We are a Pilgrim People

Nancy Bancroft — August 6, 2017
Readings: Genesis 12:1-9; Hebrews 11:8-16

When we here in the United States hear the word pilgrim, our first thought is usually of the Puritans, who were among the earliest European settlers of this country. This is particularly true around the time of Thanksgiving, when the words pilgrim and Puritan are often used interchangeably. The Puritans were a group of English Reformed Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who founded an activist movement within the Church, maintaining that the Church of England was only partially reformed. After first seeking refuge in Holland they made a decision to pursue religious freedom in the wilderness of North America. They boarded a ship called the Mayflower and these homeless wanderers pointed their little vessel toward a new home across the sea. William Bradford, the governor of their colony for thirty years, wrote about their leave-taking for America in his History of Plymouth Plantation saying, “They knew they were Pilgrims.” Just what does this mean? No longer were those people wanderers or refugees; they were pilgrims. Now they moved with purpose. They had heard the call of freedom, and they had resolved to pursue it. So what does this have to do with us?

In our second reading this morning Paul talks about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob saying of them that, “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth,” making it clear that they were seeking a homeland; a city of which God  would be the architect and builder. Paul was describing these prophets as pilgrims.

The religious meaning of the word pilgrim is often better understood in other countries, where pilgrimage is a more common religious practice than here in the U.S. Many people make pilgrimages to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, or to Lourdes in France, or Fatima in Portugal or even St. Anne de Beaupre  in Canada to experience the sacred; often as an act of faith in hope of some healing. A pilgrim, is a traveler going from somewhere to somewhere with a meaningful goal in mind.

The Scottish philosopher, Thomas Carlyle, said, “Life is a little gleam of light between two eternities; out of an eternity we come and into an eternity we go.” According to Carlisle’s imagery, in the beginning a door opens and we step out of eternity into time. Then the years pass and another door opens and we bow out. This gleam of light between two eternities can be a meandering or it can be a pilgrimage.  The pilgrim knows where he or she is going or at least wants to go, and is forever trying to get there.  For a wanderer there is no plan, no intentionality and his or her directions are determined by what is easiest or most expedient or appealing at the time.

As Christians we believe that we were created for an eternal relationship with God; union with the divine. Because of this we have a desire deep within us for infinite goodness, happiness and love. We were made with the capacity and desire for Perfect Love, Perfect Goodness, and Perfect Peace. Nothing less than Perfect will fulfill that desire. Evidence of this longing for the infinite is clearly seen in our perennial restlessness and search for meaning and purpose in our lives. And we all know from experience, the Perfect cannot be found in this life.  As St. Augustine’s famous saying goes, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O God.” We are meant to be pilgrims. And like Chaucer’s companions on the road to Canterbury, we have a variety of tales to tell.

A pilgrim is one who passes through a constantly changing environment. As  pilgrims, no place where we abide at a given moment is to be a place of permanent lodging. A true pilgrim cannot rest at some stage of the journey as if it constituted the attainment of his or her goal. In order to be faithful to the vision which moves us in our pilgrimage, we must always pick up from where we are now and move on until we have reached our destiny. Because the situation is always changing we as  pilgrims are  constantly challenged to adjust; to enter the new, and though the new will also be temporary, to fully live in this new moment.

Pope Francis tells us that, The Christian life. . .takes the form of a grand adventure in which the Lord accompanies each believer every step of the way. Each moment of sorrow and struggle, every second of joy and delight purifies and strengthens us. . . The earthly life of a Christian then is marked . . . by a process of transformation through which we grow.

 If we look for it, we can see that throughout the Scriptures the call of God has led the faithful in both Old and New Testaments to regard themselves as pilgrims. Paul tells us that Abram, who became Abraham, was called to set out for a place, not knowing where he was going; but God called him, heard the call and obeyed it; and this is what makes pilgrims of people. The Apostle Paul had a magnificent sense of pilgrimage, and he expressed it this way: “Leaving what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). These are among our mentors.

And John’s description of the incarnation picks up this theme. The Word of God who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) Here the Greek term dwelt has the same root that means “tent” or “tabernacle.” Christ literally “pitched His tent” or “tabernacled” among us. Because of this, Christ is the ultimate Pilgrim. He came to this world to journey along with the children of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and us. In so doing, he modeled for us how to be a pilgrim.

