Tag Archives: refugees

“Word and Deed” – Sermon on Matthew 16:13-20

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“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” – Matthew 16:13-20


I don’t know about for you, but this passage is quite familiar to me. And one of the most popular claims I’ve heard about it is that this text is about Peter’s faith and great confession and it has been used as an example of how we might have faith in Jesus and confess who he is.

According to this interpretation, this passage is a turning point for Peter. After all, it was only a few chapters earlier when Jesus told Peter that he had little faith because he lacked trust in Jesus when he feared walking on water. Yet, here, in Matthew 16, Peter finally confesses who Jesus really is. When Jesus asks the disciples “who do you say that I am?” Peter speaks for the disciples and replies, “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

So it seems to make sense that this passage is about Peter’s turning point, faith, and confession.

However, if we look at the passage that immediately follows this one, we might see that there is something more to this passage. Starting in vs. 21, Jesus begins to tell the disciples that he MUST journey toward Jerusalem, suffer and die in the hands of the religious leaders, and be raised on the third day.

We would think that a disciple who truly understands who this Jesus – the Messiah, the Son of the living God – is, would accept what Jesus has to say about his mission – even if this disciple does so with reluctance and sadness. However, to our surprise, Peter responds to this by rebuking Jesus and saying: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen!” And to our even greater surprise, Jesus responds to Peter by calling him Satan and saying he is a stumbling block for only setting his mind on human things rather than on divine things.

And this isn’t the only time Peter does not seem to get it. For we all know it is HE who denies Jesus three times after Jesus gets arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.

So maybe our Gospel text this morning is not just about Peter’s confession about who Jesus is. Maybe it’s about something more.

*****

To better understand, we need to consider what these titles given to Jesus in Peter’s “confession” meant to both Peter and Jesus.

According to one source, (the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary) the Messiah was an “anointed agent of God, appointed to a task affecting the lot.” However, the title “Messiah” did not always suggest a divine being. In Ancient Israel/Palestine, this title referred to priests, anointed men who were kings of Israel, prophets, and even to the pagan king, Cyrus. It is not until the Babylonian Exile – where the Israelites were taken from their homeland and longed to return – when the Israelites began to write about a coming Messiah who would be their Savior in the midst of great suffering. And it is not until we read Paul’s letters when we begin to hear that Jesus, the Christ (which is the Greek translation for “Messiah”), is the one who fulfilled the Palestinian Jewish expectations of the coming Messiah.

The title “Son of God” is similar in that it was also used to allude to numerous persons and positions in Ancient Israel, including angels, monarchs when they were enthroned, and people who were considered to be righteous. According to one source, by the first century, this title referred to “a person or a people with a special relationship to God, often with a special role in salvation history.” (Harper Collins Bible Dictionary)

In order to better understand the importance of these titles, we might also consider the location in which Peter made this confession, Caesarea Phillipi. This city was the worldwide center of the Pagan religion that worshipped Pan, the god of shepherds and flocks. This religion involved lustful acts that followers would perform in order to worship Pan. In addition to this, the city represented the imperial power of the Roman Empire, which created a strong dominating hierarchy that uplifted the wealthy and the elite and oppressed the poor, the sick, and the outcasts of society. In fact, the city was given its name by King Herod the Great’s son, Phillip, when he came to power… And you can probably guess who it was named after: Caesar…and Phillip, himself.

Two temples stood in Caesarea Phillipi: one to honor and worship Caesar the great leader of the Empire and the other to honor and worship Pan. This city was basically considered the Sin City of its day, and most Jews would have completely avoided going there.

So, as you can see, this is not the place you might expect Jesus Christ, the Jewish Rabbi who was said to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God, to take his disciples to and ask them to confess who he really is. We might think that the Temple or one of the synagogues would have been a better place.

And yet, I think it is quite intentional that Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Phillipi to reveal his identity to them. You see, in the Roman Empire, people were often forced to worship the empire and it’s leaders. Many of the leaders were even given titles such as “Savior,” “Lord,” and “Son of God.”

What’s more is that in Caesarea Phillipi, there was a cave where Pan was worshipped with a spring that flowed from it. The spring was thought to flow from underground – a place the Greeks referred to as Hades, and where the gods would spend their winters. And the source of the spring was called the Gates of Hades, the same phrase Jesus speaks of in our text.

 *****

Now in our passage for today, Jesus goes on to tell Simon Peter that his name shall be Peter, which means rock. And it is upon this rock – or Peter, the spokesperson of the disciples – where Jesus will build his Church. And nothing – not even the Gates of Hades – the location where the pagan gods representing imperial, oppressive power and where the gods exit and enter Hades – not even these gates will prevail against this body of Christ.

You see, it seems as though Caesarea Phillipi is the intentional place for Jesus’ identity to be revealed. It is here in the midst of this imperial and pagan center, where Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is, and Peter answers that it is Jesus – not the Caesar or Pan – who is the Messiah, the Son of the living God! It is this Jesus Christ, who will be the one who saves the people who are suffering from this oppressive empire and who is worthy of worship. And not even Rome or Jupiter or any other gods or imperial worldly powers will be able to prevail against him!

And we see throughout Matthew, that it is this Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who begins to bring about a new kingdom, the Kingdom of God, a kingdom so opposite of the oppressive Roman Empire that dominated over those on the margins.

A Kingdom that will even oppose, challenge, and tear down the hierarchical powers and forces of that Empire.

And this new kingdom is one where Jesus, the only truly great ruler and king – rules not with a militaristic, exclusive, and dominating power over others. But rather rules with love and equality and lives with and uplifts the poor and sick, the women and widows, the immigrants and ethnic minorities – those who were considered the last and least in society.

