Saturday, November 21, 2015

Pilgrimage ~ Sermon (Habakkuk and Luke)

This is the sermon for the service via which we will bring and end to our congregational life tomorrow afternoon:
If your childhood was anything like mine, then perhaps many decades ago you spent some time during this week making Pilgrim pictures, or writing Pilgrim reports.  I can remember a first grade project that involved making houses and a stockade fence out of corrugated cardboard packaging ~ our version of a replica of Plimouth Plantation, the Pilgrim settlement in what was to become the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
In grade school, we talked a lot about the Pilgrims, whose first Thanksgiving feast we’ll celebrate this week with turkey and football -- but I don’t recall any discussion of what the term “pilgrim” meant.  I don’t think we ever talked about what a pilgrimage was ~ what sort of journey a pilgrimage might be, or why the completion of a pilgrimage might be an occasion for gratitude.
Today, perhaps, we have a better idea of what pilgrimage entails.  “A journey to a sacred destination,” or so the dictionary tells us.  Any sort of journey at all ~ that’s another definition.  The journey through life, or the journey of faith ~ those are the sorts of pilgrimage we’re thinking about today.
Sometimes it’s easier to understand what a pilgrimage is, or what a pilgrim is, by thinking about what they are not.  A pilgrimage is not a vacation, with a vacation’s focus and fun and sports and sightseeing and relaxing.   A pilgrim is not a tourist, not someone watching from the outside, taking pictures and sampling food and music, but never really engaging with the place or people being visited.

A pilgrim – a pilgrim is what the people of Boulevard Church have become.  A pilgrim is a brave and bold seeker.  A pilgrim is a courageous traveler toward the future.  A pilgrim recognizes when the time has come to let go of the past and allow God to shape a new journey.  And let me tell you, the people of Boulevard have been honed into true descendants of the people who stepped aboard that tiny Mayflower boat in their willingness to look ahead rather than back.

Today, we gather to contemplate the pilgrimage through our lives of faith, the journey that has led us to this place, and is soon to lead us away.  What are the hallmarks of such a journey?
The people we encounter and befriend, surely.  The events, both great and small, through which our identities as pilgrims are forged.  The rituals we create, the music we sing, the food we eat ~ all mark us as a pilgrim people.

A pilgrimage is also marked by events we would not seek of our own volition.  The events which make us who we are, the times which challenge us and call us to rise to occasions we would rather avoid – those are often the unexpected, unwanted, and way too difficult events. 

And here we are, called to look for God and to give thanks for God’s provision and friendship along the way, even when the way seems hazardous and dark and empty.  Even when we find ourselves at those junctures where what we really want is to turn back.

Our first reading today, from the almost unheard of prophet Habakkuk, emerges out of just such a time.
I know this passage only because some years ago, during a particularly low period in my own life, a friend shared it with me, saying that it had meant a lot to him during a tough time in his own life.  And I thought of it immediately when I began to consider this day, and how we are struggling to praise God and offer our words of thanksgiving when we are so challenged by the loss of this congregation. 
Habakkuk writes from the midst of a time of total desolation: no blossoms, no fruit, no produce, no food, no flock or herd ~ and yet, he says, “I will rejoice in the Lord.”

I don’t know whether you have ever witnessed such complete devastation. But a lot you may be feeling it today. Why are we having a service of celebration and gratitude? We are losing our faith home.  We are embarking upon a time of disorientation, having to walk into unfamiliar places with no recognizable landmarks.    And we’re supposed to talk about rejoicing?  And exultation?

The Bible – and here’s one of the great things about the Bible, and about our faith as reflected in the Bible – the Bible is counterintuitive on these subjects.  It tells us to respond in exactly the opposite way from that we’re inclined to. 
It’s true that the Bible makes plenty of room for sorrow, and lament, as we talked about in this congregation a couple of weeks ago.  It gives us volumes of words of lament.  But in the end, the Bible says: Rejoice.  Exult. Give thanks. And you will grow in ways you cannot imagine growing, and love in ways you cannot imagine loving.

Your congregation is disbanded?  Your belongings are given away? Your connection to the neighborhood is broken? Your friends are scattered?  Exult in the God of your salvation!

