Most of you know that I spent the spring and summer of 2016 in the West Bank of Palestine and in Israel. Some of you have traveled there as well. Just over a year ago, I was in Tiberius on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. I had traveled there from Hebron in the southern West Bank. This is a distance of about 75 miles that took me 7.5 hours to reach by bus because of all the travel restrictions and checkpoints imposed by the Israeli occupation.
The bus ride north on Highway 90, which flanks the Jordan River and cuts through the Jordan Valley, was surreal. With the exception of the lush strips of land on either bank of the river, the land is arid and rocky. The river and the rich soil it feeds sustain a wide variety of agribusiness crops for domestic consumption and for export, including wheat, barley, corn, citrus fruits and even palm trees. But dotting this landscape are Israeli military bases, guard towers, electric fences and mine fields, with signs on fences and posts that warn that lethal force can be used, even if your vehicle stops on the road.
The day after I arrived in Tiberius, I walked along the shore of the Sea of Galilee to Magdala, the place many believe was the birthplace of Mary Magdalene. The region of Galilee is even more beautiful than the Gospels describe. During my brief days there, I have never felt more grateful, more humble, or holy.
On the road to Magdala, I was deeply moved by my surroundings and I took the picture on the cover of today’s bulletin while standing on a bluff. You can see the Golan Heights in the background. The Golan is Israeli occupied Syria.
The sizzling sun was intense and of course I went for a swim in the murky sea. My goal was to get to Capernaum, where the Gospels describe that Simon Peter, Andrew, Matthew, James and John lived. It is there that we are told that Jesus taught in the synagogue, where he healed a man possessed by an unclean spirit, and near where we heard last week that Jesus fed the 5,000 with two fish and a few crumbs of bread.
Standing on the bluff, my emotions overwhelmed me when I recalled that the hills in the picture could be those where today’s sacred story says that Jesus went to pray. And just about where that boat is could be where Jesus and Peter walked on the water.
The cities of Tiberius, Capernaum and Magdala in the region of Galilee are in the state of Israel. And as idyllic as this setting might be, most are familiar with the fact that this is a troubled land. I would like to invite Sami Ghazaleh up to join me now for a discussion in which we will explore both the tension and the manifestations of hope in this land.
Returning to Tiberius from Magdala, I learned that earlier that day, the IDF killed yet another young Palestinian girl at the checkpoint outside the doors of the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. Witnesses who were with her said she was going to the mosque to pray and that she was only carrying a small bag of groceries. The soldiers said she had a knife but none was ever found. At that moment, in that Holy Land, I never felt so unholy and helpless.
Heather Heyer was unarmed too. She was a 32-year-old paralegal protesting against hate in Charlottesville yesterday. She was walking down the street when 20-year-old white supremacist, James Alex Fields, intentionally plowed into her and dozens of others in a car. Watching the video clips of the car speeding down the street in Charlottesville and standing at the mosque checkpoint in Hebron, we feel scared. Helpless, and desperate. Like we’re drowning in hate and helplessness.
Peter in the Sea of Galilee and Heather on the streets of Charlottesville, both wanted to believe—he in the love of Jesus and she in the love of justice—of course, these loves are one in the same.
The Gospel stories tell us that Jesus, a Jew, was born in Bethlehem, a Palestinian city. Fully Jewish and fully Palestinian, under earthly Roman rule. At his death, Pilate orders that “INRI”, Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum, “Jesus King of the Jews,” be inscribed on the cross. But Jesus never describes himself as a king. Far from it. Ephesians 6:12 says: “Our struggle is against the rulers, the authorities, the empires, and against the dark powers and the forces of evil.”
Whether hate wraps itself in the flag of occupation or in the Nazi flag and carrying tiki torches, it is bigotry and sinful. And we are God’s people with a clear mandate to join together and fight against bigotry and injustice wherever it exists:
In the White House
At the ICE headquarters at Ft. Snelling
On the U.S. Mexico border
Or in the West Bank and Gaza.
Fighting injustice and seeking to be God’s instruments of courage, faith, justice and love are at the core of our Christian faith.
When the disciples were in the boat and afraid, Jesus said to them, “You know me. Trust me.” This required each person to make a personal choice to have faith and courage, just as Peter did. Courage, Faith, Justice, Love.
Please say it with me: “Courage, Faith, Justice, Love.”
My prayer this morning is that together we will trust the example Jesus gave us, that God’s justice will abound and God’s love would be poured into each and every heart.
We end as we began, with a sacred text. This from John 20:30: “Jesus performed other miracles which are written about so that you would believe in him and have life in his name.