Genesis 12:1-9; Luke 9:51-51; 19:28-44
Today, in the Christian tradition, we embark on the most holy pilgrimage of the year. We follow the steps of Jesus’ final pilgrimage. As a Jew, he was required to participate in the pilgrimage feasts of his people, to travel to Jerusalem to remember, to offer sacrifices and to celebrate.
Passover begins the feast of Unleavened Bread, which commemorates the Exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt, the great act of God to free people to love and serve God. A pilgrimage into the desert to be changed from the inside out. To be freed of the demands of slavery. Free to bask in God’s presence. To become a people after God’s own heart.
So far, as we have talked about pilgrimage, we have spoken about it in the first person singular. Like the language of the Pilgrim’s Credo: I am not in control; I am not in a hurry; I walk in faith and hope; I greet everyone with peace; I bring back only what God gives me. But we are also companions on a community pilgrimage. And so today we add: I walk with you, we journey together.
It all began with Abram. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” And so the journey began for God’s pilgrim people. Across the desert, along the fertile crescent. Abram never owned more than just a burial plot for his family. He wandered, following the flocks.
Generations later, his great great grandchildren followed the food to Egypt and sojourned there while their lives first flourished then devolved into slavery. And God came again to send them on their wayagain – back to the lands where Abraham had wandered. But God did not take them on anything close to a direct route. Instead their journey went south, into the desert, where they camped and complained, led constantly by God’s presence through pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night.
A generation later, the people entered Abraham’s land, built homes, planted vineyards, and eventually built a capital city with a Temple at its center. They could breathe easy at last! But not for long! The pilgrim God sent the people packing again into captivity, this time to the east. All that they had built and learned to rely upon was destroyed. And the people yearned for their land and their Temple.
Another generation or so passed and they were back on the road, this time to the unfamiliar place which had been home to their grandparents. They had heard such glorious stories of the abundance and beauty of the land, the city of Jerusalem, the Temple. And when the grandchildren returned, none of it remained. It was a place to start over, to work like slaves, a disastrous disappointment. But they settled in, always a little ill at ease as more powerful neighbors took what they wanted.
Many more generations passed. They endured the ebb and flow of being a pilgrim people. Nothing stayed the same. Nothing ever got comfortable. They managed to build a Temple, plain though it was, and to eke out a living.
And now, in Jesus, God was on the move again. Herod had made the city strong and beautiful again. He decided to beautify the Temple, to make it his legacy, a wonder of the world! But even so, God’s pilgrim people were not at home. At least, they were not at rest. All their movements were monitored by the violent Romans. A baby was born in a rural village not his home. His parents were pilgrims on a journey to their ancestral city when he was born. Then Herod insanely decided to kill all the babies in the town, so they traced the steps of Joseph and Jacob journeying to Egypt. But no roots were put down there. Back to Abraham’s land, back to the land of Joseph’s family and his carpenter shop. The child Jesus knew the pilgrim ways of his people.
(And now the sermon drifts into story-telling, imagining, wondering…)
Today Jesus begins his final pilgrimage. He joins fellow travelers who are nearing their journey’s end. Only a couple of miles from Jerusalem he arrives at the home of his friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus.
Relax for the evening; prepare for the destination
He had been there before, but this time, he knew it was different
He would ride in on a donkey. He was tired. A friend had offered a donkey to ride. It was kind.
I wonder if he remembered the story of the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem; David’s dancing celebration. So much joy. The world was his. Everything seemed right with the world.
Not so now. All is chaos. Blindness. The heart of God, modeled by David, seems lost in the cold halls of the Temple. There argument reigns supreme. Hustle and bustle of animals, moneychangers, Temple rules. So many hurdles. So much of keeping people away, rather than welcoming, rejoicing and kindness.
Jesus and the disciples chat with their Bethany friends. Jesus ponders the journey. He had made this pilgrimage before – to Jerusalem. He is only a short distance away from his goal. Each of the days before had been long walks. Tomorrow, less than an hour’s walk. Like many pilgrims, the arrival poses both joy and trepidation. The day of arrival will be difficult, more emotionally than physically. To reach the destination, the sacred site, the place so long anticipated, poses so many questions: will it be the life-changing experience one hoped for all that long ago when the journey was planned? This the usual inner conversation of every pilgrim. Will it be what I had hoped? The goal is at hand, and yet there is a hesitancy to finish the journey. Do I want the pilgrimage to end? What if it is not what I had hoped for? What if I am not healed, do not get the answers I seek?
