Monday, December 6, 2010

The English-Speaking World and the Middle-East

The following is the first of two sermons this Advent on the relationship between the lands of the Bible and our own land.

Kenwood Community Church
Kenwood, California
December 5, 2010

In this sermon I will note some great writers who were born this week, then come to focus on an event that happened 93 years ago next week, introduce a few historical characters, then come to focus on this Sunday’s lesson from Isaiah and see how this prophecy ripples through history to our time today.

This has been a week of birthdays for great writers.
Mark Twain was born this week in 1835 and died in 1910. His autobiography has just been published and the literary world is agog. Twain left a will requiring that these writings would not be published for 100 years and lo, here we are. His autobiography is selling like crazy.
Joan Didion, a very interesting and quirky and writer was born in Sacramento, California in 1934.
CS Lewis was born in Belfast in 1898. He wrote "When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."
Madeline L’Engle was also born this past week, in New York City in 1918. She couldn’t get anything published. 26 publishers rejected the manuscript for A Wrinkle in Time, a wonderful story of angels and cherubim and time travel and the importance of making a commitment.

These are all great people and great accomplishments and themes that could kick off an Advent sermon, but the event upon which I wish to focus occurred on December 11, 1917, which of course is next week, but close enough. On that date, General Sir Edmund Allenby, Commander of His Majesty’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force, composed of soldiers from the British Isles and India, entered Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate. Although he was a cavalry officer, he dismounted and together with his officers, entered the city on foot in order to contrast British ways and attitudes to those of the Germans, for Kaiser Wilhelm had visited Jerusalem in 1898, entering upon a horse accompanied by mounted cavalry wearing spiked helmets and all the accoutrements of the German military. It probably never occurred to this Kaiser that since Jesus rode into Jerusalem, it might be a good idea for ordinary mortals to walk.
For generations and generations Jerusalem had been the dream of schoolboys, the subject of poetry and the goal of Crusader Armies. But they seldom got there. Only the first wave of Crusaders got there at all and were expelled within a century. Richard the Lion-Hearted only caught a glimpse of the Holy City, then had to return to England. His army was badly mauled and he was sick in bed with dysentery. His great adversary Saladin, courteously sent him fresh water and sherbet to calm his stomach during their negotiations, at the end of which Richard and his army were permitted to depart in peace. After that, the occasional pilgrim from England made it to Jerusalem. Even by the time of William Blake, who wrote a wonderful poem titled Jerusalem, visitors from the west were few and far between. It was just too difficult and dangerous to get there.

Then, suddenly, 700 years after King Richard, the British Army dispersed the Turkish defenders and entered the Holy City on December 11, 1917. In terms of the horrible slaughter on the western front, this success by General Allenby was unimportant, but it was a welcome victory of immense symbolic significance for a people weary of war and in desperate need of good news. Every church bell in England rang.

General Sir Edmund Allenby, known to his friends as “The Bull” because he was a large, burly fellow, decided to symbolize British rule by walking into the Holy City. He gave assurances to all religious groups in the city that their holy places would be respected. This is how we like to think of it: the kindly, benevolent, fair-minded English-speaking peoples defeat the militaristic, arrogant, goose-stepping Germans and spread the influence of Anglo-Saxon justice a little bit further. We have extended our sway benignly, with great sensitivity and to the mutual benefit of all, or so we like to think. I personally like to think this because my father served in India during World War II. The British officers in on the Royal Air Force base where he served in Calcutta, and from which he flew over the Himalayas into China, must have been kind to this young American officer who had never before left the Midwest, for Dad always spoke highly of the British military. Dad several times described for me the route by which he returned by air from Calcutta after the war. It was an airport-to-airport tour of the old British Empire: from Calcutta to Delhi, to Karachi, to Khartoum to Cairo; leaving British control briefly to stopover in Vienna, then to London to Newfoundland to New York to Cincinnati where he met his fiancĂ©, my mother, and they were married. I also spent a year in England during college and was fortunate to be basically adopted by an English family for the Christmas holidays. I’ll admit to being a hopeless Anglophile.

Unfortunately, history has shown us that the British military and government, whether with good intentions or bad, were far from perfect and could not make over the Middle East. Some 80 years later, we and our British and European allies are still trying and we still do not know whether we shall succeed or fail or accomplish something in between.

Now let me introduce this sermon’s second great historical character: Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, one of the foremost authorities on the Middle East in the early 20th Century. She died in 1926 after having explored and charted a great swath of Arabia, from remotest Syria to the waters of the Persian Gulf. The maps she made were used by the British military during World War I. She traveled well, usually with enough camels, servants, and aides-de-camp to dine every evening at table with linen napery, China plate, crystal wine goblets and fine silver. There was a reason for the show: she impressed the various Arab chieftains when she came a-calling and got good information after entertaining them well.