 *****

Now, we have come a long way since the first century. So it may seem very difficult for us to understand or even comprehend the repercussions of such a violent and oppressive Empire. And yet, I don’t think we have to listen too long to the local, national, and international news before we start to realize that the United States is dangerously moving toward a modern day Roman Empire.

Because don’t we live in a country where status and capitalism are often worshiped… And so while it is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, only a few individuals have the majority of wealth in this country while so many individuals are left without enough of an income to buy food for their families, provide housing, or afford adequate health care.

Don’t we live in a country with more resources than much of the rest of the world can even comprehend and with a fairly low population density.  And yet, when 1000s of families from across the world seek refuge from war, we refuse to open our borders and when 1000s of unaccompanied children desperately cross the border in order to flee violence, we detain them, threaten to build a wall, and look at rescinding the DACA program, which protects immigrants without documentation who came to the US as children.

Don’t we live in a country where racism continues to prevail so much throughout our systems, that a sheriff is pardoned for his Civil Rights abuses – even though he had openly been racially profiling Latinx individuals and had bragged about mistreating Latinx folks while holding them in what he called a “concentration camp.” And don’t we live in a country where even when racism takes shape in such overt forms as what took place in Charlottesville – where the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and other white supremacists held tiki torches and chanted: “Blood and soil,” “Jews will not replace us,” and other horrific anti-LGBTQIA chants – even then, this white supremacist terrorism is downplayed by many, including by some of our highest political leaders?

Don’t we live in a country that proclaims its moral superiority over other nations and yet it spends more on the military than the next eight countries combined?

Today, our worship of the Caesars and Pan gods in the United States – our worship of capitalism, power, wealth, religion, and race – not only push so many people in our own country into the margins of society, but our nationalism – our worship of our country – leads us to view other nations and people of other ethnic and racial backgrounds as inferior to us and as less human than we are.

While it is okay and even important for us to recognize and be thankful for the many blessings we do have in our lives, we must always remember that while we may sing “God bless America,” God does not bless American any more than any other nation. And, as followers of Jesus, we can never worship a nation, social status, wealth, capitalism, a particular racial or ethnic group, or any other Caesar or pagan god. Because it is Jesus Christ – the Messiah, the Son of the living God – not Caesar or Pan, not the United States or any other nation, not our material possessions or our successful careers, not our military weapons, borders, politicians, or our powerful police forces. It is Jesus Christ and it is ONLY Jesus Christ who is our Lord and Saviour.

We hear this truth proclaimed throughout the Scriptures, and we particularly hear it preaching out of our text in Matthew today.

 *****

But our message does not end here with this confession of Peter about who Jesus is. As Jesus is about to start his journey to Jerusalem and toward the cross, he tells Peter an important thing: that although Jesus will leave this earth, his ministry of challenging and breaking down the oppressive imperial walls and forces and of spreading his good news of love and justice to ALL people – is not over.

This ministry will continue. It will first continue through Peter and the disciples who will be the rock on which Jesus will begin to build the Church… But it will also continue through all of Jesus’ disciples.

No longer does it matter that Caesar holds the keys to an oppressive kingdom that excludes those on the margins of society, because now it is Peter and ALL of Jesus’ followers who hold the keys and opens the doors to a new Kingdom that is built on love, peace, equality, and justice.

*****

So we can see that our passage in Matthew begins with a confession, but it ends with commission. A commission not just to Peter, not just to the other eleven disciples, but to all of us who truly proclaim that it is Jesus – the Messiah, the Son of the living God – and it is ONLY this Jesus – who is our Lord.

We may wonder how on earth we are to respond to this commission. For some of us, it might start with listening to the voices around us who are being shut out and recognizing the Caesars and Pan gods we currently worship, benefit from, and/or defend… and learning to give them up. For others of us, it might be figuring out how to tear down the imperial powers that oppress and push people to the margins in Chicago, in the U.S., and throughout the world by learning about and spreading the word about such injustice, signing petitions, and standing with others at marches that demand justice. For others it might be figuring out how to open the doors of this Kingdom of God to the people in our midst who are being excluded by our present-day imperial systems.

However we may do it, we – as followers of Jesus – are called to not just confess who Jesus Christ is, but we are also called to respond to his great commission. So let us not just leave this place and go back to our busy schedules forgetting what we have heard and confessed this morning. But let us boldly and loudly respond to Jesus Christ, our Messiah, the Son of the Living God, both in word and in deed.

Amen.

 

 

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Guest Post at Revgalblogpals: “The Pastoral is Political: Peace for Gaza”

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I’m blogging over at revgalblogpals:

“Imagine an area of land that is only a mere 360 kilometers, is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, and is surrounded by a tall barrier wall that shuts those who live inside the borders out from the rest of the world.

Here, you will find mass destruction of buildings and tens of thousands of people who are displaced. You will find one of the world’s highest unemployment rates, and you will see that more than half the population is food-insecure and more than 80% of the population relies on humanitarian assistance. You will discover that most hospitals have severe shortages on equipment and fuel, and thus must limit their care for patients and could potentially risk closure.”

You can read the rest of the post here.

“Now Is Our Opportunity To Testify” – Sermon on Luke 21:5-19

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“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”

Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” – Luke 21:5-19


In our passage in Luke this morning, the disciples are adorning all the beautiful stones of the Temple – the place that was so important and central to their community and their faith. And I can just imagine how they must have felt as Jesus told them that all of those stones are going to come crashing down. That their beloved Temple would soon be destroyed.

I think I can imagine how they must have felt because I think so many of us feel this way right now.

I am going to be completely honest. This week has been incredibly difficult. I can’t remember the last time I have cried as hard as I did on Tuesday night while I was watching the election. And I think the last time I woke up feeling like I was in a living nightmare like I felt on Wednesday morning was my sophomore year of college on Sept. 11th – as I watched the twin towers collapsing in New York on tv.

