The Pilgrimage of Faith
Micah 4:1-5; Heb. 11:1, 8-10, 13-16
In the 19th century, when the discipline of Archeology began, most archeologists presumed that civilization preceded the advent of religion. You have to be a fairly wealthy society to be able to afford priests. Building temples costs real money, tell me about it- slate roofs, stained glass windows, leaky masonry, organ builders- Aye gefult!
That prejudice towards civilization permeated higher education, even when I was in college. You would be forgiven for thinking that everything significant in human history happened after we established cities and higher civilization- except of course, the cave paintings in France and Spain… truly incredible.
Today, we have techniques that allow us a much more sophisticated understanding of these ancient religious sites. And when we went back and studied our oldest cities, we discovered that we were exactly wrong in our assumptions. Civilizations didn’t give rise to religion.
Religious pilgrimages gave rise to higher civilization. People have been traveling to sacred sites since before we could remember. It is a reminder, much to the befuddlement of my deterministic Darwinists, that we humans do not live by bread alone. No, as it turns out, the quest for meaning and purpose is as old as the latest evolution of consciousness that gave us languages as we know them today, art as we know it today, spirituality as it is manifest today, and the plethora of tools that have developed since.
Here is one of the most ancient pilgrimage sites we know of (Slide 1) . Today it is called the Kabaah and it is in Mecca. Mecca is on the most direct route out of Africa where all of our ancestors were from until 50,000 years ago.
No one has a good idea of how long people have been making a pilgrimage there but it is likely measured in tens of thousands of years. What you see here are Muslims that are on the Haji, the Holy pilgrimage that Muslims are supposed to make once in their lifetimes.
You walk around the Kabaah and recite your prayers (slide 2). The Koran is not like the Bible where we read passages that tell stories and make moral and spiritual points. The Koran is a meditation that you chant. You don’t pick up to read it.
Gifted speakers- and the Arabic language is one of the most beautiful spoken languages we have- Gifted speakers chant/sing the Koran like poetry. It puts you in a state of meditation. You walk around the Kabaah and allow yourself to be put into a meditative state.
You probably know that we have done studies recently and have determined that that bodily movement like this activates a different part of the brain and allows us to experience a dimension of intuition that compliments our rational reflection. Holistic schools incorporate bodily movement and meditation into their curriculum to engage all parts of our brain to produce a more rounded way of learning than rational didactic teaching alone. This will become normative shortly, just as we have lately begun to realize that meditation itself is far more instrumental for managing anxiety and stress than we understood in the West even a generation ago.
Our ancestors intuited this anecdotally and we’ve been practicing these techniques for thousands of generations.
Inside the Kabaah is a black stone. It is thought to be the remnant of a meteor that hit the earth, rare enough that people have been coming to see it for a very long time. Mohammed lived in Mecca and used to walk around the stone before he was a Muslim, following a tradition that was established probably thousands of years before he was born.
Stanley Kubrick used the tradition in the brilliant opening of his movie “2001 A Space Odyssey”. He depicts a monolith on the open plane that emits high frequency sound waves. The monolith is God, in a kind of high tech manifestation. (slide 3)
The hominids come regularly to see the monolith because when it emits these high frequency sound waves, they become stimulated, indeed ecstatic. One day, all of them gather, the sounds come from the monolith, the hominids begin jumping and writhing like usual. But this day, one of them has a peak experience and he picks up the thigh bone of a large animal that happens to be on the ground right next to him.
He is jumping around with this bone when a rival group of hominids approach. All of the other hominids do what they usually do when their rivals approach. They band together, jump up and down, and try to frighten off their rivals with their group size.
But this day, their leader waves his thigh bone in a menacing manner. As the rival hominid leader approaches him, he swings this thigh bone at him, hits his rival on the head, and kills him. All the hominids stop, astonished. Even the killer is astonished.
He has a new-found power. The spark jumped the gap as one of the hominids accidentally discovered the power of tools for the very first time. He raises his arms in victory, intoxicated with his own sense of new found power.
He throws his thigh bone in the air in victory and Kubrick has it morph into the space station, the advanced technology that has defined our era. It is brilliant because he illustrates the moral ambiguity of our development. From the very beginning when we so to speak, advanced, to use tools, we used them for violence and death, for mastery but also for aggrandizing self- promotion at the expense of others.
When we developed the power of the gods, we also fell like Lucifer, at the very same moment. Ever since, the moral question that hangs over humanity is whether we will use that power for good or whether we will become a threat to the rest of the earth?
It was a modern-day depiction of a spiritual truth as epic as the creation stories in the Bible.
We go on pilgrimage to find something out, something about ourselves, something about the meaning of our lives. We go to make contact with God in a way that we cannot in the normal rhythms and routines of our lives.
