This fall, I bet many of us have some pilgrimages scheduled. Or, perhaps, we would if not for the pandemic. For each fall, we have a pilgrimage ritual, whether we realize it or not. We load up the car, go to great pains in preparation, making sure we have everything we need. That includes making sure we have the right gear for the big day when we have reached our pilgrimage site. These pilgrimages we’ll make require advanced preparation, even some headaches in taking time out of our normal lives. But I bet we all agree, it’s worth it.
If not for this pandemic I would be seriously contemplating such a pilgrimage myself this fall. Last fall, I had one planned but then Dana came down with pneumonia, so our pilgrimage was cancelled. Back then, and even this fall, in my mind’s eye I see myself preparing for a pilgrimage like we all make: booking a hotel room, ordering my family the right gear for the big day, taking a day off work, maybe even missing a Sunday in worship, just to make this pilgrimage. We’d hit the road on a Thursday or Friday with an aim to be in Harrisonburg, Virginia, on Saturday, for that’s the big day!
On Saturday, we’d don our James Madison University football gear. I can see Jackson & Carter in their JMU t-shirts, both of them standing with the giant Duke Dog mascot statue in front of the football stadium. Then we’d go in and cheer on the Dukes to victory!
Before-hand, of course, there would be some rituals to teach; some football habits. That would include standard cheers but, of course, they already know the fight song.
Then we’d go to the game, cheer our hearts out, and take time in to move around the campus.
This is the pilgrimage many of us make during the fall: to a football game but to so much more than that. We go back to our homes, back to where we left a part of our hearts, back to a symbol that carries great meaning. We take time, we go to the expense, we invite friends, we gather with family, not just to cheer on our team, but to recover a sense of self, a part of us that gets lost in the day to day shuffle.
The pilgrimage I have described to JMU, while difficult in some ways, tiring in its length and energy expended, would be worth it. It’d be worth it to be able to go back to campus, back to the feelings evoked by my alma mater, back to my home.
I bet many of you would agree when thinking of your alma mater or your favorite team. Consider the way you feel when I say:
The University of Georgia
The University of Florida
The University of Alabama
Georgia Southern University
Valdosta State University
Columbus State University
Kennesaw State University
At least one person in our congregation went to each of these schools. The mere mention of their name brings forth memories of old, deep feelings of peace and joy, and hope for the future. We long to rekindle those feelings and instill them in our loved ones. And thus, we make pilgrimages.
This fall, you’ll want to make a pilgrimage to your alma mater or home school. Maybe multiple pilgrimages. All for the sake of going home: going to where you feel like you belong, where you gain right perspective on life, where you find purpose and meaning warmed up nicely in the bread of nostalgia. You’ll make the sacrifices of time, energy, and money to take this pilgrimage home.
Home, they say, is where the heart is. Many of us left parts of our hearts on college campuses. I spent nineteen years at Berry College, growing up there and attending college there. Dana also attended there. A big part of our heart is on that campus.
In the spaces of college campuses, among the oak trees, the inspiring architecture, and the perfectly manicured grounds, we are reminded of who we are, of what life means to us, of our dreams, of our aspirations. We find the strength to continue to move to achieve those dreams or the strength to respond to the conviction that we have strayed off course.
Such is part of why I keep this picture on my desktop, a photo of the Candler School of Theology & Cannon Chapel at Emory University; two places near and dear to my heart. The photo has a way of calling my heart back to center, back to the faith that grew because of the formation I received in my years there.
Home, as a feeling as well as a place, has huge importance to us. So much so, that we’re willing to make sacrifices to pilgrimage back.
Going home is what our scripture is all about this morning. Hear now Psalm 84
This Psalm was popularized several years ago by a modern worship song.
Recognize that one? It seems like it’s talking about heaven: about literally standing in God’s presence through God’s courts. “How lovely is your dwelling place,” the Psalmist says. “I long to be there” he continues, asking to come into the courts of God; for there is true rest, true peace, true belonging, true sense of meaning and purpose in life, true refuge; for there, the Psalmist says, is home.
And we’re not the only ones who feel that way about this Psalm. Johannes Brahms wrote Ein deutsches Requiem, A German Requiem, based off of this Psalm. It has been performed at funeral services often, echoing the sentiment that now the dead have realized what this Psalmist knew in his mind’s eye: the refuge, peace, joy, and complete fulfillment of being in God’s presence.
For that is where we long to be in this life. Even if we don’t realize it, we’re built for union with God, for only in union with God can we truly find what we get for a moment on our college campuses and what this Psalmist knows: the sense of meaning and purpose, the clarity of vision about the world and our place in it, the peace and rest from the trials of life, the refuge, that comes when we go home.
It’s tempting to read this Psalm as only about our longing for our heavenly home. Our souls long, even faint, for that moment of true reunion with our creator. At moments, perhaps when we feel most foreign, most exposed, most vulnerable, most like we’re not at home, we know we’re missing our heavenly home. In such moments, perhaps you long to make a pilgrimage to some place that feels like home. I know, when I am feeling most away from home in my heart, I long to make a pilgrimage to Berry, JMU, or Emory.
We long for home the way I can imagine the soldiers who first heard Bing Crosby’s I’ll be Home for Christmas longed for home.
