As we continue to explore spiritual Lenten practices, today I would like to talk about pilgrimage. Now you might think, ‘Is this really a Lutheran thing?’
Now some of you here might know the German comedian Hape Kerkeling. Anyone here who knows him? Some years ago, a friend gave me this book by Hape Kerkeling, ‘Ich bin dann mal weg’ – the English version is called, ‘I am off then – how I lost and found myself again on the Camino de Santiago’. And in this book, Kerkeling describes his experiences as he is traveling the traditional pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James – der Jakobsweg – from a French town in the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela on the northwestern coast of Spain after he suffers the consequences of too much work and stress.
Though Kerkeling is a comedian, this is not a funny book. Well, sometimes, it gets funny. But I was just blown away by Kerkeling’s profound questions and insights as he is on his pilgrimage – a journey to find himself again, and a journey to find God. I can only recommend it.
Now after this book was published, many were inspired to go on that very same pilgrimage, and there has been a big increase in people walking the roughly 600 miles of the Camino de Santiago. Catholics and Protestants alike have found meaning in the ancient spiritual tradition of pilgrimage; and as the anniversary year of the Reformation is approaching, there are now even suggested pilgrimage routes in the heart of Germany, retracing the steps of Martin Luther.
I have never been on a pilgrimage, though it’s on my to-do list. This idea of a sacred journey has a lot of allure to me.
Now I know that not everyone has the time or the ability to go on an extended pilgrimage, and maybe not even the interest. However, our entire lives actually could be interpreted as pilgrimages, as sacred journeys through this life, a journey where we continually seek to find ourselves – and find God, often in unexpected places and situations. The day we were baptized, the day we were marked with the cross of Christ forever, this pilgrimage began for each and every one of us. And everyone, who has ever drawn a rough map of their life journey, probably can attest that it’s not a straight line from A to B to C and so on, but a journey with many unexpected detours, sometimes dead ends, with challenges, yet surprising new directions, and much beauty along the way.
Today, we send two very young ones on this sacred journey through life. As Valentina and George are baptized, their journey with God begins. And you as their parents, godparents and families probably sometimes wonder: where is it going to lead them? What is ahead of them? Will they find themselves and become the people we hope they will be? Will they experience the presence of God in good and difficult days?
The custom of choosing a baptismal verse is rooted in the desire to give something to those who are baptized that can provide guidance as they travel the sacred road of life. Valentina’s verse is a beautiful verse from Psalm 118, ‘The LORD is on my side; I will not fear: what can mortals do to me?’ And of course our hopes and prayers today are that, no matter what happens to Valentina in her journey through life, that she will feel the presence of God by her side, a loving and gracious presence that has the power to overcome all evil.
As for George, his verse is from the gospel of Luke:’But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you’ And in this quite challenging verse, George will always be reminded what Christian life is about: to seek peace with all people, and to love in a world that, all too often, experiences the consequences of hate. Love of friend and enemy doesn’t necessarily make life easier – but love has the power to transform.
And so today we pray that the sacred journeys of these two children will be blessed. We wish them the best, we wish them strength, endurance, and God’s presence. But, as all parents know, we don’t know what is going to happen.
Today’s gospel story is a heartbreaking parent-child story. It is clear the father loves his son and has treated him well. But everyone who has ever dealt with teenagers and adolescents knows that often, there is a time of rebellion against parents and their values. And so the young son wants to get away from home and lead his own life. Sound familiar? Anyhow, the father lets him go on his journey of live with his part of the inheritance.
After that, we hear about the son’s story. He messes up. He spends the money in no time and soon sees himself working among pigs, sharing the slops with them. Not all paths are sacred, and there is the danger of straying and getting lost. And we may think, serves him right!
But let’s think about the father for a moment. The gospel doesn’t state how he feels as his younger son is gone. But we get the sense that he may be disappointed, yet he still deeply loves the son. And the fact that the father sees the son as he returns home from far away indicates that the father has been on the lookout, maybe each and every day since they parted. The father hopes and longs for the child to return – and waits patiently.
The journey of the prodigal son eventually leads him back home. And maybe his odyssey was necessary for him to truly understand and appreciate the love and generosity of his father. We may not think of the son’s journey as a sacred journey, but in the end, it is. He finds himself – and he finds the place he can call home.
This story teaches us something about the beautiful and oh so complicated relationship between parents and children. There probably will be times in the lives of Valentina and George, where there are tensions between them and their parents. Maybe they will go off in directions you as their parents and families don’t envision for them. And most likely they will make some quite stupid decisions – like we all did and continue to do.
But then the gospel story tells us also something about the patience and the deep love of parents. A love, which we, as children, sometimes want to reject stubbornly, because it is so deep, it hurts. And I know that George and Valentina will always be able to count on the love and patience of you, their parents. You probably would like to protect them from all foolishness and evil and hurt – but you can’t. At times, you may have to let them go and make their own mistakes. But my prayer is that your door will always be open to your children.
And, lastly, the gospel story tells us something about the love of God, the father, the mother. We may stray. Valentina and George may not always be on the right path, run into dead ends and have to make detours in their lives. But in baptism, God makes the promise to be with us, and, if need be, to wait for us when we lose our way. In baptism, we are sent on a pilgrimage, a sacred journey, that may take us on unexpected roads, but that, in the end, always leads us home.
So I invite all of you to think of your life as a pilgrimage, a sacred journey, a journey to find yourself and find God wherever you go. In invite you to maybe even go on a real pilgrimage, or if you don’t like the word pilgrimage, call it a holy hike, and seek God in nature – or the people you encounter as you walk the streets of this amazing and crazy city. God can be found within us – and out there. And maybe, as we are looking for God, we lose and find ourselves. Amen