A sermon preached for the First Sunday of Christmas at Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis.
“We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey.” Does anyone here own this particular bumper sticker? I know several people who own it. But, I grew up in Colorado, so granola-y statements like this were pretty prevalent. Often you’d also see the bumper sticker “A woman without a man, is like a fish without a bicycle” on the same car. That was a favorite of mine. There was also “My karma ran over your dogma.” I found that less compelling.
Of all of the granola spiritual statements that appear on bumper stickers, I confess this is my favorite: “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey, we are spiritual beings on a human journey.” The words are from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit priest and mystic. We use bumper stickers to provoke. We hold on to these quotes because they make us think, they reorient ourselves.
Teilhard’s words are informed by his faith, specifically the teaching of the Incarnation. The Christian understanding of Incarnation is most informed by the bit of scripture we have today from the Gospel of John. Luke and Matthew tell bits about Jesus’ birth. John doesn’t. For John, it is the principle of the thing, rather than the narrative. John tells us of the Word made flesh. In the beginning was the Word. The Word was God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The literal translation from the Greek would be “The Word became flesh and set up a tent among us.”
God came to dwell with us, and I’ve been struck this Christmas by the non-static vision of God’s dwelling, that when God came to dwell, God chose a tent. God lived among us, but the way Jesus lived was peripatetic, moving around from the get-go. Think about it. Over here in the south transept, is our manger scene we see Jesus’ first stop on the path. Earlier this week we listened to Luke’s story of Jesus on a journey in utero. If you read the Gospels, his movement just continued on from here. Jesus is always “on the road” to Jerusalem, or Bethany, or Capernaum. The Word set up tent, and then continued to move that tent around.
Have you seen or read about the series “Sacred Journeys” that has been airing on PBS? Bruce Feiler [Filer], the author of Walking the Bible, hosts this documentary miniseries about famous pilgrimages around the world. So far we’ve seen Lourdes, Mecca, Shikoku Japan, and Jerusalem. There are more sites to come. In the title sequence of each episode Feiler says, “Today organized religion is more threatened than ever, yet pilgrimage is more popular than ever.” His statement is challenging to us, the religiously organized, but I think he is right.
Bruce Feiler didn’t start us thinking about pilgrimage. He’s documenting a trend. The number of Americans has doubled in recent years walking the “Camino”, the ancient pilgrims’ route from the French border to the Cathedral in Santiago on Spain’s Northwest Coast, doubled. Thousands walk it each year. In the year 2000, The Church of England released an new collection of services called Common Worship a supplement to the Book of Common Prayer. “Pilgrimage” is one of the most repeated words in the prayers. Often the human life is described as an “earthly pilgrimage.” Even God is addressed as “God of our pilgrimage.” Pilgrimage is a theme, a trend, in spirituality today.
Rightly so, if we are students of the Incarnation. God chose to join us, but the metaphors of John’s strange poetry are specific. John does not say, “The Word bought a condo among us.” John does not say “God built a palace in which to receive humankind.” The Word became flesh and set up a tent. God chose to companion us in a journey. What is a pilgrimage if not a journey with God?
I find this idea of Christ’s incarnation as pilgrimage particularly compelling for those of us seeking a religious identity in today’s world. Partly, I think because pilgrimage takes us somewhere else. After this year in St. Louis, I’m ready to go. The shootings that happened down the street on Christmas Eve felt like just one more round in the ongoing saga of violence in our city. I’m ready to get out of here.
But pilgrimage is not about escape. True, most pilgrimages take you to a destination, to Canterbury, Mecca, or Jerusalem. But the destination is less important than who we become along the way. A pilgrim intends to be challenged and changed by the road, and there’s an invitation in these words from John’s Gospel: “become children of God.” What does that mean?
A pilgrim sets out to reach a goal, but that goal is about more than a physical journey. The pilgrimage is more an inner journey. Pilgrimage is about becoming a better version of yourself, it’s about growing into your potential. Can we glimpse a better version of ourselves? Can we walk intentionally toward our potential as a city, as a community? Taking up this journey is the work of Christmas, the work of following an Incarnate Word.
There exists a danger of pushing ourselves too hard to get to our destination. One of the most common reflections you hear from pilgrims is this realization that they’ve tried to pack too much into their journey. In an episode from Bruce Feiler’s show about the Buddhist pilgrimage that traces the coast of the Japanese Island of Shikoku in Japan, visiting 88 temples along the way, a young couple admitted that they tried to do too much. The route usually takes 45 days, and they were trying to finish in 38. They said they were rushing from temple to temple, not enjoying the time, not reflecting. They realized they were missing the point. They gave up on walking the whole route, and found themselves more deeply involved in the spiritual journey.
What a metaphor for our day to day life. How often are we trying to pack too much in? How often do we become human doings rather than human beings? How often do we treat one another badly because we’re feeling rushed? I know I’m often particularly guilty of that sin. I can be an utter grump when I’m feeling pressed to get somewhere. You know what word Jesus never said to his disciples? Hurry. Don’t you find Jesus’ lack of hurry a bit odd? The disciples were on the road all of the time, but Jesus never said, “hurry” to them. In fact, he was often playing catch up with them. He sent them on ahead.
I confess, I’m longing for a pilgrimage. I’ve been on some good journeys. I backpacked a lot when I grew up in Colorado. I spent a good deal of college, and the years after college, traveling around the world. But Having only a few weeks of vacation a year makes pilgrimages difficult to schedule , especially when your family and friends want you to spend your down time with them.
These days Ellis and I make time for some small pilgrimages. We spent a few days before Thanksgiving in Northern New Mexico, where we’ve visited a number of lesser known little shrines like the holy dirt-well at Chimayo (you heard me right, they have holy dirt) and the mission church famously painted by Georgia O’Keefe. There’s also lots of good New Mexican food and beautiful mountains. Life slows down for me on these short pilgrimages, enough to reconnect a bit with a sense of adventure, of mystery and awe. Where do you go for that re-connection?
Christmas celebrates God joining us in this life. John’s Gospel wants us to see life not as a series of checkboxes. Life is not meant to be a hurried progression from one goal to the next. Elementary school, check. High School, check. College, Job, spouse, house, kids. Check Check Check Check Check. Checkboxes are not the invitation of Christmas. Life can be approached as a journey together, and God’s presence can make that journey sacred. The Christian faith is an invitation to become a pilgrim in life, to awaken our sense of adventure, to prepare to encounter mystery and beauty in each day.
Teilhard’s words ring true for me this Christmas. “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings, on a human journey.” Spirituality is not something we do when we can find the time. Our whole life is pilgrimage, really whether we like it or not. We are invited to wake up to the journey we are already on. The Word made flesh invites us to share in an adventure. God invites us to be pilgrims, to learn to live in to our potential, to walk into a better version of ourselves. Where have you seen God’s tent among us lately? Where is your pilgrimage taking you? Who are you becoming with each step along the road?