Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Sunday Sermon: In the Land of the Good Shepherd

On Friday I returned home from the annual conference of deans of North America, which this year took place in Jerusalem. We were about 35 deans and spouses, from the US including Hawaii, Canada, and the Bahamas, as well as our hosts, the Deans of St George's College and St George's Anglican Cathedral. A gathering of shepherds, come together from far-flung folds to the land of the good shepherd. Our conference included a compressed version of the college's Palestine of Jesus tour, led by an extremely competent tour guide and our hosts.

Jerusalem is overwhelming. The old city, a five minute walk from the college, is walled in with impressive gateways. Everything is many centuries old, except for the goods on sale. Inside are alleyways, suggesting a rabbit warren or an ant hill. Dark twisting, uncertain underfoot, ancient stone cobblestones, all uneven, some stones wobbly. Stone Steps and ramps in unpredictable sequence taking us constantly from one level to another. Continuous shops on either side make up the souq or market, selling everything from spices - saffron by the pound in heaps - to shoes, underwear, baklava, kitchen gadgets, sides of lamb, jewelry and of course souvenirs: incense, crosses, candles, icons, vestments, pottery and glass from Hebron, olivewood figurines from Bethlehem. Haggling was expected and entered into with gusto. The crowds are incredible, and watch out for the handcarts and strollers. Bands of pilgrims, sheep with their shepherds, singing hymns, doing the stations of the cross, listening to their guides, every language under the sun, a truly Pentecostal experience.

Our group walked the Via Dolorosa, the way of the cross, starting at 6 am on Sunday. It was barely light when we left the college, about 24 of us, following dean Hosam in his cassock and the olive wood cross passed from dean to dean through Herod's gate into the old city. At first we saw only the occasional merchant opening up or a mother taking her child to school. As we progressed through the souq, the city woke up. A little boy scout, twos and threes of girls in school uniforms, an Ethiopian priest in bright yellow robes, a guy riding a tiny and very noisy forklift which echoed down the dark passage and interrupted our meditation. We sang Holy Week hymns as we walked. A Canadian colleague stumbled as he carried the cross from station 1 to 2, prompting a couple of subdued wisecracks about the first fall not being scheduled until station 3. The need to watch every step we took on the ancient paving gave me new insight into the horror of the exhausted, beaten Jesus stumbling through the city early on the first Good Friday. And the way the locals took us completely for granted must echo the dynamic of that same morning when it was just another troublemaker being crucified, something that happened almost every day of the week.

As we prayed the last couple of stations near the Holy Sepulchre, other pilgrim bands started to show up, and we started to hear hymns in other languages. Other sheep belonging to other folds. And as we found our way back to the College for breakfast before attending Eucharist in the cathedral we were aware of our unity with those other sheep, a unity in Christ, the one shepherd. It was easy to imagine Jesus with the disciples making up one of those groups of pilgrims, on their Passover week visit.

Our group was especially blessed by the leadership of Dean Hosam, a native of Nazareth and the first Palestinian dean of the cathedral, who has developed excellent relations with the leaders of other Christian denominations and other faiths in Jerusalem.   As a result, when we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Sunday afternoon, in the midst of the most incredible mob of people, we were able to go into an area held by the Armenian church, down several levels to the bedrock where we viewed a drawing of a boat, with the thankful inscription, "Lord we have arrived."
This drawing was left there by fourth century pilgrims, and it is never publicly displayed. Sheep of a very distant fold, who had once visited that holy place for the very same reason we were there, seeking the presence of the good shepherd in that space at the base of the giant rock they call Golgotha, a 15-foot high section of the abandoned quarry that 2000 years ago was judged unsuitable for building and still stands, with a notch in the top where a cross might have been slotted in. The stone that was rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.

From the Armenians, we went to the office of the Greek Orthodox guardians in the Holy Sepulchre, where we were permitted to view ancient icons and relics of the saints, including bony bits of none other than St George himself, mixed up with a couple of other saints in one display cabinet. Fabled shepherds of our faith, preserved after a fashion and venerated, adding to the stature of Christians there, a tiny and shrinking minority in Palestine.

