The work of Rev. Jude Geiger, a Unitarian Universalist minister

Sermon: Pilgrims on the Road

This sermon was preached on 8/24/14 at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY. It looks at the religious discipline of pilgrimage and reflects on what that means to the contemporary UU. In light of the tragedy in Ferguson, MO, this sermon discusses the role of public witness in how it intersects with spiritual journey.

Pilgrimage isn’t a term that we often think about anymore in most of Western society. For many of us, traveling great distances just involves a commitment to buying a ticket online. We can span the globe in hours if we have the wealth to do so. The oracles at Expedia tell me that if I want to travel to California in the dead of winter, I can book it now for less than the price of one night in many hotels in NYC. What took Lewis and Clark a year and seven months, we can do in 6 hours (plus airport security), and they even had a head start, beginning in St. Louis.

For the modern Westerner, pilgrimages are not usually about time or distance. The quality of sacrifice that once defined such journeys, may only really be felt by those of us who may need to skimp to save the money to buy our tickets, unless we go out of our way to set limits and make the trip more difficult by taking a bike or a car or a bus. But even then, there’s not usually the risk of danger earlier generations of humanity experienced.

Yet there’s a spiritual value to the original manner of pilgrimages. The archetypal hero’s journey teaches us that as we go far and wide, we internalize the lessons when we finally return home. When Moses climbs the mountain to find God, he comes to learn that God has been with, and of, the people all along, they just couldn’t see it. What we’re searching for far and wide, is often right at our finger tips. Pilgrimages take us out of our comfort zone to reveal something about our lives that is always true. The new setting, mixed with the sacrifices along the way, help us to see what’s normally clouded. Familiarity hides what’s before us.

UU’s have a few historic sites of note that are certainly worth visiting and learning about, but we have a slim tradition of making pilgrimages to them – aside from maybe our partner churches in various places throughout the globe. Though even those are more about the relationship with a far away community, than a special value on a place. I have begun to feel our form of making pilgrimages is public social witness in the face of flagrant injustice.

We go somewhere where there’s obvious pain in the world, maybe take time off from work when we’d normally just vacation, and go someplace that’s in need, not someplace that’s fun or relaxing. We sacrifice convenience or comfort so that we can lend our hand, our eyes, or our hearts to easing the suffering of others. When I traveled to Phoenix some years ago to witness against the implementation of SB1070, which essentially turned local police into ICE (immigration agents), we were marching and dancing out in the desert. Singing to immigrants detained in prison camps in 110 degree heat for the crime of trying to become Americans without the right paperwork. (And I always remember that my white great grandparents didn’t need paperwork to enter this country.) Almost 5000 people sung to the prisoners who were immorally detained. It brought awareness to the newspapers, and showed solidarity with local ally groups – it told partner advocacy groups that others cared and were willing to make sacrifices to show up. Ultimately, some of the restrictions of SB1070 were shot down, although much more work must be done.

Many of us have made similar trips over the years for a host of causes. Some of you were in Selma, or it’s anniversary 50 years later. Some of our members have long standing commitments abroad, traveling to schools and conservation zones in Africa to help with illness, education and the environment. If you’re here next Sunday, you can learn in particular about all that we have done to build the library, put in water, and build schools in our partner community in Ethiopia.

Next month, world leaders are coming to New York City for a UN summit on the climate crisis determine what steps the international community will take to cease the current trajectory of climate destruction. The meeting begins Sept 23rd.

“On September 21st, we are expecting a million people to arrive in NYC for the People’s Climate March. UUA President the Rev. Peter Morales called on all UUs to join him on September 21 to march for climate justice beginning 11:30 am at Columbus Circle. Afterwards there will be a UU debrief at Community Church (3:30-5:30) and an interfaith worship service at Saint John the Divine (6pm).”[1] I’ll be here preaching that Sunday, but if you’re called to this shorter more local pilgrimage, I very much welcome you to do so. You’ll be able to learn more about it soon online, (and I believe) in our newsletter as well.

In all of these instances, UU’s may not see ourselves as pilgrims. We tend to find the Holy in and amongst people, even if we may personally believe the earth is a sacred thing – which I personally do. Going to a place, without the relationships tied to it, may not be the focus of our pilgrim goal. But pilgrimages aren’t always just that. The Haj in Islam, ties it’s followers into a community of people that’s spanned the centuries. They travel to a place that is not only sacred, but enter into a stream of people that have done just the same. It’s the journey as much as the place. Their path is a process of integration and witness. Being part of something greater and bearing witness to a sense of reverence along the way.

Witness is a powerful religious practice. In Western circles we tend to see it in one of two ways. Either to speak to the power of one’s faith or religious experience or community. Or to bear witness to pain or suffering and to extend compassion by doing so. There’s another angle to this we find in some Eastern religious circles that relates here. In Hinduism, there’s a notion of Darsan. It’s means “to be seen.” It’s a religious reference to the blessing bestowed upon adherents who may worship before a statue of a God or Goddess in Hinduism. The belief is that by being seen by the God or Goddess, through the eyes of the statue, a blessing is conferred. Being seen is a blessing.

         I think in UU circles, we combine all three of these ideas in our religious pilgrimages of social justice. It’s important to witness the pain and suffering in the world while lending our strength and compassion. Where we may have privilege, there is also a responsibility to use that privilege for the common good. If I have a leg up because of the color of my skin, or the scope of my education, I can leverage that for others. But I have to see the problem to know there’s something to be done. And I can’t always see the problem from my couch, however much I might prefer to be sitting there.

