Messy Question

Reading The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan made a deep impact on me. Having visited the Land of the Holy One nearly two years ago, the story line was vivid as my own memories wove themselves through the scenes and situations chronicled in the book. Dalia Eshkenazi (now Landau) moved from Bulgaria to Israel as a baby with her Jewish parents. Bashir Al Khayri, a Palestinian national, was driven from the very home in Al-Ramla in which Dalia ends up living. The story of their unusual and fragile friendship is both tragic and cautiously hopeful.

The challenging story in The Lemon Tree reminded me of the political drama in our own country nearly one year ago between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould. All were asking: was there or wasn’t there inappropriate pressure by the PMO on the Attorney-General in the SNC-Lavalin case? No matter who is telling the truth, more than one commentator highlighted the presence of cultural and social chasms that can play a role when two or more parties report vastly different perceptions and understandings of the same situation, in this case Indigenous and white/settler. Add to this the possible differences in understanding between men and women on what is considered “undue pressure” and when it is acceptable, and we have a perfect recipe for disastrous misunderstanding.

An even greater chasm revealed itself in The Lemon Tree. Two people of good will and big hearts worked hard at making room for each other’s ethnic narrative, a narrative about the same land, the same political situation, yet a narrative that is diametrically opposed, depending on the Jewish or the Palestinian perspective. The tensions and dilemmas this making-room created is aptly and painfully described in their journey together over a span of sixty years. “I feel the whole land is in my heart,” says Dalia to Bashir, “and I know the whole land is also in your heart. (…) Yet we couldn’t find two people who could disagree more on how to visualize the viability of this land. And yet we are so deeply connected. And what connects us? The same thing that separates us. This land.” (p. 261-262)

Time and again Dalia and Bashir go to great lengths to put themselves in the place of the other, to feel the other’s frustration and pain, to grow affinity and empathy, and to see a way forward into a future of hope together through the thick mist of Israel’s political tactics of apartheid-style treatment of their Palestinian compatriots, leading to a humanitarian and a political crisis: I know that what we consider terror from your side, your people considers their heroic “armed struggle” with the means at their disposal. What we consider our right to self-defense, when we bomb Palestinian targets from the air and inevitably hit civilians, you consider mass terror from the air with advanced technology. Each side has an ingenuity for justifying its own position. How long shall we perpetuate this vicious circle? (from Dalia’s open letter to Bashir)
Bashir’s and Dalia’s attempts to make space for one another in their minds and hearts is a heroic act dared only by few courageous souls. But even they reach a boundary in their own self-understanding and that of his and her people, a Rubicon they could not, in good conscience, cross.

Could it be that political firestorms such as the one we witnessed between Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould are fueled by similar cultural and social differences in perception as when white settlers and Indigenous parties signed the Treaties over 150 years ago? Each had a vastly different understanding of what exactly was being signed. Each attributed different values and applied different emphases. These vastly different interpretations only showed up over time, resulting in social and economic, cultural and political debris that is still affecting us today. Justin Trudeau may claim to be committed to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in Canada, but what he means by that and what the Indigenous peoples themselves understand and need could be two different things. It is not hard to see in the conflict between a Prime Minister, male and descendant from settlers, and a former Attorney-General, female and of Indigenous descent, all the misunderstandings and cultural gaps of the past 200 years triggered, if not upfront, at least as shadows in the mirrors of truth. Despite everyone’s best intentions, there are some chasms that seem impossible to overcome. There are some boundaries we cross only at great personal risk.

So here’s the messy question: How do we engage one another when boundaries and understandings are deeply conditioned, some considered non-negotiable even, turning into barriers and oppressive forces for others? This question doesn’t only play out in global or political arenas. I encounter it in my own circles — family and friends, church and ministry — often provoked by painful situations, dilemmas or confrontations. Sometimes life moves in a direction that is mighty difficult to understand, let alone trust. And I’m not referring to harmful or destructive choices such as addictions, abuse or other forms of behaviour that jeopardize health and safety.

