The Stones are Crying Out (Lent sermon)

The Stones are Crying Out (Lent sermon)

Isaiah 61: 1-4; Luke 19-37-44

One thread is a strange thread—it is my steadying thread;
when I am lost, I pull it hard and find my way.
When I am saddened, I tighten my grip and gladness glides
along its quivering path;
When the waste places of my spirit appear in arid confusion
the thread becomes a channel of newness of life.

One thread is a strange thread—it is my steadying thread.

God’s hand holds the other end.

From Howard Thurman, “The Threads in My Hand”

We are a people called and anointed because our God loves justice. We are called to be “oaks of righteousness,” to do the planting of our Lord, to build up ancient ruins, raise up former devastations, repair the ruined cities. We are anointed to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, release the prisoners, and comfort those who mourn. This was the call from the prophet Isaiah and it was the mission of Jesus too. Who are we to dismiss it? Hang up? Tell God to go and find somebody else? Or silence the call? Our God is a still speaking God, is it not church? Our God is a crying out in joy and sorrow kind of God. Let us listen then Church for what the living stones of the lands we call holy are saying for before we can be “oaks of righteousness,” we must put our ear to the ground. The call to repair and mend this world is a both and call— NO to those things that stand in the way of justice and Yes to those things that make for peace.

When Jesus came into Jerusalem for that last supper the crowds were singing and dancing, “ Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.” Palms were waving and coats were tossed on the ground—- all for the Victorious One, Hosanna in the highest. No matter that he came on a donkey instead of a victorious white steed. He had arrived past soldiers and  checkpoints to deliver the people. Even the stones were shouting out and could not be silenced. What were the stones crying out?

What are they crying out now? Are we listening to our still speaking, crying God in the land many call holy? Or have we blocked up our ears or worse silenced God and her children, the children of Sara and Hagar?

Many people come to the Israel and Palestine to see the places where our sacred story took place—-where the shepherds camped that cold starry night, where Jesus was born, was crucified, and was resurrected. They come to feel the holiness imagining the story took place here and here and here. They come to visit old stones. Now this is an important part of going on pilgrimage but this is not all we must do. We must also listen to the living stones, the Christian Arabs, the Muslims, the Jews who are suffering now, crying out under an occupation that many call not only illegal but a sin against humanity.

We must put our ear to the ground and hear the marching steps of both the soldiers coming for yet another early morning raid and children playing in a dusty alleyway. We must put our ear to the ground and hear the buzz of a Caterpillar bulldozer demolishing another home and a group of men dancing the dakbe at a wedding. We must put our ear to the ground and hear the cries of a woman who is crying herself to sleep because her husband, her son, her daughter has just been arrested without charge and is now being tortured in a prison somewhere she can’t get to. We must put our ear to the ground and hear the gentle whisper of olive leaves in the wind that are saying, “This is us, Palestine, our roots are deep, nothing can uproot us from our land.” Our still speaking, whispering, crying God is calling us to work for a just peace in this place that is both holy and full of violence and hatred. 

Part of my work as your missionary in Israel and Palestine is to serve our mission partner, the YWCA of Palestine. One of my primary tasks with the YWCA is to help them with their advocacy work, to connect their program work to their advocacy for peace with justice. Towards this end I am coordinating a project called, “Fabric of Our Lives.” It is a project that highlights the work we have done and are continuing to do with refugees who were forced to leave their homes and lands back when the state of Israel was formed. Over 750,000 people were forcibly removed and over 450 villages depopulated in a two year period of time. Before the United Nations could set up its refugees camps, the YWCA was on the ground offering shelter, food, and services. It was and remains committed to refugees rights today including the right of refugees to return or receive reparations. The YWCA along with many others believe and support international laws especially UN Resolution 194 that clearly states that refugees have the right to return to their homes. It has been 65 years. The time is now.

Towards fulfilling this commitment we have launched a project where we will lift up the stories, the oral histories, of women from our camps, who remember what happened that day or days when they were forced from their homes. We will lift up their story and create a doll in their name that tells a piece of their story including the village they left and what has come of the village today.

I would like to share with you now an excerpt from my first interview with Marian from Beit Nabala, a small village that was in the Jaffa region. Her beautiful embroidered dress includes images of citrus trees.  Our team met with Marian twice. The first time I asked questions and jotted down notes while the second time we videotaped her story. The excerpt makes reference to the beautiful grey and red embroidered dress she is wearing and to that first interview.

She tells those who are listening that she hasn’t warn this dress in twenty-five years.  And I am wondering why? Why haven’t you worn it and why now with us? So I ask in English and wait for my question to be translated and then wait again for her story to be summarized and translated. I feel I can ask this question because we have already met, already become intimate about issues related to life and death. She has already shared with me the horrors of that day when the bullets rained down from both the Hagganah and the British. She has already told me that she saw a breastfeeding woman shot and her baby crying for milk along side the road. She has already bared her soul to me the way women sometimes do with other women. She knew I wanted to know all the sordid and messy details of what happened that day when she and her family were hunted down and expelled from her village.

Like yesterday she shared what happened when she was 16 and newly married with a baby of her own and had to flee her home. There was no time to pack or take wedding treasures, just some bread and oil.

She told me her story unblinking and at the end when I came to sit with her to thank her. She put her hand over her heart and then put it over mine as if to say “It is yours now. Take it. Tell the world this happened.” Blinking back the tears that were welling up in my eyes, I took her story in to my own sorrowful heart. Made room for more heartbreak. When we parted she did that thing older women sometimes do with me here, she placed her hands around my face and cradled it and looked deeply in my eyes. Like a child held by her stern and loving grandmother, I was held and entrusted.

So when a week later we met again for the official interview, I felt we were old friends, kisses not only twice –one on each cheek but one for good measure too. She had put on the green dress the first time, telling me it was 50 years old but today she put on this red embroidered dress and I knew it meant something.

So why has it been twenty-five years? Because there has been nothing to celebrate. Life has been full of one tragedy after another—a martyred son, a nephew shot at by the settlers near the camp. Red is for joyous occasions and weddings. You don’t just put this dress on and cover up those tragedies. You honor the losses with the colors of mourning—black.

I regret at first the naiveté of my question, the insensitivity, but then I realize the dress has given me another window into the ongoing nakba of this woman’s life of one displacement and dispossession after another. It has helped her connect the web of tragic events that began back in ’48 to the present.

Is this sad sharing a day of celebration I wonder? Is it the camera? Again I am the honored recipient of this story too—–the deaths and the red thread of joy.  The red thread of joy is her resistance and I realize this is my ministry—- to hold onto it with her, with all these women, to tell their stories so others will know not just about the tragic events but about the fierce resistance of red thread.

I believe that resistance is also our right and duty as Christians for we are called by a God who loves justice and wants us to work for peace. We, who are imperfect and often afraid, are the ones called and anointed. We are anointed to bring good news but we must be willing to hear the bad news too or hear how the bad and the good are interwoven, to accept, as the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish says, that we too suffer from an incurable malady, a malady called hope. We are called to hope, to believe that a future based on justice and peace is possible, that the Separation Barrier will come tumbling down, that everyone will have equal rights and all will be able to live in peace.  We are called to hope and shout. Let the church say Amen. May it be so and may it begin with us.

Rev. Loren McGrail, a member of Lyndale United Church of Christ, Minneapolis, Minnesota and an associate member of Wellington Ave. United Church of Christ, Chicago, Illinois, serves our Mission Partner the YWCA of Palestine and also works as an ecumenical partner with St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church in Jerusalem (Church of Scotland).