September 11th Sunday School Lesson

September 11th Adult Sunday School Lesson Featured Image

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is an important and somber observance for Americans and others. It can be an emotional and tough topic to cover, so we at Homiletics Online are glad to be able to work with the editorial team at The Wired Word and share with you this special 9/11 Patriot Day edition of our weekly discussion guides for small groups and adult classes. The tragic events of September 11, 2001 are the topic of the first of this week’s two weekly lesson plans. The full text of both lessons is included below, free of charge.

You can share these with your Sunday School class, Small Group or anyone interested in personal Bible study.

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From the Editorial Team of The Wired Word

This week our nation will observe the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For The Wired Word editorial team member Bill Tammeus the anniversary is especially poignant because his nephew, Karleton Fyfe, was a passenger on the first plane to smash into the World Trade Center. Like others whose loved ones died on that catastrophic day, Bill has struggled to come to terms with the murder of a loved one and with the larger issues that terrorism presents to our world.

One of Bill’s responses has been to write the book Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, published earlier this year. The book describes the many traumas his extended family experienced because of 9/11, and it offers possible approaches for people wanting to work against various types of radicalism. We have asked Bill to write this lesson, not in the dispassionate words of a journalist (which Bill is), but in his own first-person voice.

If you’d prefer a different topic, look at our second lesson, which starts by noting that a number of people are now in the process of crossing America on foot or by bicycle. They are on the move for various reasons, but at least some appear to be on personal pilgrimages, not so much to specific locations of religious significance as to self-discovery while traveling, and for some, that discovery has spiritual dimensions. We use this news as an opportunity to consider the idea of pilgrimage and spiritual journey, whether they involve actual travel or not.

You are welcome to email the student version of either lesson to your class members, depending on which lesson you prefer to use for your class time. To do so, click here.

May God bless you as you teach the scriptures this week.


Lesson 1: Twenty Years Later, What Are the Lessons From the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks?

September 5, 2021

Ultimately, truth in Christianity is not a doctrine or dogma. Truth, rather, is a person, Christ Jesus
Ultimately, truth in Christianity is not a doctrine or dogma. Truth, rather, is a person, Christ Jesus

In the News

On September 11, 2001, I was an editorial page columnist for The Kansas City Star, and it was my habit to arrive at my desk shortly after 7 a.m. each day. I had a 13-inch muted TV on my desk tuned to CNBC just to see where the stock market was headed that day. 

Before long that Tuesday morning, I noticed that something unusual was happening on the screen, so I unmuted it and listened for a minute, then flipped over to CNN to see what else I could learn.

When the shape of what was happening was clearer, Star editors decided to publish the first extra edition of The Star since I had started work there in September 1970. They asked me to write the lead commentary piece for that edition, which meant I had about an hour and a half to cobble together 800 or so words that would try to say something intelligent to our readers about this madness.

Just before I started writing the column, I forwarded my calls to our editorial page secretary, Trudy Hurley.

“Unless it’s my wife,” I told her, “please just take messages for me until I finish this.” (Voicemail on The Star’s phone system was in the future.)

When I was about two-thirds of the way through writing the column, Trudy slipped into my cubicle, put a hand on my shoulder gently and said almost in a whisper, “It’s your wife. She needs to talk with you.”

Marcia simply asked: “Have you read your sister’s email?” I hadn’t.

“Please read it,” she said. And was gone.

I found a note from my sister, Barbara Fyfe, with this subject line: “Very bad news.”

It said that from what she and her husband, Jim, could tell from their home in North Carolina, their son, Karleton Douglas Beye Fyfe, who lived in the Boston suburb of Brookline, had been a passenger on the first plane, American Flight 11, to crash into the World Trade Center. This disastrous possibility had not yet been confirmed, but everything pointed to it being true — as it turned out to be.

My heart fractured into millions of serrated pieces. Karleton and I, after all, had developed an especially close relationship.

When Karleton died, he was 31 years old, married and the father of a 19-month-old boy. The Sunday before he left Boston on that Tuesday to fly to California for a business meeting (he was a bond analyst with John Hancock), his wife, Haven, had told him that she was pregnant again. That baby, Parker, was born in May 2002, and of course never had a chance to meet his father.

