Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 27 • 5 Oct 2014

Exodus 20:1-4,7-9,12-20
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Rev. Chris Udy

Just over a week ago
Ginie and I were with a group
of Uniting Church people
walking through the old city of Jerusalem
on the way to visit the Al Aqsa Mosque
and the Dome of the Rock.
That area is sacred
to Muslim people all over the world
and the visit had been cleared
both with the Palestinian Authority
and with Israeli Security.
It was 7.30am,
and the only people on the streets
were shopkeepers and jet-lagged tourists,
but just as we were about to make
the final approach up the hill to the Mosque,
we were stopped at a barricade
manned by Israeli soldiers.
We waited there for a few minutes,
then went back to find
a way around the checkpoint,
and as we came near the Mosque again,
and from another direction,
we could hear the sounds of gunfire
and tear gas canisters exploding.
We finally came to the gates
of the gardens around the Mosque,
but the gates were locked,
and the Israeli soldiers inside
said the complex was closed.
Outside the gate with us
was a man who normally worked inside,
who told us that, early that morning,
a group of Israeli men –
including the leader of a political party
behind many of the illegal settlements
on Palestinian land -
had forced their way inside
to re-claim the area they call the “Temple Mount”.
Muslim worshippers from the Mosque
had challenged them
and the Israeli security forces
had come in to shut everything down.
So our visit to the Mosque
and the Dome of the Rock was cancelled,
and we started walking back to our conference venue,
only to run into the checkpoints
that had held us up an hour or so before.
But now the streets were crowded,
with hundreds of children
and university students who had also been trying
to get up to the Al Aqsa Mosque
because that’s where their schools were located.
Some groups – mainly teenage boys –
had started chanting in Arabic,
saying – we were told – “Al Aqsa belongs to us”,
and walking together towards the barricades –
but the Israeli soldiers, in their riot gear,
with helmets and batons and body armour,
fired rubber bullets into the air
and set off tear gas canisters
to clear the street and re-impose their control.
For Ginie and me,
that was just one morning
in an intense and confronting two weeks –
in which we were presented,
again and again and again,
with what happens when land,
and politics, and religion,
get churned together into an experience
that left most of us at the conference confused,
often sad and angry at the same time,
and not especially hopeful or inspired.
We did meet some wonderful people:
especially Palestinian people
who seem to keep working and hoping
despite absolutely unjust
and often cruel intervention into their lives –
but who refuse to give in to hatred
or to demonise those who are causing them
great hardship and pain.
They were looking for ways
that Israeli and Palestinian people
can live together as they once did,
for thousands of years,
without violence, without checkpoints,
and without the ugly and intimidating walls
that the Israeli government is building
almost all on land owned by Palestinian people,
almost always to protect illegal settlements,
and always cutting people off
from fields and orchards and water sources
they have used for generations
to grow crops and make a living.
The wall also separates them
from their relatives and friends
on the other side of the wall,
and because, for Palestinians,
almost all travel requires them to go through a checkpoint,
and because every checkpoint
requires them to have a permit,
families who live just minutes away from each other
have not been able to see each other for years.
We met one family, in Bethlehem,
where the wall – four metres high –
had been built
around three sides of their home,
and where the family who still live there
need to get permission from the security forces
to open their upstairs windows.
We met people whose daily routine
involves them getting up at 5.00 AM
to get through a checkpoint in the wall
at which they first have to show
identity papers that not only say
what their name is, their occupation,
where they live, and what their religion is,
but also who their father and mother were,
who they are married to,
and the names of all their children
and the details of their lives as well.
Then they need to show
documents that give them permission
to go through a checkpoint in the wall.
Someone from Bethlehem, say,
who has an office job in Jerusalem,
only 10 minutes away by car,
but sometimes a 3 hour journey
on a bus and through the checkpoint,
would need permission –
reviewed every 3 years at least -
to enter the city each day from 8.00 in the morning,
and would have to leave each evening by 7.00pm.
Every time they enter their fingerprints are recorded,
and when they leave their fingerprints
are logged in the system again -
and if they’re late – by even 10 minutes –
their permission to work in the city
could be revoked.
Palestinians who live in Jerusalem –
and their number is decreasing every year,
partly because Israeli Settlers actively target them,
threatening children on their way to school,
knocking on their doors at all hours of the day and night,
sometimes – as was reported in the SMH last week –
physically forcing them
out of their homes and apartments –
so Palestinians who do live in Jerusalem
have to prove – again every 3 years at least –
that Jerusalem is still their “centre of life” –
and if they can’t, again,
even if they own property in Jerusalem,
their permission to live in the city is revoked.
It’s never openly stated,
but it’s clear that Israeli government policy
is framed to encourage or force Palestinian people
to leave Israel – to emigrate –
to Europe or the US or Australia or anywhere else,
and to populate Israel
with Jewish people from around the world.
The Settlements built illegally on Palestinian land
are being offered to Jewish people
especially from eastern Europe,
who are given inducements to move in,
subsidies for electricity and water,
healthcare, promises of employment,
and schooling for their children.
Palestinian villages and towns
are increasingly being hemmed in and isolated.
Palestine now has 67 borders with Israel,
each one defining a shrinking island
of Palestinian community
cut off from all the others
by walls and checkpoints and Israeli security –
while in Jerusalem itself,
the Settlers who invaded the Al Aqsa mosque
are absolutely clear:
their goal is to take back all the land,
and to rebuild the Temple.
They already have the cornerstones,
paid for by some fundamentalist Christian Zionists in the US
and later this month, as they’ve done before,
they’ll parade them around Jerusalem
in what amounts to a threat
that they will destroy the Al Aqsa complex
and use those cornerstones to rebuild the Temple.

