February 28, 2021


Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Mark 8:31-38

“We Are Pilgrims”

As many of you know, I’m a walker. I started walking intentionally more than four years ago, and I now usually walk about 10 km every day. While the Covid-19 Pandemic changed a lot of things in my daily life and yours as well, it didn’t stop me from walking.

But one of the things I did early in the pandemic was to get a treadmill to walk on at home. I thought it would be particularly useful for those days when it is stiflingly hot or bitterly cold outside, as a back-up plan for my usual outdoor walks. And this winter, I’ve been using it A LOT. I had no interest in going outside when the windchill was in the minus thirties or forties, and even now that it has warmed up a bit, it has become my default to use the treadmill.

In February, I decided to motivate myself by doing one of the “virtual walks” that are offered online. You walk wherever you are (outside or inside) and use the app to track your progress along a real route. I considered doing the 800 km Camino de Santiago in Spain – a classic pilgrimage journey – but opted for the 300 km Cabot Trail that I could complete in less than a month instead.

Now, it worked as good motivation for getting in my steps, but it was a far-cry from a proper pilgrimage, most especially because I was walking on a treadmill for most of it. You see, a pilgrimage is not just about doing a lot of walking. It loses its significance when you’re just walking on the spot or evening walking around in small circles.

A pilgrimage involves a leap of faith in leaving home, setting out, and giving up the option of just stopping (getting off the treadmill) whenever the journey becomes difficult or you get tired. There is no risk when I stay in my basement to walk. There’s also nothing to see or experience along the way, or any chance of reaching a real destination.

Our text from the Book of Genesis this morning reminds us of one of the most iconic pilgrimage journeys of our faith tradition. Five chapters earlier, Abram and Sarai were told by God to go from their country and their kindred to the land that God would show them. God promised to make of them a great nation, to bless them, and make them a blessing to all the families of the earth.

Abram was 75 years old when they set out for the land of Canaan. Twenty-four years later, the couple are still on the way. They have reached the land of promise, but they still haven’t had a child together to assure them that God’s covenant will be fulfilled.

You may be wondering, as many people do when reading these stories, about how ridiculously old these people are to be having children. Although in our time, a good percentage of the population lives into their nineties, we are well aware that good nutrition, health care, and safe living conditions have extended our lives quite a bit compared to centuries past.

But the authors of Scripture have a tendency to use symbolic numbers, and in order to communicate the legendary standing of the ancestors, they have used extended lifespans for many of the biblical characters. Abram’s father, Terah, lived until he was 205, for example. So, keep in mind that Abraham will live for 175 years altogether, meaning that at this point in the story he is a little over halfway through his lifespan. Certainly, he is recognised as being a fair age when God makes the everlasting covenant with him, but it’s not quite as crazy as you imagining your 90-something year old grandmother being pregnant today.

As I talked about last Sunday, the readings during this Season of Lent are all about God making and keeping covenants with God’s People. Last week we heard the story of God’s covenant with all living creatures in the story of Noah. Here, God covenants with the couple whose descendants will become the people of Israel, the particular group through whom “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” A universal covenant is followed by a particular one, though it’s still for the sake of the whole.

The SALT Lectionary Commentary points out that “both covenants are called ‘everlasting’ and in that sense are not subject to human failing or forteiture: God establishes these covenants, and promises they will never end. A powerful way of thinking about all of this is that it’s not so much that God makes separate covenants here and there, but rather that God’s covenantal relationship with creation unfolds in salvation history, like a single flower blooming over time, with later covenants helping to reveal the depth and beauty of what was there all along.”

Last week’s rainbow in the sky reminds us that no matter how much we stray, or fail, or fall in our walk with God, God will be faithful to us and promises not to destroy us like the flood wiped out all the people and creatures of the earth. But the story of Abram and Sarai reveals the idea that God still wants us to participate with God in a relationship of love and partner with God in creating a world of love and peace and justice.

God has already invited Abram and Sarai to embark on a pilgrimage with the goal being to build a world full of people who also walk with God. And the walk has been difficult, with many times of doubt and uncertainty along the way. Doubting the chances of conceiving a child at their advanced age, they’ve tried other methods like Abram fathering a child with a servant, Hagar. They’ve laughed out loud numerous times at the likelihood of a nation actually coming from the two of them. And even following today’s renewed promise, Abraham wonders about whether God might settle for making a nation from the child he had with Hagar, his son Ishmael.

