03 March 2013

Food for the Journey

El Camino de Santiago de Compostella (The Way of St. James)

Isaiah 55:1-9

Third Sunday in Lent/3rd March 2013

Isaiah wastes no time. He gets right to the point.  How did your perspective get so skewed? he says.  How did your values become so misplaced? How did your attitudes become so twisted, distorted, warped? How? Or, deeper, why?

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?  Why do you labor for that which does not satisfy?  Why do you invest your life in that which does not feed your life?  Why do you exert energy and waste your time on that which does not bring life, satisfy your soul? 

            Isaiah is calling Israel­­ – calling us – to a time of honest soul-searching.  It’s time to take stock of what matters and what doesn’t; time to reevaluate the way we live our lives, invest and spend resources; time to question our values, what we hold dear to our hearts.  It’s a time to listen to our hearts, be attentive to the soul, give up a superficial life on the surface and go deep.  Now is the time. That’s what Lent is for.

            Isaiah is calling them to conduct a moral examen, self-examination, calling Israel to take stock of their lives.  And in love, with grace, he asks them: Why are you sabotaging yourselves?  Why are you undermining yourselves, saying that you want one thing, but going after another?  Why are you looking for love in all the wrong places, as it were? Why are you striving after that which in the end will only leave you disappointed? Their moral compass is broken.

            Isaiah’s questions are all rhetorical.  He’s not asking because he doesn’t know the answer.  He’s posing the questions, an effective tool of rhetoric, to move the argument forward, to make a point, to cause the listener to stop and consider. He’s not waiting for Israel to answer.

            He offers the answer; it’s contained in the question. Israel’s search for and striving after something, expending a lot of money and time and effort in the process, suggests that Israel really lacks something at its core.  There’s a desire and hunger at work here that cannot be satisfied, gratified, fulfilled.  It’s that hunger and desire that Isaiah wants them to be attentive to.  He wants them to feel the depth of their hunger, to feel the depth of their desire, the desire of their hearts.  For what do you really hunger?  What do you really desire? These are critical questions because our hungers and desires inevitably push, move, direct us down either one road or the other, one way or the other.   In this sense, Isaiah is calling them to evaluate what’s really driving their lives, what’s shaping their desires, what are they really hungry for?  What’s really driving you? If you compass is broken, who knows where you’ll end up?

            What’s ultimately missing, the hunger they crave (or maybe afraid to acknowledge) is their hunger for God; one need they lack (or a need they won’t acknowledge) is a need for God and for the kind of life, purpose and meaning that come with a life rooted and grounded in God.

            Isaiah cries to them, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” extending the invitation to us all.  The invitation stands: the water of life is there. But do you thirst for it?  Or do you have other thirsts?  For what are you thirsty? Are your thirsty for this water?  Desire it? Long for it? Dream about it? 

It’s important to remember this bit of wisdom running through scripture:  need, want, lack are all required in the life of faith.  If you think you’re self-sufficient, need nothing, want for nothing, lack nothing, then don’t be surprised if God seems absent or unnecessary.  There’s a direct correlation between wealth and self-sufficiency and the decline of faith, particularly North America and Western Europe.  There is a direct correlation between the rise of secularism and the growth of enormous wealth in the West.

            What Isaiah is offering God’s people doesn’t come through us or within us, it doesn’t come from what we can buy or because we’ve earned it; we don’t own it.  What we’re really looking for, hungry for, and need, cannot be found or fed or met within ourselves or what we have. We have to acknowledge that we are poor, because what God gives cannot be bought.  You don’t need money for this.  We don’t have the “currency” to obtain this.  What you need is your poverty, to confess what you lack.   Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). In Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).  Isaiah says, “You that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” 

            And so Isaiah calls them to acknowledge their impoverishment, their need for God; he reminds them of God’s covenant with them, and he invites them back.  “Seek the LORD while he may be found…let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy…” (Is. 55:6-7). Seek and return.

            In many ways these two words – seek and return – in their ebb and flow, sum up the life of faith.  Seek and return and seek and return and seek and return…here we discover the rhythm of the Christian life.  It’s not surprising that our life as Christians has been described as a high adventure, a journey, a quest, a pilgrimage; then disciples become pilgrims, explorers, travelers on the road, on a mission, an expedition. 