Why did Karleton die? He died because 19 hijackers bought into the wildly bogus religious and political ideas that Osama bin Laden and others had taught them, including the delusion that God wanted them to murder people to punish the United States for a series of alleged sins. Bin Laden and his followers claimed to be Muslims, but their curdled theology had twisted Islam beyond recognition in much the same way that the Ku Klux Klan and today’s white Christian nationalists bend Christianity into an unrecognizable mess.

And that, too, is what I write about in this new book. Through a series of short interludes as well as a longer chapter on the theological roots of extremism, I point to case after case of rigid, magical thinking that has led to violence.

I, of course, had no idea that when we set January 19 as the publication date for my new book, it would be less than two weeks after extremists would engage in insurrection at our nation’s Capitol. The rioters, we now know, included followers of the QAnon conspiracy theorists, the white nationalist hate group known as the Proud Boys, other white supremacists carrying Confederate flags and members of other hate groups, some bearing Jesus signs.

In the case of both 9/11 and 1/6, people bought into lies — whether political or theological — that wound up costing people their lives.

The scope and brutality of the 9/11 attacks shocked many Americans, though some of that reaction may have been because of naivete and a failure to recognize the hold radicalism has in some parts of the world.

The history of both the 9/11 attacks and the 20-year war in Afghanistan that followed raises many questions, including how some people get drawn into religious (and other types of) extremism. It also challenges Christians, guided by scripture, to consider what actions and approaches they can take to counter such radicalism, including within Christianity itself.

The list of violent extremists in world history is long, indeed. One of the oldest and deadliest hatreds is, of course, antisemitism, and for century after century, Jews have paid an extraordinarily high price for being dismissed as less than human. Sadly, Christianity contributed to that violence by promoting anti-Jewish teachings for centuries (see my blog on this.).

But other examples of terrorism connected to religion also fill our history books. In the last 100 years, the story of such extremism — besides taking account of the Holocaust, in which Nazi Germany murdered some six million Jews simply for being Jews — would include the many atrocities, including thousands of lynchings, committed against black Americans. On that list would be the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, which has received renewed attention in its 100th anniversary year. Add to that such attacks as the 2015 murder of nine black people by a white supremacist at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina; the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, plus countless acts of terrorism around the world. Many of them, like the attacks by the 9/11 terrorists, have been committed by people identifying as followers of Islam or Christianity.

Important questions for Christians today are whether, guided by scripture, we can do anything to reduce such terrorism and whether we can make sure our own lives of faith don’t somehow contribute to the attitude that faith-based terrorism is sometimes a justifiable response to some grievance. We’ll deal with those questions in this lesson.

More on this story can be found at these links:

September 11 Attacks. History.com

9/11 FAQs. from the 9/11 Memorial and Museum

The 9/11 Commission Report 

Applying the News Story 

Think back to your own experience of 9/11 and ask yourself what you believed then about the roots of terrorism. Then think about how you may have changed your mind since then, especially if you’ve taken time to explore religious traditions beyond your own. In addition, try to remember what you thought when the United States invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, and compare that to what you think about that today. If your mind has changed, what changed it?

The Big Questions

1. How have you been affected by terrorism, especially the kind rooted in religion?

2. If acts of terrorism grow out of an absolute certainty about some aspects of religion, how do we maintain our commitment to the core of Christianity while making room for mystery, paradox, ambiguity, uncertainty and even doubt?

3. Is working against extremism and terrorism primarily the responsibility of national governments or can individuals and congregations play an important role, too? And if so, how?

4. What have you learned in the last 20 years about Islam and other religious traditions — including Christianity and its own history of extremists — that has helped you understand the sources of radicalism and how those sources can be unplugged?

5. If violence grows out of fear, which in turn grows out of ignorance, what have you done to educate yourself so you don’t fall prey to misinformation or disinformation? What kind of interfaith dialogue and cooperation are you engaged in? If none, why not? And have you ever had to stand up against misinformation about Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and members of other religions? If so, how did that go?

Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope

Here are some Bible verses to guide your discussion:

John 8:31-32

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (For context, read John 8:21-32.)

Ultimately, truth in Christianity is not a doctrine or dogma. Truth, rather, is a person, Christ Jesus, because although the Word does not fail or mislead, mere words often do. It’s not that Christian doctrines and formal confessions of faith are worthless. Instead, they are sincere human attempts to make sense of and express the human experience of the triune God. But the church sometimes has rejected or turned away from at least some parts of those written confessions.