[Play song with photo]
Crosby released the song in time for Christmas, 1943, at the height of World War II.” I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my heart.” There, on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific, soldiers could take themselves back to “the snow and mistletoe and presents under the trees. The love light [could indeed] gleam,” for they could make a mental and spiritual pilgrimage back to their homes, back to where they truly belonged; not this foreign, exposed, vulnerable moment of war, but back to where life makes sense, where belonging can be found, back to peace and joy and refuge.
We long for that kind of home because we’re built for it. We long for it the way the pilgrims did in this Psalm. For as much as we may think of the Psalm as speaking of heaven in our modern era, the Psalmist wrote it thinking about traveling to Jerusalem, to visit the temple, to go to the physical courtyard and visit God’s literal dwelling place. The Psalmist wanted to make the kind of pilgrimage we make to college campuses.
The Psalmist wanted to go home.
The ancient Israelites believed that God literally dwelled in the temple, and they could go visit, not in their dreams, but in reality.
But such a trip required sacrifice, not unlike when we make trips to our alma maters. The ancients had to interrupt their usual schedule, prepare ahead of time for the trip, teach their children the rituals and rules of the temple life, expend the time, energy, and money in travel, all to go and visit their home; Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. It required preparation and sacrifice, but the psalmist tells us, it’s worth it, for better is one single day spent at the temple than a thousand days spent elsewhere.
We, too, can make that pilgrimage. Sure, those of us with the time and money can make the pilgrimage to the temple mount and see where the temple used to stand. We can pray at the wailing wall, which was part of this same temple.
But we are the people of Jesus. While the ancients believed that God literally dwelled in the temple, at his crucifixion the curtain separating God from the priests in that temple was torn. God resides in our hearts now, not in some physical locale. Jesus paved the way for us to make a spiritual pilgrimage to our home not over land, but in our hearts. We can go home any time we pause our lives, make the sacrifice, to worship and be present with God. Ours is a spiritual pilgrimage, a way of coming home in our hearts.
It’s said that home is where the heart is. Which begs the question: where’s your heart?
Is your heart in the things of God? To come home to God in your heart requires first that God is in your heart. Have you committed your life to Christ?
If you have, then traveling home, at its simplest, is a matter of simply choosing to be with God through spiritual disciplines. That can be for a moment of prayer or meditation, or even just to pause and clear our minds before reading scripture or a devotional book. Regardless of the form, our pilgrimage comes when we choose to pause our lives and travel home in our hearts.
But sometimes we need more than that. Sometimes we need the overland route, too, to make our pilgrimage back home. Sometimes we need to retreat away from the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives, from the familiar surroundings of our homes, in order to return to our spiritual homes.
That’s the power college campuses can hold for many of us. In fact, sometimes pilgrimages to football games do just this for us: they hit the reset button by making us forget our everyday lives for a while to focus on family, fun, and fellowship. God is present in those moments with us.
But we have other places in our lives, too. Maybe you have a farm that you retreat to. Maybe you go down to the river. Maybe you take a walk through your neighborhood. Maybe you go home to your parents or your children’s house or a family piece of property.
Perhaps church is home. I know our church building has that feeling of home for many of us. That’s why, new this week, the prayer chapel will be open on a regular basis.
[put info on screen]
The prayer chapel is a great place to make a pilgrimage, to come and worship, reflect, pray, journal, do whatever spiritual discipline you want, or simply sit in silence. Leave your prayer requests on the board. Light a candle, just remember to extinguish it before you leave. We only ask that you wear a mask, so that there are no droplets with COVID-19 that would also make a pilgrimage through our prayer chapel.
Home is where the heart is? Where is your heart?
This week, purposefully travel home in your heart. Go to that place where life makes sense and you feel refreshed. It’s not escapism, it’s not wimping out; it’s self-care. The gospels are full of accounts of Jesus going off by himself to be at home with his Father in his heart. Sometimes the world is too much. We preserve our witness to the world, we encourage our hearts to be good neighbors, by taking care of ourselves. Pilgrimages do that. If Jesus set that example of pilgrimage, we should do likewise.
Traveling home, going to God’s presence, simply requires that we pause the rest of our lives. We pause when we take time at home to be with God, in whatever form that takes. We pause when we take time to come to church online, to dwell with God in spiritual discipline, or to go to special places in our lives where our hearts sense that feeling of home.
Rest and peace, refuge and strength, are ours when we travel to our spiritual home. There may be sacrifice involved, especially a sacrifice of time. But it’s worth the sacrifice of time. As the choir in Brahm’s Requiem sang:
“Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Surely everyone goes about like a shadow. Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather. And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you.”
How often is your life like this Psalm? “Surely for nothing [we] are in turmoil.” We heap up, meaning we keep working, sometimes not even knowing why anymore. When that happens, when our hearts are in turmoil and we have lost our way, we find our way again when we return home; when we make a pilgrimage back to where life makes sense, back to where God seems more accessible, back to where we feel warm and accepted.
Go home. Make a pilgrimage, wherever you need to go, prayer chapel or family property or even college campus, to center your heart in God.
Home is where the heart is.
Today, where is your heart?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.