Sunday 1 October - Pentecost 17 - Eucharist - Markus Duenzkofer

My first encounter with what used to be called the Wailing Wall, but now is called the Western Wall in Jerusalem, was an experience that has shaped my life. I didn’t just stand in front of a disputed rubble of stones. I stood in the presence of God that day. It was one of those moments when the veil lifted and I experienced what Jews call God’s שכינה, God’s presence on earth.

And I will share the details of this sacred encounter some other time with you.

My second encounter with the Western Wall, however, was oh-so-very different.

I was back in Jerusalem on that same trip some three weeks later. And it was Yom Kippur, the most holy day in the Jewish calendar, which in 2017 fell on the 30th of September, i.e. yesterday.

Yom Kippur is the feast of atonement, when the people of God are asked to reconcile with God and with one another by prayer and by fasting. And it is strict fasting: there is no food, no drink, no work, and no other activity. In Israel public transport and even TV and Radio stations shut down for the day.

And so, I went to the Western Wall, joining the stream of observant Jews as they – like a reversed river – journeyed towards the source of their faith, to the source of life.

There were people everywhere! The contemplative serenity of my first visit had disappeared.

I watched from a distance, as I had no idea about how to behave properly. And yet: I felt both very much an outsider relegated to the Court of the Gentiles and equally intimately connected to the murmur of unfamiliar and unrecognisable words in an unknown language pleading for reconciliation with the divine, who wanted to be known, wanted to be recognised, wanted to be familiar. It was quite something.

And because the world really is a small place, I ran into an acquaintance, whom I had met on my first visit. She introduced me to some friends of hers, who were also visiting from Germany. And we decided to meet up later on. I took out a notepad to write down the exact address. And without quite knowing where he had come from a man jumped at me and yelled at me: “No writing! Yom Kippur! No writing!”

I was quite embarrassed. But then, I also was quite annoyed. How could one take such religious rules so bloody literally? This kind of stuff gives religion a bad name! Surely God was bigger than that!

Yes, God is indeed bigger than that. Much bigger!

But I have pondered and re-pondered this story now for many years. And recently something else has been revealed.

While I am not a legalist and I would never want to sacrifice anybody to the golden calf of religious observances or on an altar of tradition, I do think our Jewish sisters and brothers have a point.

As I said before, Yom Kippur is about reconciliation. And reconciliation is at the heart of the message of God’s self-revelation. We would be fools, if we don’t realise that our relationships are broken or at least a wee bit tainted. How we connect far too often is marred by wrong decisions that cannot be undone. Richard Holloway preached beautifully and insightfully about this at the splendid wedding of Stephen and Izzy yesterday.

Yes, we all are in need of reconciliation.

And we are most importantly in need of reconciliation with God as we fail to give God the honour due His name and fail to live into the beauty of our true self, created by God and in which God so unfathomably delights.

And learning about Yom Kippur can be a reminder that reconciliation sometimes takes effort. We cannot just take things for granted. Yes, our return to God is initiated by God, but we can and sometimes must engage actively in God’s reaching out to us.

And this is true for the relationships with one another and with creation, too. None of our neighbours can be taken for granted. And when (not “if”) we fail life in whatever human and non-human form, it takes work, sometimes even hard work, to put our relationship on new, on reconciled footing.

But Yom Kippur with its strict observance is not an effort to add to our burden. It is meant as an invitation. It is an invitation to leave behind all those distraction of daily life for just one day, and to refocus on what is really is important. Nothing, absolutely nothing, not even food or drink, is more important than to reconcile with God, with one another, and with all of creation. In a world in which noise and sound and demands bombard us, taking time with God and looking at our lives intently is something we do not do very often. And it is only life, our lives that suffer because of it.

But today is not Yom Kippur anymore.

Rather, today, once again, we will bless animals in this service.

I know that in addition to some barking, meowing, and four-legged running around, there will also be some oh-so-very-human eye-rolling.

And yes, having the animals here is cute. It is even a lovely reminder that all of God’s creatures are blessed: all life is part of God’s plan.

But the blessing of the animals can become too cute.

Poor Francis of Assisi would roll in his grave if he knew that his feast day could turn into some shallow practice of fun and silliness. The church can and must do better than to join those who might place in their gardens a ceramic representation of Francis next to their statue of the Buddha, not having a clue about either and considering a statue of a man in ancient dress holding a bird a perfect addition to their bird bath…

Yes, the blessing of animals can be a distraction.  

And remember: Francis’ own connection to the animals really is not cute. It is instead rather challenging.

He did preach to the animals, yes. But only because humans would not listen to him, would not listen to how we through Christ are reconciled in God. Francis’ contemporaries were too distracted by food, drink, work, and other activities to think about what matters in life, to think about being one with God. The animals, however, listened. They listened as he preached the reconciling love of God.

Yes, reconciliation is hard work. It is hard work, because everything in us wants to run away when faced with the radical claim of forgiveness. In reconciliation we face our most inner fears and our most inner darkness. And this is never a happy encounter – not just because of our shame, but because we also realise how much those fears and that darkness are draining life out of us. They kill us.

Francis knew this.

One day he was riding on his horse outside of Assisi. And he encountered a leper. For Francis, this leper represented everything he feared: poverty, sickness, death, exclusion, loneliness. The leper also held up as in a mirror his most inner darkness: he had become a leper, infested with sin and spiritual death, disconnected, empty, hollow.

Everything within Francis screamed to grab the reins of his horse hard and gallop away, quickly without looking back.

But Francis realised that for his sake and for the sake of the leper he had to get down form his horse and embrace. There was indeed no alternative to reconciliation. There never is.

Francis at this point in his life had already stopped fighting off God’s reconciliation and had allowed himself to be taken into God’s love, to put nothing and no-one above God, not food, not drink, not work, not any other activity, not even family and friends. During an imprisonment, he had no longer been able to distract himself from running away from God’s saving embrace. And once taken into God’s bosom, he was able to get of his high horse and seek reconciliation not just with God, but also with his true self, with his neighbour – even the most despised ones –, and with all of creation.

Today is not just another distraction from our usual worship routine. But all that we do today, especially as we break bread and share the cup, is God’s invitation to reconciliation, a reconciliation, which will not only liberate us into oneness with God, but will empowers us to help liberate creation, including our beloved animals and pets.