Published on Sun, 27 Aug 2017 13:00
Parish Pilgrimage Sermons August 2017

Talk given by Michael and Hoda Webb on Sunday 27th August 2017.

May the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.

Hoda and I have a golden rule of ‘never meet your heroes’ or put another way ‘don’t go back to the same place again even though you thought it was paradise that utterly idyllic place, no matter how good it was, we don’t go back because the world is so vast with other wonderful places God created we haven’t been to yet. So were going back. We have unfinished faith business there to do.

The Holy Land was indeed that wonderful place, a very holy, fertile, historically rich super country to go to and so how can it be that we decided to break our golden rule.

It’s a very complicated land as you already heard from previous Holy Land sermon speakers during this August. Its full of ‘contrasts’, the subject of this sermon. But on the first day of our pilgrimage and continuing throughout to the end Hoda and I felt a sense of being uncomfortable actually being in the Holy Land but at the same time blessed, we felt a spiritual Joy being there and able to go, and indeed make it into the country particularly when we spoke with the local population on all sides and all religions. So that’s the first contrast, we praise it and say we will be going back yet were uncomfortable but blessed with this special powerful Joy to be there.

So lets take a brief look at some of the religious issues, Israel-Arab conflict, Christianity, Islam and Judaism which trace their shared origins back to the biblical figure of Abraham. Jerusalem’s name resonates in the hearts of all three alike and echoes through centuries of shared and disputed history.

Known in Hebrew as Yerushalayim and in Arabic as al-Quds, one of the oldest cities on the world. At its core a maze of narrow alleyways  characterised by four quarters – Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian. Each quarter represents its own population. The Christians have two, because the Armenians are also Christians.

Inside the Christian quarter is the church of the Holy Sepulchre managed jointly by representatives of Christian denominations, mainly a Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Franciscan friars from the Roman Catholic Church and Armenian Patriarchate, but also by the Ethiopians, Coptic’s and Syrian Orthodox Church. The site where it is said Jesus was crucified, died, buried and rose again the holiest of holies for Christians. And interestingly the family who hold the keys to lock and unlock the church are Muslim.

The Muslim Quarter is the largest and contains the shrine of the Dome of Rock, and the al-Aqsa Mosque on a plateau known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary. The Mosque is the third holiest site in Islam. Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad travelled here from Mecca during his night journey and prayed with the souls of all the prophets. A few steps away is the shrine of the Dome of the Rock which holds the foundation stone, where Muslims believed Muhammad then ascended to heaven.

Then we have the Jewish quarter home to the Kotel or the Western Wall, a remnant of the retaining wall of the mount on which the Holy Temple once stood. Inside the temple was the holiest of holies, the most sacred site in Judaism. Jews believed this was the location of the foundation stone from which the whole world was created, and where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. Jews believe the Dome of the Rock is the site of the Holy of Holies. Today the Western Wall is the closest place Jews can pray to the Holy of Holies.

The problem, Israel says Palestinian leadership is promoting radical religious ideology which opposes Israel’s very existence. There is decades of unresolved conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. At its most basic is a fight over land and national rights. The Palestinian position is that Israel was created on their land in 1948, turning many into refugees, and further occupied territory including East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East War. They say any hoped-for future Palestinian state is undermined by Israeli settlement building in the occupied Palestinian territories and one of our pictures shows a settlement and separation wall. And another beautiful pristine completed settlement which contrasts from the commonly seen and incomplete Palestinian buildings. These visible contrasts make us uncomfortable. In fact, we read only this week that Israeli authorities plan to build a 40mile ‘tunnel barrier’ 40 metres below ground and 6metres above at a cost of £800 million. But this is in response to repeated Palestinian militant attempts to tunnel under the Israeli border to infiltrate territory for subversive purposes. Not helped is the Israeli expansion into East Jerusalem where Israeli inhabitants has swelled compared to the number of Palestinian residents and where Palestinian districts suffer from poor infrastructure and services, we were honoured to be able to share lunch and listen to a talk on the work of the Bethlehem re-hab centre, now was that a contrast between our pristine and organised hospitals and re-habitation centres here, but there, no especially when the lift was being re-configured with dust, welding sparks flying and patients waiting or walking around within them.

