Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Year's Sermon: A Time to Seek

I don’t know whether any of you have seen the film The Way?—it’s mostly appeared in small theatres, but it was directed and produced by Martin Sheen’s son, Emilio Estavez and Martin Sheen has the starring role.  He plays a man named Tom – a successful doctor who works hard and plays a lot of golf.  He’s frustrated by his adult son’s lack of direction, and irritated by his son’s decision to take off for Spain to hike the Camino de Santiago.

The Camino de Santiago, which translates to The Road of St. James, is a route of about 500 miles that winds across Spain and ends at the Cathedral of St. James, which marks the place where, according to legend, the bones of St. James the Apostle rests.  In medieval times, the idea of a pilgrimage, a long journey toward a sacred spot, such as the final resting place of a saint, was a popular one, and it’s a concept that’s been resurrected in the last few decades.  A  pilgrim’s journey is not that of a tourist – it’s not about seeing the sights, about observing from a distance – it’s about some kind of personal engagement with the matter at hand.  The son in the movie is on a journey to figure out who he is and what he wants from life – a not uncommon situation for many of the thousands of pilgrims who walk the Camino these days.

Martin Sheen’s character Tom is on the golf course when he receives the telephone call with the voice on the other end telling him that his son has died, killed in a freak storm on his first day on the Camino.  Tom decides to cross the ocean to retrieve his son’s remains and then decides to walk the Camino himself, making the journey in memory of his son and scattering his son’s ashes along the way.  The movie tells the story of that pilgrimage – of the people Tom befriends, and who befriend him; of the deeper understanding of his son that comes to him as he travels; and, in a very subtle way, of his reconnection with his long lost sense of faith.  

It’s an age-old story, this narrative of journey, of pilgrimage.  The ancients of all cultures tell stories of pilgrimage in which someone seeks a sense of self, a knowledge of the world, an encounter with God.  When the wisdom writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that “there is a time to seek,” he is affirming the persistent longing found within human beings, the longing for something beyond ourselves, and the persistent determination of human beings to get up and get going in search of that ineffable something.  

Certainly we see it today – in the books of all kinds that line the “spirituality” shelves in the few big bookstores that are left, in the television talk show interviews with gurus of various kinds; people are out there, or in their living rooms on their computers – seeking.  As we go back through the centuries, we find the pilgrimage paths of old, many of them newly popular.  Not just the Camino de Santiago, but the roads to the great cathedrals in France.   In high school or college, you may have studied The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1200s and based on a then-common pilgrimage made to Canterbury Cathedral in England, where a great saint praying at the altar was murdered by a king.  The Holy Land itself – certainly a desirable destination for Christian travelers for nearly 2,000 years – and the missionary routes of the Apostle Paul.  What are all these people seeking?

Go back a little further and we come to St. Augustine, the great church father and bishop of the 4th and 5th centuries whose writings influence all that we believe.  Augustine is famous for having said, in addressing God, that “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”  We seek, don’t we, an encounter with the Living God?  We are made for that encounter; we are made by God to seek God’s presence.  Today, people often speak of a “God-shaped hole” in the human heart, another way in which many writers have reflected upon Augustine’s words.  

Go back even a little further, and we come to the magi.  “There is a time to seek,” and the magi were seekers.  There are a number of hypotheses about who they were.  Maybe they were Persian priests – which means, in present day geographical terms that they came from Iran.  Maybe they were Babylonian astrologers – which puts their origin in today’s Iraq. There is a Chinese belief that at least one of them was Chinese.  It is becoming something of a tradition today to portray them as coming from different continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. And a scholar has recently suggested that at least one of them may have been a woman – not because he’s trying to be politically correct, but because there are indeed other Scriptural references to feminine travelers and wisdom figures.

Whoever they were, the beloved figures of the three magi have come to personify the concept of seeker for us.   Pilgrims on a journey.   And not just pilgrims who set out because they had some kind of idea that they should take a trip – but pilgrims who were called.  Pilgrims who were responding to God’s initiation of relationship.  Pilgrims made restless by God – just as Augustine tells us, people whose hearts are restless until they rest in God – in their case made restless by a star. And they were not just any old pilgrims – but pilgrims who represent the world far beyond Bethlehem.  We may not know exactly who they were, but the story is clear that they were not Jews, they were not Romans, they were not locals.  God calls every kind of person; God reaches out to people the world over – including magi from afar.   

The journey of the magi, those who knew and responded to their time to seek, is something of a prototype for pilgrimage.  Theirs is not an easy tourist passage – just as the Baby Jesus’s parents found no Holiday Inn in which to stay, the magi found no resorts along the way.  All you have to do is take a look at a map to know that a winter’s journey across the Near East 2,000 years ago with nothing but a small company of people and a few camels would have been no picnic.  But the terrain was not the only challenge.

