Israel pages: Sepphoris and Nazareth

No one has heard of Sepphoris, I know, but wow – we all should have.

the group at Sepphoris
the group at Sepphoris

Sepphoris is a town so close to where Jesus grew up in Nazareth that lots of men and boys from Nazareth would rise each morning, take their tools, and walk over the hills and through the valleys – two hours – to find work on the city of Sepphoris.  It is almost unimaginable that Jesus and Joseph were not among them; of course they were.  Our bibles call Jesus a “carpenter” as if he worked with wood exclusively, but the Greek word is really a word for “building-tradesman” who could work with stone, wood, tin, plaster, – all phases of a building project – or even simply an unskilled building worker – the term is that broad. In any case, when Jesus was growing up in Nazareth it was a tiny place – 400 residents max – and probably less than that.  There would be almost no employment there; it is almost certain that people skilled in the building trades would go to the nearby city of Sepphoris for work.  So, we went to the ruins of the city of Sepphoris – from which the village of Nazareth is clearly visible – and walked on streets that Jesus himself may have walked on, or even built.

Sepphoris main street
Sepphoris main street

It was Herod “the Great”‘s son Herod Antipas who was at work in Jesus’ day re-building Sepphoris to make it his capital.  He was re-building it because it had been destroyed previously.   This is key: the Romans destroyed Sepphoris and enslaved the Jewish survivors because at the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, a man named Judas led a revolt against Rome.  Rome ruthlessly crushed that revolt and Sepphoris, where Judas was from, was destroyed – the quintessentially disloyal city.  So when Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas assumed the throne, he wanted to make sure that Rome knew that he was loyal – the opposite of Judas.  So he re-built the home of traitorous Judas as a distinctly Roman city; any pagan Roman would have felt at home there, with its theater, temples, and all things culturally Roman.

So, every day, Jesus probably walked over the hills to work in Sepphoris and walked home each night to Nazareth having helped to build the kingdom of Herod, the Roman-pleasing sycophant.   And the remarkable thing is that when Jesus started preaching the kingdom of God, his references were all rural, in spite of having spent his working life in a Roman, urban setting.  He spoke of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, of the sower who sowed his seed and of the  shepherd with his sheep.  He seems to have intentionally avoided (rejected?) urban images and metaphors.  His kingdom was not Herod’s, or Rome’s, or the Zealot revolutionaries, but rather the trans-national, multi-ethnic Kingdom of God, the creator of “the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.”

When Jesus was born Nazareth had no more than 400 people living in it.  Now, modern Nazareth is home to over 70,000 people, mostly Christian Palestinians.  They are Arabs by heritage, but Christians by faith.  Think how hard their lives are between the giants of the Jewish state and the Palestinian-Muslim community!

Pray for peace.

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Israel Pages: Day 3 – Sunday in Galilee, Mt. of Beatitudes, Peter’s breakfast and the Jordan

Mount of Beatitudes Church
Mount of Beatitudes Church

One of the amazing things about this trip is the company of 20 pastors I am with.  We all met for worship this morning in the outdoor chapel under the trees in front of the Mount of Beatitudes church that over looks the sea of Galilee.  I was leading music on so I didn’t shoot pics, but others did and I’ll have them later.  We were 20 pastors worshiping together is a wonderful thing to observe, especially given that we represent so many different denominations: United Methodist, United Church of Christ, Lutheran, Baptist, and Presbyterians.  We ended the day in an after-dinner sharing time on the question: how do you understand your call to ministry – including how it has changed from when you first sensed you call to now.  The sharing took 2 hours.  Everyone has a unique journey, punctuated by lots of unknowns, moments of deep devotion and surrender, episodes of pain and loss, and overwhelming times of joy and fulfillment.  Some of them are blogging their experiences on this trip; you can find their links to the right of this page under “Blogroll”. (note: this is Sunday – all of us are concerned for our congregations back home today as they worship without us – we are all permanently “professionally deformed” as my Croatian friends would say).

Today was a great day.  After worship we first learned about the place we are staying: the Mount of Beatitudes.  This church faces the sea of Galilee, which is maybe 500 years in front of us, but we are 100 yards or so above sea level.  The hill we sit on is quite steep in places, but the church sits at the apex of two ridges which form a V shaped valley.  So, sitting on the lake, with the constant breeze blowing off the lake toward the land, carrying sound, a person could stand at the bottom and preach to crowds gathered there in quite large quantities.  That natural amphitheater effect is why this site has been identified as the place where Jesus spoke the famous sermon on the mount.   Now, of course the only problem is that you have to be down at the lake level speaking to people above you to make this concept work, whereas Matthew has Jesus going up to the mountain to preach.

