Sermon illustrations


Elvis and St. James of Compostela: Connecting to Something Bigger than Yourself

Every day long lines of pilgrims wind their way through rooms that Elvis lived in. Not long ago my friend Paul Chandler, a Carmelite priest, was among them. He writes:

I made it to Memphis and to the Presley mansion and did the Graceland tour (Platinum Package, $24). I stood in the garden at Elvis’ grave, slightly bemused by the large number of people sobbing. A big, dignified man with his arm around his weeping wife gave me a nod. I nodded gravely back, not entirely sure of what was passing between us, but knowing that something was…

There are interesting things to see in Graceland, which is pretty much as the King left it. You can see the Jungle Room (Elvis had no taste in furniture), the kitchen where they cooked up his favorite deep-fried peanut butter sandwiches, his two private jets, a collection of satin and rhinestone jumpsuits, and the TV set he shot a bullet into one night when he was tired and emotional and they were a bit slow getting the gun away from him.

I thought it was well worth the platinum ticket. For some odd reason I best remember incidental things from my big trip to Graceland: a kindness here, a nod there, a fear disarmed, a prejudice undone.

People have been going to visit St. James in Compostela since the ninth century. and they have been going to Graceland to visit Elvis since 1977 … Why does the dead Elvis still call travelers to Memphis, and does St. James to Compostela? What kind of journey makes you a pilgrim and not just a traveler?

You can be a traveler on your own, but not, I think, a pilgrim. Pilgrimage connects you to something bigger than yourself. Pilgrimage connects you to longings that come from deep places and that cannot be easily explained. Even the solitary pilgrim is on a shared quest, overhearing some whisper of a conversation that has been going on for years. Pilgrims don’t always have a clear idea of what they’re doing or why they’re doing it, but they keep going, exchanging nods on the way. Their touch can wear away stone.

Grace is subtle and elusive. You’re not a pilgrim if you stay where you are.

Jim Forest, The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, Orbis, 2007.

Embodying a Decision

Billy Graham had a weekly radio show titled The Hour of Decision. Normally it was a tape recording of the service and message he’d given at a recent evangelistic rally. And at the conclusion of every message, Graham would issue an invitation for anyone to make a commitment to Jesus Christ, and to do so by getting up out of their seat and making their way to the front, where Graham had been preaching.

Coming forward, Graham would say, was an outward demonstration of this inner desire. He insisted that those so moved would take these physical steps to begin a new spiritual journey. This was, for them, the hour of decision. Billy Graham was tapping into something perhaps even deeper than he knew. Any time a person feels prompted to leave the present in order to embrace a new pathway in life, a decision is required. It’s not a decision just made in the head, or even the heart; it’s something embodied. It requires a physical step forward, leaving behind our desk, or friends, or comforts as we start to walk, vulnerably, into an unknown future.

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, Without Oars: Casting Off into a Life of Pilgrimage, Broadleaf Books, 2020.

Every Journey a Pilgrimage

Unimpeded walking is one of life’s most ordinary, least expensive, and deeply rewarding pleasures. With little effort, putting one foot in front of the other and going forward can provide a foretaste of heaven.

One of the people I learned this from was Dorothy Day. She saw every journey, even the most local, in terms of pilgrimage. Though living in a derelict part of Manhattan that most New Yorkers took pains to avoid, Dorothy had an endless ability to discover beauty in unlikely places. She rejoiced at the sight of grass breaking through cracks in the pavement, was exultant at the smell of garlic escaping a kitchen, and gazed joyfully at flowers blooming in a tenement window.

One of the early turning points in Dorothy’s life was linked with walks she took on the west side of Chicago when she was in her early teens. The inspiration to do so came from reading Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. The west side was an area packed with immigrants, stock yards and meat-processing plants. She walked for miles, pushing her baby brother in his carriage, while exploring “interminable grey streets, fascinating in their dreary sameness, past tavern after tavern.”

