More than Welcome: Progress on the Journeys of Faith
A common refrain in Episcopal churches these days, beautifully expressed at St. Mark’s, is this: “Wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome here.” I love the warmth of welcome; the sense of inclusion and respect. It’s equally important, however, for us to be mindful of the spiritual guideposts of the journeys we’re on, and to remember that the point of a journey is to make progress. One of the fundamental assertions of the Christian faith is that our lives are not aimless, without purpose or direction. The gift of Christian faith, teachings and community of Christians is that they help us make sense of the journeys we’re on, so that we might walk with greater courage. We can draw closer to the One who is both beckoning us, and, as in the story of the Road to Emmaus, walking beside us. As Christians, we actually know something about the journey of faith and can help one another, not merely with welcome, but actual progression on the path.
So today I’d like to briefly describe a few of the classic, archetypal spiritual journeys described for us in the Bible–and by archetypal I mean that the stories are as much about us, the ones reading and listening, as the characters in the text. See if you recognize the terrain of one or more of these journeys from your own life. If so, God may well speak to you through the insights and metaphors of these ancient texts, with a word of encouragement or guidance. Or you may hear something that might be helpful for another person that, if the opportunity presents itself, you might share.
The first journey I’ll describe is distinctive in the way we respond to the invitation to take it, for we do so almost entirely on intuition. We hear a call that others do not hear, that speaks to our souls, This is sometimes described as God’s still, small voice. In the book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, God calls Abram by name and tells him to leave his homeland. Others didn’t hear what Abram heard. And with no reported debate or protest, Abram gathers up his family and goes, leaving all that is familiar. It doesn’t make sense to us, as readers of the story, why Abram does it, anymore than we can understand why Jesus’ disciples, centuries later, would do essentially the same thing, pick up and leave everything to follow Jesus simply because he asks them to. It never makes sense to others; indeed, it often doesn’t make to ourselves what our spiritual intuition tells us to do.
On the spiritual journey guided by the inner voice of God speaking to us at the level of our deepest selves, the destination is important, but equally important is the transformation that occurs within us while we’re on the road. Abram was a different person because of the journey he took, as were the disciples, as are we when we venture out in ways that we have a hard time explaining to others, because we’re listening to a voice that no one else hears.
There can be a lot of pressure on us not to listen to that voice speaking; we can ignore it and often do. It’s also true that we need to test such inner directives, for not all the voices we hear inside our heads are of God. For those of us on the intuitive end of the spectrum of personality types, it’s especially important to have trusted persons to talk to about what we’re hearing. For our intuitions are often sound, but not always, and when they’re not, following them can be disastrous. Part of our task as Christian community is to help one another in the discerning of this kind of call and to honor it in ourselves and others. But when we hear and follow an inner call, there is nothing quite like it to give us a sense of Christ with us. I could tell you of several such experiences in my life–and suspect many here could as well. These are among the most significant spiritual events of our lives, often invisible to others, that set us on a particular path.
In the book of Exodus, Moses leads the people of Israel on another kind of journey entirely, out of oppression toward the promise of freedom. This is the journey of liberation, with possibilities and dangers all its own. There’s the threat of Pharaoh’s army wanting to drag them back into slavery and all the costly consequences of demanding freedom from those who benefit from their being enslaved. Later, there’s the threat of their own response to the stunning realization that freedom is also a difficult path. Whenever we find ourselves on freedom’s journey, it’s painful to recognize how other human beings benefit from our being kept down, or, if we’re on the other side of that relationship, how we benefit from unjust relationships. It’s also humbling to realize how strong the temptation is sometimes to willingly put the yoke back on. A part of us would prefer the simplicity and clarity of someone telling us what to do, rather than continue on the costly road of making decisions and taking responsibility for ourselves. For those who have walked the road from oppression to freedom and sensed God’s presence with them, this is the cornerstone of their faith, and one that makes solidarity with others seeking freedom all the more urgent. For God is a God of freedom. In Christ we are set free.
For those of you in the incredibly important, transformative teenage/young adult years, there’s a pull toward liberation of a different sort as you are increasingly called by life and by God toward horizons that are yours–not your parents or guardian adults. These horizons demand new levels of personal responsibility and maturity, which comes to you in stages, not all of them clean or easy to attain. With each passing year you become freer, as you claim increasing authority for your lives. But with that freedom comes responsibility. Likewise for parents, it’s not always easy to walk the path of appropriately letting go, while at the same time being both supportive and clear in the gradual transfer of life responsibility. As a parent of young men in their late 20s, I often find myself wistful for the days when my maternal instincts could be trusted. I need to hold them in check now and wait to see what my adult children need and request, rather than what I so want to give.
The people of Israel find themselves on the road again several hundred years after their road to freedom, this time out of their land of promise into the shame of banishment. This is the journey of exile, on which all that they have defined themselves by is taken from them. They’re gathered up by force and marched out on their own trail of tears from Jerusalem to Babylon. One of their poets writes of that terrible time, “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
The journey of exile takes many forms. We know that untold millions are forced to live as refugees around the world, far from their homes. There are thousands of people in the District of Columbia living in the exile of homelessness, deprived of any sense of belonging. There is the emotional exile that accompanies loss of any kind, particularly the loss of a defining relationship, physical capacity, or place in the world. The sense of displacement is what defines exile, and initially, we experience it as abandonment by God. But what makes the biblical experience of exile so powerful and instructive to us is that the people of Israel came to realize that God had not abandoned them at all. In fact, their awareness of God and reliance upon God was heightened by their unfamiliar and painful circumstances.
