|Easter 7, Year A||May 28, 2017||Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A||John 17:1-11; 1 Peter 4;12-14; 5:6-11; Acts 1:6-14|
|Easter 6, Year A||May 21, 2017||Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A||Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21|
|Easter 5, Year A||May 14, 2017||Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A||John 14:1-14|
|Easter 2, Year A||April 23, 2017||Easter 2, Year A||Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31|
|Easter Sunday, Year A||April 16, 2017||Easter Sunday, Year A||Matthew 28:1-10|
|Good Friday, Year A||April 14, 2017||Good Friday, Year A||John 18:11, 9:28-30|
|Maundy Thursday, Year A||April 13, 2017||Maundy Thursday, Year A||John 13:1-7, 31b-35|
|Palm Sunday, Year A||April 9, 2017||Palm Sunday, Year A||Matthew 26:36-46|
|Lent 5||April 2, 2017||Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A, Baptism||John 11:1-45|
|Lent 4||March 26, 2017||Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A||Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41|
|Lent 3||March 19, 2017||Third Sunday in Lent, Year A||Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42|
|Lent 2||March 12, 2017||Second Sunday in Lent, Year A||Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, John 3:1-17|
|Lent 1||March 5, 2017||First Sunday in Lent, Year A||Matthew 4:1-11|
|Ash Wednesday||March 1, 2017||Ash Wednesday, Year A||Matthew 4:1-11|
|Last Sunday after the Epiphany||February 26, 2017||Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year A||Matthew 17:1-9|
Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
Sermon Date:February 19, 2017
Scripture: Leviticus 19:1-2, I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Liturgy Calendar: Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
Today I’m going to tell you a story about enemies and a house that brought them together.
You can find the complete story in a book called The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan. The words that follow about the house are from Tolan’s book.
“In 1936, Ahmad Khairi stood in an open field at the eastern edge of al-Ramla, an Arab town of eleven thousand on the coastal plain between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean. To the north lay Galilee and southern Lebanon; in the Bedouin lands to the south, the sands of Palestine and Sinai.”
“Ahmad, dressed in his coat, tie, and Turkish fez, held in his open hands a foot thick slab of rough cream colored stone, shaped by a stone mason’s chisel. The dips and rises of the stone defined a landscape in miniature, like the hills and wadis of the Palestine it came from.”
“Ahmad looked down, crouched low, and laid the first stone upon its foundation. Hundreds of other stones were stacked high beside him. With the first stone in place, Ahmad looked to the cousins, friends, and hired laborers there with him. They began to place stone upon mortar upon stone.”
With that first stone laid on its foundation, Ahmad had started building the house for his young and growing family, a house that would last the family for generations. His son Bashir was born there.
Meanwhile, in Europe, as the Axis countries gained power, life for many became unsettled. In the European country of Bulgaria, tensions grew. By 1943, the rights of the country’s 47,000 Jews had been stripped away by sweeping measures built on Germany’s Nuremburg laws. In 1943, the Nazis ordered the Bulgarian Jews to be rounded up and deported to the Treblinka death camp. In the village of Plodiv, police rounded up the Jews and held them at the local school, but when the rest of the citizens heard about this, they went to the school in protest. The village’s Catholic bishop showed up and reassured his Jewish neighbors that he would lie on the railroad tracks and not let them go. After many efforts, the Bulgarian Jews were spared the concentration camps, although they were scattered from their homes and villages like leaves in the wind.
In 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two separate states, one for Palestinians, and one for Jews. The British withdrew from Palestine in May of 1948. After the British left the area, a war for the land began. In July of 1948, Zionist soldiers, who believed that all of Palestine was rightfully theirs, entered al-Ramla and expelled the citizens from their homes. Thirty thousand people from al-Ramla and the town of Lydda, driven out at gunpoint, had to walk in 100 degree heat for hours over a steep rise to another village where they were bused to Ramallah, a Christian hill town which was now inundated with tens of thousands of refugees.
The Khairi house stood empty.
In November of 1948, a busload of Jewish immigrants from Europe arrived in Ramla, now a ghost town. They saw sheep, dogs, chickens and cats roaming the streets and soldiers guarding empty buildings. They were met by someone from the Jewish Agency and told to pick out any house they wanted. The paperwork would be done later.
Moshe and Solia Eshkenazi, from Bulgaria, chose the stone house that Ahmad had built. They would raise their daughter Dalia in this house. They were told that the owners had simply run away. So the Eshkenazis, along with the other Jews who settled into the homes of the Arabs, “did not give the past owners much thought. Instead, they focused on building a new society.”
Fast forward twenty years. In July of 1967, after the Six Day War, Bashir Khairi and his two cousins travelled from a bus station in West Jerusalem to the village of al-Ramla. They wanted to see their childhood homes once again. At the home of the first cousin, they were turned away. The second cousin found that his home had been turned into a school for Israeli children, and the young men were allowed to tour the school after the class period ended.
And then, they went to look for Bashir’s old home. At last they found it, the house made of cream colored stones, surrounded by a wall, with a lemon tree in the garden.
After a long pause, Bashir rang the bell at the gate, and the men waited.
Dalia, who had grown up in the house, now twenty years old and a student at the university, was sitting on the veranda when the bell rang. She unlocked the gate, opened it, and saw the three men standing in front of her.
