In Pursuit of the kin-dom

Matthew 4:12-17

Jesus Begins His Ministry in Galilee

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
    on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the gentiles—
16 the people who sat in darkness
    have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
    light has dawned.”

17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The purpose of a Pilgrimage to pursue holiness or experience the divine or enter the kin-dom of God in a special and intensive way.  Most pilgrimages involve visiting holy sites and some amount of suffering.  When people heard, I was going to Italy I got two responses.  One was to eat lots of gelato, see interesting things, stay in beautiful places. The other was usually some concern that I would be living like a nun and doing extreme penitence like wearing sack cloth, no shoes, and crawling up staircases on my knees to see relics.  

What I actually experienced was something in between.  I was in a group with 8 other women, 5 pastors and the others were deacons, or elders, or in some sort of church leadership role.  We did stay in convents.  They were much nicer than stone cells, but I wouldn’t say we were in hotel accommodations either.  Everywhere we stayed was adequate and comfortable, like staying in a camp that had upgraded some of their lodging to be a conference center.  None of the places we stayed were air-conditioned. All of them had curfews and quiet hours.  All the sisters we encountered were sweet to us.  We chose to stay in these places because we were on a pilgrimage, our payment directly supported the sisters, and it was more cost effective than hotels.  We did have wonderful meals, ate gelato nearly every day, and saw the sites.  But most of the reason we were there was to make a physical connection with our faith and the faith of the saints we had studied: St. Catherine, St. Francis, and St. Clare.  

St Francis and St. Clare gave up worldly possessions.  Both of them came from wealthy families so this move was shocking.  They understood that part of their calling to a holy life included living in poverty.  St. Francis did travel and completed pilgrimages with very little.  I got to see his uncomfortable sackcloth robe that had been patched up multiple times.  He relied on God to provide for his needs, which practically meant that other people who loved God (and Francis) took care of him.  St. Francis and St. Clare both established communities where other people could live a holy life in self-imposed poverty.  

St. Catherine lived in a different time period than St. Francis and St. Clare, but she also pursued holiness in ways that seem strange to us.  At one point she survived only on the Eucharist and no other food. She warned others not to follow her example, but it was too late to save herself.  Her written work is extensive and is still considered informative to the faithful today.  

We did not fast on our pilgrimage.  But we did choose to do some strenuous activities in the hopes of being closer to God.  

We visited the Cathedral in Florence, which is the third largest Cathedral in the world, (after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London) and we planned to tour the Duomo or Dome.    

Here are some Duomo facts from their website:

The Dome is an absolute masterpiece of art that enchants the world since its creation: it is the symbol of Florence, of the Renaissance and of humanism in general.

With its 45.5 meters of diameter and a total height of more than 116 meters, the dome is the largest masonry vault in the world and was built between 1420 and 1436 by Filippo Brunelleschi.

Brunelleschi’s major innovation was to build the Dome without a supporting structure. The Dome consists of two distinct domes: one internal, more than two meters thick, with a deeper angle than the other and consisting of large arches held together by ribs and made of bricks arranged in a “herringbone” pattern. The external dome is covered with terracotta tiles and marked by eight white marble ribs.

More than one hundred years later – between 1572 and 1579 – the internal vault of the Dome was painted by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari with an enormous Last Judgment, partly inspired by the mosaics of the Baptistery: the largest mural in the world.

The tour of the dome included two walks through the inside to view the artwork and a stop at the top to view the city of Florence.

