07 July 2013

There and Back Again

Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20

7th Sunday after Pentecost/ 7th July 2013
Sacrament of Holy Communion

If you're a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973), you'll recognize the title for today's sermon.  "There and Back Again: A Hobbit's Tale" is the title Bilbo Baggins gives to his memoir of high adventure, his discovery of the magic ring.  There and Back Again was Tolkien's alternate title to his book The Hobbit.  It came to mind, the title, that is, almost a month ago when I put the bulletin together for today, knowing that this would be my first Sunday back after being away for three weeks.  I was hopeful that I would get there and back again.  I didn't get lost in a cave or find a magic ring (although there were magical moments) or meet up with disturbing characters such as Gollum.  But I did go on an adventure of body, mind, and spirit, an extraordinary journey over thousands of miles and years:  Dulles to London to Mumbai to Coimbatore to Coonoor, back to Coimbatore to Delhi. The journey included a four-day tour of the Golden Triangle: Delhi, south to Agra (the site of the Taj Mahal), west to Jaipur (the stronghold of ancient Hindu kingdoms before the arrival of the Moghuls), then back to Delhi, the capital of the Moghul Empire and later the capital of the British Raj (or Rule) of India until independence in 1947. Then I flew from Delhi to London to Edinburgh (because all roads lead through Scotland) before returning on Wednesday via London and Toronto.

            The reason for this adventure was an invitation from the St. Andrew Centre for Human Resource Development in Coonoor to teach a seminar on the work of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). The St. Andrew Centre was founded by the India Sunday School Union, which was itself organized in 1875. The director, Dr. Ajit Prasadam, received his doctorate from Princeton Seminary, and worked closely with my mentor James Loder.  Jim went to Coonoor in the 1990s and lectured around India.  Two years ago Ajit said, you must come and teach in India.  I thought he was going to ask me to teach something related to Loder.  But given my recent interest in Jung, he asked me to do an entire seminar on Jung's theories.

            It was both an honor and a privilege—a joy—to offer this seminar. I'm so grateful for the experience.  I had 41 in the course from all over India, including seven who traveled from Sri Lanka; the group consisted of counselors, pastors, and students in psychology.  They were all people of deep faith.  It was ecumenical, from mainline Protestant to Assembly of God/Pentecostal to Roman Catholic (one priest and one sister).  There were some who had serious doubts about Jung, who didn't know he had an interest in religion and Christianity.  I also had to disavow some of their anti-Jungian views informed by textbooks written with a Freudian bias.  I had to convince them that Jung has something important to say to Christianity.  I had to convince them that while Jung was not essentially orthodox, he cared about the church and it's message.  And I had to convince them that I wasn't a heretic for liking Jung.  But I made the point and proved myself and by the end of the week it was very difficult to say good-bye to the remarkable people in the class.

            It was a very busy week.  Chapel every morning at 8:30 a.m., class began at 9 a.m., lunch was at 1:00 p.m.; the afternoon session started at 2:30 p.m. and went until 4:30 or 5:00 p.m.  I preached at the community worship service on Sunday, 16th June, and preached on Monday at the opening worship service.  Ajit also asked me to preach at the closing worship on Friday.  We covered a lot of material in the class.  They worked hard; we worked hard. Despite feeling exhausted each night, I was really energized by the entire experience.

            Ajit also asked me to give a public lecture on Jung.  And so I gave a version of the lecture I offered here in April.  There were 100 in attendance from the community, made up of Christians and Hindus.  In appreciation, they presented me with a shawl, an Indian tradition given to a professor.

            Jung really resonated with the seminar participants.  On the last day, for the last hour, they reflected with me on what the seminar meant to them, what they were taking away with them, what they would take with them back into their ministries.