After the war, she made Baghdad her permanent home, helped to write a constitution, organize elections, draw borders and found the Iraqi National Museum. She was a woman of great common sense, who summed up her experience of nation-building in Iraq as follows:

“No one knows exactly what they – the people who live there - do want, least of all themselves, except that they don’t want us.”
“I suppose we have underestimated the fact that this country - Iraq - is really a mess of tribes which can’t as yet be reduced to any system. The Turks didn’t govern and we have tried to govern . . . and failed.”

Now I am not bringing these characters up – a general and a lady – and Jerusalem and Iraq in order to criticize or to praise what our government has been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan this past decade. I am bringing all this up in order to help us understand Isaiah and his prophecies and to attempt to understand the remarkable relationship between the Middle East and out own country.
We look to that part of the world as a source of endless frustration and at the same time - inspiration. The lands mentioned in the Bible have both lifted up and broken our hearts for centuries.

We Americans share a dream, a dream of good, decent and orderly government. It’s a good dream; and this dream comes, remarkably enough, from the Middle East, from the events related in the Bible, from Abraham, Moses, Isaiah and of course Jesus.

Every year about this time we re- read the prophesies of Isaiah, who lived an almost impossibly long time ago, 2700 years. His prophecies were ancient when Jesus walked the earth. The Jerusalem in which he lived had already been destroyed and rebuilt. Yet his prophecies stir our hearts every year:

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,_
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
_The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
_ the spirit of wisdom and understanding,_
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord._

We believe this shoot from the stock of Jesse, the father of David, was Jesus. He was of the house and lineage of David. His life and death are the events around which out lives still revolve. We believe these lines point unmistakably to him:

His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.__
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,_
or decide by what his ears hear;_
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,_
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;_
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,_
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked._

He will be the wonderful counselor, Almighty God, everlasting father, Prince of Peace.
And the government will be upon his shoulder.

This is quite an idea: idea that there is a moral force behind within the universe, working its way with and through history, a force that once walked the earth like we do and now is still in some way we do not quite fathom still involved in everything that happens on earth. It is an idea that provides comfort through thick and thin. I’ll admit that it is at times hard to believe it, but it is much worse, if not disastrous, to disbelieve it entirely.

Now let me introduce yet another character, a couple of characters, related to another event that took place this time of year.

69 years ago next Tuesday. Japanese planes without warning bombed Pearl Harbor. December 7, 1941.

Just a few days later, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, under great secrecy, boarded a swift battleship and arrived in the United States to be the guest of President Roosevelt for three weeks during the Christmas season. The two men had met the previous summer, in secret, aboard a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland. They cemented their relationship and that of their two countries with a solemn religious service aboard ship, where Holy Scripture was read and hymns sung.

They continued in like fashion throughout the holidays. During the Christmas Eve tree lighting on the White House south lawn, the Marine Band performed "Joy to the World" and the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's "The Messiah." On Christmas Day, FDR took Churchill to Foundry Methodist Church on 16th Street, about a mile from the White House. There for the first time in his life, Churchill heard "O Little Town of Bethlehem," the lovely hymn that declares:
"Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."

Both President and Prime Minister were greatly moved and inspired by the service. Winston Churchill later wrote of it:

"Certainly there was much to fortify the faith of all who believe in the moral governance of the universe."

I think you for tolerating my history lesson this morning. Perhaps you find this praise of all things Anglo-America and patriotism a bit much. It is indeed a bit of a stretch, overbearing, possibly dangerous to identify you or your country or your government too closely with the moral governance of the universe.

But ask yourself: do you want to live in a society that makes no such claim at all? Will we be better off if we abandon the concept of moral governance altogether?

We Christians believe that there is a moral governor of the universe. We believe that this moral governor, the savior, the anointed one, was born in a manger in Bethlehem, not far from Jerusalem. This moral governor was as vulnerable throughout his life as we are - that is precisely whence his moral authority comes. We believe that the moral governor of the universe was real and is real, has died, has risen and will come again.

I’ll admit that this is not easy to believe, but what is the alternative?

We try to align ourselves with the moral governance of the universe. We ask to be held accountable if we do not. We ask ourselves:
What would Jesus do? What would the moral governor of the universe have us do?

These are good questions. Just because there are no obvious answers does not mean that these are not good questions.

We are attempting to make peace on earth, in difficult places. The outcome is as uncertain as ever. Yet we look to the same person for inspiration, for comfort, to the governor of the universe, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the chosen one, the Lord. It is he whom we celebrate this season, and every season.