Christians in the Holy Land

Last week the spiritual leader of our worldwide Anglican Communion – Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams – completed a four-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He preached to hundreds of people at the Jordan River, after dedicating the cornerstone of a new church to be built at the site where tradition says Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

In reporting on this visit, the Washington Post quoted the Archbishop as being “deeply worried” about the dwindling numbers of Christians in the Middle East, and he stressed that it was the church’s duty to support Christians who face hardship due to regional conflicts. Later, he visited Gaza and the West Bank, after traveling to Jerusalem for meetings with the Chief Rabbi as part of our continuing interfaith dialogue.

Christians make up only about five percent of Jordan’s six million people, and we have really only a minority presence in most other countries in the region. So, Jordanian Anglicans were overjoyed at the Archbishop’s visit. One of them, named Ghazi Musharbash – who cares for orphans in Amman — praised Archbishop Williams for his stance on the Arab – Israeli conflict, saying that he has always pushed for a “just peace” knowing that a resolution to the seemingly endless conflict is crucial for Christians to remain in the Middle East. “We don’t want our fellow Christians from the West coming to see only stones and museums,” he said.

As I read our Gospel for today this week, I was struck by how long the holy city of Jerusalem and the Holy Land itself has undergone such suffering and strife! Jesus himself (like Rowan Williams) was “deeply worried” about the situation there in his time! “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, “ Jesus cried, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  See, your house is left to you.  And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Luke 13:34-25)

Indeed, some would say that the current struggles in the Holy Land go back way back beyond the creation of the modern state of Israel…back beyond the Roman occupation…back beyond the Exile…and even the Exodus from Egypt. Maybe all the way back to our story from Genesis today (almost 4,000 years ago) and the first Abrahamic Covenant.  After all it wasn’t an empty land Abraham was promised.  There were already people living there.

Unfortunately, our Old Testament Reading today stopped about two verses short, but there were quite a few people living there if we are to believe the list in Genesis 15:19-21: the Kenites; Kenizzites; Kadmonites; Hittites; Perizzites; Rephaim; the Amorites; the Canaanites; the Girgashites; and the Jebusites. And all those people had to find some place to live!

Well, dear friends, believe me, I have so solution to offer for the intractable problems of the Middle East — except to be clear that endless fighting is not that answer!  But I do know that we are called to care about that part of the world. It is, after all, “where it all happened” for us!  Every Friday afternoon during Lent as we walk the “Way of the Cross” here in this Cathedral, we are reminded that all these events took place just outside the holy city of Jerusalem.

Just over a week ago, I suggested during a Quiet Day that we sometimes are too narrow in our prayers. We pray for ourselves, and our loved ones; we pray for the sick and suffering – and well we should.  But it’s also possible to pray your way through the daily newspaper (that is, if you have hours enough in your day, to lift up all the pain and the suffering you will find in those pages!). Yet, even stopping short of that, we can – and should – pray for big issues and for global concerns as well as for our personal ones.

Psalm 122 says “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May they prosper who love you/ Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers/ For my brethren and companions’ sake, I pray for your prosperity” Certainly that’s what Jesus was doing in our Gospel today. And it’s what we should do as well. But we can do more than that.

For almost a century The Episcopal Church has taken a special offering on Good Friday for The Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East. That diocese was formed in 1841, twelve years before the Diocese of Iowa, and since 1922 members of The Episcopal Church have given thanks for this extraordinary relationship through their generous giving to the Good Friday Offering. We’ll have special envelopes in the pews this Good Friday to enable us all to join in that effort.

I share some of this today to remind you that, as Episcopalians, we are part of more than just Trinity Cathedral. It’s right and proper that we identify ourselves primarily as part of this worshipping community.  This is where we meet Jesus Christ each week in Word and Prayer and Sacrament.  This is the Christian community that supports us in our journey and encourages us along the way.  This neighborhood and its surrounding community is where we make our primary witness and service.

But we are part of the Diocese of Iowa, part of The Episcopal Church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and indeed of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church we confess every Sunday morning in the Creed. I’ve been privileged, as a bishop of this church over the last 22 years, to see much of that Church at work all around the world.  I’m proud to be a part of it…and I hope you are too.

So, as you say your prayers this Lent, pray for Trinity Cathedral – especially during our interim period as we seek to rebuild and focus our efforts to be in a good place for the next stage of our life and ministry here. Pray too for The Episcopal Church throughout the world – in Haiti as they rebuild, in Jerusalem and the Middle East as they seek to remain faithful in the midst of strife and conflict. Pray for the Church in Sudan as they prepare to seat their new bishop, our friend Samuel Peni, in the Diocese of Nzara today.

We’re a part of all that. And your faithfulness here…helps them… over there. Thanks!

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