For instance, in the 16th-century “Second Helvetic Confession,” produced by leaders of the Protestant Reformation, we read this: “We teach that baptism should not be administered in the Church by women or midwives. For Paul deprived women of ecclesiastical duties, and baptism has to do with these.” But in the 1983 confession called “A Brief Statement of Faith,” adopted when the southern and northern branches of the Presbyterian Church in the United States joined back together to form the Presbyterian Church (USA), we read that the Holy Spirit “calls women and men to all ministries of the Church.” (That 1983 confession was written 27 years after Northern Presbyterians first ordained a female to ministry.) Largely because of such changes, written confessions are considered secondary authorities to the Bible.

Questions: Do you find it liberating to think that truth in Christianity is a person and not a specific statement of faith, even the Apostles’ Creed? Does knowing that make you less committed to — and more wary of — written religious doctrines? What does it teach you about trusting the ability of humans to put divine truth into words and then to act on those words with great certainty? Are there other basic Christian doctrines that you’ve questioned for one reason or another? How do you resolve such questions?

Romans 12:18-19

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (For context, read Romans 12:14-21.)

The apostle Paul, who terrorized followers of Jesus before he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 8:1-3), writes to Christ followers in Rome with a message quite different from his earlier life of anger and revenge. It’s important to remember the context in which Paul was writing to his audience in Rome. For starters, he knew and elsewhere (Philippians 3:2-6) confessed his own misplaced zealotry. Beyond that, he was mostly addressing Gentiles who were attracted to the life and message of Jesus and who were trying to find their way within Judaism, given that the followers of Jesus still were decades away from a split with Judaism that would create what came to be called Christianity.

So Paul was urging those Christ followers not to become hard-liners against Jews who so far hadn’t moved into the Jesus camp. He wanted those Jesus lovers to respect even those with whom they had theological differences. What a remarkable difference between that approach and the one that urges death to the infidels or that suggests, on the flip side, that the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim. Paul is urging people to be full of enough humility to become what he himself formerly wasn’t — someone the late Reformed theologian Shirley C. Guthrie asked everyone to be: a modest theologian.

Questions: How can and should your faith community challenge people within it who express ideas they’re so certain about that they’re ready to die — or even kill — for them when it’s clear that not everyone buys those ideas? How can you be a modest theologian but still be deeply committed to Christ? Does it help to remember that although one of your jobs as a Christian is to tell the gospel story to others, the work of conversion is up to the Holy Spirit and not you? Or is that just an excuse for theological wishy-washiness?

Luke 10:30-37

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (For context, read Luke 10:25-37.)

This parable of the so-called Good Samaritan is so familiar to many of us that it’s easy to miss its revolutionary lesson. When we read such parables and “stop with the easy lessons, good though they may be,” writes New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine in her book Short Stories by Jesus, “we lose the way Jesus’s first followers would have heard the parables, and we lose the genius of Jesus’s teaching.” To understand this parable “as did the original audience,” she writes, “we need to think of Samaritans less as oppressed but benevolent figures and more as the enemy, as those who do the oppressing.” To put it in today’s context, think of the Good Samaritan as a member of al-Qaeda or the Ku Klux Klan.

When we do that, we begin to see that Jesus is telling us that all human beings are capable of doing good because all human beings are precious children of God. When we dehumanize people by declaring them (and not just their acts) examples of pure evil — Nazis, Islamist terrorists, American whites who lynched blacks — we open ourselves up to committing the same crimes of dehumanization that underlie terrorism.

Questions: Whom do you consider an enemy today? What makes them so? How can you separate the acts they may commit from their essential humanity? Is it possible to look at such mass murderers as Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot and find not only something human there but also, perhaps, a bit of our worst selves?

Genesis 1:27

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (For context, read Genesis 1 and 2.)

A core teaching of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) is that humanity came about because of God’s creative impulse of love and that all people somehow carry the image of God within them. So because everyone has a divine spark, everyone must be respected and loved — even when the person bearing that spark engages in despicable behavior. In Christian terms, human bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, as the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6:19. To disrespect, denigrate, injure or kill another person is to disrespect, denigrate or injure God. This means that every person is of inestimable value, an idea that author Glenn Tinder calls “the spiritual center of Western politics.”

Questions: How have you tried to help others, including your children or grandchildren, understand the idea that each human being is precious in God’s sight? How have you demonstrated that truth in your own life? Have you had a chance to speak about this idea to people you have seen violate it? How did that work out?