In the morning he sends the disciples to get the donkey. Heavily he climbs on and gets settled. All this walking. His feet are sore, his spirit is troubled. He would give his feet a break for this last climb to Jerusalem.
There is no peace and quiet. The roads are full of people making the pilgrimage with him.
Nearing Jerusalem, he gets his first view of the city and its crown jewel, the Temple. He is overcome with grief. No one listens. Not to the prophets, not ever. Not now. How long will this continue? The tears begin to roll down his cheeks. He had so much hope! And he has encountered so much blindness! The hearts of the people are turned to their own ways. They don’t seem to know how to turn in love toward the One who has loved them best of all, who will always love them. And love breaks Jesus’ heart too.
Nearing the gates, the people on the roads begin to shout and sing. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosana in the highest! The journey was turning into a parade! Hope stirred in him. These people, did they understand what Jesus had been teaching all this time? Was this their hearts shouting out to God? Was this their act of loving service? Were they choosing God’s loving way?
Continues on. Goes into the city. Looks around. Too tired, tired. So tired!
The Temple. There it is. The holy sacred place of prayer. Full of the music and the holy quiet of the people. He is appalled at the activities there! Noisy animals, buying and selling. It is the preparation for Passover and everyone is here! And no one is preparing their hearts. It is all about doing the right things and the heart of God is lost in the noise. He asks people to quiet, to leave, and finally begins to drive them out, tipping tables and scattering supplies. It is too much! No one notices God’s presence! No one pauses to say thank you.
Now he has certainly done it! The authorities would be on alert!
Exhausted, he returns to Bethany. He is quiet. What has he done? What will this pilgrimage be like? The ritual meal is only a couple of days away. What now?
These are the preparation days. Jesus spends his time debating with the authorities. His bold actions in the Temple had definitely gotten their attention! But had it opened their hearts? Did they realize that they didn’t need all that stuff? They could come to God with open hearts, and that would be enough? The conversations become more and more tense as the days go by.
Finally Jesus asks the disciples to go and prepare a room for them to eat the Passover meal together. This ultimate celebration. The story of God’s rescuing love for the people of God’s heart. Would they remember that this was like a wedding service? A holy meal in which once more God and the people give themselves to each other?
The meal is ready when Jesus comes in, full of these questions. They are all busy with the final touches, or chatting in excitement about the latest news from the city. The time has come for the kingdom of Rome to give way to the Kingdom of God. They were sure of it!
Jesus is almost unnoticed as his fellow pilgrims dream of the day of victory. No one washes the feet. This most basic act of welcome and kindness. Overlooked.
So Jesus gets a basin of water and a towel and begins to wash their feet. As he takes each dirty foot in his hand, he pours water and love together over them. He touches them gently. Rubs the sore and tender places common to pilgrim people. Touches the walkers’ calluses. He thinks of their journey together. He bathes them with love.
As I have done for you, do for each other. Love each other as I have loved you. It is the smallest act of service which can hold the most love. It is really quite simple. No more debating the fine points, making rules to protect rules. Just the one rule matters. Love each other, as I have loved you. Something he has not seen all these days in Jerusalem. The center of God’s heart of love. It seems like they have wrapped so many ropes around it, tightened them down, trying to keep the heart of God captive. Nothing is required, but love. When will they reach the insight of their pilgrimage? When will they see?
The journey is not over. He came to Jerusalem, but the he did not find the heart of God there. When would they see? The heart of God goes with us, on every journey, at every simple meal. In a sense, we arrive at the pilgrim’s goal each time we gather around this table and meet Jesus again, to be fed, nourished, loved.
They eat the meal together. We join Jesus in this moment. Jesus breaks bread….
(We continue, celebrating the Lord’s Supper together as God’s pilgrim people in this time of journeying from one era to another, filled with the presence of Jesus.)