When you are packing for a trip, what do you think about?
Probably that you don’t want to forget your toothbrush–again. Or maybe you are hoping that the traffic isn’t too bad, or that the plane won’t be late. If you are traveling with kids you are probably anticipating the polyphonic chorus of “Are we there yet?” and hoping your nerves will hold up. You probably aren’t wondering what you will experience, or how this trip will change you. And whatever you are thinking, it is not likely that you are asking yourself how this trip is part of your Christian journey.
I suggest to you that travel, any travel, can be a pilgrimage. Now, I am mindful that here, in Plymouth County, in Massachusetts, any mention of pilgrims prompts a mental image of people in black clothes, with white collars, and possibly large black hats with buckles on them. But I am not referring to the earliest European settlers who landed just a few miles from here four hundred years ago. They were on a journey following the Spirit, but they were neither the first nor the last to do that. Many religious traditions have a history of pilgrimage to sacred destinations. The high point of pilgrimage in the Christian tradition was in the Middle Ages, but there is a renewed interest in pilgrimage in our time as well.
Dean Robert Willis says that pilgrimage is a vital part of the life of Canterbury Cathedral. He says that thousands of visitors arrive at the Cathedral every day during the summer months. Most come as tourists–eager to see the windows, the architecture, the chapels, and the worn steps leading to the former site of St. Thomas’s shrine. Though many come as tourists, they leave as pilgrims. The are touched by the place, and leave something of themselves there, and take something of the place with them when they leave–which is how Dean Willis defines pilgrimage. I have heard him say that there is always the possibility, when you leave home, that you are on a pilgrimage.
We don’t often call the disciples “pilgrims,” but we might. Jesus called them, and they left their homes, their families and their nets to follow him. They were on a road trip of Biblical proportion! They learned, and what they learned shifted the way they saw things. They were transformed: moving from fishermen to learners and followers, eventually becoming leaders and teachers. Life on the road wasn’t always easy. In the Gospel, we hear about their journey to a village in Samaria. The disciples were hoping for a warm welcome and belly-filling hospitality, but they were turned away. Life on the road can make anybody cranky, and their cranky response was to ask Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven. Jesus just waved them off and moved on, but the toll that life on the road took on him is revealed by his warning to a potential follower: “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man (what he called himself) has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus was on the road for much of his ministry, and his ultimate destination was the destination which has drawn pilgrims for thousands of years: Jerusalem. It was a hard journey to a hard destination: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem. The holy city. The city that kills the prophets.” The Gospel gives other snippets from life on the road: potential disciples said “I will follow you anywhere, but…” Not everyone who set out on pilgrimage with Jesus was able to make the journey. Jesus warned them, and us,”No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”
That might sound like a tall order to you. Just getting to church on Sunday may sound like a spiritual journey. Church may seem like enough of a holy destination for you. But it isn’t a destination; it is a way station. Church is a place where you come to be fed, to learn, and to find traveling companions, but it is only a place to stop for a while and move on. This beautiful church is a holy train station, or bus station, or airport. It is a place to be “sent from” to continue your Christian journey, in the company of fellow pilgrims.
Yesterday, fourteen parishioners left St. John’s and headed to Washington County, Virginia for a week of service through the Appalachia Service Project. Three adults and eleven high school youth will participate in this home repair mission for one of our nation’s poorest communities. It will be a difficult journey. It will be physically difficult, because of the hard work and the heat; and it will be emotionally and spiritually difficult, because they will find themselves in the far country of deep poverty and isolation. When they packed for their trip, I am fairly certain they were asking themselves how this trip will change them, how it is part of their Christian journey. I look forward to hearing their stories when they come back. And I invite you to pray for them, as they travel to that far country and leave a part of themselves there, and bring a part of that place back home, to this community.
All of our lives, we are on a journey. We are on the road with Jesus, and we are being transformed into the people God created us to be. Think of that the next time you are packing your luggage: that your trip can be a pilgrimage, that your next step could be transforming.