What sort of a text is this, anyway?  What kind of faith tells people that desolation and destruction is not the end?  What sort of faith says that what you see now is not what will always be?
I’ll tell you what the answer is: It’s the faith you see represented by your actions and decisions of the past several months.

It’s the faith that has challenged you to be good and faithful stewards of this beautiful building, honoring it as God’s gift to you and recognizing that, when you could no longer care for it, God was challenging you, not to cling to it as a museum but to respond faithfully by letting it go. 
It’s the faith that has inspired you, even as you were preparing for your own departure, to continue to serve this neighborhood, to continue to open and your doors and provide food and clothing and friendship for our neighbors.

It’s the faith that has supported you as you have continued to be church, worshipping and learning and caring and serving together, even as you were coming to acknowledge that the Spirit was pulling us back from the decline imminent in circumstances too burdensome for us, and leading us to flourish elsewhere.
It’s an Easter faith, a resurrection faith ~ the faith that makes itself known not only through Habakkuk’s courageous words, but through the words and acts of Jesus and his followers.

Our second reading today is the famous resurrection story from the Gospel of Luke, the story of the Road to Emmaus.  And guess what?  It also tells a story of desolation followed by a new story of energy and gratitude. It’s a story featuring dismayed and unhappy people, just like us.  People on a journey, just like us.    

Now, in case you don’t quite recall this famous story, let me bring you up to speed.  It’s Sunday afternoon, the third day after the crucifixion, and two of Jesus’ followers are headed out of town, headed from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  They encounter a stranger in the road – something that often happens in pilgrimage walks, I might add – and while we know that this stranger is Jesus, they don’t.  So they begin to rant and wail, telling this stranger about all the terrible things that have happened, about how mystified and heartbroken they are, about how all their hopes have been dashed.
They sound like us on our bad days.  And even when Jesus, without identifying himself,  tells them his story, tells them all about how his life reveals all that has been laid out for them in scripture, their frustration is not eased.  But their natural hospitality does break though, and they invite him to stop with them for the evening and to done with them.  And it is only then, only in the breaking of the bread, that their eyes are opened and they recognize him. It’s in the breaking of the bread that they understand: that in this earthly pilgrimage, despite, or even in the midst of, all of the change and upset and turmoil we experience, the risen Jesus appears, offering sustenance for the journey and hope for the future.  And making it possible for us not merely to go on, but to thrive, to flourish, to fulfill God’s dreams for us, and to respond in gratitude for all that we have been given and all that we are called to become.

Did you ever wonder what happened to those pilgrims on the road to Emmaus? I’ve been wondering about them this week, and – I think, I think that they became us.  I think that we are them.  They ate the bit of bread that Jesus offered them – just as we are about to do – and they were roused from their sorrow, their hearts were set on fire, and they went on their way.  They saw what we are called to see – that what we think is the end is not the end, that death does not have the final word and that sorrow is not our final destination. They went toward – toward Jerusalem, toward what would become the beginnings of the church, toward a future they could not have imagined.

We, too, in our gratitude for the presence of Jesus among us, strengthened by the meal he shares with us – we, too, are drawn to a future we do not know.  Seeds of hope have been planted among us and, while we may not see their full flowering, we are called to tend them so that they grow and flourish.  We are called to take the gifts we have discovered and honed here at Boulevard and share them on the pilgrim road, where we will sojourn with new travelers to new places. In the words of Oscar Romero, 20th-century prophet to the people of South America: The Kingdom of God
 . . . is beyond our vision.  We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.  . . .  We are prophets of a future that is not our own.”
So: Go forth, dear Boulevard friends. Go forth and rejoice in the Lord, giving thanks for all that your life has been here. Remember your friends, remember our window and banners, remember your worship and your service in this place – remember all of it -- with thanksgiving and love.  But go forth and live into your calling as an Easter people, as a resurrection people, and as Emmaus pilgrims, in gratitude for the road behind, and for the road that opens ahead. Go forth as prophets of a future not your own, and walk straight into the love of God.  Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Many prayers for you as you preach, lead, bless, celebrate, and move on to the next chapter!