Pilgrimage Revisited

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.

Buen Camino!


A Regular Dude with a Bass Boat

Preached on 3 September 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, Year A

Borderlands.  Caesarea-Philippi is in the borderlands.  It’s about 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee.  Geo-politically it is at the very edge of the land of Israel, about as far away as you can get from Jerusalem and still be in Israel.  It’s a Roman city, named for the Caesar, of course, and Philip who is one of the sons of Herod the Great who died in 4 BCE.  After Herod’s death, the governorship passed to his sons and the whole area was divided among them.  Philip was the tetrarch of that district.

In the borderlands, people from different cultures and customs come into contact with each other.  They discover other ways of well, everything.  It is a place to encounter the Other.

Borderlands are often a crossroads, where trade routes come together.  This city is particularly beautiful, lush and green with an abundance of water.  There is a large waterfall and it is the major source of the Jordan River.

Caesarea-Philippi was also a spiritual borderland.  It had long been a holy site for the many religions that had gone before.  It was particularly known for the Cave of Pan, the god of fear, with its bottomless pool of still water into which people would throw their offerings.  There were temples and shrines to a variety of pagan deities – Canaanite, Greek, Roman.  Tradition says it is where the Israelite king, Jeroboam led the people astray to worship Baal.

It is here, in Caesarea-Philippi, about as far away as they can get from Jerusalem and the Temple, the center of holiness and worship, in the middle of numerous other religious sites, that God shows up and reveals, through Peter, that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah.  It is here, that Jesus first tells them what it will mean; that he will be crucified.

It is here, in the borderlands, at the crossroads, that Jesus sets before them a choice.  If any of you want to be my disciples, you must renounce yourselves and take up your cross and follow me.

Six days later, he takes Peter, James, and John, and they go up Mt. Hebron, just up the road – another holy place.  There, he is transfigured before their eyes and they hear the voice of God, “This is my beloved son.  Listen to him.”

When they come back down the mountain, Jesus turns toward Jerusalem in earnest.  In the borderlands, at the crossroads, Jesus commits to this road.

The pertinent choice Jesus presents to the disciples, though is this.  If anyone wants to be my follower, let them renounce themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Clearly, this is metaphorical.  At this point, Jesus is not suggesting that the disciples each find a cross to carry.  So, what does it mean to take up their cross – and particularly we might wonder what it could mean for us today who might want to follow Jesus?

It could be interpreted as prophecy, that Jesus is saying that the disciples will also be crucified, or in some way lose their lives.

Often it is thought to mean that we are to patiently endure whatever suffering life hands us, whether random life events like misfortune and chronic disease or suffering caused by human choices, like abuse.  I don’t think Jesus means suffering for its own sake, though, because he goes on to say that those who lose their life for Jesus sake will find it.

For Jesus, crucifixion was the inevitable result of his commitment to his ministry – his teaching, his healing, and his challenge of those in power.  It is the result of his proclamation of the kingdom of God – that there is a different, more life-giving way to be in the world, to be in relationship with God and our neighbor.

The cross shows us the profound love of God.  It is a symbol of our sins forgiven.  It is a sign of resurrection.  But it is so much more.

Perhaps for Jesus, taking up his cross was embracing and committing to all of the work he came to do.  “Loving his own, he loved them to the end,” John, the Evangelist, writes.  Taking up the cross – the instrument of execution for those who challenge Rome, the symbol of imperial power that crushes the people – Jesus refused to accommodate a kingdom that is in opposition to the kingdom of God.  You see, there is so much more to the cross than Jesus’ death.

What is your cross?  What is it that Jesus invites you to embrace and commit your life to?  It can be a life’s work, yes, but really, we don’t have to look far.  Living the way of the cross is a whole series of those choices.  If we miss one, there will always be another.

Here’s an example.  There’s a meme making the rounds on the internet that says, “when this is over, we ought to erect a statue of a regular dude with a bass boat.”

Yeah, a regular dude in a bass boat rescuing his neighbors and taking them to safety.  That bass boat is his cross.  It’s the work God gives him to do right now.  Living the way of the cross truly is the way of life.

God meets us in the borderlands of our lives, at the crossroads, shows us a cross or two or three, and offers us a choice.
“Will you take up your cross and follow Jesus?”