Sometimes it can be profound as I can attest from our pilgrimage to Jerusalem last February. So many of you asked me to pray for things. Others of you didn’t have to ask, I already knew. When I got to Jerusalem and laid my hands on the Western Wall and allowed myself to go into a meditative state, images of you all came to my mind with the things that you carry around, the disappointments in your marriages, the concern about your family members, the worry you have over difficult jobs, the grief you wade through with the loss of your children or other loved ones.
All we are is conduits that direct the redemptive power of God towards one another in compassion and grace and love. But just to be that channel, to connect in prayer, is powerful enough that I started to feel weightless and dizzy.
There is a wonderful, frightful line that Isaiah says in Isaiah 6, when he feels that he is in the presence of God. He says, “Woe, I am a man of unclean lips”. He has this experience of his utterly frail, compromised humanity. Who are we in the presence of this immense and powerful transcendent force?
You don’t want to stay and you don’t want to leave. Rudolf Otto called it the mysterium trememndum et fascinans
So I am making a pilgrimage while I’m on sabbatical. I am calling it the reverse commute. I am going back where my people came from a long time ago. The idea first occurred to me about 20 years ago when I was in the Amsterdam airport on a layover.
I kept asking people questions in English and they would respond to me in Dutch. Even after I told them I was American, they would chat back in Dutch. I cannot speak a full sentence of Dutch let me hasten to add.
But then I looked around and noticed how many big guys there were that used to be blonde and are now overweight, only these guys were wearing clogs on their feet. “Paesan”…
Then we did the genetic testing a couple years ago. Like most Americans, we have only the vaguest history about our family, most of them English. Mostly, it looks like the significant decisions they made to move came about because they ran out of money, so they fled to the New World, and then to the new parts of the new parts of the new world.
As you know, genes tell us a bit more of the picture. My people came from Britain and before that France and before that Holland and before that Scandinavia. So we are going backwards, first to France. As it turns out, Steve and Helena Ring rented a house in Saint Malo on the western coast, right near Normandy.
I wrote my dissertation on World War 2, so I want to pay my respects there. My brother in law is Dutch, so we will probably stop to see his family in Amsterdam.
Then we go up through Denmark to Sweden. Some of you will remember Maria and Anders Schlein Andersen who were members of our church for many years. They have recently moved back to Stockholm and we will catch up with them for a bit.
Maria’s father lives on one of the islands between Denmark and Sweden that are so characteristic of traditional Scandinavian culture. We’ll stay there for a bit. Maria tells me that we will know all 150 residents of their wee village in a day or two and we’ll see them all in the only Lutheran church on the island on Sunday.
And from there we will go to the fjords in Western Norway (slide 4). I can guarantee you one thing. That will not be me sitting out on the edge of that rock. I get vertigo just looking at it. But Kate wants to experience the nature of Scandinavia, so will get outdoors, and worship under the natural canopy that my ancestors used to worship God in their own crude and crazy way. (slide 5)
I’m not entirely sure what it is that I’m looking for but I’m pretty sure that I’ll find it right around here. And hopefully, I’ll return spiritually refreshed and with creativity. That is the idea.
I’m not leaving right away. For May and half of June, I’m writing a book on how to live your life with spiritual integrity. And I want to thank you for the time away to do it. I get too many interruptions during the course of a day to write chapters at a time at the church. This will allow me to make a serious dent in the work and I’m glad to report that the ideas are flowing at the moment.
Finally, I want to say thanks to the Angels that made this sabbatical break possible. I could not do any of this trip without the extraordinary generosity of Angels that are helping to defray the cost. I’m deeply grateful.
It is also important for the congregation to get a break from me and this is part of what sabbaticals are also about. After 20 years, you all are used to letting me run the church for the most part. But it is important for you to remember that you can run this church without any help.
Usually, you and the staff will discover some things that you can do much better than the way that I’ve been doing them. I expect that you will have a couple things to teach me when I get back.
Caroline, Julie, and Mark have put together some interesting guest speakers along with their capable and thoughtful reflections as well. We should have meaningful worship, like last week. Thanks for allowing me not to worry about this.
When I was 22 years old, just starting Divinity School, one of the outstanding Ministers of that era, John Claypool, met with a few of us young leaders. He said to us, “Boys, you will never be able to take your congregations further than you’ve actually gone yourselves.” That hit me with a thud. I was sure he was right.
It turns out, all these years later, he was right. And I think of this pilgrimage a bit like Lewis and Clark. I hope to tell you all what it looks like up ahead when I return in September. Until then, may God bless you and keep you. May God make his face to shine upon you. May God lift up her countenance upon you and be gracious unto you. May God grant you peace. Amen.