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Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Holy Land

Presented by Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael and Rev. Scott Sammler-Michael, guest preachers; with Carol Boston and Genie Ahearn, Worship Associates; and the PBUUC Chalice Dancers

HOLY LANDRevs. Scott and Anya Sammler-Michael



Welcome to this place of power and peace

Welcome to this temple of truth and meaning

Welcome to this house of the holy, our home base,

Sacred ground of our common endeavor


OPENING WORDS – from Leslie Takahashi Morris

All that we have ever loved

And all that we have ever been

Stands with us on the brink

Of all that we aspire to create:

A deeper peace, A larger love,

A more embracing hope,

A deeper joy in this life we share.


READING – "The Place Where We Are Right"  

by Yehuda Amachai, translated from the Hebrew by Stephen Mitchell


From the place where we are right

flowers will never grow in the spring.


The place where we are right

is hard and trampled like a yard.


But doubts and loves dig up the world

like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

where the ruined house once stood. 







Preparing for our trip to the Holy Land I came across this reflection from Israeli Journalist, Yossi Klein Halevi:

"The Celts claim there are thin places, thin times, where the veil between the temporal and the eternal has worn thin ... It's a beautiful gentle image for Jerusalem. ....

You feel that the distance between humanity and the divine, whatever that is, is not quite so vast and it's as much an experience as something you can put words around. Another place [called a "thin place" is] a little chapel next to Ground Zero where injured emergency workers were treated.

[Yet this] wonderful language - the 'thin places' ... feels to me like it's much too mild for the reality of Jerusalem. I mean, [Jerusalem] is a place where [the divine] comes seeping and flooding [into the world]."


The Jewish scriptures have several passages relating to a homeland for the Jewish people - Genesis 12, Exodus 3, Numbers 33, Ezekiel, and more.

The story that most captures my experience in Jerusalem is how Jacob, one of Judaism's Patriarchs, receives his new name - Israel - after wrestling with an angel.

Jacob's "God-given" name, Israel, means

"he who has struggled with God."

In the nation of Israel - the land of Palestine, the Holy Land - one cannot but feel how people of all faiths struggle with God - - and with each other about God.

Jerusalem exudes a palpable sense of striving, a call to stake a claim and defend it, with story, sacred text, tradition, monuments, rituals, even armies.

There the essential human yearning for divine knowing plays itself out with particular intensity.

There even Science becomes a flashpoint.

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is an ancient holy site predating Judaism.

Resting on the Old City's highest ground, it was the site of both Solomon's Temple and the Temple built by Herod; today it houses the Dome of the Rock, which encloses Mount Moriah, the point where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son, Isaac; it is also storied to be the place where Muhammad ascended into the heavens on his miraculous Night Journey.

Many Jewish and Islamic scholars believe that the Ark of the Covenant is buried deep within the Temple Mount.

Since 1967, when Israel gained control of all of Jerusalem, archaeologists have been digging around - and sometimes into - the Temple Mount.

This kind of 'probing' under a holy site has not always encouraged the peace process.

We took a tour of these digs, including the foundation of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount - now underground - and its stone blocks weighing up to 620 tons!

Reverend Anya has a story from that tour when we witnessed a flood pierce the veil –




You have to descend to view the hidden portions of the Western Wall - a holy site, the old edge of the city, which is now well inside Old Jerusalem.  As we walked our tour guide exposed a history that was not visible to our untrained eyes.  And for the learning that even eyes can not be trained for, she invited us to place our hands on the walls' rough magnificence.

It was still there, after-all, and we were walking its length, some 2,500 years after it was lain.

It was still there, buried under layers of dirt and destruction, after the take-overs, the desolations, the Christians, the Muslims, the Byzantines, had stormed and breached its protectorate.   

Almost as balm to tend its wounds, thin papers writ with prayers for some dreamed restitution, were stuffed in the wall's crevices. I took a picture.  When you pull in close the wall appears like two hands cupped in prayer - enfolding the paper testimonies.

When we emerged from this ancient dream, entombed by the layers of a changing world, we walked out, into the Islamic Quarter of Old Jerusalem. Things moved much faster up there.

The noises were the throng of bustle and sale.

Our tour guide's voice rose from the rest as she said:

"We usually have armed guards that meet us here to take us back to the Jewish quarter. They aren't here and I don't know why.  I need to get back to lead another tour.  Will you go with me? "

Our group mumbled assent and stepped forward, now hyper alert, with a trained gait. 

Group members kept their loved ones close with feverish vigilance.

