This past week, our Bishop announced his Lenten Book, as he does each year. This year’s suggestion is “The Art of Pilgrimage” by Phil Cousineau. Having just returned from pilgrimage and planning a couple trips this spring and summer, I am thoroughly enjoying it. What I love most about the book is that Cousineau unpacks all of the elements of pilgrimages in ways that they can enrich our everyday lives, whether our journey is on the Camino de Santiago or to a favorite hiking spot or the grocery store.
When I was on pilgrimage in the last week of January into early February, we talked a lot about the difference between being pilgrims and tourists. As those of you who have been on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with me already know, our group prayed and sang at every holy site we visited around the Sea of Galilee, in Bethlehem, and in Jerusalem. Our Israel-Palestine time culminated with walking the Way of the Cross in the Old City of Jerusalem, surrounded by vendors hawking souvenirs, as well as people going about their business, as they would have on that same street when Jesus made the journey to Calvary. For me, making that walk while contemplating the last four or five years of my life and the next was a peak pilgrimage experience.
In the days that followed, I asked myself several times: why am I going to Jordan? Why did I even sign up for the Jordan portion of this trip? But I had,so I went. The time in Jordan had a different feel. There were more long bus rides, fewer prayer stops, and more reflection on history than spirituality. Our Jordan guide used the phrase “photo stop” a lot. We were no longer walking in the way of Jesus. Over lunch one day, a fellow pilgrim wondered whether we were no longer pilgrims, and were now tourists. I knew what she meant but her question spurred me to try to be consciously a pilgrim for the rest of the Jordan leg of the trip. I tried to enter each site with a sense of curiosity and an expectation to be surprised by something new.
We spent a day in Petra, as one does. If you haven’t been there, you’ve seen it in National Geographic or Raiders of the Lost Ark or both. Petra is located in the region named Wadi Musa, the valley of Moses. Moses passed through Wadi Musa in his long journey leading the people of Israel to the promised land. It was in Wadi Musa that he struck a rock and water flowed from it to slake the thirst of his followers. Later, the Nabateans built an elaborate system to direct water from that same spring into Petra.
From Wadi Musa Moses took his followers—with much wandering and many detours—up to Mt. Nebo where he was able to see the promised land, the land that he was not to cross into. His farewell speech is the entire book of Deuteronomy, perhaps the longest sermon any of us will ever read. In it Moses spells out—if you read all of Deuteronomy—what it means to choose life and prosperity. It does not mean choosing the prosperity of Egypt, it means loving God with heart, mind and soul. It does not mean obtaining the power of Pharaoh, it means canceling the debts of the poor, guarding against excessive wealth, protecting human dignity, and offering hospitality to strangers. Choosing life meant pleasing God.
The Israelites in their long journey to this moment when we find them are becoming a people. That is what the law does, and that is what wandering in the desert does—it creates a collective identity of a people ready, at long last, to cross over the River Jordan into the promised land.
Here’s the thing about the view of the promised land from Mt. Nebo: It’s always hazy. Hard to see. And what you can see is not a lot of milk and honey, but the dry Judean desert that stretches on for miles.
Sometimes, part of what it means to be on pilgrimage is not to see where you are going, but to still be engaged in becoming a people. That pilgrimage doesn’t end; we rarely arrive. Matthew’s gospel provides some concrete instructions for how to behave as a people-becoming-the-people of God along the way. Matthew’s Jesus teaches that to choose life, to be in community, means to be squeaky clean in our relationships with one another and in protecting the vulnerable. In today’s gospel, Jesus speaks of protecting women from the abuse that came with divorce.
I realize that the language of dismemberment for those who lust in their hearts is one of those things that gives Christianity a bad name. Suffice it to say here that when we behave lustfully, as we all do from time to time, whether we’re lusting after people or things, and when we behave badly, we suffer. Jesus wants to get his hearers’ attention by using some fairly colorful language.
The life that Moses sets forth before us, the life that Jesus expands upon, is life traveled in community, life lived interconnected with one another. It is there that blessings lie.
Sometimes pilgrims have a leader, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes pilgrims go on without their leader. Sometimes leaders change. Moses led his community through their wanderings in the desert and Joshua takes them the rest of the way. Joshua is a different kind of leader, with different battles to fight. Who the leader is is almost irrespective of the pilgrimage, and of the choices that Moses sets before the people.
If this were a sermon about Joshua, I’d have a lot more to say about Joshua getting the Israelites across the Jordan River and what all that means to us as Christians. What I will say now is that the work of a leader changes as the journey changes, and as God’s people change. Joshua’s work, like Moses’ work, was to lead the people of God into a hazy, rocky place where there are many, many more chapters of the story—books, even!—still to come. Obviously our journey is at times a hazy and rocky one.
Our pilgrimage of becoming the people of God and preparing for the land of promise is ongoing. Phil Cousineau says that the pilgrimage begins when we think we no longer know where to turn. Pilgrimage is the journey that we cannot not take. When we move through our lives choosing life and being open to what God has in store for us, then each week is a pilgrimage... I hope that each of you can enter each new week as pilgrims on this journey.