She found beauty in the midst of desolation:

There were tiny flower gardens and vegetable patches in the yards. Often there were rows of corn, stunted but still recognizable, a few tomato plants, and always the vegetables were bordered by flowers, often grateful marigolds, all sizes and shades with their pungent odor. The odor of geranium leaves, tomato plants, marigolds; the smell of lumber, of tar, of roasting coffee; the smell of good bread and rolls and coffee cake coming from the small German bakeries. Here was enough beauty to satisfy me.

Her long walks in the slums were truly eye-opening experiences. She could no longer look on the poor as shiftless, worthless people whose sufferings were no one’s fault but their own. “Walking such streets as a fifteen year old, she pondered the poor and the workers and felt “that from then on my life was to be linked to theirs, their interests were to be mine: I had received a call, a vocation, a direction in my life.”

Jim Forest, The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, Orbis, 2007.

Hiking or Sauntering?

Hiking – I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers.

John Muir

A Marinating Process

Pilgrimage is a marinating process. The Bible is bursting with people who traveled to places of retreat where God seasoned and tenderized them, preparing them to take the next step of the journey. Moses marinated in the desert for forty years before leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. The apostle Paul marinated in the Arabian desert for three years before becoming the missionary of the millennium. Even Jesus spent forty days and nights marinating in the wilderness, dueling with the devil before beginning his public ministry.

Taken from Sacred Travels: Recovering the Ancient Practice of Pilgrimage by Christian George Copyright (c) 2006 by Christian George. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Mayflower Pilgrims

Pilgrim. For a child growing up in America, the word Pilgrim had no religious connotations. Mainly heard in the plural, Pilgrims referred to a community of storm-defying. Black-clad English Puritans who crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower, founding for the village of Plymouth on the edge of Massachusetts Bay in December 1620. It was not the destination the Pilgrims intended-their goal had been Virginia, but where a furious winter storm delivered them. Pilgrims that they were, they accepted this as God’s will.

The following fall the Pilgrims, with the local Indians who had helped them survive, organized a feast to celebrate a successful harvest. It was the origin of America’s favorite annual holiday. The feast of Thanksgiving turned Pilgrim into a word a child could inhale, two syllables that smelled of stuffed turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, creamed onions, and pumpkin pie.

It was in eighth grade that I discovered that, long before the Mayflower set sail, there was another sort of pilgrim.

Jim Forest, The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, Orbis Books, 2007.

Peregrinatio Pro Amore Dei

Here’s a true story, from the year 891, of those who cast off in an embodied journey to live “in a state of pilgrimage, for the love of God.” Three Irish pilgrims, Dubslane, Macbeth, and Maelinmun, made the dramatic decision to set out into the ocean from their homeland in a boat purposely “without oars.” Their destination was in God’s hands, or, more precisely, in God’s breath.

In Hebrew, wind, breath, and Spirit are all the same word. Their boat was made of two and a half hides, and they took provisions for seven days. On the seventh night they landed in Cornwall, in what today is the southwestern tip of England, convinced that they were precisely where they were meant to be. There’s a Latin term that captures both their purpose and experience and that of hundreds like them: “peregrinatio pro amore Dei,” or “wandering for the love of God.”

Many pilgrims from Ireland had gone before, departing without external destinations, but guided by interior journeys. Trying to explain their motivation, one author says they were “seeking the place of one’s resurrection.” Such pilgrims felt compelled to do so, often against all odds.

Without Oars: Casting Off into a Life of Pilgrimage, Broadleaf Books, 2020.

Our Place of Roots and Beginnings

In all our pilgrimages, we begin by going back to our roots. When Christians go to the Holy Land today, we do not go because God is present there in a way in which he is not in New York or Nottingham, Lichfield or London, in Melbourne or Manchester. We go because the Holy Land is our place of roots, of beginnings; because the Lord whom we serve walked and talked in those places, laughed and wept and suffered in those places, and they carry a memory of him still, hard to describe or even to rationalize theologically, but yet of enormous power.

Some have described the Land as in that sense a fifth Gospel, one which can bring the others into three-dimensional reality for us, so that we can both imagine Jesus by the lake, in the garden and on the cross, and also can sense his presence in new ways – not more or less valid than other ways, but for many a new dimension of their discipleship.

