Authentic Sacred Places

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As preached on Sunday, June 23, 2013

When traveling the holy sites of Israel one gets used to the merging of the post-modern world we live in and the ancient world of the Bible rather quickly.  At most every holy site there is a large parking lot to accommodate several, at times a dozen or more large tour buses, there are signs in several languages pointing to the main features of your stop, and to the rest rooms and of course to the gift shop.  There always seems to be a gift shop.  There is most often a convent or monastery on site. And, as you might expect, lots of people: some tourists, some pilgrims, a few tour guides, some locals.  Most all there share a common want or need to be on holy ground.  Places like the River Jordon, the Church of the Multiplication (where two fish and five loaves were enough to feed all), the Church of Peter’s Primacy (where Jesus announced to Peter “You are my Rock on which I shall build my Church”), Cana (where today you can buy a bottle of wine for your wedding), the Pater Noster Church(where there are 62 tiled panels displaying the Lord’s Prayer in 62 different languages)-each one of these sites are holy, bring pilgrims from around the world and claim to be the original site of one of Jesus’ miracles or great teachings.

Whether or not it is the actually, true and undisputed spot where Jesus took water and turned it into wine, or where he offered a small boy’s lunch of fish and bread and 5,000 souls were feed and so on, these holy sites are filled with a sacredness that moves your soul and lifts you to a higher place.  Perhaps it is the 1,000s upon 1,000s of prayers that have been offered at that site, perhaps it is because it is truly the center of one of Jesus’ miracles and as such “glows”, if you will, of the Christ.  I must say, though I got a bit suspicious whenever I saw a small, somewhat homemade-looking sign that said “Come visit the place where Lazarus was raised from the dead!  This way!  Only $10 for the tour!  T-shirts and postcards on sale now!” 

But, I also must confess, I could not get my feet and legs to hold me up when we began to sing “Silent Night” in the chapel at the Shepherd’s Field. The best I could do was to sit on a bench stare at one of the intense fresco paintings of the birth narrative, let the tears run down my face and mouth the words.  Do I believe that this is the actual shepherd’s field, of the actual shepherds?  No.  Do I believe the actual shepherds stopped and sang “Silent Night” at this exact place?  Heaven’s no.  But there I sat, faced with the truth of my faith-God had called lowly shepherds to join the angels in ushering the birth of Christ, the event of God breaking into humanity. And, I could not but feel like I too, the lowly shepherd that I am, have been called to do so too.

So there you have it:  the holy Christian sites of Israel.   At times, one must get past the buses and the gift shops.  At times, one must be aware of the authenticity of the site. And, one must be open to what has been done at the holy site and one must be ready for what experience might move your own soul.  

As for historical accurateness and authenticity:  Wise historians and archeologists will tell us that if a holy site in the Near East can reach back as far as the 4th  or 5th century (300-400 years after the birth of Jesus’), that is about as authentic as we can get.  Constantine’s mother, Helena directed the building of many of the late 4th century/early 5th century holy sites we now have today.  So, if it can be dated back to Helena, we can be fairly well assured of the site’s authenticity.

And so it is with Kursi- K U R S I.  Kuris is the modern name of the area where today’s Gospel reading is to have taken place.  In 1969 the Israelis were building a road along the Sea of Galilee’s eastern shore when they came upon the ruins of what archeologists later determined to be a late 4th/early 5th century Byzantine holy site.  It’s in an awkward place and position, indicating that it was important that it be in that exact location because of a specific holy event.  As biblical scholars looked over the site, the history and the biblical narrative, it became clear:  this is the site of the miracle of Jesus’ healing the man of  “a legend of demons”.  As one stands in the Nave of the small basilica, now in ruins, facing the apse, where the altar once stood, you can look out to the south and see a rather sharply-sloped cliff.  Standing at the cliff’s edge, one can sense (with all one’s senses) the scene of demon-possessed swine landing at their fateful end.  And one shudders.  Not the shudder of trying to sing “Silent Night” in the
Shepherd’s Field, but the shudder of coming to terms with one’s own demons. To die at the hands of demons is a most horrid death.  Always.

You will not find Kursi or Gerasen on many web sites dedicated to pilgrimages to the Holy Land.  Sacred Destinations, the main site says “no results” when you search for either word.  It is one of, if not the least visited Christian sites in Israel.  There is no large parking lot to accommodate tour buses.  There is no gift shop, no professional tour guides. The monastery associated to the site was a few miles away and has long since been closed. The day I visited and prayed there it was early afternoon and we were the only tour bus that had come so far that day.  The attendant at the gate said there had been two family-sized groups who had come earlier in the day.  That’s it.  A holy site confirmed to be from the 5th century, uncovered only 50 years ago, a prime example of a Byzantine Basilica stands with essentially few if any visitors.  Why so?

Because death by demons is a horrid death.  Always.  And standing on that cliff side, one must face not only the demons of the gospel narrative, but one’s own demons and the demons of the community in which we live today.  And as sacred a task as that it is, it is hard, even scary work.

