“On the Pilgrims’ Way,” February 2, 2020, Rev. Daniel Simons
Sermon preached by the Reverend Daniel Simons
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of the Presentation
Happy are the people whose strength is in you; whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way — Psalm 84:4
On this Feast of the Presentation, I feel a bit in the spotlight myself on this, my first Sunday with you in ministry here at St. Paul’s — Thank you so much for your warm welcome and the invitation to serve with you here.
And what a great story to sit with as we begin our work together. I think it holds a great invitation to the days ahead. So let’s unpack what’s inside:
Mary and Joseph have just made this journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem. They’ve made this trip many times before, but this time it’s for two linked reasons; first, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime journey to present their firstborn male child in order to ritually buy him back from the Temple —to redeem him.
By religious law, firstborn sons belonged to the temple as future priests unless their parents redeemed them with the prescribed rituals. Secondly, they were there for Mary’s purification rites, 40 days after giving birth.
But like any good story, it gets most interesting when the unexpected happens, when it goes off script. Simeon and Anna, two unofficial, charismatic prophets, show up unexpectedly and discern in Jesus something no one can yet see. They announce that this redemption ritual is really the other way round: ‘The child you present will redeem YOU, and will even light the way for the gentiles.’
Even if purification rites and redemption rituals seem foreign to us now the inversion of this story might be a place where we can resonate. Mary and Joseph fall into a story of greater consequence than the one they thought they were telling.
Think about your own life how it has unfolded, from childhood into early adulthood and to the present day. How many things have gone exactly as you have imagined or planned, or would have chosen? Most of us can draw a very curved or zigzagged line as way leads to way. And that complete unpredictability will continue to the day of our death.
The mystery of life is necessarily that there is much that we know we don’t know, and there is even more that we don’t know that we don’t know.
That sheer unpredictability of life lures many of us to try to control and manage and worry about and lock down as much of it as possible. Our Buddhist sisters and brothers say that most of the suffering we cause in the world comes from some version of wanting life to be other than it is.
But Mary and Joseph were steeped in an alternative way, one that everyone who first heard this story would have known firsthand.
The rituals that organized Jewish life were centered around three huge annual festivals, the Shalosh Regalim. They were Pesach (Passover,) Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost), and Sukkot (the feast of Tabernacles). Each was tied to key agricultural events: the barley, wheat, and fruit harvests, and each had a religious meaning tied to the people’s Exodus from slavery, pilgrimage in the wilderness, and entry to the promised land. There were vivid rituals attached to each one that reminded the people of two things: that they were totally dependent on God, and that God always met them in abundance.
All three were organized as huge pilgrimages that emptied the countrysides and filled Jerusalem. So Mary and Joseph had traveled this same road many times before, as pilgrims.
As the pilgrims walked, they sang Psalms. There’s a batch called the Psalms of Ascent that they would sing as they came up from the Jordan Valley through the Judean wilderness along the Wadi Qelt. And the one we sang today, Psalm 84, captures best the transformative power of this journey.
Listen to the pattern here:
It begins with dependance on God, and a voluntary displacement from home:
Happy are the people whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.
It continues with the discovery of unexpected abundance in the midst of the challenge of the journey:
Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.
Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple with this in their spiritual DNA:
They will go from height to height,
and the God of gods will be revealed in Zion.
I first heard this psalm on the eve of my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land 30 years ago. I didn’t plan my trip as a pilgrimage; I thought I was just getting away from the daily grind to reflect on a growing sense of a call to ministry and to just have an extended adventure far from home. The Psalm hit me like a bolt, and then it sunk deep into me during that year abroad.
There is something about the physicality of a pilgrimage that teaches the body as well as the mind and heart. It is NOT a package tour. The precariousness AND serendipity of the road are sharp and real, and the mixture of the two creates a potent liminal space. It’s like the refiner’s fire that Malachi talks about in the first reading, which burns off distraction; it’s like the sword that Simeon promises to Mary, which cuts not to destroy but to reveal what is true and what is illusion. And above all, it is a place where abundance shows up unexpectedly and vividly.
(And by the way, the desolate valley of the Judean wilderness really DOES become a carpet of flowers when the early rains cover it during one of the spring pilgrimages — it’s a vivid symbol of the whole miraculous journey.)
So here we are, presenting ourselves in this temple, this beautiful church, with Mary and Joseph, week by week. Our ritual is nourishing and sustaining, but it is not an end in itself. It is preparing us for a further journey, if we choose.
In our time together over the next several years, we will be on pilgrimage, discerning together, listening deeply for the larger story that our life together is telling, even if it’s hidden from us now. There are Simeons and Annas among us. Maybe some of them are not here yet, but as we continue to welcome the stranger they will help us discover more deeply our own calling and belonging in the work that is ours to do in this time.
The last word, for today, belongs to one of the greatest pilgrims of all time, the apostle Paul:
Glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.