[Note: this is an adaptation of the sermon I preached at the Allegheny Mennonite Conference summer session held August 3-5 at Laurelville. Apologies for the repetition to those of you who were there – I invite you to listen for some new things – for the rest of you – enjoy!]
I want to start off by saying thank you, to this congregation, for the time of sabbatical you graciously offered me this summer. It was deeply appreciated. Many of you know that as part of my time away from the congregation, our family – Becky, our 4 year old son Simon, and I, went on an extended holiday to England. It was a grand time of travel on planes, trains, and double decker buses. We visited with family, toured cultural sites, and basked in beautiful weather – seriously, we lucked out with over two weeks of almost constant sunshine, in England!
Each day of our trip was full of adventures, with somethings planned in advance, with other things, as travels are bound to offer, coming across our path as a surprise. Before we left each of us got to pick a few places to put on a list of must-sees. I put things like art museums, board game shops, and churches on that list. And, wow, did we visit churches!
One of the churches we had the opportunity to visit was York Minster. A huge and amazingly beautiful cathedral located in the heart of York. They have excavated the depths of the cathedral and have created a beautiful space to display rotating exhibits. While we were there one of the exhibits on display was called: Tourist, Traveler, Pilgrim? It was, as the title implies, an exploration of what it is to choose pilgrimage as the way one travels in the world.
Pilgrimage is traditionally considered a journey that one intentionally takes to a holy or sacred site. What this exhibit explored was the idea that pilgrimage isn’t something that only happens when you take an intentional pilgrimage to a specific holy site. Instead, pilgrimage can be a way of choosing to live in and encounter the world around us every day. As people of faith, we have the chance to engage in pilgrimage each and every day as we explore what it is to be people choosing to live in and out faith, hope, and love in the world. Pilgrimage, for people of faith, isn’t just about getting to a final destination. It is about drawing nearer to the Holy in each moment.
One of the display write-ups said it like this:
“A pilgrim must make themselves vulnerable. Vulnerability makes you prioritize everything. By thinking in this way when you return home, you may approach everyday life differently. Vulnerability is also where God is. For those undertaking religious pilgrimages the goal is not the final location itself, but closeness to God.”
Pilgrimage in this sense, is not a destination driven experience. It is, instead, about presence and intention on the journey.
A journey which is not always easy. Another part of the pilgrimage display:
“Pilgrimage is not for the faint hearted. Medieval pilgrims faced many physical dangers on the road. Although travel is easier today, creating space to think without distraction is still difficult. Pilgrimage forces you to confront things you might otherwise ignore. It takes you out of your comfort zone and teaches you to simply be.”
I’m making pilgrimage sound pretty great here, aren’t I? It makes us vulnerable, it forces us to confront things we might prefer to ignore, and it moves us out of our comfort zones. Sounds like fun, right?! It actually sounds a lot like right where we find the Israelite community in the Exodus passage we heard this morning. Here are a people, newly released from bondage in Egypt, wandering around in wilderness without food to eat or a destination immediately available to them. They are vulnerable, second-guessing their desires for this so-called freedom they have been gifted [remember all that meat and bread we used to have readily available in Egypt?], they are hungry and uncomfortable.
This is pilgrimage.
It can be dangerous, painful, and sometimes it opens us up to regret and lamentation. All of these things are part of the pilgrim journey. And as part of a pilgrimage journey these are also elements which have the capacity to bring us near to the Holy.
The Israelites respond to their plight with grumbling. And, really, who wouldn’t? It’s hard not to grumble when you’re hangry. That is a physiological reality for us humans. We have basic physical needs and when those aren’t met, it’s pretty hard to look past them in order to find satisfaction on the spiritual plane. Likewise it can be hard to find physical comfort when our spirits are out of whack. We are creatures in need of balance.
God hears the complaints of God’s people in the wilderness. And God responds. God tells Moses to have the people gather together and when the people gather, God presents God’s self directly to the people in the form of a cloud. Here, in the midst of their discontent, in a moment of deep discomfort and in great need, the Israelites also find themselves in the presence of God.
This is pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage thrives in the tension between pain and holy presence. Pilgrimage does not deny either reality. Instead, pilgrimage reminds us of our vulnerability, it challenges us to open ourselves up to the full spectrum of emotions and situations that come our way, and it invites us to authentically journey with and through those experiences.
And life offers a full spectrum of emotions and situations – pilgrimage invites us to equally honor and embrace the joyful and exciting parts of our paths, as well as confusing and painful seasons. There was an article a few weeks ago put out by the Mennonite about a singing group called the Blue Ridge Threshold Choir. If you saw it, or if you choose to look it up later, you will know that it prominently features Donna Heatwole, a former member of this church who now resides in Harrisonburg, Virginia [and mother to our own Kelly]. Donna became aware of a national organization called the Threshold Choir, which is a network of local chapters of choirs trained to sing for folks who are often in hospice or palliative care as a reminder that they are loved and as assurance that there is comfort, love, and hope present on the path with them. Donna helped form the Blue Ridge chapter of the Threshold Choir and their services are well used and appreciated – averaging one [and sometimes more] invitation/s to sing for someone each week. In connection with Virginia Retirement Community, they have also found that they are not only being called on to those journeying through end of life conditions, but also for any resident who may be struggling. The Threshold Choir willingly steps into complex moments of struggle and offers a gift of beauty, comfort, and hope in the very presence of pain and challenge.
This is pilgrimage – in community.
