Not long before the pandemic began last year, some fantastic Epiphanites loaned me three books before we knew what would unfold during these intervening 12 months. “A year later, these three books (kept in Ziploc bags as I do since I worked in a bookstore where we could read any book for free as long as it was brought back in “new’ condition) have been picked up and put down more times than I would like to admit. And I am here to tell you that I have finished one of these books and am going to return it to its owner today! And what I can honestly tell you is that I am glad it took me so long to read the book. A Pilgrimage to Eternity is about one man’s pilgrimage along the Via Francigena written by Seattle’s own columnist Timothy Egan.
I have been thinking a lot lately about the people and the messages that God puts in our lives…. God is, when we take the time to listen, really speaking to us all the time in so many different ways. For me, readings from the Bible and books often serve as a vehicle through which God speaks to me, as do lyrics of songs and snippets of conversations… God is alive in all God’s people and creations around me—each reminding me of God’s love and God’s law summarized by Jesus in this way: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and Spirit, and love your neighbor as you self.”
So, the words of Timothy Egan came into my life this Lent through one of those loaned books. As I read the book, I also took the opportunity to look back through Egan’s opinion pieces in the New York Times over the last few months, and, of course, to read the most recent one.
Egan’s piece from the week of March 5th entitled Seeking Connection in a New Normal: With vaccines for all on the horizon, we will have to find our way back from grief and loneliness was a rather good reflection on where we find ourselves almost exactly a year after the pandemic began. And a lot of things have changed in one year. We are grieving. Almost 540 thousand Americans have died. Our students and teachers have gone through almost two school years unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. As have we all – workers who work from home, and workers who cannot work at home – from our grocery store folks to our medical professionals… and now as we look forward to a time when we all can be vaccinated—we may find ourselves feeling a lot like we might have in holiday seasons past – super excited, antsy, upset with those who may seem more fortunate than ourselves or aware of all we don’t have, blue at the loss of a beloved family member or feeling lonely because of the lack of friends or family. We are so excited with the thought of what may be possible in the coming months that we can find ourselves impatient with the waiting, and the waiting, and the waiting…. WE ARE READY TO GO! WE ARE READY TO DO! We want to move on from the grief. We want to be happy again. dammit.
Into this mixture of emotions, Timothy Egan shares this quote from Immanuel Kant
Rules of Happiness:
Something to Do.
Someone to Love.
Something to Hope for.
And I thought about this real good. It is the kind of thing that we all like. A list makes things easier. Like for example, a good list of points to be covered in a sermon makes it easier to follow. Don’t you wish I would say, for example, “I am going to be talking about A, B, and C, and how they correspond with X, Y, and Z?” Sorry I don’t do this more often, friends. My brain likes it best when we journey together. But I love this list. Like Jesus’ Summary of the Law, it is so simple AND true. We human beings love to search for happiness as if it were some kind of odyssey, something to be obtained. Our current self-help culture is all about how we can be happy and how and where we can find happiness. There are so many books on happiness: The Pursuit of Happiness by Chris Gardner. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama. So, we are ready to do all kinds of things to find “it:” go on great journeys only to be thwarted in our quest, or shipwrecked during our journey—foiled if not by Scylla then Charybdis. But what Jesus, and in this case God Godself, would say is that true happiness is not something for which you need search to the ends of the earth—although it can be found there too—God’s love meets you right where you are.
Because wherever you are and whatever your soul is seeking, God is there also. Today’s reading from John occurs after Jesus has entered into Jerusalem… to much fanfare, with calls of “Hosanna” from Psalm 118 and a re-enactment of Zechariah 9:9 marking the king’s arrival to the holy city (John 12:12-19). The crowd, which had originally travelled to Jerusalem to visit the Temple to purify themselves before the Festival of Passover instead welcomes and follows Jesus. The Johannine author is showing that Jesus is the location of God’s glory and presence. As Jesus enters Jerusalem, the Pharisees fearing a Roman reprisal feel forced to act quickly, saying, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”
And while his disciples might be a little heartened by the warm welcome Jesus has received from the crowds, what Jesus knows is that in order to gather together God’s people, he will first need to overcome death; gives his life. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit…Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” If this phrase about servants needing to follow Jesus wherever the servant may be is difficult for the crowd to understand, Jesus explains it again. He says, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” For Jesus, this is the happiness he wants us to find. What Jesus is saying is that wherever we are as believers, Jesus will gather us together and as we come together, we will meet Jesus there – or as we are probably more used to hearing it said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Christians, in this moment between what Egan might call the “new” and ‘old’ normal—in this liminal space—we have a unique opportunity to choose new ways of being in the world. We have the choice to follow Jesus and his way more closely on our earthly pilgrimage rather than choosing instead to return to ‘normal,” towards extraordinary and abundant life and happiness here and now. Timothy Egan quotes in his book an oft heard saying that I often heard as I walked to Santiago de Compostela – we all must walk our own road or, as the poet Spanish poet Antonio Machado put it “Walker there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road.”
In his book A Pilgrimage to Eternity, Timothy Egan walks his own road—sharing it at different times with his son, his daughter, and his wife. And while he does, in fact, take this journey abroad, the biggest journey takes place within his own mind, his own soul, and his own family. I don’t think it is for nothing that Kant’s simple list makes sense to him after the completion of his pilgrimage to Rome. Even if all roads lead to Rome, they don’t necessarily lead to happiness. In fact, they all too often disappoint. Happiness is rather simple and usually homemade.
While some days I may feel sad or anxious or exhausted, I have everything I need to be happy. As I Christian and a human being, I have something to do—to love God and to love my neighbor not just as myself but even as Jesus loves me. I have someone to love – God, my husband, my friends, my family, and my community. And I have something to hope for—not just the new normal whatever that shapes up to be – but the extraordinary and glorious Kingdom of God where I know Jesus will be. So while we may be excited to go and to do, we need to remember right now that wherever we may be, Jesus will be too. So watch carefully Christians who and what is God putting in your path… and follow your heart…..that’s the way Jesus speaks to us and helps us find true happiness.