2018 26th August The Harmony of Journey and Destination

Scriptures: Psalm 84, John 6: 56-69
The part that pilgrimage plays in our spiritual health is well documented. It can be the formal type, like walking the Camino in Spain or visiting a thin place like Iona. Muslims revere the opportunity to take the Haj to Mecca. Many who travel in Australia find a great depth of spiritual experience in the sacred places of our First Peoples, such as Uluru.
All great pilgrimages encompass both journey and destination, and the sometimes arduous nature of the journey only serves heighten the experience of the destination. As Jesus said, steep is the road and narrow is the way that leads to salvation.
Embracing the whole experience of travelling and arrival is a challenge to all pilgrims. In my experience, people by and large tend to either focus on the destination to which they are headed, or the experience of the journey itself.

For myself, I tend to fit into the "are we there yet?” category. If I am having a good round of golf, even hitting a ball or two with the pro trajectory, I find myself calculating what my final score might be based on the progress of my round. Now, I know all of the good reasons why this is not ideal; and I try to tell myself "just enjoy the game. Take each shot at a time. Make the most of the experience”. Similarly, when on our weekly walk from Merewether to Strezlecki and back, I try and follow Helen’s example of drinking it all in- the sea, the surfers, the dolphins and so on, instead of calculating the kilometres per hour, and what time we will get to the surf-house for a coffee. When I read a book, I hurry to find out how it ends.

I do however draw a line at reading or tweeting while the train to Sydney runs alongside the magnificent Hawkesbury River, or Brisbane Waters.

Journey and destination. Is it possible to live in the harmony of both at once? Whichever way we lean, it takes energy and discipline to be in what one theologian calls "the already and the not yet”.

As we were reading Psalm 84 together, I wonder where your attention was focussed? The bpsalmist eulogises the experience of pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem, the holy city, of which glorious things are spoken. The main attraction is the Temple, a place that ideally embraces all who go there, enriching the spiritual experience of those who seek to be close to God in God’s traditional dwelling place.

The psalm is in three sections. Verses 1-4 (show on screen) extol the Temple itself, within which pilgrims may have a deeply emotional spiritual experience. It is a place to enrich heart, body and soul. It welcomes and houses the greatest and the least who abide in its courts.

Now we know that the temple and those who managed it did not always live up to the idealistic descriptions of the psalmist. I can hardly bring myself to choose a hymn with the word "Zion” in it, for obvious reasons. From the Gospels we know that the courts were contaminated with the greed of the moneychangers and sellers of sheep, cattle and doves. We also know that certain areas were Jewish men only. Others- women and non-Jews- were made to stay farther back. For some pilgrims indeed, the image of Psalm 84 may have set them up for disappointment. Of them it could be said that "it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.”

While all this is true, it misses the point. Fundamentally, what the Psalmist is extolling is not a building, grand as it was, or an experience, be it heart and soul, but the God that all of this human effort is trying to reach. Verse 4 sums it up: "Happy are those who live in yourhouse, ever singing your praise”.

From this point, the psalmist back-tracks to the experience of the pilgrims on the road to the holy city. Verses 5-7 (show on screen) describe the state of heart and mind of those who are on the road to Jerusalem. Verse 5 tells of how their happiness is contingent on the fact that God’s very presence strengthens them as they travel. Verse 6 amplifies this to say that because of their energy for the journey, they actually transform the place through which they travel. It changes from a place of barrenness and grief to an enriching fertility and hope. For me this is the key in the harmonising of journey and destination. Because of where they are going, and because of who it is that they are seeking, their spirit infuses the very ground on which they walk, making it nourishing and sustaining both for themselves, and all who dwell there. The swallows in the temple are happy where they are, and the birds of the valley of Baca are blessed because of the pilgrims who pass that way.

What a blessing it is to all concerned when people travel as pilgrims rather than just as tourists.

Then, verse 7, the last of this section, says that they go from strength to strength. One thing builds on another, because they know that they are on the right track and right trajectory.

The final part of the psalm, verses 8-12, brings the whole experience together. It is both the destination- "a day in your courts” and the journey of "those who walk uprightly” that constitute the experience of those who walk in the way of holiness and goodness.

Destination, and journey. Journey, and destination. The oneness of ‘now’ and ‘then’. In Jesus’ teaching the Kingdom of heaven is like this- an experience we enter when we choose to walk in God’s way, and the ‘place prepared’ for all who love and serve God. It is one of the great travesties of church history that suffering people have been told to simply bear with their lot, because all will be well when they die and go to heaven. Jesus spoke truth to power, and our church at its best seeks to challenge and transform injustice along the way for the sake of the common good. On the other hand, it is not enough to simply be political activists, without recognising where the spiritual power to make a difference actually comes from.

The final thing I want to do today, before I go on a journey of my own, is to reflect briefly on the pilgrimage and destination towards which we as a congregation are travelling at the moment.

The journey of the Hamilton Broadmeadow Uniting Church has in recent years been a hard road, and some have left us along the way. It has sometimes not been clear what is the destination, or even if there is one at all, apart from oblivion. The middle part of such journeys is usually the hardest, (as anyone who has taken on a rigorous course of study will know), when we are well away from where we started, but nowhere near our destination. The ones who fell away from following Jesus did so somewhere in this stage of the journey. The euphoria of the beginning had faded, and all they could see was hard yards.

I perceive that we are now past this point. The destination is in sight- at least for this particular part of the journey. My hope that the redevelopment of fellowship house will commence early in the New Year is based at least in part on evidence. The vision of the mission that this place will house is becoming clearer. We foresee a community that is a hive of activity, as appropriate organisations utilise the upstairs space to conduct their programs, and the church receives from this an income stream to sustain its full time ministry agent and its overall mission program. The downstairs area will be there for community activities as it has been for decades, but hopefully with a new focus and unity of purpose. This worshipping congregation will continue to live out its calling by attending to our relationship with God and one another. Like the pilgrims in the valley of Baca, we will be a blessing to those whose lives we encounter. Of this, let me share just one vignette. A person came to Bill’s Place for the first time a few months ago- not a happy camper. Over the weeks their whole demeanour has changed from negative to positive. Last Wednesday I apologised that there was no one for them to have a game with with. They said ‘I have learned to never apologise for things over which I have no control. I am perfectly happy sitting here having morning tea and talking to people.” " Friends, of you I can truly say "As they travel through the valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs.”

And so we travel on in faith and love; eyeing the blessed destination with longing and hope; relishing the transforming journey as we go from strength to strength, and all the while, walking as courageously and as uprightly as we can.

And even when it seems that the road has become too long and hard; when an inner voice says to us "Will you too give up?” may we respond as any true follower of Jesus would- "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of life.”

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