How do you keep your heart open?

With St Paul this morning, I find myself contemplating foundations. Surprisingly though, I am being more of a literalist than Paul…

Deep underneath Christianity’s holiest site, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, you can see archeological digs around a 1,600 year old wall. The church marks the place where Jesus was crucified, and includes a chapel over what is said to be his tomb, where Jesus was buried and rose from the dead. The present building was constructed in the 11th century, but the foundations are older.

Deep beneath the Church, behind the Armenian chapel you can see that third century wall from the original building, serving as the foundation of the present church. The old wall consists of massive stones, and many of those blocks were already sanctified. Much of Jesus’ church is recycled material, reused building blocks from the destroyed Jewish temple.

These stones hold weight, physically and metaphorically. What the first Christians called “the way,” the way of love, the way of justice, what our presiding bishop today calls “the Jesus Movement,” our faith is built on Jewish foundations. We share stories. We share ancestors. We count ourselves among the stars Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar saw when God said, look at the night sky, your offspring will be as numerous. Our faith is built on Joseph’s technicolor dreams. We are liberated with Moses from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke. We stand with Ruth who tells Naomi, “your people will be my people and your God will be my God.” We look to David, and Nathan as our ancestors in faith.

Likewise in the seventh century when the prophet Muhammad taught Islam, the way of peace, the way of submission, he built upon a Semitic tradition. The Quran references Hagar and Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael. Islamic holy texts make room for Jesus and mother Mary. When the call to prayer echoes across the Muslim world, five times a day, it is said that followers of Islam prostrate themselves using a set of movements that closely mirrors how early Christian monks and nuns bowed and stood as they said the Lord’s prayer.

The mosque and shrine which currently stand on the site of Solomon’s temple, the temple his father David longed to build. On top of Mount Moriah, these shrines mark the night journey supposedly made by Muhammad to the heavens. From the Temple Mount, the prophet ascended and then descended with orders from God about how Muslims were to pray. The gleaming gold Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqua mosque were constructed at least partly, with stones from the destroyed temple.

Now I’m going to leave aside the archeology for awhile. I promise. Lest this sermon devolve into a slideshow with me pointing at vacation photos with a laser pointer, I will take a pause. But know, the holy sites in Jerusalem for Christianity and Islam, are built using stone already sanctified by centuries of Jewish prayer.

No other city on earth carries such weight for so many faiths. No other city on earth has such complex questions bringing together religion and real estate. Every holy site has layers upon layers of contested claims. Regular fights, real physical fights, break out in the holy places. Sometimes Jews fight Muslims. Often Jews fight Jews. Sometimes Christians fight Muslims, more often Christians fight among themselves. You get the picture. The stress level is high.

The Journalist and the Priest

Yossi Klein Halevi is an American-born Israeli journalist. Back in 1999 he set out on a strange journey. Halevi is an orthodox Jew who saw his move to Israel as a spiritual journey. In his book “At the Entrance to the the Garden of Eden” Halevi goes to pray with native Palestinian Muslims and Christians, fellow dwellers in the Holy Land. He also spends time with others who have immigrated to the Christian and Muslim holy sites, like himself drawn back to the storied land of Israel/Palestine. Halevi goes to dialogue, but also to eat, to dance, and to pray with these neighbors. His desire to break bread, to share life, to share prayer makes his journey strange.

Yossi is rebuked by his fellow Jews, and by Christians and Muslims who think his project folly. Israel/Palestine is a place where the religious think of “holier than thou” not as an insult but a mission statement. Staying away from those who believe differently, eat differently, pray differently, worship differently, staying pure and orthodox remains a central anxiety for many believers across the faiths of the Holy Land. The contests for dominance seem to intensify the fear and avoidance of the other. Halevi asks, if peace comes to the Holy Land, to Zion, won’t it be a religious peace? Shouldn’t we start with faith, with prayer?

The journalist/spiritual seeker did find a few willing companions in the journey. He has some wonderful misadventures with Sufi sheikhs, whirling with dervishes and chanting “there is only God.” Partway through the journey he meets an Melkite monk, a priest of an ancient order whose roots in Christianity stretched all the way back to the first church in Jerusalem. Like Halevi, Father Yaakov had decided Christians, Jews, and Muslims needed to find ways to pray together, since they share the same God. He built a tiny monastery guest house in Northern Israel, but he did not put crosses on the walls, and stocked the bookshelves with Jewish, Muslim, even Buddhist texts. He wanted to create a literal space, humble as it might be, for folks to come together.

