Scene One —
Refugees are everywhere. They come without a denarius in their pockets and just the clothes on their backs. They come from Judea fleeing the evil and murderous regime of King Herod, who is so paranoid he kills his subjects without even a hint of evidence of disloyalty. And so they undertake the dangerous crossing of the desert and come filling the streets of Alexandria looking for work, looking for places to stay and something to eat. And where do they come? The synagogue of course. They say, “We are Jews, a little charity please?” And my people and I are all out of charity.
I am Rabbi Nachmani, the leader of a small synagogue here in Alexandria. Of course with a population of half a million Jews Alexandria has many synagogues. In fact there are more Jews living in our City than in all of Herod’s Kingdom. It’s amazing at the rate he kills his own people, there are any Jews left in Israel.
Now Herod never was much of a Jew. His ancestors were Idumeans, and his father Faisal, changed his religion for political advantage with the Romans. Israel has been a mess for a long time. No, Herod is more a Roman than a Jew, and that is why the Roman Senate in their infinite wisdom appointed him as King of the Jews. My great-grandparents blessed be their memory came to Alexandria 50 years ago to escape from the chaos of the administration of Faisal, Herod’s father.
So my great-grandparents came and made a home here in Egypt. My grandfather was a carpenter, and my father was a carpenter, and I too am a wood worker, and the rabbi for our small synagogue of the wood cutters. Mind you a rabbi is not a preacher. Sometimes I lead the prayers, but more often the scriptures are read by members of the congregation and the prayers are often sung by Daniel ben Sirach who is our congregational song leader. No, mostly I help negotiate marriage contracts, preside at weddings, perform the bris, provide interpretations of the law, distribute charity and occasionally mediate disputes.
Like the other day Moishe sold a cow to Joshua ben Israel. A month after the sale the cow stopped giving milk. Joshua wanted his money back. So, they brought their dispute to me. “Moishe,” I asked, “did you know your cow was going to stop giving milk?”
“Of course not Rabbi,” replied Moishe.
“But Rabbi,” objected Joshua, “how could he have not known?”
“But why do you say that?” I asked Joshua.
“Because he did not breed the cow before he sold it to me!”
“But I didn’t know the cow was due to be bred,” protested Moishe.
“Alright already! Moishe,” I said, ” you take the cow back and breed it with your bull. Then give the cow back to Joshua, and then let God decide if the cow will give milk.”
Moishe and Joshua agreed to this decision, because it is always better to trust your disputes to the synagogue than the Egyptian courts. We always try to keep the Egyptians out of our affairs. The hardest part of my job is distributing charity, especially with all of the refugees flooding in from Judea. The established members of our community, the families who have been here for generations expect that they should receive priority in the distribution of charity and not the newcomers. And so the refugees are a pain in the neck. And we also fear some of them. Among the poor who are trying to escape from Herod’s murderous ways there are also zealots who want to stir up trouble.
The zealots hate Rome and they try to inflame rebellion wherever they go. And our community here in Alexandria does not want trouble with the Romans or the Egyptians. We have established a reasonably comfortable life here, the authorities by and large leave us alone, and we don’t want outside agitators inciting hostility against our Jewish community.
So as Rabbi of the synagogue I am careful even dubious of welcoming refugees from Judea into our community. But sometimes even when we are cautious because we are afraid we need to be open to what God might be doing right underneath our noses. Let me tell you about a recent family, who arrived from Bethlehem about two years ago. But first I hear my wife Elisheva calling. You stay here in my shop and I will come back after I find out what she wants.
Scene Two –
Another family asking the Rabbi’s wife for help. Sometimes they think if they ask the Rebbetzin for help, she will be more generous. And maybe they are right. Anyway I was going to tell you about a family who arrived two years ago now from Bethlehem. They came across the desert in winter. They came very afraid seeking a place to hide. The husband Joseph was a carpenter. So out of loyalty to my own craft I welcomed him. My friend Ephraim was looking for a helper and I arranged for Joseph to go to work for him. The wife, Mary was very young, suckling her first child, a boy named Yeshua, a form of Joshua, meaning deliverer. When I asked Joseph why they were fleeing from Judea he had the most fantastic story.
He said when he had been betrothed to Mary for a few months she showed up pregnant even though he had not touched her yet. He said he had considered divorcing her quietly but an angel told him in a dream the child was special, and he was supposed to name the baby Emmanuel from the prophet Isaiah meaning God with us. Well there is no fool like an old fool I guess, and if everyone believed their dreams where would we be?