Instantly she knew. She had always wondered who had lived in the house before her family had. “Wow, it’s them.” “It was as if I had always been waiting for them, “she remembered.
“This was my father’s house, and I lived here too,” Bashir told Dahlia. “Would it be possible for us to come in and see the house?”
Dalia had them come into the garden and to wait for just five minutes. She wanted to straighten the house so that it would look nice and so that her visitors would have a good image of the house and the people living in it.
At last she invited them in.
“Come in, feel at home.”
“The cousins crossed the threshold: Bashir took a few careful steps and looked around, standing in silence, breathing in the large open room, exhaling, breathing it in again. It was much as he had pictured it: spare and clean. He would recall feeling as if he were in a mosque; as if he, Bashir, were a holy man.”
“Dalia led the cousins through each room and then told them to take their time and experience the house as they wished to. She withdrew, watching them with fascination.”
“Bashir looked like a man in a trance. He floated down hallways and in and out of doorways, touching tile, glass, wood, painted plaster wall, absorbing the tactile feel of every surface.”
“’And I had a sense that they were walking in a temple, in silence,’” Dalia would remember many years later. “’ that every step meant so much to them.”
On that day, a bond was forged between Dalia and Bashir, and the rest of the book describes their friendship in the context of the history of the conflict between their people, the Arabs and the Jews over the land of Palestine, a conflict that is still unresolved and still going on today—a conflict that seems to have no end in sight.
Dalia would never agree with Bashir that the Jewish people had no right to be in Palestine. And Bashir would never give up his belief that the Palestinians had a right to return to the land on which their families had lived for centuries.
And yet, in spite of their disagreements, the two of them continued to meet over the years. Bashir’s whole family came to visit the house in al-Ramla. His father, with tears streaming down his face, ran his fingers over the leaves of the lemon tree that he had planted so many years ago. The Eshkenazis sent lemons home with him. When Dalia was pregnant with her child, the Khairis travelled to the hospital to bless her and wish her well in her pregnancy.
In spite of the fact that the Jewish people resorted to outright war, takeovers of land not in the original UN agreement, and committed atrocities and acts of torture on the Palestinians; in spite of the fact that the Palestinians resorted to violence of the worst sort to get the world to pay attention to their plight; in spite of the fact that their people were entrenched enemies, Dalia and Bashir continued to have hard but respectful conversations.
When her parents died, and the house became vacant once more, Dalia asked Bashir if she should sell it and give the proceeds to his family.
Bashir was adamant. The house should never be sold, but become a place for Arab children to have a chance to enjoy the childhood that he was not able to have there.
And so eventually, the house became known as “The Open House,” where Arab and Israeli children could come together and learn and play in peace.
And then, fifty years after Ahmad planted the lemon tree, it died.
Eventually, Dalia and the Arab and Jewish teenagers planted a new sapling next to the old stump. “The Khairis were not there. So there was something missing,” Dalia said. “But the empty space was filled up with all these children. The trunk of the old lemon tree was there, very beautiful. Just by it we planted a new sapling. I couldn’t just let the past stay like that. Like a commemoration stone, the kind you put in a graveyard. The pain of our history. This dedication is without obliterating the memories. Something is growing out of the old history. Out of the pain, something new is growing.”
In the last visit recorded in the book between Dalia and Bashir, Dalia travels incognito and against the law, to Ramallah to see Bashir. They sit across from one another in his office. Once more they have the same hard conversation about their differing viewpoints on the land and who should live there.
As she gets ready to leave, Dalia says to Bashir,
“We couldn’t find two people who could disagree more on how to visualize the viability of this land. And yet we are so deeply connected. And what connects us? The same thing that separates us. This land.”
Bashir took Dalia’s hand. “I was afraid for you to come here,” he said.
“I wanted to come,” Dalia replied.
They stood and looked at each other, shaking hands and smiling. “Expect me any day, Dalia,” Bashir said. “I am forbidden to go to Jerusalem. But expect that one day, I will show up at your door.”
Dahlia walked slowly down the single flight of stairs toward the street in Ramallah.
“Our enemy,” she said softly, “is the only partner we have.”
In today’s gospel, Jesus says
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?….Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Ahmad Khairi laid the foundation and built a house.
The Eshkenazis built on that foundation as they created a new life for themselves in that same house.
Dalia Eshkenazi, a Jew, and Bashir Khairi, a Palestinian Muslim, chose to love their enemies by respecting one another, and praying for one another’s families. They chose to live in the tension of their differences, and to bring some reconciliation, however small, out of that tension, even in the face of disagreement and the lack of any mutual solution for the land that they both loved.
Jesus Christ has laid a foundation for us, and built on it a holy temple in which God’s presence dwells through the power of the Holy Spirit. We, the church, are that temple, and the foundation of this holy space is love.
May we choose with care how we build on this foundation. May we be brave like Dalia and Bashir, and open the doors of this holy place, and open the doors of our hearts; to be people who welcome in even our enemies, and when we go out into the world, to look at every person we meet knowing that we would never do anything to hurt that person.
For in doing so, we imitate and please our holy God, the Lord of love.
Tolan, Sandy. The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. New York: Bloomsbury, 2006.