Sermons from the Sabbatical: Searching for Shalom

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A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.
Sermons from the Sabbatical: Searching for Shalom
Psalm 34:11-22 1 Peter 3:8-12; Ezekiel 34:11-16;20-24
September 10, 2017

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

I didn’t know it at the time, but when I first arrived in Jerusalem in June, I was beginning a search for peace in the Middle East. [Note: I spent a month at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusualem)

Peace, which in Hebrew is the word, Shalom, to be clear is not just the absence of conflict… it is more than stopping the violence… Peace or Shalom in Hebrew means wholeness… that sense that all things are well… you have your health, your life… relationships are going well… It is more than simply stopping the violence which is why building walls in Israel will never bring Shalom… it may stop conflict for a while, but it will not bring peace. (Shalom or in Arabic: Salam)

Looking back on that month and meeting with so many groups of people…
Zionists who would not acknowledge the right of Palestinians to exist (in fact the one I met told me that there is no such thing as a Palestinian) …

I met more progressive and secular Jews who while supporting the right of Israel to a homeland also have sympathy for the Palestinians…

Then I met Palestinians who live in a refugee camp for 50 years… who think the solution to their problems is to kick all the Jews out… then there were Palestinians who acknowledge the presence of the Jews and want to work out a solution but feel oppressed by the Jews as they are forced to live behind a wall that imprisons them…

Looking back and having met Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians… Looking back on all of those people and experiences… I realize they all have one basic theme in common: They are all searching for Shalom… Salam…for peace… they all want a life without fear… they want a place where they can raise children, earn a living and not feel oppressed or live in fear of the other. They all want peace.

The text from I Peter today (quoting the Psalm) reminds us as Christians of our calling to “seek peace and pursue it”… the text from Ezekiel today recalls another time in Israel when there was no Shalom in the land: there was inequality among God’s people… some people had it good while others were left out. There were bad shepherds who didn’t seem to care: they really didn’t look after those who were hurting.

The word to Ezekiel reminds us that the Lord knows this is not a sustainable situation for Israel… and that this disparity and injustice displeases God… and that the justice of God is what will lead to Shalom… that God will be the good shepherd who seeks the lost, brings back the stray, binds up the injured and strengthens the week… and will destroy the strong because they get in the way of peace… of Shalom for God’s world.

But here is where it gets tricky for me. The temptation is to pick a side and set up a story that pits good versus evil like in an old Western. The temptation is to side with Palestinians or Jews (take your pick) and in order to justify your position, you paint one as good and the other as evil. If only life were that simple. Reformed Christians know that all of us are caught up in a web of sin and self-denial…

Reinhold Niebuhr discovered and would remind us that sin infects everything we do almost like a virus… even the best intentions are not immune from the virus of sin…. So be careful when you label your side as pure and the other as evil. Groups, tribes and nations are especially vulnerable to corruption of sin.

Having said that, one of the insights I share with people from my trip is this.
Both Jews and Palestinians share something else in common… they have both been treated unfairly… both have experienced great injustice.

For Jews, history has not been kind. I remember going through the Holocaust museum in Israel with a Zionist… as he takes us through the museum he telling us with a hint of contempt how Americans knew about the death camps long before we liberated them… for a year or two we knew about them and did nothing. Nothing. He points to a picture of the Statue of Liberty, showing a ship of Jews being turned away from America and sent back to Europe to face their fate. They were refugees and we turned them away. Today add to that the rise of anti-Semitic hate groups in places even like America and Europe… then there are nations like Iran who are arming Hamas on the Gaza strip…

Thinking of all that, you can begin to understand why Jews live in fear… why they don’t trust anyone… why they feel so strongly about needing some place… a place to call home… Because when they were weak… the strong did nothing to help them. When they were suffering, they were turned away.

As a result, when WW 2 was over, in 1947, some believe it was out of guilt that the United Nations partitioned Palestine between Arabs and Jews… offered them Palestine as a place to call home. Probably looked good on paper.

But that created a problem. Turns out that there were people living in Palestine.
When the Jewish military moved into the villages where Arabs lived, they ended up destroying or evacuating 450 villages, displacing 700,000-800,000 Palestinians from their homes.

I met a Palestinian woman who put it this way when talking with our group. We had lunch in her home. She asked one of our members to give her their cell phone. They did. She took it and then gave it to another member of our group.. “Now” , she said, “It is yours!” She says, that’s what the UN did to our people.

Over time and wars we have now a situation where Palestinians are literally walled in by Israel (they call it an open air prison) ; settlements are being built on their land as they are being pushed out… And now some Palestinians have been living in refugee camps for 50 years. Palestinian Christians in the little town of Bethlehem are forced to live behind the walls. Those who are allowed to leave must have work permits… there are checkpoints they must pass through just to go to work… when they are allowed to go through… Israel can close any checkpoint at any time.
I met many a Palestinian who has never been allowed to leave Bethlehem to go to Jerusalem… a 20 minute bus ride away.

Imagine being a Palestinian with a story of how Jewish people came and took your villages and your freedom. Then a wall is built around what little territory you have left. If you work in Israel, it could take you a couple of hours to go through all the checkpoints… even for Christians. If you get sick, the ambulance has to go through a check point before taking you to the hospital. In an emergency, you could die with the delay. If your life looked like that, you too would be frustrated… and you might be tempted to think that the way to find peace is by throwing stones… and trying to kick out those who took over your land just a few decades ago. You might have a little pent up frustration.

Interestingly, I learned Palestinians have something else in common with the Jews. They need a place to live, they understand what it is like to be treated unjustly and to be rejected, they live in fear of the other… they desire security and a better future for their families and they too are searching for Shalom.

