Harrowing Of Hell
March 2, 2016

Evening Prayer: Pilgrimage as Spiritual Discipline

Preacher: Diana Bender

So, I have a little tiny problem with control. I kind of want to be in control at all times and in all ways. Let’s face it, I really chafe at any rules. So I find passages like today, all about the law—learn the law, teach it to your kids, obey the law or you’ll be in trouble—kind of irritating.

But as I’ve been seeking a deeper relationship with God; a deeper understanding of the sacred and a life more integrated and aligned with my deepest values, I do find the spiritual disciplines very helpful. These disciplines do spring from the laws (and are all about giving up control!) and have really made a difference for me in living an authentic life, and in drawing me closer to God—as I so long for.

Here at Epiphany we’re familiar with the spiritual disciplines, such as:

  • giving up control over our money: tithing
  • giving up control over our body: fasting,
  • giving up control over our time: fixed hour prayer

And of course pilgrimage! And pilgrimage to the place we Christians call the Holy Land is like going for the holy grail. I returned from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem two weeks ago today. I had done some pilgrimages before, but never to Jerusalem. So, now I have a confession to make. In my deepest heart of hearts, I was more than a little skeptical, though I would never have said this out loud before I went!

Why should I travel to the other side of the globe to find God, when God is right here, right now, if only open myself to God? Why do I need to go so far away? I’ve done pilgrimages in the US and they were very meaningful. What is so special about going to Jerusalem, which seems, in the present day, so far from Jesus’ vision of peace and love? But I’m committed to the spiritual disciplines and I really want to lead a pilgrimage to Taizé in 2018. Doyt has said very clearly no one can lead a pilgrimage from Epiphany unless they have been to the Holy Land. So, I rolled my eyes a bit and thought, “Well, I have been frustrated by the Beatitudes passages where sometimes it refers to being on a mountain and sometimes on a plain, and if I saw it, maybe I could understand that better.” But I was skeptical. Would it be impactful? Would it be worth it?

In one word: YES. It was an utterly transformational experience and one that I’m still processing. I feel different, but I’m still thinking through how it has really changed me?

I first had an inkling that it was going to be a much bigger deal for me than I ever dreamed possible when I was looking out the window of the plane as we were landing in Tel Aviv. It was sunny with great visibility, and when I saw the hills of Nazareth off in the distance, tears came to my eyes. I realized that being where Jesus had been physically had an emotional impact. It turned out to be very moving to be there in person. I think this is because Jesus is important to me, and somehow sharing that physical space, across the centuries of course, hit me on a deep level that I did not expect. It has already been true for me, that even though it all happened two thousand years ago or longer, seeing the places has already made the gospels especially more vital to me. Somehow they feel more vibrant, and in case you are wondering, the “mountain and plains thing” of the beatitudes, look at the picture below. I was standing on mountain and looking down to the plains so my mystery was solved.

mountains plains

Today’s gospel reading is a part of the Sermon on the Mount. It immediately follows the Beatitudes and sets the stage for Jesus’ rich and inspired interpretation of the Law that continues for many pages. Jesus says he’s fulfilling the law, not abolishing it, and then he says regarding the Law and commandments “Whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” There’s a very interesting little word in there: “Whoever DOES them.” Such a thought-provoking choice: not whoever obeys the law, or follows the law, but whoever DOES the law (like inside yourself). In Greek an alternative translation to the word used in this passage “DO” is “to make or produce, to bear, like a sprout shooting forth.” So the point is, if we actually DO all this stuff, we will make or produce or bear something, and I think that something is the Kingdom of God here on earth.

So, in following the Law, making my pilgrimage to Jerusalem despite my skepticism and chafing at the rules, God surprised me again as God always does. Whenever I start to think I know better, practicing the spiritual disciplines pulls me back, whether it’s praying Hour by Hour, worshipping every Sunday or going on pilgrimage. Together the spiritual disciplines reorient me to a deeper reality. They open me up to grace and to the action of the Holy Spirit in a way that is often powerful and helpful, and sometimes (like with the pilgrimage) even transformational. So if you’re wondering or pondering, if you too in your deepest heart of hearts are unsure about pilgrimage to the Holy Land or any of the spiritual disciplines, I have one word for you: GO.

Or, perhaps Jesus’ word is even better: DO!