I looked up those facts for this sermon.  I confess that I didn’t realize what this was before we arrived.  The tour guide explained what we would be doing outside of the church, so I didn’t have a good visual on what we would be doing.  I told the tour guide and the group I was nervous about heights and small spaces.  The tour guide assured me that there would be two places where I could turn around if I changed my mind.  We entered a staircase (and not really the church) and started to climb.  The staircase was stone and not at all as small as I feared.  The first stop was a large landing without a view, but there were statues stored there that the guide talked about.  I felt good about going on.  But then we entered the balcony (if you can call it that).  It was really narrow, and didn’t feel as secure as the staircase to me, and I panicked.  I mostly clung to the wall to get through.  Even though my brain knew I was fine, my body reacted like I was in peril and would surely plumet to my death.  When we got back into the staircase the guide explained this was the last place to turn around and go back down.  I was in tears.  The woman in charge of this landing offered for me to sit down, I followed until I realized she meant on a folding chair on the balcony.  No thanks.  I need to get down.  I was really losing my sh– composure.  She asked (in Italian and in pantomime) if it was my heart or my spirit.  Spirit.  I was okay to move.  But to my dismay the way down included going out onto the catwalk again.  Another member of our group was having trouble with her knee (she had surgery prior to the trip and was doing really well) and led the way back down.  I couldn’t look out to see the door they pointed to on the balcony to leave through, but I trusted that she could and followed her out onto the tiny balcony again. 

I have failed at being a pilgrim. So, I self-flagellated in my spirit instead of my body. I wasn’t bleeding but the wounds were deep. I didn’t do the difficult thing that would lead to holiness. I could already imagine the Instagram feed before it was posted of my successful friends killing it at holiness again. How could I have ever thought I could be as amazing of a pastor as they are?  What made me think I was going to fool anyone into believing that I had what it takes to be holy?  Surely, I will never see the kin-dom of God. Why did I waste this time and money on the pilgrimage on continuing education on seminary? The shame spiral winds through my head like a staircase I know well enough to travel in the dark.  Outside of myself I’m having difficulty seeing what is real.  I can see part of the shirt of the woman in front of me. I’m vaguely aware of her talking to me and I grunt noncommittal answers. Then I shame myself for not being present in the moment enough to pay attention to her like a good pastor should. We reach the ground but I’m still marching down my emotional spiral staircase into the dark I know best. I’m in the shadow of perfection again with the not enough monster. This monster bites. I hate this place. I hate who I am when I get here. I try to remember something helpful. I should have paid more attention to my therapist. She tells me to take ‘should’ out of my vocabulary. It’s a word I use to torment myself.  I try to focus on something to ground myself in reality. Obviously, I can’t look at the ceiling. So, I look at the floor and notice the green and white and red marble. I take a picture because trauma plus time equals comedy. This could be funny later (Just so you know, it is really funny I have no pictures of the ceiling.  I have a couple of the outside of the church and this one picture of the floor). I can feel the smooth floor under my feet. I can smell the inside of my mask. It’s a very human smell. I can hear the woman beside me talking about her children and grandchildren. I’m back. I’m doing the active listening thing like a good pastor. Maybe she won’t notice how long I’ve been absent from the conversation. Eventually the others rejoin us. They are high on adrenaline and endorphins from achieving a pilgrimage goal and doing it together. They are sweet to me because they are good pastors and friends.  I’m a little jealous but luckily, we have more pilgrimaging to do so we move on. I’m able to push aside thoughts about the Duomo and enjoy the rest of the day’s adventures. 

If you follow my Instagram, you already know that I didn’t sleep that night. I sat on the bathroom floor and cried and journaled and tried to make sense of what happened to me that day. I texted a friend because it was only afternoon in Pittsburgh. 

I knew who to text because I posted the experience on my social media.  So, yes, part of posting is also fishing for the right person to be awake and reach out to them for help. We all do that sometimes. And part of posting is sharing a vulnerable part of the pilgrimage so that I remember how I felt and that I was not alone (and I’m never alone). I am so honored by those who commented on the post. As scary as it is to be vulnerable in a public way, there is always someone else who knows the feeling too, and now weare not alone. 

Sometimes the hard work of pilgrimage happens on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night.  My moment with God was not at the top of the Duomo but on the cool floor after processing what happened to me earlier that day.

Here is the deal: I didn’t climb to the top of the Duomo.  My body reacted to the tiny balcony way up in the air and didn’t think I was safe.  I had to choose between my reaction and my desire to continue to the top and to holiness.  But I realized that pushing myself to the top would have been traumatizing.  

Trauma does not make me stronger.  

Doing things just outside of my comfort zone could make me stronger, maybe. 