Which is the tragic and ironic thing if you ask me… they are all searching for shalom—EVERYONE wants Shalom– but it is hard to find. Each group thinks they will find it if the other one simply disappear…

What is saddest of all is that few are seeking justice for everyone. Each seeks justice for their own side… but when it comes to how to treat the other… the talk of justice seems to fade.

Leaving me to wonder… where does one find this peace, this Shalom for Israel and Palestine… For Jews, Muslims, and Christians—all children of Abraham?

In my search for Shalom, I was blessed to catch glimpses of this peace that seems so elusive. Along the journey I met Palestinians and Jews who are wonderful friends to one another… who understand that if there is to be real peace, there must be peace for all.

One of our Palestinian tour guides , Hussam, told us about his participation in the Hands of Peace, an interfaith organization working for justice and to bring peace to this troubled land.

Years earlier he had been one of those angry young men throwing stones at Jews in the first Intifada… throwing rocks at Jews… partly because it was fun and the other because he was frustrated. He hated the Jews. He spent over 2 and a half years in prison.

Over the years he had experiences that changed him. He ended up in a Mennonite college in Virginia learning the ways of peace… and he is now home seeking peace and justice for all. He is one of two guides that led us on a tour: The other guide is Jewish, named Yuval. They have become such good friends that Hamal performed the wedding for his Jewish friend Yuval. That encourages me. It feels like Shalom/Salam to me.

Blessed are the peacemakers, said Jesus… and blessed were we who met the peacemakers…they are a source of encouragement to me. They don’t make the headlines… but they are there… and if we want to make an impact, we would do well to support them… as they search for Shalom.

The search for Shalom and peace is a challenging one. And my advice and the advice of my fellow pastors and friends who shared this experience in June is this: If you think finding peace in the Middle East is simple… as simple as taking sides… think again. It is complicated.

I remember a conversation with Stephanie Saldana who is a Texan who now lives in Israel. As I was trying to sort this out, she told me that a Christian response is very difficult because it always feels like we are taking sides… but what we should be doing is wishing for peace for all people in the Middle East.

I thought, this is sort of like doing marriage counseling. Sometimes a couple comes to you… and one begins to think you are taking a side in their conflict… but all the while, the pastor or counselor is actually working for peace in the relationship. A wise counselor or pastor is for the marriage.So it is, Christians should be for peace for all… for justice for all.

Stephanie says that what people often miss is that the occupation is poisonous for the Israeli soul… how can occupying someone else be good for you?
Peace would be good for the soul. Same thing applies for Palestinians… how can hatred of Jews be good for your soul? When was the last time hatred and prejudice and injustice was good for anyone’s soul?

There must be a better way. I wonder if you have noticed that I’ve been wearing a button on Sunday morning that says “Peace is Possible”. I wear it in honor of a pastor I met when I attended the Church of the Good Shepherd in Nablus, Israel… His name is “Raheem” (short for Ibrahim) … and he was wearing this button.

Raheem is an amazing, brave, courageous and wise pastor. He is an Arab Palestinian Christian who has served his parish for 10 years. The day we worshipped with him was his last Sunday. He is moving to serve a church in Syria- in the midst of a very conservative, fundamentalist Muslim town in the desert. I’m praying for him. I’m praying peace will be possible there.

Because it was his last Sunday, we were there for the reception that honored him with tea. The surprise came when a Muslim woman asked to speak. She said, she wanted to honor him for all of the support he has offered the Muslim community and her personally (he had cared for her mother)… He was known among Muslims as someone who cared for the poor…and emphasized how he cared for EVERYONE no matter their religion. She had a gift for him: the first thing she had ever made in a weaving class: an angel… because he had been like an angel to them.

After the reception… Raheem shared the story of that lady… which he was pleased to say was a sign of success at building bridges between the church and community.
He said that when he came in 2007, something had happened in Gaza and Hamas had made things very tense… And that tension spread to Nablus… where Christians were a minority. He was worried what might happen in his community. So he saw that Christians needed to build bridges with Muslims in order to protect themselves. (It helps that Raheem has a degree in Islamic architecture and understands Islamic theology)… So this is what he did: He invited 100 Imams (by letter) of 100 mosques to a meeting. 15 showed up but he was pleased. He says, ten years later, 50 show up for their monthly meetings and they build bridges.

As he reflected on the conflict and the role of Christians, he said:
“I believe in non-violence.” When speaking to an Israeli leader he told him that this is a struggle for peace and justice… He says peace will only be possible when every side has rights. He said for him this is not simply a political matter. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.”

When George Bush was president, he met with the ambassador of the US. He told the ambassador: we don’t want to build walls but bridges. We need peace education and let a new generation grow up. We need to share our stories with one another and learn how justice for all can lead to the way of peace. He says, if there is a will to build peace, there is a way… the key is sharing… learning to live together. He said we need a 3rd party to help us… almost like a marriage counselor…not to take sides but to stand in the middle and help us work it out.

Oh, I thank God for Raheem and his passion for peace… for the good shepherd he is in a conflicted part of the world. He inspires me and humbles me at the same time.
Ezekiel would say he follows the way of the Lord who seeks to be a shepherd of the sheep… who seeks what is lost… whose calling is to bring back the strays… to bind up the injured… to strengthen the weak… and feed them with justice… “

If you are searching for Shalom, for Salam … if you want to “seek peace and pursue it”–following the ways of the Lord, it seems, is not a bad place to start. It may be the only way to find the peace we all long for in this weary world. Amen.