Morning Light: a sermon preached for Epiphany

Preface

My greetings to my Moslem brothers and sisters.  In this post I make a connection between your Hajj and pilgrimages in the Christian tradition.  I deeply respect your tradition of the Hajj.  Being called “Hajji” continually for three months has caused me to reflect here on your name for me.  Thank you for this form of address and thank you for your faithfulness to your prayer which I find deeply moving.

Although I have not been to Mecca, I was given this name.  Initially I was told that all men and women of a certain age, old enough to have made the Hajj, are given this title of respect.  However, later on I observed that the younger EAs were also called Hajji and Hajj.  This has led me to the reflection you find here.

The sermon was preached in a Christian context and is primarily intended for that audience.  No offense is intended by the comparison of the Hajj to other pilgrimages, nor is there any attempt to convert Moslems to Christianity or vice versa in this post. Instead I am grateful for our common ground.

Ma a salaam. In peace.

 

A sermon preached for Epiphany, 2012

Grace to you and peace from the Holy One and from the Daystar, our Lord Jesus Christ, and from the Spirit descending and dwelling within you, Amen.

With the appearance of the Three Wise Persons, and the Baptism of Our Lord, we move from Christmas to Epiphany.  Epiphany means Showing Forth, a startling appearance or a moment of clarity.  The Church in her wisdom gives us a season of shining, a season of light, in the midst of what is, for the Northern Hemisphere, the darkest time of the year. For us, living in the northern parts of the world, we appreciate candles in the dark.

As most of you know, from September to December, I worked as an Ecumenical  Accompanier and human rights observer for the World Council of Churches in the occupied Palestinian Territory, otherwise known as the West Bank.   I was placed in the southernmost part of the West Bank, to accompany shepherds and day laborers and families living in remote Palestinian and Bedouin villages.  The people living south of Bethlehem are almost entirely Moslem, so I spent the fall immersed in Muslim culture, a culture I have come to know and love.

I was given this candle as I ended my Ecumenical Accompaniment service in the South Hebron Hills on December 4, in a ceremony in which I passed the light to Rosemond from Scotland, who took my place in Yatta.  At that moment I became an Ecumenical Advocate, with a mandate to tell the stories of the people living under Occupation, and to work for a just peace.

As I accompanied my Moslem, Jewish and Christian brothers and sisters in Palestine and Israel,  I wore this vest.  (show vest).  I’ve got to tell you, the vest was a puzzlement to the children of Yatta, where there are few internationals.  Some of them thought it was some strange military uniform, and I learned to tell them, “Ana mish jesh.”  I am not a soldier.

And it was even more of a mystery to Israeli personnel running the checkpoints.  There are checkpoints throughout the West Bank, where Palestinians and others who want to cross must show identification and submit to searches.  For Palestinians, the procedures are often harassing and humiliating.  So part of our job was to do a human rights watch there twice a week. We would arrive at 4 in the morning, and one of us would stay on the Palestinian side while the other walked over to the Israeli side, through the car checkpoint, so we could greet the men after they had gone through the massive metal building.  Inside, they were delayed by stop and go turnstyles, xray machines, body scanners, handprint checks, identity paper checks, and search rooms.  We were hampered by restrictions. As internationals, we were very clearly told we were not allowed to go through the checkpoint building because it was for Palestinians only.  So I had to walk around the long way. As I went through the security procedures at the car checkpoint, people would ask me questions.  “Are you carrying any guns for self-defense?”  “What is this symbol on the vest?” “ What is the World Council of Churches?”  “Since none of these men are Christians, why are you here?”,  and the real kicker, “Don’t you have anything better to do? Don’t you have families in your own countries?”  My reply  — that as a Christian I wanted to greet the men, and see how they were doing  —  left them shaking their heads and rolling their eyes to each other.

I would walk past the cars being checked and enter the parking area just beyond the checkpoint building.  Here, the men who had completed their security screening would line up to pray together, bow deeply from the waist, and then make prostrations touching their heads to the ground, before boarding shared taxis to take them to their jobs.  I was always moved to pray silently as I went past them, sensing the holiness of the place where these men, in the midst of great hardship, prayed humbly before God.

Once I was at my post, just outside the checkpoint building, I would watch the moon move slowly across the desert sky and greet the men as they came out of the checkpoint building.  Their screening took anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour and a half. Sometimes they had problems, and sometimes they didn’t.  The mood was sometimes cheerful, sometimes desperate.  Sometimes I was told I was doing a holy job, and at other times the men were angry and frustrated, and asked why I couldn’t solve all their problems at the checkpoint.  But routinely, as they came out, the men would call me Hajji.

Every Moslem man is obligated to make the Hajj, that is, to go on pilgrimage to Mecca once in his lifetime if he can, and thereafter he is called a Hajj.  For a women the trip is optional, but if she goes, she is called a Hajji.  A woman who has made a sacred journey.

Being called a Hajji was an honor I felt deeply.  In Yatta, we observed that neighborhoods would put up huge banners in the streets whenever someone made the hajj, and they would hold a party of several days to honor them.  The Muslim men at the checkpoint, whatever else they thought of us, recognized that we were making a Hajj, a holy journey, a pilgrimage. After looking at our vests and reading the Arabic leaflets we provided at the checkpoints, the men believed we had come to Palestine, and to the human rights watch at the checkpoint, in response to a Divine summons.

