Remembering

In the heat and sunshine of a November morning in Jerusalem I joined the congregation at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery on Mount Scopus. The sky was clear blue, the grass mown, the gravestones stood in their serried ranks as the fallen whom they commemorated would have once have proudly stood. A member of the Canadian Armed Forces read as part of the service.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

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Many wreaths were laid

This evocative poem by John McCrae written in May 1915, which will have been read at many services yesterday and many tomorrow, reminds us that on foreign fields around the world blood has been shed and is shed in the ongoing conflicts, large and small, in which humanity seems to engage without ever seeming to learn the lessons. But there was something significant about being here where Britain has had such a role.

Next year will see a number of significant anniversaries as major battles were held in Palestine in November and December (most of the gravestones had dates from those battles) and we remember the Balfour Declaration.  The final text of that declaration, which went through so many iterations, was

His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

The final handover of Jerusalem by the Ottomans to Field Marshall Viscount Allenby took place in the study of the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem and the documents signed on the desk that Archbishop Suheil Dawani still uses in his residence just alongside St George’s Cathedral. The Royal Arms which then hung in Government House during the period of the British Mandate are now in the north transept of the Cathedral. It is a complex history in which we have been embroiled and still have a part to play if that line in the Declaration is still to be held before the international community

‘that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’

After the service I wandered amongst the graves and found this one.

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Rifleman R A Middleditch
It was the inscription at the bottom that made me stop.  ‘The land where earth and heaven meet we all hope to meet again.’ It summed up for me something of this place that I have been, the land where earth and heaven meet. To be here is a powerful experience and memories of the last six weeks flooded back and the words of a hymn

Jerusalem the golden,
With milk and honey blest,
Beneath your contemplation
Sink heart and voice oppressed.
I know not, oh, I know not
What social joys are there,
What radiancy of glory,
What bliss beyond compare.

It was written by Bernard of Cluny in the 12th century and is part of a long poem called ‘On Contempt for the World’ a scathing critique on the world of the day in which the Crusades were taking place. He looks to a golden Jerusalem, a better world and as I leave this city and the friends I have made and this land – but not for the last time I pray – all I can do is pray for the peace of Jerusalem and all its people.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the our God,
I will seek your good.
Amen. (Psalm 122.6-9)

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Thanks to Pauline, John and Hazel and all at St George’s for their love and friendship
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The banquet

It’s amazing when you are suddenly given a gift – and you were not expecting it!  It happened this morning at the Mass in St George’s Cathedral.  The Dean, the Very Revd Hosam Naoum, was presiding.  We kept All Saints Day on Sunday, so this morning we had the alternative readings which meant that we heard Luke 14.15-24.

One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to Jesus, ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” Then the master said to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” ’

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It’s a reading I know so well but one that I have had problems with because of the way it concludes and especially the use of that word, ‘compel’.  In a place like Jerusalem where faith communities are often in such an aggressive situation it hardly feels like a positive way of looking at mission.  The invitation is great but the compulsion seems inappropriate.

So it was great that Hosam made three points in his homily after we had heard this story read to us again.

Firstly he said, even though those invited sent their apologies the dinner wasn’t cancelled.  The dinner happened; it was the guest list that changed.  This had never been something I’d thought about. So often when I’m trying to plan an official dinner round at the Deanery and we receive lots of apologies from the initial guest list, my PA and I will say to each other ‘Shall we cancel it? Is it worth going ahead?’ The God who invites us never thinks like this.  The dinner, the banquet is going to happen!

Secondly, the slave after doing what he was told to do comes back and says ‘There is still room.’ There is always room at the dinner, the banquet to which God is inviting us.  The spaciousness reflects the graciousness of God. My hospitality has so many limits placed on it – how big is the table, how many plates do I have, how many people can I stand having round – this is not how God is, hospitality is limitless.

Thirdly, ‘there is something’, said the Dean, himself a Palestinian, ‘called APH – Aggressive Palestinian Hospitality!’ We have to read the end of the parable with this understanding.  If you are eating with a Palestinian family you will be told ‘You MUST eat!’ There is no argument, the hospitality is real hospitality, generous and there is a passionate way of making sure that you enjoy yourself and leave satisfied.

The dinner will happen, there is always room, you must come. The generosity and hospitality of God knows no bounds.

God of the banquet,
may the poverty of my hospitality
be challenged and changed
by the richness of the invitation
you make to us.
Amen.

