Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The First Stone (June 14 2015)

Homily:  The First Stone.  June 14 2015

It’s good to be back. . . 

Guylaine and I spent the last month in Northern Spain, walking the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, the Camino.  You may remember that on the Sunday before we left, John came up here and told us about one of the sites along the Camino, Cruz de Ferro, and he brought two stones which you passed around and then gave to us to take to Cruz de Ferro and leave them there.  This morning I want to tell you the story of one of those stones.  It’s not a linear story, because the Camino has a way of messing with your sense of time.  Things happen, thoughts emerge, words are said.  Making connections and drawing out meaning happen in their own time, with little respect for chronological order.

Every journey has a dual nature.  There’s the journey outwards, traveling to distant lands, encountering different cultures, making new friends and going to places you’ve never been before.  And then there is the journey inward, the journey that takes you to destinations within yourself, some of which may be familiar but some of which may also be places you’ve never been before.  It is the mirroring of these outward and inward journeys that makes walking the Camino a powerful and rewarding experience.

One of the insights I had on the Camino was that Jesus spent most of his life walking, walking with his disciples, his companions along the way.  And there is something about walking which lends itself to spiritual exploration.  Perhaps it’s the rhythm.  Perhaps it’s because we have lots of time.  Perhaps it’s that mirroring of the outward and inward journeys that I experienced.  In today’s gospel, Jesus is walking with his disciples, somewhere in the rural part of Galilee.  And as they walk, they ask him questions.  “What’s God like?” they ask.  “What do you mean when you tell us that the kingdom of God has come near?” 

And so Jesus points to the field where a man is sowing seed and says “the kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and it grows, and he does not know how.”  And then they walked some more, until Jesus spots a bush with yellow flowers which produces a tiny seed. “You want to know what God is like?  Imagine a tiny mustard seed sown upon the ground which grows into the greatest of all shrubs.”  And they kept on walking.

That’s what we do on the Camino.  We walk.  We talk.  We think.  We look, we listen, we smell.   One morning I walked with an American woman named Lori.  We started talking.  I asked her a question.  She hesitated for just a moment. And so I said to her, you can give me the long answer if you want, we have time.  And so she did.  She reached way back in her life and spent the next hour telling me her story.

Some people walk the Camino for specific reasons.  They might be between jobs.  They might be asking the “what am I going to do with my life?” question.  They might be trying to leave a relationship behind or figure out whether to embark on a new relationship.

I went to the Camino without a specific agenda, at least not one that I was consciously aware of.  In fact, I intentionally spent the first week trying not to bring any agenda to my thoughts, instead allowing the walking and the encounters to open me up.  Later I realized, and only as my walking was drawing to an end was I able to articulate, that my Camino did have a purpose, and that was to come to know God and to know myself more deeply.  Maybe that’s the underlying purpose of any pilgrimage.   And that brings me back to the story of the stone which you gave me.

Cruz de Ferro, the iron cross, is located at the highest point of the Camino, some 1500m above sea level.  It is a tall slender cross, not particularly impressive in itself when compared to some of the beautiful crosses encountered along the way.  What is impressive is the large pile of stones at the base of Cruz de Ferro, as high as a house, with each stone having been left by one of the millions of pilgrims who walked the Camino before us.
 The tradition is that each stone represents a letting go of something, the unburdening of a weight carried by the pilgrim but now released.  That tradition is grafted onto an even more ancient tradition that tells us that it is upon the mountain top that we encounter God.

In the morning I began the ascent to the mountain top, some seven kilometers away.  Halfway there I stopped for breakfast in the last village before Cruz de Ferro, and as I was leaving I opened up my pack and took out the two stones you gave me.  I carried one in each hand as I walked.  It was a beautiful, clear, blue-sky morning.  I knew that the stones I carried were sacred, having been blessed by you as you passed them hand to hand, carrying the intentions and thoughts of some of you.  I hadn’t actually given any thought as to what those stones would mean to me, what it was that I might need to let go of, what sort of unburdening.  But walking the Camino has a wonderful way of giving you the thoughts you need when you need them.  As I walked those last few kilometres, it became quite clear to me what the stones were for me.  As for the one in my left hand, the smaller one, well that’s a story for another day.  The larger stone in my right hand came to represent all the things that prevent me from experiencing forgiveness. 

