Well, it finally feels like summer has settled in here in Suffolk. Hot weather, combined with school being out, gets one to thinking about… a vacation! And vacationing means hitting the road, which makes today’s Gospel reading perfectly timed. It launches us into a new section of Luke’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry. Biblical scholars refer to chapters 9-19 as the “Travel Narrative” of the book. Fully one third of what Luke writes about Jesus covers the time from when he sets out for Jerusalem to the day of Palm Sunday when he enters the holy city riding a donkey.
Luke describes the beginning of this journey in a telling way: “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” The days drew near refers to Luke’s sense that Jesus had to go to Jerusalem because it was his destiny, his mission, his time. Perhaps to be taken up refers in part to the elevation change of going to Jerusalem, which is located on one of the highest points in Israel. It certainly refers to being lifted up on a cross to be crucified. It may also refer to his eventual Ascension into glory at the right hand of the Father, an event Luke describes in the Book of Acts (the second part his writing project).
The most telling part of the verse is Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. It harkens back to a passage from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:
I offered my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face
from mocking and spitting.
Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,
I will not be disgraced.
Therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know I will not be put to shame. (50:6-7)
Luke gives us an image of Jesus setting out toward Jerusalem with a kind of grim determination – a resolve which will not yield to any distraction. Like a father driving the family car who refuses to stop for a bathroom break, at the outset Jesus approaches his journey more like a march than a pilgrimage. He allows no time to say goodbye to family, no time to attend to burial arrangements, and no time to call down wrath on those who are rude to him. To one person who wants to join him Jesus warns there will be no comfy provisions and no cushy accommodations (think again of the parent who warns, “We are not going to stop for anything until we get to where we are going!”). One scholar notes to set your face life flint “implies that you’re expecting some opposition” and it means you “regard these difficulties as worthwhile when you consider what they will lead you to.”
The American mountaineer Jon Krakauer writes this about scaling the world’s highest peak:
Let’s not mince words: Everest doesn’t attract a whole lot of well-balanced folks. The self-selection process tends to weed out the cautious and the sensible in favor of those who are single-minded and incredibly driven.
Without a maniacal focus reaching the summit would not be possible. Some journeys simply require a person to forsake all else in order to reach the desired goal.
All of this got me to thinking about so many people on our parish prayer list who are mounting an assault on one type of challenging crisis or another. What they face makes climbing a mountain seem as easy as strolling down a shaded country lane. Like Jesus setting out for Jerusalem, the path these folk are on is not one they choose. It is put on them and if they are going to get to a place of health again they will have to set their faces like flint for the journey.
Given how Jesus begins his travels anything transpiring along the way is both unexpected and notable. During the time he has set his face like flint to go to Jerusalem, many things in fact do happen. Jesus…
…trains others how to minister as he does.
…instructs those who ask questions about such things as moral responsibility, wealth, relationships, humility, forgiveness, care for the poor, perseverance, self-righteousness, and eternal life.
…gathers in the homes of friends.
…teaches his followers how to pray.
…heals people suffering from chronic, debilitating, and often stigmatizing illnesses.
…is joined by scores of new followers who accompany him on the way.
…and responds to challenges posed by religious authorities.
In short, Jesus learns how to transform his march into a pilgrimage. In a march, all that matters is to get to where you are going as soon as possible. A pilgrimage, on the other hand, is a journey to a holy destination, but it is what happens along the way that changes you.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:
Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart. Audacious longing, burning songs, daring thoughts, an impulse overwhelming the heart, usurping the mind – these are all a drive towards serving the God who rings our hearts like a bell. It is as if God was waiting to enter our empty, perishing lives.
This is a discovery we find not only during our difficult trials. It is a something we can experience every day if we approach all of life as if it is filled with holy possibilities.
Perhaps the answer lies in learning how to saunter. Now, in our day we think of sauntering as a leisurely, aimless stroll, but this is not accurate to its origins. In the Middles Ages, when people on pilgrimage to Jerusalem passed through a village on the way and were asked where they were going, they answered “a la sainte terre”, “to the Holy Land.” Thus they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers.
Jesus may have set out for Jerusalem with his face set. He was determined, yes, but also grim and maniacal. But along the way – as we will see in our readings throughout this season of Pentecost – he learned to saunter. He opened himself to those around him as well as to every possibility and opportunity that presented itself. Jesus learned to find holiness on the way to the Holy City.
This is my prayer for you: that you learn to saunter even and especially when your face is set to that place you must go; even and especially when you have nowhere you have to go, or if you have nowhere at all to go. May you always be open to the holy moment in which you live and move and have your being.