Now, the reason I was so distraught this week was not because a particular political party or my politician of choice was not chosen. But I have been so upset because of the incredible hate that has been spouted out by the politician that was elected and by several of his supporters – the kind of hate that is a direct attack on the personhood of so many of us and our neighbors and is incredibly dangerous.

And I know this week, I have not been the only person overcome with pain and fear of what this might mean.

The past few days I’ve heard the many hurts and fears voiced by family members, friends, neighbors, parishioners, parents, children, and youth.

On Wednesday night during youth group, as we gathered for prayer, anointing, and communion, several of our youth expressed that they were extremely worried about what this meant for the people they cared about or for themselves, as a youth of color or as a refugee, as a member of the Latinx or LGBTQIA communities, as a young woman or a youth with special needs, as a victim of sexual assault or as a youth whose family is economically disadvantaged.

“Will my family get deported?” “Will he take away my right to same sex marriage?” “What will happen to my food stamps?” – our youth asked.

“I don’t understand how anyone could ever vote for someone who treats women that way,” one of our young women said, crying. “Do they think that’s okay to treat us like that?”

“I don’t think he should be president,” an autistic youth stated. “He’s racist and mean to lots of people. I think he is just a big baby.”

“I’m worried about the safety of one of my Muslim friends,” another youth explained. “Her mom even asked her not to wear her hijab in public because she fears for her daughter.”

“I feel accepted here in this community,” one black male youth expressed. “But seeing how many people – even Christians – voted this way makes me scared that I will not be as accepted and safe in other places outside of Chicago.”

The pain and fears are deep and real for so many right now.

But too often – in times like these – our tendency is to deny or quickly skip over those fears and that pain. We can’t bear the reality, and it feels too painful to face our feelings or to see those whom we care about suffer. So we try to fix it. We tell ourselves and others to just “look on the bright side.”  “God is in control.”  “Everything will be okay.”

But the hard reality, as we see in our Gospel text in Luke this morning, is we are not guaranteed that everything in our world is going to be okay. At least, not immediately with the snap of our fingers.

Just as we see in Luke, there are going to be times of great trials and sufferings. There are going to be (and there currently are) unjust systems in our world and in our nation that divide and oppress.

“So stop adorning the beautiful stones of the walls of the Temple,” Jesus tells his disciples in Luke. “Stop focusing on other things so as to avoid the reality of what is to come and what already is. Soon, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another. All stones of the Temple will be thrown down. There will be destruction and violence. You will be persecuted in my name for proclaiming my good news, even by some of your own friends and family members. So stop focusing on other things. Instead, be alert. Beware that you are not led astray by others who falsely speak of doing works in my name.”

*****

These are hard words.

Stop focusing on other things. Beware of those who proclaim hate in the name of Christianity. Stay woke.

Face and name the reality of the suffering and injustice around you. Because it is there. It is real.

I know this is not what we want hear. But it is the harsh truth, and if we don’t face and claim it, we will have harsh consequences.

Because if we continue to avoid the suffering and the fears that our neighbors or that we – ourselves – are facing, we will loose sight of the real unjust and oppressive systems that are causing such suffering and oppression. And if we loose sight of these unjust systems, there will be no room for us to move beyond our fears and suffering so that we can begin to move toward hope. We will only be left with a false sense of optimism, which will keep us from seeing the opportunities we do have to move toward reconciliation, justice, and peace.

Because we cannot begin the path to reconciliation without tearing down the walls that divide and the systems that oppress.  And we cannot tear down these walls until we first recognize and confess that those walls and systems actually do exist.

Likewise: we cannot start to move beyond our fears and anger nor heal from our pain and suffering without first recognizing these feelings exist and then doing the important grief work so that we might begin to move THROUGH these feelings.

****

Now I know this is heavy. But please bear with me. Because there is good news.

Because as harsh as this all sounds, our reality does not have to end here, and Jesus calls us to not let it end here.

You see, in our text in Luke, Jesus does not just leave his disciples alone in that place of suffering and despair as he opens their eyes to the reality of what was to come and of the systems of injustice that were already present.

“Stay woke,” he urges them. “Because now is your opportunity to testify.”

You see, we can find hope in the promises that we hear in Malachi and 2 Thessalonians this morning that “there is a day coming when the evil will stumble… and the complacent and the lovers of the status quo will one day be revealed” (as Pastor Rachel Hackenberg paraphrases.)

We can find hope in the Kingdom of God that Jesus began to reign in 2000 years ago – a kingdom where the worldly throwns of injustice will be overturned.

But this Kingdom of God is not something we just sit around waiting for. And our hope in it is not passive. Rather it is active. And it involves us. Yes, God is creating new heavens and a new earth, but we are being called to join God in this creation process. And so even when the stones of the Temple walls come tumbling down before our very eyes, through us God is making all things new.

And so it is in times such as these, when we have this opportunity to testify.

You see, to testify is to love as Jesus loves. To speak as Jesus speaks. To make peace in this world as Jesus – the Prince of Peace – makes.

To testify is to proclaim the good news that Jesus proclaims. The good news, which can be summed up at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Luke, where he stands before the crowds, unrolls a scroll and begins to quote from the book of Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (And this year of the Lord’s favor in which he was to proclaim was the year of Jubilee – the year that the Jews had been waiting for – which was the year when land would be returned to its original owners, all Hebrew slaves would be set free, and all debts would be remitted. It was the ordered way of breaking down dividing walls of injustice and making peace).

Now, Jesus says, is our opportunity to testify this good news.

