When my children were in high school, we did a lot of hiking and backpacking. We hiked in the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and all over Arizona, the Superstition Mountains, the Mogollon Rim, the White Mountains. And we even made it in and out of the Grand Canyon several times. These were special times that were a real bonding experience for me and my kids as we enjoyed the beauty of the environment, in all kinds of weather, and learned to endure sore muscles and freeze dried food at the end of a hard day on the trail.
Those of you who have done much hiking, know that canyons and mountains trails can be tough — going down and up in canyons and going up and then down on mountain trails. I never have figured out which takes the most endurance. Ups and downs and downs and ups take a different type of strength and a whole different set of muscles. And even those hiking days with my kids — which were some 35 years ago and I was probably 25 pounds lighter — were never easy.
Today’s gospel reminded me of my hiking experiences as I read that after hearing Jesus teach, some of his disciples said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” And some didn’t believe and “turned back.” I must admit there were times as I hiked that turning back was an option I would have liked to have taken. Hiking mountains and canyons isn’t easy, just as believing wasn’t easy for those early disciples and believing is not any easier today, in 2012. Having faith, believing in God and following Jesus, is similar to hiking down and up a canyon or up and down a mountain trail. There are times when the trail is steep and rough and there are times when the path is straight and smooth. There are times when the option of turning back and following an easier path looks mighty attractive.
So how do we keep ourselves moving forward on our faith journey when life’s paths get rocky and difficult? When life gets difficult and hard to understand, how do we keep ourselves motivated to keep going and not turn back? Today’s gospel gives us some clues.
Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Every Sunday in the Episcopal Church, no matter where the church may be located, we have the opportunity to come together to receive the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ. When we participate in the Eucharist, we are touched and are touching God in a physical, tangible way and we are strengthened to face wherever our journey may be taking us.
Sharing the Eucharistic sacrament is an intimate sharing with God but it is also shared communal act. We sometimes call the Eucharist, communion, which comes from the Greek word, koinonia, meaning “community.” Sharing of the bread and wine is always a communal act. We can not share communion alone. The sharing, being in community with others during the liturgy, which incidentally is translated “the work of the people,” is a visual expression of what we believe – it is a way to know God and to know each other.
When you come to the altar rail today to receive the bread and the wine, steal a look at those who are kneeling beside you. Every one of those people is on a faith journey, much like your own. Each one of those people is traveling a trail that may be smooth going at times and bumpy at others. Each one of those people kneeling beside you is a part of your community. They are your faith support community. All that it takes for us to support each other in our faith journeys is to reach out to those around us with a smile or a friendly word. At the Eucharistic table we are being transformed by God’s love. And Jesus is calling us to demonstrate what we believe and to be available in some way to those who are sharing our journey here at St. Philip’s and in our world.
The writer, Annie Dillard, wrote “Sunday congregations are like children with chemistry sets mixing up batches of TNT. They are blind to the power that they hold in their hands.” We receive the power of God’s love in the Eucharist. We have the option of being blind to God, remaining alone in our contemplation with God, or we can share God’s love with our community. Each of us must decide which of these paths we will take.
When I began my sermon, I talked about the strenuous hikes and backpacking trips I took with my kids. I don’t do that kind of hiking any more, although my husband, John, and I do try to walk 2 miles each day on the ranch that borders our property in Tubac. Except for our drive way, which is pretty steep, the walk we take is fairly easy. During our walks, John and I sometimes do a lot of talking, mulling over family’s situations or the current world events. But sometimes I find myself not saying much of anything, listening to the birds, the wind in the trees, and thinking about my relationships with others and my relationship with God.
I love walking on the ranch, but right outside the front doors of our church is another walk that is very special. How many of you have walked St. Philip’s newly constructed labyrinth? Or even walked out to see what it’s all about? Since medieval times, walking a labyrinth has been experienced by Christians as they have sought meaning in their spiritual journeys. Walking the labyrinth is not strenuous. It can be walked at a pace that suits your physical and spiritual needs. I’ve walked labyrinths of various sizes around our country and each time, I have gained a new perspective on who I am in my relationship with God and where I am on my faith journey.
How do you walk a labyrinth? You pray before you enter, asking God to help you with whatever needs you may have. Then, you follow the path in an ever tightening circles. I have found it helpful to stand quietly at each turn in the circle and think about how my own spirituality has changed as my life has taken different directions.
Pray as you walk. Perhaps someone is on the path you are taking, and you need to slow down to let them continue or you may pass them. It doesn’t matter because each person finds his or her tempo as they walk and pray the labyrinth. The circle tightens until you eventually are at the center. Our labyrinth has a wonderful center, a fountain where you can sit, listen to the water, and commune with God. And then, when you’re ready, you step back on the path, walking in ever widening spirals till you find yourself back in the world, hopefully strengthened by your experience.
Whenever I walk a labyrinth, I use the walk to the center to think about my past, how the decisions I have made in my life have affected where I am today in my faith journey. After spending time at the center thinking about God and my life at the present time, I then walk out of the labyrinth contemplating where my spiritual journey will lead me. And what changes in direction I need to take to do the work God is calling me to do.
Silently walking the labyrinth can slowly transform our inner being. It can be a way for us to calm our body and even heal our inner turmoil, whatever that may be. I heard it once said, that walking the labyrinth is not something we do, but something we become while being in the stillness of God.
Walking life’s paths is not always easy. Sometimes the paths are as smooth as a super highway. Other times our journey is filled with steep, rocky places. But when Jesus said that we abide in him and he in us, he was telling us in no uncertain terms that he is always with us, no matter where our journey may lead. Jesus will be with us to help us over the rough spots in our journey. He will be with us when we get focused on our worries and troubles and our faith seems to be slipping away. He is also with us as we celebrate the joys in our lives. Jesus is telling us — it’s his presence within us and our presence within him that is important.
When life gives us illness, when we get tripped up by divorce or by the death of a spouse or child, when we bog down in the mud of poor communication between husband and wife or between parent and child, when our relationships get rocky and we find ourselves struggling to say what will make relationships right, this is when we should remember that Jesus is with us – we abide in him and Jesus abides in us.
So come to the altar and be consoled, fed and strengthened. Come and feel the presence of God as you kneel with our community of faith to receive the body and blood of Jesus. Taste and see. And never forget, God and Jesus are with us wherever we may be on our journey.