Be a pilgrim

February 20th, 2016

A sermon preached  by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on February 21, 2016.

I’m wearing a scallop shell this morning because some ten years ago I was in Santiago in the northwest corner of Spain and the scallop shell is a symbol of pilgrimage to Santiago. The name Santiago means Saint James and the legend is that Saint James, one of the 12 apostles, went to Spain as a missionary and eventually, to make a long story short, died and was buried there. That’s the furthest west any of the apostles went and so his tomb became an important pilgrimage site especially for western Europe. People came from all over Europe to visit his tomb and they would pick up a scallop shell from the nearby seacoast and take it home as a souvenir and evidence that they had been there. So I have the evidence that I was there, but I don’t feel much like a Santiago pilgrim. In fact even today to get a certificate that you have really made the pilgrimage you have to walk at least the last 100 miles. I only walked the last few 100 yards and that doesn’t count.

I’m wearing the scallop shell because I wanted a symbol this morning to help focus attention on the Old Testament reading. The story picks up from last week’s reading which reminded us that we are the descendants of wanderers. “A wandering Aramean was my father;” that’s what last week’s reading told us. It reminded us that the Jewish people have been nomads and wanderers and we are their children. This week we continue with the story of Abraham who left Iraq to go to Canaan.

For 12 years I served the parish in Canaan, Connecticut, so I feel a very direct tie to this story. Canaan was the goal of some of the first pilgrims and Canaan, Connecticut, was the land of promise for some New England wanderers. California also has been a land that wanderers have come to from many places: Asia, first of all, across the Bering Strait, and then from South America and Europe and the eastern states. You and I are wanderers or descendants of wanderers. Few of us go back to the forty-niners but the story of California begins with pilgrims and wanderers, most of them, of course, in search of something more material than a spiritual reward.

But human beings have always been wanderers, spreading put of Africa into Europe and Asia and Australia and finally the Americas. Americans in particular are wanderers. Some of the first European settlers here called themselves pilgrims. They had that sense of themselves. My four grandparents were born in four different countries on three different continents. Who except an American could make that kind of statement? You will find in New England especially whole families that have been in one community for centuries but that’s unusual. And even they wouldn’t be there if somewhere way back someone hadn’t pulled up stakes and moved on to a new place. So it’s been going on for a long time and human beings are torn between those who want to keep on traveling and those who want to settle down and put down roots.

There’s been a lot in the news lately about American jobs being exported, traveling to China and India, with the result that a lot of Americans are uprooted, having to travel to find new jobs. And whatever the politicians say, that’s not all bad. Yes, it can be devastating for some and the government needs to do more than it does to help people in those transitions, but all the shifting and unsettling can be creative, at least in the long run and for the society as a whole. It raises questions, it taps new potential, it discovers new talents, and it refuses to let us be satisfied with things as they are. In the long run that leads to innovation and new ideas and constructive change. Maybe that’s why people like to travel, maybe that’s why people have always gone on pilgrimage. Maybe God created us restless just because God doesn’t want us to be satisfied where we are, wants us to be moving on until we get where God wants us to be.

The Epistle today has another way of saying the same thing. It says “our citizenship is in heaven.” Not here. Not here. Our citizenship is not here. A Christian can never be a super patriot. This country, great as it is, is not perfect, and not perfectible either. No matter who we elect next time, it still won’t be perfect and many of us will still be dissatisfied and that’s good. It’s when we have an election and the winner gets 99% that its time to worry. We are meant to keep traveling. We can’t put down roots. We are pilgrims, wanderers, nomads.

The Old Testament is constantly making the contrast between the nomads on the one hand and the farmers on the other: the people with roots and the people without them. And again and again the people without roots are the good guys. In fact, the Old Testament makes a constant comparison between Hebrews and Canaanites and the Canaanites — I used to enjoy reminding people of that in Canaan, Connecticut – were not the good guys. We had to remember that Caanan is a place to go, but not a place to settle.

It’s the people who settle down, who begin to heap up possessions, who get into trouble. You begin to feel secure, you begin to feel as if you can control your own destiny. The Canaanites were farmers and that meant they had to plan ahead, save up from one harvest in order to live to the next. They needed barns and infrastructure. Nomads, on the other hand, travel light, always looking for the next oasis, always insecure and therefore dependent on an invisible God whose ways were hard to discern. They may have felt the way the Welsh poet R.S.Thomas felt when he wrote:
He is such a fast God,
always before us
and leaving as we arrive.

