The Longing of Pilgrims

A sermon based on 1 Kings 8:22-30 and Psalm 84 preached August 23rd, 2015

The Camino de Santiago is a long and arduous path through France and Spain. Millions of hikers, adventurists, and Christian pilgrims have walked its way since the Middle Ages. Before the time of Christ, the Camino de Santiago was a major trade route—a well-worn circuit for merchants, but when, at the end of the route, a shrine and cathedral was built to venerate Saint James in the Northwest reaches of Spain, where tradition has it that the bones of the apostle are buried, the Camino de Santiago became a highway for saints—a passage way for Christian pilgrims from all around the world. The first recorded pilgrimage dates back to the 9th century. Today, hundreds of thousands walk on the Way of St. James each year. They start out from their doorsteps and trek across all of Europe on foot, with everything they need for the 200-900 kilometer journey strapped across their backs. There’s a way to get there from anywhere in Europe, and folks will point you along the way as you go.

If you travel the Camino de Santiago, bring a bit of money with you. There are hostels along the way. You get a bunk and breakfast for around 10 Euros a night—maybe even 6 if you don’t mind roughing it. And you also need your passport handy because all along the way of St. James, you’ll want to stop at the churches, the tourist offices, missions, and all the little watering holes along the way to get it stamped.

The Camino de Santiago is an unhurried adventure. There’s no rush. With a huge pack on your back, you’ll only be able to walk so fast anyway. The venerated Cathedral to Saint James will be your destination, but getting there means little if you haven’t taken the slow time to enjoy the way. Most pilgrims who walk the whole 900 kilometers—even the slowest of them—can get to St. James Cathedral in a month. You’ll want to take in the landscape while your there.

On high holy days, you can make your way to the heart of the 950-year-old church and find eight red-robed monks swinging long ropes that set in motion a huge pendulum that’s attached to the roof of the cathedral, the pots at the end of the pendulum reaching speeds of up to 50 miles an hour as they swing across that space dispensing incense across the massive sanctuary.

And since you’ve made it to your destination, you’ll want to visit the Pilgrims Office while you’re there. As long as you’ve walked a minimum of 100 kilometers, you can go there and show your thoroughly-stamped passport, state that your journey was religiously motivated, and you will receive your credencial there—your certificate of completion. But most who complete the pilgrimage say that the sights at the Cathedral and their credencial in-hand are only capstones to the journey—it’s the camino, the way itself, and the longing for its end that is the heart of the matter.

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Psalm 84 is the travelogue of a pilgrim. The words would have been sung as pilgrims made their way to Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. It’s in this song that we hear the eager praise of worshippers who long for—even yearn to be in the Lord’s courtyards.

These Jewish pilgrims would have traveled in bands, taking care of each other along their way, making their way from watering hole to watering hole, setting up camp each night together whenever the sun set in the west and they could no longer see ahead. As long as they had the financial means, this was an annual pilgrimage for many of the Hebrew faithful. They sang songs like this one to pass the time, to worship the God whose House they were walking towards, confident that even as they walked through the wild terrain of dessert and wilderness, God would provide a way for them—keeping them fed and hydrated. They sang of God’s power to give them springs of water even in the driest of places. This is the way that God made. They just walked it. Instead of worrying about where the next drop of water or the next morsel of food might be found, they enjoy each step along the way as the parade of pilgrims moves toward the Temple in Jerusalem, singing refrains about how marvelous it is to be in God’s house—longing to be near God.

Yes, it’s true that God is everywhere—that we are in the presence of God no matter where we go. Yes, it’s true that God is in us, among us, and well beyond us at all times—that we have been promised that if we search for Him, we will find Him right where we are. That’s the promise of our God who is called Emmanuel, God-with-us. But don’t we find ourselves needing more than that? Like the writer of Psalm 84, don’t we sense that God’s presence is more palpable in particular spaces, whether they’re Temples, sanctuaries, conference centers like Montreat or Bluestone, beaches or retreat centers? There are thin places that seem to exist on the borders and boundaries of our world and another, high space, where God’s presence is constant and strong and always breath-taking. That is the longing of pilgrims.

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Pilgrimages though, however long they may be, are only temporary. Conferences come to an end and so do trips to the beach. Most often we find ourselves right here, back home in Barboursville where we run around in our daily patterns—where our movements aren’t along mountain pathways or the shore. Most of the time, we find ourselves in our regular circuits: home, school, store, church; home, school, store, church. Week in and week out. But this too is a pilgrimage. It’s the everyday, mundane sort. But it has something to show us—something for us to encounter as we move along its way.

Presbyterian pastor, Eugene Peterson, calls discipleship a long obedience in the same direction. The road we walk as disciples of Jesus is longer and snakier and trickier than all the others. The way isn’t always clear. It’s sometimes lonely. Sometimes arduous. And always harder to walk, but God covers it with blessings anyway.

Peterson talks about a book written by another author called The God Who Stands, Stoops, and Stays. Those are the postures God takes: God stands, He’s foundational and dependable; God stoops, He kneels to our level and meets us where we are; and God stays, He sticks with us through hard times and good. God is alongside of us for every one of our journeys—however goose-bump-enducing or yawn-inspiring they may be—and God covers them with blessings. And if our Psalm is any indication, we should also bless God with each one of our steps.

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Think of the trek of one of those Temple-travelers or what it might be like to walk to 200 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago. Lots of gear to hull? Yes, there will be back pain, but bless God anyway. Elevations to climb and descend, and the sore thighs and hamstrings that go along with them? Yup. Bless God anyway. People with you who keep asking “Are we there yet?” Bless God anyway. Did you have a fight with our travel partner who looked at the map upside down and steered you the wrong way? Do you feel like wringing their neck? Bless God anyway. Are your feet so sore that all you can do is grumble? Bless God anyway. At the end of your journey, are you ashamed that all you could manage to do throughout your journey was grumble? Bless God anyway. Saint Catherine of Sienna once said: “All the way to heaven is heaven.” So bless God anyway.

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Every movement we make is a pilgrimage into God’s presence—a sacred journey we take. Each step is a prayer—one in front of another. When we set out in the way of faith, every bit of it is a way to bless God and to teach ourselves and each other to rely upon God’s blessings for us. And the whole purpose is to find ourselves at the culmination of our journeys and appear before God, to shout aloud our praises, and give away ourselves in wonder and awe of all that God has done for us—guiding us along, making a way for us, nourishing us as we walk along our pathways, and calling us to His courtyards. That’s the movement of our lives. That’s our purpose as well as our goal. That’s the longing of pilgrims: To praise God and enjoy God forever! As Eugene Peterson writes in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction,

All the movements of discipleship arrive at a place where joy is experienced. Every step of assent toward God develops the capacity to enjoy.

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So, are you a journey person or a destination person? Do you like the way there, or are you more in it for what awaits you at the end? Do you like the feel of gravel beneath your feet on the bottom of your hiking boots, or are you in this for the sites, sounds, and smells of St. James Cathedral, and the credencial at the end? I confess to liking the destination, but without the Camino de Santiago—all 900 kilometers of it—there wouldn’t be a St. James Cathedral at all.

It’s the paths we take along the way that matter most, that bless us most, that reward us most. The cathedral at the very end of our pilgrimage? Well, that’s only the last stamp in our passports.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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