happy are those whose hearts are set (sermon)

In the fall of 2013, I took a travel-writing class, and as part of that class, went on my first walking pilgrimage. A bunch of unruly and excited young adults—IT majors and business majors and fashion majors—laced up our hiking books and grabbed our notebooks and boarded a plan to Madrid for spring break. We wound our way north to the city of Léon, and then pulled on our backpacks and headed out to hike parts of the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James. Originally a pilgrimage route dating from the 9th century, or even earlier, people of all classes and ages and genders walked these 800 kilometers, seeking greater faith, seeking forgiveness and years off of purgatory, seeking to venerate St. James the Apostle at the Compostela.

Nowadays, the Camino has as many secular hiking enthusiasts as religious pilgrims, and routes that once took months, or years, can now be undertaken in a month. But regardless of why people choose to walk the Camino, they all find themselves following an ancient route through the towns and cities of Galicia, a route marked with a scalloped shell.

As college students there for just a few days, just barely familiar with Spanish geography, we knew that eventually, we’d walk the several kilometers into Santiago de Compostela, but for the most part, we just walked, taking in each new sight, each new village, and enjoying each others company.

There’s a saying that it’s not the destination, but the journey, but that’s too simple, too saccharine to describe what was happening to me, as a sort of pilgrim on the Way. There was, of course, an overarching goal, a destination of special magnificence, which was our focus at the beginning. But as we progressed on, our goals became smaller. When your feet are achingly tired from a 20km day of rough terrain, it’s not Santiago, so many kilometers away, that you think about to keep going. Your goals become smaller: finding the next trail marker, waving and saying ‘buen Camino’ to the next person you meet, reaching a new town, or your next meal.

Today, on this second Sunday of Christmas, we read about some pilgrims. Tradition says there are three pilgrims, but Matthew is the only gospel writer which records this story, and he never actually specifies. Three? Six? Ten?, who bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We don’t know much about them—they are described as wise men from the East. What makes them wise? Were they renowned as wise rulers or judges in their own countries? Or were they wise simply because they saw the star and knew the prophesy, and started on a journey? Their words are few, but poignant all the same: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

We may not know very much about these pilgrims, but they are very clear about what they know, and why they are searching. In this year’s virtual Christmas pageant, our three wise pilgrims are brilliantly depicted by Laura Jane, Emma, and Daniel. They are on the way to find Jesus, camel and all. In the pageant, they make a quick stop by Herod, and when Herod says “what king?”, they almost literally shrug, and continue onwards, following the star. Herod is not an essential part of this journey for the wise men—just a bystander, someone who might know something about the route. While the conversation with Herod takes up a significant portion of this morning’s Gospel, the only thing it tells us is that the wise men know what they are looking for. The pilgrims know the path they are on, and are just looking for the trail marker and maybe a good meal.

They have one stated question: Where is he?

And they have one stated goal: We have come to…

When Herod can’t answer their question, they shrug and move on. Where is he? For this is why we have come.

The wise men are often categorized as an essentially Christmas story. They’re part of the nativity, and after Epiphany, and these twelve days of Christmas have gone by, we pack up our creches and say goodbye to them for another year.

This Christmas, perhaps some of us feel particularly disjointed—that Christ has come, that Love has come down, and yet, we’re still waiting for joy, for healing, for the world to be set to rights. There’s a sense of unfinished business, knowing that we celebrate the birth of our Savior while waiting for Christ to come again. It’s the same in-between times that Christians have always lived in, but perhaps we feel it more this year, in a year of waiting and hoping for better things.

If this feeling resonates with you, then I invite you to do something: don’t pack up your wise men this year.

Because these intrepid travelers and wise pilgrims are more than just a sweet story. We may not know much about them, but we call them wise because they know what they are looking for. We have come to pay him homage. Where is he?

We may not know much about them, but we know that they took this journey seriously, examining every trail marker, watching the stars, and asking everyone, where is he? For we have come.

In John’s gospel, Jesus, some thirty years later, says that “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light”. These wise pilgrims were the first to set out to find this Way—not through some lofty ideal, but through the slow, hard, and tedious journey—full of elusive trail markers and aching feet.

Our psalmist writes in Psalm 84 that

Happy are the people whose strength is in you!
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.

As Christians, we know that Christ has come to us, God Incarnate. We know that this Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Light. And Christ is the Way that we embark on again this Christmas, putting one foot in front of the other, waiting for the next trail marker.

Because ultimately, while we know that Christ will come again, that is a destination which feels impossibly far off, most days. So far off, that we must make our goals smaller, like my classmates and I did on the Camino de Santiago. Our work, our life of faith becomes reliant upon these trail markers and rest stops, for confirmation that we are in fact, following Jesus our Way.

As Christians, our life of faith imagines a destination that is not dependent on how fast we walk or run. Instead, what matters about being faithful pilgrims on the Way, is that we keep moving.

Our hearts are set on the pilgrims way.

We know what our guiding question is: where is he? Where is this king, whose star we have seen and followed from our own homes and lands? Where is God acting the world right now? Where do I need to show up, to partner with God in works of justice and mercy?

We also know why we have come. Just as the wise men knew that they had come to pay homage, to worship, to be overwhelmed with joy, each of us, I hope, knows even a little bit about why we have come. What keeps you coming back to church, or logging into online worship? What keeps you praying, or studying Scripture? What have you come for?

So as you think about putting the ornaments back in their boxes, and putting away your holiday baking supplies, and folding the tree skirt, I invite you to leave your wise men out, if you have them, for a little while. 

Let them be a reminder to you to look for the trail markers in your life of faith,

To know what your guiding quest is: where is He?
To know what keeps you coming back to God: I have come for—
Let these wise pilgrims be a reminder to you, that
Happy are the people whose strength is in you!
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.

Sermon begins at about 23:00.

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