Pilgrim Prayers

Preached on 24 July 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, WA
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12, Year C

When my daughter was in fourth or fifth grade, we read a book called The Ramsay Scallop, by Francis Temple.  It’s about a young woman in the middle ages, in a European village.  She is only fourteen years old, but I call her a young woman because she is facing marriage and she is terrified.  You see, her mother died in giving birth to her and she is afraid that she will get married, have a baby and die.

She, Eleanor, has been betrothed to Thomas, the son of a nearby family practically since birth.  Both are from the landed gentry.  Well, he is somewhat older and has been away in fighting in the Crusades.  The village has just received word that their sons who have gone off to war are about to return.  And that means that Eleanor’s childhood must come to an end.

Well, the crusaders are welcomed home and hailed as heroes.  There is just one problem.  In their hearts, they know they aren’t heroes.  They didn’t even make it to the Holy Land, much less free it from the Saracens; and along the way they have seen and done some truly horrible things.

These two young people who are supposed to get married find they can barely look at each other.  He remembers her as the little brat he used to tease; to him, she is just a child.  Neither of them wants to marry, but they must.

Now this is also a time when people would go on pilgrimages as a means to cleanse themselves from sin (as was going on Crusade), to grow closer to God, to have prayers answered.  But since the Holy Land was occupied by a people hostile to Christians, they had to find other holy sites to journey to.

Enter the village priest.  He comes up with an ingenious plan.  He forbids them to marry and sends them on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the place where St. James is buried.  They will carry the weight of sin of the whole village with them to Santiago and there, that weight will be lifted from the village; they will be forgiven.  This is to be a path for healing for the men returning from the crusades as well as for those who stayed behind.  They may marry only after the mission is completed.

So they set off with their horses and carts of baggage. Now remember, in those days, a pilgrimage would begin at your doorstep and you not only had to journey to the destination, but then you had to turn around and walk all the way back again.  The rest of the book is about their experience on the road.

It isn’t long before they give their horses to others who are in more desperate need.  As they go along, they leave behind belongings that they realize are unnecessary and are only weighing them down and holding them back.  They have plenty of time to talk and get to know one another, as well as plenty of problems to solve; hurdles to overcome.

It is an arduous journey and they learn to rely on each other, to depend on the friendship of fellow pilgrims and the hospitality of villagers along the way.  At times they get lost.  While crossing the mountains, one of them is seriously injured and they spend the winter with a shepherd family healing and recuperating.  They reach the point where they think they won’t be able to finish the pilgrimage together.  They talk about whether one should go ahead alone to complete the mission the priest had given them.

In the end, they both arrive in Santiago carrying the prayers and confessions of the people of their village.  They discover they are at last ready to devote their lives to one another in marriage because they have learned to love one another, to rely on God and each another.  They have come to know each other very deeply, having shared joy and hardship.  They are ready to work together for the good of their people; in fact, they have already begun.

Well, pilgrims still journey to Santiago de Compostela.  In fact, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world make that journey every year.  In September, I will be among them.  I will travel by plane, train and van to my starting point just inside the Spanish border in the Pyrenees Mountains, a town called Roncesvalles.  From there, I will walk the 500 or so miles to Santiago, over by the Atlantic.

I would like to take you, the people of St. John’s with me – at least virtually.  Along with my few belongings, I will carry you in prayer.  We’ll post my itinerary and a map of my route in the parish hall so you can follow along.  If you want to walk here, I can list the distances each day.  I’ll post pictures online when I have internet access.

I invite you in the coming weeks to think about your prayers for this community.  What are your hopes and dreams for St. John’s both in the transition time and for your new priest?  What are your concerns?  Your fears?

The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray.  He told them to pray simply and intimately from their heart; to ask for their needs, their deep desires.  He taught them to pray simply and to pray persistently, assuring them that God will indeed answer their prayers; that like the friend in the parable and like they themselves, God gives good gifts.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is often attributed with writing,

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men and women to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to long for the vast and endless sea.

What do you long for?  If there were no limitations, what would you long to see at St. John’s? in Snohomish? In your own life?

Write down the prayers, the hopes, the fears, the confessions, the longings that you want me to carry to the altar in Santiago.  We’ll have a box for them labeled “Pilgrim Prayers.”

As I will carry you in my prayers, I ask that you, too, hold me in yours.