The 16th Proper, August 23, 2015

In just 3 weeks I will begin a month-long pilgrimage to the city of Santiago in Spain.  For over 1300 years people have walked the Camino or Way to this destination where the bones of James one of Jesus’s original disciples rest.  The most popular route covers 500 miles across Northern Spain.

For a month I will essentially be homeless.   We will walk 14-16 miles every day carrying everything on our backs and staying at hostels we find along the way.  The journey will be a struggle.  There will be tremendous physical challenges including exhaustion, pulled muscles and tendons and blisters.  These are the challenges of blood and flesh.  But veterans of the Camino talk more about the spiritual and emotional challenges that occur on the journey.  I may want to give up because it is so hard.  I will certainly be afraid at times and lost and lonely.

There will be temptation to abandon the way and quit or to push myself too hard out of pride and a competitive spirit in a foolish way.  I will encounter other pilgrims whose behavior (especially the snoring) will be challenging to me.  There will be doubt and discouragement and I will probably feel like giving up half a dozen times a day.

In preparation for the pilgrimage I have been walking (not nearly enough!).  Recently I have gotten my pack ready with everything I think I’ll need for the journey.  After consulting with many people who have gone on the pilgrimage before me, I have some idea of what might be helpful and important.  The most critical piece of equipment are my hiking shoes.  After trying out a number of different options, I have settled on the ones I hope will get me over the rough ground without developing blisters.

The pack itself has to fit me well.  The belt around my waist is designed to carry all the weight so my shoulders and neck don’t get too strained.  I’ve got rain gear, including a marvelous poncho that will cover most of me and my pack in case of a deluge.  And the hat is critical.  It will protect me from the sun which beats down mercilessly and can cause an unwary pilgrim to collapse.

Every item has to be carefully considered.  Since I’ll be picking up this pack dozens of time a day and carrying it for hundreds of miles, only that which is most essential can be included.  Everything else has to be discarded.  The journey is too long and the challenges too great and the struggle too hard to waste my energy taking on anything that isn’t absolutely necessary.

My intention for this journey has changed since I originally conceived it.  I thought I would be walking trying to discern God’s direction for my life and ministry.

But now that I have been serving this congregation, I have a different intention.  I will be walking for St. Luke’s, for wisdom and strength and discernment for what God is doing in this community.  My prayer will be for this congregation and its mission, for those who live in the neighborhood who are hungry for the bread of life and for those who have lost their way.

And because I love St. Luke’s, I will be thinking of all the faith communities that face challenges and struggles in this time of dwindling congregations and the growing irrelevance of the church to so many people.  Who are we called to be?  What is essential to our faith?  What does it mean for us to be Church?  If we had to pack our bags as pilgrim people, what would we take on our journey?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot.  I’ve known plenty of churches that didn’t have a building to worship in.  They had to pack everything in each week, set things up and then pack it all away.  What do we really need to be the people of God?  What would be on your list?

The Israelites wandered 40 years in the wilderness with nothing but what they could carry.  When they got within reach of the Promised Land, their new leader Joshua warned them that it might become more difficult to follow God once they were settled in a land of milk and honey.  It would be easy to forget God once they were stable and comfortable and their shelves were stocked.  No longer would they need God to provide for them their daily bread. Pilgrimage had wonderfully simplified their lives and helped them to grow in trust.  Once they crossed over into plenty they would need to be reminded regularly what it means to choose God and to choose the true life that really matters.

The original name for Christians was the “People of the Way.”  We are still on a pilgrimage.  We carry with us the riches of the stories and history and poetry and instruction and lament that is the Holy Scripture.  We are people of the Word as well as people of the way and we must carry with us all that those who have gone before us in faith have entrusted to us.

We bring with us bread and wine, oil and water.  The real presence of the living Christ in the holy meal brings us back together and re-members us as the very Body of Christ, joined with all those who want to know and follow Jesus.  As bread is broken and shared and wine is blessed and poured we share in the great banquet that connects us with the past and the future and where everyone is fed.

The water of baptism refreshes and renews us.  In it we are named as God’s beloved and washed as tenderly as a mother bathes a child.  We are united with those of every race and tribe and language, equally valued and cherished by God.  The oil of the Spirit comes upon each one of us to fill and comfort and guide and inspire.  In baptism we are marked as Christ’s own forever and God will never let us go.

What else shall we carry?  We carry love for our neighbor.  This is the love that enables us to let go, to sacrifice, to overcome our fears and resistance to touch another person and find there not a stranger but a being of infinite worth.  We bring with us gratitude, a spirit of thankfulness in all things.  We bring generosity that enables us to empty out what we have over and over again and to find that there is still more to give.

And we bring everyone with us.  The pilgrimage isn’t complete until everyone has made it to the journey’s end.  It is our commitment to follow Christ alongside others that makes us the people of God.

When Paul finished his letter to the Christians in Ephesus, he made a list for them of what they would need to complete the journey and to fight the good fight.  He knew how hard this Christian life can be.  He knew that they would grow weary and be overwhelmed.  He urged them to be strong, not in their own strength but in the strength of the Lord.  He believed that they would make it through with God’s help.

And so he told them.  Put on the belt of truth.  Let the weight of all you carry be grounded in the truth.  When truth is at the core, you will be able to bear the load.

Cover yourself with the breastplate of righteousness. Let your integrity and your right relationships protect you from the storms.  When you are right in your relationship with God, when your conscience is clear, when you are honest with God and yourself then you will be whole and healthy.  Nothing from without will be able to invade or pollute you.

For shoes, wear whatever helps you to be ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  Get ready to run towards any opportunity you have to bring the blessing of peace and hope and joy that is the good news of God in Christ. Words matter but so do actions.  Blessed are the feet of the one who brings good news.

Put on the helmet of salvation.  A good hat can save your life!  God will cover you and keep you safe so that you can go where God calls.

Take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  God’s words come to us in Scripture and are written on our hearts and spoken to us by messengers and prophets who remind us over and over again of the heart of the matter.

Finally, Paul asks the people to pray.  He asks them to pray at all times.  He asks them to pray for all the saints. He even asks them to pray for him.  We are each of us on a pilgrimage.  Prayer may be the only thing that gets us through, our own prayer, but also the prayers of others for us.  The way is challenging.  It can seem overwhelming and hopeless at times.  God has provided us as individuals and as a church with what we really need to make it through to the end.

I will be praying for you with every step.  I know you will be praying for me.  What a party there will be when we reach our destination!

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson