“There’s no way out,” lamented a headline from Houston this week. Of all the horrifying and heartbreaking reportage from the flood zone, this one felt the most personal because just a week ago Saturday I was sitting in an eerily quiet airport terminal in Austin Texas, similarly wondering if there were a way out. Which of course there was, because I’m here. And a big thank you to the Portland weather: I’ll take a heatwave over a hurricane any day.
But even as hundreds of thousands long for a way out of coastal zones in Texas and Louisiana, I’m reminded of my friend Matt, a priest at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Houston, who was desperately seeking a way in. He had been away at a conference when the storm made landfall, and he is now unable to return to his flooded-out family. I’m also reminded of the Nicaragua-bound volunteers from Grace Memorial Church right here in Portland. When Hurricane Harvey left them stranded mid journey in Houston, they sought a way to stay and help the relief efforts.
We’re all looking for a way, no? To go, to come, to serve, to be right where we are. God knows that, which is probably why our sacred scriptures are replete with images of journey. From the earliest myths of creation we are told that God walked in the garden in the evening breeze. God bid the patriarch Abram to walk before him into Canaan, and the community-defining Exodus from Egypt consisted of a long walk through sea and desert. Even when the Israelites completed their journey, they were reminded to continue walking with God through their observance of the Law of Moses. Which is why we hear the psalmist boldly proclaiming “I have walked faithfully with you” in the verses we sang today.
The New Testament has similar ways of describing the practice of faith as both a way to get somewhere and as a way of life. Paul, a teacher steeped in Jewish ethics, is never far from the Torah when writing things like “let love be genuine… hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection… be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer… extend hospitality to strangers.” Strangers who were, presumably, people on a journey. To be a disciple, then, is to follow in the way of Jesus, and also to welcome others who are on their way.
Sometimes the Biblical way is quite literally a road, especially for the people who were traveling in the company of Jesus. In the reading from the Gospel of Matthew that we heard today, you may recall that the disciples and Jesus were travelling from Galilee to the region of Ceasarea Philippi, feeding and healing people along the way.
And that’s when stubborn Peter—nicknamed Rocky, as Nathan reminded us last week— Peter finally got it. “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God,” was his astonishing confession, and Jesus responded by calling him blessed. The rock on whom God would build the Church. Seems like a reason to pause and celebrate, right? But instead, at that very moment, the journey with Jesus took a sudden and frightening turn.
“From that time on,” our scripture read, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed.” From epiphany to peril in the space of a sentence. Predictably, Peter objected. This was not the messianic way he had in mind. And even though Jesus had already promised him that he would see the see the glory of God in the resurrection on the third-day, Peter could not countenance the suffering that that his friends and teacher would encounter on the way. He wanted everything to be OK; he didn’t want anyone he loved to get hurt.
But I don’t really need to tell you about that, do I? You’ve been telling me yourself. Just in the last week, I’ve heard so many very many stories of loss, of loneliness, of search for recovery and connection and employment and love. And the stories of suffering are not just from Texas. You already know what it is to be on a sorrowful way. I do too; it’s part of being human. And when our path inevitably brings us to tears, we can’t just choose to go another way. We don’t get to bypass sadness. In the spiritual life, the only way through sorrow is further in. Today’s Gospel, for all its shock value for Peter and for us, serves to remind us that on the Via Dolorosa—which is the modern name of is the road that Jesus walked through Jerusalem towards Calvary—on the sorrowful way, God always walks ahead of us.
Just over a year ago I was privileged to visit the Holy Island of Iona, in Scotland. That journey was a kind of via dolorosa for me, because it was on the way there that my dear friend and colleague Stefani first showed symptoms of the cancer that led to her death last month. At the time, none of us had any inkling of where the illness would take her. But perhaps the Iona Abbey—the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland and a center of Christian community for almost 1500 years—was itself speaking prophetically to me. While I was on the island praying for Stefani, I became fascinated with a small stretch of ancient paving in the monastery complex. It was a narrow cobbled path that led from the ruins of a small building located just outside the cloister, across a field, and into the cemetery.
Archeologists who study Iona say this path was probably once a processional road. The cemetery being its obvious destination, but the purpose of building where the road originated is a bit more obscure. It’s most recent known use was apparently as the abbey brewery, so no one is quite sure what manner of procession might have led from there to the cemetery. But now it’s just a set of ruined foundation stones encircling garden of wildflowers, and the former processional road leading outward is sunk deep into the landscape. To walk it now is rather like walking in a shallow ravine. The sides are so steep that once I had scrambled down onto the road, I was kind of committed for the whole journey.
From the flower-filled ruins of the monks’ alehouse to the cemetery and back, over and over I would tread those uneven stones as a kind of prayer, listening for the story they had to tell me. And what I eventually heard from them was that… I was not alone. Whether I was walking towards the field of death or back towards a flower-filled alehouse, I was surrounded by generations of faithful monks and community members who had celebrated life and rejoiced in the generosity of God, and also mourned loss and let beloved people go. Between the garden and the graveyard, I was walking with centuries of saints.
Trinity is like that too. Every step you take here—literally or metaphorically—you are taking in the company of saints to who have gone before you, who are with you now, or who will follow you. Hold a moment of silence and notice their presence. They are your companions on the way. The way of sorrow, the way of joy, the way of our ordinary days. The literal way; they walk with us up and down the aisles or across the breezeway. And the spiritual way, too, because when yours is a way of tears or loneliness or confusion, they are here for you. And so are we. When you find yourself on the way of the cross, you are not alone.
I’m inclined to think that, when all is said and done, there’s really only one way that we’re all on. It’s a path not defined by geography or time even by creed, because it’s the way that God patterned upon the universe from the beginning of time, and implanted in the holy imagination of the ancient ones. It’s a way that leads from garden to grave to glory. It’s not a way we can opt out of, but neither is it one on which we can get left behind. It’s the reason we at Trinity are able to boldly welcome others—hungry people, hurting people, immigrant and refugee people—onto the journey with us. Our stories, our saints, and our community constantly remind us that can walk a sorrowful way without fear, because loss and apparent disaster will not have the final word. That’s what Jesus taught us, and to follow his example will inevitably lead us home.