N.T. Wright, The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today, Eerdmans, 1999.

Pilgrimage and Progression

Pilgrimage is centered around one thing—progression. God does not call us to be static saints, even if we cannot move physically. We are constantly on the move spiritually, evolving in our understanding of God, chasing him in our prayers, crawling and climbing over obstacles and challenges. No specific location is holier than another, though different places may provide particular opportunities to encounter God in fresh ways. We agree with Oswald Chambers that “the reality of God’s presence is not dependent on any place, but only dependent upon the determination to set the Lord always before us.” Because the presence of God extends every where, even unto the very ends of the earth, pilgrimage can be practiced by anyone, anywhere, anytime.

First steps are always the hardest. Just look at a baby. Her first steps involve shaky legs and lots of falling down. But gradually, step by awkward step, her muscles strengthen and her confidence builds, and then walking becomes as natural as breathing. The discipline of pilgrimage is like this. We begin on our knees, inwardly confessing our spiritual condition before God. We like sheep have strayed from the Shepherd, crawling away from our Creator as fast as we can.

But the Shepherd gets on his hands and knees and crawls after us, not satisfied until we are safe. Eventually, we want spiritual steak instead of spiritual milk, and crawling no longer gets us where we want to go. We learn the arts of jogging, hopping and running, and pilgrimage becomes a holistic discipline, motivating our heels as well as our heads and hearts. It shapes us into three-dimensional Christians—Christians who inwardly recognize our sin, upwardly commune with Christ and outwardly follow in his footsteps. Pilgrimage is a discipline for the soul and the sole.

Taken from Sacred Travels: Recovering the Ancient Practice of Pilgrimage by Christian George  Copyright (c) 2006 by Christian George. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Pilgrimage: Awakening our Spiritual Lives

Sometimes pilgrimage has the ability to awaken us from a period of long spiritual dormancy. The writer Edwin Muir, around 50 years old, wrote this entry in his diary:

Last night, going to bed alone, I suddenly found myself (I was taking off my waistcoat) reciting the Lord’s Prayer in a loud, emphatic voice-a thing I had not done for many years – with deep urgency and profound disturbed emotion.

While I went on I grew more composed; as if it had been empty and craving and were being replenished, my soul grew still; every word had a strange fullness of meaning which astonished and delighted me. It was late; l had sat up reading; I was sleepy; but as I stood in the middle of the floor half-undressed, saying the prayer over and over, meaning after meaning sprang from it, overcoming me again with joyful surprise.

Edwin Muir, An Autobiography, Hogarth Press, 1954, p. 246.

Pursuing Uncertainty through Pilgrimage

Allow the presence of God to be the bridge through your uncertainty. The axis of uncertainty is disorientation, and let’s face it, who wants to be spinning in all directions while in transition? Research tells us it is more settling for us to prepare for a bad outcome than not having a clue about where we will end up. But what if the axis of uncertainty is a reorientation back to God’s love—stable, steadfast, and secure—preparing you to receive his promises?

Could you wander with him if fulfilling purpose and claiming abundance is the point of the journey through uncertainty? In the ninth century, three Irishmen declared, “Yes!” They boarded coracles—small, lightweight, roundish boats consisting of a simple basket frame, seat, waterproof cover—and courageously drifted over the sea from Ireland for seven days without oars. Can you imagine?! Coming ashore in Cornwall, they were brought to the court of King Alfred. When the king interrogated the three Irish teachers about their obscure journey, they replied that they “stole away because we wanted for the love of God to be on pilgrimage, we cared not where.”

Shelly Miller, Searching for Certainty: Finding God in the Disruptions of Life, Bethany House Publishers, 2020.

Splashing the Ink

The year was 1522. Luther dipped his pen into the ink. Eleven weeks had passed since he began translating the Bible, and the project was almost complete. Although his work would enrage the papacy and infuriate the devil, at least the peasant would be able to read the Scriptures like the priest.

A shadow slithered across the room. It was a familiar shadow, a shadow that had tormented him since he was a child.