But then he had the most bizarre story about Magi astrologers from Babylon who came to Jerusalem asking where the messiah was to be born. They said, they had read the signs in the heavens, and a star had appeared in the sky announcing the birth of a new world ruler, who would be born in Israel. Supposedly Herod granted them an audience and even summoned the high priests to advise him about where the messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem,” they said. So, Herod told the Magi to go and search for the child and if they found him to bring back word to the King.
A short time later, the three Magi surprised Joseph, Mary and the child in Bethlehem and presented to them princely gifts, gold frankincense and myrrh. But then the Magi told Joseph they had been warmed by an angel in a dream not to go back to Herod, because the King would seek out the child to destroy him. News even reached Alexandria that the murderous Herod had sent soldiers to Bethlehem to slaughter all male children under the age of two.
So having been warned by the Magi, Joseph packed up his family and set out for Alexandria. The little family could not wait for a caravan and crossing the Sinai alone is a dangerous journey. They were accosted by Bedouins who stole the gifts of the Magi. So Joseph and his family arrived in Alexandria penniless. Elisheva found herself instantly attracted to the Baby Jesus and offered Mary comfort and even found money in her household budget to provide food for the little family. There is something special about Yeshua. Oh, he is as mischievous as any other two year old, but there is a peace that seems to surround him as he follows his mother to the market or comes to visit my wife Elisheva.
I might have doubted Joseph’s story about Herod seeking the life of the child, but about six months after the family arrived, I heard news that strangers from Judea were in Alexandria asking about refugees from Bethlehem. I went to Joseph and warned him that his family needed to keep a low profile, and invited Mary, Joseph and the child to come stay with us, and we would pretend that Joseph was my cousin, who was working in my shop. My house is not large, but we managed to fit Joseph and his family by sending three of my children to live with their grandparents for several weeks. And sure enough the “strangers” came to the synagogue of the wood cutters looking for refugees.
They were evil looking men. “Are you harboring any recent arrivals from Bethlehem?” their leader asked.
“No,” I replied, “the members of this synagogue have lived in Alexandria for generations. My great-grandparents came here 50 years ago.”
“What about him?” the leader asked pointing to Joseph.
“He is my cousin Joseph, we were both born here in Alexandria. We don’t like new comers. They take our jobs. We want to keep them out. You won’t find any of them here!”
“Then you won’t mind telling us if you see or hear of any arrivals from Bethlehem,” concluded their leader.
“That’s right I confirmed. You won’t find any new comers here. We don’t want’em.” With that Herod’s spies left my work shop. Just to be safe Joseph, Mary and the child stayed at our house for several more weeks.
Excuse me, Elisheva, is calling for me. I will come back as soon as I can.
Scene Three –
My wife needs that I should find a lamb for the Passover Meal. Seems funny for Jews living in Egypt to celebrate the Passover – the Exodus. But it is our tradition. Anyway after the visit from Herod’s spies I was more inclined to believe Joseph’s account of their leaving Bethlehem. But I still harbored some doubts until two weeks ago when during a restless night I had a dream.
In the dream an angel came to me. But it seemed more like real life than a dream. The angel was tall radiating light from giant wings of translucent feathers. I stood still with my mouth open in awe and fear. The heavenly being stared at me for a full minute as if waiting for me to speak, but no sound came out of my mouth. Then in a deep commanding voice the angel said, “Do not be afraid Nachmani. I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God. I bring you good news. Herod is dead. You must go tell Joseph, he can return with his wife and child to Israel, for now no harm will come to the child. And this will fulfill what has been spoken by the prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When the angel went away, I awoke wondering if what I had seen had been in waking life or a dream. The angel seemed so real. I can still remember the commanding voice. I doubt I shall ever be so close to the divine again.
The next morning I sought out Joseph to share with him the message of the angel. “Joseph, my brother, forgive me for ever doubting your story. Last night an angel came to visit me. He told me that Herod is dead and you and Mary and the child can return to Israel to fulfill the prophecy, for there is no one now to seek the life of the child.”
“But how can I be sure?” asked Joseph.
So I described the angel that appeared to me: “tall, large translucent wings.”
“Did the messenger say its name was Gabriel?”
“Yes, he did, ‘I am Gabriel who stand in the presence of God,’ he said.”
“It is a wondrous thing,” Joseph said, just like the angel I told you appeared to me.”
“My friend,” I replied, “I am so sorry I ever doubted you. Through your child Yeshua, we have been touched by heaven.”
Our poor synagogue could not duplicate the gifts of the Magi, but David, Gamaliel, Ephraim, Jacob and I gathered what little money we could to send the little family back across the desert to Israel. I tell you my friends, we have been touched by God. And I have learned, do not begrudge charity to the poor, especially those who are homeless or fleeing from injustice. God is often working miracles right underneath our noses, and the messiah is always closer than we think.
