Sunday, July 08, 2012

Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage (J. Barry Vaughn, July 8, 2012)

When April with his showers, sweet with fruit,

The drought of March has pierced unto the root

And bathed each vein with liquor that has power

To generate therein and sire the flower…

Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,

And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,

To distant shrines well-known in sundry lands

And specially from every shire’s end.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is about a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury to visit one of the most visited of medieval shrines – the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket of Canterbury, an archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered by knights of King Henry II in the 12th c in a dispute over the relative powers of church and state. Sounds positively modern!!

Chaucer was a shrewd observer of human nature and understood that not all of his pilgrims were there for spiritual reasons. Some were going to make money; some just to have a good time; some of them were just on vacation!

But Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales speak to something that I think is fundamental to human nature – the belief that some places are holy, that we are closer to God in some places rather than others.

Some of us experience the presence of God in places of extraordinary natural beauty, such as the Grand Canyon or the Smoky Mountains or near the ocean. Some of us feel God to be near when we are in great and ancient cathedrals.

For some it is as simple as a place where we went fishing as a child or where we met the love of our life.

Many are overcome by awe when they visit places such as the Civil War battle field of Manasses or Gettysburg or even the beaches of Normandy. We are overwhelmed when we think that so many were willing to give their lives in defense of their country and to secure the freedom of people in countries which they had never even seen and whose languages they could not speak.

Sometimes these holy places make us feel as Paul did that we were “caught up to the third heaven-- whether in the body or out of the body I do not know….” That we were “caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat…”

Some say that there are “thin places”, places where the barrier between heaven and earth, the divine and human, is very, very thin, places like the one where Jacob saw the ladder joining heaven and earth on which angels walked up and down.

They say that India is the world’s most religious country, and I suspect that is true. It is certainly full of holy places. The Indian tradition is to remove one’s shoes when one enters a holy place, and we were constantly taking our shoes off and putting them back on.

If any place in the world is holy, then surely it is the city of Jerusalem. Medieval maps place Jerusalem in the center of the world, a geographical fallacy but a spiritual truth because any place we encounter God becomes the center of the world for us.

Today’s OT reading gives us some insight into the history of Jerusalem but is a little confusing. It tells us that David occupies a place called “the city of David” but also seizes the city of Jerusalem from the Jebusites and that he rules over the united kingdom of Israel for 33 years.

It may be that the “city of David” and Jerusalem were geographically very close but not quite the same place. Today the Palestinian village of Silwan is identified as the “City of David.” It is located just below the Temple platform on the lower slope of Mt Zion.

Perhaps David and his people occupied the city of David before launching their attack to seize Jerusalem proper on the slope above their encampment.

Regardless, the reading from 2 Samuel tells us that Jerusalem is an ancient place.

It was a Jebusite city before it was an Israelite city. Undoubtedly, it was selected because it is easy to defend. The ancient city of Jerusalem is located on Mt Zion. There are deep  valleys on its east and west that converge at the south end of the city. In other words, Jerusalem is located on a relatively high hill shaped like the point of a spear. The only place from which it can easily be attacked is on the north, and that is the place where Jerusalem has been attacked many times throughout the centuries.

However, there may be more to Jerusalem than just its military significance. David made it not only his political capital; he also made it Israel’s religious capital. In next week’s OT reading we will hear how David moved the ark of the covenant, the ornate box containing the tables of the law that Mose received from God, to Jerusalem.

It could be that Jerusalem was already a holy place, that it was also a center of the Jebusite religion.

Regardless, these stories tell us that for 3000 years people have worshiped God in Jerusalem. It is not difficult to understand that when you visit Jerusalem.

First, it is a physically beautiful setting. The high hills and deep valleys around Jerusalem lift the spirit.

Second, Jerusalem is built from something called Jerusalem stone, a kind of limestone that reflects light in a soft and beautiful way, especially in the evening. At communion we will sing “Jerusalem the Golden” by the medieval mystic, Bernard of Clairvaux. Israelis also sing a folk song called “Jerusalem the Golden”. We sing these songs because Jerusalem often has a kind of golden glow.

All of these things have pulled spiritual people to Jerusalem over the centuries. But this has also made Jerusalem a place of conflict.

It is a city holy to three faiths – Jews, Christians, and Muslims. And no one knows how to fight like religious people.

David seized it from the Jebusites in the 11th c BC. The Seleucid Greeks occupied it in the 4th c BC. The Romans destroyed it in the 2nd c AD. They left not one of its ancient buildings standing and rebuilt it as a Roman city that they called Aelia Capitolina. They even put a temple to Venus where the Temple of Herod had stood. Then the Muslims seized it in the 7th c.

Perhaps the most violent group that conquered Jerusalem were the Christians. In the 12th c Christians calling themselves Crusaders which means knights or soldiers of the Cross conquered Jerusalem after a siege of 100 days. Many residents of Jerusalem died of hunger and thirst during the siege. But the Crusaders put the remaining people of Jerusalem to death by the sword, not distinguishing between Jews, Muslims, and Eastern Orthodox Christians. One chronicler says that the blood in the streets flowed as high as a horse’s chest. Apparently it was a Crusader who coined the phrase, “Kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out.”

I could go on about the history of Jerusalem but the point is that it has always been a city of conflict and continues to be one.

But the point I want to make is this: Are there holy places? Are some places thin? Are we closer to God in some places than others?

In the 4th chapter of John Jesus encounters a woman of Samaria at Jacob’s well. She tries to distract him by engaging him in a conversation about where the appropriate place to worship God is. She says that her people, the Samaritans, worship God in Samaria but the Jews say that one should worship God in the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus says, “…the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." 

In other words, God is everywhere. There is no place where God is not, no place where we may not be surprised to find God present with us.

I visited Jerusalem for the first time in 1985. I expected to be powerful moved by the holy places but I did not have any epiphanies or visions and I felt a little disappointed. Nevertheless, I fell in love with Jerusalem. What attracted me to it was its antiquity and history, with the many cultures, languages and peoples that swirled through its streets. But I did not feel the presence of God more strongly there than in other places.

After I got over my initial disappointment, I found the realization strangely comforting because I realized that God is present everywhere and that God is no more present in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre than God is present here in St. Alban’s.

The English theologian Esther deWaal wrote a book about the Rule of St. Benedict, the fundamental set of rules that guides western monasticism. One of the rules is the rule of stability. Monks are supposed to commit themselves to one community for the rest of their lives.

DeWaal illustrated the rule by talking about people who go around seeking the perfect church and are never satisfied. She says that the rule of stability means that if I don’t find God here in this place and among these people, then I am unlikely to find God anywhere.

We all have holy places and that’s a good thing. We need to visit them from time to time and to remember the way that we experienced God there. But we should also remember that Birmingham may be just as holy as Jerusalem, that God is here and everywhere and that if the light is just right and we tilt our heads at just the right angle, we may see angels ascending and descending on that ladder that reaches from earth to heaven and back again.