It is good to see you all again. But I’m still abuzz. You know, it takes a while after you go away on an experience like this to have it all kind of come down. For those of you who maybe came in late, or didn’t hear the announcements, I and 31 others just took a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine. And it’s going to be some time, I know, before those manifold feelings and images sort themselves out in me for the full transformation to take place.
This is Transfiguration Sunday, and I want to tell you in some part about my journey up the hillside and my transfiguration.
You know, walking along the paths that Jesus walked upon will change you.
Stepping where other pilgrims have stepped for 2,000 years has its transfiguring effect. Standing upon the holy ground where Muslim and Jew and Christian have stood upon all these years has its way with you. You can’t look at the world the same way again.
It changes not only how you read scripture and you think about Jesus, but I know there’s something internal going on in me. And I know my vision has different corrections. You know, when you put a new pair of glasses on and you see differently, or you see for the first time. It’s not blurry anymore. That’s kind of what I feel. It’s amazing what you see, and what you smell, and what you sense on the pilgrim road.
One thing that I saw were Nigerians in stocking caps and winter coats as we were stripping off layers of Cleveland in the warmth. It was 65 degrees! And sunny!
Ten thousand Nigerians visit the Holy Lands each year, paid for by their government, in February and March.
On the sea of Galilee, we could hear them singing – their boat was halfway across the lake and we were still grounded – and we could hear them singing praise songs from the boat, their hands raised in praise.
And as they landed upon the dock, and we awaited our passage, we were taking pictures of them and they were all taking pictures of us – the “more frozen chosen” – as we stood in befuddled awe, each fascinated with the other.
It’s amazing who you bump into when you’re on the road.
At the Jordan river – Nigerians. At the church of Peter’s denial – Nigerians.
“Shalom”, “God bless you”, “Go Obama!”, they would say. We heard this again and again. And you know me – you know where I lean – but I wasn’t saying anything! This is what they were saying, what they were celebrating.
The Orthodox Jews with their shaved heads and long side burns, and their black hats and prayer shawls, small boxes on their foreheads and on their left forearms containing the shema of Deuteronomy 6 – “Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might…bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead…” swaying in front of the Western Wall – the retaining wall of the Second Temple, which just happens to be the foundation upon which the Dome of the Rock sits, the Muslim holy site.
And listening to the Jewish women and Jewish mothers protecting their sons going through Bar Mitzvahs with a “lalalalalalalalala.
The haunting sounds of the call to prayer from the mosques in East Jerusalem, and upon the hillside just over the valley of Silwan and the hills of the Mount of Olives.
The young Jewish woman, maybe twenty years old, with a semi-automatic swung over her shoulder, the hired protection for a group of American teenage Jews visiting the holy lands. Or that young Israeli guard, probably not yet twenty, his weapon across his lap, his two thumbs texting – probably his girlfriend – the universal language.
And then of course just last week, the service of worship at the Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, and the wall of separation between the West Bank and Israel – that imposing horror that divides an already divided land. The young Israeli soldier boarding our bus and hassling Katherine Eloff. He met his match.
Such injustice. Such fear. Such poverty, such mistrust in the land of Abraham from whom Jews and Muslims and Christians share a common ancestry. Staggering.
Walking along the Via Dolorosa – twice, once with the group and once alone – the street upon which Jesus walked that final morning of his life from the Antonia tower to Golgotha in the church of the Holy Seplecher, where the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox Christians from the east guard their turf with benign suspicion – and sometimes not so benign.
Seeing two young Israeli women, in their military uniforms, taking pictures of each other thumbs up, sitting on the slab in the tomb of Jesus.
So many images, so many images.
But you know, my friends, the tension that I am really wrestling with right now, not quite a week after returning is, “So what?”
So what now?
And for all of you who didn’t choose to go, or couldn’t afford to go, or didn’t want to go – what does this mean for you?
For fundamentally, I believe that you don’t have to go away to be on a pilgrimage. I mean, all life is a pilgrimage. Every step you take is upon holy ground. Your journey may not be as exotic, and your road may be rutted by the humdrum of the everyday.
But the important question is not where you go, but how are you traveling?
And are you paying attention to the road that you’re are on? Because nothing holier is going to happen than what happens upon your own path.
It reminds me of that story from Franny and Zooey, where I think Franny is lying on a couch all depressed and Zooey comes and tries to kind of talk her out of her funk, and the housekeeper comes and brings a bowl of chicken soup. And Franny says, “No, I’m not hungry, I just don’t want to eat.”
And her brother says, “Look, Franny, how are you ever going to have a holy experience if you can’t recognize a cup of consecrated chicken soup when it is right under your nose?”
So that’s the question for us today. Do we miss the holy around us, thinking that we have to travel to someplace exotic to find it? Because it’s not chasing the holy…it’s the realization that the holy is chasing you.
So how are you traveling? Are you paying attention to the steps you are taking?
Before we left on this pilgrimage, Clover put together this really wonderful little guide, with scripture passages, evocative questions to ponder, and liturgies to follow. She added, on page three, a list that was first written by Rabbi L. Hoffman called: “A Pilgrim’s Way to Experience the Holy Sites.” They meant a lot to me and I want to share them with you because I think they have application for our lives, daily.