First, those travelers encountered turbulence – turbulence in the form of King Herod.  Herod was a king of Judea, the land of the Jews, put and kept in place by the Roman Empire.  He did not count as good news the word that a king had been born to the Jews – such a king, were he destined to be a political ruler, would have threatened Herod’s role, his power – his very life.  And so he creates a situation, cross-examining the travelers about the child they seek, lying to them about his own intentions, and trying to make them his allies in his quest to retain his power.  “Come back and tell me where this baby is,” he demands of them.  Suddenly their journey contains a new element of danger. And the reality is that when we set off on a journey, on a pilgrimage, things don’t always go as planned.  And sometimes our hopes, our longings, are threatened.  A pilgrimage is not a Caribbean cruise; it’s not all lolling by the pool and dining on exotic foods.  As Tom discovers in the movie The Way and as we discover in our own lives, the journey can be rough going. 

Secondly, though, that first bit of turbulence at least temporarily behind them, the magi encounter delight.  The Bible tells us that they were “overwhelmed with joy” at the sight of the newborn king.  Think about how surprising their response is!  They are usually depicted as kings themselves – kings with fine robes and dazzling jewels – even having traversed the desert, they are always portrayed as wealthy royalty.  And they were going to visit a newborn ruler – don’t you think that they were expecting something a bit different from a simple manger and simple, peasant parents?  At least a little palace and some ladies-and-knights-in-waiting, don’t you think?  And yet they were filled with – even overwhelmed by – joy and delight.  A pilgrimage should bring us into such moments.  No matter the difficulty of the journey, or the animosity of some of those encountered – a pilgrimage offers insight into the sacred, into an understanding of God’s kingdom, a kingdom far more expansive and loving than any earthly one. 
And finally, the magi return “home by another road.”  Even the end of their journey is unexpected: they are warned to avoid Herod, and so instead of retracing their steps, they find a new route.  Isn’t that the likely outcome of a true pilgrimage?  We are changed by the journey, and can no longer do things exactly as we did them before.  In The Way, Tom, the father, is changed by his 500-mile walk, by his experience of God through his companions, through the lands and villages he wanders, through his encounter with his son and his son’s dreams and questions.  We don’t see the consequences of his pilgrimage, but we can be fairly certain that he does not return to life as it was.  The magi are changed – by their encounter with the hostile Herod, by their experience of God through the infant Jesus, by their own dreams.  And while we don’t  know the specifics of their return, that their story has come down to us at all is a hint of the first big change in thinking and in hope: that Jesus, the long-awaited messiah, was for everyone.  For all people.  For people from far as well as near.  For wealthy as well as for poor.  For those in power and those with none at all.

How are we changed?  

When God beckons, when God invites us on pilgrimage, when God seeks relationship with us –

Do we in turn seek God?

Do we encounter turbulence?  Most likely.

Do we encounter delight? Overwhelming joy in the God who has come to rescue us? Most certainly!

A new road?  A new journey?  An invitation to share?  Surely we find those things as well.

This year, 2012, my hope is to weave the underlying themes of journey and pilgrimage throughout my Sunday sermons.  It’s a powerful metaphor, the idea of a journey.  It underlies the whole history of the people of God.  It’s a way of looking at all kinds of things:  who we are, what we learn from, what we give, what traditions we follow – and who our most important companion is.  So you may hear these words – journey, pilgrimage, traveler – from time to time, or even somewhat frequently.  If our hearts are restless until they rest in God, if God has created a space in us which only God can fill – then we are on a journey.  It doesn’t require a 2000-year-old 500 mile road in Spain; it simply requires a heart which God can enter.  It doesn’t require a star, or a literal journey at all.  What it requires is what we have already been given: a God who has created a time to seek.


Image: Martin Sheen in The Way.


  1. Beautiful. Thank you for sharing this with those of us who cannot come to church to hear you preach in person!

  2. Robin, Karen has already expressed my feelings with the word "beautiful". Thank you very much for sharing this with us and especially for mentioning "The Way" as I'm thinking of walking the last 100 km. of the Camino this fall and I appreciate the parallels that you have drawn with the Magi.

  3. Oh, Lynda, how wonderful! As we walked out of the theater, my daughter said, "Want to go to Spain?" It's on my wish list, along with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in NC and a 30-day retreat at Eastern Point, as life events that will require sabbatical time.

    I just looked up the km/miles thing -- about 60+ miles, so are you planning a week's walk?

  4. Robin, I am planning a week's walk as I think that will be sufficient for an old girl like me. I had given up the idea which I've had in mind for a few years and then recently, this dream has resurfaced so I'll see what God has in mind. I'm very excited at the thought of this pilgrimage.