On Tuesday our group visited with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, the senior Christian leader in Jerusalem and the chief guardian of the Holy Sepulchre. This audience was also a rare privilege. His Beatitude spoke with us for nearly two hours, entertained questions, and treated us to cognac and chocolate, at 10 in the morning. We drank an Easter toast - Alleluia, Christos aneste! - and he spoke of how our common calling as Christians is to witness to unity, especially in the face of secular powers and politics, the hired hands of the Gospel, which thrive on fear and promote division. There will be one flock and one shepherd, but it won't come about under the hand of the powers of this world.

Some of us had come armed with skepticism - the Holy Sepulchre is a symbol of Christian division, with different parts of the church controlled by three major denominations and three minor ones, and occasional reports of turf battles, but it's also possible to see it as a positive symbol of our common struggle towards unity, as the six sects manage most of the time to work in remarkable harmony.

This is especially evident when the secular authorities throw their weight about, as they did a couple of weeks before Easter, when the Israeli Antiquities Commission suddenly decided that the Tomb of Christ was too dilapidated to be safe for visitors, and they shut it down. The Patriarch consulted with his ecumenical colleagues and together they insisted on the tomb being reopened to the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who of course were coming to Jerusalem for the high holy days. We found the patriarch to be humble, self-effacing, full of humor and completely present to us, a wise and gentle shepherd to his complicated flock. He himself has given his life to the guardianship of Christianity in the Holy Land: he left his home in Greece to join the monastery in Jerusalem when he was 12 years old.

As remarkable as Jerusalem was, I was more able to connect with the Good Shepherd outside the city, in the dry hills of the Judean wilderness and on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. As we traveled north from Jerusalem we saw many flocks in the hills, all of them polyglot, multicolored, many of the animals more goat than sheep. Sometimes we had a glimpse of a shepherd, and once or twice a camel. We visited the church known as Mensa Christi, a little stone church on a pebble beach, traditionally venerated as the scene of the fish breakfast in John 21, when Jesus cálled the grieving disciples to throw their nets on the other side of the boat and the rehabilitated Peter received his threefold commission from the good shepherd: feed my sheep. That was where I felt the presence of the risen Christ most powerfully, as I waded in the warm shallows of the sea and looked out at a peaceful view that must not have changed much in 2 millennia.

The tragedy of this holy land, of course, is its divisions and the mutual fear that keeps the peoples of the land - Jews, Palestinians, Bedouin, Christian and Muslim, from seeking the promise that the name of Jerusalem itself holds out - the city of shalom, peace. Again and again those who spoke with our group repeated the request that we pray for the peace of Jerusalem; that we support efforts to develop an economic base, to bring children from different traditions together, to provide basic services such as health care and education for all the peoples of the land. Admittedly, the rabbi had a slightly different emphasis than the Palestinian Anglican, the Greek orthodox, or the Muslim scholar, but the presentation that made the deepest impression on us was one by two women. One was an American who had married a Palestinian Muslim man and settled in Jerusalem, only to have him shot by Israeli soldiers in a traffic altercation. The other was an Israeli Jew whose soldier son had been killed by a Palestinian sniper. They belong to a group called Parents' Circle, whose purpose is to travel in pairs and tell their stories of loss and pain in schools, churches, community groups. Jesus knew the power of telling our stories: that is how we discover the humanity in one another, and sharing our stories is the way toward becoming one flock, one body in Christ, as the good shepherd himself directs.

I am grateful to you and the Chapter for making my pilgrimage possible. You will all be hearing stories from the Holy Land for a while, and the trip has given me a new perspective on familiar Scriptures. It has also given incarnational urgency to the need for us all to work for peace and for the continued presence of Christians in the land where Jesus lived, died, and rose again for us. Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.

The Very Rev Penelope Bridges

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