I recently came across a story about former President George H. W. Bush from some years ago. The president was visiting a nursing home and chatting with the residents. At one point, he walked up to a gentleman resting in one of the chairs, with the television going in the background, said hello, and asked, “Do you know who I am?” The man smiled in a friendly way and said, “No, but if you will go down to the front desk, somebody there will tell you.”
It’s a funny moment, but there is also a real truth in it, too. We never know who we are on our own. Our sense of our self develops over time as we define ourselves in relation to others around us—‘I am this and not that’; ‘these are my people and those are not.’ And we are defined by the groups we are part of—our nationality and race, our ethnic background and religion.
You know, if we could gaze just under our clothes and skin, or examine our DNA, we would see that we humans are virtually identical. Yet we find ourselves living in a world of tensions and divisions, competition and wars, that comes from the identities we wear. It’s a dangerous world, and a great deal of that danger comes from the ways we humans define ourselves against “others,” the ways we exclude, demonize, and even attack those different from us.
We just heard one of the most poignant moments in all the gospel stories. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and he already knows what’s ahead—bitter conflict and likely death at the hands of the Roman powers. He is agonizing over the plight of his people and over their own arrogance and sin, and he is keenly aware of what happens to prophets who take on the powers that be.
Then, as he is walking along the road, all of a sudden he erupts with a cry from the heart:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Strangely, though, he is sounding not like a troublemaking prophet but an agonizing mother, as he imagines himself a hen wanting to gather her brood under her wings.
I don’t want to generalize too much about mothers, never having been one myself, but it seems to me they carry an immense burden, that of having more desire to protect and nurture their children than they sometimes know what to do with. They so badly yearn for their children to grow and thrive, they so often ache when their children suffer, and they so urgently long for their children to care for each other. I doubt there is any pain like the pain of a mother seeing her child suffer, or any grief like a mother’s grief when her children are alienated from each other.
Jesus’ cry is filled with frustration, grief, and determination that God’s children, his children, could somehow come together under the wings of God’s love. And that was the Jerusalem of 2,000 years ago. The tragic truth of today is that if Jesus agonized and even wept over Jerusalem then, the tears would be flowing non-stop now.
Some eighteen months ago I traveled with a group of Cathedral pilgrims at long last to see the Holy Land, and especially Jerusalem. It was even more moving than I expected to travel to Bethlehem and Galilee, and especially to walk the streets of Jerusalem, the city that Jesus knew and loved. You felt as if you were at ground zero, the holiest of places for three great faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and you could sense it as you walked the streets. One of our speakers on the journey described Jerusalem as a city where people not only practice different faiths but live in different centuries. Whole sections were living in the first century, the twelfth, or the eighteenth. Wandering the narrow streets was like stepping into a time machine that delivered you every few blocks to another religion and culture.
But there was also a pervading sadness hanging over the ancient city, as Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived tense, hostile lives alongside each other. A friend of mine described it as “the broken heart of the world,” because for all its riches it seemed to be a deeply fractured place, broken in a way that mirrored the world’s brokenness. The constant military presence and repeated police checkpoints required to travel around the city were steady reminders of danger held at bay. Outside Bethlehem we visited the ugly, graffiti-covered, nearly 40-foot wall constructed around Palestinian areas, making their lives almost impossibly difficult. Our guide pointed out to us new illegal Jewish settlements, sprawling clusters of condominiums being erected in Palestinian territory. We listened to Palestinian Muslims describe their lives of constant harassment and humiliation and the economic pressures that seemed destined to drive them from their homeland.
And we heard Palestinian Christians describe their desperate circumstances. They are being rapidly pushed out of their homeland and now amount to fewer than 2% of the population. This community has been in the Holy Land for 2,000 years, but they are caught between the traumatized Israeli Jews and the traumatized Palestinian Muslims as the tide of violence continues. There could one day be almost no Christians left in the Holy Land.
We also heard the Jewish perspective on these divisions—with their account of centuries of Christian anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust, and of the Jews’ determination to reclaim their ancient land. A wise Jewish theologian described the fear Israelis live under of suicide bombers and terrorist attacks—it’s like experiencing a 9/11 attack again and again, he said—and how that drives their aggressive and often brutal treatment of the Palestinians.
You sensed the tragedy everywhere, made so much worse because these divisions and hatred are significantly fueled by religion. Perhaps the holiest single place in the world is the center point of religious and ethnic hatreds as deep as anywhere. I remember at one point standing on the Mount of Olives just outside the city wall, looking over at the holy site of the Dome of the Rock, once the location of the great Jewish Temple and now a vast mosque, and thinking of Jesus’ words we heard this morning:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
It was Jesus’ cry from the heart for the people of the city to leave behind their divisions and turn to God and to loving their neighbor.
