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Holy Land Pilgrimage Day 5

Posted by The Rev. Mark McKone-Sweet on

Sabbath Day…The Living Stones carry on, despite the odds

We gathered together this morning to attend the English-Arab worship service at St. George’s Cathedral. If you have joined St. Bart’s in the past three years or so, you may not know that this is where the late Bishop Samir Kafity served for many years. A few decades ago, Bishop Samir retired to San Diego with his wife, Najat, and he assisted at St. Bart’s. We brought Najat’s love and Samir’s spirit, which is still active in our hearts, with us on our pilgrimage.

The dean of the cathedral informed us that the Christian population in Jerusalem, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon has declined over the past seventy years. In fact, Christians, who once represented 25 percent or more of the population in Jerusalem and Israel, are now 1 percent at best. In other words, Christians are no longer living in the land considered by Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike to be the holiest place in the world. They are no longer represented in government, schools, social work, or other facets of society.

The scant remnant of Christians currently residing in the Middle East are referred to as the “Living Stones.” They make their presence felt primarily by maintaining and operating the Christian holy sites and a few schools and hospitals. Despite being such a small minority, Living Stones keep the traditions and teachings of Jesus Christ real and tangible to all. The holy sites we visited are owned and offered by these Christians. To appreciate this fully, it is important to learn the complex history of the Holy Land, as empires and foreign powers have too often dominated and spread their faith while destroying that of others. To hear and see, smell and eat, walk and sleep in the midst of it all—this is critical. While on pilgrimage, we trod the paths of our ancestors daily, on the same stones where Jesus, Mary, Peter, Martha, Paul, and countless others placed their feet.

The decline of sacramental churches is not a new phenomenon, especially in first-world countries. Indeed, St. Bart’s is called to defy that decline and make the Good News real and tangible seven days a week. And here in the Holy Land, simply by being present and demonstrating their love by their good works and radical hospitality, the Anglican/Episcopal Church is responding to God’s urgent cry now more than ever. The dean of St. George’s Cathedral explained to us that their ministry, which spans five countries, offers a loving presence to children in schools and to patients in hospitals. In each of these institutions, they serve anyone, regardless of their faith, ethnicity, or citizenship. Echoes of “All are welcome, no exceptions” swept through my heart.

Sometimes, we need to place a hand on a stone to learn its secrets. And sometimes, we need to embody the lessons Jesus taught us, so that others may know the breadth and power of God’s love for all people—every lamb created by God.

I am repeatedly drawn back to the image of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, prophetically anticipating the pain and suffering that people of faith would inflict on each other for generations to come. How do you control the tears, knowing that someone you love will hurt another—another whom you are also called to love?

The Living Stones provide one answer.

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