God with Us
SLIDE 3: EMMANUEL – GOD IS WITH US
In the Gospel of Matthew the angel who visits Joseph in a dream to encourage him to go ahead and marry his pregnant fiancée tells him to name the child Yeshua which meant deliverer or Messiah. Matthew claims that the birth of Yeshua will fulfil the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 — “’the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’”
SLIDE 4: HOLY FAMILY BECAME REFUGEES
During the Christmas Season we celebrate the incarnation of God appearing in the world in the form of a baby born in a cave to poor peasants and laid in a manger, a feed trough for animals, because there was no room in the inn. We also remember especially at this Christmas that Jesus and his family became refugees, forced to flee for their lives from the soldiers of the murderous King Herod. They left the land of Israel and traveled across desert borders until they found a place to stay in Egypt. The Holy Family was not unlike people today, who have been uprooted from their homes and forced to seek asylum in other far countries, because they are being killed by their own governments. The story of the Christ child reminds us that God often shows up in unlikely places in the lives of people we might never consider to be holy. After all who would think to look for God in the form of a suffering and dying political criminal nailed to a cross!
SLIDE 5: WHEREVER YOU FIND PEOPLE IN NEED
Maybe we miss God’s presence in our world today because we are not prepared to find God in unusual circumstances. Instead of going to the stores with the lights and the tinsel, or the living Christmas Tree, or even the candlelight Christmas Eve Communion, maybe we need to take food to the homeless camps. Or perhaps we can find a poor family whose utilities have been turned off, or a child who has no gifts and needs a warm coat. Perhaps we can help a family struggling to make Christmas Dinner, or reach out to an older person who is spending Christmas alone, or brighten the life of someone struggling with depression with a gesture of friendship. Jesus told us wherever you find people in need you will find me!
SLIDE 6: WE DON’T GET TO DECIDE WHO GOD WILL BRING
God is indeed with us, if we are willing to recognize and acknowledge the divine presence in the poor and other people in need. But we often resist seeing God in the needs of others, because they might make a claim upon us. They are dirty, smelly, difficult or just plain messy, physically, emotionally, spiritually. They come to us in the midst of nervous break-down, divorce, sometimes even with legal and criminal problems. When we open the doors of our spiritual community and proclaim no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here, then God brings people of all kinds, and we don’t get to choose what sorts of problems they will bring with them. We don’t get to say, “Lord send us some nice middle-class neurotics with plenty of money to support the church budget. God, please don’t send us anyone whose needs offend us.” No, God brings folks who are not like us. People we have to learn to love, and that is the challenge of living together as a diverse Body of Christ.
SLIDE 7: NAMASTE
So, as we hear the Christmas story tell us that God is with us, I want us also to hear that God is within us. The Hindu salutation “Namaste” means the divine in me acknowledges and greets the divine in you. When we learn to see the divine in other people who are different from us we discover the meaning of the God within us in spiritual community. And as we know acknowledging the divine in people who are very different from us, whether because of race, social class, gender, or sexual orientation, can be difficult.
SLIDE 8: GOD CANNOT BE DEPICTED WITH IMAGES
Our human species tends to be tribal. We are attracted to people who are like us, and folks who look different, act different, eat different, vote different or believe differently may engender in us fear and hostility. The God who is within us comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, genders, and sexual orientations. The God within us cannot be depicted with any images, because the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, or Guru Nanak, transcends all nationalities, races, colors, cultures, religions, even political parties. The God of our faith seeks to open us to all other people in love, even when we think they are stupid and don’t like them very much. God is with us in the God within us.
SLIDE 9: ABSORB TOO MUCH NEGATIVE ENERGY
But where do we find the strength to sustain us through the spiritual darkness that even now seems to be gathering around us? There is another way that God is within us as we literally connect with the God within our own spirits. Sometimes we are blocked from that connection, because we have absorbed too much negative energy from the world around us. The world tells us we are stupid, immature, weird, odd, strange, queer, not regular or unacceptable people. And that negative energy prevents us from being able to identify the divine image within us. And when we cannot recognize the God within us we cannot connect with the divine energy that gives us the power to love others in a way that can change the world.
SLIDE 10: NAME OF GOD IS THE SOUND OF OUR BREATHING
In order to connect with the God within us we also need to learn to stop, breath, and be still long enough to be aware of God’s presence within us, within others, and all around us. Our breath as we say when we pray is our closest connection to the divine. As one Zen Master pointed out, “Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Forget this and attaining enlightenment will be the least of your problems.” The wind, the breath of God hovered over the waters of chaos when God spoke and brought forth the creation. The name of God, Yaweh, is actually the sound of our own breathing. God is as close to us as breathing and as distant as the farthest star.