Now that came as a total surprise to me, because I didn’t think I had an issue with forgiveness.  Heck, I’ve even preached sermons on God’s grace, on how God forgives us, how God sets aside all of our issues and brokenness and misdemeanors and loves us, now, just as we are.  But it was as if a voice said to me, “Sure, you know all about forgiveness in your head, and your theology of grace isn’t bad at all.  But have you experienced it?” 

And I remembered there was that thing that I still felt badly about, that I still try to justify every so often rather than just accept forgiveness.  And then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I spend a lot more time and energy trying to justify myself than I do accepting forgiveness.  I like being right, I like being good.  In fact I like being better than other people.  My competitiveness, my tendency to compare myself to others, my desire for self-justification, my pride in accomplishments:  as I walked up the mountain, I realized, or you might say I was taught, that all of these things actually get in the way of forgiveness and create an inability in me to accept at the deepest level that I am forgiven.  And so, I would have to let them go.

Forgiveness is an ancient theme on the Camino.  In the middle ages, the reason that pilgrims walked the Camino was to receive forgiveness.  About ten days before the end of the Camino there is an old church that dates from the middle ages in a village called Villafranca which has a door called the Puerta de Perdon.  The door of forgiveness.  Mercy.  Pardon.  Pilgrims who were too sick to make it over the Galician mountains to Santiago were able to receive forgiveness at the Puerta de Perdon.  These days, we often smirk at the superstitions of the middle ages, and ridicule the church for its practice of indulgences.  The notion that forgiveness is obtained by walking seven hundred kilometers or more to see the relics of a saint seems silly to us, and, at face-value, is also bad theology.  God’s grace is freely given.  Whatever was needed for God to forgive was done through the mystery of the cross.  Walking hundreds kilometers on bruised and blistered feet adds nothing to what God has done.

But despite this theology of grace, how many of us in our own day truly experience forgiveness?  How many can forgive themselves and others?  How many of us struggle with doubts about self-worth?  How many still experience guilt?  How many know in their hearts that they are loved, with no strings attached?  How many are still captive to the brokenness of shattered dreams and crumbled relationships?
God wants to unburden us from all these things.  Forgiveness, grace is freely given.  But what does it take for us to receive it, to accept it, to experience it deep in the core of our being?  Perhaps the ancient beauty and mystery of the Camino is that the outward journey really does mirror the inward journey that we need to make to come to an acceptance of forgiveness.  When a pilgrim of the middle ages came to know that she was forgiven at the Puerta de Perdon, was it because of the path that had been walked, or was it something much deeper?  Perhaps it was because over the course of those many kilometers she had come to know God as a gracious and forgiving God, full of steadfast love and mercy, and the gift of forgiveness had been accepted a little bit deeper into her heart with every step she took along the way.  Perhaps that’s the deeper meaning of the Camino as a quest for forgiveness.

We’ll never really know the experience of a twelfth-century pilgrim.  But 21st century pilgrims also need to receive, experience and come to know the grace of God.  Perhaps it’s more important to make the journey and arrive at this destination than to have a theologically-sound explanation of how to get there.

So when I climbed to the top of the pile of stones at Ferro de Cruz, I dropped my stone.  I let go of all that it had come to represent, all the things, known and unknown, that prevent me from experiencing forgiveness.

I came down off the stone pile.  I waited a bit.  I wondered if anything was going to happen.  I put my pack on and I started walking again.  Then I remembered the hug.

 A couple of days earlier we had arrived at the albergue, the hostel, after a long 30 km plus day of walking.  My feet were sore and my ankle was swollen.  Just off to the side of the albergue lobby there was a massage therapist with her table, working on tired pilgrims.  Guylaine said to me, “Maybe you should get some work done.”  So I booked a time and went to the therapist.  She introduced herself with a shake of the hand as Sylvia, asked me what was wrong, and went to work, mostly on my feet and ankles, and my shoulders which were groaning a bit from carrying my pack.  Afterwards, she took the time to explain to me what I needed to do to care for my feet and the best way to tend my blisters.  Then to my complete astonishment, she wished me Buen Camino, and gave me a hug.  A big, long, firm hug.  It surprised me.  It moved me.  It felt absolutely great.

As I walked away from Cruz de Ferro, I remembered the hug.  In fact I experienced that hug again, fully present once more in that moment.  It was a hug that said you are loved.  A hug that said “you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.”  It was what we in the church might call a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  And I came to understand that it was God who was hugging me through those arms, letting me know in the embodied language that I can understand at a gut level that I am forgiven, and that I am loved. 

And having experienced that, I suppose I will never quite be the same again.

And that is the story of the first stone.


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