Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
This one line of scripture sums up Jesus’ past, present, and future, and resonates with generations. Parts of it are also not true. You and I both know that it is possible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem, and so does Jesus.
In scripture and in our present reality, Jerusalem is a place of celebration, of hope, of ritual, and a place of tension, of violence, and death. Whenever I hear the word “Jerusalem” I think of the hymn, “Jerusalem, my happy home.”
Jerusalem, my happy home, when shall I come to thee?
When shall my sorrows have an end? Thy joys when shall I see?
This is not the way Jesus talks about Jerusalem, however. He’s not going there to find joy, but to face death. Another way to look at this is that he’s been stirring up trouble with his gospel of inclusion and subversion, and now he knows that now it’s time to pay the piper.
I was taught that the most important verse of all of Luke’s gospel is chapter 9, verse 51. It happens right after Jesus and his disciples come down from the mountain-top. There Luke describes Jesus as having set his face to Jerusalem. The Greek verb which we translate as “set his face” is a unique verb which expresses absolute determination. Think about a time when you watched a family member or friend act with total focus and commitment to a particular goal, as if there were a beam of light between that person and their goal. Today’s words from scripture express that same determination: Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem and there’s no turning back, regardless of the perceived threats.
In the time when Jesus lived, the temple in Jerusalem was the holy site in Israel, the place where the people of God gathered to offer worship. Because it was several days’ travel from many parts of the country, the trip to Jerusalem was usually a major pilgrimage, made at least once a year by individuals, households, and whole villages. Many of the psalms emerged from pilgrimages to Jerusalem, sung along the way as expressions of the spiritual journey to the temple.
Jesus is on a pilgrimage of his own. His journey to Jerusalem is the journey on which we base our journey with him to the cross.
Have you ever made a pilgrimage? Writer Nora Gallagher talks about the difference between being tourists and being pilgrims, and I would like to invite you all to think of yourselves as pilgrims traveling through Lent, rather than tourists waiting for Easter.
The first documented Christian pilgrimages began in the fourth century, when emperor Constantine traveled to Jerusalem with his mother, Helena, wanting to walk where Jesus walked. Later in the fourth century, a remarkable woman named Egeria traveled to the Holy Land and kept a diary, fragments of which were later published. She documented her eye-witness experiences of the liturgies of Holy Week as they were enacted in Jerusalem almost four hundred years after the events we read about in today’s gospel. Much of the ritual we practice during Holy Week is based on her account.
Throughout the middle ages, other holy sites developed all over Europe for people who could not travel to Jerusalem for many of the reasons we don’t travel to Jersusalem today: it was expensive and at times unsafe.
The labyrinth evolved as a kind of pilgrimage site, a way to be on pilgrimage without going anywhere at all. Similarly, the stations of the cross, which originated in Jerusalem in earliest Christianity and which Egeria wrote about, began in the middle ages to be reproduced in churches all over the world, and are themselves a kind of pilgrimage. We’ve got stations represented in the stone plaques around the church.
Here at St. David’s four weeks from now on Palm Sunday we will enact Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and all the events anticipated in today’s gospel. Then in the days following, we will have an opportunity to walk the Stations of the Cross with Kenneth Leech, who will lead us in mediations as we travel that particular pilgrimage. And then in the final days of Holy Week, Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, culminating in the Great Vigil of Easter, we make the same journey that the earliest Christians made to mark the last days of Jesus’ earthly life, his death, and his glorious resurrection.
How do we know if we are pilgrims or tourists along the journey? Well, according to the popular religious writer Diana Butler Bass, one of the things that distinguishes pilgrims from tourists is our practices. In ancient times, the people of Israel sang psalms as they went on pilgrimage. The early Christians fasted and prayed on their pilgrimages. They gave alms to the poor along the way. Spiritual practices are not just about what I keep calling our Lenten journey, but can and should be part of our whole life’s journey. By spiritual practices I mean those habits of prayer and disciplines of heart that help us make our way in the world with the mind of Christ, that self-emptying that allows God to work in us and through us for the building up of the Kingdom. If you want to know more about the mind of Christ, go home this afternoon and read Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
Our Wednesday evening conversation about Christian virtues is a wonderful way to explore and deepen our own practices of heart and mind. Participating in the life of this community through weekly Eucharist, centering prayer, compline, or service are also spiritual practices. Singing in the choir can is spiritual practice. Being fully present for one’s own life, mindful of one’s place in the world, is a spiritual practice.
In the letter to the Philippians, Paul writes: “but our citizenship is in heaven.” He wrote this to the Christian community at Philippi who were proud of their Roman citizenship, to remind them where and to whom they truly belonged. We do well to hear this message ourselves. When Jesus talked about heaven, or about eternal life, as he does throughout the gospels, he was speaking not about a place above the clouds that we don’t get to discover until we die, but about the rule of God that is brought about through God’s love and our response, through our living into the mind of Christ.
There’s a song that singer Joan Osborne made popular in 1996 that seems to be my Lenten refrain this year:
What if God was one of us?
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home
Back up to heaven all alone
When I think of Jesus making his way to Jerusalem, I think of him making his way home, making his way to Good Friday and to Easter when God will turn the world upside down. Let us join him as pilgrims to Jerusalem. Let us join him on the way home.