In the meantime they’re building settlements
on Palestinian land throughout the West Bank,
and their goal is to re-establish Israel’s borders
as they believe they were when David was king.
I didn’t especially choose today’s Gospel reading –
it’s the lectionary reading set for today –
but it’s entirely and sadly appropriate.
Jesus tells the parable of a vineyard –
and the Hebrew Bible often uses a vineyard
as a symbol for Israel –
but this is a vineyard
that’s being stolen by its tenants.
The owner –
the one who planted the vineyard,
had put a wall around it – not through it –
dug a winepress for it,
and built its watchtower,
had leased it and was living somewhere else.
The tenants were supposed to care for the vineyard,
to collect its produce
and to give it to the vineyard owner’s servants –
but instead they first abused
and then murdered
those who were sent to represent the owner.
Finally the owner’s son arrived,
hoping that the tenants
would honour their agreement with his father –
but the tenants conspired against him,
threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes,”
Jesus asks his audience,
“what will he do to those tenants?”
Those who heard the parable replied
“He will put those wretches
to a miserable death,
and lease the vineyard to other tenants
who will give him what he’s due.”
This is an explosive parable.
It can be read, and has been read,
as a justification for anti-Semitic attitudes and programs,
and I’m sure that interpretations like that
contribute to the atmosphere
of defensiveness and defiance
that pervades the modern state of Israel
and help to reinforces the hard-line stance
of many of its people and politicians.
Christians and Muslims hate us – they say.
They’ve taken away our land before,
and if they remain in Israel,
they’ll take it away again.
But Jesus was a Jew,
and this parable is not directed
at Jewish people, or modern Israelis,
or even Zionists.
Matthew says the chief priests and Pharisees,
when they heard the parables,
realised that Jesus was speaking about them.
They were a specific group of political leaders
who had secured their political power
by betraying and exploiting
those they called ‘the people of the land’ –
the farmers and the villagers and townspeople
who would – even then –
have included people we would now call Palestinians,
as well as the poor and powerless Jewish people
of Galilee and Samaria and Judea.
The Temple in Jerusalem –
where the Chief Priests maintained religious control –
and the Pharisees –
who were a political movement
dedicated to keeping Israel ‘pure’
by rigidly enforcing hard-line law –
were collaborating to keep King Herod in power,
but Herod was corrupt, and cruel,
and the ‘people of the land’ had come to hope
that Jesus might be the one
to overthrow King Herod and his mates
and to cleanse the Temple.
The crowds – as Matthew describes them –
regarded Jesus as a prophet –
someone who could speak and lead
with moral authority –
so the rulers – the chief priests and Pharisees –
couldn’t take direct action against him,
but they wanted to be rid of him,
and they looked for opportunities to arrest him.
Jesus was a Jew.
He said his mission
was to the lost sheep
of the house of Israel. (Matt 15:24)
He travelled to Jerusalem
because he said that’s where prophets belonged, (Lk13:33)
and when he arrived there, Matthew says,
he went immediately to the Temple
to throw out the money changers
and drive out the animals
that were being sold there for sacrifice.
For the last week of his life
Jesus went to the Temple every day
to offer his teaching and healing.
For Jesus, Jewish people
and Jewish holy places
were significant and important –
and it has been and will always be
an immense mistake, and a tragedy,
for anyone to find an excuse
for racial or religious prejudice against Jewish people
in what Jesus said or who he was
or what happened to him in Jerusalem.
Jesus was Jewish –
but we also know that when he was challenged
by a Syrophoenician – Palestinian - woman
to look beyond his mission to Jewish people
and include Gentiles in his purpose,
Jesus changed his mind
and lifted his horizons.
Less than 20 years after he was killed in Jerusalem
his disciples could be found
as far away as Rome, and Egypt,
and some say even India –
and we know they included Greeks and Romans
and Ethiopians as well as Jews.
Forty years after Jesus was raised
the Temple itself was destroyed;
all that remains of it
are the foundations of its western wall –
and now his disciples understand
that we no longer need any specific ceremony
in any special building
or any particular place
to be in communion with God
and to live in his grace and forgiveness –
but we also understand
that wherever people are excluded,
kept behind walls
and denied life with peace and justice,
wherever people live with prejudice and fear,
Jesus is especially there and with them –
and he will always be
on the side of any wall
where it’s hardest to endure.
There are no easy solutions
for peace in the Holy Land –
but maybe, in our reading for today,
Jesus offers a clue
for our thinking and conversation.
He said "Haven’t you read in the scriptures:
'The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord's doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes'?”
Usually, when we read that quote,
we think it refers to Jesus –
and it does –
but isn’t all it can mean.
It can also mean
that the cornerstone –
the essential foundation –
needed to rebuild a place
where God is at home
and where people can live with justice and at peace –
that cornerstone will come
from among those who’ve been rejected,
alienated and excluded.
Many Jewish people know very well
what rejection means;
they lived walled up in ghettoes and camps for far too long.
Most Palestinian people know rejection too –
and maybe hope for peace in the Holy Land –
and probably in other places around the world too –
maybe our hope for peace lies,
not in violent action
or hard-line politics,
but in that shared experience
of loss and grief.
God’s healing always begins
in empathy and compassion,
and when we begin by listening
to those who are most at risk
and most in need,
we lay the foundations – the cornerstones -
for the world God made in hope and love
and came in Christ to save.