“Now is our opportunity to speak the gospel to the brokenhearted,” as Christian blogger Jill Duffield puts it. “Now is our opportunity to speak the truth in love. Now is our opportunity to let the world know we are Christ’s disciples by our love for one another in a very unloving and too often unlovely world. Now is our opportunity to testify to the power of Jesus Christ to reconcile and forgive, to transform and redeem.”

“Consider all the tumult, the war, the earthquakes, the suffering and the cruelty,” Jill continues. “Does not God have a Word to say in the midst of it? Have we not been given a purpose to fulfill in the face of it? Are we not to be a light to the world? Didn’t Jesus ask, “Do you love me?” [And his disciples answered:]”Yes, Lord, you know that we love you.” [Didn’t Jesus then say to them – and to us]: “Tend my sheep.” Now is our opportunity to testify.”

****

You see, to testify means that in times such as these, we create holy spaces for one another – like our youth group did on Wednesday night – where we are free to lament and share and hold one another in our fears, anger, and pain. Because these feelings are real. And we have a God who is real. A God who meets us where we are. A God who came in the flesh so that he might know our sufferings and walk alongside us in the midst of them. A God who – as poet Paul Claudel said – “did not come to take away our suffering. [But who] came to fill it with his presence.”

Now is our opportunity to testify.

To testify means that we will walk to the grocery store or sit on the bus with our black and brown, Latinx, LGBTQIA, Muslim, Jewish, refugee, and diversely abled siblings when they are scared for their safety. To testify means we will listen to one another’s stories, sit with each other in our sufferings, welcome those who are hurting into our homes and church, march with one another in the streets, and join in on this fight for justice, working harder and stronger than ever before.

To testify means we will shut down and speak up against any and all forms of hate on social media, in our workplaces and schools, with our families and friends, and in our communities and our country.

To testify means we will believe and proclaim the truth that both we and all our neighbors are beautifully and wonderfully made in the image of God.

While many of us are still feeling overwhelmed with fear, anger, and pain right now, these feelings don’t have to have control over us.  Because we can also hold onto hope.

 Because love can and will trump hate.

****

As I read and heard the kinds of fears and pain many of those I care so deeply for were feeling this week, I said to them what I would like to say to you this morning:

I see you. I hear you. I love you. You matter.

My heart aches with you. I stand with you.

You are not alone.

May those who need to hear these words today hear them, and may we all share these words with our hurting neighbors.

In times like these, we must come alongside one another. Because we need each other. We are BETTER together.

Amen.

Learn to Love: Defeating Hate Starts with Us

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In the last few days, in addition to grieving the horrific shootings last week in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and Dallas, I’ve seen a few of my Muslim sisters share posts about their friends (who wear hijabs) getting verbally assaulted, spit on, or egged.

This hate – all of it – has GOT to stop!

And the work of ending this hate has got to start with us!

PLEASE: if you see someone mistreat one of our Muslim siblings – or ANYONE: confront that assaulter if possible, record the incident if needed, and make sure the one being assaulted is safe and cared for.

PLEASE: if you hear someone making an Islamophobic/racist/homophobic/transphobic/ablist, etc. joke or saying something nasty about “those people” – whomever they are directing the remarks at: don’t just ignore them. Shut down the stereotype. Engage them in conversation and help them understand that negative stereotyping is wrong and dangerous for everyone.

PLEASE: if you see someone who practices a different religion, has a different sexual orientation or gender identity than you, whose country of origin is different than your’s, or whose skin color is different than your’s and you immediately think that person is “trouble,” “sinful,” “bad,” “dangerous,” “weird,” or whatever generalization you might have: catch yourself in that thought. Tell yourself that this thought process is wrong and then do something so that you might begin to change your thought process. For those of us who are people of faith: look at that person and remind yourself that they – too – were created good, are beloved children of God, and are God’s image-bearers.

Start by getting to know someone on a personal level who practices that religion, whose sexual orientation or gender identity is different than your’s, or who looks different than you do. Educate yourself. Read books and articles written by people who identify with that particular group. Follow them on social media. Attend a worship service or a social gathering with people who look, worship, believe, speak differently than you do.

Developing relationships with our neighbors is one of the best ways we can start to break down stereotypes and defeat hate.

As Nelson Mandela said: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than it’s opposite.”

For those who live in Chicago: One way we can start doing this is by breaking bread with our neighbors at a Potluck for Humanity this coming Sunday, July 17 at 6:00pm at the Bean.

So let’s begin here!  Let’s learn to love!

Can You Hear The Prayer of the Children?

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Yesterday I attended my favorite annual interfaith Thanksgiving service: where Muslims, Jews, and Christians in my neighborhood come together every year to give thanks to God and to celebrate the beauty of our diversity and our unity that comes in the teachings of all our faith traditions: that we are to shine God’s love to others, share our abundance with those in need, and work for peace and justice.

I was in tears so many times: As we joined together in song. In prayer. In reading and reflecting upon our beloved scriptures. In offering up food and money to those in our community who are hungry, cold, and hurting. In not only giving thanks to God for our blessings, but also praying that God would help us share our blessings with others in dire need – particularly our Syrian brothers and sisters (and all other refugees throughout the world) who are desperately fleeing war and violence.

I wish that more people in our city and throughout our country could have the opportunities I have to experience God’s love in this way – through a powerful and beautiful multi-faith and multi-ethnic community like this one.

And I wish that more people could have heard the children and youth who preached to us through song yesterday – especially as we find ourselves at a time when the world really needs to hear them:

Some of the Muslim children and youth preached when they sang a song that included faith expressions from Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism – reminding us that it is beautiful when we let our faith lead us in caring for one another and in joining together as one human family.

Some of the Methodist children and youth preached to us when they sang: “No matter what you say, no matter what you think: I am a child of God. No matter what they say, no matter what they think, you are a child of God.”