SLIDE 11: PAYING ATTENTION
As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner points out in God Was in this Place, and I, i Did Not Know: “The ‘burning bush’ was not a miracle. It was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes. When Moses did, God spoke. The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world, right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.” And so, if we are to find that divine presence within us and around us, we have to learn to pay attention, to follow our breath until we merge with the God who is the ground of our being.
SLIDE 12: AWAKENING US TO BECOME CHRISTLIKE
Rami Shapiro, in his book, Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent, helps us to understand how the Advent of Christ in the story of Jesus can help us find the God within us. “The purpose of the Christ isn’t to raise up followers. The purpose of the Jesus is to awaken more people to become more Christ-like.
Rather than the vertical idea of Jesus ‘coming down’ from heaven and ‘rising up’ to heaven, a metaphor that implies a hierarchy lacking in the Divine, think in terms of ‘reaching out’ and ‘drawing in.’ The wise reach out from the divine Source and bring you back to the Source.
There are two ways to become divine. The right way is to realize that God is playing you. The wrong way is to fool yourself into playing God. The task of Jesus and all the realized saints and sages is the same: to awaken you to your true nature that you might participate fully in the nature of the world.”
SLIDE 13: YOU ARE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD
And so, it is our prayer this Advent that the Christ might reach out to us and draw us in to the source of the divine light. As Jesus said in his sermon on the Mount: “You are here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city set on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By reaching out to others and drawing them into the source, you’ll prompt people to come home to God.”
SLIDE 14: GOD WITH US
This Christmas season we need to let the light of Christ shine forth from our lives. We can reach out to the needs of others with charity and love. Then Christ can help us to realize the God within us even as the angel promised – God with us.
Vision of Peace
SLIDE 5: NETZER
Our scripture this morning is perhaps the most beloved of all the prophetic passages the early church claimed to apply to Jesus. New growth shall come out from the stump of Jesse. A descendant of the line of King David will emerge in the future. The Hebrew in that passage refers to a netzer, which applies to the new shoots that come up from the root system of an olive tree. The olive trees in the garden of Gethsemane, for instance, are the great grandchildren of the trees that were there, when Jesus prayed, because they have replenished themselves from the root systems for over two-thousand years. The early church latched onto that word “netzer,” because the Jewish clan that settled Nazareth, when they returned from Babylon called themselves the “Netzer” clan. They had a self conscious belief in our scripture from Isaiah that from their family the descendant of David who would become God’s Messiah would spring up like the shoot of an olive from the root system. So Jesus of Nazareth was also Jesus the Netzorean, or “God with us” from the Clan of Netzer.
SLIDE 6: NON-VIOLENT JESUS VS POWER OF ROME
Isaiah’s vision was a leader who would bring peace to the world, and this paralleled the claims the early church wanted to make for Jesus over against Augustus Caesar, whom the Romans asserted had brought peace to the world, through the power of Roman armies, who crushed all opposition. Perhaps you remember from your study of World History the term the Pax Romana, or the Roman Peace, that prevailed, because of the armies of Rome. The problem with the Pax Romana was that it was maintained with the brutal suppression of the national aspirations of all minorities within the Empire. Three Jewish rebellions were crushed during that Pax Romana, until Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, and most Jews deported and scattered throughout the empire, and the land of Israel was even renamed Palestine. The early church wanted to declare that Jesus was a different kind of Prince of Peace, for he brought peace not with the sword but with love.
SLIDE 7: PEACE ON EARTH TO ALL PEOPLE WITH WHOM GOD IS PLEASED
And I guess today we are once again being asked to consider what kind of peace we will work toward as followers of Jesus. In the Christmas story the angels sing to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to all people with whom God is pleased.” The angels may have been singing a loaded message. Was God pleased with Caesar Augustus? Was the Pax Romana the kind of peace God had in mind? I think not, and as citizens of the most powerful military nation on earth, maybe that realization should make us stop and consider our faith.
SLIDE 8: PAX AMERICANA
During the Bush administration there was a group of advisors who talked about the Pax Americana. They advocated that the United States was the 800 pound gorilla on the world stage, and we should use that power to maintain a peace favorable to our national interest. Certainly the United States still possesses the most powerful military on earth, but what kind of peace has that bought us? The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now the longest wars in which the United States has ever engaged, and are we any closer to peace?
