Sermon Text: The Quest
Gym teachers were never my favorites. To put it mildly, I was an underachiever in physical education in high school. I was not athletic, and I was very, very small. To paraphrase a famous quotation, “Gym class was a nightmare from which I was trying to awaken.”
I wish I could have had a gym teacher like my young friend, Eric Laine. Some of us like to pick on him for being a gym teacher, but actually, he’s got a cool job.
He is now a college professor at Delhi, and his specialty in physical education is outdoor recreation. He teaches things like kayaking and camping and mountain hiking. He’s got some great Adirondack stories, let me tell you!
Unfortunately, my gym teachers were not like Eric. In gym class when I was a kid, it was all sports techniques and calisthenics. They didn’t even teach me about aerobics, which it turned out later I was pretty good at! I had to discover kayaking, and running, and hiking and mountain-climbing for myself.
A long walk in the country, or a hike in the mountains, or paddling down a river can all be experienced as a quest. A quest is about leaving the familiar for a while, then encountering the unknown, and finally returning home, but with a fresh vision, or at least a new perspective.
Most every religion and every mythology has some form of a vision quest. Think of the Native American vision quest, or a pilgrimage to a holy place, or the time Jesus spent in the wilderness.
The first name for our own faith tradition was not “Christianity.” At first, it was just called “the Way.” The Way of Jesus. And on the first Sunday in Lent, we always hear about the vision quest taken by Jesus. After his baptism, he goes into the wilderness for a time to be alone, to fast, to pray, to meditate.
We always hear this story as Lent begins because I think we are invited to make our own vision quests.
The quest has a classic shape, a recognizable structure. The quest is in three parts: separation or departure from the familiar; an encounter with unknown forces leading to some form of accomplishment or enlightenment,; and the return to the place of origin. But on the return, the seeker has been subtly or even dramatically changed. You go. You seek and find. You return.
And Lent is a great time to think about the quest. I have some simple suggestions.
You might actually go on a physical journey. Travel can be a form of pilgrimage. If you go with open eyes and heart, you will find blessings. Maybe you could go to the National Cathedral in Washington, or St. John the Divine in New York, or even the great cathedrals in Europe. You could go to Celtic holy places in the British Isles, or even to the Holy Land where Jesus walked. You could go to glorious natural places like the Grand Canyon, the Rockies, or, closer to home, the gorges in the Finger Lakes, or the Adirondacks.
Or even closer to home: go for a walk. Take a walk in your own neighborhood with eyes and ears and heart open. Make your walk a prayer. Do you know the old word for taking a slow walk? “Saunter.” It may come from a French phrase for “holy land-er.” “Saint Terre” is French for “holy land.” In medieval times, pilgrims from Europe would take weeks or months to walk to Palestine, the Holy Land. They were called “Holy Landers,” or “Saint-Terres,” from which we get the word “saunter.”
Another way to go on a quest is to read a book. Opening a book can be a sacred act, like walking through the door of a cathedral. You might encounter deep wisdom, as great books help us interpret our lives. Books can be dangerous. Someone once said that the best books should be labeled “This could change your life.”
Or you could go on retreat. Members of St. Mark’s have done this often. It becomes a vision quest, like the time Jesus spent in the wilderness.
Your quest might also take the form of artistic creation. You could make something: a poem, a quilt, a painting, a cabinet. The work of creation is a quest, a time in the wilderness that brings a meaningful change.
You go to seek. You find something. You return. That’s the vision quest.
It’s part of all the religions, from Judaism to Native American religion to Islam to Buddhism to Hinduism. It’s part of great stories, from “The Pilgrim’s Progress” to “Lord of the Rings” to “Star Wars” to “Harry Potter.”
And it is certainly part of the Christian religious tradition. Jesus is our model for the vision quest, but countless of his followers have followed the quest. They have gone for a saunter.
This is the soul’s high journey. This is the spiritual quest. This is what the New Testament calls “the Way.”
We are people of the Quest. And whether you make the quest on a river in a boat, or with your nose in a book, or with your sneakers scuffing the road, or with needle and thread in your hands, or with hammer and nails, or a brush and paints, or just a backpack or suitcase, the journey is yours.
If you are a follower of Jesus, you are invited on a vision quest. If you are a child of God, you are welcome on that journey. If you are a living, breathing human being, the way is for you.