I-N-G is for Invasion Necessitates Gospel
Bishop Bouman is not the only pastor helping his people to deal with, in faith, an attack on buildings and people within his parish. Pastor Mitri Raheb of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem had the task, after the church compound had been occupied and the church members put under curfew for forty days, of "crossing" that horrible situation for his people. At the church's first assembly following the ordeal, he interpreted those events through God's Law and God's Gospel so that his people could believe their way forward.
To appreciate the scene, here is the beginning of Pastor Raheb's report on "Damage done to Christmas Lutheran Church and to the International Center of Bethlehem," prepared May 1st, 2002.
Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem|
(from their web site)
April 4, 2002 Early afternoon of this day, three Israeli units (approx. 45 persons) stormed the compound and started breaking into every room, office, storage areas etc. Dozens of interior doors, computers, copy machine, refrigerator, chairs, desks, brand new not yet installed fixtures, as well as paintings were totally destroyed. White Paint, bought to white wash the new conference facilities was poured on the ground; new ceramic walls of the kitchen were shot at. Almost all of this destruction was pure vandalism. A detailed list of all and every items can be made available upon request. The second Israeli military unit held me in my own office for over two hours, where I was not able to contact anyone or be contacted. A detailed report on that is available as well.
That is the background for Pastor Rehab's sermon on Psalm 27, preached at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem on Sunday May 12, 2002.
Forty days have passed since we last met.
Forty days is the period between Resurrection and Ascension; the period when the first disciples stayed behind locked doors and shut windows due to fear (John 20:19).
It is the same period we stayed under siege, where the occupying forces laid heavily on our chests, destroying our roads, surrounding our churches and terrorizing our children.
Forty days are the spring that was stolen from us.
Our cities were invaded at the end of winter while we were still in our winter coats and sweaters. We just came out yesterday from our homes wearing short light summer clothes, as if we have been transferred with a glance from winter to summer.
Indeed, it is the spring of our lives that was stolen from us.
We lost seeing the splendid view of the red lilies covering our fields.
We missed enjoying the greenness of the meadows and feeling the excitement of life bursting in our fields, mountains and valleys.
Being held captive in our homes confined to our television sets and radios that added to our suffering, we were deprived from enjoying the spring's golden sunshine and denied the usual excursions and school trips.
We arrived this morning to begin this holy service by reading a Psalm we deeply venerate and respect.
"The Lord is my light and salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?"
A Psalm we like, yet as we read it today we suddenly see it strange to us and far from our experience, as if it does not apply to us or to other human beings.
Have you not heard the author of this Psalm saying: "When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh - my adversaries and foes - they shall stumble and fall." Yet, we should admit that the tanks of the occupier conquered the cities of the West Bank within few hours, much faster than the 1967 six-day war. Nothing and no one was able to stop the occupier's tanks, armored vehicles and war machines.
History will record that, if we excluded Jenin Refugee Camp, the occupation forces did not lose in this war except two soldiers. This might increase the occupation's appetite to repeat the invasion again and again.
Indeed, how remote the author of this psalm is from our situation. Have you not heard him saying, "Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident." We listen to these words and we become astonished. Someone is telling us that David had high morale and was brave. Yet, we say that the days of Antar Bin Shadad and Abu Zied al-Hilali are over.
In the time of electronic war, a war that our children and we lived through, there is no room for high morale. The buzzing of the unmanned surveillance planes that invaded our space, which pierced our ears, was proof of this electronic war. An electronic camera monitored the automatic machine gun placed on a crane, which shot dead one of the young men in front of the gate of St. Catharine's Church of the Nativity.
"Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident." We hear these words and wonder if they belong to someone who takes war and its pain lightly. Don't these words remind us of statements made by some officials in the Palestinian security apparatus, or speeches made by some political leaders who said, "We are ready for any invasion and we will turn our cities into tombs for them."
Don't these words sound as if they are coming from a foolish young man, who has no life experience? Don't they sound as if they are the words of a man in his mid-life crises, boasting in front of a group of women to prove his masculinity?
No, you author of this psalm. We fear war like we fear its slogans. War is ugly, offensive, and dangerous, very dangerous. We are not happy to hear some young Israeli and Palestinian men calling for war on satellite television stations, as if it were a piece of Arabian sweets.
No, you author of this psalm. We fear war, because those who do not fear do not frighten. War is destructive, undifferentiating between green and dry, or between good and evil.
No, you author of this psalm. We fear war, not because we want to surrender, but out of wisdom, foresight and thoughtfulness.
We say, woe to a nation that sees in war a way to establish domination. We say it to all the nations in our region, the Israeli, Palestinian and Arab nations.
We have proven to one another that our Palestinian youth are able to transform their coffee shops into tombs and that the Israeli youth are able to transform our roads into garbage dumps.
War is expensive and the author of this psalm knew that. For that we hear him saying: "my father and mother forsake me." Those of you who saw Sami Abdeh, the neighbor of this Church and a former pupil of our school, wondering the streets of this town clinging to every Arab and foreigner he sees and every reporter and journalists around him, telling them: "My brother and mother left me. They were killed in our house. They remained there for 35 hours bleeding! And no one is taking me up." Those who saw Sami and heard his cry, realize how awful war is!
Those who saw our children being deprived from their education and enlightenment know how costly war is, for it is closely tied to darkness and ignorance. Those of you saw families in need of bread, source of income, and dignity standing in long lines to get emergency food supplies, understand how humiliating this war is to human dignity, except for the few who are warlords.
