Where do you go to find God?

Certainly, one need not go further than a time of quiet prayer or into the scriptures.  Or, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20).

But there was an ancient practice in which people set out on pilgrimage to reach a holy place that, because of it’s history and association with Christ, or the apostles, or other giants of faith, it was expected that one might have a particularly significant encounter with God there.   Interestingly, many pilgrims find that their encounter with God happens most powerfully when they are on the road, before they even arrive.

At Blue Ridge Presbyterian Church, we’re embarking on a time of pilgrimage between August 5th and August 19th.   We won’t be going to Jerusalem, but we will travel together each day in prayer, through scripture, in an ancient recounting of a Holy Land pilgrimage, and more contemporary tales of travel (some serious, others not!) from BRPC members.  These prayers, scripture and pilgrim stories are distributed through a daily email.  If you would like to receive them, post your email for me in a comment to the this blog and you’ll be included.

If you were not in church this past Sunday, you catch up on the beginning of our pilgrimage by reading my sermon below or watching a video of it on our website.  I look forward to having you join us on the pilgrimage as we draw closer to our Lord and to one another.

Peace and grace,
Pastor Pat Jackson

“Pilgrimage – Setting Out”

By Rev. Pat Jackson

Blue Ridge Presbyterian Church

August 5, 2012

I need to let you know that this sermon is going to cost you $2,175 – per person.

I’ll get into that in a minute.  But I first want to ask you if you have ever had the experience of being a couch potato.   This means sitting on a couch for at least 3 hours at a stretch to qualify – but true, respectable couch potatoes can spend upwards to 5, 7 or for those in elite company, 10 hours on a couch – with bathroom breaks of course.    A couch potato could be napping, reading, doing crosswords, talking on the telephone, snacking, playing video games, or, the classic couch potato activity, watching TV.   Perhaps a football game.  Or two.  Or, maybe someone has had the experience of watching not just the first Jason Bourne movie, but then also the second one.  But not just the second one, but the third one.

There are probablly a number of challenges or downsides that one can think of regarding being a couch potato.  But the one that I’m thinking of this morning is that being a Christian means being on the move.

That’s made clear across scripture – both Old Testament and New.   The Lord speaks with Abram and tells him “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation.”  Go.

The people of Israel go on a 40 year trek to the promised land.

Ruth says to Naomi, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more . . . and the two of them went on”.

Deuteronomy specifies that Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God at the place that the Lord will choose”

Jonah heads off on an ill-advised cruise.

Many of the people of Judah are carried off to Babylon – and then return.

The Hebrew Bible is full of people on the move.

In the New Testament, our Lord himself is born to a couple on the road who then must flee to Egypt after they receive gifts from wise men who have traveled great distances.

Christ’s own ministry takes him from place to place.  And then his first words to the disciples are NOT “Sit down and listen to me.”  Or, “Share a meal with me and let me fill you in on a project I want you to consider participating in.”  No, it’s just those simple two words of “Follow me.”

And then of course we get the Apostle Paul trekking all over the ancient world to spread the gospel.   Can you imagine the bonus points that Paul would have racked up if they had travel reward programs back then?

So being a Christian is about being on the move.

In the first centuries of the early church, some Christians began the spiritual practice that put them on the move – I’m talking about the practice of going on a  pilgrimage.

Some of the first pilgrimages were to the Holy Land so that the travelers could see the places where Christ and the Apostles walked and led their ministry.  John Chrysostomos,  Archbishop of Constantinople in the year 396, said “Seeing these places where [the apostles] sat or where they were imprisoned, mere lifeless spots, we often transport our minds thither and imagine their virtues, and are excited by it, and become more zealous.”

Elements of pilgrimage included rising, seeking the way, losing the way, encounters with others along the way, eating and drinking, praying and worshiping, laughing, seeking shelter for the night, sleeping, experiencing nature, arriving, returning home, and through it all, drawing closer to God.

One theologian notes that “Pilgrimage sites attract the tourist and the pilgrim, the young and the old, the healthy and the sickly, families and individuals, the devout and the curious, the alms-giver and the pick-pocket, the soul-searching and the vendor . . . The pilgrimage itself mirrors not only the most basic reality of the church, the people of God on the pilgrimage of life, but even more so the reality of humanity itself, human beings together on the way to the mysterious beyond.”

One of the first written accounts that we have of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, strikingly for the 4th century, is from a woman, a nun named Egeria who traveled from Spain to the Holy Land between 381 and 384.  She made painstaking notes on her total journey and said:

“I know it has been a rather long business to write down these places one after another . . . but it may help you loving sisters, the better to picture what happened in these places when you read the Holy books of Moses.  . .  some of the places were to the right and the others to the left of our route, some a long way off, and others close by.  So as far as I can see, loving sisters, you must take it that the Children of Israel zigzagged their way to the Red Sea, first right, then back left again, now forwards, now back.”