On the hunt

It was a lovely morning at St George’s Cathedral with the installation of a new Cathedral Canon for Reconciliation, the Revd Canon Fuad Dagher at the Eucharist celebrated in Arabic and the arrival of lots of pilgrims from East London and beyond at the 11.15am Eucharist in English. There is something truly pentecostal about the experience of worshipping in the city where the gift to the church of many tongues is the reality day-in-day-out.

I’d decided that after lunch I needed and walk and I had a purpose in mind.  I’d learnt that William Holman Hunt, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (a British school of painting in the second half of the nineteenth century), lived in Jerusalem for a few years and that the house he had built was not so far from where I’m staying in East Jerusalem. So I went on the hunt for Hunt!

The address I was looking for was Ha-Nevi’im Street 64.  The street in English is called ‘The Prophets Street’. It is now split in two by the major road that has been built which carries both the tram and lanes of traffic, some bound for the Damascus Gate area and some swallowed up in the underpass which emerges below Jaffa Gate. (Jerusalem and the districts around it are full of new roads built to meet the needs of the burgeoning settlements).

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During its heyday in the late 19th century and early 20th century, The Prophets Street was a favourite address for hospitals, churches, monasteries, hospices, government offices, foreign consulates, and wealthy Christian, Jewish and Arab residents. The street today contains a similar though one suspects less rich mix mix and though some of the best properties are in disrepair and others have been replaced by buildings less beautiful it is still an interesting street on the edge of the ultra-orthodox district of Mea Shearim. The elegant 19th-century architecture of the buildings was the reason why some people described it as ‘the most beautiful street outside the Old City.’

Walking up the street you pass what was the Bishop’s House, the first residence built for the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem.  Holman Hunt’s house was further up the street towards Davidka Square.

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As far as I got in the hunt

Well, the hunt was successful in that I found the house or at least the locked front gate.  It is now part of the Monastery of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem.  A blue plaque records that it is ‘Hunt House’ and that the artist lived there and was succeeded by the Hebrew poet, Rachel, and the pioneering paediatrician Dr Helena Kagan. So it’s had a good range of residents.

In a previous blog I’d included Holman Hunt’s picture of ‘The Scapegoat’.  I hadn’t realised at that point that he had visited the Holy Land a number of times and actually lived in Jerusalem.  In his third visit in 1876 he had the house built and lived in it for some time before finally leaving the Holy Land, never to return, in 1892.  He fell in love with the land and the city and he gave himself to producing some paintings with a biblical theme.

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Holman Hunt embracing the local style

The Pre-Raphaelites were dedicated to an intensely accurate realism.  The level of detail that they include gives a more than photographic quality to their paintings.  It was to satisfy this ‘realism’ that Holman Hunt came here. He wanted to capture the topography, the colours, the light and the look of the people.  So he went to the Dead Sea before painting ‘The Scapegoat’.  He tried to find seven compliant Rabbis to pose for his painting ‘The Finding of the Saviour’.  In that he wasn’t successful.  The Rabbis didn’t want to be part of a graven image.

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‘The Finding of the Saviour’

Although I love the Pre-Raphaelites and get a great deal from looking at the paintings and enjoying the rich symbolism and detail that they contain yet they have a romantic view of realism and Hunt’s failure to get the Rabbi’s consent is an interesting commentary on that. Walking along his street today you encounter reality.  It has inevitably changed from when he was living there but is no less real for that, for the reality of the past is past, it is the reality of the present, the now, in which we both find ourselves and Jesus.

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Banksy in Bethlehem – hunting for a new realism

 

Perhaps the artist Banksy with his graffiti on the Separation Wall captures a truer reality.  It wouldn’t have been Holman Hunt’s thing but in this hunt for reality we need to look not with the romantic but the realistic eye.

Loving God,
may I see as you see
and with eyes wide open
find you in the reality
of the now moment.
Amen.

Making comparisons

The Dean of St George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem, kindly invited me to preach today.  The readings were Jeremiah 14.7-10, 19-end; 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18; and Luke 18.9-14. This is what I said.

I’m sure no parent has ever compared their children, favourably or unfavourably. I’m sure no parent has ever said to their face, never behind their backs, ‘She’s good, he’s naughty’. ‘He does well at school, she’s not going to be very clever.’ And I’m sure no parent has ever said to their child ‘Why can’t you be more like ….?‘ Comparing people never really works!

When Jesus first told the story that we just heard, people in the audience must have been nudging one another. He couldn’t have chosen two more extreme people as examples, people who really raised the hackles of others. It’s hard to imagine what the modern equivalents would be – I thought Trump and Clinton, but that doesn’t work; I thought the captains of Manchester United and Manchester City but that doesn’t work either.