Marshal at the rock on which Jesus ate a post-resurrection breakfast
Marshal at the rock on which Jesus ate a post-resurrection breakfast

When Jesus saw the crowds, he when up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying, Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven….”  Matt. 5:1-3

OK, so maybe Jesus gave a sermon to a crowd here – or not here – but if not, then someplace like this and very close by.  That is what is so cool about being here.  Even if the particular places that have been identified as “the SPOT where it happened” are uncertain, nevertheless, Jesus was here; literally.  We are only a 20 minute walk from his HQ in Capernaum.  He was with fishermen on this lake.  Maybe they even when to this crazy spring that is at the foot of this Mount of Beatitudes, pouring fresh cool water into the sea of Galilee (otherwise known as Lake Ginesseret) anyway Jesus was here – and now, so are we – and this is cool.

rock with inscription on the Mount of Beatitudes

rock with inscription on the Mount of Beatitudes


Israel Pages – Capernaum & Arbel Cliffs, Galilee

This morning I saw the sunrise over the See of Galilee.  Umm-Saah.  breathe in – out.

We are staying at the Mount of Beatitudes guest house run by Italian Franciscan sisters.  It’s in Galilee, on the sea – and very new – nice.

This morning after a Mediterranean breakfast – yogurt, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, goat cheese, and bread sticks dipped in sesame seeds in olive oil – much to love already, we gathered for a pow-wow then set off to visit Capernaum.  Learned something new already: Capernaum is strategically located – Jesus used it as HQ for a reason.  There are two main roads that run the length of Israel, N – S, one on the Mediterranean side of the Jordan and mountain ranges, Via Maris (“the way of the sea”), and one on the East side the King’s Highway.  Then there are lots of smaller E-W roads to connect the country.  A town that sat on the intersection of a N-S and E-W road was in a great position to collect tolls.  Capernaum was one such town, the first town you would encounter coming down fro the N from Syria towards Jerusalem.  It’s called the  Jerusalem to Damascus road.  It is also an excellent location from which to launch a movement.  Everyone comes and goes through there.  Peter, chosen first, was from Capernaum.  And he was not a totally poor peasant as many of the people in Galilee were – he owned a boat.  Yes, a small fishing boat, but a boat.  That probably meant that he had a bit of capital – wood was very expensive because there was no useful wood native to the area; boat wood would have had to have been imported.  Also, Peter alone, on the night of Jesus’ trial made it all the way into Caiaphas, the high priest’s house – he was a man who had the standing to do that – so he was a notable in Capernaum – the perfect one to help spearhead a new movement.

Also it is remarkable that when you are at the door of the synagogue in Jerusalem, looking towards the sea of Galilee, only a hundred yards away (my rough estimate), in between you and the sea is Peter’s house!  Now the question is, is it really “Peter’s” house?  Well no one can be certain, but by the 4th Century, it had been identified as such and supposedly the trail goes back to inscriptions left there from earlier times – so maybe it really is his house.  Now, today, all you can see of Peter’s house is the ruins of an octagonal structure which is a 4th century house, in the middle of which are discernible ruins of a 1st century home – i.e. Peter’s.  When Jesus was rejected as Nazareth, he went to strategically-located Capernaum, found Peter, a local notable, whose home was smack-dab in the center of town between the synagogue and the sea where he ran a small fishing business and had access to water transportation; smart – very smart.

Mount of Beatitudes guest house - out digs in Galilee - on sea of G
Mount of Beatitudes guest house - out digs in Galilee - on sea of G

Israel Trip Pages

Packing to go

The Grotto at Bergamo - sacred space
The Grotto at Bergamo - sacred space

Several of us “pilgrims” are connecting on social media platforms life Facebook and the virtual classroom web portal of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH, comparing notes about our frantic efforts to wrap up details, pack, and otherwise prepare to go.  We’ve been joking back and forth about how preparing for a “sabbath” rest is such hard work that it makes you feel like you need a sabbath rest.  But it did make me stop in the midst of my own preparation to ask the question: why do we live this way?  Do we have to?  Do we think people expect us to be frantic and busy?  Could I ever ask the church secretary to hold calls because I was praying – other than in a meeting called for that purpose?

We started our pilgrimage at the pre-Israel two day seminar held at a Catholic Retreat Center near Dayton called the Bergamo Center.  They brothers there have created some outdoor spaces that do something to  you that no amount of guards and signs could compel: they make you settle down, be quiet, and become reflective.  The main space is the grotto, the cave like rock structure with its statues, places for candles and for kneeling.  When we first encounter it, everyone in the group automatically falls silent and then speaks in hushed tones, as if a service is in progress.   Perhaps there, in that outdoor space, there is always a service in progress.

Whimsical Sacred Space
Whimsical Sacred Space

The brothers have a rich vegetable garden and a labyrinth made entirely of wild grasses and wildflowers.  They have also made a couple of other structures out of branches and plants that I cannot describe; it seems almost whimsical.  It reminds me of the kinds of shrines a native American might make, both in nature and of nature, without any object that is referential and no obvious way to interact with it, except to look; but again, it does have that effect: you stop, grow quite, and look.

