The first week of November a dozen people walked to Emery House, our retreat center in West Newbury. They walked from downtown Boston, walked over 50 miles in three days. They were from Ecclesia Ministries which offers spiritual companionship to homeless men and women in Boston. Both homeless and housed, they walked in community on a spiritual pilgrimage, staying with host churches along the way. We at Emery House had the honor of being their destination: together we celebrated and feasted, shared silence and reflected aloud, rested and prayed.
While I try to look and give thanks for Jesus in each guest, I saw and received so much from the pilgrims. Their faith, perseverance and honest reflections continue to inspire me. Recently at a meal together, some of the pilgrims testified about their experience. One pilgrim said: “Remember when Bob showed up on that longest day when we were so tired, our feet hurt so much, and we wondered if we’d make it? Remember when Bob showed up to walk with us for the last mile? He said, ‘Yes, you’re tired and hurting. I’m with you. Keep going. We’ll make it together.’ Bob was like Jesus for me, Jesus in the flesh. ‘I’m with you. Keep going.’” Another pilgrim said: “I wouldn’t have made it without the rest of you. Thanks for encouraging me again and again when I doubted and thought about quitting.” Another said: “Remember when Mary came and massaged our feet? Oh, that was amazing! We resisted initially, but one by one we got a glorious gift. What a taste of heaven!” It was like a dream, almost too good to be true.
This morning’s psalm recalls a time like that, almost too good to be true. The people of Israel had been captured and forcibly taken away from their homes to an enemy’s land. Not by just any enemy but Babylon which had conquered their previous enemy Assyria. Not just defeat. They were doomed having lost to this most powerful empire.
But then, against all odds, God brought them back home. Even some of the original exiles got to experience the reversal of power, the emotional return, the epic event recalled in Psalm 126: When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy. Then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.
Remember that time? Remember when God saved us? Remember how we laughed and sang? Remember that grace, that bounty, that taste of heaven? Remember because now we’re back to normal life. Now it is not so heavenly but rather a daily grind, a tragic grief, or a depressing gloom. Remember that time because now I’m not sure how we’ll get by. How will we make it to tomorrow or next month or next year? As the psalm says, Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed. Those who go out weeping because if this seed, this last seed we carry, doesn’t take root and grow and bear fruit, how will we survive?
Remembering is both looking over the shoulder and looking right in front of us. Remember the past, when God freed us from our enemies. Remember today; notice this kind gesture, this beautiful sunset, this unexpected call, this touch of grace. Look around. Last night I gazed at the sunset. Casually turning round, I was startled seeing the harvest moon rising. Look back and look around in order to give thanks. Remember in order to feel and savor the joy which is God’s underserved gift to us. Look for love and notice the joy inside. Not that the pain or sorrow or suffering goes away but joy is having at the same time an overarching delight in and from God.
Joy, thanks and prayer go together. Today’s lesson from 1 Thessalonians says: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.1 Always? Without ceasing? In all circumstances? Each builds on the other. Stop and look for love: any kind word or act of charity, any generosity or forgiveness, any sharing or respect. Thank God for what you see. Receive the joy. The challenges won’t vanish, but do you sense the grace, the joy of God with you? Suffering is more obvious. Remember previous joy to help ask for more. If you are parched dry or clinging to your last seed, ask for God’s help. Restore us, O Lord.
Remember previous joy in order to choose it now, to seek it out, even when that seems impossible. Henri Nouwen wrote: “It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for the life even when the forces of death are so visible, and choosing for the truth even when I am surrounded with lies. I am tempted to be so impressed by the obvious sadness of the human condition that I no longer claim the joy manifesting itself in many small but very real ways.”2 What small but very real ways reveal and spark joy for you? Where do you see signs of love? What are you thankful for? What has made you laugh and sing with wonder? When did you feel like you were dreaming? Look back and look around to see. Rejoice and say “thank you.”
God gives many good gifts all along our journey of life. The Ecclesia pilgrims who walked to Emery House said those special days of pilgrimage hold dear treasured memories to inspire us all—walkers and hosts—as we continue our respective journeys. May we remember back but also look around today and see divine love in each other, in Bob and Mary, in the Ecclesia pilgrims and all the flesh Jesus inhabits.
Upon seeing and remembering, let us stop and give thanks. That’s what we will soon do in the Eucharist, remember all the good God has done. We give you thanks, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation, in the calling of Israel to be your people, in your Word spoken through the prophets, and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son.3 As you receive Christ’s body and blood today, receive the joy and say “thank you!”
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