Today, though, we would have to say that Jesus’ cry from the heart isn’t directed simply at the holy land called Jerusalem, but to that much larger holy land called the whole earth, where the divisions, especially among religions, are equally tragic and dangerous. America is itself currently engaged in two wars that have religion at their core. And smaller wars with religion at their center rage around the globe.
The three great monotheistic religions all trace their roots to that towering figure Abraham we heard about in our Old Testament lesson, who with his courageous wife Sarah, both in their ripe old age, trusted God’s call and set out to go wherever God led them. But now these three religions often bicker, compete, and dismiss each other around the globe.
It is quite an irony, isn’t it, that all three religions speak of a God whose essence is love and who calls his followers to love one another. But something sometimes happens in a religion that turns it into the opposite of what it professes. It becomes a force for hatred and exclusion. So Islamic fundamentalists don’t just disagree with our values, they hate us, and Christian and Jewish fundamentalists easily do the same. Think of the tragic events that erupt when religions are co-opted by extremists: Muslim fundamentalists call for the elimination of Israel, Jewish fundamentalists declare that God gave them all of the ancient holy land, and Christian fundamentalists fiercely support Israeli militarism because they believe Israel’s success is essential for the Messiah to return.
What is missing in all this is a sense of humility before the vast mystery of God, a sense of modesty about God’s working in the world, and a sense that love of neighbor should trump all the jockeying for power and position. We need more than just tolerance, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain Jonathan Sacks has said. We need to affirm the diversity of God’s world and the multiple paths of faith, and see the mission of these faith traditions to be to work together for a peaceful, hopeful world for everyone.
Within our own Christian faith Jesus reveals God to be one who seeks out cheaters, prostitutes, women, children, the sick, the hated Samaritans and the unclean lepers—all those who live beyond the pale. In fact, St. Paul says, Christ on the cross “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
There is nothing more important for the future of our world, especially in this nuclear age, than for the world’s great religions to embrace this modesty and wide-open divine welcome. I remember in the days just after 9/11 reading W. H. Auden’s great poem “September 1, 1939” with the line that in this powder keg of a world seems truer than ever: “We must love one another or die.” To love doesn’t mean to like, to agree with, even to approve of. It means to respect, to honor, to commit ourselves to the well-being of those whose lives differ profoundly from our own. This kind of love isn’t optional if the human race is to survive in this interconnected world.
Every now and then we see signs of walls coming down. Two years ago a group of Muslim theologians and leaders issued a public declaration called “A Common Word Between Us and You.” It opened this way: “Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.”
And they went on to say that the basis of this peace lay in the two foundational principles of both faiths: love of the one God and love of the neighbor. Soon after that, a group of Christian theologians issued a response that began with an apology for historic Christian hostility toward Islam as expressed in the Crusades and even recently in some parts of the war on terror. It insisted on including Judaism in the conversation, something missing from the first statement. It called for relationships of “dialogue as those who seek each other’s good,” and not each other’s conversion. This exchange of public statements has been an important step forward.
Tomorrow here at this Cathedral there will be another step: We will begin a three-day Christian-Muslim Summit, a series of conversations among leaders of these two faiths. The aim is further understanding and increasing public commitment to working for peace with each other and among the nations. Anglican and Roman Catholic, Sunni and Shi’a traditions will be exploring in depth how we can seek peace together. I hope you will pray for them and their work in the coming days.
We need to carry in our hearts these important top level events, but reconciliation always comes down to personal relationships. Several years ago I remember welcoming to the parish I was serving a group of Muslim and Jewish mothers from Jerusalem, women who had lost children of their own in the violence and who were determined to work for a more peaceful world. They showed us pictures of their sons and daughters and told us about them—what they did, what things in their lives they loved, what they had hoped for. And then they described how they were killed in street riots or bomb explosions, and of how in their grief these mothers found each other and decided to join together to work for peace. They spoke of their lost children with intense affection and of their desperate yearning for an end to the hatred and violence. You couldn’t miss their tears and passion.
There’s nothing quite like a mother’s love to remind you of God’s love. And there’s nothing quite like the mother love of God that Jesus shows us today—
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings!
There it is—God’s aching, yearning heart pleading for the children of this world to open their arms and embrace and begin the work of healing.
It’s a cry straight from the heart of God.