Are you a pilgrim, or a planner?
In many ways there is nothing wrong with being a planner. Good planners, for instance, can make a huge difference to our quality of life. Chaotic places and situations can breed anxiety and violence. Amid the challenges and complexity of our modern world, good planning is helpful and we also need some of it in our personal and community lives. Indeed, in our parish, we even have our own MAP, or Mission Action Plan! Spiritually speaking however, are we not always called to live our lives as pilgrims? This is at the heart of our scripture readings today. This is at the heart of our Lenten journey. This is at the heart of our Faith and salvation...
Leonard Cohen put it well in his song ‘Anthem’: ‘Every heart’, he said, ‘every heart to love will come but like a refugee.' That is part of what Jesus was getting at when he said that only those who lose their lives will save them. We only experience love, especially the love of God, when we are willing to let go: to let go of everything if required. Maybe that is why refugees are often great challenges to others in our world. For they remind us that, ultimately, we too are vulnerable and insecure, and that we can only find true safety in letting go and letting God. This is the great challenging truth at the heart of our existence. It is a great paradox. As Jesus puts it, we can only have life if we are willing to die to our current obsessions and possessions. If we try only to safeguard what we have, we exchange life for death. For the way of Jesus is the way of the Cross. Only through dying to self do we find life, here and now, and in whatever lies ahead of us.
Now I’d like to say that, personally, I am, first and foremost, a pilgrim. I know however that I am far too much merely a planner. For too often I cling to things, places, people or ideas. Too often I simply fall into the trap of acting as if it were possible to plan my life, and, with others, to plan the shape of our wider community and wider society. Which is all very silly. For I know that, in my life, it has been when I have let go of many important things that I have most been enriched: when I have let go of places, people and possessions; when I have let go of myself. Sometimes that has been very difficult, even painful. Yet, like falling in love, we cannot find new life without letting go of ourselves. Our hearts cannot come to love except as refugees. We must risk the pains of death to know resurrection.
This week, I am full of admiration for Kathy Appleby, our Admin & Communications Officer. Sad though it is for us, she has taken a brave decision to step out on a new stage of her life’s pilgrimage: moving in May to Melbourne to develop her vocation as an artist and graphic designer. There are no assurances but she is making a bold act of faith. It will, I believe, bring many blessings, even as she has to let go of many things, with little deaths for her, for us, and for others.
Being a pilgrim is a challenge. We expose ourselves to risk and to discomforts, even deaths, of various kinds. No wonder Peter was so resistant to Jesus’ message in our Gospel. He did not think that being a pilgrim was a good idea. Jesus, he thought, should plan a much better, and safer, lifestyle. Alas for Peter, that is not the way that God works: so Jesus told him so in no uncertain words. We cannot stand still, Jesus says to Peter, and to us. It is risky, but being a pilgrim is the only way to God’s fullness of life: to fresh and surprising rewards.
It is sometimes said that religious people are often planners rather than pilgrims; that we tend to be conservative, liking what we know, attached to routine, tradition and order. After all, change is stressful and such things can help us manage. Yet, as we hear Jesus’ words today, we are also rightly reminded of Abraham. Abraham shows us that being truly religious involves journeying with change and uncertainty. In his case, it was a journey of over a thousand miles, from the city of Ur on the Persian Gulf, across semi-desert, despite him being 75 years old. No wonder that Abraham complained on the way. Despite God’s promise about him becoming the father of a great nation, for a long time Abraham did not even have an heir. Yet he carried on and the promise was thereby fulfilled. For Abraham trusted God and believed. As such, he is the great biblical model of faith for us, and the quintessential pilgrim.
Can we then prove ourselves to be true heirs of Abraham by responding, like him, to God’s call in our lives? Can we, like Abraham, grow as pilgrims? Can we, like Abraham, and unlike Peter, trust in God in the midst of the unknown? We don’t know what lies around the next bend. Yet, in spite of failures we are called to journey on: to the place where our hopes will be realised, and where our true life will begin. Let us then take courage for our own pilgrimages and take up our cross. Trusting in God, let us live life’s journey to the full, planning where it is helpful but always open to the God’s fresh promptings, rejoicing in our hope for the future. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.