I can tell you that it often didn’t feel holy.  It often felt helpless, as when the line slowed to a trickle leaving thousands of men banging the walls and trying to jump the line in frustration while we called the Israeli Military’s Humanitarian Hotline to complain, often without results.  It often felt boring as we counted the men to obtain statistics for the United Nations and the Quartet.  We often felt ill-prepared because of the language barrier.  Often it felt very cold — but I was warmed by the greetings of the men as they made eye contact, smiled and cried, Sabah noor, hajji.  Morning light, pilgrim.

The three wise men, magicians or kings depending on your traditions and preferences, were making such a journey. Maybe as they set out, their families thought they were ditzy.  Following a star?  Presumably this wasn’t the sort of thing they usually did.

But they went anyway.  Honoring a Divine Call, they were moving through darkness, toward light.  They were battling all the troubles travelers have: fatigue, homesickness, fleas, bad water, bad roads, the heat of the day, the cold of the night, and the threat of roadside bandits.  They were strangers in the land they were visiting and they knew it.  But they kept moving forward.

Following the Light, the star that guided them, they expected to find a newborn Royal, perhaps with servants and fanfare in some gilded palace.  Instead, the star guided them to another place, where an infant not related to them, from a people they did not belong to, lay without fanfare in a bed of straw in a feed trough.  To this impoverished child they gave wealth…portable wealth that would be recognized across borders in the Eastern Desert: they gave gold, and spices.  Who knows? Maybe it was their stash, money they planned to use to provide for themselves on the way home.  We don’t know, but we do know that they were on a holy journey.  And as pilgrims, when they saw a need, they did what they could.  They responded to poverty by opening their treasure chests.

And through them, God provided for Jesus.  Soon afterwards, the child and his parents would have to flee for their lives to become political refugees, running away from Herod and his thugs.

As for the three visitors, well, they went home, that’s all.  We don’t know much more.  They didn’t have a mandate to do public speaking about their experiences, as I do. After all, we don’t get to read their memoirs, and they probably never wrote an opinion to the local newspaper. They didn’t catch the precious moments on video. Heck, they were even warned not to speak to politicians afterwards.  After what must have been the ultimate life-changing pilgrimage – Imagine following a star and getting to see the Lord of the Universe –  maybe they went back home and nobody “got it”. Or maybe, the experience was so intense, they just couldn’t find the words.

Let’s jump ahead a little bit, 30 years or so.  The wise men have probably gone quietly to their heavenly reward by that time, and in the meantime baby Jesus has grown up as Mary and Joseph’s son, helping with the village planting and harvest, learning a trade.  Life has returned to something like normal, as it usually does, and Mary ponders all these things in her heart.

And then, when he reaches a certain age, Jesus leaves.

He leaves his everyday work, his everyday life, and begins to walk to the Jordan valley. The baptism site is far away from Nazareth, about a week’s journey.  The distance Jesus walks suggests that his meeting with John is not by chance. It suggests that Jesus is deliberately making a holy journey out of obedience to God.  Maybe Jesus senses that, just like at the beginning of creation, the Spirit of God is hovering over the waters again.  Jesus walks from Nazareth a several days’ walk over rough, mountainous terrain into the desert wilderness before he encounters John the Baptiser.  And as he is baptized by John, the Spirit descends upon him in visible form, like a dove, just as the Spirit will later descend upon the disciples at Pentecost, in visible form, like fire.   Something about Jesus’ understanding of God’s will sends him on a holy journey. It begins as he leaves his ordinary life Nazareth, takes him into the wilderness, and continues  — until the present day.

The Three Wise Persons came following a star looking for a king.  Later, in his moment of baptism, his identity is revealed: Jesus is God’s beloved Son.  But notice what John says about Jesus: He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. Those words are spoken to us.  As members of Christ’s body, it is we who are now called the beloved sons and daughters of God.  As members of the body of Christ in the world now, it is we who are led by the Spirit, out of the ordinary into the extraordinary.  We too are on a holy journey, maybe unaware, sometimes through wilderness, but never alone.  Never alone because, while our pilgrimages are our attempts to move closer to God, God’s pilgrimage, the holy journey of Jesus, is to be with us.

 

So we walk the holy journey with Him.

Jesus’ holy journey continues to the present day, in you and me. So let us walk with Him to bring light into darkness.  Let us walk with Him to bring justice to the poor. Let us walk with Him to bring liberty to captives.  Let us walk with Him to speak of the Lord’s favor to each and every soul, whether they are Jewish or Muslim or Christian or secular, ruler or people of power or prisoners or slaves.

For the world sees differences.  But God sees God’s Son. The world sees boundaries. But God sees us as one. The world sees categories. “my people-not my people.” But God sees each of us as God’s precious people. The world wages war.  But God wages peace.  And this is the star we follow, the vision we are called to be part of. This is the life of the wise persons, who seek God. For the magi looked for the newborn king of Judea but they didn’t quite understand: the angels said he would be Savior to all the people,  and we are members of His Body, living His life.

So blessed Epiphany. Morning Light, Pilgrims.

Amen.

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