A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

All the people who are mentioned in today’s Gospel are religious pilgrims. Jesus, Philip, Andrew, and even those Greeks They’re all pilgrims who have traveled to the holy city of Jerusalem to celebrate Passover there.

Jesus and his companions have been on the road for a while now. Most recently, they’ve been out in the wild hill country near Jerusalem, hiding from those religious authorities who are increasingly determined to have him killed.

We don’t know exactly where the people that are called Greeks in the story came from. The word Greeks here simply means that they aren’t Jews, but they’ve turned away from pagan religion to embrace Judaism. And they too have come to Jerusalem for the festival.

That is what it means to be a pilgrim, at least in the way we usually think of it. It means leaving home to travel to a holy place, seeking a spiritual experience.

But as I mentioned in my article in the newsletter which you might’ve seen, you don’t actually have to go anywhere to be a pilgrim. You don’t have to travel in the literal sense to pursue that desire for a closer encounter with God.

There’s an author named Jim Forest who wrote a book about pilgrimage, all kinds of pilgrimage. And he says that it’s more an attitude than an act. He says pilgrimage is “more an attitude than an act. … [It’s] a conscious act of seeking a more vital awareness of God’s living presence.”[i]

So in that sense, as we travel through Lent we’re all pilgrims going along the road with Jesus. And now as we get close to our destination, it might be a good time to stop and take stock of our journey so far. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. And then after that we’re into Holy Week, and we’ll walk then with Jesus through that final drama of his own journey to the cross.

He’s on his way to the cross and we’re going with him. And like all pilgrims, we find that there are lessons to be learned and unexpected blessings to be received along the way if we are open to them, if we pay attention.

When people go on pilgrimage, they’re always changed in some way by that experience. And one thing they usually come to realize, no matter how much planning they do, they find that life doesn’t always happen as we had intended it to.

I think that’s a realization that’s almost certainly true for all of us in our context over this past year. We’ve been reminded again and again that we really aren’t in control. But as pilgrims, we find peace in learning to accept that, in learning to accept that it’s all about the journey and what we make of it as we live each moment on the way.

So I mentioned in the newsletter that I was planning a real pilgrimage last year, a 10-day pilgrimage to Assisi. It was supposed to happen last May, and of course it was canceled.

I have a friend who also had pilgrim plans for the year. She was supposed to go on the Camino de Santiago, which is the famous pilgrim walk across Spain. And that trip was also canceled, but she had her walking gear already and so she started taking some serious hiking trips nearby here in the US.

And I asked her last week what she had learned from all of these smaller pilgrimages. And she put that question to some of her hiking friends, and I wanted to share with you a little of what they said.

My friend said one thing that I didn’t expect, and it’s certainly good advice for this past year. She said, “Every once in a while, stop and look back at where you’ve been. You may never pass that way again.” Some of us might be hoping that we don’t pass this way again, but there were still lessons and blessings in the year we’ve just been through, and it’s to think about those.

A number of people said that an important thing they learned was about what to pack and what to let go of, what to leave behind. Don’t pack your fears. That’s something that a couple of people mentioned.

One person said, “I let go of insecurity, and self doubt and worry about how others perceive me.”

And another one said, “I let go of the weight of the world and I drink in the beauty of creation.”

And one of her friends who actually has done the Camino said, “I began by asking people I met what they were hoping to take away from the experience. Uniformly, it was what they hoped to leave behind. Maybe it was self blame, maybe it was hurt from something in the past, maybe it was destructive ways of thinking.”

I’ve been thinking about what those characters in today’s Gospel story had to let go of on their journey. What did Andrew let go of way back in the story, way back when he accepted Jesus’ invitation to come and see?

He had to give up the expectations he might’ve had to live the simple life of a fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. Maybe he thought it would be a peaceful life with a wife and kids. And maybe he thought someday he’d die of old age in his own bed. And instead he went traveling for the rest of his life, with and for Jesus, until finally—tradition has it—he was crucified on an X-shaped cross.

What did Philip let go of way back when Jesus said to him, follow me? He left his life in Bethsaida. He left the security of being with people he knew, people who were just like him, for a series of encounters with people who were different. Not just those Greeks in today’s Gospel, but later in Acts, there’s that story of his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, who was baptized after a conversation with Philip.

What did those Greeks let go of when they went looking for meaning in their lives, something more than the pagan faith they had been practicing? They gave up the comfort, I think, of being certain about what they believed. And they traded that for the uncertainty of seeking answers to their deepest questions. That line in today’s Gospel, “Sir, we want to see Jesus”—that just strikes me as so poignant because isn’t that what we all want?

And finally Jesus himself, what did he have to let go of on his way to this moment? I don’t know if you remember the story earlier when he met the Canaanite woman, and he tells her he was sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”[ii] And now here he is talking to Greeks and telling them about his own death saying, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”[iii]

Maybe Jesus had been hoping it would all be easier. Maybe he was hoping that people would welcome his message. Maybe he was hoping that the adulation of the crowd on Palm Sunday would last, but of course it didn’t. All of those might have been the things he let go of on his way to the cross.

And that leads me to wonder, what are the kinds of things that we should be letting go of on our way to the cross, on our Lenten journey with Jesus?

Are we learning to let go of the roadmap and travel where life takes us ,and do that not just with resignation, but with joyful anticipation of what each new day’s travels may bring?

Are we learning to let go of our fears and embrace the possibilities that come our way?

To let go, especially, of our fear of people who are not like us? That kind of fear has so divided our world.

And how about letting go of being certain that we know everything we need to know ,and learn to love the questions, as the poet Rilke said.[iv] Learn to live the questions, hoping that someday we might live into the answers.

My friend tells me that hikers have a saying, HYOH, which stands for “hike your own hike.” And it’s about judging others and deciding what they need to pack and what they need to leave behind. That’s for them to decide.

So I can’t tell you what you need to let go of in your life, but it’s a question that might be worth spending some time with before Lent is over.

“Sir, we want to see Jesus.”

Those Greeks in the Gospel told Phillip they wanted to meet Jesus ,and they did. And I do hope that each one of us will encounter Jesus as a traveling companion somewhere along the way on our pilgrimage journey. We might find him waiting for us in places where we at least expected to see him. But if we ask for him, I’m sure he will be there.

Amen.

Preached for Church of the Ascension in Parkesburg PA.


[i] Forest, Jim. The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life. New York: Orbis Books: 2007, 13.

[ii] Matthew 15:24-25 (NRSV)

[iii] John 12:24-25 (NRSV)

[iv] Rainer Maria Rilke. Letters To A Young Poet. “Letter Four” (16 July 1903).