            This is not a travelogue, but a reflection on a text on a Communion Sunday.  But they are related.  The gospel text for this morning is like a travelogue, a travelogue that preaches the gospel.  Jesus sends out seventy in groups of two.  He sends them out on an adventure, to explore, to share, to preach, to let people know that the kingdom of God has come near them.  He gives them guidelines and then he releases them.  They go and they return and in returning they share their experiences with Jesus.  What they discovered about God, about themselves, about the world could only have been discovered through the journey, through the adventure, through the experience.  They couldn't have discovered these things in a book or through stories second-hand.  There are some things about the faith that can only be discovered on the way.  There are things that can only be discovered when one leaves home, like Bilbo Baggins.

            It's not surprising that early Christians understood the life of faith as pilgrimage, as peregrinatio, peregrination, of journey.  It is a journey, an adventure from life to death to life to death to life again.  Jesus himself, who clocked a lot of miles on foot, knew the power of such a metaphor.  "I am the way," he said (John 14:6).  In other words, I am the road you travel to find life.  Jesus takes us places.  A sermon, too, is supposed to take us some place and leave us in a different place. A sermon might actually start us off on a journey that leads to new lands, new experiences, down uncharted roads, and unexplored terrain.

            On Wednesday at Heathrow airport I came across a marvelous book by Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways:  A Journey on Foot.  It's a fascinating book about walking, traversing ancient pathways and routes.  Macfarlane explores the connection between external topography and the soul, the outer journey mirrors the inner journey. He explores the relationship between topography, both land and sea, and how when we are in particular landscapes, something happens to us.  Landscapes, especially strong landscapes, touch us deeply.  He says they ask two questions:  "What do I know when I am in this place that I can know no where else?  And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?"[1]

            To walk, to journey, is to learn, to discover.  Richard Kearney, a contemporary Irish philosopher writing on the Irish scholars, those Celtic Christians of the 4th to 7th century, reminds us that the scholars "were known for their practice of 'navigatio'...a journey undertaken by boat...a circular itinerary of exodus and return...  The aim was to undergo an apprenticeship to signs of strangeness with a view to becoming more attentive to the meaning of one's own time and place -- geographical, spiritual, intellectual."[2]

            To go to India was for me, as a Christian white man from the West, to be an apprentice to strangeness and in doing so I became more aware of the world and myself.  I was in the minority. There are approximately 1 billion people in India, 2-3% of the population is Christian.  The majority is Hindu.  Thomas (d. 72) the apostle brought Christianity to India in 52 AD and was martyred there.  The descendants of his communities are still in India, St. Thomas Christians are known as Nasranis (can you hear Nazareth in the name).  Ajit's family descends from those first Christians.  The Roman Catholic Church arrived in the 13th century, later the Portuguese brought Roman Catholicism in 1498.  Protestants arrived with the Danish and the British, who both had colonies in India.  Today, India is religiously diverse, Christian, Buddhist (home of Buddhism), Hindu, Moslem, Jain. 

            It's a very different world.  It's a challenging place for Christians: How do we remain faithful as an isolated minority?  How does one remain faithful to one God in a land of many gods? Maybe in this sense they have much to teach us in the West, as Christians here become a minority, as the church becomes isolated by the larger society.  And, we, too, have many gods.

            This is what the students shared with me.  The participants in the seminar were definitely on their own journeys of faith.  We were all different people by the time the week was over.  I'll be sharing a little of what they shared with me, about what they learned and discovered. There was something profound about sharing stories of faith across cultures, identifying differences and striking similarities.

            One of the joys of the Christian life is that we get to travel with others; we don't really walk alone for we journey together.  We are part of this larger community.  And we meet new friends along the way.  The Lord is always sending us out and calling us back and inviting us to share what we discovered on the way.  The Lord is always sending us out and calling us back, sending us out and calling us back—that’s what we do week after week, we scatter and return—and then we share what we’re discovering along the way.  And as we go the Lord provides bread for the journey, food to sustain us, bread and wine, the gifts of God for the people of God.  Amen.

[1] Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (London:  Penguin, 2012), 27.
[2] Richard Kearney, Navigations:  Collected Irish Essays, 1976-2006 (Dublin, 2006), cited in Macfarlane, 119.

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