I lagged behind for a moment and the couple behind me cut in and scampered ahead - leaving me to fend for myself, I assumed.

When I slowed my pace to take a picture of a salesman and a twisting alley-way.

My father cautioned - "stay with the group." I jolted forwarded. 

Then looking around Scott reminded me –

"We're safe. These are the same streets that we walked yesterday; we are not in danger.

Look that's the seventh station of the cross.

We took a picture here less than 24 hour ago... just our family - no guards. 

But I didn't want to worry our group so I kept up the pace... which was still a hurried march.

I turned to Scott.  "What happened?" Did we not remember these streets? Did we all forget?

Did one word from our tour guide rip us from our peace - "Guards." ...And we were suddenly strangers, and the shops alien, and the salesmen foe?

We walked on, in an army-like formation... while under our feet - an aching distance down - that old wall persisted.

No longer the wall to a city - no longer the barricade, no longer the last resort, the edge of safety - but a facade lifting its ancient wounds in prayer.



Expectations amplify and harden prejudice.

One of the most difficult things for me in Jerusalem was the public acceptance and even encouragement of segregation.

Raised in Maryland in the 1960's and 70's,

I witnessed the dismantling of American apartheid in my lifetime.

The "colored only" drinking fountains and the segregated schools that were in operation in Maryland until I was in 4th grade were part of the 'societal evils' into which I was born.

My greatest confidence in our nation's ability to create and preserve justice came from being the first generation of school kids to go to integrated schools in Harford County, Maryland.

To witness in Jerusalem the careful partitioning of neighborhoods, block by block, rankled my moral sense.

"This cannot be justice," I claimed.

"Why don't Israelis garner the courage to do what Americans, Brazilians, South Africans have done - break down the walls of partition?"

Walking the narrow, market-stall crowded streets of Jerusalem's Old City, one moves quickly from the Muslim quarter to the Armenian quarter to the Christian Quarter.

Sometimes the only way we knew we had moved from one to the other was from the tee-shirts;

I Love Israel became I Love Palestine.

The most pressing arguments we heard were merchants bartering with customers over the lowest acceptable price.

Despite the differences of opinion, everyone seemed to get along so long as the pedestrian traffic moved and commerce flowed.

~ In Jerusalem, every stone tells a story,

and every tour guide has a spin.

The place of life and promise is a place where we dig; the strife, the wrestling with God and with each other seems to be a fertile part of the holy mission that spills through the veils throughout Jerusalem




It happened at General Assembly. 

The women tending the "Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East" booth were not amused.

"You found it compelling, really?" she asked, with a flat stare.

"Yes, and awe inspiring too."

She stared. 

"The politics of a place are only one layer to its depth," I said.

"I am interested in healing the hells born in that place, but it is the beauty of a place and its people, all of its people, that remind me, and can remind you that there is something left... that is worth saving."

She nodded, but cold eyes told me she was not convinced. 

It also happened in Sterling

Dan Spiro came to preach on his work with the Jewish Islamic Dialogue Society.

I led in, with a Time for All Ages and began by sharing how I had just returned from Israel and Palestine.   

In his sermon Dan called me out: "We heard Anya use the name Palestine. This is a controversial name. Is there really a Palestine? Many would say no.

In both these instances I wanted to share an experience of depth about a trip that I found spiritually invigorating... traveling to a holy land (a land I found holy... a land that compelled me to take off my shoes,) meeting beautiful people, seeing ruins and rivers and mountains and seas that I've read about in texts writ 2000 years ago.

But I was halted and dragged from my revelry, back to the edge of the political controversy. 

In Genesis, Cain murders Abel and the blood of the first brother of humanity seeps into the earth.

The very land, the dirt is tainted.

When the God of the Hebrews makes his Covenant with Noah he requires that every blood crime be punished - that justice be done, or else the land itself will cease to bring forth fruit and sustain life.

The God of the Covenant loves his people and will not threaten them with another flood,

but they must reckon with their own crimes or the earth itself will smite them. 

We look at the site we've come to call Ground Zero with mixed horror and awe.  The hell visited on that earth transformed the very dust. 

It is the same, in some respects with Israel and Palestine.  The ground is soaked with blood.

Yet in the Golan Heights we walked one evening into a field of golden sunflowers, shrouded in bright clean light.

All through the Golan Heights, indeed, we met beauty - gardens, lush mountainsides and sweeping valleys - and we met the people that tended the land, and encouraged it to bring forth fruit.

