Mel's Healing Pilgrimage 2016

Links to the Camino de Santiago pilgrimages are on the navigation links to the right of the web page.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Sermon: Changing Directions

On March 24, 2019 I offered my first homily, at Westminster Gardens Retirement community’s Vespers service in Duarte, California. Below, you can find the scripture reading, the text of the homily, and an amateur video recording of the service.

I am awed by the way the Holy Spirit put words in my heart to share. The congregation was delightful and once the service began, I felt so... at peace. It felt like I had been doing this my whole life. I'll be forever grateful for Virginia and Edie's invitation to preach there.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” 

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ “ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ ”

Luke‬ ‭13:1-9‬ ‭NIV

Good evening. My name is Melvin Soriano. Thank you so much the invitation to join you tonight. I’m a member of All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena and I bring communion to some of the residents here where we meet at Edie Hovey's home for fellowship every month. I’m grateful that I can share my heart and my thoughts with you, especially during this season of Lent as we journey towards Easter.

Lent is modeled on the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert. It’s a time when we can look at ourselves, our spirituality, and the temptations in our lives that can lead us astray. For many people, it is a time to give up something, like chocolate or candy. I tend to give up things that act like chocolate or candy in my life, things that might feel good superficially but aren’t really nutritious. Sometimes instead of being sweet, the candy in our lives can be like stones; they’re don’t really bring you joy. You carry around what you think is sweet but you are actually carrying a stone: a stone in our shoe, in our pocket, in our hearts.

Like all stones, they weigh us down, they give us blisters. Lent gives us a chance to pause, stop, look inside our shoes, inside our pockets, inside our hearts and see if we’re carrying any of these stones with us. And we’re invited to downsize our lives, to put those stones down.

Let me share a story with you. I have walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain several times. That's a 1000 year old pilgrimage where people walk hundreds of miles from their homes to Santiago de Compostela Spain. Even St Francis of Assisi did it 800 years ago. You carry a backpack and follow arrows on the road, on the sides of buildings, and on signs to guide you through villages, forests, farms, and cities.

One of the customs of the pilgrimage is to carry a small stone with you across all those miles. When you’re trying to keep the weight of your backpack down, even a small pebble starts to feel like a boulder. I wrote my sorrows, regrets, broken relationships, and tearful memories on that stone and carried it hundreds of miles. Finally, at the foot of a large cross along the trail, I lay that stone down and asked that all the regrets and sorrows that I carried with me with every step be put down as well. In truth, we don’t do this just once because our lives go on, and we eventually find new stones in our shoes. So, we have to regularly look into our shoes and pockets to empty them out. We can do this every day, or every Sunday. We can also do a major spring cleaning during Lent.

Today’s scripture is all about putting down the stones in our lives. We are told to repent or we will all perish. Most people don’t like to talk about repentance. Most often, I see the word repent when I go to a sporting event or to the Rose parade and I see people holding up home-made signs that demand that we repent or burn. It's a shame that many react negatively to these signs, because the idea behind repentance isn't about shaming or accusing.

Jesus is pointing out at the very beginning of this reading that bad things can happen to anyone at any time. Accidents happen; death happens. But he’s not saying that it happens to people because we sin. He says twice, “I tell you No.” Bad things happen all the time, but Jesus zeros in on whether we repent. You can get sick, break a hip, have towers fall on top of you. Jesus says no, victims are not worse sinners.

Now we sometimes judge. When we see bad things happen to someone, we’re pretty quick to judge that maybe they did something bad. Maybe someone got into an accident because they like to go out late at night. Or maybe someone got sick because they smoked and drank for years. And you know who we judge the harshest sometimes? Ourselves. Our bodies. Our looks. Our families. Our lives. But Jesus here says “No.” We should not judge anyone, much less for things that can’t be controlled. In this passage he’s saying that what matters is that we repent.

I think that too many people fear the word repent. It’s been turned in its meaning to control our behavior, to make us feel shame, to make us do what other humans – not God, not Jesus – what other people want us to do.

The original scripture doesn’t use our modern word repent. Instead, the original Greek uses the word metanoia. Metanoia means something more like change of mind, re-orientation, reformation. It’s not at all filled with judgment but a simple reality check. You just need to change directions. It's like the mobile phone apps that give directions. It’s not judging you because you’re lost. It’s just saying, “You’ve wandered off course.” When Jesus talks about us repenting, he's not trying to make a threat. He’s making an observation.

Jesus is just pointing out, in a spirit of compassion and love, that we may be lost, whether we recognize it or not. I’m sure you’ve sat in a car wondering where am I? You could be lost but you’re not sure. In our pride, we often just keep going on, unwilling to pull over. God forbid we stop and ask for directions.

We’re told by Jesus that the consequence of not changing directions is perishing. We tend to think of perishing as a synonym for death. But the original Greek scripture has another definition, which English also has. Perishing can also mean lost, as in a hundred lives were lost. This definition is about being missing, missing from us, missing from God. It's actually the same word that's used when Jesus talks about the lost sheep. He is the shepherd to the lost. This scripture reading is saying that we don't have to be like lost sheep. We can recognize that we’re lost, and let the shepherd guide us home.

