The Jordan River

Later, Jesus coming from Galilee, appeared
before John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.

Matthew 3:13

The Jordan River flows freely along Israel’s western border. The river is referenced often in the scriptures. Though I stood at its shore near a very narrow portion which I could have easily walked across, the river’s significance overwhelmed me.

When Moses looked toward the Promised Land, he saw the Jordan River flowing down from Mount Hermon into the Jordan Valley. Though Moses never entered the Promised Land, his people did. Not long into their occupancy, they turned to worship idols. Elijah is among the prophets who attempted to guide the people back to God. When Elijah grew old and Elisha prepared to take his place, the two traveled to the Jordan Valley where Elijah’s days among us ended. Just after crossing the Jordan together, the scriptures tell us Elijah was carried off to heaven in a fiery chariot and Elisha returned to continue his work among the people

Hundreds of years later, John the Baptist, last of the prophets of old, called people to repentance on the shores of the Jordan. They sealed their commitments with John’s baptism. The baptizer’s most significant baptism was that of Jesus. The scriptures tell us Jesus took his baptism seriously. Afterward, he spent forty days in the desert preparing for his public life among us. When Jesus emerged, he returned to John and that river where the first five of his disciples joined him.

As I stood at the river’s edge, I saw dozens of white-robed people in the distance. They’d come to renew their baptisms in the waters where Jesus began his work. As for me, I knelt at the river’s edge and dipped my fingers into the water. I left it to God to renew me as God saw fit. To date, I haven’t been disappointed.

Dear God, help us to respond to your love by revealing it to all of those we meet along the way.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Hometown Welcome

Now it happened that, while Jesus was at table in Matthew’s home, many tax collectors
and those known as sinners came to join Jesus and his disciples at dinner.

Matthew 9:10

When I saw Capernaum on our Israel itinerary, I smiled. “This is familiar territory,” I told myself. After leaving Nazareth to begin his work among us, Jesus settled in Capernaum. This fishing and farming town was the home of Peter, James, Andrew, John and Matthew who eventually became his disciples. Much to the Jewish people’s dismay, Capernaum was also home to many who were in service to the Romans including tax collectors. Those who did such work were ostracized. Their countrymen and the temple leaders believed that doing the work of pagans made these people pagans as well.

One evening while Jesus ate dinner with Matthew, several of his fellow tax collectors came to join them. This infuriated the Pharisees who demanded to know why Jesus would associate with such sinners. As for Jesus, he responded in the way which would become his hallmark. After explaining that the healthy and self-righteous had no need of him, Jesus told the Pharisees to learn the meaning of a line from their scripture: It is mercy I desire and not sacrifice.

Though Capernaum has a rich history dating back three millenniums before Christ, Jesus’ openness to even the most despised of humanity is the treasure which endears this small town to me. As I looked over the remains of the second century synagogue there, I imagined Jesus’ earliest followers telling tales of the man who loved every single one of them.

Loving God, help me to follow Jesus’ example and to reach out to everyone who comes my way.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Just Being There

Upon disembarking Jesus saw a vast crowd.
He pitied them for they were like sheep without a shepherd
and he began to teach them at great length.

Mark 6:34

I admit that I had no idea of where we were headed when our guide announced that we were on our way to Tabgha. Fortunately for me, he quickly added that this is the place where many believe Jesus fed the multitudes. As I nuzzled into my seat on the bus, I considered that long ago day. What was it like to be among the crowds who saw all that Jesus did? What must it have been like to get to know him more personally?

A community of Jewish Christians likely occupied the area from Jesus’ time, perhaps for four centuries. Egeria, a Spanish pilgrim from 380 C.E., wrote her observations when she visited. She’d found rock formations which were considered memorials of three events which occurred there: the Sermon on the Mount, the feeding with loaves and fishes and a post-resurrection appearance to the apostles. Though it’s possible that all three happened as was believed, modern scholars suggest that this may not be the case.

Once again, I found that the location of Jesus’ activities meant far less to me than all that he did. Though Jesus may not have taught in this place, he certainly taught with every word and deed wherever he walked. Though the loaves and fish may not have fed a full five thousand that day, Jesus certainly exhibited his compassion for the people in a memorable way. Perhaps this isn’t a place Jesus visited after he rose from the dead. His assertion that there is life after this life lives on regardless.

As we returned to the bus that day, I gave thanks for this opportunity to walk where Jesus walked, to breathe the air Jesus breathed and to see the sights Jesus saw. Whether as near as his closest friends or as distant as the crowds who watched from afar, simply being there mattered to me.

Dear God, thank you for the gift of Jesus’ life among us.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Who Am I?

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist;
others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered,
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Matthew 16:13-16

On our way to the River Jordan, we stopped at Banias Spring. I admit that I had no recollection of this place until I checked our tour itinerary. I discovered this spring is one of the main sources of the Jordan River and the home of Israel’s largest waterfall. The area’s long ago inhabitants seemingly appreciated its beauty and utility. The City of Dan was located there in biblical times. On a ledge above rested Fort Dan which stood before a cave dedicated to the Greek god Pan. Later, the Romans and King Herod himself ruled there. When Herod’s son Philip took over, he renamed the area Caesarea Philipi, not to be confused with the other Caesarea on the Mediterranean which was also Herod’s city.

All of this information set my head spinning until I recalled a small, but important detail regarding this place. The passage above from the New Testament tells us this is the place where Jesus asked his closest friends what the people were saying about him. As you have already read, Simon Peter was brave enough to respond.

Every site I visited in Israel revealed more of Jesus’ identity to me. If he asked the same question of me today, I would respond, “You are the source of everything I know about God. I live as I do because of you.”