They fed us of their harvest and walked us through their Kibbutz, their collective, past the school house where the children were laughing and running in circles, and past the bomb shelter, where their ancestors and they had run many times before, seeking shelter.

Paradox lives in that place. As we drove to the boarder with Syria the Israeli soldiers were running operations on both sides of the tree-lined road.

Syria was in political trouble domestically, Israel expected a demonstration, possibly a confrontation.

The grey and green tanks and trucks swarmed, but in a clearing, ten young enlisted men and women waited in line around... an ice cream truck... and you could see for many yards on either side others walking in fatigues with weapons toward the brightly colored vendor seeking the same sweet, cold treasure. 

At the overlook of the boarder with Syria our tour group sat, rested and looked out over the glorious expanse. Moshe spoke of what we saw, and what it meant for him.

Looking over the boarder, we could see the very parcel of land that like a sponge assumed his friends blood.



September 1973. Our guide Moshe was swimming with his girlfriend in the Sea of Galilee, 9 miles from the Golan Heights. It was Yom Kippur - the Jewish High Holy days. Like all Israelis under the age of 49, Moshe was in the reserves; he was an artillery commander.

"If I was a good Jew," said Moshe, "I would have been in synagogue."

While swimming, Moshe heard mortar shells blasting.

So he calmly took his girlfriend home and rushed to the Golan Heights.

The Syrians and Egyptians had just launched a two front assault we now call the Yom Kippur War.

The next few days Moshe witnessed many comrades fall to Syrian Artillery fire, but as the Israeli Air Force gave them cover, Moshe's unit quickly advanced to the outskirts of Damascus.

Moshe was then deployed to the Sinai in the South to fight the Egyptians.

In the Sinai the fighting was fierce. Moshe's unit fought for weeks in the desert. He knew several people who were killed or wounded.

"One family who lived down the street from me growing up had 3 siblings who suffered casualties, " Moshe shared.

"The oldest boy - my best friend - was killed, the next oldest lost an eye, and the sister lost a leg.

There are so many people I know who died or lost loved ones in this conflict.

Every Israeli has such tales to tell. "

Indeed, Every stone tells a story

Despite a decisive Israeli victory, international politics intervened. Israel was forced to give back all the land it took from the Syrians, including a couple towns we could see from our vantage point on the Golan Heights which were in Israel before the conflict.

"Henry Kissinger negotiated a peace deal that allowed the Egyptians and Syrians to 'save face, ' "

Moshe told us.

The government of Golda Meir, Israel's tough female prime minister, fell as a result of Israeli public dissatisfaction with that peace deal.

Back on the bus, Moshe asked for our attention. He said,

"You’ve heard the stories of my best friend killed, my lifetime of vigilance and service defending my country, being fired at, my country threatened over and again because of indefensible borders and hatred.

Knowing that history, knowing my story, if you were me, how many of you would give back the Golan Heights for peace?"

Raise your hands if you would give it back.

On our bus only 2 out of 42 raised their hands.

Then Moshe said,

"I would give it back in a heartbeat."

Many on our bus were incredulous.

"If there was a chance for real peace," Moshe proudly declared,

"I would give back the Golan Heights in a heartbeat."



Nothing grows on the place where we are right.  That is a hard and unforgiving ground.  But the place where we are willing to yield, to doubt, to love, the place that has been stained by blood but not forsaken by bitterness, that is indeed holy land.  ...

Not holy like Eden, but holy because it can be yielded for peace, and used for the great purpose of healing what is broken, but not yet wholly lost. 

Yes, we have been talking about Israel and Palestine, but we are really talking about congregations.  I tell new members to our congregation that they don't really become a member when they sign the book... they don't become a member until they get angry, and decide to stay (anyway.)

Beloved community required sustained engagement through conflict.

So let us dig up more of that holy land, naming the hell, yes, but tasting the lush awe inspiring beauty. 




We'll continue in this spirit of contemplation -

creating a space in our hearts to hold dearly,

to all that matters ultimately, to the sacred, the true, God, the holy, the breath of life that moves in the pits of our sadnesses,

the song of love that binds all that is broken.

May this day be a day of renewal.

A new day.

If we ache for change, may we find the strength to take one step  in service of our yearnings. 

If our hearts break with loss, may we find balm in the unity that binds us all, despite time and death and the space between the stars.

If our souls resound with hope and our days with promise, may we be moved to give of ourselves to one who needs what we have to offer. 

In this way may we knit ourselves as a community of brothers and sisters in humanity and faith, on this new day - the first of an old promise.




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