God’s call sometimes leads and sometimes sends, and the destinations can be new and wondrous or even dark and dangerous. But it is not the destination that transforms biblical journeys into pilgrimages, it is the journey itself. And just as it was for the people in Scripture, our footsteps are set in the right direction when we recognize that God is our companion on our journey.

Do I let myself be transformed by God working through the changes that occur in my life?

And, as pilgrims we are not alone. Again we can see throughout the Bible; from Genesis to the Book of Revelation divine action forming and developing a people into a cohesive group. Our first reading this morning is the story of the beginning of God forming and developing this faith community; what is often referred to as the “people of God”. From the beginning God’s people have always been what we would call a “pilgrim people. The ancient Israelites were also pilgrims. Living a semi-nomadic existence in the desert, they had no permanent place to call their own. Even their place of worship was a tent—the tabernacle—that had to be taken down when the Lord called Israel to move and put back up when they established a new camp. These are our roots. We belong to a ‘community,’ we share ‘communion,’ we are a ‘church.’ We join a journey already started and charted by God. The Christian church is a pilgrim people.

Like each individual pilgrim the Christian community faces a constant need in history to adapt itself to each situation it encounters, and come to the end fulfilled and purified by the experience. We are a wonderful church and grateful for it. Yet, the Church of Christ: the community of faith can never be complacent and static in any given historical or cultural situation. Satisfying though the expression of our Christianity might be for us right now it does not represent the fulfillment of the Church. None of us are in full unity with the divine and as a people we still await the time when love and justice reigns and when all of creation is in harmony.  So we move forward.

What do we need for the journey?  First of all we need a leader. As the Old Testament recounts the beginnings of the ancient drama of becoming and evolving as people of God, we read in these Scriptures the story of them being led by their God to a place where they can dwell with Him, come to know Him and become more like Him. And repeatedly God leads through prophets whom he sends to remind His people of His love for them. None of these prophets were perfect people by any means, yet each one answered God’s call to lead and through their words and actions they revealed certain dimensions of God and helped God’s people become more cohesive and move forward.  As pilgrims on a journey we are preparing to welcome a new leader who will share herself, her understanding, her vision of the divine with us. Through her words and actions we will see glimpses of the divine in new ways, and if we are open, she will move us forward individually and as a people.

As we travel on our pilgrimage we also very much need each other.  We’ve all heard the phrase, “There’s safety in numbers.” It’s the hypothesis that, by being part of a group, an individual is less likely to be the victim of a mishap, accident, attack, or other bad event. But that’s only if we watch out for each other. In times of change individuals have different needs. It will be important to support our new leader and each other, to model openness and patience, and to be involved.

In our first reading this morning we heard these words, “Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord.” Whenever the people of God had to move, they picked up their tabernacle, brought it with them and set it up in their new location. Though they were directed by their leader, it was the community of people who dismantled, moved and set up their new church. They needed to remember that in the new, God remained with them. We’re all busy and we all have something to contribute as well. During this time of transition, as always, the health of our faith community will be vibrant in direct correlation to the proportion of its participatory members. If we each do what we can, all will be well.

There are lots of things that are helpful for a pilgrim to have when traveling, but a major requirement is sustenance. We need food and drink to survive any journey. For us, the Eucharist nourishes our souls and sustains us so that that we might persevere in this, our earthly pilgrimage. When we gather around the table of the Lord, the whole body of Christ in which we partake is made real. We are united with the risen Lord, and with one another, not only those around this table but also those around every altar in the world, along with those who have preceded us in faith and those who will follow us, one great communion prefiguring the unity of the one human family in God.

As a church we are a pilgrim people making our way together through history. And just as we can look to the Israelites or to the disciples or to the first Christians as models for inspiration, strength and hope, people here and now look to us individually and as a church family. Are we hopeful? Are we joyful? Are we at peace in the midst of change? Are we welcoming and supportive? In our church profile we say of ourselves,“We are Spirit-led; open to changing and improving our lives; we are flexible as a community, and embrace the challenge of growing in consciousness.  Let us commune now with each other and with our God, be nourished and strengthened so that we can continue to develop in the ways that we describe ourselves and in the ways God calls us. Come now, to the table.