The Canaanite farmers had an easier God to deal with. Actually the Canaanites had “gods,” lots of gods: gods of the sun and rain and crops who could be manipulated and propitiated and persuaded to do what people wanted. After all, the gods needed to keep people happy in order to earn the offerings they brought. But that was not the Hebrew God. The Hebrew God had an agenda and a purpose and the people didn’t necessarily know that purpose and they couldn’t bargain with God. They were there to serve God – not to get God on their side but to be, if possible, on God’s side.

So we are Abraham’s descendants and we need to remember that where we are is neither the beginning nor the end. God is always calling us onward to new places and new horizons. Faith is an adventure, not a security blanket. So let me suggest a few simple rules for people on pilgrimage. These are rules we can work on especially this Lent.

Rule One: travel light. Don’t let yourself get weighted down with a lot of stuff you don’t need. I wonder whether a good resolution for Lent might be to throw something away every day. And I don’t just mean the catalogs that come in the mail, though that’s certainly a good place to start. But clean out a closet, clean off a bookshelf, take a load of stuff to Goodwill. Don’t let the stuff control your life. Two: do something different. The great age of pilgrimage was the middle ages when the world was finally safe to travel, – well at least as safe as it is today — and people could get out of their local community and see what was on the other side of the hill. I don’t think all those thousands of people went to Santiago because they were so much more pious than we are. But they were curious. Pilgrimage was an excuse. And they came home with new ideas and the world began to change.

Two: do something different. If you haven’t read a book in a while, read one. If you haven’t been to a museum or art gallery in a while, visit one. You might even, I’m nervous about suggesting this, visit another church. That’s what pilgrims did. They went to Santiago and came home with new ideas: maybe a new hymn to sing or a new way of decorating the church or a new understanding of the liturgy. Last week I was at Saint Luke’s, next week I’ll be at Holy Innocents. I encounter new ideas, new hymns, new prayers, I hear someone else preach. I may not like some of that but I will have to think about it and wonder why and maybe learn something. Until I came to San Francisco, you know, I had never lived in a community with more than one Episcopal Church and its mind-blowing to realize that I can get to a dozen other Episcopal church almost as easily as this one and each one is different, each one has its own gifts and, to be honest, its own deficits, but we can learn from each other. We might even visit a church of another denomination and learn something from the experience – even if it’s only how lucky we are to be Episcopalians. Maybe Lent could be a time to make a pilgrimage even just in this city and report back on what we discover. But don’t forget to report back!

Three: just move. Part of the value of pilgrimage I’m sure is just the physical movement. Not that we don’t run around a lot anyway but it’s different somehow. Going to Wal-Mart or Safeway is not a pilgrimage. Going to work in the morning is not a pilgrimage. That’s something you would do any way and it’s so much a part of your routine that it doesn’t lead to meditation. But what if you just walked slowly around the block, or down the street and back, something you don’t usually do. Physical movement that’s not part of your standard routine. There’s been a fad recently to walk a labyrinth. People create a pattern on the floor or on the ground and then follow it very slowly and peacefully and meditatively. The body moves and the mind is allowed to wander. Take the time to break away from the routine, physically – as pilgrims did – and do.

One more thing – number four: make it social. Pilgrims seldom went alone. It wasn’t safe for one thing, but also the mere fact of being thrown into relationship with others has its own value. I’ve never read the Canterbury tales but I know that the tales are stories that the pilgrims told each other on the way and they weren’t all religious stories. The Pilgrims enjoyed each other’s company and they had the freedom to do it because they had gotten away from home and left their possessions behind on their way into a strange new place in the company of strange new people and they enjoyed their company. Well, that also is part of a pilgrimage: getting to know new people and getting to know the same people better. It happens right here. We come here breaking out of our familiar pattern, and being mixed in with strangers or people we’ve known only slightly and we find our lives enriched not only by praying with them but sharing our whole lives with them. And maybe Lent would be a time to turn the television off and have an evening with family and friends, go out for a meal, organize some games, be sociable, get together with others. God made us for each other and calls us into community and means us to enjoy our life together. That’s part of pilgrimage too.

When Abraham set out for Canaan he must have done all of that: thrown things away, spent time walking, discovered new places, spent time with others, been enriched by doing it. We can be also. When you read about the primaries and the Supreme Court and the Congress we have a better perspective on all of that than the media. Our citizenship is in heaven. We have a better country and we’re on our way. Remember that this Lent and be a follower of Abraham, be a pilgrim.

© 2016 by Christopher L. Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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