Completing the Pilgrimage

Passage: Genesis 32:22-31
Date: August 20, 2017
Preacher: Guest Preacher
Guest Preacher: Rev. Eileen Parfrey

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Since the rest of the church is at the beach this weekend learning pilgrimage practices, I thought we could read this story of Jacob through the lens of my own pilgrimage experience. I’d seen Martin Sheen in the movie, The Way, so my friend Bev and I decided that if Sheen could walk the Camino, so could we. As you may know, the Camino is a network of pilgrimage trails covering Europe. We knew we couldn’t walk the whole thing, so decided on a week of walking in France. To prepare, we read books and blogs and Internet sites about what to pack. We bought boots and backpacks, we trained religiously. We set out one morning in Nasbinals, France, guidebook in hand, only to discover we had no clue as to which way to turn from our hotel. And thus was born the realization that a real map is more than a squiggly line with dots to indicate towns. Fortunately, for the first thousand years of the Camino, the average pilgrim didn’t have a map either, so a way to guide the map-less faithful to Santiago was developed—stripes of white and red paint on fence posts, utility poles, at spots along the pavement. Not to mention, other pilgrims who are more than willing to share their sense of how to get where we’re all headed. Walking the Camino began to look a lot like what we do in the church: we’ve got a book that describes our destination, but it’s up to us to read the signs and check things out with fellow travelers.

There are those who say that today’s story of Jacob is the “completion” of a pilgrimage, which makes sense if you remember that prequel about Jacob running away from his brother. With the increasing popularity of walking the Camino, we’ve come to think of pilgrimage as something like holy tourism. But the original notion of pilgrimage is to challenge the pilgrim, work out repentance, change the pilgrim so that, like Jacob, they don’t return as the same person who set out. Jacob ends his pilgrimage with a battle against a mysterious opponent. He’s on his way to reconcile with his brother, and all he can do is hang on. It’s not exactly clear he wants to return, but he’d gotten this text from God: “Get back home and make up with your brother.”

If we’re going to read this wrestling match as a parable for pilgrim practices, it’s clear that anger can only fuel you for so long. If you’re going to prevail like Jacob, if reconciliation is your portfolio, you need more than anger. That’s where this story comes a little close to the bone—after last weekend in Charlottesville. The Interwebs this week have been abuzz. So much shock and outrage at the violence. Blogs about “what white people need to do” and people of color expressing, “welcome to what we’ve lived with for the last 500 years.” Underlying a lot of this reaction to the violence is a growing understanding that we’ve divided people into us/them categories. It’s not that there aren’t differences between people, or even groups of people. But making those differences the basis of “otherness,” and making the other less than “us” (whoever the “us” is), is a threat to what I believe is the goal of our pilgrimage of life, namely “thy kingdom come” (what we pray for week after week).

Years ago my home church established a sister relationship with a church in Juarez, Mexico, making an annual mission-work trip to visit. One year, our trip was made jointly with a predominantly black church in our town. When you share the same concrete floor bed, the same daytime heat, the same food, when you brush your teeth together, you discover there is more common humanity than not. But there are also cultural differences, and they are real. Those differences are, however, only cultural, when you’re working together to mix concrete with shovels in 115 degree heat so you can build a library for the kids in the barrio.

Our African American conversation partners remind us that the problem isn’t individual white people, it is the systemic racism. Two of my grandsons were adopted out of the Chicago foster care system. Had these small African American boys stayed in South Chicago where they were born, they would have faced an 80% likelihood of being in jail before they were 18. When they came to our family, they were considered developmentally delayed because, although they had been in a stable foster home their entire lives, their foster mother was the product of multi-generational poverty, and she didn’t know how to raise kids any differently than to strap them into a baby carrier all day to keep them safe. That’s systemic racism.

An educator and blogger on Wordpress (from: put generational poverty and the results of racism into a metaphor even I can understand. It’s like only making the minimum payment each month on your credit card bill, she said. Continue on that way, and you will always be in debt. The bank is happy for that month, but to put your relationship with the bank in order, you have to look past the minimum to the total balance line. This, the blogger says, is what race and equity are about. “Deciding to see everyone as equal,” she says, “is like making a minimum payment. It’s better than what we used to do, but it won’t address the very large debt we’ve accumulated over hundreds of years. To make a dent in that debt will require more intensive intervention.” My grandsons needed intensive intervention—physical therapy, speech therapy, cognitive stimulation. The blogger assures her readers “this won’t be entirely painless for white people. Repaying a debt requires giving up assets. And balancing power requires the people with too much to relinquish some of it.”

Like Jacob, my friends, we’ve been commanded to go home and reconcile with our brother. The work ahead of us is a pilgrim practice, one that will require us, like Jacob, to hang on for a long struggle. It’s gonna be hard, but it’s gotta be done. Yes, like Bev’s and my time on the Camino, we don’t really have a map. We’re in unknown territory. But there are signs to which we can attend, and there will be other pilgrims with whom we can validate our choices.

Sometimes we paralyze ourselves by second-guessing. Am I doing the right thing? Is this God’s will? Will this be offensive? The pilgrim lesson of Jacob’s wrestling match tells us to get up and go—to do something. I’m reminded of the morning on the Camino when Bev and I tried to get our landlady to call us a cab to take us to the next town, because Bev’s limp had gotten worse overnight. The landlady must have seen a few pilgrims get to this point, so she flatly refused—it was Sunday, it was too expensive, besides no one would drive that far. She pointed out the front door. “Do you see that bridge? Cross it, take a right at the end of the bridge, and keep walking. Stay on the road.” The second pilgrim lesson from Jacob is that God is willing to work with what we have to offer. If God is willing to rename and bless that old trickster, Jacob, surely God will honor our desire to engage in the struggle for reconciliation, even when we’re sometimes tactless and clueless.

I read some practical advice about racial reconciliation this week. It’s pretty much what your parents taught you about being a friend and staying in conversations that are challenging. Ask like you don’t know the answer to everything. Listen to what your conversation partner answers. And, because I’m a spiritual director, I would also say to listen for how God is leading —that’s the contemplative part of action. Don’t “yes but” the one telling you about what it’s like to be black in this country, don’t be defensive that you aren’t a racist, because this is about systemic racism. We are at a point in this nation when it is about paying more than the minimum payment; it’s about working on the “total due” line. Like Jacob, we are facing the completion of our pilgrimage. Like Jacob, we are at the point in our pilgrimage when we need to complete the journey. There will be some wrestling before it’s over, and we’ll need to hang on to prevail. But God’s original promise to Abraham, as it was to Jacob and to us as well, is that “I will be with you.” Hang on.