ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JUNE 2, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Holy Ground, Part 2 Lived and Living
Isaiah 42: 5 – 9; 1 John 4: 7 – 12 & 19 – 21; Matthew 18: 18 – 20

Israel is a fascinating country. It draws you in, with a magnetic kind of power. Last week I shared the history of the region. Geographically, it’s a mountainous desert. It has four main bodies of water – the famous Sea of Galilee, plus The Red, the Dead and the Med. To the west, the Mediterranean provides 200 kilometres of beautiful beaches and trade routes to Europe. The Red Sea is to the far south and is, in fact, a northern finger of the Indian Ocean making the Red Sea the closest tropical water to Europe. The Dead Sea on the east side in the middle of the country is the lowest point on Earth (400 m below sea level); it is 30% salt and rich in minerals. The Sea of Galilee, to my surprise, was a small lake about the size of Pigeon. Yet it’s a lake that can be unusually turbulent due to the surrounding mountains. The pass which cuts through the Jezreel Valley allows the wind from the Mediterranean to blow past Mount Arabel through the Valley of the Wind or Doves, making the lake quite dangerous. The Jordan river starts at the north tip of Israel and runs 251 kms to the Salt pans. The entire south end of Israel is a barren, rocky, scorching-hot wilderness making the fresh-water lake of Galilee a valuable commodity in the Middle East. The Jezreel Valley in the central part of northern Israel has milder temperatures so much of the area is irrigated to create the “bread-basket” of the country.

I set foot on this land, highly aware I was walking where Abraham, Moses, David and most of all, Jesus, had walked. I expected to feel the earth move beneath my feet. It didn’t. Which was good because it’s a country prone to earthquakes, but as our guide put it, “that’s the least of your worries here.” I must admit that my expectations of spiritual ecstasy were not met in the way I’d imagined. It’s hard to be in Israel and not think about the political struggles and the tensions the people live with every day. We saw a lot and learned a lot but on any given day, we’d go to 4 or 5 sites. Sometimes we’d be looking out the window of the bus at a significant location, like the spot Jesus’ delivered the Sermon on the Mount, as we zinged by to the next place. We’d get the low-down on each site and often a reflection on scripture and a prayer, and then we’d have about 15 minutes to explore the area. That may have been okay except the sites were busy and crowded. Not conducive to private prayer and communion with Christ. Many of the sites had churches built on them and standing on tiles with layers of various civilizations under my feet, detracted a little from the sense of standing where Jesus stood. However, there were a few sites that were wonderfully unspoiled. The Banias Springs where Peter confessed Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. A 45-minute boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, where one’s imagination could envision the disciples fishing, Jesus stilling a storm or he and Peter meeting on the water. We had 30 minutes in an exclusive part of the Garden of Gethsemane to pray and ponder Jesus’ agony as his disciples slept. We walked the streets of old Jerusalem and the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We prayed at the Western Wall – the only remaining part of the Temple Mount. We felt the peace of the Garden Tomb and touched the water of the Jordan River. So, there were many wonderful, sacred experiences and they certainly gave the stories we read new meaning.

On our last evening at supper, each participant was invited to share what was most meaningful to them. As I combed through my memories, reviewing these rich moments of being where Christ had lived, something unexpected emerged from the recesses of my consciousness. Even more than seeing where Jesus lived, I was aware of the places and moments in which I’d seen Jesus living among us.

As trips often do, our trip began with a gathering of the participants. Among them was a United Church minister and his wife, whom we’d never met before. Within an hour of meeting them, they offered to let us park our car in their driveway for the duration of the trip, rather than leave it on a lot in Lindsay. In some ways, it was a small gesture. Certainly not a hardship for them, and yet they went “the extra mile” (Matthew 5:41) in showing us the love of Christ. It certainly made life easier for us and a little more worry free.