No, I simply mean directions in life that feel completely out of sync with our own. Or interpretations and understandings of a particular situation that are so far apart, such as between Dalia and Bashir, or between Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould, that we wonder if we are even referring to the same event at all. When this occur once, okay, twice, okay. But when instances begin to accumulate and form a pattern determining our perception, then what? Like a thief in the night, common ground can erode, shared values begin to diminish, delight in one another give way to too many frowns and question marks, and finally trust diminished and betrayed. It requires a heroic act of the will to remain connected and committed, to maintain faith in one another. I admire Bashir and Dalia’s commitment to their friendship, however painful. And Dalia has found her own creative way to provide hope for future generations of Jewish and Palestinian women, youth and children in The Open House in Ramla. As far as our Prime Minister and the former Attorney-General is concerned, the jury is still out, even nearly a year later.

I have no neat answer, but I am curious if anyone else does. Does anyone even care about the question? This blog reflection feels more like rambling than others, but I’m not apologizing. It’s that way because it’s messy. Especially in this day as so many realities considered foundational in the past are melting away, posing and living with messy questions becomes crucial for reconciling and healing reasons in a shared future:
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. ~ Rainer Maria Rilke, from “Letters to a Young Poet”

The Thundering Almighty

I’m not sure about you, but I don’t especially appreciate being blasted by the Almighty when I come to church. Yet, that’s what God is doing through Isaiah’s words this morning. Those words from the Holy Book remind me of Annie Dillard who wrote the following words:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so innocently invoke?! People in church are like children playing with chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet bonnets to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

I feel like saying, cool it, Holy One, at least we show up! Maybe we should have chosen to celebrate All Saints instead this morning. In Annie Dillard’s words, and in Isaiah’s words, the sleeping God is awake this morning, calling us to account. So what about us? Are we awake??

This morning’s harsh words from Isaiah come from the very first chapter. Shocking really … for we tend to associate Isaiah with lovely poetry, with a vision for a world in perfect harmony and peace, with beautiful words promising a Messiah. And yet we hear today: What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?! I have had enough of burnt-offerings … I do not delight in the blood …Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.

But here’s a peculiar thing though: the people to whom Isaiah’s words are addressed are appropriately … pious … They are performing the required sacrifices; they are attending to their religious obligations. They are not worshipping other gods. They are law-abiding worshippers of Yahweh … or at least they think they are…

So what’s the problem for the Almighty? Why this fury and fire and brimstone from on high? And Isaiah isn’t the only one aflame with God’s fury. Amos, one of Isaiah’s contemporaries, lashes out in similar fashion:
I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. (Amos 5:21-24)

Here’s the thing that ticks God off. While the well-off and comfy ones of Israel spent fortunes on performing the required temple sacrifices and rituals, the poor and destitute couldn’t even rub two pennies together to provide the basics of life for themselves and their loved ones. What infuriated the Almighty was the extravagance of the religious requirements and rituals against the abysmal destitution of countless poor within their own communities, sometimes even within their own families. That’s what infuriated the Almighty!

Worshiping God is not an end in itself nor to gain brownie points for ourselves. Worship is to lead to God-like action and God-like relations of justice and reconciliation, of mercy and grace. If worship does not do that, it’s meaningless, and God’s voice will thunder. Listen to words from a few others, prophets in our time:

Liturgy forces us into social justice. But this poses an immense challenge. We are to worship in ways that changes not only the hearts of worshippers but, through them, the ways of the world – and of the church. shipers but, through them, the way the world – and the church – are organized and function. ~ The Liturgy that Does Justice, James L. Empereur, SJ, and Christopher Kiesling, OP. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 1990

Our habits and predetermined ways, … have fastened such blinders on us that, as a whole, Christians and Christian churches have not even the foggiest notion of any moral imperative flowing from the Sunday worship in which we celebrate God’s word of human liberation and solidarity and then act it out in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. As obvious as those ethical demands are, they do not get through to us. ~ Robert Hovda in Let’s Put the Eucharist to Work, US Catholic, June 12, 2008.

Why is it that in spite of hundreds of thousands of Eucharistic celebrations Christians continue as selfish as before? Why is the gap of income, wealth, knowledge, and power growing—in favour of the Christian peoples? Why is it that persons who proclaim Eucharistic love and sharing deprive the poor of the world of food, capital, employment, even land? ~ Sri Lankan Bishop, in Gabe Huck’s Let’s Put the Eucharist to Work, US Catholic, June 12, 2008.

