As I searched for a pithy way to begin my first sermon with you, a stream of song lyrics crossed my mind – on the road again, just can’t wait to get on the road again…. We are going, heaven knows where we are going, but we know within… I’m a travelin’ man, made a lot of stops all over the world… she’s got a ticket to ride… off we go, into the wild blue yonder…
After what seemed like an hour of singing to myself, I realized that travel and journeys are so deeply a part of who we are as humans, that the cliché ‘it’s the journey, not the destination’ seems a fitting description of life itself –and certainly a good metaphor for examining where we have been, where we are going, and where we stand at this moment in time. The stories of our journeys tell us a lot about who we are and what we have experienced.
Sometimes our journey is geographic – maybe it involves travel for a holiday or a visit, or sometimes it’s a move to a new place. My journey began in the Capital Region of New York – I grew up in the foothills of the Taconic Mountains on 85 acres of woods, farmland, and a pond where my father conducted his yearly battle of the dams with the indigenous beaver. After my father died in 1984, I journeyed to the Outer Banks of North Carolina with my mother but landed in the Research Triangle, where I worked for many years as an inventory and budget controller, and where I finished my bachelors at Meredith College. But life intervened again, and the death of my partner in 1998 propelled me to journey back home, where I taught English for a bit. This led to a technical writing position in Connecticut – and then a transfer back to North Carolina.
Eventually, I moved back home again… where I healed from burnout, helped care for my ailing mother, worked in the arts, freelance editing and graphic design… and then finally heard the call to ministry. Off to New York City I went to attend Union Theological Seminary, and after graduation, ventured to Key West, Florida to complete my ministerial internship…and now I am back once again to the Empire State, this time here with you.
But that’s just the living – for vacations I’ve been all over the country, Canada, and the United Kingdom… And I suspect my geographic journeys are not so different from yours; you may have yearly journeys to homes in other locales, or to see family. Some of you may simply vacation in various places domestic and abroad. And some of you – like me – may have lived in several different parts of the country and find yourself – like me – at this stage of your journey, calling the North Fork home.
But our journeys aren’t just geographical – from, say, Plymouth, England, to Plymouth, Massachusetts, from Minneapolis to New Orleans, or even from Orient Point to New London. Our journeys take other forms as well…
We can also understand the journey as emotional. We mark moments of significant gains – like a child or relationship or freedom from an addiction – or perhaps loss – like a divorce or a death or a struggle with depression. Your recent markers may include significant emotional distress, or significant emotional healing. Perhaps you got physically sick– or physically healthy –which also contributes to our emotional journeys. And while you may have stayed in one place geographically, that journey probably took you many inner places.
The markers of my emotional journey involve significant loss and trauma – the loss of both parents, the loss of my partner, the trauma of being the driver when a homeless Desert Storm veteran committed vehicular suicide. But it also involves significant joy and healing – the joy of deep friendships and romantic relationships, watching my nephew and niece grow into amazing adults, discerning my call to ministry, healing from grief and loss and burnout and trauma and finding joy on the other side – a journey of emotions that is always and forever ongoing.
Other times the journey might be vocational. Perhaps this is the year of your retirement, or making a significant gain, perhaps losing a job, or starting a new career.
My own vocational journey has met a significant marker just today, as I take my place in this pulpit for the first time as your new minister. Six years ago, I couldn’t have imagined I would be here – budget analysis, technical writing, and management didn’t SEEM like transferable skills into ministry… yet now I know there’s nothing else I can do. And while I still have steps to take to be ordained, I am grateful to be serving such a wonderful, liberally religious community.
Maybe you have taken up a new avocation – a new hobby or activity, like woodworking or knitting or playing an instrument. These are rarely one-time events; they too require a journey through the learning, the adjusting, the regrouping, the releasing.
And then there are the significant spiritual journeys. As Unitarian Universalists, we prize our theological diversity, and we might spend a year exploring a world religion, a theological question, or a spiritual practice, enjoying our movement’s affirmation of the third principle, encouragement to spiritual growth.
Our fourth principle explorations into truth and meaning might change how we see ourselves and the Divine, or simply inform our own theologies. My own journey begins with Unitarian parents who could not raise us in a Unitarian Universalist church, but made sure we got a religious education at the hands of the Methodists. In my teens I got caught up with an evangelical Christian group – my holy roller years – but not surprisingly I became disillusioned and was bereft of spiritual anything until my late 20s, when I became active in pagan circles…which led me to back to Unitarian Universalism … where I now – for the moment anyway – identify as a Universalist who leans a great deal on the creative and generative ideas found in process theology.
Your spiritual journey may be different – perhaps you were raised and remained UU; perhaps you come from other religious tradition. Perhaps your theology has changed over time – mine surely has. But while these spiritual and theological journeys may take place largely in our minds – and where we rest on a Sunday morning –we are never still as we read, think, do, and experience.
But we know this too: Our individual journeys are rarely completely free from stress, angst, pain, sorrow, trouble, or crisis. Even the joyful ones – like going to see beloved family members – often include a hassle at the airport, or an inappropriate question from a cousin, or seeing how sick an aging aunt has become.
Other journeys, even taken up in a spirit of joy – like retirement, or a fitness regimen – will often be colored with uncertainty, frustration, or other unexpected pitfalls or injuries.