Hoda and I recently returned from Beirut which is only 83miles from Nazareth the Arab people there are relaxed, positive and on the whole happy but talking with Palestinians we get the distinct sense of an atmosphere, warry and on edge.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, but Israel says the city will never again be divided.

We tried to get a perspective on the Jewish settlements, which go back to 1968 when a group of Jewish settlers posing as tourists checked into a hotel in Hebron and refused to leave until the government agreed to let them settle. It was the start of a process which led, over time to the colonisation of large parts of the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem. By 2015 386,000 settlers occupied 131 West Bank settlements.

But 50 years on after the six day war, the city remains deeply divided. There are no mixed neighbourhoods. Arab development in areas of East Jerusalem has been severely constrained. With the demographic balance being dramatically altered by the arrival of Jewish residents. Palestinians see Jerusalem as their capital like Jews but are cut off from the West Bank by Israeli barrier wall construction. We see a contrast at the wall, on one side of the separation wall an unblemished concrete wall face and on the other, the Palestinian side lots of graffiti, as if by way of a cry for help to be allowed to rebuild Palestinian homes, infrastructure, health care and education on their own land. This graffiti is often censored by authorities. Even the beautiful Icon ‘Our Lady who brings down walls’.

Already shared with us were Liz and David mentioning the average Israeli wage of $35k and a Palestinian in the West Bank or Gaza Strip at $3k that’s a contrast to raise an eyebrow.

One might say “who said life is fair and easy” Hoda and I recall the retort of an American guide on a hop on hop off bus to a Japanese tourist complaining “you don’t like it whadaya want me to do about, nothen this is New York, welcome to New York baby” Well welcome to the Holy Land.

So we want to go back because we felt spiritual joy to be there in this great Holy Land, a special place for us Christians, all of us despite the uncomfortableness of whats happening in the land God choose to make himself present amongst us.

But there is always something that can be done and that is to pray, for fairness, equality, reconciliation and to be treated as equal and for all to live their lives as Jesus Christ in the Holy Land.

Hoda and I used our pilgrimage to seek out answers to many questions we have built up over time on our own Christian missions; one such question is “why did God choose Israel for the birth of Jesus”? So we concluded after the fall of Adam and Eve it was prophesied that a messiah would come to right the wrong committed. And in the book of Genesis chapter 12 it was determined that the messiah would come from the line of Abraham due to the faith he showed when he obeyed the command given to him.  All of the Old Testament, the Torah prophesies of a messiah line up to include the tribe of Judah which later became the House of Judaea and is now referred to simply as Jews. The reality is the people of the land did not accept Jesus but out of the Holy Week events and Eastertide people of the ‘Way’ followers of Christ, Christians and Christianity was born.

And we heard in the Gospel reading earlier how Life is full of important questions. What should I do with my life? What is the meaning of life? What happens after death? However, there is one question more important than any other. It is a question which set the course of our life and which needs to be answered every single day. The question is this: who do you say Jesus of Nazareth is? This is the question first put to the disciples by Jesus and which Peter answered so decisively and clearly, the fruit, we learn of the blessing and grace of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus was a child of a peasant woman. He was born in an obscure village, and grew up in another village where he worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty.

Then for three years he became a wandering preacher. He never went to college. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never led an army. He never travelled more than two hundred miles away from the place of his birth.

He did none of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials by himself. While still a young man, the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied him. Another turned traitor. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for the only thing he owned on this earth – his clothing. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.

Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race and the leader of the column of progress.

We are well within the mark when we say of all the armies that ever marched, and all the sailors that ever sailed, and all the kings that ever reigned put together have not affected the life of man upon this earth as much as that one solitary life. The life of Jesus of Nazareth. Who do you say this man was?

Let us pray:

You, O Lord, are the Christ, the son of the living God, God made man. Lord we lift to you the peoples of Israel and the Palestinians living in the Gaza strip and West Bank, pour out your healing spirit upon them, bless them and guide them in ways of equality, fairness and reconciliation. We pray this in Jesus name. Amen.


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