Sunday 4 September 2022: Luke 14:25-33

Its wonderful to be here as Diocesan Canon and I look forward to getting to know you as time progresses.  One of the things you should know about me is that I have a real enthusiasm for pilgrimage. Loosely defined as a spiritual journey to a sacred place, pilgrimage forms the bedrock of my spirituality, my best self if you like. I have walked all over the UK and Europe and hope to be leading some Cathedral pilgrimages with you in the future.

You can usually tell a first time pilgrim by the size of the pack they are carrying. Very often it is almost as large as they are, towering above their heads, threatening to topple them over if they lose focus just for a few moments. The anxious newbie breathes a sigh of relief when they shrug off their burden, shoulders remaining hunched over as if they were still carrying it, while the huge pack looms in a corner, silently reminding them that it wont be long before they are on the pilgrim’s back once more, straps pressing into shoulders, sharp edges of equipment poking all sorts of tender places.

A large pack is self defeating. Inexperienced walkers are often eager to prepare against every eventuality and are easy prey for exciting adverts which show the latest gadget or piece of equipment designed to make the journey easy and painless, offering protection against every imaginable disaster. Sadly, however, very often the disasters are self fulfilling – a large weight produces a slower and more cumbersome style of walking, which in turn can lead to muscle ache. Fewer miles are achieved each day, so more spare clothing and supplies must be carried. Worst of all, a heavy pack increases the chance of blisters which are the bane of every pilgrims life, causing so much pain and occasionally even bringing the journey to a early finish.

In this as in other ways, I have found, as in pilgrimage so in life. Our material possessions, the things we surround ourselves with, small or large, can so often prove not to be a joy but a burden, bringing with them the obligation of looking after them, protecting them from damage or theft, increasing their number until suddenly our possessions cease to be simply stuff that we own, but become instead stuff that owns us, tying us down to a life of materialism and acquisition, clipping our spiritual wings as we cling to the everyday soil of getting and spending and getting still more.

Jesus tells us this so many times – sell all you have and give it to the poor, take nothing with you on your journey, give up everything you have.  But in this passage he goes one step further ‘carry your cross’, give up everything you have’ ‘hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters’. How can either of these extremes – giving up everything and hating family – be part of our faith?  Which bit of this is Christian? Well, we can still take this literally, yes indeed, but in a different way. I think Christian living involves having possessions, yes, but keeping them in perspective, sitting lightly to them, ‘living without appropriating’ as St Francis would have it, ensuring our footprint on this earth is a light one, always ready to lose our material goods if they get in the way of gaining spiritual gifts and graces. 

Similarly we can remember that while we might rejoice in partners, families, friends, there are others who do not, and that we should not restrict our loyalty, our love, our willingness to share, support, encourage simply to our nearest and dearest but to every member of the human race whether they are linked by ties of blood and geography or not. 

I am discovering that this is one of the joys of Cathedral worship. I come from a parish where I met the same people every day, where those who gathered with me each Sunday were familiar to me – I knew their names, their families, their life situations; I could feel sympathy and understanding because I shared their environment and knew their circumstances. Here, there is also a group of people whom I see daily, whom I will get to know well I hope, but in addition to them, every day I worship with people whom I have never seen before but to whom I am tied by our common humanity and the fundamental fact of their being, like me, a child of God. It is challenging, but it is also exciting as, in this service right now,  we join with strangers who are also brothers and sisters to praise God and thank him for his goodness to us.

Returning to our pilgrims - just as you can tell a first time pilgrim by the size of their pack, so an experienced one will have a proportionately smaller bundle – indeed I have met some pilgrims who are content simply to travel with a change of underwear and a phone charger, but that is a bit extreme. Most find a middle way, one where the pack is light enough to carry easily but contains all that is necessary. But you can tell an experienced pilgrim by other ways as well. The habitual pilgrim has the light of expectation in their eyes. Seasoned with and tempered by experience, the wisdom gained on the road, a real awareness of the potential challenges and difficulties that lie ahead, nonetheless the overriding sense is of excitement and anticipation for all that will happen on the journey. The pilgrim knows they will be changed by their experience, knows they will learn much, will grow in depth of character and understanding and, on reaching their destination, have a sense of satisfaction and achievement that is truly fulfilling.

Count the cost, Jesus tells us – becoming a disciple does not ensure a pain free existence. We are asked to put our faith first, to change our priorities so that they mesh with those of the Kingdom, to live radically inclusive lives, accepting joyfully the material and other sacrifices which this might entail. We will be asked to do more, be more, carry more than we might think reasonable.  But in counting the cost of discipleship, let us counterbalance this with the cost of life without Christ. And however heavy the load appears to be that is placed upon our backs it is not ours alone to carry. For Jesus has promised he will walk alongside us every step of the way, supporting us and sharing our burdens:  ‘for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls’.