The Midnight Mission located on San Pedro Street in the heart of Los Angeles’ Skid Row has become a regular stop on the L.A. City Pilgrimage a group of us have just returned from.  It is an amazing place.  It’s a hard place.  It is a holy place.  The ground floor is for all:  there is a large room where lunch is served daily to about 500 people-no questions asked. There is a day room where people on the streets can come in out of the weather and veg in from of a TV-no questions asked.  There is a court yard where it is relatively safe for some of the marginalized to sleep at night. The courtyard can sleep 150 people.  No questions asked.  The security guards are, for the most part, clients or former clients of the Midnight mission, working their own program.  One can use the Midnight mission’s street address to receive mail and a general phone number to receive phone messages-No questions asked.  All this on the ground floor.  There are demons to be wrestled with here.  Sometimes the demons win.  Sometimes they
lose.  Mostly the wrestling just continues.

If you are ready, or are at such place where there is no other choice, you can ask for help in battling those demons.  That’s when the second floor comes into play.  This floor is a 90 day clearing area.  One sleeps, begins to get clean-physically and chemically.  One begins to build a relationship with a case worker, a V.A. representative, a 12-Step program, and begins working on job skills and resume building.  If possible, one can begin to rebuild relationship with family-slowly.  It’s closely monitored and supported.  It is the next step in wrestling with one’s demons.

The third floor holds small-efficiency type apartments.  Those clients who are making strong head way on battling their demons (with the help of community and the miraculous intervention of one’s “Higher Power”) have an opportunity to begin independent living again while continuing to work their program.  The tour guide, no matter who it is giving the tour will stop the volunteers (I know them as pilgrims) and remind them that the national average of success for programs like Midnight Mission is 14%.  Midnight Mission’s success rate is 24%.  Let that sink in for a moment.  We may make light of biblical understanding of such things as mental illness, chemical dependence and those without basic coping skills as having been “possessed by demons”, but really, honestly, it is a fitting description. And, I would go so far as to say, we all, each of us, and the community in which we live, have our own demons with which to wrestle.  The sacredness of places like Midnight Mission is that they make no bones about it.  Anyone and everyone working at the Midnight Mission will stop and tell you their story-their story of battling demons, their story of miraculous, divine intervention.  Of how they are being healed, of how hard it is, of how blessed they feel to be alive and how they lament over those who have not found peace with their demons.  They make no bones about it.  And neither did Jesus.  He didn’t want to stand around and talk it out or theologize about why the man was possessed (was it his parents’ fault, was he actually just lazy, should society acknowledge his troubles or shun him, should “we” send him outside the walls of the city or within the confounds of a 50 block radius in the heart of the city and called it Skid Row?) Jesus knew: coming close to the Incarnation means coming close to THE agent of grace that can overcome the battling of demons. 

Back to the midnight mission and the 3rd floor.  The tour guide (usually a client now turned employee of the mission) will have one more dramatic piece of news for the pilgrims.  He or she will invite the group to look over the edge of the 3rd floor onto the street below.  “If you are going to die on Skid Row, this is where you will die”, the tour guide explains.  It is St Julian Street and it is the oldest part of Skid Row.  We can document that. It is authentic.  And it is the darkest, most depressing, dirtiest, urine-stained, drug-ridden, vomit-covered, stinkiest place I have ever seen.  Death by demons is a most horrific death.  Always.

And it is witnessed from the safety of the 3rd floor of a building full of grace and hope, where the battling of demons is possible to win.  Where the Christ can be found.  But, make no bones about it, Christ can be found down there too, down on Saint Julian Street.  Not many go to the third floor’s edge, just like not many go to the cliff’s edge of Gerasene-Kursi.  Why?  I believe the answer can be found in the crowd’s reaction to Jesus’ miracle-it was a holy moment, when those who came to see realized what they had witnessed, but then, they were scared.  Too much change, too fast and too close to home.  They actually asked Jesus to leave their space.  If coming close to the divine presence of God in humanity can cause this big of a change for this hopeless-homeless man, this dreg of society, this one who was not worth our time, our care or our attention, if the demons of this one can be wrestled with, cast out and thrown over a cliff, what then of me?  Of my world?  If I get close to the living presence of God, what might happen to the demons with whom I wrestle?  You know, the ones I don’t want anyone to see or to know about?
We don’t want to look over that cliff.  We don’t want to acknowledge the demons we wrestle.  Heaven forbid we, or anyone else, should see what those demons really look like-like the dead carcasses of demon-possessed swine at the bottom of the fall.  And yet, it is the way, the life and the truth of the Christ that we are to be made whole, are to be given the miracle of shattering the bonds of our driven, crazed lives. I bet you have, at least once in this past year, described your life as “driven” or “crazy” or “too
much”.  We are all so saturated with post-modern living it is as if we are possessed by demons. To stand undefended before God and to hear “you are worthy of divine time, attention and energy”, “you will NOT die here-on this cliff of Kursi or on this street call Julian”, “there is a way for you to be rejoined to your God and your community and yourself” is to be blessed and to be filled with grace.  It is to be healed of possession.  Getting to that place is at times it is hard work, but it is holy work and the ground upon which the miracle happens is sacred ground-be it an awkward hillside along Galilee or a dirty street in Los Angeles.  There is grace to be had and hope to be offered.  Not just for those we have already named “unworthy”, “unclean”, but for us, in our hidden sense of our own “unworthiness and uncleanly-ness’.  Be not afraid of the cliff.  Be not afraid to visit the more difficult sacred places of your lives.  God is already there.  Amen.