Let me share another story from the Camino. I met another pilgrim, a woman in a small village. We began to walk together and learn about each other. Susan was from Georgia, in her 40s, had lost her job, and decided to walk this pilgrimage to find meaning in her life. We were having a great walk together when silence fell upon us. We realized that we hadn't seen a sign in quite a while. We were in a field somewhere in Spain, lost. We began to search. We had to backtrack. About 45 minutes later, we got to a fork in the road and realized we followed the main path but that the arrows pointed in a different direction, towards a smaller, less obvious trail. We were able to right ourselves and continue walking with the other pilgrims.

Susan and I got along so well. We were happily chatting away and didn't feel lost at all. But we had lost sight of the signs that were guiding us. We got so caught up in making a new friend on the pilgrimage that we had followed a popular, well-used path, but that path that wasn't meant for us. This wasn’t the first time I’ve had to change paths; it certainly wasn’t the last. I’m trying to change paths every day when I can remember.

The scripture reading ends with a short parable that Jesus told to give us hope. We have a tree that seemed destined to be taken down. The owner wants to remove it but instead, the tree is given a second chance to bear fruit.

It's a parable of compassion, of mercy. It says that even though things can go wrong that doesn't condemn us to being chopped down. There's still time. We don’t have an unlimited time, because accidents can happen. We all can die at any moment. But there is time to nurture, to fertilize. There’s time to feed the tree with live-giving water.

We can change directions in our lives. And moreover, we can change the direction of life for someone else too. That tree could not change its directions on its own. But the Good Gardener could. The gardener could work with the tree and help the tree become fruitful. We too can help hopeless, fruitless situations all around us, helping others by feeding, nurturing, and watering those that hunger for the chance to be fruitful.

We don't have to be lost. Not if we can pay attention to what we're doing, where we're heading, what signs we're missing. We can look at our steps and see if there's another way forward. We can put down the stones that burden us and turn our attention to what really matters. And like the Good Gardener, we can feed the trees in our lives – including our own - that hunger to be fruitful.

Recording of the service

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Healing Ashes

For many years, I viewed Lent as that season where I gave up something and eventually got to Easter. It was simplistic and easy enough for the child that I was. When I left the church, I gave up any practice. When I returned, I came back with somewhat the same ideas. It caught me off guard when I realized I was adjusting my notion of Lent and what it meant to me. 

Like the camino, Lent is an opportunity to journey on, to explore and find my way to new life, to reconciliation, to wholeness. It's not enough to give up something in a penitential way, but also to take something on, also in a penitential way. Like much of life, to change and move forward, you sometimes have to let go and sometimes have to take on.

It's remarkable how a simple Lenten practice can become a part of your life. Ten years ago, Stephen and I started a simple Lenten discipline of helping at Union Station Homeless Services and, after Lent ended, we found that the journey was destined to continue. It's something that's ingrained in our lives.

There's also the letting go. I shared a story last night with some folks at our bi-monthly Lay Counseling Ministry meeting. I had some beads around my neck and we were talking about Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday. Perhaps 15 years ago, when I was finding myself changing how I viewed Lent, I was doing a work job back east at a historically Methodist college and needed to find a lunch-hour Ash Wednesday service. I found one at the college chapel. Picture it with me.

You enter into the quiet space. As you enter, you find a large stone gourd, many slips of paper, and pencils. A small sign instructs you what to do. "Write the sins, sorrows, and regrets that you carry with you today and every day on a piece of paper and leave it here in the gourd." So I did. I took a couple pieces of paper and wrote some things down and left it. I then sat and waited for the service to begin. As the service began, the gourd processed in and was set on a stand in front of us all.

It was a traditional Lenten service for the most part. But when we came to the litany, it changed. As we recited the litany of prayers for ourselves and for the world, the celebrant lit a match. And the match went into the gourd. Soon all those sins, sorrows, and regrets were aflame, as we continued with our prayers. After the flames died down, the celebrant began to grind away at the smoldering remains until they were pulverized.

We had our ashes. 

Ashes made of the burnt and ground up memories of our sins. Of our sorrows. Of our regrets. We then all moved forward to the front of the church, bowed our heads down, and the ashes were placed on our heads. The traditional phrase was said: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

That ritual has stuck with me ever since. In it, we are reminded that we are impermanent and will one day return to dust. And strikingly, in a wondrous healing way, our sorrows also were called out as impermanent. Our sins are impermanent. Our regrets are impermanent. All will go away some day.

The remnants of my sins, sorrows, and regrets were placed on my forehead to remind me that they, like me, were not fixed forever. And I found healing in that act. I found forgiveness. Forgiveness by God. Forgiveness for others. Forgiveness for myself.

I think of this ritual whenever I feel the need to fend off the burden of sin, sorrow, and regret. I light a candle and imagine myself burning these thoughts away. And every year, on Ash Wednesday, I let the ashes of those feelings bless me.

May your Ash Wednesday be graced with healing ashes.