“I know I am a sinner!” Luther screamed. “Leave me alone!”

The demon snarled. “You are worse than that, Luther. Your mouth is filthy and your work is useless. God could never use a creature like you.”

Luther knew his warts. He cursed like a sailor, drank like a fish, and if he ever owned his temper, it did not take him long to lose it.

Bats smashed against the window. “You will die in this castle,” screamed the shadow.

Luther had heard enough. The trembling reformer grabbed a well of ink and hurled it at the devil. It soared across the room and exploded against the wall, splattering ink everywhere. Knight George had slayed his dragon, and the creature disappeared into the darkness.

Luther’s original ink stain has long since vanished. Many fingers have faded the wall behind the heater, and some pilgrims have even taken pieces of it as relics. But every year someone, perhaps a castle custodian, secretly splashes the wall with a fresh coat of ink in hopes of keeping Luther’s legacy alive.

Taken from Sacred Travels: Recovering the Ancient Practice of Pilgrimage by Christian George Copyright (c) 2006 by Christian George. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

A Summary Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

Pilgrim’s Progress smells of prison, for it was written in one. Thrown in jail for preaching the gospel without a license, Bunyan wrote a story in his cell. It is a story about life’s deepest questions, primarily, “What must I do to be saved?

The story begins with a burden. Christian wakes up with a heavy load on his back. He doesn’t know where it came from or what it means, and no matter how hard he tries, he cannot remove it. It is singed to his shoulders. To make matters worse, he reads in a book that his city is going to be destroyed with fire, and his family thinks he’s crazy. But one day while he is walking through a field, a man named Evangelist points him in the right direction. He tells Christian of a city, a Celestial city, he must travel to. Unable to tolerate his burden any longer, Christian embarks on a journey.

Along the way he meets many characters—Worldly Wise Man, Goodwill, Hopeful, Faithful, Great-Heart, He travels through many terrains—a slough of despond, a hill of difficulty, a valley of the shadow of death. Sometimes he stays on the path, other times he strays. Demons plague him, friends betray him. But suddenly he sees a cross.

It’s on a hill far away but not out of reach. As Christian kneels before it, the burden on his back rolls away. He is overjoyed! At last, he’s free! With a map in his hand and a skip in his step, Christian journeys home.

Pilgrim’s Progress paints a picture of pilgrimage. Every element of the journey is smeared on the canvas: temptation, faith, forgiveness, danger, trust, courage, risk, friends, enemies, battles and victories. It represents a Christians passage from death to life, from hate to love, from sin to grace. It teaches us about the burden of backsliding, the frustration of failing and the consequences of deviating from the straight and narrow path. In 1678, Pilgrim’s Progress escaped the Bedford prison and began its own pilgrimage, traveling through the centuries as a bestselling Christian narrative.

Taken from Sacred Travels: Recovering the Ancient Practice of Pilgrimage by Christian George  Copyright (c) 2006 by Christian George. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

There and Back Again, A Human Tale

Let us begin with a question. Do you really know how to enjoy the world? Do you know how to enjoy yourself? One of the greatest parables in the New Testament has to do with the search for enjoyment and fulfillment (Luke 15:11-32). The Prodigal Son thought he knew what joy was. He had to wander far away from “home” (his true joy) to-find his heart’s desire. The journey home for the festivities takes us through miles of alien territory.

Literature abounds with figures searching for home, for heaven. Dante goes to hell to find heaven. Faust sells his soul. Milton’s Adam and Eve lose paradise. Wandering off, far from our true selves, is, paradoxically, the way back to who we truly are. There are many names for this pilgrimage to our joy. Jungian psychology, for example, calls it individuation (a very dull term for such an exciting process). There are many descriptions and stories concerning the search for joy. Underneath are questions about where “home” really is, about the way there, and what we can expect when we arrive.

In order to find our way back we have to be willing to be actors in the drama of our homecoming. An actor in a drama is given a certain character to play. He or she has to become a new person to be convincing. A great actor so embodies his or her character that we are caught up in the action and we “believe” that there, before our eyes, is Hamlet or the Phantom of the Opera, or St. Joan. Acting requires embodiment, incarnation, being genuinely present in the here and now. The difference between us and a real actor is that we are playing ourselves or, rather, we are searching for our true selves so that we may play our part more and more fully.

