Thursday, July 12, 2012

Jerusalem My Happy Home

RCL Proper 15B
12 July 2012

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Propers:  2 Samuel 6.1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29

To listen to the sermon as it was expanded and preached on Sunday, the 15th of July, please click here.

           In the film, The American President, a widowed and beleaguered U.S. president falls in love with an environmental lobbyist.  It’s an election year and the president’s conservative opponent senses an opportunity to exploit this relationship for his own political gain.  One of his points of leverage that he exploits is the fact that this lobbyist, as a university student, was photographed burning an American flag at a campus protest.

            For Americans there are few more provocative and divisive acts than burning an American flag.  Burn the flag in a public gathering and the public will stir from its general political complacency and divide into two camps.  One camp will denounce the act and renew calls for either a federal law or a constitutional amendment to ban such expressions of free speech.  The other camp will defend the act if not the views expressed as falling under the protection of the constitutional right to freedom of speech --- even if it makes one’s love of country transform itself into righteous indignation and anger.

            I know this well.  I am a member of the last group of American nineteen-year-old males who were subject to possible involuntary conscription into the armed forces and service in Viet Nam.  My own family, immediate and extended, has a long history of military service, beginning in the American War of Independence and continuing to the present-day.

            Burning the flag arouses such passion because a flag is a symbol.  Symbols cannot be easily divorced from what they signify.  A flag may be a piece of fabric, but it represents, it embodies, the community whose symbol it is.  In this symbols differ from signs.  If you run a ‘stop’ sign, you’re likely to receive a fine but no one will picket your home!  Burn the Qur’an or the Bible in a public place and you’ll probably qualify for police protection!

            For the people of Judah and Israel, the two regions of David’s kingdom, there was no more powerful symbol of the divine presence and their history than the Ark.  Twenty years earlier it had been captured by the Philistines, the enemies of the Hebrews, and Saul had done little to recover it.  Even when the Ark was returned, it was enshrined in a town well within striking distance of the Philistines.

            Shortly after receiving the allegiance of the northern region of Israel, David set out to capture the hill city of Jerusalem, long held by the Jebusites, a non-Hebrew people.  By taking the city and making it his political capital, David had scored a coup:  A strong capital with no associations with either the northern or southern tribes.

            But David takes one more step to solidify his reign and to demonstrate that he is truly the beloved of God.  He brings the Ark to Jerusalem and in one fell swoop creates a new and powerful national symbol:  Jerusalem the Golden, the political and religious centre of David’s kingdom, where both God and the monarch dwell.  Over the millennia kingdoms and empires and international mandates would rise and fall, but Jerusalem the Golden has remained a powerful symbol for Jews, then Christians and, more recently, Muslims.

            Symbols take root deep in our personal and collective identities.  They are like gemstones that refract light and seemingly change their appearance depending upon the viewer’s perspective.  To this day I am never really sure what colour eyes Anna and Owen, our younger two children, have.  They are ‘sea-eyed’ Celts whose eyes can be blue or green or grey or some blend of all three depending upon the time of day, one’s point of view, even their mood.  So, too, are the symbols housed deep within us.

            Right now Jerusalem continues to be at the centre of political and religious conversation, debate and conflict.  Both Israelis and Palestinians claim part or all of the city as their respective national capital.  Jews, Christians and Muslims have public and unsettling conflicts over the custodianship of important religious sites.  No one can find middle ground because there is truly so much at stake.  When symbols are involved, compromise can sound a lot like treason or heresy depending on where one stands.

            A sermon on a Sunday in July is no place for an attempt to lay out a proposed solution to peace in the Holy Land.  But these past few months have been ones which have tested the relationship between Jews and Christians and Muslims.  Various Christian churches have discussed, debated and voted on proposals to boycott Israeli products and to divest from businesses that are either Israeli or have significant financial ties to Israel.  In the months ahead I hope that our ten-year-long dialogue will not founder on this shoal and that we will find ways to strengthen our existing friendships and to work in a manner that contributes to a just and lasting peace for all.  I ask your prayers for our dialogue in Vancouver and for all people who live in the Holy Land, an ancient and continuing symbol of our faiths.

            In the letter to the Ephesians, our second reading today, I find a perspective on symbols that may point a way forward, whether for the Middle East or for Jews and Christians in Vancouver or for any human relationship, personal and corporate.  For the writer of Ephesians the primary symbol of God’s creating, redeeming and renewing purpose is humanity:  people in relationship with God and with one another who share in this creating, redeeming and renewing work.  What is important to God is what you and I do with the concrete symbols of our relationship with the Holy One, whose name is ever to be blessed.

  • Do we use these symbols to build up or to destroy?
  • Do we use these symbols to heal or to wound?
  • Do we use these symbols to embrace those who differ from us or to exclude them from our fellowship?
  • Do we use these symbols to liberate our sisters and brothers or to oppress them?

            These questions are not just for those who have power and influence in the wider world.  These are questions for every person and every congregation to ponder and to act upon.  If the writer of Ephesians is correct, and I confess that I believe the writer to be correct, then how we use our symbols to build up, to heal, to embrace and to liberate our sisters and brothers, whether across the seas or across the street, is the most important religious obligation we have as people who live in relationship with God, the Holy One of Israel, who has been made known to us in the witness of Jesus of Nazareth and who is made visible in us through the workings of the Holy Spirit.

            So let us pray and work for the peace of Jerusalem and all the little Jerusalems in which we live and work.  Let us use the symbols of our sacred places, our buildings and our worship well so that the glory of God, a humanity fully alive, might be revealed in us and through us.  Then we shall not be ashamed to dance like David before the Ark of God’s presence, this fragile earth, our island home.  Amen.

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