And of course, less joyful journeys – like getting through the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a job, or the struggle of illness – are bramble-filled paths, with treacherous conditions and hazards at every turn.
And while we may seek help from family, or friends, or doctors, or therapists, or ministers – we often find ourselves carrying some part of the burden alone. But we don’t have to.
Look around you – whether you have been a member of First Universalist for decades or this is your first time here – you can see you are not alone. As a religious community, we bring our individual lives together on a weekly basis – we recognize that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves whenever we walk through the doors of a sanctuary or fellowship hall or chapel or a meeting room.
And however alone we may feel on these journeys, religious community reminds us that we are not alone, and that we make these journeys in the midst of people we know deeply as well as people who touch our lives for just an hour or a day.
And thank all that is holy that we don’t have to do this alone – especially considering that in addition to all of our individual journeys, we have a collective journey – and in the case of First Universalist, it’s quite a significant one.
Some of you were brought up in this congregation and have a long history. This congregation – and the building that was lost to a fire in March – was always ever home. Some of you have attended for years – decades, even – and it is the place you came to and claimed as home. Some of you were fairly new when the fire occurred, but still it shook you, because you had just found it and now it’s gone again. And some – like me – were not yet part of this congregation but still deeply feel its loss.
And here we stand – gathered at the dock, ready to set sail on the next leg of the journey, together.
As a congregation, you have journeyed through the honeymoon phase – full of resilience and excitement, mixed with shock and mourning. You traveled through this phase this spring… and as summer progressed, while your personal journeys continued marching on, you entered the hard disillusionment phase. The journey in this phase is difficult – marked with disorientation, nostalgia, turmoil, anxiety, guilt, depression, anxiety…did I mention anxiety?
But this is the place where we meet, where my journey connects with yours.
Now I don’t have as part of my journey a fire that destroyed a building I cherished. But I have experienced trauma – and I know what that looks and feels like.
I’m reminded of a story I first heard told in an episode of the West Wing – the deputy chief of staff had been shot in an assassination attempt, and months later, his boss had him spend a day with trauma specialists. As the deputy left the meeting, he was met by his boss, who told him this story:
This guy’s walking down a street, when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out.
A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up “Hey Doc! Can you help me out?” The doctor writes him a prescription, throws it down the hole and moves on.
Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole! Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here!”
And the friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.
My intention is to walk with you, guide you, hold you, challenge you, offer tissues, offer course corrections when needed, help hoist the mainsail, point out interesting things along the way, remind you to help other travelers along their journeys, assure you that we’re not lost, listen to you patiently when the ocean seems too vast, and be with you as you find your own way and make your own discoveries.
The good news is that while this disillusionment phase is hard and seems endless, it really isn’t – and like all journeys, you’ll stare at the scenery going by and suddenly realize you’re seeing different sights that affirm that you’re really making headway. For us, the sights will be both familiar and unfamiliar, as we head toward our new yet familiar home.
And so we journey together. Our individual journeys don’t stop, of course, but rather, they become part of our journey’s story.
There is a wonderful film called The Way, starring Martin Sheen as a man named Tom who, in his grief over his deceased son, decides to walk the entire Camino de Santiago in the Basque region of Spain to finish the pilgrimage his son started.
Along the way, Tom meets an overly friendly and anxious Dutchman, a snarky and angst-ridden Canadian, and a directionless Irishman with writer’s block. As they walk el Camino – a journey they share together – they have many communal adventures. Yet each character also experiences their own journey – of mourning, of coming out of depression, of letting go, of finding one’s voice – and those individual journeys shape the journey of this group of travelers.
But that’s not the whole story. The night before this band of travelers arrives at the Cathedral of Santiago de Composela, they find themselves staring at a large hotel in the center of town. Having spent the previous weeks sleeping in crowded hostels, sketchy pubs, or under trees by the side of the path, this seemed almost decadent and un-pilgrim-like. Until Tom says “my treat.”
The travelers each get their own room, luxuriating in the privacy, the large soft beds, the hot showers and plush robes. But one by one, they knock on Tom’s door, and before long, the four are together again, eating and drinking, laughing, being together. Because despite their individual journeys…and despite their collective journey… they found for themselves, in the shelter of each other, a home.
Individual journeys. A collective journey. Always home.
Sounds like us, doesn’t it?
Let’s not forget that everyone here is the midst of their own personal journeys even as we meet together on this one. Those personal journeys will inform our collective journey – remind us to be gentle with one another, to honor each other’s inherent worth and dignity, to encourage one another when things get rough.
And because we’re individuals, together, we don’t all have to just stare at the navigational maps the entire time. We can be curious, and wonder at what we encounter. We can still keep our eyes open for injustice and discrimination and stand on the side of love. We can still learn about our neighbors and their need. We can still accompany each other through the sometimes dark theological storms of belief. We can still teach our children and each other about this courageous path we call Unitarian Universalism. We can be always home, grounded – even as we journey through unfamiliar waters.
So with our grounding, our curiosity, and our courage, let us set sail…I can’t promise there won’t be storms, and heavy waves, and we may need some Dramamine before it’s over, but we will arrive on the new shores safely