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"Saints Town"

Saints Town

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

November 3, 2019

Rev. Kristin Stoneking

Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, CA

Today is All Saints Day. Today we take time to remember those of our communion we have lost in the last year, but also to remember that we hold onto a handrail of faith that stretches back millennia and stretches forward into eternity.

Three years ago this week, I was in the Holy Land, Israel/Palestine, as part of an interfaith peace delegation. It was my first time there. I had dreamed of visiting the land where Jesus was born, ministered, was crucified and rose, where the mothers and fathers of our faith lived and walked. Our delegation took off from Washington, DC, flew through London and arrived in Tel Aviv, then headed by bus to Jerusalem. I was not unprepared for the fact that what we call the Holy Land is now essentially a war zone, as the state of Israel and indigenous Palestinians battle for control of this very special place. But as we rolled toward the Old City and our hotel in East Jerusalem, a part of the city which is largely Palestinian and Muslim, I was struck by the way violence crackled in the air around the armed 19 year olds of the Israeli Defense Forces on nearly every corner we passed. Jerusalem, jeru-salam, means, literally, city of peace, but the scene felt to me far from peaceful. If you’ve been to the holy land, I wonder if you, too, were struck by this dissonance.

Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, East Jerusalem has been occupied by Israel, as has the West Bank and other parts of Palestine. The international community considers this an illegal occupation under international law. Israel disputes this interpretation. After Israel itself, the US is the largest funder of the Israeli military. As US citizens, our delegation, which included Jews and Christians, was in Israel to express our opposition to this funding, organize with other activists, and further our hope for peace.

Our group was led by Tali Ruskin, a Jewish activist, a rabbi’s daughter from Baltimore who was clear that to work for the rights of the Palestinian people was a way to reclaim the core of her Judaism and carry out the Jewish obligation of Tikkun Olam, to heal the world. She was the most articulate in explaining how working for Palestinian rights and anti-semitism are not the same thing.

And our group was led by Craig and Cindy Corrie, parents of Rachel Corrie. Rachel was a 23 year-old from Olympia, Washington, a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement, who was killed standing in front of an Israeli bulldozer, attempting to block it from flattening a Palestinian home. Instead, the bulldozer proceeded, ignoring Rachel in her bright orange vest. Rachel Corrie has become a Palestinian martyr and it was not uncommon for us on our trip to encounter her face graffitied on a wall or her name referenced in street poetry. Her parents, Craig and Cindy, formerly an insurance man and a community volunteer, took up Rachel’s cause upon her death, suing the Israeli government and advocating for Palestinian rights. Now, Craig and Cindy have become heroes to the Palestinian people in their own right.

On All Saints Day we were in the city of Hebron. In Christian tradition, All Saints’ Day is a time during which Christians lift up those who have struggled in faith, to do good and be the body of Christ on earth, and in death have joined the church triumphant. In Palestine, this takes on special meaning even though most Palestinians are Muslim. There, those who have died resisting the occupation live on in those who continue to struggle for justice and freedom.

Hebron City is also known as “Ghost Town.” Fifteen years ago, there was a massacre in the city’s mosque by American born Baruch Goldstein which killed 29 and injured 125 more. It resulted in Hebron City being put on lockdown by the Israeli military to protect the 800 Israeli settlers who lived there even though the victims of the massacre were Palestinian. To walk in the Old City of Hebron is to feel the presence of souls who used to fill the paths seeing friends and family, buying special gifts or daily food, living life. But the streets are empty now, and it is clear why Hebron City is known as “Ghost Town.”

In the cruelness of this lockdown, the center of life for the community that was grieving was cut off, and the healing that can come from being together and participating in regular activities of daily living was prevented. Military checkpoints proliferated and lockdowns have persisted, negatively affecting the lives of roughly 500 Jews and significantly and adversely impacting the nearly 200,000 Palestinians who still live in Hebron. Violence has begotten more violence.

The main street in Hebron City is known as Shuhada Street. The once bustling Shuhada Street is now deserted. As we started up Shuhada Street, the graffiti that faced us read, “This is Palestine. Fight Ghost Town. Open Shuhada Street” in red English script. A few kids asking for money, selling bracelets and embroideries approached our group, and many gave small donations or bought items. A few shopkeepers saw our group and opened their shops, and we talked with them about their lives and provided a small amount of business. It was cold and misty, the mood eerie.

Our scripture today from the book of Daniel is set in the time of the Babylonian exile of the Jews around the sixth century before the common era. The stories in the book follow Daniel, a young Jew trying to maintain his faith and religious identity in the face of a world dominating power. It was a time of geopolitical turmoil, not unlike our times today, and the dream which is in our scripture today which you heard Marty read reflects this. Hear these words again, “I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: "As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever--forever and ever."

The four great beasts and the four great kings in the dream symbolized the four great empires of the time who struggled against each other: the Neo-Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians and the Greeks. Isn’t amazing how more than 2500 years later we still are struggling with other nations, causing untold suffering as powers seek to dominate? Isn’t amazing how more than 2500 years later we still live in a context where we struggle to be faithful, to act in ways that bring about justice for all of our siblings? It can feel exhausting sometimes, overwhelming.

But the scripture from Daniel ends with these words: “the holy ones of the most high will possess the kingdom and live forever and ever.” What might seem like an endless struggle is actually life and leads to life eternal. To struggle to be faithful, to work for the peace and security of others is life. In fact it is not just what makes life on this earth meaningful but it is the pathway to the life everlasting. God, the ancient one, the most high, has been present since the beginning of time, is with us now, and ever will be.

Daniel, a young Jew who lived 2500 years ago, who struggled to maintain his religious tradition in the face of a dominating power lives on in us, who, miraculously, know his story. We receive the baton of faith from him seeking to stay faithful ourselves in a world that tries to pull us into violence, domination or sometimes just complaining, lack of gratitude or distraction.

On that All Saints Day in Hebron City, at the end of the street, we came upon a café called the Rachel Corrie Café. It’s outside wall and storefront adorned with images of the 23 year old from Olympia, Washington, but it’s front shut with a metal roll up door. We stood there quietly, reverently, looking at the images, the weight of the day heavy. But someone recognized Cindy and Craig Corrie, Rachel’s parents, and ran to get the shopkeeper. Within minutes, the shop was opened for us and our whole group was given coffee. The coldness and heaviness of the day melted in the shelter and warm rich Arabic coffee. Where there had been a chill and a closed shop front, there was suddenly warmth and life again.

On Shuhada Street, the veil between past, present and future became thin. Interestingly, “Shuhada” is the Arabic word for “martyr.” Those we have lost were with us, and those from the future showed up for a minute with life and hope born out of persistence and sacrifice and solidarity. What was Ghost Town became Saints Town as we communed with those who from their labors rested and brought to us the assurance that ultimately, somehow in some way, peace would reign on earth.

As we celebrate All Saints today, we recall the life effort of all the faithful. Some were martyrs and some were just people who showed up at the home of a friend in need, came regularly to worship, and bore witness to a God who will never abandon us. They are mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, sons, daughters, friends, faithful. And they are with us today and always. How could this not be true when we, Christians living in California bear witness to the life of a young Jew living in Palestine 2500 years ago? Praise God for the saints of old and the saints of today. May we be faithful to their memories, receiving the baton they pass to us, seeking peace, and demanding justice. Let us gather around the table and know we are in communion with all the saints, past, present and future. Amen.

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