One of the benefits of being on pilgrimage with community, is that we don’t take the journey alone. Just like the Israelites in the wilderness, when we journey together, there is usually someone with whom we can grumble and share our experiences of discouragement and discontentment. Likewise, there is someone to stand beside in the moments when God’s glory is revealed. And there are voices in the community to translate for us, to help us see and understand how God is at work in and around us – just as Moses was able to help the Israelites understand the gift of manna that God had given them. They looked around at the fine layer of ‘stuff’ on the ground and said “what is it?” Moses helps them see – it is a gift from God. The connections of community are a valuable resource.
I had the chance to experience the value of connections with people, first hand, this week when I attended an event called The Human Library. If you are not familiar with the term, it is a program that brings together a group of books – which are not printed books, but are instead human beings willing to tell their stories of struggle and outcomes one on one with anyone who chooses to sit down with them for a brief period of time to listen and engage. Typically the human books are people who have been stereotyped, labeled, oppressed, abused, or stigmatized in some way. They are individuals willing to vulnerably share their experiences of pain, suffering, and transformation in an attempt to break down walls of assumption and stigma by humanizing their experiences and making them accessible and tangible to perfect strangers. Now this is a worldwide program, however, like the threshold choir project I mentioned earlier, this happens in local communities [this particular Human Library experience was coordinated, in part, by Becky who is the Programming and Outreach Manager for the Anne Arundel County Library system] so the human books come from the regional area – so while you are indeed most likely sitting down with a stranger to listen to their story, you are also in essence sitting down with a neighbor. This brings all of the experiences that the books are sharing even closer to home and really challenges the readers to accept that it not just nebulous strangers in other parts of our country or distant lands experiencing the ramifications of unjust systems of oppression and ‘isms’ it human books with stories to share – stories of hurt and struggle, stories of hope and healing. Stories of pilgrimage.
The first book I checked out yesterday was a transgender man who grew up in Saudi Arabia. I wasn’t sure what I was going to hear in my brief time of encounter with him – and I was surprised to find myself quite nervous as I entered the room, here was someone willingly and generously offering to share some of the most vulnerable, potentially painful moments of their life with me. What would I say, what was I expecting to hear, what assumptions was I carrying into the moment and how would those impact my ability to receive the gift of his story? And yet, when I got to the table where he was waiting for me, we shook hands, said hello, and looked each other in the eyes and those nerves just melted away. Here before me was a person, not so different from myself willing to share their personal pilgrimage – their experiences of pain and joy with me because I was also willing to step in and open myself up to an encounter with them. When we choose to courageously open ourselves up to the stories of those around us, we experience connection.
For the past year, we, as a congregation, have been working on exploring a theme of connection in the life and work of the church. We chose that theme a year ago because it seemed important in these days of political and social upheaval to intentionally ground ourselves in connection to God, ourselves, and each other. We also embraced it as an act of resistance against the messages of fear and intolerance that have been working hard to classify, separate, and shelve each of us human books in isolation. We, like the threshold choir, have chosen connection instead of isolation, by willingly stepping into complex moments of struggle and offering gifts of presence, comfort, and hope in the face of fear, pain, and challenge. We have done this within and beyond the walls of this congregation. We have done this as individuals and as a community. It has been a joy-full and pain-full time of pilgrimage and the path is still present beckoning us to keep at it.
If we choose to be people on pilgrimage, we choose to embrace pain and suffering as well as joy. In embracing and naming the pain and suffering that is part of the journey of life, we have the opportunity to open ourselves up to honesty and vulnerability with each other – to find unexpected points of connection through which we authentically encounter each other and the Holy. In the holy moments of connection we can be fueled and moved to action with and for each other, to willingly let ourselves be moved out of our own comfort zones, as we offer support and allow others to support us, so that we can together journey the potentially precarious pilgrimage path of healing and transformation.
Pilgrimage, especially a pilgrimage that seeks the presence of God in each moment, is above all a path of transformation. Here’s one more reflection from the exhibit I saw at Yorkminster:
“Pilgrimage is a journey, but it doesn’t matter how long it is, or how you make it. What matters is what you learn about yourself and the world around you along the way. Pilgrimage changes you.”
If you are familiar with the story The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, you will recall that it is an epic tale of travel, journey, and adventures. The entire story hinges on a small Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, making the choice to join in on the quest of Thorin Oakenshield and his company of dwarves as they journey to take back their homeland from an invading dragon. In the actual book, Bilbo isn’t really given space to make the choice about whether he wants to join in the journey so much as he is pushed out the door and onto the path in a hurry by his trusted advisor, Gandolf. I think we have each probably experienced moments like that – where we have been placed on paths by others without really having the opportunity to evaluate what it is we are getting into. Sometimes there has been great harm done in those moments, and other times it is the nudge we need to get a move on.
The film version of The Hobbit tweaks that moment a bit and offers Bilbo a moment to consider the path that is before him and he is hesitant and fearful of the unknowns that the journey may bring:
Bilbo asks Gandolf: Can you promise that I will come back?
Gandolf replies: No. And if you do, you will not be the same.
This should be no surprise to us. We are not the same people that we were last year, two years ago, five years ago or twenty years ago. Nor will we be the same next year that we are in this moment. We are constantly being transformed by the path of pilgrimage that we are on. And that path is full of things to lament. And it is full of encounters with the Holy. And the only way to experience either is to choose to join in and take the journey.
May we have the courage to be people who choose pilgrimage. Even if it often feels that we are like the Israelites bumbling around a wilderness uncertain of where God will be found. May we be pilgrims who seek to draw near to the Holy in every moment. To vulnerably and honestly offer and receive the hopes and joys and the pain and losses that are part of the pilgrimage journey as the path winds towards healing and transformation for ourselves, for our communities, and for the world.