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Sermon: Pilgrimage of the Heart

Date: 20/10/2019/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

Psalm 84

How lovely is your dwelling place,
Lord Almighty!
2 My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God.
3 Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you.[c] 5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
6 As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.[d] 7 They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.
8 Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty;
listen to me, God of Jacob.
9 Look on our shield,[e] O God;
look with favor on your anointed one.
10 Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
the Lord bestows favor and honor;
no good thing does he withhold
from those whose walk is blameless.
12 Lord Almighty,
blessed is the one who trusts in you.
We started a new preaching series last Sunday called “Pilgrimage”. This beautiful psalm is often known as a “psalm of pilgrimage”. Every year, crowds would flock to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. They would journey from every part of Israel, and make this pilgrimage to the Holy City to worship at the Temple. The psalmist is probably writing about this experience.

As you can see from this psalm, pilgrimage is both an internal as well as an external experience. In preparing for this sermon series, I have been learning a lot about pilgrimage from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, an Anglican monastic order. They have lovely resources on their website and I must thank Miak for sharing about them with me. I mention them firstly, to credit them for some our sermon material for this whole series. And secondly, I wanted to share this resource with you because I think it might be helpful to you too.

The English word “pilgrim” comes from the Latin peregrinus, which means “foreigner.” As Christians we need to hear the word “pilgrim” – foreigner – in the light of Jesus, and in the language of Jesus.

As Christians, we are a pilgrim people.

Pilgrimage is woven into the very roots of our faith, beginning with Abraham, the first pilgrim. In Genesis 12, God calls Abram (whom God will later call Abraham) to leave his house and journey to a land unknown. “Leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house, and go on a journey to a foreign land.” So Abram becomes nomadic. He pitches a tent each night; the next morning, he takes up the tent pegs and moves on. I think that this “Abrahamic” spirit is fundamental to our Judeo-Christian tradition: we are pilgrim people, from the very start.

The story continues with the Exodus, which is essentially a forty-year pilgrimage. God’s people are enslaved in Egypt, abused by Pharaoh, and God raises up Moses to bring them out of Egypt. And Moses leads them on an epic journey across the desert, to the Promised Land.

This thread continues throughout the Gospels, as Jesus calls disciples to follow him away from their homes and all that they have known, on a journey into the unknown:

“He saw Simon and Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mk 1:16-18)

“He called the rich young man and said, ‘Sell everything that you have and follow me.’” (Mt 19:21)

“He saw a tax collector called Levi and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up, left everything, and followed him.” (Lk 5:27-28)

Jesus’ uncompromising command to leave everything – and indeed the longing to leave everything to follow Jesus – inspired many of the first monastics. If you have heard of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, they were people who left all their property and wealth behind, to live in communities of faith in the desert areas. This must be very hard for us who are living in our modern cities today to imagine. But I’m thankful I got to catch a glimpse of what their lives in these desert communities was like. It was one of the places we visited when our church group was on our own kind of pilgrimage to Israel in December last year.

While we were in Israel, we went to visit the Qumran Caves. Of course, this area is famous because this was where the Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered in 1946 by a Bedouin shepherd boy. The Dead Sea Scrolls are more than two thousand years old and contain fragments of every Old Testament book except Esther. What’s also interesting about the Qumran area is that this is where the Qumran sect lived during the Second Temple period. They are a Jewish community that took very seriously Jesus’ command to leave everything and follow him, and they lived a strict and separatist way of life.

While most of us are not called to such extreme acts of renunciation for the sake of following Jesus, yet Jesus’ command contains a deep truth for each of us: the first step in our pilgrimage will always be a movement away from, a renunciation of the familiar. Unless we let go of the familiar, the safe, the secure, unless we take the risk of becoming vulnerable, we cannot grow.

This is one of the main reasons why pilgrims set out for holy destinations: they are longing to take a journey of transformation. To do so, they literally leave behind the familiar and the known, and physically journey into a place and a future that only God can envision. The pilgrim’s physical journey can “jumpstart” the transformation through the radical act of leaving behind the world that is known. A pilgrimage of transformation requires first that we leave everything behind, and set out on a journey that will lead to new life.

Down through the centuries, people have gone on pilgrimage to purge their soul of debris, to “walk off” a past chapter of their life. For others it’s been to “walk into” a new chapter of their life, to say “yes” to God’s abundant gift of life in the present and to freely walk into the future that God has for us. It may be a mix of both. Pilgrimage is often about losing your old self and then finding yourself anew. There is some form of transformation within. That’s what truly marks a pilgrimage. It’s not whether you went somewhere physically or not.

