Bishop’s Cross in 2008, in part for her work in Jerusalem. In 2013, Mother Dresser completed a term as the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem which supports and advocates for the 27 institutions of the Diocese of Jerusalem.
Kamal is now 6 years old. Kamal Farsun lives in Gaza City with his mother, grandmother and two siblings. His young life has been shaped by death, bombings, makeshift shelters, scarcity of clean water, food, and fuel.
Two years ago his mother desperate to keep her family warm in January sent the children out to gather scraps of wood and then piled them in what was left of her living room. It was an open fire and Kamal distracted, tripped and fell into the fire. He was severely burned.
These days such desperate and painful stories are not the exception in Gaza. Gaza is the strip of land between Israel and Egypt 25 miles long and 3 to 7 miles wide bordering the Mediterranean; Israel on the east; Egypt on the west Long ago it was a thriving metropolis populated by people of diverse ethnic backgrounds, vibrant commerce and cultural activity. It was on the cross roads of great civilizations.
Today, the once fluid borders are marked by fences to keep people in and to keep people out. On the east, Palestinians and Israelis, neighbors on either side of the check points live in deep suspicion and fear of one another. The rockets and the bombs that are hurled by one side and then the other are fueled by apprehension, if not dread, and reasonable blame each for the other.
The biblical concept of loving your neighbor is in shreds and children standing in the cross fire are burned.
I was graciously asked to come this morning to St. Michael’s to preach and then share a forum with you following the liturgy—a forum that will specially focus on the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem with further word on Gaza and the humanitarian work that you as a parish have supported for Angels of Ahli—an effort that directly helps young people such as Kamal.
How timely it is that the readings for today—both the Old Testament and the Gospel—raise up the commandment “Love your neighbor.” How timely, for this commandment speaks directly to situations throughout the world and in particular Gaza.
Love your neighbor as yourself. I suspect that this commandment given by Jesus is so familiar to us as the ethical hallmark of Christianity that we forget that the commandment originates in the Torah, in the 19th chapter of Leviticus.
Leviticus draws together the instructions of the Levites, the priestly cast of Judaism. And, in this particular part of Leviticus the writers make the extraordinary claim that as Your God is holy, so too you have been made holy. From that radical statement follows a list of ethical instructions of what not to do: lying, cheating, defrauding. The list includes prohibitions against profaning the name of God and hording. It is a list of ways that inhibit God’s holiness shining forth from within an individual person.
Like a string of beads, the clasp is shaped by the positive commandment, love your neighbor as yourself. As God’s holiness resides in you, that holiness is manifest as love for the other, as love for oneself. It is all connected.
And, it isn’t just right thinking, it is right doing. Note that among this string of ethical laws we read—when the grapes of the vineyards are harvested, leave some for the aliens, leave some for your neighbor that their hunger may be satisfied. It’s very clear that the love of God is evident in the generosity that is extended to our neighbor.
But this brings us to the nagging question, who is your neighbor?
It is very understandable that many might think that the category of neighbor within Judaism is exclusive. Chapter and verse refer to the Israelites as God’s chosen people, the covenant that is marked by circumcision, laws that separate out the Gentiles from the Jews support the idea that neighbor is exclusive. “Oh, my neighbor is one of us.”
Scripture does not necessarily support this. The word for neighbor in Hebrew is re’a which is translated alien or foreigner. Throughout the Hebrew scripture we read that re’a refers to everyone on earth without any distinction of tribe or nation. Furthermore the scripture calls the Israelite to treat the non-Israelite fairly, thus living out the presence of God in God’s people.
Fast forwarding about 500 years, we see Jesus standing amidst the crowd in Israel, probably somewhere overlooking the Lake of the Galilee. His sermon has the ring of Leviticus calling people to a place of blessedness—of holiness—through their intentions and their actions. And, then he brings it all together with the same commandment we heard in Leviticus love your neighbor as yourself.
I think Jesus must have known that this commandment would not fall on deaf ears. It must have had a ring of familiarity to the people in the crowd BUT perhaps the energy of Jesus’s message was aimed at their forgetfulness. Certainly what he was preaching was not new; it’s just that the people had either forgotten how to live out God’s inclusive love or maybe he saw that it was more convenient for them to draw circles around what was familiar and comfortable and give it the veneer of purity.
I rather like the image of Jesus bouncing up and down on his toes saying with some urgency, People, let’s loosen up here and lay down the boundaries of who’s in and who’s out. The fences you have constructed are keeping you from loving your neighbor. He’s got the whole world in HIS hands—as we sing.Now, try reaching out and taking hold of your neighbor’s hand.” Well, not such a bad mantra for a follower of Christ.
Now fast forward two thousand years to the present day in the Holy Land to think about loving our neighbor among peoples living behind high walls out of fear and anger, where people are suffering in one way or another on a daily basis. But we are not here to parse out who is politically right and who is wrong Yet we are called to see how the Gospel comes alive and sheds light into the darkness of this land of conflict. We read a lot about Israel and the West Bank/Palestine –one-state two-state solution. We pray earnestly for peace, a just peace that hopefully will come, when we do not know when.
But this we do know, the Gospel cannot wait. Children get up every morning to go to school if there is a school to take them, people get sick and need hospitals, men and women, young and old need work.It is in these daily situations of just living through the day, through the month, building a future, that the commandment to love your neighbor is immediate and in the full sense of the word is realized through hand of Christ.
The Christian presence makes a tangible and vital difference in the lives of people who live in the Holy Land—in Israel and Palestine. Within the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem alone we see the commitment of the church to serve Muslims and Christians together where ever there is need: in schools and hospitals, rehabilitation centers for children with severe birth defects—job training centers while continuing to search for resolutions that will benefit Israeli’s as well.
Now, let me return to Gaza and shine a spot light on this particular part of the Diocese of Jerusalem and pick up on Kamal and the Al Ahli hospital which is in the heart of Gaza city.
Kamal is one of hundreds of children who suffer terrible burns either from these makeshift home fires or bombs. It is because of these children that the voice of Christ pierces through the walls that have been raised between religions, ethnicity and political ideologies. It is Christ’s voice that cuts through it all the partiality that political forces can bring to bear. It is the voice of God that we hear our neighbors in need.
The hand of Christ is at work in Ah Ahli hospital the oldest hospital in Gaza; it is run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. It is the only Christian institution in Gaza serving both Muslim and Christians alike, the very young and aged, those who can pay and most who cannot. Al Ahli serves women who come for cancer screening and treatment, those who have a ruptured appendix or a broken foot, and all the Kamals of Gaza who suffer extensive burns. It is not only a place of medical expertise it is in a real sense holy ground. The staff, both Christian and Muslim fuse their medical expertise with spirituality that draws on the love of God the hospital is truly a place of prayer and healing.
We are all called to a place of prayer and healing, not just for ourselves, however much we need God’s grace, but beyond the lines of familiarity to touch the lives of people whom we do not even know but who share God’s creation with us and who are linked inextricably to us through our common humanity. We are called to express God’s blessedness through our intentions and our actions.
My hope is that you will continue to support the people of Gaza, Muslim and Christian, support the doctors and therapists and diagnosticians who daily offer medical and psychological help under arduous and sometimes dangerous conditions because Christ has called them to be in this place. May you hear the voice of Jesus call you, too, to act out of your generosity for the sake of your neighbor.