Sermons

Well-worn paths

It was a brilliant autumn day in County Galway, in the west of Ireland. We were on Inish Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands, where you are never very far from the North Atlantic. And we were about as close as you could get to the ocean, following our guide around the edge of the island, high up on the limestone cliffs. At every turn, a picture-postcard view presented itself: sapphire blue ocean hurling itself against the base of the grey cliffs; our feet sometimes cushioned by lush grass, sometimes forced to find a tenuous hold on limestone worn sharp and rough by thousands and thousands of years of north Atlantic wind and rain.

It was not hard to follow the path, most of the time. Usually we were a comfortable ten yards or so from the edge, but from time to time the edge of the cliff would sneak towards us, only a couple of yards away, and it was impossible to ignore the unsettling reality that the gorgeous ocean, and the tumble of rocks at the base of the cliff, were hundreds of feet below us. With no guard rail.

:My Pictures:Ireland 2015:13 Inishmore:d. Coastal Walk:IMG_0262.jpg

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At one point, a few new members joined the group. They hadn’t been with us on the flight over, and they certainly hadn’t paid for this week-long pilgrimage. But they didn’t need to – because they were goats. One was hobbled, a rope tied around her front and back legs on one side – long enough that she could walk, but short enough that she couldn’t go too fast. It didn’t seem to deter her – she kept up with the others and managed without much anxiety to scramble over the stone walls that cris-crossed the fields.

Our new friends clearly were familiar with the path – they didn’t need to follow our lead as much as they were just curious and wanted company. They would amble with us for a while, then wander off, then come back again. It was clear that they knew this terrain backwards and forwards. They knew it so well that they could venture off the path with confidence. They knew it so well that their detours would often, to my chagrin, take them on to the rocks that lay between our path and the ocean below. This made me incredibly nervous – I was convinced that at some point I would look over the edge and see that they had tumbled to the bottom.

:My Pictures:Ireland 2015:13 Inishmore:d. Coastal Walk:IMG_0274.jpg

But of course, they never did. In a little while, as we headed inland toward the main road, they reappeared, peering at us over the edge of a low stone rise. They knew exactly what they were doing – even the goat that was hobbled did just fine.

 

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I was much relieved.

Here at the start of Lent, I am thinking a great deal about the paths we take as the beloved community of Jesus. How do we choose those paths? How do we know where to go, which paths are safe and which are not? Earlier we prayed from psalm 25: Show me your ways, O LORD, and teach me your paths. What are these paths that belong to God, and how do we know we are on the right ones?

Another way of talking about the paths of God is to speak of what we call the Tradition of the Church. I don’t mean “traditions,” small-t, those particular practices of each congregation that have become habit, like what kind of wafers or bread we use, what kind of music we like, or whether we eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday or Shrove Sunday. I mean Tradition with a capital T – this is the lived wisdom of the Body of Christ over hundreds or even thousands of years, paths that have been well worn over an often treacherous landscape.

These are paths that Christians have followed together, because they discovered that when they did, they were able to love God more deeply and love their neighbors more faithfully.

For instance, ever since the first followers of Jesus gathered, they blessed and broke bread together, gave thanks over a cup of wine, and shared both in the name of Jesus, who died and rose again for the salvation of all. In the bread and the wine they encountered, as real as anything else they ever knew, the Real Body and Blood of their Lord, and they were united with him and each other. This Tradition sustains us to this day – it is our food for the journey, and without it, we know we would perish.

Another Tradition is praying the psalms, which Jesus’ Jewish forebears did long before he was born, and which Jesus and his disciples and all who came after them continued to do. The psalms are a Tradition that shapes our own prayer, because the psalms are the prayers and songs of human beings who wanted God to be at the center of their lives. These are heartsongs to God, pouring out praise, sorrow, pain, fury, and even despair. In the psalms, God teaches us the path of humility, intimacy, gratitude, and absolute dependence on God’s love. Paradoxically, in using the words of others we actually learn to be ourselves, reaching out our hands and hearts to God: To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you. Even when the psalms cry out for vengeance against enemies, they remind us that such retribution is not ours to take, but must be entrusted to God.

I am glad that we are praying the psalms again during Lent – they are well-worn paths through a landscape that is full of both beauty and terror. Yea, though I walk through the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

We began our liturgy with another time-honored Tradition, at least among Anglican churches: the Great Litany. It was the first liturgical rite that Thomas Cranmer rendered into English, even before the Book of Common Prayer, because King Henry VIII wanted the English people to be able to pray for the well being of their church and nation in their own tongue. Granted, it was for a dubious reason: Henry was facing war with France and wanted God on his side, but even so, the Great Litany has, like all authentic traditions, become so much more than a spiritual military tactic.

I hope you heard and felt the spiritual power of this ancient chant. I hope you heard how the litany carried our need and our hope to God, and I hope you heard in those petitions the depth of our trust in God’s love. I hope you heard the agony as we prayed for deliverance from famine and disaster, and from violence and murder. I hope you heard and felt the seventeen victims of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida and their loved ones being wept over and lifted into God’s loving arms. I hope you heard, also, the young man who killed them being forgiven, and his heart turned from evil.

And I hope you heard us plead for wisdom and strength for our elected leaders, that they may work for the common good and walk in the ways of truth.

Above all, I hope you heard that last heartfelt plea, that we might be given true repentance, and be forgiven of our sins of negligence and ignorance, as well as of our deliberate sins. This is our plea to not to become mired in business as usual, but to become the people of love that God created us to be.

This is how God teaches us, and leads us in paths that are holy – by leading us through practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that have led Christians in the ways of justice and truth for hundreds and thousands of years. Eucharist, praying the psalms, reading scripture, pouring out our hearts in the litany, confessing our sins – these and other parts of the great Tradition aren’t there to force us into a uniform spiritual box; they help us love better. Because our culture worships individuality and innovation, we think that we have to forge new paths all the time. But we don’t. People have walked this road before us, and they have discovered how not to fall off the ledge. They show us where and how to navigate the rocky cliffs. This is a great gift.

Sometimes we do need to shift the path a little – for instance, the Great Litany that we prayed is an updated version that expresses more clearly the needs and hopes of the modern world. Sometimes the old paths have gotten too worn, or too close to the edge of a cliff that has been eroding over the years. When that happens we need to shift direction – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. But we can only chart new paths safely

if we know the old ones backwards and forwards, like my four-legged friends on Inish Mor. And we need to do it together.

This is a treacherous world we live in, not least because we humans have made it so. Even in the best of times, there is no guard rail at the edge of the cliff. But we can trust those who have mapped out this territory before. We walk the well-worn path of love, following the cross and giving voice to our longing. When death, greed, and ignorance threaten to pull us over the edge, these ancient paths anchor and feed us.

So what does God need to teach us in the weeks and months ahead? Where will the paths of love and faithfulness lead us? We can’t know for sure, but I do know these paths will transform us. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said it as well as anybody:

I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that [God] will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.

Teach us to pray, O LORD, show us your ways – teach us your paths.

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