For Further Discussion

1. In the final chapter of my new book I list several ideas for unplugging extremism. Here are three of those suggestions, with commentary shortened from the book:

Become more religiously literate. “Our human tendency is to fear what we don’t know or understand. To break that habit, it’s necessary to commit ourselves to learning about religious traditions and philosophical worldviews beyond our own. There are many ways to do that. One is simply to read some helpful books. I’d start with Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t, by Stephen Prothero.”

Deepen your knowledge of both American and world history. “A fair amount of global terrorism is tied to the shock waves that have radiated across the nation and around the globe from historical events about which many people, especially Americans, seem to know little or nothing. That’s particularly true about geopolitical and religious history in developing nations, including parts of the Middle East.”

Spend time with people who have experienced profound grief. “This is the emotional equivalent of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. It can open our eyes to the countless ways that death — particularly unexpected, violent death — can affect almost every aspect of the lives of survivors. … At the very least, go to funerals of people whose families you know, even of people who died of old age or of some illness late in life. Be present. Hear their stories.”

2. In some ways, domestic terrorism in the United States is an even bigger threat to our society and democracy than terrorism launched at the United States from abroad. Among helpful books to learn about this scourge are: American Zealots: Inside Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism, by Arie Perliger, and White Hot Hate: A True Story of Domestic Terrorism in America’s Heartland, by Dick Lehr (to be published in early November). In addition, here’s an online resource you may find helpful: The War Comes Home: The Evolution of Domestic Terrorism in the United States, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

Responding to the News

This would be a good time to schedule a visit to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. Try to leave yourself most of a day to see all of the detail there. An alternative if you can’t travel there is to visit the memorial’s website.Or think about visiting the Flight 93 memorial in Pennsylvania either in person or via its website.

Prayer

Eternal God in Christ, from almost the beginning of human life, people have treated others with contempt and hatred because of fear and false certitude about what is true and what isn’t. We ask your forgiveness for the times we have done that. We also ask you to remind us that in Christianity truth is a person, Christ Jesus, and that we won’t go wrong if we do what Jesus would have us do — love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Help us with that task, Lord, or we will fail again. In Christ’s saving name we pray. Amen.

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Lesson 2: Covid-weary Pilgrims Eager to Hit the Road

September 5, 2021

In the News

By some estimates, more people than ever are on personal journeys across America, traveling by foot or on bicycles, according to a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor. Since there’s no permit or other paperwork required to make such trips, it’s not possible to state exactly how many people are currently engaged in these endeavors or have already completed their treks in 2021, but before the pandemic, there were usually about a dozen walkers and several hundred cyclists crossing the country in a given year. 

“The pandemic throttled those numbers,” said the Monitor, “though the quarantines did boost bike sales and spurred the impatient to begin training. When Covid-19 eased, they leaped onto the roads.”

After the enforced isolation of the pandemic, some of these travelers want to connect with people in ways that more conventional travel does not foster. 

Sometimes such connections happen quite providentially. These slower forms travel, without the support of a motor vehicle or travel services often mean that the adventurers find themselves caught in the open in frightening weather, far from support facilities when overtaken by exhaustion or illness, nowhere near a mechanic when their bike breaks down and far from help when other unanticipated problems arise.

If you were to go on a pilgrimage at this stage of your life, where would you go, why would you choose those destinations, and what would you hope to discover or achieve through such an endeavor?

“It’s not about what you see; it’s all the people you meet,” said bicyclist Zach Wierzenski, stopped at a hostel in Virginia. “When you’re in trouble, somebody shows up. It’s literally magic. I have never experienced this kind of kindness before.” 

Of course, connecting with others is not the only reason people undertake these journeys. For some, it’s the call of adventure; for others, it’s the personal challenge or the escape from routine or the pressure of a job. For still others, it’s a journey of self-discovery, heading as much inward as onward. And some are pilgrims in the classic sense of seeking to know their place in God’s world. For many, it’s a mix of reasons.

TWW senior editor Stan Purdum rode his bicycle across America several years ago, a journey he recounts in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day. His primary motivation, he said, was to satisfy a sense of wanderlust and a thirst for adventure, but the whole trip also made him more aware of God’s glory (hence the title of his book; the “heaven” he was talking about was God’s world around us.) 

