Sermon preached at Evensong on the First Sunday of Lent (1st March 2020) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached at Evensong on the First Sunday of Lent (1st March 2020) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

The Dean reflects on pilgrimage: ‘Beginning the Journey with Love’ 

 


 

Deuteronomy 6. 4-9,16-end & Luke 15.1-10 

When I was young, a long time ago, my mother used to take me and my twin brother to a particular shoe shop which measured our feet and made sure the shoes fitted well. Ever since then I’ve had trouble finding shoes to fit my odd-sized feet; but I needed a new pair a week or two ago as I’d worn through my current ones and needed some waterproof shoes with all this rain. So I went to the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford to try and find some shoes, hoping I might find a shoe shop like the one I used to go to: and after looking on every floor in the shopping centre, I found the modern version of that shop tucked away in a corner on the top floor, and they had just what I needed.

So I was glad I’d made the journey there and back. But did I make a pilgrimage to Westfield to relive my past? I don’t think I did - I just went for a pair of shoes. So what is the difference between a journey and a pilgrimage?

Some people go on a journey because they have to get away from someone or something; some go because they want to get to a destination; some set out on a journey because they love just to travel.

But whatever the reason you set out on a journey, you have to go in faith: trusting that other people won’t rob you, that your car will work, that the plane will fly, that you’ll be able to walk and make it to the end. All journeys involve some measure of faith, but not all are a pilgrimage. Many of you may have been on pilgrimage: but what was it that made you into a pilgrim?

400 years ago this year, the ship called Mayflower sailed from just along the River Thames to take refugees to America. And Americans still remember the Pilgrim Fathers – and indeed Pilgrim Mothers and children – as the early settlers who left the persecutions and trials of Europe to find freedom in the New World. But they’re not called Pilgrim Fathers because they were refugees or because they had a long hard voyage in a small ship. Settlers aren’t pilgrims. People who go out in faith for the sake of God are who you might call pilgrims.

There are different ways to turn a journey into a pilgrimage. One way depends on the motive for leaving: it requires having some measure of spiritual or religious seeking or awareness. Going to a Waitrose supermarket to buy some avocados and ciabatta isn’t usually a spiritual experience, however good their own label brands may be. But leaving on a journey for a religious reason is a beginning of pilgrimage.

Some of the people on the Mayflower were just travellers, or sailors; but the Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers saw their journey as God-given, a new Exodus, so that, like the people of Israel leaving Egypt, they could go and worship God freely as they chose. It was a spiritual quest they went on, to leave their old life and find God in a new way.

The second and classic way to do pilgrimage is to head for a religious destination – a church or temple or holy well or river or cathedral or holy community or spiritual person. It’s been happening for millennia: holy places and holy people, from Stonehenge to Jerusalem to Uluru in Australia, have drawn people looking for a spiritual experience, walking in the footsteps of their spiritual forebears, seeking connection with the divine. As with the Pilgrim Fathers, there may be mixed motives at work: the 14th century poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about the diverse nature of his pilgrim company, out for a religious experience and a good time, with worldly-minded monks, devout peasants and priests, and devious tradesmen, what he describes as ‘a group of sundry folk who had fallen by chance into company, pilgrims all as they rode for Canterbury’ to pray at the shrine of St Thomas à Becket, while telling each other racy and entertaining stories on the way.

Leaving for a spiritual reason, or arriving at a spiritual place – either of these can turn a journey into a pilgrimage. And a third way to be a pilgrim is to travel because of the spiritual significance of the journey itself.

That classic devotional book by seventeenth century Puritan preacher John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which sets out the journey through life to heaven, spends its time on describing the journey and hardly any time on what lies beyond. It’s the pilgrimage in company with God, the travelling in relationship, the spiritual growth through adversity, joy and hardship, which makes the pilgrimage: the arriving will take care of itself...

For the Pilgrim Fathers, leaving was the spiritual pilgrimage; for Chaucer’s pilgrims, arriving was the spiritual goal; for Bunyan, pilgrimage was about progress in the spiritual life. But underlying all three ways of looking at pilgrimage is something without which pilgrimage won’t get started, won’t get to where you want to go, and won’t bring lasting progress. Which is why this sermon has the title it does: Beginning the journey with love.

The reading from the book of Deuteronomy earlier in this service refers to the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, the call to follow God to a new place, the call on which the Pilgrim Fathers modelled themselves. But the reading begins with love: the call ‘to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’. If you don’t love and trust in something beyond you, if you don’t believe that there’s a purpose in your journey, then it’s only a journey. You can’t call it a pilgrimage, if you go without the hope that something, someone, greater than you will hold you, and you will be changed as a result of your pilgrimage.

From Luke’s Gospel we’ve heard read two simple stories told by Jesus, one about a man who loses a sheep and the other about a woman who loses a coin, and how they both set out to find the precious thing they’d lost. They go looking because they’re driven by love, by the sense of something missing, by looking for what is lost. They could have afforded to lose one sheep out of ninety nine, or one coin out of ten – collateral damage we might call it today, or factoring an element of loss into our budget calculations. But with the people in this story, with the God that Jesus knows, there’s no budget, no calculation, but every sheep and every coin and every person is noticed and cared about.

Luke tells us these two short stories because of an encounter between Jesus and his critics.
Tax collectors and sinners are coming to listen to Jesus: they’ve made a journey to have this spiritual experience, to encounter this holy man who accepts them without blame.

But the religious leaders are grumbling about how Jesus is ungodly and unspiritual, because he’s in the company of unholy people.
So Jesus tells the two stories about sheep and coins to show how God loves and looks for every person, and especially those who are lost in the wilderness of life, who don’t know how to change, who have no sense of direction, who have nowhere to go to, no pilgrimage yet in mind.

Why do the tax collectors and sinners come to Jesus? because they believe and experience that he loves them. Why does Jesus welcome the tax collectors and sinners? because he really does love them.

Why does Jesus go on his pilgrimage journey to the cross and to death and resurrection? because he loves them, and us too, sinners that we all are. And more than that: Jesus knows that he himself is loved, he himself is held by God his Father, and he can make his pilgrimage through passion and death because love lies underneath it all.

Whatever the reason you set out on a journey, you have to have some faith to go at all: you have to trust that you’ll get to the end, that other people won’t let you down, that your train will be on time, that your arrangements will all work out for good in the end.

And much more so with pilgrimage. We leave, we travel, we arrive, in the love of God, and trust that in and through our pilgrimage, we will be changed.

This year, 2020, is a year of pilgrimage for cathedrals, and you can find out more about it from the website www.englishcathedrals.co.uk – which you can find by searching online for the words ‘cathedral pilgrim’. You can even buy a pilgrimage passport in the cathedral shop in our crypt, to collect cathedral stamps and encourage you to have an encounter with pilgrimage.

Become a spiritual pilgrim this Lent, and walk on life’s journey as one held by the love of God. As the writer of Deuteronomy says: ‘The Lord brought us out from there in order to bring us in’; bring us into the love of the God who comes looking for each one of us and calls us to turn our lives into a pilgrimage towards him.