Indeed, you author of this psalm, we fear war except in one single case. War does not frighten us unless its flames burn us, teaching us like little children how to avoid it. War is a blazing fire and the worst of it is that some fundamentalists, Arabs as well as Americans, feed this fire for their own internal reasons. Yet, we are the ones to be burnt. Have we all learned? Did we understand that war is not a wedding as we rise every time to dance to the rhythm of the Arabs clapping for us on television stations, or as the Israelis stand up to select the grooms and get them ready for the wedding party whenever AIPAC pays the bill?
Indeed, you author of this psalm! War does not scare us because it will not and cannot separate us from God, our Lord. "My father and mother forsake me and the lord will take me up."
Even during wartime we say, and God will take us up.
Have we not felt the presence of the resurrected God among us, even in the midst of the shelling and curfew? Have we not felt his merciful hand holding us?
Yesterday I met with many members of this church, who told me "We have missed church. We have missed chanting hymns. We are anxiously waiting to be together, praying together, chanting together." Indeed, war could not separate us from our Savior. Therefore we sing "The Lord is my light and salvation; whom shall I fear?"
This reminds me of a moving story I heard from Ms. Haddad, a Christian Lebanese woman, in the early eighties. She said, "It was on one Sunday morning, Easter morning. The Lebanese civil war was at its height. We gathered for prayer. We gathered to celebrate Easter. Bombs were falling around the church and the sounds of bullets were buzzing in its space. We felt death approaching us. The choir was singing at that moment: 'Christ has risen from death and trampled death with death, giving life to those in the tomb.' Bullets continued being fired, bombs continued dropping and the sound of explosions rose higher and higher. We continued singing: 'Christ has risen from death and trampled death with death, giving life to those in the tomb.'"
Indeed, war does not scare us because it is not victorious over our Savior and consequently on us.
War does not scare me because it cannot take God away from me. On the contrary, war has increased our longing to God. It has strengthened our commitment to our Savior. It has reinforced our conviction in the greatness of our faith!
War does not scare us, but on the contrary. It has brought us closer to one another and assembled us from all over the world: Palestinians, Americans, Germans, Norwegians, Swedes and Israel. Indeed, you author of this psalm. War does not scare us, because it cannot steal our dream of freedom from us: the dream of independence and salvation. War cannot steal our vision for a better future.
We will rebuild the roads that war destroyed.
We will replace Bethlehem 2000 with Bethlehem the Future.
We will plant new ones in place of the trees that war uprooted.
War cannot disrupt our plans.
It may delay our plans for a few months, but it will not destroy them.
War will not rob us of our vision to live in peace with our neighbors.
War does not achieve its goals and for that it does not scare us.
We will continue planting and harvesting, building and constructing, teaching and educating, and drawing rainbows in the sky.
Indeed, you author of this psalm, war will not scare us.
Rather, it has taught us not to leave our streets an open field to "weddings' shooters," and that we must reclaim our streets.
We will not leave our future in the hands of the ignorant, but we will roll up our sleeves and assume responsibility for our villages and towns.
Indeed, war taught us that no nation could be built without honesty. There will be no future without justice, the rule of law, system and transparency, accountability and democracy.
War has increased our resolve not to leave the arena to the others. Rather, all of us must become engaged in building a new homeland.
We cannot accept that politics becomes foolishness. We will not accept chaos that will bring us misery.
Rather, politics is justice, planning, orderliness, responsibility and all of us are called to be engaged.
For peace is an accumulating process. It is one stone built on top of the other. Renaissance is an accumulative process and we will not allow anyone to disrupt it. Progress is an accumulative process. A nation cannot step one step forward and two steps back. War will not scare us, because we have been burnt by its fire, learnt from it, held on to our dream, took on our responsibilities and deepened our faith.
Oh war, where is thy sting?
Oh war, where is thy victory?
Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:57). Amen.
Pastor Mitri Raheb
A worshiper observed:
This powerful message brought much needed balm to weary and disquieted souls.
Prayers were lifted in Swedish, German, English and Arabic as we prayed for the church, the world, peace and justice, and for all children traumatized by the march of war. Our prayers lifted the longings and aspirations, the hurts and dreams of all gathered in the sanctuary. They were prayers for Palestinian and Israeli alike.
Bishop Munib Younan brought words of comfort and hope. He lifted up the congregation's resilience and faith, assuring them they had not been alone in their struggle. He spoke of the prayers and support of many around the world. Turning to our guests that had come in solidarity and love to join the congregation - people from Germany, Sweden, Finland, America, and Israel - he reminded them that their presence was a sign of hope for the future, a sign of our common task of working for peace, justice and reconciliation between all peoples. Turning to three Jewish Israeli visitors who had come to stand with the people on this day, "You came to Bethlehem this morning not with destruction in your hearts but solidarity. You came not as the army who seems to know how to make enemies out of friends, but you came as those who want to turn friends into neighbors. This is a powerful sign of hope for us, that it is possible for us to build together a just peace for all peoples in this land."
As the congregation came forward to share in the communion of Christ, there were tears in the eyes of many. Some looked tired and drawn. Yet, in the midst of all the pain, the faces also reflected a deep joy in being able to gather at the table of the Lord once again. Truly, this day, the bread and cup were gifts for the body and the soul. Truly, this was a moment of resurrection.
Rev. Sandra Olewine[Crossings member Carolyn Schneider met Pastor Raheb last year and received his permission to reprint this sermon. More information about Christmas Lutheran Church and the Bethlehem International Center, including reports about these events, is available at www.annadwa.org.]