Going into a group of strangers isn’t easy for anyone, especially when most of them are well bonded to one another – something we need to remember when people are with us for the first time. By nature, I tend to be a shy person. I was leery of those St. Andrew’s people, but I told myself I’m a grown up and could handle this. Plus, I really wanted to go to Israel. And I had Terry with me. Everyone was welcoming and did their best to include us. Still, I felt like an interloper on their trip. However, as the week went along and we shared each other’s experiences, snacks, concerns and joys, the relationships shifted. We bonded. We were no longer strangers, we were friends – brothers and sisters in Christ. As 2 or 3, or 28, of us gathered in Christ’s name, his living Spirit was present among us, just as he’d promised (Matthew 18: 20).
In my life, I’ve come to recognize wholesome, unrestrained laughter as a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence. Our hotel in Jerusalem fed about 1000 people in the same buffet restaurant. Towards the end of our trip, one of the ladies, Gwen, who was Roman Catholic, sat down and said with some consternation, “My pajamas are missing from my room. I looked everywhere and couldn’t find them.” To which another replied, “I know where they are – Sam and Linda have them.” Sam then explained that he’d gone into the room, picked something off the floor and discovered they were women’s pajamas that did not belong to his wife. They were inside out and were white with blue flowers. Sam, Linda and the tour leader had taken them to the front desk to return them to the rightful owner and to explain that a mistake of this nature could have ruined their marriage. Our leader asked, “Are you as disconcerted by this as we are?!” Thinking a cleaner must have moved Gwen’s PJs and we’d solved the mystery of the missing pajamas, we still wanted to know how Gwen’s pajama’s ended up in Sam’s room. Gwen said, “Those weren’t my pajamas, mine are dark blue”. By this time our whole group was laughing so hard the whole room, 972 people, were looking at us. We couldn’t stop. Terry renamed St. Andrew’s Lindsay: Pajama Presbyterian. When someone said, “Gwen isn’t Presbyterian, what will we call her church?” I very quickly offered, “Our Lady of the Lost Pajamas”. There was a bond of unity in our laughter.

During our time there, Terry and I were keen, not only to learn about the history of Israel, but to better understand the present situation. It’s a complicated state of affairs. The atmosphere is heavy with the fear, determination and hopelessness. At present the Israeli’s have a military presence in the West Bank. There are restrictions on the movement of non-Israeli’s who live in these areas. While the majority of Palestinians are Muslim, some are Christian, and some are Jewish. Of those a portion have become Israeli citizen’s. Our bus driver was a Palestinian Christian Israeli. He told us, “Christians make up about 1% of the population. Most have left and many more are trying to leave. When applying for a job, everyone is required to state their religion. Christians have the least chance of being hired. Muslims fare a bit better.” Bethlehem is a city in the West Bank and our guide there was a Palestinian Christian. Bethlehem is a predominately Muslim city. So, when the chance arose, Terry asked what it’s like for him, as a Christian, to live there. He told us that nany Palestinian Christians have emigrated to the United States and that was his hope also. Palestinians from the West Bank aren’t issued passports if they’re not Israeli citizens, and Palestine isn’t a country. Travelling isn’t easy. To do so he’d need to buy a plane ticket, apply to the Israeli government and if denied, he’d lose the money on the ticket. Those who do get out usually leave through Jordan. Terry asked him what the relationships are like between the Christians and the Muslims in Bethlehem. His fear was evident as he spoke, “With strangers, it’s not good. But we all live here; our children are growing up here. We do our best, for their sake, to get along.” He went on, “But some of us grew up together, we went to the same schools, we’ve known each other all our lives, we hang out, we’re friends.” I realized this was the meaning of “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). The only hope for peace in the world, are people relating to others as people “like me”. In that love is the presence of Christ.

Our guide, Odele, was a practicing liberal Jew, with left wing politics. In private conversation, she told us she has no use for Netanyahu and was disturbed by the treatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis. She understood the complexities of a solution – it’s hard to have a democratic Jewish state if there are fewer Jews than Muslims; in trying to settle the Golan Heights, Syria wanted access to the fresh water of Galilee; the Palestinians won’t discuss a two state solution unless they get Jerusalem. At the same time, she feared Israel was moving towards an apartheid state, which to her was a violation of human rights. All that being as it may, what touched me as a word of God was when she said, “I think Israel could do a better job of being ‘a light to the nations’.” (Isaiah 42:6) She had remembered God’s plan for his covenant people, which of course, Christians believe was fulfilled in Christ. I resonated with her longing: couldn’t we all do a better job of being a light to the nations? Of, in the case of the Church, shedding the light of Christ in our world?

It was amazing to visit the Holy Land and walk the paths, the hills, the streets and the gardens that Jesus walked when he lived on Earth. It was a once in a life-time opportunity and it will stay with me my whole life. I’d gone on a pilgrimage to a holy place; but what makes a place holy? In part, it’s because it’s an area where God showed up and intervened in human history in a very distinct way. In that way, it was awesome. But what is more awesome is that God is still showing up in our lives, touching our hearts, intervening in human history and building his kingdom in the 21st century. And what is even more inspiring and humbling, is that he does it among us, in us and through us. We don’t need to travel 9,300 km to experience the presence of Christ. Christ is living among us here and now, even in Canada, even in St. Stephen’s. He is alive when we share, when we welcome the stranger, when we laugh together, when we befriend our enemies, when we live as an example for others and when we shine his light wherever we are. It was wonderful to go where Jesus lived, and it is better still, to be where Jesus is living.