Sermon By Rev Joel Crouse
In 2017, a woman named Melanie Vogel set out to walk alone across the country - east to north to south. I heard a lot about Melanie Vogel in the week leading up to Christmas – some of you may have seen Erin’s story in The Globe and Mail. Yes, Ms. Vogel eventually achieved her ambition. It took five years. She walked through every kind of weather you can imagine – hailstones the size of golf balls, blizzards, and rain storms. And across every kind of terrain – through prairies, over mountains, across rivers. She had to stop in the Yukon to wait out the pandemic. But eventually, she made it from Cape Spear, Nfld, to Victoria, BC. Along the way, she met a stray dog she called Malo, who won everyone’s hearts - including her own. She was hosted and helped by all kinds of people in every part of the country. She earned the title as the first woman to hike the Trans Canada Trail – the longest hiking trail in the world – reaching the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific Oceans. Her hike was 20,000 kilometres. But this achievement, as my wife can tell, was incidental – it was the journey that drew Melanie to the trail, the call to renew her restless spirit in nature. To walk, and think, and experience the world, slowly and mindfully. Journeys captivate us; as a species, we are often tied to one place, we feel attached to that place even when we are away from it. But yet we admire those who get up and go somewhere, who seek out adventure and uncertainty. We talk to ourselves about the journeys of our lives, through time and places. About moving through grief. We look for what lies on the other side: the searching and seeking. The Christmas story is, in essence, a collection of journeys, real and metaphorical. Or, I should say, physical journeys that became spiritual ones. Mary and Joseph start things off, heading to Bethlehem; and their journey is characterized by resilience and determination, for surely it was sheer force of will that kept a pregnant Mary on that donkey, and a resolved Joseph at her side. Then we have the Shepherds, our leading acts last Sunday, whose journey from the field to the manger scene demonstrates courage and curiosity. And now, this Sunday, we follow the Magi, travelling from the East, tangling with and outsmarting Herod, and finally reaching this Baby everyone has been taking about. Everyone in our story had to travel to find God; they had to make a journey. God didn’t just come to them; they also went to God. And they did so, not knowing for certain how it would turn out, only trusting that it would. The Magi knew they were risking their necks to continue on their way, not sharing with Herod what they knew and learned. Yet what we sing most about them is not their guile in Herod’s palace, but the journey they made, travelling far, from the East. It is the ambition of their journey that captivates us. Melanie Vogel started out alone on her hike; but she was not alone, in fact for long. What I found most inspiring about her story is that she seemed, even in times of despair, to get what she needed. Running from a disturbing encounter with a strange man, she encounters a woman who offers her a hug and a place to stay. When she needs more confidence winter camping, a couple she has just met help her practice. When she is lonely, she finds company; when she is cold, she finds a hospitable home. When she is losing her spirit on the trail, along comes Malo, at the right time. When she needs community, she is not alone. This should remind us of all the absent people in the Christmas story whom we don’t read about, who aren’t immortalized along the way. Surely, along all our three journeys, there must have been helping hands – strangers who offered to share a warm fire with a young couple expecting a baby; villagers willing to feed the shepherds; watchful eyes ready to warn the Magi. But of course, what we learn from Melanie Vogel’s story, and from our Christmas journeys, is that community doesn’t just happen. Ms. Vogel created openings for those welcoming gestures by being friendly and taking an interest in the world around her; at times, when she most wanted to stop, and she was all alone, she was her own supportive community. Her journey – like the Christmas story – was external, and internal; it required strength of purpose, strength of spirit, and the strength of people. Now, we are not all of us, readying in on a physical journey. But the metaphor is a good one; we don’t need to be stuck in one place. We can move with purpose in the direction that we want to go. Like the travellers at Christmas, we too can be resilient and curious and crafty – and keep our eye on our destination. But we rarely get there alone. Even our Christmas traveller s had one another to lean on. Community helps us along the way – if we have the openness to welcome it and accept support. I think that’s what really draws me to the idea of a journey; the openness it requires. If your mind is closed, you can’t go anywhere. Starting a journey suggests a desire to be renewed or changed into something better. It says we are not stuck. We can honour a journey for its own purpose; the destination is part of it – and good to have, but it is not the only thing. Journeys can happen at any time in life; the wisest people I know are always travelling toward God. This year is only a week old. A journey just started. May we be resilient, and curious, and crafty; may we slow down enough to find community for ourselves and create it for others; and may we never be stuck. May we keep travelling toward God. Amen.