Pilgrim Path to the Kingdom
Sometimes, you have to leave home to find home.
That’s so much a part of our human experience that it sounds obvious — which doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Whether you’re a college freshman about to embark on your first year away; whether you’ve had to pull up stakes to move where the military summoned you; or summoned the courage to leave an unhealthy relationship or job, you know this truth: Sometimes, you have to leave home to find home.
This happens on pilgrimage, too, like the one I made last month to the Isle of Iona in Scotland. And today’s lessons give us a rich company of pilgrims with whom to journey toward home. In the letter to the Hebrews, we have the story of Abraham and Sarah, who left home “not knowing where they were going.” We have the community to whom the letter was addressed – a community of Christians (some Hebrew, some not) who were losing heart on their earthly journey and “desired a better country.” We have the writer of Hebrews (name unknown) who served as their guide. And we have, of course, Jesus, who speaks today’s gospel words as he journeys on The Way toward Jerusalem and all that awaits him there.
Both the writer of Hebrews and Jesus seek to encourage their fellow pilgrims, and how do they do that? By telling stories.
So let me tell you a story:
In the year 563, a young Irishman named Columba left home. It wasn’t the first time he had left home, for he had bid farewell to his family years before and become a monk, devoting his life to working on beautiful, hand-illustrated copies of holy books. But this time, he was leaving not only his family, not only his monastery, but Ireland itself.
Columba had been involved in a battle, a battle over a book, in which many people were killed. He loved books, but he loved people more. When the fighting ended, he begged God’s forgiveness and vowed to leave Ireland and tell the world about God’s forgiveness. With 12 monks, Columba boarded a tiny coracle and “set out not knowing where he was going.” He landed on the island of Iona, where he started a monastery that even today — in a new, contemporary form — offers heart-home to thousands of pilgrims.
Columba’s biographer doesn’t tell these details. He says simply that the saint “sailed away … choosing to be a pilgrim for Christ.”
* * *
It must have been by faith that Columba boarded his boat and left home. And by “faith,” I mean “trust.” Not something in the head, to be believed, but something in the heart, to be beloved. Columba trusted that God would lead him to the place God wanted him to be.
It’s that kind of faith, that trust, that the writer of Hebrews taps when he tells the familiar story of Abraham and Sarah. The writer is counting on his listeners’ knowledge of this story, so he leaves out a lot of the details. But when I teach children in Godly Play, we move wooden figures through the sand in the desert box, recounting how Abram and Sarai left Ur and followed the Euphrates River to Haran; how once Abram came so close to God and God came so close to him that he knew what God wanted him to do; how Abram and Sarai left Haran and headed into the unknown, no river to follow this time; how they built altars along the way in places where they met God; how God promised to make them as many as the stars of the sky and the sands in the desert, and changed their names; and that surprising visit from three strangers that made Sarah laugh. We tell how, when the impossible had happened, Sarah and Abraham laughed again, and named their child Laughter (Isaac).
The first listeners to Hebrews knew all this story, so they understood where Abraham and Sarah’s faith — their trust — came from. It came from experience. It came from knowing that whatever God had promised, God had done. The assurance of things hoped for comes from the remembrance of things provided. Faith is founded on the faithfulness of God.
So it’s a short step for the writer of Hebrews to claim the next promise, to reassure his struggling people of another home for them. They won’t always be “strangers and foreigners on the earth,” longing for a heavenly country.
* * *
“Fear not, little, flock. It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom!” Jesus offers the same message to his followers, and I think this one sentence sums up the whole of the gospel. (repeat)
But what IS this kingdom of God? In many parables, Jesus attempts to give us an answer we can understand. One thing I do NOT hear him say is that it’s a reward that must be earned. I do not hear him say that it’s some mystical realm separate from our earth. Rather, it’s the homely, earthy things that Jesus uses to paint his kingdom pictures. A seed, a bit of yeast, a lost sheep…a meal, served by a generous master.
The kingdom is not otherworldly, but has already begun. It is that heart-home on earth —an earth perfected by the generosity of God. It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom, because it is God’s nature to give. Made in God’s image, we are made to be givers.
When Jesus tells us to “sell your possessions, and give alms,” he’s not giving us a key that unlocks a gate guarded by a begrudging judge. He’s showing us our way home. Jesus invites us to let go of fear and accompany him on a pilgrimage.
The Celtic people know something of this pilgrimage. They call the Isle of Iona a “thin place,” where the veil between heaven and earth almost disappears. In my time there, I found it so. One morning, on a deserted beach that looks as if creation began there, the line of the horizon blurred and I found myself at home in the presence of God –“listening to the heartbeat of God.” Suddenly, I knew that everything in creation – EVEN ME — is sacred, everything is blessed.
There’s a vivid image of this reality — this glimpse into the kingdom — at the Abbey on Iona. On a simple rock ledge near the altar stands an ornate brass plate, leaning upright against the wall. The plate is polished to a fine sheen, so that all of its ornamentation shines bright. It’s clearly one of the Abbey’s treasures. Next to it, equally accepted, equally at home, sits … a plastic water bottle, with the label still on, holding a handful of bright yellow wildflowers and some spiky green weeds.
I got the sense that if the brass plate disappeared — it was, after all, unguarded in an open chapel — life on Iona would go on undisturbed. Seeds would grow, waves would lap against shores, Pilgrims would continue to come. The kingdom would continue to come.
It is that kingdom that Jesus assures us is our true home.
BY FAITH, may we pilgrims recognize it when it arrives. “Fear not, little flock; it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”