That second aspect of Witness, speaking of how our faith, or the Beloved Community, has changed our lives matters here as well. People need to know there’s another way than whatever injustice is going on before us. There are a lot of problems in the world, and sometimes we’re quiet in saying how we’ve seen other ways of doing things. It doesn’t mean imposing your way, or my way of doing things on another community, but it does mean giving voice to more compassionate pathways. Sometimes it means using whatever form of privilege or voice you have in sharing a better way with the oppressors in a situation. Remembering that at different times, we’re all the oppressors, so we ought to use our power with compassion and humility. Doing this work here in the States, with our fellow citizens, should be possible.

The third aspect, Darsan, of being seen; that might be the most crucial. All too often injustices happen in the world, and those who are not directly affected seem to never show up. If you’ve experienced hardship, or trauma, and no one is there to lend a hand when you really need it, the experience can be felt as so much worse – dejected and alone. Our faith teaches us that not only are we not alone, but we covenant to affirm our interdependence. When we have the strength, fortitude or fortune to give, we are called to do so. Showing up isn’t about others seeing how special, superior, or important we are. We’re certainly not any more of those than anyone else. Showing up is about solidarity. And when a community goes through a hardship, distant intellectualizations from the safety of our living room doesn’t offer comfort. Knowing someone’s there when you need them matters. Being seen is a blessing.

         I’m thinking of my clergy colleagues, both within our denomination, and those from other traditions, who have traveled this week to Ferguson, MO. Their pilgrimages to a place in pain right now is a sacred duty. One that we may all be called to do in our lives, again and again – as some of us have already, for so many issues. Politics and media spin aside, another black teen was shot dead in the street, six times, from behind when he had his hands up and held no weapon…. By another white cop. The teen is dead, and the cop is on leave of absence with pay. I’ll add that while we’ve seen two black men killed a week by police in this country, “the Economist (a conservative/centrist news magazine) reported last week, in an article on armed U.S. police, that “last year, in total, British police officers actually fired their weapons three times.”[2] Three times in the past year. Michael Brown, was shot 6 times, while standing unarmed with his hands over his head. We can say that most cops are great. That many precincts have policies that would have prevented this. We have research that shows improved training can correct racial bias in split-second decisions. We can say all those positive things while also lifting up the cultural or systemic differences between our nation and our closes Western culture – Britain. Something’s different here, and it’s not right.


But it didn’t stop there. Then another officer who threatened to kill a demonstrator was removed and suspended after pointing a semi-automatic rifle at a protestor.[3] As of 5am on Friday – about two weeks from the shooting, there still was no police report – as if we can pretend nothing happened. The Wall Street Journal would later cover the release of the heavily redacted police report that finally was released later that Friday, saying it “shed little light on Ferguson shooting.” But lifted up that the St. Louis County detective took 90 minutes to show up on the scene of the crime to investigate the shooting.[4] Mainstream news reporters getting arrested. Police in military gear. Local precincts being relieved of duty and State Troopers taking over. Amnesty International deployed a team to Ferguson, being the first time in its history that it’s sent a team in the US, as the national guard was deployed.[5] The conservative Washington Post even did an article about how foreign newspapers were reporting on Ferguson, and how different it was than our own media. Interestingly, they almost exclusively covered Right-leaning Centrist, to Right Wing papers, and all talked about how bad our race situation has gotten, and that local and state police responses were highly problematic to say it lightly.[6] I admit, I had not expected this from the Washington Post.

But all of this is coming to us second and third hand. I think of my colleagues, and other civically and religiously minded people who have traveled to Ferguson to bear witness, and share the load. To leverage their privilege to ease another’s pain. To hear the people affected, learn from them, and bring their lessons back home, so that the people are still speaking – on that street, in this town, and on and on to the next place and the next place. Bearing witness allows us to help make changes. It also teaches us, and keeps other voices alive for the next problem down the road.

The pilgrim’s journey, like the hero’s journey, isn’t always just about the destination. Our theme for the month, anticipation, speaks to this from both directions. What we anticipate another person’s intentions or actions are, will certainly influence our response. We’ll see things that may not be happening. It would be easy to say the officer, who we know killed Michael Brown, is just a bad person. But we don’t really know that. Split second decisions based on limited information. I think it’s far more likely that our police forces would benefit from more targeted training, like some precincts undergo, that teaches not to anticipate an increased sense of danger from certain races, but to rely on the actual facts that are happening in any particular situation. We’re all guilty of this in our lives from time to time – much like how I spoke about this in my last sermon. We read into the motives of another and create a fantasy world that may be our own nightmare. But in cases like Ferguson, guns and authority are added to the mix. None of this removes the responsibility for this officer’s actions – they are his own – and he and the community must live with the tragic consequences of his decision – whatever the courts may decide. However, we can’t ignore the larger picture either. We can’t ignore the fact that we have an epidemic of these cases. Remember, two black men are fatally shot every week in the US. Michael Brown isn’t the only black man to die last week, or the week before, or the week before.

The other side of anticipation is the expectation of how different the destination will be than our starting point. It’s about bringing the lessons we learn, when we’re away, back home. And in so many of these journeys, like Moses going to the mountain to bring God down, only to find God was there all along – in the people. When we make these trips, maybe to help bear witness to others’ pain, and to affect change, when we bring those lessons home we too realize they are real; they are alive; and those problems are here as well. But changing our scene, going down the road that’s not only less traveled, but may also be a very scary road to walk, gives us a new vantage to see what’s right before us – here. Ferguson isnt only a place in Missouri. We have work to do at home as well.

[1] From UUA Announcement






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