And some of the Catholic children and youth preached when they sang to us:

“Can you hear the prayer of the children?
On bended knee, in the shadow of an unknown room
Empty eyes with no more tears to cry
Turning heavenward toward the light

Crying Jesus, help me
To see the morning light-of one more day
But if I should die before I wake,
I pray my soul to take

Can you feel the hearts of the children?
Aching for home, for something of their very own
Reaching hands, with nothing to hold on to,
But hope for a better day a better day

Crying Jesus, help me
To feel the love again in my own land
But if unknown roads lead away from home,
Give me loving arms, away from harm

Can you feel the hearts of the children?
Aching for home, for something of their very own
Reaching hands, with nothing to hold on to,
But hope for a better day a better day

Crying Jesus, help me
To feel the love again in my own land
But if unknown roads lead away from home,
Give me loving arms, away from harm

Can you hear the voice of the children?
Softly pleading for silence in a shattered world?
Angry guns preach a gospel full of hate,
Blood of the innocent on their hands.

Crying Jesus, help me
To feel the sun again upon my face,
For when darkness clears I know you’re near,
Bringing peace again.

Can you hear the prayer of the children?”

_________________________________

May we listen. May we see. May we weep. May we respond. May we welcome. May we embrace. May we love.

May we hear the prayer of the children. ALL the children.

“And it was good” – Sermon on Genesis 1:1-2:4, Commemoration of St. Francis of Assisi

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God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

I don’t know about you, but while I may not be completely on board with everything that Pope Francis believes, I have been so intrigued and inspired by his commitment to calling people around the world to care for our environment and by the genuine and abundant grace and love he offers others, particularly those who have been deemed as outcasts by society. And so last week I was unable to keep my eyes off the news that continuously reported about his visit to the United States.

And I’m not just talking about being inspired while watching the Pope giggle as he blesses a baby dressed up in a baby pope costume or while watching him take selfies with a bunch of giddy teenagers… and adults. (Though these encounters were quite fun to watch.)

But I’m talking about being inspired by this man who spoke on behalf of the Church about the importance of caring for ALL God’s creation, by urging the U.S. to do much more to address climate change, to work to end homelessness, and to be a nation that welcomes immigrants and refugees. And I loved seeing him put his words into action throughout his visit, not only by riding around in a humble and eco-friendly Fiat, but by blessing, meeting, praying with, and listening to the ones who have been voiceless and marginalized.

It was touching to see what he did while riding in his car on his way from the Philadelphia airport when his eyes caught a glimpse of Michael Keating, a 10 year old boy with cerebral palsy sitting in his wheelchair on the tarmac with his family. Pope Francis’ car suddenly stops, he exits the car, and then walks over to Michael and – looking directly into Michael’s eyes – he gives him a blessing. His family later told the press that they felt incredibly overwhelmed with joy in that moment.

It was also touching to hear how Pope Francis declined his invitation to have lunch with the most powerful U.S. politicians after his address to Congress because he chose instead to have lunch at a Catholic Charities meal with more than 300 individuals who are homeless or living in poverty. And as he prayed with and blessed those in attendance, he said: “In prayer there is no first or second class. There is brotherhood.” Lanita King, a woman who was present at the meal and who was formerly homeless, described the significance of the Pope’s lunch plans: “he is delivering the message that God is here for us. God is here with us.”

And it was especially touching to watch Pope Francis visit 95 prisoners at a correctional facility in Philadelphia. While there, he explained: “I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and make it my own. I have come so that we can pray together and offer our God everything that causes us pain, but also everything that gives us hope, so that we can receive from him the power of resurrection.”

Pope Francis explained to these men and women in the correctional facility how Jesus humbly and compassionately washed his disciples feet during the Last Supper. He then went on to say: “All of us have something we need to be cleansed of or purified from… And I am first among them.” And at the end of his message before he went on to shake the hands of each of the men and women in the room, he told them that Jesus “comes to save us from the lie that says no one can change.”

God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

This past week, Pope Francis reminded our country – one of the wealthiest nations in the world – that ALL God’s creation is good. Including the earth and all the creatures that live off of it. Including the child with special needs. Including the immigrant and the refugee. Including the homeless and the poor. Including the prisoner who finds hope in God’s promise that ALL can change and be forgiven and cleansed from their past sins, no matter how horrible those past sins may have been.

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Today, just a week after Pope Francis’ trip to the U.S., we commemorate the late St. Francis of Assisi, the man whose name the Pope chose to take as his papal name.  The 13th Century friar who sought to follow Jesus’ teachings and believed with his whole heart that there is no last and least in the Kingdom of God. And who dedicated his life to loving and caring for nature, animals and birds, and those on the margins of society, particularly the poor.

And as we commemorate St. Francis of Assisi today, and recall his care and love for creation, I find it quite appropriate for us to listen again to the very well known creation story in Genesis 1.

In the beginning… God created the heavens and the earth and the land and the seas. And God saw that it was good.

The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.

God created the stars, the sun, and the moon. And God saw that it was good.

God created the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. And God saw that it was good.

God created the wild animals of the earth and everything that creeps upon the ground. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ 
So God created humankind
 in the image of God.

And God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

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Not only does this creation story remind us that ALL God’s creation was created good and that ALL humankind was created in God’s image and thus we have the ability to change and be cleansed from our past: no matter our faults, mistakes or past sins… But it also reminds us that God has given us – as members of humankind – the great responsibility of being stewards and guardians of God’s creation. Of caring not just for some of God’s creation, but doing everything we can to care for ALL of God’s creation… Of seeing the image of God in ALL people, no matter how much we may struggle to do so, and treating them with the love and care God calls us to. Of taking care of the plants and the trees and the water and the animals and the birds around us. Of being co-workers with God in caring for the earth and all its creatures and in doing the work of making this world – which is full of so much pain and hardship – a better place.