The journalist asked the old monk, in the midst of all the pain in Israel and Palestine “how do you keep your heart open?” How do you keep your heart open? In the midst of the fought over land, in the midst of conflict, when politicians and everyday people treat one another in such awful ways, how do you keep your heart open?

That question, that singular question, might be the whole struggle of faith: “how do you keep your heart open?”

In today’s Gospel Jesus tries to invite his followers away. Take some time for yourselves. Get away to a deserted place. The life of faith requires some solitude, space for reflection and contemplation, for quiet. Jesus says, “come away.” If you can’t find some regular space for that quiet, for prayer, for silence, it is hard to hold your heart open. Opening your heart takes practice.

But the Gospel does not leave Jesus and the disciples alone for very long. Indeed, they don’t get the retreat they’re planning. The crowd has gone ahead of them. They meet Jesus and his followers on other the lakeshore. And Jesus has compassion, for those “sheep without a shepherd.” The story begs some balance in faith. Holding your heart open requires silence, time apart, time for reflection. An active life of prayer necessitates regular intentional quiet time, time away.

But, for followers of Jesus, compassion always wins. We have to return to the world and its needs. Even when people treat one another awfully. Even when they lie, and yell, and make all sorts of dumb decisions. Even when the news is frightening, the rockets fly and bombs drop, and we wonder how on earth our politics and our contests have descended to such a level, compassion wins. Jesus brings his open heart into that busy, frantic, hungry, and hurting crowd. Jesus marches the disciples into the divided politics of Jerusalem. Jesus again and again decides to engage, even when he would most like to retreat.

A shared past, sure. What about a shared future?

Father Yaakov told the journalist Yossi Klein Halevi how he keeps his heart open, even in the midst of pain, and anger, and division. Father Yaakov was drawn to the holy land because of those ancient stones. He was drawn to participate, to pray in the places where Abraham and Sarah, Jesus and Mary, Hagar and Muhammed had all prayed. The ancient stones mattered, but they were not enough on their own. Shared foundations are not enough. Keeping your heart open requires looking to the future. I may disagree with my Jewish, Muslim, or Christian neighbor today, but I trust that God will do more with and for them than I can ask or imagine. All souls will be redeemed in the end.

When you find yourself tired, and frustrated, and angry at the current state of affairs, whether those affairs are local to your family or involve global politics, when you find yourself exhausted, find some silence. Ask God for an open heart. We may never reconcile the past. We will never dig up the ancient stones to rebuild the temple. To do so would be to deconstruct too much sacred history. We cannot undo the past, but we can learn to live gently in response to what has been. And we can learn to look together, forward with hope. We can practice opening our hearts.

You and I will probably never live to see a permanent peace between Muslim, Jew, and Christian. We might not live to see peace among our siblings. But we can catch glimpses of the world as it could be.

I’ve stood together with Muslims and Jews as we’ve prayed for peace in the streets of Ferguson. We’ve stood with Buddhists and Hindus as we’ve asked for an end to gun violence. We’ve stood together with sisters and brothers, siblings of other faiths and of none as we have asked for more humane enforcement of our borders and the reunification of immigrant families. Just last month we stood with interfaith leaders to celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride. At times we have prayed with our lips, and at times we have prayed with our feet. Working together for a common future I have glimpsed what I believe to be God’s dream for our world. United in justice and love.

When faced with all the need and frustration and anger in our world, it is tempting to run. It is tempting to hide. It is tempting to shut down and permanently unplug. Jesus didn’t. Jesus lead with compassion, and taught his followers to open their hearts again and again. Sometimes that means finding some time apart, and finding some silence. Often in means carrying that practice into life’s stressful and fractious moments. Practice opening your heart again and again. Someday we will all learn to keep our hearts open, even in the most difficult circumstances. We will learn to build upon our common foundations, a new city, God’s city, of compassion, of justice, and love.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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