In her book, Pilgrimage of the Heart, Sr. Benedicta Ward describes 4 possible stages along the spectrum of physical and spiritual pilgrimage.

Go on a pilgrimage with the feet but not with heart. Be a tourist

Go inwardly and also on the outward pilgrimage

Attempt nothing, go nowhere, stay shut within.

Stay physically and undertake the pilgrimage of the heart

1. It was possible to stay and to stay, in other words to be completely lazy and attempt nothing, go nowhere, stay shut within the walls of self, to ignore pilgrimage altogether.

2. It was possible to stay and yet to go, by undertaking the pilgrimage of the heart while remaining in one place, which was the fundamental monastic way.

3. It was possible to go inwardly by longing and desire in the heart and to confirm this by outward pilgrimage with the feet, to be a true pilgrim.

4. It was possible to go on pilgrimage with feet, but not with heart, as a tourist, a runaway, or a drop-out from responsibility, a curious inquirer, in which case there had been no real movement; the traveller had taken the shell of self with them and whatever its name it was not in essence a pilgrimage at all.

Whether or not each of us eventually chooses to embark on a physical pilgrimage at some point in our life, we are all of us called to set out, ever afresh, on the inner kind of pilgrimage, the pilgrimage of the heart. Like what the psalmist says, we are called to yearn for the presence of God as we follow Christ on a journey of growth and transformation.

Our Pilgrimage to Israel

My closest experience to taking a pilgrimage in both the external and internal sense would be my visit to Israel last year, together with FCC members and friends.

For me personally, it wasn’t so much visiting certain sites that have been claimed to be where Jesus was born or was crucified or was buried that was the most moving and transforming experience for me. It was more just being present in the land and taking in the entire experience with my whole being. Being there in the various locations was very interesting and informative, and it really helped me better understand the terrain, the surrounding environment and the distance between places behind the stories in the Bible. I could almost imagine what it was like for Jesus walking from town to town. Going to these places helped me visualize what Jerusalem, the Lake of Galilee and Gethsemane was like, and how Jesus would have looked upon these places and the people living in them with such love. We even held a baptism service at the Jordan River for some of our siblings, and that was a deeply moving experience for those getting baptized as well as for all of us who were present with them.

Interestingly, one of the most memorable and moving experiences for me was observing the light in Israel. I noticed it first while we were on the boat in the Sea of Galilee, worshipping together and just taking in the sights. As I saw the light streaming in through the clouds, I could almost imagine what it must have been like for the disciples to see Jesus walking out onto the water towards them, stilling the storm. And later, how they watched him ascending into heaven after his death and resurrection. It reminded me of Jesus’ promise that he is coming again and until then, he is with us to the end of the age. Seeing that light streaming in comforted and encouraged me, and I observed this same light in many of the places we visited.

You know, when we go to places like Israel, it is possible to think you’re a pilgrim when you’re simply a religious tourist! It’s very easy to hang around holy places, see the sights, take lots of photos, collect the post cards, buy souvenirs but close ourselves off to change and transformation.

So whether we have been on a physical pilgrimage or not, the true pilgrimage is the pilgrimage of our hearts. An encounter with God doesn’t have to happen at a place that is specified by others to be holy. In fact, the places in our lives where we encounter God is what makes it special and sacred. Sometimes it’s about us being present with God, making ourselves available and continually opening ourselves up to God. How has that been true of you in your life recently?

I understand if it has not been easy continually opening up yourself to God. I try to be present with God moment by moment but I often fail. It’s a struggle and I get distracted sometimes. Over this past week, reading and meditating on Psalm 84 led to some lessons and reflections for me and I’d like to share them with you. In this psalm, we see:

1. The passion of the pilgrim

2. The path of the pilgrim

3. The purpose of the pilgrim

1. The Passion of the Pilgrim

Can you sense the passion of the psalmist as they proclaim:

How lovely is your dwelling place,
Lord Almighty!
2 My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God.

Their souls yearn to be in the presence of God. Their hearts cry out for the living God. So passionate they are about being in God’s presence that they say:

Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere.

Can we say the same thing about ourselves? How passionate are you for the presence of God in your life? Or are you kinda half-hearted about God — what the Bible describes as “neither hot nor cold”? Passion is crucial because without passion, we live lukewarm and mediocre lives. God is calling us to be wholehearted and passionate. Are you passionate enough to leave the familiar, the safe, the secure, and set out on a journey towards the new life and transformation God has for us?

2. The Path of the Pilgrim

As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.