The spirituality of exile, while lean, is often so profound that in time we no longer regret the circumstances that took us on the journey we did not choose. The people who come out on the other side of exile are, paradoxically, among the most joyful, free, and powerful I know. They are utterly fearless, having faced and come through their greatest fears. They have an abiding sense of gratitude and awe of God’s love for them. They wouldn’t wish the experience of exile on anyone, but they are grateful for the person they have become as a result. Not all people who experience exile come out on the other side; that’s true for those on the journey to freedom and other journeys as well. But when we have no choice but to walk through the painful valley, isn’t it good to know that God is with us and can see us through to the other side? That’s why our role as stewards and seekers of spiritual strength is so important, why our relationship with God in Christ and the workings of grace in community are of immeasurable worth.
The brief, poignant journey at the heart of today’s gospel is spiritual terrain that we will all travel more than once before we’re done. In secular language, we might call it the “post trauma journey.” The disciples are clearly traumatized by the events culminating in Jesus’ crucifixion, and the reality of resurrection has not yet been revealed to them. They’re walking through the debris of their shattered world, from what they once knew to no destination in particular. No one knows where the village of Emmaus lay, and there’s no reason given for the disciples’ journey, although it’s easy to surmise. They needed to get out of town and breathe different air.
A ‘post’ time follows a traumatic event, but is still influenced by it. It is both difficult and revelatory. Any undue pressure to return to normal may actually thwart the delicate grace of a ‘post’ time. Researchers tell us that the effects of trauma linger much longer than we previously thought, and grace appears amidst the aftershocks.
But on the Emmaus, post-trauma road, Jesus meets the disciples. The Risen Christ meets the disciples and walks with them as their companion on the road. He comes in the form of a stranger and they do not recognize him. He listens to their story of disappointment and grief. He then speaks to them through the Scriptures and they feel power of his presence through the words. He waits to be invited to join them further. Then at table, he takes bread, blesses, breaks, and gives it to them, and that moment, they recognize him. It doesn’t seem to bother the disciples that he disappears, I suspect because they sensed that it was a mystical encounter all along.
So the Emmaus, post-trauma road, like others of our faith, is not only defined by its circumstances but transformed by holy encounter. That’s the common thread of all these journeys and others like them: God is with us–sometimes out ahead, sometimes walking alongside, sometimes in ways we aren’t even aware, carrying us, making it possible for us to get through the day. On the Christian path, we can know Jesus, as closely and as personally as we’re willing to let him in. But Jesus is not a bully. He doesn’t force his way on any of us; nor does his presence and love require us to pretend to be someone we’re not, or to deny who we are and what we know. Yet what a loss it would be for any of us to imagine that we’re on our own here, when he is so desiring to be a real presence with us–as companion, friend, teacher, healer, and savior.
The truth is that we’re all moving from where we are now to wherever it is that life is leading us. Each journey has its particular terrain, with lessons to teach, opportunities to consider, and tasks to accomplish. Yet no matter the journey we find ourselves on, whether we’re walking by intuition, or toward freedom, or with a sense of destiny or doing all we can simply to put one foot in front of the other, what we can be assured of is that Christ is with us. He will speak to us, saying different things depending on where we are. He will be reassuring in times of struggle, and more directed when we’re wavering from our true path.
In all likelihood, we won’t recognize him when he speaks at first for he generally speaks through the words and actions of others. Which, by the way, elevates our responsibilities to one another considerably. We may be the one through whom he speaks to another on a given day, something to consider when deciding whether or not to show up somewhere. We can also seek Christ in this place, at this altar, or any altar where bread is blessed, broken, and shared in his name. But the important thing to remember when we meet Christ here is that he will always meets us there on whatever road we’re on, offering the sustenance we need to continue from where we are to where the journey leads.
Now I’d like to say a word to my progressive Christians friends. Sometimes in the name of inclusion, we downplay or discount the priceless gift of Christ’s presence and love. When I was in seminary, which was during the height of the so-called culture wars in our church, I heard people say that the choice we needed to make was between Jesus and “the gay and lesbian agenda,” between the Bible and the culture’s call for acceptance of that which the Church had taught for centuries as unacceptable. But I was among those who said, that is not the choice at all. It’s because of Jesus and how we hear him calling us; it’s because of what we read in Scripture that we affirm the full inclusion of all people, including those who are gay, lesbian and transgender.
Similarly now I find myself in conversation with leaders of the Episcopal schools in our diocese, many of whom feel we must choose between our Christian identity and our welcome of children of other faiths, between teaching the Christian faith and learning from the faith traditions of others. Again, I say that is a false choice, for it is because of our Christian faith that we welcome children of all faiths; that in faithfulness to Christian teachings we strive to learn from the insights of other faiths. That’s what Christians are called to do.
In closing, there’s is a final journey I’ll mention, as reflected in the disciples’ decision, after their encounter with the Risen Christ, to return from Emmaus to Jerusalem. They had a spiritual encounter and they wanted to share it with their friends. Don’t be afraid, when you’ve been touched by the mystery of God, the presence of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, to speak of it–humbly, graciously, and with respect for others. As our presiding bishop would say to us if he were here: Don’t be ashamed of Jesus. Never hesitate to ask for what you need as you make your way through the terrain of the particular spiritual journey that is your life. People of St. Mark’s, as you extend your arms of welcome, as is your vocation and charism, do not forget the other gifts this community has to offer: hard won spiritual wisdom, ancient and contemporary insights; your unique witness to the living presence of Christ, with food for the journey and light to guide the way.