Beyond seeking to follow the steps of Jesus and the apostles, the pilgrimage was meant to be a time of separation from the status quo.     This separation was often symbolized by taking a new name, discarding of the usual wardrobe, writing a last will and testament, cutting one’s hair, speaking a new language.

Not everyone, of course, could go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.   So early pilgrims, upon their return, initiated two spiritual practices that were meant to allow those who couldn’t travel to Jerusalem to experience, at home, the physical and spiritual experience of seeking God.  One was the making of labryinths – where one could experience the contemplation of the winding journey that draws you to a God-centered place.  A second spiritual innovation introduced by returning pilgrims was the Stations of the Cross, which simulated the pilgrims own walk from the place of Christ’s condemnation to his crucifixion on calvary.

In addition to these practices, local pilgrimages sprang up to sites around Western Europe of Christian martyrs, where miracles were believed to have occurred, or where holy relics were kept.

There were abuses of these traditions.     The famous preacher Fulk de Neuilly in the 12th century was known for his holiness.   Crowds would flock to hear him and try to tear off his clothing.    On one occasion, he thwarted the crowd by saying that there was no point in tearing off pieces of his clothing because his garments had not been blessed.  But instead,  Neuilly said he would pronounce a benediction on the clothes of a bystander in the crowd.  As soon as he finished making the sign of the cross over an unsuspecting man, the crowd pounced on him and ripped off all his clothes — leaving the man completely naked.

There were critics within the church of some of the practices.  These abuses, especially the practice of using pilgrimages as a way to ‘earn’ one’s entry to heaven, led Luther to say flat out:  “All pilgrimages should be stopped!”  And as the Reformation took hold, those places in Europe dominated by protestants did indeed see a near complete halt in pilgrimages.

The practice of going on pilgrimages continued among Catholics, and many of the abuses were addressed.  Today, Catholic pilgrimages are booming.  You may have heard of Lourdes, the small town in France where Catholics believe that St. Bernadette encountered the Virgin Mary in 1858.   The town has a population of just 15,000 but a quarter-million pilgrims approached the shrine here during Holy Week and  –   6 million people will visit over the course of the year.  As a result, the village of Lourdes has more hotel rooms than any city in France outside Paris.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Protestants recaptured the practice of pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Rome and other sites to retrace the footsteps of Christ and the apostles, to better understand the Biblical witness, and to draw closer to God.  In the 1970’s, some Presbyterian churches began to adopted the practice that came from Spain of pilgrimage weekends.  There are now Presbyterian pilgrimages organized in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carollina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia.

Great Plains Presbyterian Pilgrimages are held twice each year, in Nebraska and Iowa.  Their 12th pilgrimage is set for Oct. 18-21.  This September, meanwhile, will mark the 114th pilgrimage of the North Carolina Presbyterian Pilgrimage.

Bill in North Carolina writes that “Pilgrimage was like “The Great Awakening” in my life.   Over the years, I was a Deacon, Elder, Praise team leader, Sunday School Teacher, and Youth leader, and I thought I knew Christ and His call on my life. Pilgrimage took everything I knew about Christ from my head and explained it to my heart. At Pilgrimage, God showed me how much He loves us, His unending grace and our response to His grace in the way we live our lives, our commitment to reading His Word and being His people. I made my weekend 15 years ago and am still seeing the ripples God started so many years ago.”

Sandra fom Omaha said “I agreed to attend the Pilgrimage because I ran out of excuses . . . I didn’t want the weekend to be over. I feel like I’ve had a heart transplant and I feel the Presence of Jesus in my heart.”

The cost of these pilgrimages are often around $160 per person.   That’s significantly less than the  $2,175 I quoted you at the outset of this sermon, which represents the cost of a ten-day trip to the Holy Land.    I actually would love to do that.  Could you imagine us sending a team of pilgrims to the Holy Land from Blue Ridge in a couple years?  To walk through Galilee, to pray in Jerusalem, and worship in Bethlehem?

Who knows.  But for now,  I’m inviting you to join me here in a 3 week pilgrimage of following our Lord, right here at Blue Ridge in Raytown.  I’ll send a daily email which will include a prayer, some scripture and other things to help mark our journey together.  And then over the next two Sundays, I’ll continue my preaching theme on pilgrimages.  On August 12th we’ll be ‘on the road.’    On August 19th, we’ll arrive at our pilgrimage destination.  We’ll discover how Christ is transforming us one-by-one and as a faith community that travels on the Christian road together.