He said the first was to anticipate: the night before, anticipate what you will see the next day.
The second was to approach: remember to approach the site with a “muster of expectation” that you are going to have a powerful experience.
The third was to acknowledge: when you arrive at the site, acknowledge the sacred – you are on holy ground, so take that spiritual moment seriously.
And the fourth “A” word he used – which isn’t a verb and that bugs me – it’s a noun, was afterthoughts. And what he meant was to appreciate the moment, to record and reflect upon your thoughts and feelings.
So, anticipate, approach, acknowledge and appreciate. Those four words are really helpful for me and, I think, can be a guide for you who are everyday pilgrims.
Because, what if, each morning you put your feet on the floor, you’ve set your heart and your mind and your soul to anticipate that you might actually see something holy in your day?
What if you approached each moment – mustering expectation that something powerful might happen – at the sink, or at the changing table, or in your cubicle, or at your desk, or in your relationship,or at your meal? What if you acknowledged that you are walking upon holy ground and that each sight and sound and smell can be filled with the radiance of God? What if you ended your day in that appreciative afterthought, just reviewing and reflecting?
See, you don’t need to go to Israel. You can do that on Euclid and 55th . . . or Shaker and Warrensville. You can do that on Coventry, or on S.O.M. Center Road, for Pete’s sake.
You see, as Moses reminded the people a long time ago, God is not far away, God is not across the seas, so far that you need someone to bring it to you – but God is very close, as close as breath, as close as your next step.
And you don’t need to go very far to see a stranger. Just go to South Taylor and you can see ultra-Orthodox Jews. And sometimes, there is no greater stranger than your spouse, or your child. Sometimes I look in the mirror and I wonder, “Who is that looking back at me?”
And you don’t need to go to Bethlehem to see poverty or injustice. You don’t need to go to Bethlehem to ponder the dynamics of power: who has it and who doesn’t.
We may not build walls of division – but we do build highways, so that those who can escape concentrated poverty, can do so. And those who can’t, well, they might as well be encircled by a twenty-five-foot high wall.
We may not construct fences with barbed wire around settlements – but we do build gated communities that divide the wealthy from the not.
We may not check official papers – but we do look and we do judge by the color of skin and accent and dress.
You see, we don’t need to go to Bethlehem to see people out of work, and whole generations of children being schooled in the streets, shaped by violence, and molded by despair.
So as we journey along beside the shores, not of Galilee but of Lake Erie, how are we going to witness to God’s love and God’s power not only to the children of Bethlehem but of Northeast Ohio? How are we going to plant these olive trees of hope in Northeast Ohio? How are we going to recreate life and bring it back to the center of our town, in Northeast Ohio? That’s what a pilgrimage will do to you.
You don’t have to fly 12 hours to walk upon the Via Dolorosa. You don’t need to go to Jerusalem. Because I know many of you are walking along that passion path, carrying crosses that are crushing you. And I know that there are anniversaries of sadness, and present prognoses of sickness that sometimes makes you weak, like you just want to drop it all, along the way. I know that there are some who right now feel they are climbing that hill of Golgotha, and they’re very lonely, because everybody is gone.
You see, you don’t need to go to Jerusalem.
And you don’t need to leave the space you are in to say “thank you,” either. You don’t need to go to Nazareth or Capernaum to be lifted up in joy and wonder at good food and fellowship, to witness to the goodness of God and the power of God and the radicalness of God.
Yes, sometimes getting away is just what you need, but often, my friends, the holier path is the path you are on right now, so just pay attention. Just pay attention.
Today in our scripture – I guess it’s about time I got to the Word – we read about Jesus taking three disciples, sort of dragging Peter, James and John, on the road up to Mt. Tabor, or was it Mt. Hermon, or was it Mt. Meiron – location is of no matter. Upon the mount the disciples saw Jesus in a new way. They heard a voice proclaim that Jesus was God’s beloved Son. What Jesus had heard at his own baptism, now the disciples heard.
But what got me going this week wasn’t building the three booths or trying to uncover, exegesis, what the story meant – the important point to me is not how Jesus was changed, becuase he is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Right? But how were the disciples changed? How am I changed – along the road – being kind of dragged by Jesus? How are you transformed and transfigured upon the road, upon whatever mountain you have to climb up?
I mean, where is Jesus dragging you? Saying, “Come see!” Is it a mountain top, a valley of the shadow of death, some Judean wilderness, or some oasis of delight with a camel you can ride on for five shekels?
You see, after a while, Jesus and those disciples had to come off the mountain, and get on the road again, and walk the valley towards Jerusalem. And of course, that’s the invitation for you and for me this day, as we enter into this week of Shrove Tuesday and the beginning of Lent.
You know, I and the 31 others have to come down off the high and get back on the road again of the daily walk. But with our eyes changed. And with a little bit, I hope, a little bit of dazzle.
So, as we enter the season of Lent, pay attention to your path and to yourself. Appreciate that. . . appreciate that. And as you walk upon your path – the road most traveled – God bless you . . . God bless you.
Appreciate your own pilgrimage and keep your eyes open and your hands un-clenched – anticipating the sights along your path – because they’re holy.
Get ready . . . to walk through this door and get on the road again.
For Jesus will meet you . . . on the pilgrim’s way.