The United Nations estimates that in any given year between 300 and 330 million people go on a pilgrimage to a sacred place. By any estimate that is a huge number of people and the figure has risen substantially in recent times. Just in the last decade the number of people walking stretches of the Camino, as our friends Sandy and Gordon Lee are soon to do, has trebled. This tells us something. This tells us that no matter how secular our era may appear to be, people are soul thirsty and longing for purpose and meaning in their lives - and they are seeking out sacred places to address that longing.
People's lives can always be described in terms of pilgrimage, sacred journey. Every life has its twists and turns, its hills and valleys, its struggles and triumphs. For the Christian these are more sharply defined in terms of the journey of the soul back to God. This journey is described perhaps most famously in John Bunyan's spiritual classic The Pilgrim's Progress, which remains the most popular Christian book of all time aside from the Bible itself. @Christian, weighed down by the burden of sin, sets out from the City of Destruction, to find his way to the Celestial City. The trials and joys of his journey, from the Slough of Despond, to the Delectable Mountains by way of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, find resonance, as Bunyan intended, in all our lives. Everyone of us at some stage faces struggle, death, gigantic temptations of anger and folly and sheer idleness and all of us need at times the encouragement of others who bring the gifts of faith and hope and endurance. This is what it is to be a pilgrim on life's journey. This is what it is to be a human being, part of the people of God, set free by the cross.
Sometimes however it comes time to set out with particular purpose and to make an intentional pilgrimage. Now a pilgrimage can be very long and take us half way round the world and back, or we may not ever actually leave our own chair. What is essential is that a journey is made for a reason and with a purpose in mind. People go on pilgrimage for many reasons, but often it happens when someone finds themselves at a bit of a crossroads in their life. Perhaps they have been through sickness or significant bereavement. Perhaps the work that used to give them energy and focus has grown stale and no longer fulfils. Perhaps they have a longing to reconnect with their inner world and to seek for God. Perhaps they long to reawaken the sense of wonder and awe they had when they were a child. @Whatever the reason, pilgrims set out with a clear purpose in mind - to arrive at and spend time in a sacred place. Now for some of us that place may be interior, what is sometimes described as the cave of the heart, the place of inner encounter with the divine and may not require much in the way of physical activity. But for most pilgrims travel, and especially walking is essential, which is why our carnival display features so many shoes and footprints.
The quest to encounter God takes millions of people every year to sacred places around our globe, be it to Mecca, or the Ganges, Jerusalem or Assisi or Chartres to name but a handful. The journey involves surrender - of the need to be in control, of the need for certain comforts, of worry and concern about what is happening back home. On the road there is great equality among pilgrims. It does not matter whether in the rest of life you are a millionaire banker or a struggling student - on the pilgrim path all are one, enduring the same challenges and enjoying the same simple pleasures. People on pilgrimage meet simply as people, overcoming social divisions.
I hope that at some time in your Christian journey you have had or will make the opportunity for pilgrimage, for journeying with purpose to a sacred place. @But if that is not possible for you for whatever reason, take heart in recognising that this church and the newly created labyrinth are in themselves sacred places, places that people are seeking out with a sense of purpose. Just last week I was privileged to encounter a couple and a family who had come specifically to walk the labyrinth. They had seen the fences comes down and were ready to walk. And indeed the labyrinth itself is a pilgrimage in miniature and can enable all people to walk with the purpose of encountering God.
Over the next four days in particular this church and its grounds will continue to welcome many visitors. Some will come with the simple purpose of buying the best and cheapest plants in Toowoomba, or the best steak burger. But others will have deeper purpose, to find in the peace and tranquility of this place the solace for which their soul longs. Are we ready to welcome each and everyone of them as a fellow pilgrim to our sacred place? Are we ready to see in each face the face of Christ? Are we ready to ensure that everything we do and say encourages them on their quest to encounter the divine? I do believe that by the grace of God we are, and that in the days and years to come this sacred place will become more and more the place that people set out with purpose to visit, knowing that here the wellsprings of God's love and presence run deep.
So as the people of God in this sacred place let us continue on our pilgrim path, and have it as our purpose that no pilgrim leave without welcome and refreshment of body, mind and spirit. In the name of God who journeys with us. Amen.
by Penny Jones