SLIDE 9: TWISTED INTO SOMETHING EVIL
Isis is certainly a deplorable enemy, and personally I see no alternative but to resist Isis militarily. I do not believe they represent Islam as a whole. Isis has taken the Islamic faith and twisted it into something evil, in much the same way the Klu Klux Klan has taken the Christian faith and twisted it into something evil. I don’t think with either Isis or the Klu Klux Klan it is possible to ask everyone to all join hands and sing Kum Ba Yah.
SLIDE 10: THOSE WHO SOW THE WIND WILL REAP THE WHIRL WIND
And yet, if I am truly honest in examining and unraveling the complicated history of the involvement of the United States in the Middle East, I have to admit in so many ways the actions of the CIA and our foreign policies driven by our need to protect our national interests in fossil fuels have laid the ground work for the violence in the Middle East. Those who sow the wind will reap the whirl wind. Will “bombing the hell out of Isis” prevent the spread of radical Islamic ideas to millions of dispossessed young people, who are ripe for radicalization? Former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair, said in a report entitled, “Inside the Jihadi Mind,” for the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics: The “perversion of Islam is the source of many of the problems in the Middle East,” and more than force is needed to tackle extremism. “The reality is that in parts of the Muslim community a discourse has grown up which is profoundly hostile to peaceful coexistence. Countering this is an essential part of fighting extremism.”
SLIDE 11: HAS AN AGRESSIVE MILITARY POSTURE MADE US SAFER OR MORE VULNERABLE?
I understand the fear of radical Islam that motivates so many people to seek a leader who will promise them safety. But has an aggressive military posture made us safer or more vulnerable? The invasion of Iraq, for instance, contributed to the radicalization millions of people in the Middle East and created a vacuum that made possible the rise of Isis. Are we really safer for following a tough aggressive military policy? I think Jesus would tell us there must be another way, the way of peace: “But with righteousness the Messiah shall advocate for the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. ” I know the old phrase from the musical Camelot: “It’s not the earth the meek inherit but the dirt.” But Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”
SLIDE 12: HOW LONG OH LORD?
So how long must we wait for the Day of the Lord, when he wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them? Is the way of Jesus a ridiculous fantasy, or is the way of peace simply waiting for a people of faith who are willing to live it?
SLIDE 13: BLACK ELK SPEAKS
Perhaps Chief Black Elk of the Oglala Lakota Sioux born in 1863 survivor of Wounded Knee and author of Black Elk Speaks in 1932 offers us some wisdom. It is particularly appropriate to listen to Black Elk the Sunday after our Sock and Glove Tree. “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.” We begin the way of peace by embracing all people as part of ourselves — “loving or neighbors as ourselves.” The artificial walls of race, religion, class and tribe we erect to exclude, separate and create conflict, when we dismantle those walls that separate us one from another, then we are on the path of peace.
SLIDE 14: HOW LONG MUST WE WAIT?
But how long must we wait? I am reminded of a story from Jerusalem. A journalist assigned to the Jerusalem bureau took an apartment overlooking the Western Wall. Every day when she looked out, she saw an old Jewish man praying vigorously. So, after several months the journalist went down and introduced herself to the old man.
She asked, “You come every day to the wall. How long have you done that and what are you praying for?”
The old man replied, “I have come here to pray every day for 25 years. In the morning I pray for world peace and then for the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people. I go home have a cup of tea and I come back and pray for the eradication of illness and disease from the earth.”
The journalist was amazed. “How does it make you feel to come here every day for 25 years and pray for these things?” she asked.
The old man looks at her sadly and replied, “How do I feel? Like I’m talking to a wall.”
SLIDE 15: JESUS HAS GONE ON BEFORE US
So when will the Messiah come? When will our waiting be over? But the Messiah my friends is already here! Don’t you remember the words of the angels? “He is not here, he is risen from the dead, and he has gone on before you.” Jesus has gone on before us into the world. He is not in the manger, or in Capernaum, or on the Mount of Beatitudes or in the tomb. I know, I have visited all those places. Jesus is not there. He is not lurking behind the Christmas tree or hiding in the lights or the ornaments or in the sanctuaries of churches. The Messiah has gone on before us into the world, and if we would seek the Messiah we must look for him there. Wherever people are in need, we will find Jesus.
SLIDE 16: THE MESSIAH WAITS FOR US
During this season when we give gifts to one another — often gifts no one needs or wants — to people who have everything. Is there someone you know who has a genuine need you can supply? We have good spiritual friends among us who are trying to live on disability and limited incomes. We don’t really have to look very far to be able to touch genuine need. And it may not be a material gift that we give. Maybe there is someone who needs the gift of a listening ear, or the gentle touch of friendship. Become a peace maker. The Messiah waits for us!