I pushed myself to do something hard by attempting to suppress fear about heights and tight spaces. But I had to honor my feelings. It was difficult not to climb. But I knew that going through with the climb to the top and traumatizing myself was not worth it. Going to the top meant ignoring my feelings for the sake of doing something pilgrimage-y was only going to hurt me and ruin the rest of this trip.  I do not have to do that to become holy. God does not want me to. I do not want me to. 

St. Catherine did hard things to become holy. She did hurtful things to herself and later regretted it. There is something spiritually tempting about surviving only on the Eucharist. I think I understood Catherine more that day than ever before. I had a choice to do the perceived holy thing (climbing to the top) or to do the truly holy work of honoring my feelings, my body, and my soul. Catherine reminded me that her pursuit of perceived holiness was not wise – she advised against it only after it was too late to save herself. I am thankful for her witness.  I chose to love myself.  It was a hard choice, but it would have been impossible without Catherine.

My experience at the Duomo was embarrassing.  But I learned a lot about myself and my pursuit of holiness.  After seeing the pictures, the other pilgrims posted, I knew I made the right choice, as the staircase narrowed and became crocked as it went over the rounded part of the dome.  And the top would have been death by panic for me.  

I’ll be processing this part of the pilgrimage for a long time by asking myself where are the other places in my life, I’m pursing holiness but instead traveling the dark spiral staircase of shame? I’m thankful for therapy and for St. Catherine for providing me with a flashlight so when I find myself in this dark place again, I have a tool to help me out if it. I am a person who dwells in darkness but has seen light. And I’m someone who is constantly in need of forgiveness from God and from myself. It is the cycle of repentance forgiveness and loving acceptance that draws me into an awareness of the holy. The true work of the kin-dom is repentance, forgiveness, and love.  And the most important is love. 

I wasn’t planning to share this experience so soon in a sermon, but when I read Jesus’ words, “repent for the kin-dom of God is near”, I felt the spirit of God telling me, see you didn’t need to climb to the top of the Duomo to find the kin-dom of God, it is always near to you.  Simply repent of the things you have clung to as holy that have stopped you from being aware of my presence and you will see the kin-dom.  

For me, repentance is about letting go of the pursuit of perfection. 

John Wiebe, a pastor I worked with while I was in seminary, would see me getting worked up about some small detail or imperfection and say to me “Dare to be mediocre”, which is more inspiring than telling someone to stop worrying about the details, the kids are going to love this, and they won’t notice that the water balloons don’t color coordinate.  

Third Church, I know that I’m not alone as someone who worries about details.  This building attracts people who love beautiful art, architecture, and music. And those same people who love beauty and see it as a way to inspire holiness also tend to get caught up in trying to make everything perfect.   At least that is true for me.  

So, I’m inviting you to evaluate some of your experiences of holiness and especially when you felt like you missed out on holiness in pursuit of perfection.  

For me, I’ll be telling myself for a long time that just because I didn’t make it to the top of the Duomo does not mean I will not experience the divine.  It just means, my experience is going to be different than other pilgrims and that’s ok.  Pilgrimage is not about achieving preset goals or perfect Instagram posts.  The true work of the pilgrim is learning to experience the presence of God in every place, the beautiful cathedrals, and the bathroom floors.  The kind-dom of God is not created in perfection but is found when we participate in the cycle of repentance, forgiveness, and loving acceptance of ourselves and others.    

Benediction:  Dare to be mediocre.  Let go of the beautiful perfect details that are keeping you from being aware the divine presence.  Spend some time in self-evaluation.  Remember that the kind-dom of God is not created in perfection but is found when we participate in the cycle of repentance, forgiveness, and loving acceptance of ourselves and others.    

This sermon was written for Third Church. We had great discussions over punch and cookies about how we beat ourselves up when we don’t achieve unrealistic self-established goals. Many of us have a similar spiral staircase of shame that takes us to a place we don’t want to be. We shared strategies we have for overcoming our fears and working through them. And some light-hearted travel stories. It was a good day to be at Third.

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