Alan Jones, Passion for Pilgrimage: Notes for our Journey Home, Harper San Francisco, 1995, p.16-17.

The Upside-Down Pilgrimage: Saul’s Journey to Damascus

Saul of Tarsus did not intend to be a pilgrim when he set off to go from Jerusalem to Damascus. Indeed, why would any pilgrim make that journey? Pilgrims went to Jerusalem, not away from it. No: Saul, of course, intended to make other people into pilgrims, whether they wanted it or not. He was going to Damascus, a journey of about 150 miles as the road goes, as a matter of religious and zealous duty. He knew that in Damascus there were some Jews who had given their allegiance to a strange new teaching that was threatening, as he saw it, the very essence of Judaism.

…But of course Saul’s journey turned into a pilgrimage none the less. A pilgrim is someone who goes on a journey in the hope of encountering God, or meeting him in a new way; and that, to his surprise, was precisely what happened to Saul.

It was all upside-down and inside-out. To a devout Jew, the Temple in Jerusalem was the holiest place on earth, the place where the living God had chosen to dwell for ever. Radiating out from the holy of holies at the heart of the Temple were, so to speak, concentric circles of holiness: the inner courts of the Temple, the outer courts, the city of Jerusalem itself, then the whole of the land of Israel. Out beyond that were the goyim, the pagan nations, who had so often opposed and oppressed Israel in the past, and with whom the zealous Jew would remain implacably at enmity. If you wanted to meet God, you went into the centre of those circles, not out to the edge.
N.T. Wright, The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today, Eerdmans, 1999.

The Three Values of Pilgrimage

In his enjoyable little book on Christian pilgrimage, British scholar N.T. Wright shares three propositions on the value that pilgrimage can bring to a Christian’s life:

First, pilgrimage to holy places has a valuable role within the Church’s teaching ministry. Unless you are entirely lacking in imagination, I think you will not return from the Holy Land (and to a lesser extent, from other historic places of pilgrimage) without fresh insight into all sorts of aspects of the biblical story, particularly the Gospels. You might, in principle, have learnt such things from books, lectures and television; but there is something about simply being there which, for most people, goes to the heart of things. People being taken round the Holy Land frequently say, ‘Oh, I see-that’s what was going on.’

…Second, pilgrimage to holy places is a stimulus and an invitation to prayer. Those who, like me, share the privilege of worshipping and praying regularly in an ancient holy place know well how those who come are regularly moved to pray by such a building-How much more when we visit the places where Jesus himself lived? One morning in Nazareth I walked up the hill behind the hostel and sat in the early morning sun underneath some very, very old olive trees.

It suddenly dawned on me that Jesus had almost certainly climbed the same hill, and played as a boy under the same trees. I cannot describe the sense of intimacy this evoked. I felt as though I could reach out and hug him. Many feel this around the sea of Galilee in particular.

Third, pilgrimage to holy places, though neither necessary nor sufficient for Christian living, can be for many a time of real growth and depth in discipleship. This may have something to do with the sheer fact of traveling away from home, looking for something we don’t yet know about. This Abraham-like existence becomes in itself an act of faith, preparing us for and sustaining us in other acts of faith. The letter to the Hebrews speaks of faith as ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’, and, in the same passage, describes Abraham and the other saints of old as ‘desiring a better country, that is, a heavenly one. We are invited to join them in this pilgrimage.

N.T. Wright, The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today, Eerdmans, 1999.

We Are All Pilgrims

Is it not true that all of us are pilgrims, people without a fixed home, even if we have never had to leave home? Time flies, days go by, and we are ever in the process of changing, ever moving on. Somewhere and somehow, we began the journey and suddenly we find ourselves on the way, a way that keeps moving us forward and never returns to the same place.

Karl Rahner, The Mystical Way in Everyday Life, Orbis Books, 2010, p.36.

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Pilgrimage. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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