As our pilgrim group stood by the pools of Bethesda in the Muslim quarter of the old city of Jerusalem the gunfire was so deafening that we couldn’t hear the person who was reading.
Inside the serene gardens of the White Fathers, with the French tricolour flying confidently over St Anne’s church, we were quite safe – but just outside the doors the riot police and the Israeli Army – the IDF – were moving quickly down the old cobbled streets to stop a small group of youths throwing stones.
The real riot, however, was not with the stone throwing teenagers, or with the now quite large group of Muslim women angrily shouting ‘Allahu akbar’ as they were prevented from going up the Temple Mount to the Al Aqsa mosque in the holy month of Ramadan – but was the large group of rioting men outside Damascus Gate on Salah ah Din Street. They were throwing stones and molotoff cocktails, and the IDF were replying with gunfire into the air and with crowd dispersing high decibel noise flares.
Eventually our pilgrim group moved out of St Anne’s garden into the Ecce Homo Convent of the Sisters of Sion – where I had the privilege of celebrating the Eucharist in that holy place where Jesus was condemned to death, Gabbatha, or the pavement, in the Bible. As we gathered around the altar celebrating what was in effect a Eucharist of Good Friday the gunshots were still echoing around the buildings – a strange mixture of remembering the violence done to Jesus, celebrating our most holy of liturgies, and the ever present noise of modern conflict. It was a powerful experience and a story to tell.
Of course we were quite safe – at one point – when the teens had stopped throwing stones – the riot police slouched back against the wall and resumed their conversations and cigarettes and playing with their iPhones. The riot outside the Damascus gate was a staged riot – a response to yet another of Moshe Feiglin’s provocative visits to the temple mount. Moshe Feiglin is the most hawkish of Israeli Members of the Knesset and the deputy speaker – he is extreme in his views about Israeli arabs and the West Bank, so much so that he was refused entry to the United Kingdom. Now I know that gunfire and riots are never a game, and that people get hurt, but there is nevertheless a sense in which Feiglin going up the Temple Mount and the Palestinians rioting is an ordinary bit of confrontation in a very confrontational context.
And sympathetic though I am with my Palestinian friends in the West Bank who live with limited freedom behind a very high and ugly wall, with a poor standard of living and with little hope of a peaceful and just future – the only time I actually felt unsafe when in Israel was from the 150 or so rockets fired from Gaza into Israel each day. All of them are fired blind and most miss targets or are shot down – but occasionally rockets slip through. In Bethlehem we watched as the trail of a Hamas Rocket as it exploded in the sky, and on our way to Ben Gurion airport I wondered if today would be the day when a rocket would hit the airfield. No country can live with this daily and relentless firing of rockets and the daily potential of a rocket hitting a target – and that target being you.
And so in all this sorry violence where innocent people are killed in a never ending conflict, where Hamas refuses a ceasefire and uses hospitals and schools to shield its weapons behind the sick and the young, and where Sionists expand into Palestinian land and cut off the water from whole villages for days on end, it is tempting to think that there never will be a solution – not until one of the two parties are annihilated – and that solution is worse even than the on-going violence. So perhaps it is tempting to say with St Paul ‘I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.’
As he goes on to say – ‘We groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies’ and ‘we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’
Now ‘waiting with patience’ sounds a bit like ‘put up and shut up’ and ‘pie in the sky when we die’ – which is a poor response to issues of injustice and violence. It is as if St Paul is telling us to keep on groaning and hoping and eventually God will sort it. I think our modern day Christian commitment to justice and peace is not happy with that, and we prefer to actually do something here and now to make this ‘redemption of our bodies’ and of the bodies of our sister and brothers, come about a bit more quickly and in our day – we not only hope for what we do not see, we try to make what we hope for happen – you could say that nowadays we wait for it with a holy impatience.
And yet it is that impatience that we read about in the parable of the Wheat and the Tares: injustice and violence grows side by side with holiness and righteousness. Like the people of Israel and Palestine we live in a promised land which is both beautiful and ugly, both very good and very evil – we enjoy our freedoms and our western comforts but others pay the price for it in the sweat-shops of Bangladesh and creation pays the price for it as climate change destroys the fragility of nature – Wheat and Tares are always very close to each other. Personally I’m not happy with the over simplistic interpretation of this parable which some commentators give us – that the tares in the field, the children of the evil one, are actual people in our midst and that we can look around and see them. – presumably they would be the Hamas extremists who kidnapped and killed three Israeli teenagers, or the Israeli racists who then burned a palestinian teenager to death in a revenge killing.
I prefer to think the wheat and the tares are more closely entwined – the offspring of the Kingdom and the offspring of the Evil one are not for me individual people, but individual ideas, motivations, desires and decisions, which well up inside each and every one of us and lead us either towards the good or the bad, towards justice or injustice. And, as Jesus warns us, our ideas, motivations, desires and decisions are often two sides of the same coin. If we destroy our passion for power, for possessions and our pride, we might also destroy our passion for justice, for equality and for community. And so, we struggle – groaning inwardly day by day – until the time when God will set us free and sort us out in a loving and healing way.
Which means, in the end, that we have no choice but to be patient.
But, if I can now do that cheeky thing of tying all three readings this morning into just one sermon – we do not wait patiently in a passive sense. There exists a ladder between earth and heaven, between the hard stone pillow of our reality and the longed-for heaven of the God of Abraham, Sarah, Rebekah and Isaac. It is called religion. For the Jews this ladder is the Torah both written and oral, the guidance which leads our minds and hearts and longings above this world towards God. For the Muslims this ladder is holy submission to the will of Allah and the words of the prophet in the Quran – but for us – for Christians, this ladder is Jesus himself – the new Torah, the new Obedience – we have in Jesus one who lived and died in this very real and broken world and yet who taught and revealed a different vision of a very different world – the world of the Kingdom – it was as if Jesus was able by his incarnation to have his feet firmly in the mud and reality of this earth and yet by his unity with God the Father to keep his head firmly in the glory of heaven – and that is why we listen to him, this is why we study his teaching, this is why we choose to follow his way of living. He is our religion, our connection between earth and heaven.
And so, as I took bread into my hands and broke it at the stone altar by the Ecce Homo Arch where the human Jesus was condemned to death 2000 years ago, as I said ‘this is my body – take it and eat it in remembrance of me’ – and as the gunfire echoed endlessly around us, I, and all the pilgrims knew that we were experiencing something very profound. This Eucharist – this celebration of the Body of Christ – was the link between our world as it is and our new vision of what it could be – we were in this very quiet, humble, and yet defiant and strong act of Eucharist ascending and descending on the ladder which leads us to God.
‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. ‘