Despite the fact that the journey has been difficult for Abram and Sarai, God is not ready to let them just step off the treadmill and give up on the goal. God invites them in today’s passage to trust that they will reach their destination of having a family, building a nation, and becoming a blessing to all the families of the earth. God reminds them of the covenant promises that have already been made to them, and encourages them to hold onto those promises and keep walking with God in courage and confidence.

God’s covenants with us do not remain something that God simply does FOR us, but they become relationships in which we are called to participate. Never perfectly, of course, because we are human. But God invites Abram and Sarai and the rest of us too to “walk before me, and be blameless.” In other words, we are aiming for perfect love, and goodness, and justice.

The hope we have of reaching our goal, of course, is not dependant on our perfection, but it is assured by God’s goodness and grace. In our story today, God renames Abram (meaning “father”) to become Abraham (meaning “father of multitudes”). God renames Sarai (meaning “my princess” or “princess of a family”) to become Sarah (meaning “princess of a nation”). Now, as they continue to walk their journey, their very names will serve to remind this aging couple, even when doubts arise again and their faith wavers, that God has made this promise and God will do it.

The first disciples of Jesus also were invited to embark on a difficult journey. When it began, many of them jumped at the opportunity to leave the daily grind of working hard every day while enduring poverty and oppression. They decided to walk with Jesus instead, likely hoping for better days, for freedom and hope and a future for themselves and their communities.

But their pilgrimage also was not like choosing to do a few kilometres on a treadmill, and then stepping off when it got too difficult. And getting to the destination that God had planned could not be accomplished by short-cutting around the long parts or skipping over the hard parts.

When Jesus teaches his walking companions that he will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again”, it’s not surprising that Peter didn’t like the sound of all that. It’s not surprising that Peter and many of the others resisted that route and wished there could be another way.

Jesus says to them, and to the crowd, and to us: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

In a reflection on this passage, Ira Brent Driggers suggests that “Anyone who purports to follow Jesus must understand the sacrifice involved. For Mark, discipleship is not some comfortable affiliation with Jesus but a life-changing – and potentially life-threatening – commitment to him.”

We might take note of the fact that by the time Mark’s Gospel was put into written form (around 70 CE), that both the author and his early audiences would have known about the martyrdom of James (in the early 40s) and possibly the martyrdom of Peter (around the year 64). “These apostles were some of the first to epitomize Jesus’ teaching on the cost of discipleship; denying themselves and taking up their crosses, saving their lives by first losing them for the sake of the gospel, and seeing past the worldly shame of Jesus’ crucifixion to the glory of his final appearance.”

This is a challenging message for us today. As Driggers describes it, “So much of North American Christianity – especially white Christianity – has been reduced to a comfortable affiliation with Jesus.” For many of us, our faith may be something of an add-on to a busy and full life. How easy it is to attend a church service (perhaps especially when they’re online), or to say a prayer, or to read a spiritual devotion that serves to inspire and encourage us, and lift our spirits when we are feeling down.

But the Way of Jesus is not like a treadmill that we can hop onto for a little while when it seems beneficial, and hop off again when it asks too much of us. The Way of Jesus is a pilgrimage which we are invited to commit to. It will take us far from home and demand much from us.

Not just professing our love for God in worship, but learning to love our siblings and our neighbours even when they are difficult to love.

Not just thanking God for the beauty of Creation, but become stewards of the earth, reducing our impact on the environment and advocating for its protection.

Not just praying for the poor and the hungry, but reaching into our pockets to help those in need and giving generously of our gifts to build communities and societies that do not leave anyone behind.

Not just going about our occupations to earn our livings and build homes and families that bring us joy and fulfillment day-by-day, but thinking about our vocations, what God is calling us to do with our gifts and skills and time for the good of the world God so loves.

Not just lamenting the violence, oppression, racism, and hatred in our world, but engaging in the hard work of identifying it, naming it, and rooting it out of our own hearts and the institutions and systems in which it functions.

Like the early disciples of Jesus, we’ll see great wonders and experience the love and companionship of our Lord along the way. And we’ll need to carry a heavy load at times too, walking forward into the risks and the sure sacrifices that will come with standing up for love and justice for all people.

This Lenten Season, let’s set our minds on divine things, remembering that we are God’s beloved children who can trust in God’s promises. And let’s commit ourselves once again to walking with God all the way.