In Kansas, Purdum met a young man cycling the same direction, and they rode together for the few days that their routes overlapped. The young man was on a life quest and a spiritual one, and he was in the process of reading the holy books of several of the world religions. He hadn’t yet started the Bible, so Purdum was able to offer some ideas for how to navigate the scriptures and suggest the portions most likely to grip the attention of someone unacquainted with the book and which best conveyed the Bible’s primary message.

In Montana, Purdum met a middle-age man, cycling from Oklahoma to Canada. He was between careers and recently divorced. He explained that he’d embarked on his journey in search of something he had yet to define, but, said Purdum, it appeared to be a where-to-go-with-my-life-next quest.

Last year, in a talk at Yale Divinity School, the American travel writer Rick Steves told his audience, “I get close to God when I travel.” He said drawing closer to the divine source of creation is one of the chief ends of enlightened travel. 

Steves went on to outline a hierarchy of travelers. At the first level is the “tourist,” who regards all travel as a form of consumption and is happy to crowd Europe’s “Instagram spots,” sites designated for social-media selfies. But Steves would like to see them move at least to the second tier of “traveler” —  people willing to become “cultural chameleons” who immerse themselves in other places and ways of life. 

The most heightened experience, however, said Steves, lies in the third category, the “pilgrim,” who seeks to find God through travel and discovers inner-personal truths along the way. If tourism is about consumption and traveling about immersion, then pilgrimage, according to Steves, is about transformation. “As a tour guide, I encourage people to be pilgrims,” Steves said. He sees himself on a continual pilgrimage as well.

“I feel the evidence of God when I’m traveling,” Steves said, “the grandeur and the small expressions of love.”

Christian writer Diana Butler Bass invites her readers to move from being tourists in life to being pilgrims. “Being a tourist means experiencing something new; being a pilgrim means becoming someone new. Pilgrimages go somewhere — to a transformed life.”

More on this story can be found at these links:

By Bike and by Foot, Americans Discover Their Country — and Themselves. Christian Science Monitor

Thoughtful Travel: Rick Steves Talks With YDS Audience About Turning Tourism Into Pilgrimage. Yale University

Why Pilgrimage? Pilgrims Way

What is the Point of a Pilgrimage? Simply Catholic

Guy Stagg Describes His Journey on Foot From Canterbury to Jerusalem (Video 2:08). Picador Books

Applying the News Story 

“Pilgrimage” as an intentional journey may sound a bit foreign to people raised in churches of the Protestant tradition. To some, “pilgrimage” sounds like something Catholics do — visiting shrines to the Virgin Mary or sites associated with miracles. But whether using that terminology or not, many Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians do journey to places of religious importance: the Holy Land, locations important in the Reformation, trips that follow the footsteps of the apostle Paul, that take you to the home cities of the seven churches addressed in Revelation, that get you to Oberammergau, Germany, or Eureka Springs, Arkansas, for the Passion Play. There are also trips to places of historical interest to people from different denominations or faith traditions. 

Spiritual sojourns are a major theme throughout the Bible, beginning with the wanderings of Cain after he killed his brother Abel (Genesis 4:10-16), the call of Abram (which we address in the scripture section below), and the 40-year journey of God’s people through the wilderness after leaving Egypt (told primarily in the book of Exodus).  

Pilgrimages to sacred places are codified in religious law that required appearances before God, worship, sacrifices and offerings (e.g., Deuteronomy 16:16-17, 1 Samuel 1:1-3). Psalms 120-134 were written specifically for pilgrimage to Jerusalem. 

The prophets spoke of days to come when people from many nations would travel to the mountain of the Lord to learn the ways of God, the ways of peace (Micah 4:1-5). Ezekiel describes how pilgrims entering the city of God for “the appointed festivals” would leave by a different gate, perhaps suggesting metaphorically the idea that an encounter with God is meant to be life-transforming (Ezekiel 46:9).

Jesus and his family made an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. When Jesus was 12, he took the opportunity to sit among the teachers, “listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:41-52). Jesus continued making pilgrimages to Jerusalem as an adult (John 5:1).

Many faith trips emphasize the destination, the physical places where certain events happened. And one’s spiritual growth is sometimes enhanced by such visits. But pilgrimage is not limited to specific sites, and it’s as much about what happens within one’s heart and mind while on the journey as it is about the destination. Nonetheless, we recognize that actual travel that takes one away from one’s familiar setting and normal routine can trigger or fire up the inner quest. Thus, we use this discussion to explore the idea of pilgrimages, both those related to actual travel and those where the journey is only inward.

