5th Sunday in Lent

Philippians 3: 4b-14 & John 12:1-8

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord our strength and our redeemer.

I am thankful to God for the privilege I had in serving this Cathedral and especially the Palestinian congregation in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

I am thankful to Archbishop Suheil for his usual warm welcome and kindness whenever I come back to visit.

I am also thankful to Dean Husam for inviting me to preach.

I also want to thank you, friends for coming to visit Jerusalem at this time and I pray that your Lenten experience be a blessed one.  May your visit be a pilgrimage, a time of spiritual stimulation and renewal!  May it be a time for the strengthening of your faith and the deepening of your love of God and love of neighbor!

The reading from Philippians is rich with ideas for our Christian life and especially during the Lenten season:  Paul, the writer experienced much suffering for his faith in Christ.  But he said, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”  For Paul, Christ is the pearl of great price.  Everything else is of a lesser value, it is rubbish, trash. To Know Christ and to follow him is to find true life’s meaning in his love and service.  What an amazing commitment Paul had.  It puts many of us ministers of the Gospel to shame. 

One of Paul’s great statements in the reading today is, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his suffering by becoming like him in his death that I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”  In Lent we need to reflect on these words.

In the Gospel reading, we are introduced to an episode about Jesus’ visit with his friends, Lazarus and his two sisters Martha and Mary.

Jesus arrives with his 12 disciples to Bethany.  Martha invites a number of people and puts out a splendid dinner, in his honor.  After all, he raised her brother from the dead.  Many times we show our admiration, respect and love for friends around the dinner table.  Through food, fellowship, and discussion, we express our genuine love and friendship.  Palestinian hospitality is not new.  The early church encouraged it.  The writer of Hebrews, “Do not neglect hospitality.” 

Mary on the other hand, expressed her love through anointing Jesus’ feet, and wiping them with her hair using a very expensive perfume.  Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples, did not like it.  For him, it was a waste of money.  It could have been sold for three hundred dinars and distributed to the poor. On the one hand, if Judas’ concern was genuine, it would have been an important concern to consider.  On the other hand, Judas was not thinking of the poor.  The poor were a cover up for his greed and love of money.

What Mary did was an act of love.  Love cannot be measured with money.  Genuine Love surpasses the material.  Jesus accepted and appreciated Mary’s act of love.  At the same time, Jesus said, to Judas and the disciples, the poor you will always have with you, but you do not always have me.  Even today, we do things in the church and outside the church out of genuine love for Christ.  Some people might still criticize us as a waste of money; but it is an act of love.  At the same time, we must not neglect our responsibility for the poor and oppressed. 

So how can we express our love and devotion to Christ today?

Let us remember what Christ said, if you do it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters you do it to me.  It is worth reflecting on the fact that God who made the heavens and the earth “does not envision a world of scarcity.”  We humans made and created the scarcity.  The presence of the poor among us reflects our failure, as humans, to eliminate poverty.  It is estimated that half of the world’s population, more than 3 billion people are poor. (less than $2.50 a day.  1.3 billion people, live in extreme poverty, less than $1.25 a day.) A small fraction of what the countries of the world spend on the purchase of arms and war equipment if used in the proper way, it would eradicate poverty.    Oxfam estimates that it would take $60 billion dollars annually to end extreme global poverty.  This amount is less than one fourth of the income of the top 100 richest billionaires.  Today, hunger is the number one cause of death in the world.  According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty.  We are all guilty. It is a crime against our brothers and sisters.  In the reading of “Forward Day by Day,” for today, Canon Pastor Glenice Robinson-Como of Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, Texas wrote, “God does not ask us to simply give to charity; God requires that we pursue justice.  Charity offers temporary relief: justice seeks solutions.” (April 7, 2019)

Dom Helder Camara was an archbishop in Brazil.  He used to say, “When I give food to the poor, people call me a saint.  When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.”  It is important for the church to condemn the unjust economic structures that keep the poor, poor; and make the rich, richer.  Our world, including our land, Palestine/Israel needs a better just and equitable economic system. 

I don’t have statistics about occupied Palestine. In the state of Israel, however, poverty is not much spoken about, but it exists.  Last year in 2018, over 21% of the Israeli population was living in poverty.  The more alarming statistics show that almost 30% of children in Israel are living in poverty, one in every 3.   The poor are especially, the single mothers, the elderly, the Jewish Orthodox communities, and Arab Palestinians Israeli citizens.  Israel is rated at the bottom of the list of OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries in terms of poverty.

The same applies to the political situation in our country.  Friends don’t let your visit to the holy sites blind you from seeing the injustice that is rampant in our land.  It is easy to come and visit the holy sites and return home and miss the political and economic injustice.  The Palestinians, Muslims and Christians, are living under the occupation of the government of Israel.  This occupation is illegal under international law.  Israel has stripped the Palestinians of their land.  Many of the Palestinians living in the refugee camps around Bethlehem, in Jerusalem, on the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip used to be simple small farmers.  They lived of their land.  The Israeli settlements are built on Palestinian land confiscated by the Israeli government.  All the settlements are illegal under international law. 

Every Friday, for the last year, after the Muslim noon prayers, the people of Gaza have been demonstrating non-violently calling for their Right of Return (according to international law) to their villages and land.  Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed, especially women and children, by Israeli snipers and army fire.  The Wall you see in your travel is illegal. Our people are imprisoned behind the Wall.  Our people cry out for the end of the illegal occupation.  They cry out for liberation.  They want to see the establishment of their own Palestinian state living in peace alongside the state of Israel.  We want Israel to live in peace; our people, the Palestinians want to live in peace, but peace can only be built on justice as defined by international law and United Nations Resolutions.  Without justice there can be no enduring peace.

Friends, we are grateful for your visit.  But, again, don’t let your visit to the holy places blind you from seeing the living stones of the land suffering from the injustice imposed by the Israeli government.   Pray for all the people of the land – Jews, Muslims and Christians.  Pray for the liberation of the oppressed.  Become engaged in advocacy on their behalf.  Work for justice and peace.  Jesus said, when you do it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do it to me. 

Jesus calls us to be peacemakers. He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers…” It is by being peacemakers that we all become children of God. 

Friends, may God embolden us and give us the courage to stand on the side of the poor and oppressed and work for their liberation.

And to God alone be glory and honor, Amen.


Canon Naim Ateek