Why does it seem that the Catholic tradition pays  more attention to sacred space than the Protestant?  Is the tradition of the Reformation which highlighted the role of Word over Sacrament to blame?  Was the course correction of the sixteenth century an over-correction?  Was it, like one of my seminary professors suggested, a trading of the “smells and bells” for the “verbal derby”?  In any case, it seems pretty consistent: get a group of Protestants together and take them to a space that Catholics have tended, and the Protestants get all quiet and reflective.

Perhaps we know that now, and thus all the literature on Christian Spirituality pouring out of the Protestant tradition these days.  Now we read about St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa in our own books.  It would be embarrassing not to know who the desert fathers were and  not to have read Henri Nowen.  In fact, good Protestants should probably feel guilty about not reading enough about the lives of the saints, and immediately put it on the to-do list to go buy the books and – what?  probably lead a group discussion about them so that we can be seen to be busily doing something.

Creation theology
Creation theology

I served as a missionary in Central Europe for over a decade during which I saw lots of American missionaries come and go.  Some were old some young, some came to teach others to do humanitarian work – but nearly all of us shared this one characteristic: we were busy.  Sometimes our business made sense to each other; sometimes not, but we were busy people.  That characteristic, I learned, is part of our culture that we take with us wherever we go.  We are Americans; that’s what we do.

Well, I have the disease.  It is really hard for me to sit still.  I feel like I have to do something constructive: make a blog entry, for example.  But that is exactly what this Sabbath journey to the Holy Land is all about.   The trip has been structured intentionally NOT to be a break-neck see-it-all tour of every known site of interest but rather a paced pilgrimage that has its own open spaces for the Sacred.  My question is: will I take my American cultural characteristics with me to Israel?  Of course I will; but will I be able to drop my guard of business enough to benefit fully from the sacred time and space?   That is what I am hoping.  Someday we all stop this hamster wheel turning anyway, as Ted Kennedy did today; as former brothers of Bergamo have done.  Let it not be the first time I slow down.

rest
rest

Israel Trip Pages

I’m Going to Israel

Pilgrims
Pilgrims

I’m going to Israel for two weeks on a Pastoral Renewal trip organized by the United Theological Seminary (UTS), through a generous grant from the Cousins Foundation.   Cousins is doing something not only remarkably generous for us, but quite thoughtful and intentional.  They sponsor trips of 20 mid-career pastors who have never been to the Holy Land with a view to making this an experience of Sabbath and Renewal.  We will spend 14 days in Israel, not cramming every minute with one more thing to see and place to be, but at such a pace as will permit times for reflection, prayer, worship, reading, and even rest.  To that end we have been given several resources; first a book called Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives by Wayne Muller – one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.   Perhaps because I needed it (need it).  The second is The Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life by Tony Jones, an excellent modern approach to the ancient practices of Christian spirituality.  We were also given (thoughtfully) a beautiful coat-pocket sized leather-covered empty journaling book.

The Foundation has enlisted the services of Dr. J. Maxwell Miller, archeologist and professor emeritus at Candler School of Theology, who prepared for us an extensive, detailed 66 page guide to the background and significance of each site we will visit.

Our journey, or rather pilgrimage is being organized and led by Coordinator, Jacqueline Nowak, Director of the Institute for Applied Theology at UTS, in-country trip coordinator, Jim Eller, Fully Affiliated Instructor in Digital Culture Ministries at UTS, and his wife Pat Eller, UCC minister, hospice chaplin, and spiritual director for our trip.  They have already led us in a two day pre-trip retreat held at the Bergamo rpre-trip seminaretreat center near Dayton, OH where we met each other and right away started bonding as a group of pilgrims.

I am wondering what I will experience in the land that Jesus walked?  Right now, from a distance, the day that has my curiosity piqued most is the one we will spend crossing the sea of Galilee.  It seems to me that it may well be one of the most authentic analogues to the life of Jesus available today.  There is no cathedral or even a shine that you can build over that sea, as you can over a tomb or a well, or on a mount where he preached.  It’s the sea; and probably it’s substantially the same sea that Jesus got wet in, ate fish from, rode across in boats, in storms, and in exhaustion.

But now it’s the time of preparation, packing, and anticipation.  I’m the guitar player in the group so I have to get some tunes together for our worship too.  If (Lord willing – Please!) we have access to a piano, Larry Karow, pastor from Ft. Thomas, KY will accompany too.

Other seminaries on pilgrimage to the Holy Land sponsored by the Cousins Foundation this year include:

Columbia Theological Seminary

Princeton Theological Seminary

Emmanuel School of Religion

The Interdenominational Theological Center

McAfee School of Theology

Candler School of Theology

Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

Wake Forest University Divinity School

University of the South (Sewanee) Theological Seminary

Erskine Theological Seminary