The Big Questions

1. Have you ever embarked on a pilgrimage? If so, where did you go, and why? What form did your pilgrimage take? What preparation, exertion or expense was involved? Did the spiritual aspect of the journey have a lasting effect.Was it worth doing just to do it?

2. If you were to go on a pilgrimage at this stage of your life, where would you go, why would you choose those destinations, and what would you hope to discover or achieve through such an endeavor?

3. Would you describe yourself primarily as a tourist, a traveler or a pilgrim? What difference does it make?

4. Did you ever take a trip for other reasons, but which to your surprise (or perhaps even to your delight), turned into a pilgrimage? If so, what gave the trip that character?

5.  How might the idea of pilgrimage play out for people who cannot or prefer not to travel? Now that technology makes it possible to “take pilgrimages virtually,” how might that experience change?

Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope

Here are some Bible verses to guide your discussion:

Genesis 12:1-4

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. (For context, read Genesis 12:1-9.)

The sojourn of Abram, who is known later as Abraham, is perhaps the most iconic example of a pilgrimage in our faith. God summons Abram to leave his country, to set out on a trip to visit some spiritually significant sites in Canaan.

Well … no, that’s not what God says. God definitely calls Abram to a journey, but there’s no mention of religious tourism at all. Actually the divine instruction that comes to Abram is as much about where he shouldn’t remain as it is about where he should travel.

“Leave your nation, leave the security of home and hearth, of family and possession, and don’t concern yourself with where you’re going. I’ll show you your new home when the time is right.”

What kind of an itinerary is that?!

Centuries later, the writer of Hebrews noted that “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going (Hebrews 11:8).”

Abram hit the road in response to what he perceived as a call from God. The writer of Hebrews says this was because of Abram’s faith, but the Old Testament writer doesn’t use that word. He simply points out that Abram “went,” with no GPS or trip-tic at all. He obeyed the call. Obedience is evidence of faith, of course, but it is faith in action.

Questions: What concerns do you think Abram might have had about undertaking such a trip? What might concern you if you believe God is calling you to take a step into unfamiliar territory? 

We don’t know how Abram’s wife Sarai felt about making this life-change. We do know that she accompanied him. How do you react when a spouse has an idea that excites him or her but doesn’t excite you? 

On what basis should you determine whether or not you are really hearing the call of God, or if your thoughts might be the result of indigestion from eating too much pizza the night before?

Why do you think Abram decided to respond obediently to God’s call? What happened as a result?

When, if ever, have you obeyed a call you perceived to be from God? How has that turned out?

Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” … When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (For context, read Matthew 2:1-2, 7-12.)

The story of the Magi teaches us several things about spiritual journeys. First, we learn that God honors pilgrims who seek an encounter with God and a discovery of what God is doing in the world. The magi weren’t just tourists on a sightseeing tour of the Middle East. They were intent on finding the one whose coming was hailed even in the heavens by a star “with his name on it” so that they could celebrate his arrival and honor him. They sought to connect with this child, not to get favors from him, but to give him gifts. 

Second, we find that pilgrims who seek an encounter with God for that purpose can be guided to their destination by various means: signs in the heavens, and even by malevolent, deceitful rulers. 

Third, we see that spiritual journeys toward God are not without risk, but that God guides pilgrims throughout their journeys. The Magi may not have realized that King Herod posed a real threat both to the child and to themselves, but God knew, led them through dangers to reach their objective, and took them safely home.

Fourth, we discover that such a search leads to overwhelming joy as the Magi neared their goal, to seeing the dawning of the kingdom of God, and to the pleasure of worshiping and offering gifts to the Christ child.

Questions: What prompted you to embark on your own spiritual journey? Was it a moment’s inspiration or a long process of discernment? How do your goals and hopes compare or contrast with those of the Magi? 

How have you been guided toward an encounter with God and a discovery of what God is doing in the world? What does that tell you about the nature of God and how God works with pilgrims?

What have you risked in your spiritual journey? What dangers have you faced? When have you been aware that God has protected you from danger?

When have you experienced joy on your spiritual journey? Describe that sensation. 

Matthew 4:18-20

As [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. (For context, read Matthew 4:18-22.)

1 Peter 2:21

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. (For context, read1 Peter 2:20-25.)

