Preached on 10 September 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
My farewell sermon. The 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year A
One year ago today, was my first day walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the beginning of a 500-mile pilgrimage. One day down, 35 to go.
I wondered if I was going to make it. The path was more rugged than I had imagined. It was rocky and steep. I had to slow way down and take a lot of breaks to make it up each hill. There were times when I was sure we were walking through a dry creek bed.
My plantar fasciitis had decided to act up and my knee was hurting. And then, once I got into town and up to my room, I took off my boots and there it was, a little blister next to the callus on my big toe. What?! How could that be?
I was sure I could make it another day, but not so sure I could do 35 more. But I did, one day at a time, one step at a time, and at times a bus ride. Pilgrimage is not just about the footsteps, it’s the whole journey – body and soul.
Along the way, oh along the way – it’s hard to put into words, but the one word that keeps coming to mind is “ordinary.” My days were filled with the basics: meals, laundry, shower, sleep, and walk. Walking through farmland, mostly, and small hamlets that were hardly more than a group of a dozen or so homes. It was harvest time and as we walked from region to region across the country, we moved from one crop to another – sunflowers drying in the sun, then almond trees and vineyards, hay and corn, and vegetables and livestock as we got closer to the sea.
All along the way, ordinary people were working the land or working in hotels and hostels and little cafes serving the thousands of pilgrims passing through.
And, of course there were my fellow pilgrims, each one an ordinary person with a unique story. Ordinary people from a world of diverse cultures that is. We would share the path or maybe a table at a café – sometimes in silence, often in conversation – adjusting our pace to accommodate the other.
We became a community of pilgrims.
All that ordinariness, though, combined to form an amazing, extraordinary experience. All that ordinariness tested my limits physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I had countless encounters with God in unexpected places and people.
You see, each of those things was ordinary in and of itself, but not ordinary for me and my life. Activities that consumed my day would ordinarily have been in the background. I usually meet people from other countries on TV, not over breakfast. I get my food at a grocery store and the closest I come to its origin, is driving by on a highway.
We may try to keep God ordinary, too, putting God in a box – possibly in daily prayers or Sunday worship. Sometimes we even want to locate God in a particular place – whether it’s at the altar or in the bread and wine, or in the Scripture or even at that favorite spot in the mountains or at the beach, or in daily activities like putting our children to bed.
Pilgrimage is about leaving the familiar routines to intentionally seek God in the unexpected. It is getting out of ourselves, getting out of town, doing something new or doing the familiar in a different way or with someone new.
While I went to Spain for 6 weeks for my pilgrimage, you don’t have to leave town. You may remember that when I first come to St. John’s, I talked about this time of transition as being a bit like a pilgrimage. It’s an opportunity to get out of our familiar patterns and finding God in unexpected places and people, a time to possibly try a new ministry even.
Together, we have been on a pilgrimage and you have welcomed me into your community. Where and how have you found God in unexpected ways?
Of course, for me, just being here is something new and unfamiliar. This year has given me some opportunities to be surprised by God. The first that springs to mind is when we lit the new fire at the Easter Vigil out in the Memorial Garden. Wow! It was almost jarring – in a good way. The Vigil, waiting for resurrection, was so tangibly more than waiting for the resurrection of Jesus – a memory, a story where we already know what comes next became a vigil for the resurrection of those people we love and miss and long to see again. That was one of them.
Another was when we all went to the river with Georgia and her family to gather the water we would use to baptize her and then Christian – our very own River Jordan, so to speak. And of course, the baptisms themselves. And the weddings, and the funerals – saying goodbye for now, until we meet again.
Then there are the children. You’d think I would get used to it, but every time I kneel to give a little one communion, God shows up.
What about you? Just my being here took you out of the familiar. Many of you have never been in a church led by a woman. I do things differently from your previous priest. We tried new things together – like washing each other’s feet in the parish hall on Maundy Thursday. And the overnight vigil with the Blessed Sacrament at the Altar of Repose in the Memorial Room, waiting for Good Friday. Were there other times that God showed up in the unfamiliar or the unexpected?
Oh, and then I went and moved the altar!
Now that wasn’t a perverse attempt to challenge you just for the sake of change. However, I’m afraid it was jarring for some. Still, what have you discovered about yourself and how and where you find God in the liturgy and in this space? What have you learned about being in community and worshiping together as the Body of Christ?
Now to bring you up to date… It is up to
Fr. Eliacín and the vestry to decide on the next step. The groundwork is in place so they can move forward or modify the plans if they want. Plans are in place, but no contracts have been prepared, much less signed.
You may have noticed that we have been making adjustments almost every week, largely in response to you. The latest is that we moved the font and made room on the other side so you can receive communion all across the front, either kneeling or standing as you prefer. It’s still crowded, though.
You may have to wait for the other person to receive before walking around the font to return to your seat. When I first became an Episcopalian, I was taught the custom of waiting until the person next to me had received the wine before leaving the rail.
That’s what community is about, adjusting and accommodating one another, seeing Christ in one another. At first glance, our gospel today seems to present a formula for how to kick people out of the community. But there is another way to look at it. First, a little context. Immediately before this passage, Jesus tells the disciples the parable of the Lost Sheep. The shepherd leaves the 99 sheep to go look for just one missing sheep in order to return it back to the flock.
Immediately following today’s passage, Peter asks how many times we must forgive, as many as 7 times? And Jesus responds, no, seventy times seven – way more than Peter could imagine. So maybe today’s gospel is about maintaining the community. It’s about the lengths we should go to when we are at odds with one of our own, to be reconciled to one another, to restore the community.
What does that mean for St. John’s? What will it mean as a new priest joins you?
Transition is a pilgrimage. When I arrived in Santiago, my destination, my pilgrimage didn’t end.
I ended my walk there, but it was merely a way-marker along my pilgrim journey. Today is a way-marker on your pilgrimage as a community. You have been a blessing to me as we have shared this year or so together.
Tomorrow, with Fr. Eliacín, you begin the next part of your pilgrimage. May you always be a blessing to one another.