Dear God, help me to reveal your presence in all that I say and do.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Justice For All

Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for justice sake;
you shall be satisfied.

Matthew 5:6

While in Israel, I was amazed by the circumstances of its people and its property. Israel occupies a large portion of what we consider to be the Holy Land. Interestingly enough, the holiest places within its borders are controlled by various entities, including Muslims, Christians and Jews. Because our guide is an Israeli citizen who respects his countrymen whatever their beliefs and speaks Hebrew, Arabic and Italian (among other languages), he gained us access to sites where others are denied entry. Whenever this occurred, Yossi didn’t revel in his success. He simply pointed out that being respectful of the ways of others and meeting others on their own turf or terms usually leads to peaceful encounters which benefit all concerned. “This is the way to peace,” Yossi would say.

Perhaps this is the reason Yossi exhibited some impatience with his Hasidic Jewish neighbors. I was surprised to learn that they make up only ten percent of Israel’s population. Most of this sect live in their own neighborhoods where they adhere to the strictest code of conduct. Our guide also surprised me when he shared that eighty percent of the population is non-religious. It seemed to trouble Yossi to acknowledged that the holiest place on earth is home to so many non-religious people. Still, Yossi added that the strict rules and intolerance of a few soured many Israelis’ views of organized religion.

As I pondered all of this, I wondered how many of these “secular” Jewish people quietly worked toward change. I wondered how many of them also opened their hearts to something else as Yossi had.

Loving God, help us all to work toward justice with loving hands and loving hearts.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Can You See Me Now?

As I read today’s gospel about Jesus’ encounter with the man who was born blind, I couldn’t help thinking about someone we met in Israel. Though he could see as well as the rest of us, our new friend was deprived of his vision from birth just like the man born blind. Still, he had much to add to the memorable adventure my dear husband and I enjoyed there. We know our tour director Nancy well as she is a parishioner here at St. Paul’s. As a result, we were certain this trip would be everything we expected. Our tour guide was another matter. Yossi never ceased to surprise us with his wealth of information, his passion for his work and his passion for life in general. While he provided amazing commentary throughout, Yossi also left us to our own thoughts as we absorbed the people and sites around us. Yossi smiled all the while as he revealed Israel’s treasures one by one.

We eventually discovered that Yossi didn’t always have access to those treasures. He was raised in a Kibbutz and, as Yossi described it, “God was ripped from my heart as a young child.” Within that socialist community, everyone worked to supply everyone with what they needed. In his case, Yossi observed people who were inclined to take all they needed, but who chose not to work. These “lazy ones” soured Yossi’s view of this lifestyle and unwittingly inspired his dedicated work ethic. Yossi celebrated the day his family was able to leave that place to fend for themselves with some autonomy. At the same time, Yossi remained community-minded. He’s keenly aware of the plight of Israel, its people and their neighbors both friendly and otherwise. Yossi also considers himself to be a secular Jew. Still, Yossi told us often, “You must pray for the people of Israel; for peace here.” I found this to be a curious request in light of his “secular” status. Yossi seemed to read my thoughts as he added, “You must do this. I don’t know how to pray, but you do.” I eventually discovered that nothing is farther from the truth.

Yossi carried his backpack everywhere. Among the items he needed for the day, Yossi carried musical instruments. Some days, Yossi sported his flute. Other days, he carried a tiny guitar-like instrument, perhaps a balalaika. At our first stop in Caesarea, we visited the complex constructed by King Herod more than two thousand years ago. It includes a hippodrome, the ideal setting for the first of many concerts with which Yossi gifted us. Yossi did this throughout our tour whenever the Spirit moved him –and I mean that literally! Yossi offered his most precious concert in Emmaus in the Crusader church there. He surprised me for my birthday with Schubert’s Ave Maria. I tried to sing along, but was so taken with this gesture that I could only listen. Yossi played with his eyes tightly closed as his music drifted heavenward. I knew then that Yossi prays, though perhaps he doesn’t see this.

Whenever we visited a site associated with Jesus, Yossi pulled out his iPad and directed us to open our “books” to a given gospel. It didn’t matter that we had no bibles. Yossi read passages he’d chosen to bring us back to the Teacher who had changed everything for many of us, perhaps even Yossi. I began to wonder if our guide called himself a “secular” Jew because he didn’t want to be confused with “religious” Hasidic Jews. Yossi found them overbearing. In Yossi’s mind, they seem to have “blinded” themselves with rules and regulations. They’ve lost sight of their concern for all of God’s people because these rules have taken precedence over everything and everyone else. In Jerusalem, Yossi lead us to a Christian church where a small community of Messianic Jews worship. When he introduced the woman who would tell us about her fellow Jews who believe in Jesus, she turned to Yossi to insist that he could offer the same explanation effortlessly. Yossi only smiled as he urged her on.

John’s gospel (John 9:1-41) tells us that the man born blind was completely misunderstood by his neighbors and the temple authorities. They saw his parents as sinners who prompted God to impose this affliction on their son. In their eyes, this man deserved to suffer. Only Jesus looked through the man’s opaque eyes into a heart broken by a lifetime of misjudgment and isolation. It occurs to me that Jesus is doing the same for Yossi. Though he was robbed of seeing God until he was freed from that Kibbutz, something -or Someone- impels Yossi to open his eyes to the gifts God offers him today. Yossi read those scripture passages with the passion of a true believer. The things Yossi shared came from deep within his heart. Yossi inspired me as much as the places we visited in Israel, perhaps more so. In the end, it seems to me that Yossi is far closer to God than he lets on, so close that it’s impossible for him to hide this. In spite of Yossi’s once-impaired vision, God is hard at work within him, just as God is working within you and me.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved