Week 10-Preaching at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem

As I completed my summer in the Holy Land, I had the privilege of preaching on Sunday, July 30, 201, at the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. Here the complete sermon on what I learned from the people of Palestine.

Sermon: How I came to Support Palestine

J.R. Atkins, 3rd Year M.Div. Student

Romans 8:26-39


My first time to the Holy Land occurred in 2011 when my wife was in seminary and we received an invitation to travel on an introductory tour. I feel like we literally “Ran where Jesus Walked” during our 5-day visit to Holy sites. I think the bus did not even stop at some, the tour guide just shouted out that we had just passed a holy place from the Bible. The only mention of Palestine came when I asked about our driver and was told: “We don’t really talk about Palestine much.”

The following year, 2012, my wife and I returned on a 10-day Palestinian emersion trip where we stayed in Palestinian hotels, ate in Palestinian restaurants and met with Palestinian leaders from Business, Churches and non-profit organizations. I also had several meetings of my own with Palestinian business people to help them generate more business both here and abroad.

Over the next few years, my wife and I worked with the Kairos movement in the US through the United Methodist Kairos Response. We served on committees and attended a conference called “Standing with Palestinian Christians” at Ginghamsburg Church in Ohio. We worked on legislation to support Palestine for the General Conference of the United Methodist Church which I attended last year in Portland Oregon. We also attended Christ at the Check Point in 2016.

J.R. Atkins and Munther IasscThis is the history and preparation that lead me to be with you this summer. My visit was funded by Candler School of Theology through a special grant called the Candler Advantage Program. This program allows students to design their own ministry experience that will help them live out their call to serve in a church context. My goal was to serve Christians in Palestine, to understand how they have faith under occupation and to practice pastoral care in a cross-culture environment.

My activities this summer have taken me from Hebron to Herodium, from Tantur to Tiberius, from Wiam to Wadi Fukium, from Christmas Lutheran Church to St Andrews Church of Scotland and from the Tent of Nations to a tent of the Bedouins. I have shared coffee, tea, water, Coke Zero, hummus, falafel, shawarma, mixed grill and smiling rice. I have purchased any and everything made of Olive wood, a Kafia, prayer beads for Christians and Muslims, and had several Arabic lessons in an attempt to better communicate with my brothers and sisters in Palestine. What I have learned by being with you this summer are 3 specific lessons.

Lesson Number 1, “God is love and can be seen in the lives of the people of Palestine.” In our reading from Romans 8:26 & 27, we heard “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” I have seen God, “who searches the heart and knows the mind of the spirit” at work in the lives of this church and community. I have seen it in the eyes of someone offering me to join them for coffee and I have heard God’s love in the voice of one inviting me to lunch. I have felt the love for one another when someone tells me why they stay in Palestine for the people, for their country, and for their land, even though it would be easier to leave and live somewhere else. I have heard the love of God in songs sung in Arabic and English when we say an affirmation of faith or the Lords prayer in our own language.

Lesson Number 2, is an answer to the question of how does one maintain their faith in the midst of occupation and oppression. They get active in their work, their church and with their family as a form of therapy for the stress and strain of occupation. Romans 28 tells us that “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” By living out our call and working for the good of God, we are being delivered.

Daoud Nasser first mentioned this idea of how his work on the farm and his peaceful resistance to occupation is a form of therapy. He could choose to get mad or to give up, but instead, he and his family have chosen to get busy working on the farm for the good and glory of God. When he plants and waters a tree, it’s not just a job but a form of resistance, a kind of defiance, and a form of therapy for a life lived under occupation.

I see it in the shop keepers, the olive wood craftsmen and women, the tour guides and host. They work for a living but also as a form of therapy for the frustration of life under occupation. Their intention is not to be defeated, to stand up with God on their side, trusting that God is delivering them day by day.

Lesson Number 3: The role of the church is a place to come face to face with the issues of life as revealed in biblical text. In church, the prophetic word of the Bible is applied to the frustration and issues we face each day. Romans 8:31 says “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” This is like a resounding litany, repeated each Sunday as a way for people to resist the temptation of giving in and to find the strength to stay the course and to fight the good fight.

In some churches, worship is inspiring and uplifting but may not address the paramount issues facing the congregation. Other churches fear that if we talk too much about the problems of life, people will quit coming. Yet, study after study is telling church leaders that people want and need solutions to their everyday life issues from the biblical perspective. Our soul yearns for the connection with our sacred text in the midst of a life that is filled with negative comments and uninspiring circumstances. We want to hear that God is with us, that we will prevail, that there is hope.

Through the lenses of the Bible, we see life in full color with joys and pains, tears and laughter, pain and pleasure. Looking at the whole of the Bible (Hold up the Bible) we see the consistency of God’s love for human kind. We read stories of death and despair and stories of deliverance and triumph.

As I was relaying these point to a friend of mine, she said to me. “Those sound like good lessons, but what do you recommend for the Palestinian people?” My answer to her and for you is “To continue your faith, continue to love like Jesus and continue to be the star of Bethlehem lighting the way to Jesus for the world.”

2017 years ago, the people of Bethlehem, your ancestors, welcomed the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. They told the story of Christ’s birth and welcomed the visitors who came to see Jesus and his birthplace. From that day you – you have been a herald of peace, a witness of love and the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Those who know you see your daily witness of living in peace under occupation. We see your strength, you motivate us, you teach us, you Sheppard us like sheep who have gone astray.

So, keep the faith, the faith in Jesus Christ, that he has a plan and a purpose for you and the people of Bethlehem. Love like Jesus, show others how you can share love and receive love from God. And, continue to be a messenger of love and peace in the world.

When I return to Atlanta, I will be a better man, a better servant, a better citizen and a better preacher because of what you have taught me. I can already see the injustice I have contributed to in my own country and I am already working on challenging injustice in the US. Black Lives Matter face some of the same issues as the people of Palestine, and so do immigrants and migrant Farm workers. I now have a greater sensitivity to what is meant by the American phrase of “justice for all,” and how this should apply to people of all colors and preferences.

Thank you for being my teachers, my mentors, and my coaches. Thank you for inspiring me, talking with me and listen to me. We are partners in Christ, brothers, and sister through the power of Jesus. I pray for you today and Always. Amen.



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