Many people who take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land are drawn by the mystical attraction that they might walk the same streets Jesus walked, “in his footsteps,” centuries after he visited Earth. Millions of Christians mark highlights in the life of Jesus through their yearly liturgy that begins with Advent and the birth of Christ, leading through his death and resurrection, to his present life in the people of God. For some, marking the Stations of the Cross is a spiritual discipline that helps them visualize what it means to follow Jesus in his steps.

“The places of pilgrimage have marked a kind of geography of faith,” wrote Pope Benedict XVI, in Co-Workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year. “That is, they make visible, almost tangible, how our forefathers encountered the living God, how he did not withdraw after creation or after the time of Jesus Christ, but is always present and works in them so that they were able to experience him, follow in his footsteps, and see him in the works he performed. Yes, he is there, and he is still there today.” 

When Jesus called his disciples, he called them from some things (“their nets,” “the boat and their father”) and to other things (a new relationship with him and a new focus and occupation). But the text from Peter’s letter makes it clear that following in Jesus’ steps means much more than literally placing our feet in the footprints Jesus left on the dusty roads of Palestine. It means adopting his attitudes, thoughts, feelings and actions.

Questions: When, if at all, have you sensed Jesus calling you to follow him? What was the nature of that call? What has he called you “from” and what has he called you “to”?

What does it mean to follow in Jesus’ steps today? How are you doing that? 

Mark 12:34

When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (For context, read Mark 12:28-34.)

One day, when Jesus is speaking with a crowd, a scribe (a Bible scholar of that day) overhears and notices that Jesus is giving good answers to the crowd’s questions, so he poses one of his own. Which commandment is greatest of all? he asks Jesus.

Jesus responds by quoting from Deuteronomy, where it says you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength. But Jesus expands the verse by including “with all your mind.” Jesus is aware that intellectual honesty is one of the roads to the kingdom of God.

He then goes on to state the second most important command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Hearing Jesus’ answer, this scribe quickly agrees that Jesus is right on these two points. At that, Jesus responds to the scribe with a very significant observation: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

What an important statement that is! The scribe has not stated the first-century equivalent of the Nicene Creed. He has not signed onto any doctrinal declaration. He has not identified himself as the member of the Jesus club or asked to be a disciple. He has simply agreed that to love God with his heart, soul and mind and to love his neighbor as himself is the centrality of religion. And at that, Jesus said he was not far from the kingdom of God.

It should be noted that as a group, the scribes were generally hostile to Jesus, and there is no reason to think that this scribe was any exception. Yet in finding a common ground of belief about what is important, Jesus is able to praise this scribe for his clear-eyed understanding and affirm that he is on the right road. He recognizes the scribe as a pilgrim moving in the right direction.

Admittedly, saying that the man was “not far” from the kingdom isn’t the same as saying he was “in” the kingdom, but then who of us can claim to have “arrived” at the gospel truth in every aspect of our lives? In reality, all of us are spiritual pilgrims on a journey toward the kingdom. We all have times when we can’t figure out what God is up to. And yet, our honest skepticism and doubt can be tools for faith, for they at least point us to the place where we feel the need of an answer.

So often we think we need to be right on the mark or we’re a loser. Sometimes it’s in striving for a goal that we are unable to achieve that we learn something more important — sometimes, something that God wants us to learn. Sometimes, “not far” may even be all that God wants us to achieve, leaving room for us to grow spiritually from there. It may be that close is good enough when it comes to horseshoes, hand grenades and, at least for now, the kingdom of God.” 

Questions: When have you recognized that someone you know or have just encountered is a pilgrim, “not far from the kingdom of God”? In what ways were you able to help that person on that journey?

For Further Discussion

1. Among the many examples of stories about pilgrimages, travel or journeys are:

What is the appeal of such stories to so many people? Which of these journeys, if any, resonates most with you, and why?

2. In her 1975 classic, Journey Inward, Journey Outward, about the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth O’Connor describes how the congregation sought to balance personal growth and understanding of the self, God and others (“journey inward”) with ministry to the greater community (“the journey outward”).

              Do you intentionally seek that kind of balance in your own life? If so, how? If not, which journey needs greater emphasis for you right now? How could you create space for that journey?

              Does your church nurture both journeys, and if so, how? If not, what could be done to create a better balance?