God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

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Today, on this day when we commemorate St. Francis of Assisi, we will participate in a blessing of our pets. This blessing is not only a reminder that our pets are good and loved and blessed by God, but this blessing is also a reminder that this is true for ALL God’s creation and that as humans created by God, we have been given the important responsibility of being stewards and guardians of it. So as we take part in the blessing of our pets, may we also take this time to make commitments to God and one another that we will take on this important responsibility of being God’s co-workers in stewardship and guardianship.

I would like to close this morning with the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, so please join with me in prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Amen.

Aylan Kurdi

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Aylan Kurdi.

This one beautiful name brings me to my knees weeping.

And that there are thousands upon thousands of other names of beautiful and beloved children (whether Syrian, Palestinian, South Sudanese, Libyan, Honduran, Guatemalan, Rohingyan…) we don’t know, who are dying because they are desperately fleeing war, poverty, and violence and yet nobody is taking them in…

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees.

Abraham and Sarah were refugees.

Jacob, Ruth, Esther, David, Naomi, Jeremiah… were refugees.

Moses and the Israelites were refugees.

I am reminded of our commands from God:

“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 22:21

“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were once aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” – Lev. 19:33-34

God, have mercy on us, for we have sinned!

Day 2 of the ELCA Youth Gathering: Proclaim Community Heitz-Squad Style

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Day 2 of the ELCA Youth Gathering was a wonderfully informative day. We began with our “first 15,” which included a Bible study and discussion, exploring the theme for the day: “Rise up and Bear Burdens.”  The rest of the afternoon, we proclaimed community in the interactive center at Cobo.

There, we visited the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service center, where we learned what life is currently like for the 65,000 children and youth from Central America who have sought refuge in the U.S. and wrote post-cards to them.

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We learned what it is like to be a refugee from South Sudan at the Lutheran Disaster Response center.

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When visiting the Peace not Walls center, we met our new friend, David, a Palestinian high school senior from the West Bank, who talked to us about the plight of Palestinians and shared with us personal stories.

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And we learned a little about race in the U.S. and made commitments to work for racial justice.

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Along the way, we ran into a few people…

ELCA Metro-Chicago Synod Bishop Wayne Miller

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ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

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Ngbarezere and Kalleb were even interviewed by someone from The Lutheran magazine!

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We had some fun, too.

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We went back to the Renaissance Center this evening to do more dancing. Then we headed to Ford Field for our mass gathering, where we rocked out to some awesome music and were inspired by spoken word.  We heard from Luther Seminary professor, Eric Barreto, who talked about how God created and loves our differences and how diversity is the place where God acts most powerfully.  And we heard from Alexia Salvatierra, who talked about the unjust American immigration system and shared powerful stories about the child/youth refugees from Central America. We also had a fun surprise: where Maku and John were featured on the big screen at the mass gathering!

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Here is a reflection from Kalleb, a senior from Immanuel Lutheran Church:

“Day 2 was amazing. We learned about burdens and how burdens should be shared and not kept in. We came to realize that if burdens are shared with others, they will be lightened.
I enjoyed the dance today, where Val and I danced in front of many of the youths. It was great meeting so many people from different parts of the country and world.  At ford field, it was amazing listening to spoken word, music, and inspirational speeches. I look forward to tomorrow and I’m loving Detroit. #RISE UP”
And here is a reflection from John, a ninth grader from Immanuel Lutheran Church:
“Today was the day we learned about bearing burdens. We were told burdens are basically like carrying a heavy weight on your back but instead it’s carried in your heart.  And we heard a few stories on how those burdens came into people’s lives: like when four citizens destroyed the roof above them to get the paralyzed man to Jesus or when some guys were trying to immigrate to America. But then one got very ill, which made him more of a burden for the other people. He was thirsty, he was tired, and he just could not keep up, so they left him. He was slowly dying: his dehydration was killing him until he found a small puddle. He decided to drink from it, and it turned out the water was filled with bacteria.  And he got more sick, and he just laid there to die.  Until a group of four people picked him up and carried him to a highway where an emergency car got him.  But then the immigration people got those four who helped the man, and they were deported.   But before they left, a reporter asked: “why would you risk this and turn yourselves in like that?” They said: “cause we are Christian, and Christians carry each other.”
That all ties together with what we did today: finding out what to bring if we were brought to a refugee camp and when we found out about all the kids from Central America and about people who died from the acts of violence toward people because of race.
We also heard some great music at the mass gathering, met new people, and played fun games at the cobo center. Over all, it was fun.”

“A God Who Shows Up” – (At Bold Cafe: Women of the ELCA)

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Photo taken in downtown Bethlehem on Jan. 6: Celebrating the Orthodox Christmas (Emily Heitzman

I’m blogging “A God Who Shows Up” over at Bold Cafe (Women of the ELCA today). Here is part of what I wrote:

Since I moved away after high school, I always look forward to going back to my parent’s home for the holidays. And since Christmas songs, movies, and holiday TV specials often include themes of magical family “homecomings,” I am guessing I’m not the only one whose focus in December is on getting ready to go home. After all, doesn’t Perry Como say: “If you want to be happy in a million ways, for the holidays, you can’t beat home sweet home?”

And yet, what about those individuals whose family relationships are broken or abusive, those who feel unsafe in their homes, or those who do not have homes to go to? Can they find places during the holidays that “beat home sweet home?”

It seems as though the theme lately in the news has been one of violence, instability, and displacement. The economy continues to leave many people jobless or underemployed, families are losing their homes to foreclosure, and more and more people are moving to transitional housing or becoming homeless. Additionally, the past several months, we have heard about the terrified children at the border who are fleeing violence. We have seen horrific images of the attack on Gaza that killed thousands of civilians and damaged thousands of homes, and we are aware of domestic violence that occurs in households.

