Lent IV; March 31, 2019
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
My theme today is "pilgrimage." I'll tell you why in a bit. So the sermon is more a series of stories and images with that central theme than it is a coherent message. Perhaps the Holy Spirit's will this week is for me to tell you those stories and thoughts and let the question at the end of the sermon make sense of them.
The Gospel reading is a familiar story, the story of the prodigal son, the even-more-prodigal father, and the elder brother. The first few lines before the story (verses 1-2) make clear Jesus' purpose in telling the story: the people who are grumbling about Jesus spending time with the wrong sort of people are like the elder brother in the story: grumbling that Dad is happy that the younger son came home. Instead of partying, Dad should be punishing him in some way.
But since the image in my head today is pilgrimage, let's talk about the story with that image in mind. If you prefer, you can say "journey" rather than "pilgrimage," because both are movement in a purposeful direction. When you go on a journey, you usually know the road you want to take and the destination toward which you're headed. You may have road closures and detours and delays, but you have a destination. A pilgrimage is the same thing, except that it has a spiritual purpose: you're headed to Jerusalem to walk the Via Dolorosa, or to Lourdes to visit the waters, or Geneva for the Reformation Memorial. When Kathleen and I went to Germany two years ago, we were tourists, yes, but even more we were pilgrims. We went to walk the streets where Martin Luther walked, to visit the room where he translated the Bible, to see the door where tradition says he nailed the Ninety-Five Theses. It was not only a journey; it was a pilgrimage.
Consider the pilgrimages in the Gospel story. The younger son goes on a journey to a distant country "and there he squandered his property in dissolute living" (v. 13). No other young person has ever done that, right? One of our favorite (relatively) new hymns is "I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry," which has this wonderful line at the end of the first verse:
I was there when you were but a child with a faith to suit you well;
In a blaze of light you wandered off to find where demons dwell.
The younger son wandered off to find where demons dwell and he found them. He found them as he was feeding – of all things, for a good Jewish boy – pigs. But then he found something even better: "he came to himself" (v. 17). He found himself, and so he set off on a new pilgrimage, a pilgrimage to home. He went there with the intention of becoming a hired servant, but was welcomed as a son. His journey to find where demons dwell became a pilgrimage to his true worth as a person, which he did not expect.
His father, also, was on a pilgrimage, but his was a pilgrimage of hope. You can imagine him looking, day after day, up the road to see if his son is coming home. As he does his daily chores, he stops and looks to the east: is that him off in the distance? No, that's the neighbor; he waves at me as he works. My son will come home; I know he will. And when he does, all will be well.
Except that all was not well, for the older brother did not welcome him. The father's pilgrimage of hope had to widen, so that he hoped not only for one son's return but also for the other son's reconciliation. When Jesus told his story, he told the younger son's entire pilgrimage, but the father's journey is left unfinished; will he see his sons reconciled?
And the elder son's pilgrimage is just starting here, and may never get moving. The elder son is encouraged to set off on a journey of forgiveness, to lose his heart of stone and to receive a heart to welcome his brother home. If you have ever been in a similar situation, you know what a long, difficult journey that can be. But at the end of the story, Jesus does not tell us if the elder brother even takes the first step on that journey, but leaves us standing with Dad, pleading with him to take that first step.
Here are the elements today that got me thinking about pilgrimage: the first is our reading from the book of Joshua (5:9-12). The Hebrew people have finished their long journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, a forty year pilgrimage of struggle and victory and hope and loss. But they have arrived where their parents set out for, forty years ago, and have crossed the Jordan River at Gilgal. There they celebrate the Passover, the festival of freedom, and as a sign that they have arrived at their goal the manna ceases. Day after day God has provided manna for them, but now no more. They eat of the produce of the land.
And though their pilgrimage to arrive has reached its goal, a new one begins: the struggle to occupy the land, to make it theirs, and to forge within that land a nation that embodies the Kingdom of God. Thus one pilgrimage leads to another.
Before continuing, let's take stock:
The younger son's pilgrimage took him to his true self and to his true home.
The father's pilgrimage restored to him one son, but what of the other?
The older son's pilgrimage has not yet started; will it?
The Hebrew people have completed one pilgrimage and immediately set out on another.
The other elements that got me thinking about pilgrimage are the two crosses in the front of our Sanctuary this morning. This one is called a Maltese Cross; it is associated with the island of Malta and was an emblem of the Knights Hospitaller, which were headquartered there for part of their history. Although the Knights were a military order and were deeply enmeshed in war and politics for much of their history, their original and primary mission was to care for pilgrims to Jerusalem. At first they provided lodging and care; later as the pilgrimage became more dangerous they provided an armed escort. It is easy, then, to see the points of the four arms of the cross as inverted spear-points or arrowheads, given the association with the military. If you look at the emblems of fire departments, you'll see that they also use the Maltese Cross. Its association with the protection of others continues.
The Maltese Cross suggests to me another image of pilgrimage, because of a story about the island of Malta in the book of the Acts of the Apostles (27:9-28:10). The Apostle Paul had been arrested in Jerusalem on trumped-up charges and, after making his defense, he made clear that he wanted to be tried under Roman law, not Jewish law. So the Tetrarch decided to send him to the Emperor in Rome. Paul and his guards set sail; Paul warned his guards that they had best not try to sail in the bad weather that was coming but they decided to press on. They ended up shipwrecked on an island where they were treated well. One incident there: the locals built a fire for the refugees and, while Paul was putting some wood on it, a poisonous snake came out and bit him. The natives waited for him to swell up and die. But Paul shook the snake off his hand into the fire and nothing bad happened to him.
Soon after, Paul visited a leading man of the island and prayed for his father, who then was cured. Paul prayed for the healing of many others. And many of the people became followers of Jesus. This island, of course, was Malta. Paul was on his way to be tried by the Emperor; he was shipwrecked; he was a prisoner. And yet he found opportunity to care for others and to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus. Finding the opportunity to tell about Jesus was Paul's sort of pilgrimage.
The other cross up here is called the "Cross Crosslet," because the four arms of the cross each has a Latin cross at the end. It is identified with evangelism, because of two possibilities. One is that the four small crosses represent the four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The other possibility is that they represent the four corners of the earth, and so it is sometimes called the Mission Cross. It is the Cross that reminds us of those who dare to tell others about Jesus, who bravely go to places where the Gospel has not been heard. These days, that may be as close as just outside your front door.
So now you have heard a great deal about various people's pilgrimages: self-discovery, hope, forgiveness, a new land, holy places, mission, and evangelism. I will add one thing: although this pilgrimage is a little different for each of us – yours is not quite the same as hers or mine – yet one gift God has given us is Christian companions who are also on pilgrimage. We are on this pilgrimage together. There are a number of questions I could leave you with for this week, but here is the one that may help you and your Church the most: what help do you need for this pilgrimage?
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
 John C Ylvisaker, "I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry" #488 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Westminster John Knox Press 2013); words and music Ó 1985.