The Hebrew word baca is related to bakah, which means “to weep.” Baca refers to a type of “weeping” tree; that is, one that drips resin or gum-like tears. The psalmist uses the Valley of Baca symbolically to illustrate a difficult and sorrowful path in life. The path of the pilgrim is not always easy. In fact, it is almost guaranteed that we will experience heartaches, sorrow, pain, trials and weeping. The name of the valley indicates a dry, arid region since this is where these types of weeping trees tend to grow. As people traveled to Jerusalem to worship, they would pass through this weary, “weeping” place, but their journey was worth it in the end because:

They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.

I was reflecting on these verses and realized something very interesting. The psalmist says, “As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs.” How do you pass through a dry, arid valley of weeping and make it a place of springs? To me, this means that the people were involved in improving the situation of the valley just by passing through it. “As they pass through..they make it a place of springs” implies that with their presence as they walk through this valley of weeping and tears step by step, with determination and courage, they are able to make it a place of refreshment and hope. And it was not just by their own efforts because “God sends the autumn rains that also cover the dry valley with pools. Imagine a parched desert covered with pools of water…not just a few drops of water to satiate your thirst but pools of water! There is a sense of provision, abundance and overflowing even in this desert of weeping. If you feel like you’re walking through the desert of weeping and tears at this moment in your life, I want to encourage you to know that God will send the autumn rains and cover this desert of tears with pools of water. And as you take every step with determination and courage through this Valley of Baka, you WILL make it a place of refreshment and hope.

That is our path as pilgrims…we will walk through the valley of weeping and make it a place of refreshment and hope, if we continue to dwell in God’s presence…if we continue to find strength in the Lord…if our hearts are set on pilgrimage.

3. The Purpose of the Pilgrim

As pilgrims, we are not simply wanderers. This pilgrimage of ours is not just away from our old life, nor is it solely into the depths of our hearts. Our journey is actually toward something very specific. “We seek the city which is to come.” We are headed somewhere. We have a specific destination: our pilgrimage journey is toward God and shalom! Shalom is the wholeness and completeness that God is moving you and me, and all of creation toward.

The journey – whether it be the journey of Abraham or Moses, Jesus’ disciples or medieval pilgrims – has never been simply about traveling across physical space toward a holy site. Every outward journey of pilgrimage always has as its true goal an inner journey of transformation.

The essence of pilgrimage, then, is the journey within. Therefore the essential pilgrimage to undertake is not the one of the feet, but the one of the heart.

Every day Jesus calls us to embrace new life, and that means to let go, to leave behind what has become too comfortable, too familiar, too safe. It means each morning awakening to a new day and saying to God, “Where do you want to lead me today on the journey of life? What are you asking me to leave behind? How are you asking me to change?”

Jesus’ continuous call to grow and change can be scary at times. As human beings, change is hard and we naturally prefer the safe and familiar. But don’t be afraid because we are not called to do this alone.

“Jesus is the inspiration at the beginning, the companion along the way, and the fulfillment at the journey’s end, gone ahead to prepare a dwelling place for us forever. Jesus, the alpha, and the omega, and the way. For us followers of Jesus, life on earth is not incidental; life is sacramental: outward experiences of inward graces… every step of the way… our quest is to learn to pray our lives, to practice the presence of God, which is the way of the pilgrim. We are pilgrims in life.”

Brother Curtis Almquist, Life As A Pilgrimage

Not only is Jesus our companion on this journey, we also have one another in this community. So come alongside a brother or sister or sibling and let’s push on in this pilgrim life, this journey together.

May we all be pilgrims with a passion for God’s presence in our lives daily. May our passion for God be contagious, that people around us can’t help but catch the fire that burns within us.. May we be an encouragement to one another as we find our strength in God.

May we be pilgrims who know that while our path may take us through the valley of weeping and tears, we can walk on with courage and determination knowing that God will send the autumn rains and cover the parched desert with pools of water. And as we walk through the valley of tears dwelling in God’s presence and strength, we will make the valley of weeping into a place of refreshment and hope…maybe not right now. Maybe not tomorrow or next week, or even next year. But the autumn rains will come and we will have the resources we need to tide us through. And though it may not feel like it sometimes, in the midst of the ups and downs we are growing from strength to strength till we see God face to face.

May we be pilgrims who know and are actively involved in fulfilling our purpose. Even though there will be times when we are fearful and uncertain, may we have the courage to let go of what has become too comfortable, too familiar, too safe, and wake up to each new day, willing to walk towards a new life of growth and transformation, knowing that Jesus walks with us as we walk with one another. Even though we may stumble and fall, the Lord is our strength, our Sun and shield. Blessed is the one who trusts in God.