Companions on the Way

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson on May 18, 2018.

There’s a hymn I would have picked for today, but I don’t remember us ever singing it here, so I didn’t want to take the chance. It’s not the greatest tune, but the first line captures what I want to say to you today: “sing out praises for the journey, pilgrims we who carry on…” 

I’ve been talking about this way of transformation, this journey from brokenness toward healing and wholeness. And I wonder how you have been imagining the trip. Are you picturing it as a path of pain and struggle, something you know you should do, but really don’t want to, like cleaning out your closet or going to the dentist? Certainly it’s not a cake walk, this way of transformation. Certainly the path of becoming a wounded healer will involve some growing pains and some letting go. You know that change can be hard. But that’s not the whole story! 

This journey ought to be one of energy and daring, that brings a sense of liberation, that comes with feelings joy and even exuberance. Think about journeys you’ve taken; when you packed you bag and laced up your shoes and and headed out. Whether literally or metaphorically, what was it like, that starting off? Maybe a bit of trepidation, maybe a bit of stress, but once you got going, didn’t it feel exciting and freeing, that you were finally on the way? Sing out praises for the journey! 

You hear this in Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Journey.” It starts when you finally know what you have to do, and begin; and though it may feel bumpy at the start, she writes, “It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones.”

And as you move forward, things shift:

the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world…

Sometimes we never get started on a journey, because we worry about what’s over the horizon. We let our unexamined fears hold us back; we hang on to what is safe and familiar. “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for” (William G.T. Shedd). 

Rabbi Edwin Friedman said we could learn from Christopher Columbus, and not be afraid to sail off the edge of the known world. He said our times need more of that boldness, a stronger sense of adventure and discovery. 

Of course it’s easy to find reasons and excuses to not to do what is tugging at us. To stay safe in the harbor. But the invitation remains, to live more fully into this one life you have been given. While you can. Some of you were here yesterday for the memorial service for Jami Cope. Because of a degenerative disease, Jami was confined to a wheelchair for decades. But that didn’t hold her back. She lived her life fiercely. She told me once about how her service dog, Garcia, would pull her wheelchair down the sidewalks in Andover, like a horse pulling a wagon. I have this image of Jami flying down the sidewalk behind Garcia people jumping out of the way. If nothing else, the reminder that we are mortal too; shouldn’t this compel us to get on with our lives now, while we still can?

You hear this from people sometimes, they say, “Why did I wait so long?” Sometimes I wish that I had figured things out and gone off to seminary in my thirties rather than in my early forties. But I wasn’t ready yet. My question for you is, what are you ready for now? What journey is right now waiting for you? Which will move you toward healing and happiness, toward liberation and love?

This journey I am commending to you is not a running away, it is a moving toward. Toward freedom and toward connection; toward who you were born to be. But a truth about most journeys worth taking is that we can’t know where they are going to lead, where or when they are going to end. There’s a long tradition of people taking religious pilgrimages, usually walking a long way to a holy site. The understanding is that the journey is not as much about getting there, as what happens along the way. People still go on pilgrimages today because they hope and expect that they are somehow going to be fundamentally changed by the experience. You’re putting one foot in front of the other, not knowing what the day is going to bring, learning to trust that what you need will be provided.

This Wednesday we’re showing a movie here about this, called “The Way,” starring Martin Sheen, written and directed by his son Emilio Estevez, who says he wrote the starring role for his dad, as a way of honoring his father’s faith. It’s a compelling film about the journeys we choose and those that come to us unbidden, and the companions that we find along the way. I hope you’ll join us if you can.

Of course you don’t have to go far from home to experience the way of transformation. It can be an interior journey, in which you engage with you own fears and longings, in which you imagine new way of living, and then start practicing that. Maybe coming here was, for you, a journey. And now here we are, on this way together! 

Have you ever stopped to think about your spiritual life, the different twists and turns it has taken, as a journey? It helps to find ways to embody the interior journey, whether that’s art of journaling or conversation. And look at all the companions you have here! Might some of you feel compelled to speak of your journey today at coffee hour?

Mary Oliver’s poem ends with the image of leaving behind the voices that are holding you back, finding your own voice, striding deeper and deeper into the world,

determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

What she doesn’t say, and what I want you to hear today, is that this is no solitary journey. It certainly will sometimes be walked in solitude. Some of its work has to be done alone, where you can be in touch with the depths of your own heart and soul. Where you can be still and know. But this way I am lifting up today is one that will take you, not into isolation or loneliness, but into deeper communion with others, and with the world, and with the holy mystery in which we live and move and have our being.

I told you last week about someone who counseled me, when I was embarking on a journey that was going to involve some stretching and some sadness, “I promise,” she said, “you will also find companions on the way.” 

If we say yes to our callings,  if we are open to these leadings, we will be led to places we did not plan to go, and we will be blessed with companions on the way. I hope you know this is true. I hope and trust that you are experiencing this here, or that you will experience this here. What would we do without these companions?

In his lovely book, The Art of Pilgrimage, Phil Cousineau tells of a trip walking in the north of England, One night in a pub, just before closing time, he said, people in that pub linked arms and sang their local football club’s song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” He writes about how powerful that moment was, feeling at one and at home with those people to whom he had been a stranger, feeling gratitude for, and solidarity with, other travelers, past and present, on the way. He writes, “It’s for moments like this that you left home—to no longer feel like a stranger in the world, to test your mettle against the strength of the fates, to find the unmet friends, and hear that not matter how far you wander as a pilgrim, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’”

My spiritual companions, let us sing out praises for the journey. Let us be ever grateful for these lives we have been given, and for these companions we have been blessed with. Let us set our eyes to the horizon, and strike out on the journeys that are calling our names. Let us be on our way, and let us be glad for the way that lies before us.