The Eucharist, whether seen as Holy Communion or as the Mass, can become a kind of product for individual spiritual customers. It’s supposed to have a transforming effect on us so that we leave church determined to do something. We should be seeing the world in a different way and have different priorities because of the Eucharist. It should affect what we do with our time, how we spend our money, how we look for a job, how we vote. ~ Gabe Huck,  Let’s put the Eucharist to Work, in US Catholic, June 12, 2008 .

Anyone who celebrates the Lord’s supper in a world of hunger and oppression does so in complete solidarity with the hopes and suffering of all people, because he believes that the Messiah invites all to this table and because he hopes they will all sit at this table with him.
Christ’s messianic feast makes us one with the physically and spiritually hungry all over the world. ~
Jurgen Moltmann, in Liturgy, Justice and the Reign of God, Frank Henderson, Stephen Larson, Kathleen Quinn, 1999

As Jesus went out to publicans and sinners and had table-fellowship with them during his earthly ministry, so Christians are called in the Eucharist to be in solidarity with the outcast and to become signs of the love of Christ who lived and sacrificed himself for all and now gives himself in the Eucharist. … ~ BEM, par. 20 & 24, World Council of Churches, 1982

Here are some words from longer ago: When you have partaken of this sacrament, therefore,
or desire to partake of it, you must in turn share the misfortunes of the fellowship… all the unjust suffering of the innocent, with which the world is everywhere filled to overflowing.
You must fight, work, pray and – if you cannot do more – have heartfelt sympathy.
~ Martin Luther

Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in temple silk only to neglect him outside where he suffers cold and nakedness. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same One who said … ‘Whatever you did to the least of these you did also to me.’ ~ St. John Chrysostom, 349 – 407 AD.

If a poor man or a poor woman comes, whether they are from your own parish or from another, above all if they are advanced in years, and if there is no room for them, make a place for them, with all your heart, even if you yourself have to sit on the ground. You must not make any distinction between persons if you wish your ministry to be pleasing before God. ~ Didascalia of the Apostles, 230 AD

Isaiah and Annie Dillard rightly pose the thundering question: Does we really have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so innocently invoke?! Well, there’s one here this morning who does …
When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So Zacchaeus hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

Oh my … Did you hear that? Did you hear Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus? Do you hear the difference between God’s thundering complaint and Zacchaeus’ response? Zacchaeus got it – Zacchaeus got it! He knew instinctively that encountering Jesus was a radical experience of transformation, turning his comfortable, greedy world upside down. He felt the change in his bones the moment Jesus set eyes on him: “Half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

Wow … Jesus called Zacchaeus to dine with him. In that call to eat and drink together Zacchaeus became a changed man, a transformed person, with a new heart and a clean conscience, well before Jesus himself made any demands on him other than welcoming him in his humble abode! In a few minutes, we too are invited to dine with Jesus, here at our Communion table. In this bread and this wine, Jesus has come down to our level, God has become flesh, taking on our human existence. A popular children’s book If Jesus came to my House begins like this:
“If Jesus came to my house and knocked upon the door,
I’m sure I’d be more happy than I’ve ever been before.
I’d run downstairs to meet him, the door I’d open wide,

and I would say to Jesus, ‘Oh won’t you come inside?’

Are we ready? Are we ready to let Jesus into our house, and into our hearts? Are we ready to let him in even if we are short of stature, or ignored or scorned or bullied? Are we ready to let Jesus in, even if we walk around with heavy burdens  or with doubt or with pain too deep to speak? Are we ready to let Jesus turn our lives upside down, to let him clean our heart and purify our conscience? In the words from Paul to the Thessalonians, let us pray that we will be worthy of the Lord’s call and that we will, like Zacchaeus, let the Jesus effect transform our mind, our heart, our conscience, our spirit, so that we can fulfill by Christ’s power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the Great Almighty doesn’t have to yell and thunder at us like he did through Isaiah, but instead that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in us, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

So tell me, do we have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so innocently invoke on a Sunday morning …?? AMEN

Homily preached on November 3, 2019
Isaiah 1:10–18; Psalm 32:1–8; 2 Thessalonians 1:1–4, 11–12; Luke 19:1–10

  • Some of the above quotes were published in a previous blog post which can be found here.
  • Photo credit: Jesus and Zaccheus