So how can our cultural emphasis on “holiday homecoming” be good news when this “homecoming” is not a reality for so many? 

Read the rest at Bold Cafe (Women of the ELCA).

Finding Jesus in Bethlehem… at the Checkpoint

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I am sitting in my church office surrounded by beautiful nativities, candle sticks, crosses, and ornaments that were hand-carved by some of my Palestinian Christian friends who live in the Bethlehem area in the West Bank… items that my church youth are selling both as a way to support our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters and to raise awareness of the situation in Israel/Palestine… and as I sit here, looking at the beautiful holy family carved out of wood from an olive tree – a symbol of peace in the Judeo-Christian tradition – I am even more so surrounded by the incredible memories of my life-changing experience two years ago in the Holy Land – a place where people thousands of years ago waited for the One who would bring peace and a place where people today continue to wait for peace to be brought to their land.

Advent is a time of waiting and preparing… not just in vain, but expectantly for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, the One who brings us hope, peace, joy, and love and who shines light in the darkness of this world.  And two years ago today I was waiting and preparing in this season of Advent for my upcoming trip to the Holy Land… to Israel/Palestine… Yet, little did I know that I was waiting and preparing to actually encounter Jesus – coming into my life in extremely transformative ways: where not only did I experience so much genuine hospitality and kindness, but where my eyes were opened up to many of the unheard stories of the plight of our Palestinian brothers and sisters.

As we continue to wait and prepare for the coming of Jesus this next week, I thought I’d share some of my facebook “journal” posts and photos from the trip where I stood on holy ground and experienced the incarnation of Jesus in the people I met and through the stories I heard.

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Day 2 in Israel/Palestine: Amazing to ring in the New Year at the top of Nazareth watching fireworks all over the city.

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…We also visited the Sindyana of Galilee (a Fair Trade organization in the region of Galilee that seeks to empower and provide jobs for women, reconcile relationships among Jews and Arabs, and support Arab farmers from Palestinian Occupied Territories);

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…went to Kfar Bar’am – a Palestinian Christian city where citizens were dispersed and the city destroyed;

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…stopped by the place where Jesus may have fed the 5000, and visited and worshiped on the Mt. of Beatitudes.

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“I walked today where Jesus walked, and felt Him Close to me.”

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Day 3 in Israel/Palestine: walked in the Sea of Galilee; pictured Jesus performing miracles, walking on water, and calming the storm as I heard the Gospel reading and sang hymns with my brothers and sisters in our boat on the Sea of Galilee;

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…Ate fish as St. Peter did – with bone, head, and all;

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…Saw city ruins from First Century and later in Capernaum and Nazareth;

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…And visited Mary’s well in Nazareth.

Jesus walked this land 2000 years ago and made His presence and love known on this land today.

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Day 4 in Israel/Palestine: started with an extremely eye-opening meeting with the Arab Association for Human Rights in Nazareth and heard shocking truths that are rarely heard or spoken about;

…Saw ruins from the times of the Crusaders and Byzantines, and a home, tomb, and city road from First Century Nazareth;

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…Visited Caesarea;

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…Drove through ancient Joppa (in Tel-Aviv); stood on the Mt. of Carmel, and ended the night hanging out with two new friends who are from Hebron and work at our hotel in Bethlehem – listened to their stories and began to build friendships.

The city of Hebron from a rooftop. (We visited the city later on in our trip.) It was a terrifying site to see the poverty and the mistreatment of the Palestinians here. Hebron is a Palestinian city in the middle of the West Bank and has an illegal Israeli settlement that was established in the middle of the city. The settlers have been extremely violent against the Palestinians, there is a main road that runs through the city and the Palestinian market place that is forbidden to Palestinians and has caused the marketplace to shut down, and there has been a pattern of Israeli soldiers inflicting violence against Palestinians – including children here. My first experience in Hebron was getting off our bus and seeing an Israeli soldier with his huge gun strapped over his shoulder go over to a boy about 9 or 10 years old who was playing soccer with a can and start kicking and screaming at the boy until he noticed me staring at him. To see another incident of such soldier violence against a young child in Hebron, click here.

Hebron: outside the Christian Peacemakers Team office: a group of Christians who, among other things, walk with Palestinian children on their way to/from school to ensure they are not attacked by the Israeli settlers or soldiers in the city.

Hebron: outside the Christian Peacemakers Team office: a group of Christians who, among other things, walk with Palestinian children on their way to/from school to ensure they are not attacked by the Israeli settlers or soldiers in the city.

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Ibrahim Mosque in Hebron (location of the “Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre:” where American-born Israeli open fired on unarmed Palestinian Muslims praying in 1994, killing 29 people and leaving 125 people injured.)

…Experiencing God through the many beautiful people I am meeting and the love and hospitality they are providing.

(I got to blow Hebron glass)

(I got to blow the Hebron glass)

…Starting to anticipate the celebration of the birth of the One who brings Peace to a hurting and oppressed people (which we will celebrate here on Jan. 6) and beginning to wonder if this is how Mary, the mother of Jesus, felt when she entered Bethlehem before His birth: fear for the unknown and present and future political/societal situation, pain for the suffering of the oppressed, and hope and anticipation for God to bring peace, love, and reconciliation to all God’s creation.