            It all begins with a desire to seek, to search after God.  St. Augustine (354-430) said, "To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement."  On order to find God one must desire God.  And for some, for most, the desire doesn’t emerge until we begin the journey, go after God, leave home, and venture forth toward unknown territory.  The inward search for God was, and is, often matched by the outer journey. The outer journey helps to clarify what is going on inwardly, clarifying the desire. Sometimes you have to just set off on the journey and along the way discover what you’re looking for, discover your true compass, discover the One who is seeking after you. This is why pilgrimage became so important early in the Christian experience, particularly in Europe.  Medieval Europe was covered with pilgrimage routes to shrines and cathedrals.

            I was very conscious of this living in St. Andrews, Scotland, with its ancient cathedral dedicated to St. Andrew, once the destination for pilgrims who arrived from all over Europe to worship near the relic of Andrew.  Many ancient pilgrimage routes are being restored for modern-day pilgrims; there’s talk of building one from Iona in the west of Scotland to St. Andrews in the east.  Actually, it’s happening all over Europe, the rediscovery of pilgrimage.  The most famous route is the one that stretches from France, down across northern Spain to the Cathedral of St. James in Compostella. El Camino de Santiago de Compostella  (The Way of St. James), crossing hundreds of miles, is gaining in popularity, with more than 180,000 pilgrims receiving their Compostella, the certificate awarded to those who have traveled 62 miles on foot or 124 miles on bicycle on consecutive days and who are prepared to testify that they made the journey for religious, spiritual, or religious-cultural reasons.[1] One day I, too, hope to walk the camino.  It’s on my bucket list.

            There’s a good movie about the camino that came out several years ago with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez, called The Way (2012).  Martin Sheen plays an American doctor from California who heads overseas to recover the body of his estranged son who died in a storm in the Pyreness while traversing the camino.  When the father arrives in France, he decides to take the pilgrimage himself, although he really doesn’t understand the point of it all. As he walks he soon discovers that he’s not alone, there are others like him on the journey, people grieving, people searching for meaning, for healing, for purpose, for God.  The journey helps the father break free from what he calls his “California bubble life,” and he begins to fathom something his son said to him, the last thing he ever heard from his son, he said there’s a difference between “the life we live and the life we choose.”  What we choose.  And so we’re back to hunger and desire.  What informs our choosing?   Sometimes it takes the journey to discover what we’re really searching for, what matters most in life.

            The Welsh poet R. S. Thomas (1913-2000) expressed the central purpose of pilgrimage this way: 
                        The point of traveling is not/ to arrive but to return home
                        Laden with pollen, you shall work up
                        Into honey the mind feeds on.[2]  

The purpose of the journey is to return, to arrive home a changed person.  T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) said something similar:                                    
We shall not cease from exploration,
                        and the end of all of our exploring
                        will be to arrive where we started
                        and know the place for the first time.[3]

            My good friend, Ian Bradley, who teaches at St. Andrews and has written extensively on pilgrimage.  (Ian will be visiting with us in early May.) Ian makes the point that the goal of pilgrimage, of the journey, is not necessarily a cathedral or shrine, or a particular destination; it’s the journey itself, because in the walking, in the searching itself we are changed.  Pilgrims who attempt the camino often describe the final arrival in Santiago and the return home this way; “el regreso es la salida (the return is the departure), in other words, “the Camino, the way, begins in Santiago.” That’s where the real journey begins.  “As one pilgrim put it, ‘You are not the same when you return as when you started out.  Your very soul is on the move’…  The physical journey concludes in Santiago where the real spiritual journey begins.’”[4]

            Seek and return.  We don’t have to travel to Spain or France. There are other routes to take, other ways to be on that journey. What matters most is that we see the life of faith as a journey. We’re on a road and the Spirit is trying to take us somewhere.  It’s our task to engage in the search, to seek after God – the God who is always elusive – and so we search and in searching arrive, returning home, home to God’s mercy and goodness and grace.  This is the real “currency,” grace, goodness, mercy, that allows us to buy and eat food that nourishes, bread that feeds and satisfies us, drink that revives us.

            And so Jesus gives us this table, with bread and wine, to remind of us of God’s sheer grace, free grace;
here is food for our journey toward him,
 food for our journey in him,
food for our journey for him. 

For if we seek him we shall most certainly find and in finding him know we are home.


[1] Ian Bradley, Pilgrimage:  A Spiritual and Cultural Journey (Oxford, UK: Lion Hudson, 2009), 99.
[2] Cited in Bradley, 22.
[3] T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets.
[4] Nancy Fey, Pilgrim Stories On and Off the Road to Santiago (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1998), 4, cited in Bradley, 110.

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