Jesus was really clever how he told his stories. People knew how the Pharisees behaved, they’d seen them on the street corners, seen them wanting the best seats at banquets, seen them thinking so well of themselves and, indeed, Jesus had pointed to all of this in some of the things he’d said.

People knew about the tax collectors, the collaborators of their day, working for the occupying power in this land at that time, collecting their taxes and slapping monster level commission on top of it for themselves, despised by the whole community and by the people they worked for.

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‘he would not look up to heaven but beat his breast’

 

And in the story that they and we hear they both come into the Temple to pray. What was going to be the punch line?

Well, we know it so well, that the least expected, the most despised was the one who actually showed true humility before God, the one who showed true repentance and not the religious professional, who was doing all the law required and more besides – a spiritual athlete by his own account.

It’s all part of the heart of the Gospel for St Luke, the message that he’s trying to get across to us, to those reading his account of the life, the ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus, for Luke, is the one who defies convention, supports the underdog, chooses the despised, turns expectations upside down, favours the poor and the lonely and marginalised and the excluded-powerless above the rich and the popular and the included and the powerful. It was a hard message then and it’s a hard message still because it’s uncomfortable and unwelcome in almost every society and every situation we can imagine.

If you want to tell a good story with a good punch line, of course, it has to be simple and it has to be binary – there was a priest and a rabbi, there was a man and a women, there was a dog and a cat, there was a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. But life is never as binary as we imagine. Good and evil, dark and light, black and white, male and female, rich and poor – it’s all more subtle than that.

I’m not accusing Jesus of not understanding the subtlety – he told his story in this way because he knew it’d have a powerful and lasting effect, and he was right – we’re telling it now, two thousand years later and we’re still nodding in acknowledgement of the truth of it. But life is never about the binary, life is always about what lies between the two, because that, I suspect, is where we exist.

Luke introduces the story with a sentence that we skim over in our desire to get to the parable.

‘Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.’

It’s no good saying to you – who are you in the story, the Pharisee or the Tax Collector? The truth is that you’re probably neither, you’re not all good, but then you’re not all bad, you live a good life, you say your prayers, you come to church, you give to charity, you’re not a bad person at all – and certainly you’re a lot of better than those people next door …

But there we go.

It’s always so easy to get into the ‘comparing ourselves with others business’ and especially where religion is concerned. We don’t mean to but we almost can’t seem to stop ourselves.

One of the amazing things about being in Jerusalem as opposed to London, where I live and serve as a priest, is being in a city where it seems that every person is living out their religious faith, so openly, so obviously and often, so aggressively. Are the Jews more religious and righteous than the Muslims, are the Christians more holy than the Jews? Is my faith more important than your faith? Do the demands of my faith exceed the demands of yours? Do my religious rights trump yours?

Comparing ourselves to our neighbour, comparing ourselves to the other person is exactly what we see in the parable and we don’t have to be wholly bad or wholly good to see ourselves falling into the trap of doing it.

‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people.’

The arrogant prayer of the Pharisee undoes every good thing that he has done.

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

The prayer of humility of the tax-collector reveals a level of self-understanding that his actions and way of life seemed to deny.

The prophet Jeremiah was just too honest for his own good. When he stood in this city and told the truth as he understood it, he paid the price – beatings, imprisonment, starvation. But he spoke what he knew and what God had told him to say and in our First Reading we see that great sense of self understanding that’s behind all else that he says

You, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name; do not forsake us!

In a similar way, Paul, who can come over as rather self-assured and arrogant, and the Second Reading was an example of that, knows where his strength comes from

‘the Lord stood by me and gave me strength’

he says.

We come to the Lord not as part of some binary world of extremes but as the people that we are, flawed, needy, often pathetic, knowing that the Lord is with us, but sometimes living as if it were not so. You’re better than some and worse than some – but that’s not what matters. What matters is your relationship with the God who made you and loves you and, in this city, died and rose for you.

The truth is, my sisters and brothers, that Jesus appeared in the dawn. It wasn’t dark, it wasn’t light, it was in the between time of the binary world that he spoke Mary’s name, that the shalom, that the salaam came. Jesus comes to us in that between world, that between world in which most of us live and loves us into even greater self-knowledge in which we can recognise both our strengths and our weaknesses and be honest about both.

Whoever you are, whatever you’re like, however you’ve arrived here today God is making no comparison between you and anyone else. God loves you for precisely who you are and to assure you of that he’ll feed you with himself. Bread and wine, body and blood for all, for he doesn’t call the righteous but sinners and thank God for that. Amen.