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Day 5 in Israel/Palestine: an incredibly difficult and yet amazingly spiritual day: Visited Sabeel (Palestinian liberation group) and Musalaha (a Christian reconciliation group), visited numerous places where Jesus walked and ministered in Jerusalem;

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…And ended the evening meeting new friends who are shop owners in old city Bethlehem and hearing their extremely tragic stories. (Including: 1. Story of 27 year old: when he was only 17 – during the 2002 siege of Bethlehem – he participated in some of the non-violent protests against the Israeli occupation.  Because of this, one night, an Israeli soldier followed him to his family’s shop, barged into the shop, grabbed him, and slammed him against the wall with his gun pointed at his head, screaming at him for a while.  Then the soldier dropped the gun and left the shop.  2. Story of the 65 year old, a shopkeeper near the younger man’s shop.  When shopkeepers were forced to close their shops during the Israeli siege of Bethlehem in 2002, this man – along with several other shop owners – decided to protest the Israeli occupancy by keeping their shops open.  A soldier busted open his shop, threw a gun to his head, screamed that he would blow his brains out for a while, and then finally dropped his gun – saying he is lucky he is letting him live.  These were only a few of the stories I heard.)

Bethlehem markets

Bethlehem marketplace

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Bethlehem marketplace

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…Was overwhelmed with pain and shock by seeing the separation wall;

Separation Wall in Bethlehem (where Palestinians cannot cross from the West Bank to Israel without a visa)

Separation Wall in Bethlehem (where Palestinians cannot cross from the West Bank to Israel without a visa)

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Our group's tag on the Wall: Outrageous Hope 2012

Our group’s tag on the Wall: Outrageous Hope 2012

…Felt Jesus’ love and presence while praying/crying with my sister Celona in the Garden of Gethsemane, and wondered as I heard Jesus’ voice while on the Mt. of Olives looking over the city of Jerusalem if He continues to weep over it today: “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.'”

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Day 6 in Israel/Palestine: visited the Wailing Wall and Holy Sepulcher Church;

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…Heard from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs about issues in occupied territories: terrible oppression of civilians, the illegal settlements, the issues of poor education, lack of jobs, growing numbers of homeless/refugees due to home demolitions, and families that have been split up because of the Separation Wall and restrictions on crossing territories, and found some hope from Israeli peace activist Matan Kaminer in his true bravery and commitment to fighting for justice and peace for/with the Palestinians.

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Palestinian loss of land from 1946-2000 (Palestinian land is in green)

Aida Refugee Camp: a camp (full of poverty and limited space) established in 1950: hosting refugees from 17 demolished Palestinian villages.  They were originally given the promise to return home, but still have not been granted this return.  Currently, there are 4700 residents in 277 housing units.

Aida Refugee Camp: a camp (full of poverty and limited space) established in 1950: hosting refugees from 17 demolished Palestinian villages. They were originally promised the ability to one day return home, but still have not been granted this opportunity to return. Currently, there are 4700 residents in 277 housing units. For more information, click here.

Aida Refugee Camp

Aida Refugee Camp

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…Also ran into my new Palestinian friends at their shops.  The 27 year old – really smart and kind – said after experiencing much violence in Bethlehem much of his life, he received a scholarship from a university in Illinois but couldn’t go because the US embassy in Israel deemed him a terrorist threat because of his sex, age, and ethnicity. However, he said: “After struggling to make a life for myself, I finally opened this shop to be able to support my younger siblings. I don’t care what this shop does for me, but I care to give my siblings a full life.”

As I stood in the upper room in Jerusalem, I imagined how Jesus invites ALL to the table and as I touched the stone of Calvary, I was reminded of how He suffered and died on the cross to conquer death and bring forth new life, peace and justice to the world!

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Day 8 in Israel/Palestine: celebrated Orthodox Christmas in Bethlehem Square outside the Church of the Nativity with festivals, music, and amazing Palestinian food;

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Church of the Nativity (There are still visible bullet holes from the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002.)

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…Learned about Palestinian Christianity and Theology of the Land at Bethlehem Bible College; heard more about the Kairos Palestine document at Evangelical Lutheran Church in the infamous and struggling town of Beit Shahour; and ended the evening celebrating Christmas in a huge celebration in the Square with music, dancing, food, and wonderful conversations with the Eritrean refugees.

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…Was saddened to hear their stories of how hard it’s been to live in Tel Aviv – as they have received no aid, lived/slept outside for 2 years, and receive little pay for hard work – and to hear how much they wanted to get to the US to gain a better life.  But I was blessed to see and hear their true kindness and joy as they celebrated the birthday of the One who gives them hope in liberation and justice.

…Can’t think of a more appropriate place to celebrate Christmas today: in the little occupied town of Bethlehem that has never really been seen as lying still, where a poor and oppressed teenage girl could not find room in an inn 2000 years ago, and yet gave birth to the One who would come to preach good news to the poor, recover sight to the blind, free the captives, and liberate the oppressed.

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It is here where I find hope in the birth of that baby in a whole new way and pray: “Oh come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel! And peace to men on earth.”

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Related Articles and Websites:

Israel/Palestine 101 (on jewishvoiceforpeace.org) – an introduction to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict

Nakba Fact Sheet (on jewishvoiceforpeace.org) – a fact sheet about what led up to the Palestinian Nakba (or Catastrophe), who are the Palestinian refugees, and the role of the UN.

Encounters with Israeli Soldiers in Hebron (on catholicpeacefellowship.org) – testimonies of encounters with Israeli soldiers by a member of the Catholic Peace Fellowship

The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories

Christian Peacemakers Team

Kairos Document – written by Palestinian Christians about what is happening in Palestine

Christ and The Checkpoint Conference – hosted by Bethlehem Bible College:  To Challenge Evangelicals To Take Responsibility To Help Resolve the Conflicts in Israel-Palestine By Engaging With the Teaching of Jesus on the Kingdom of God.

A Common Friend to Arabs and Jews – by Lynne Hybels (in Huffington Post)

Breaking the Silence – testimonies of Israeli soldiers of what really goes on in Occupied Territories