3. Select one or more of these quotes to discuss:

  • Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart. — Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
  • The purpose of a pilgrimage is about setting aside a long period of time in which the only focus is to be the matters of the soul. Many believe a pilgrimage is about going away but it isn’t; it is about coming home. — Photojournalist L.M. Browning, Seasons of Contemplation: A Book of Midnight Meditations
  • As a pilgrim, travel is made holy in its slowness. I see things that neither the passengers of the train nor the drivers of the automobiles see. I feel things that they will never feel. I have time to ponder, imagine, daydream. I tire. I thirst. In my slow walking, I find me. — Roman Catholic priest Kevin A. Codd, Beyond Even the Stars: A Compostela Pilgrim in France
  • The pilgrimage provided a sense of purpose. … the minutes slowed and the silence assembled, until the days were worth more than they had been before. — Travel writer Guy Stagg, award-winning author of The Crossway
  • No pilgrimage is holier than compassion, no gospel is truer than kindness, no offering is grander than love. … Helping a human is equivalent of a hundred pilgrimages. — Abhijit Naskar, neuroscientist, advocate for peace and author of Citizens of Peace: Beyond the Savagery of Sovereignty
  • For pilgrims walking … every footfall is doubled, landing at once on the actual road and also on the path of faith. — Author Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

4. Bruce Kennedy was chairman and chief executive of Alaska Airlines from 1979 to 1991, during which time, the company’s annual revenue rose from $234.5 million to $1.1 billion. But in 1991, at age 52, Kennedy resigned his position and traveled to China with his wife to teach English with a Christian group. Later, they sheltered dozens of refugee families in their home. He also took a leadership role with two aviation enterprises working in missions and relief aid.

              Kennedy’s daughter Karin explained why her father had handed off leadership of Alaska Airlines when he did: “He felt God wanted him to invest his life in other endeavors.”

              Have you ever felt God calling you to a move out of your present situation to do some new thing? How did you respond, and what happened next? Do you feel regret or satisfaction about your decision and the consequences of your choice?

              What would you do if you felt God was inviting you to walk with him toward his kingdom now?

5. Respond to this, from Stan Purdum’s book, Playing in Traffic, a narration of his bicycle ride from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, on U.S. Route 62:

After my cross-country ride, a man asked me if I’d had any “spiritual” experiences on the journey. Before I could even respond, he added, “Or was the whole thing spiritual?”

              “Er, well, yes … it was, sort of.” I said.

              I was able to go on to give a satisfactory — and true — answer, but later, I thought about why the question had taken me by surprise. Bicycling, especially of the long-distance kind, gives me a natural high that is more than a physical sensation. In fact, it nourishes some inner part of me. But up until the moment of that question, I hadn’t labeled it as “spiritual.”

              I have a natural resistance to using religious jargon to “baptize” what is basically a profoundly satisfying human experience. I have to admit, however, that bicycling sometimes is a spiritual experience. I usually feel at peace and deeply content wheeling down a country road. I suspect this also has something to do with why I hate pedaling a stationary bike in my basement; it may exercise my body but it does nothing for my soul.

              Now that I think about it, the questioner had it right when he asked if my journey was a spiritual experience. It was, for spirituality — in the sense that I recognize that there is that which is greater than I am — is an integral part of my makeup. And I am grateful to my Creator for the opportunity to pedal the byways of this good earth.

Responding to the News

1. If you go on an intentional pilgrimage, consider how you want to commemorate your journey and lessons learned on the path. Would you keep a journal, take photos, draw sketches, write poetry or songs? Would you keep your reflections private, or share them with others? What factors would you consider as you decide whether and what to share, and with whom?

2. While traveling, but not intentionally on a pilgrimage, pay attention to how the change of schedule, routine, scenery, the new people you are interacting with — and often, the break from keeping up with the world and national news — frees your mind and soul to be open to God’s Spirit in fresh ways.

3. Discuss this, from Bill Wilson, director of The Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, North Carolina: “What if we looked upon this next chapter of our life together [in the church] as an opportunity to take a pilgrimage? Could we take a more mindful approach to who we are, why we are here, how we got here, and where we are going?” What next steps would you need to take to intentionally move forward as pilgrims on a journey together?

Prayer

God, our Waymaker, guide our feet in the ways of truth, love and peace. Focus our eyes on Christ our Pathfinder, and may we walk in harmony with your Spirit. Amen.

Copyright 2021 Communication Resources

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