Our reading from Hebrews is a good one for my return from sabbatical. But to get to why, I need to say a bit about my sabbatical itself.
Part of the proposal for my sabbatical was that I take a retreat on the Connecticut River.
As some of you may recall, two years ago, I participated in a paddling pilgrimage, sponsored by all the Episcopal Dioceses of New England. It went from the source of the Connecticut River at the Canadian border to its end, 400 miles later, at the Long Island Sound. I just did a small part of the pilgrimage that year, but it was enough to whet my appetite. Last year I finished the southern half of the river. This summer, I completed the northern part. I earned a bumper sticker for my efforts. You can now see it on my car.
The northern part of the Connecticut River is considerably smaller and more isolated than the River around here. At the most northern part, it is so small you can’t paddle it at all. At one point, I straddled it! Since paddling was not an option up there, I hiked that section. I started actually paddling at Canaan, Vermont and even then the River was shallow enough that I frequently had to drag my kayak over sandbars.
It was fun to see a very different Connecticut River from what I knew. But more important in terms of my experience than its size was the relative isolation of the River up north. I paddled 115 miles over two trips, and during that whole time I spoke to virtually no one. At night, I camped on the bank of the River, so I had a lot of time to myself. I had more uninterrupted solitude during those trips than I have ever had before, even when I have gone backpacking by myself.
Pity Carrie. By the time I got back, I had a LOT to say, and she was my primary victim!
But the time by myself was really great. The weather was good, and the paddling mostly uneventful, so I had plenty of time for reflection and for prayer. Once I even fell asleep in my kayak! I woke up when it began scraping the ground. Thankfully I was still holding my paddle.
In the afternoon of my last day, I pondered what my River pilgrimage had meant to me, and I came up with two things, both dependent in part on all that time by myself.
First, it was refreshing. I don’t mean physically. I was tired and sore. My shoulders hurt from the constant paddling motion, and my back and my rear hurt from all the sitting. It took me a few days to recover from the physical challenges of the trip.
But my soul was refreshed. Just being on sabbatical already simplified my life considerably. But even on sabbatical I had things I had to do. Not on the River. All I had to worry about on the River each day was when I would eat and where I would put up a tent. Simplifying my life to that degree, even just for a few days, was restorative.
And, of course, the River was beautiful. All that time in God’s creation, apart from any artificial distractions, was good for my soul.
The second thing my time on the River did for me was give me a deeper sense of rootedness here in New England. Thanks to railroads and interstates, we can now travel without paying attention to the land around us. But floating on the Connecticut, moving slowly, with no one to talk to and nothing to distract me, I was keenly aware of the current, the bends in the River, streams that flowed in, which provided me with drinking water, sandy spots where I could camp. And I thought about all the people who used to use the Connecticut River as their primary way to get around, beginning with the Native Americans.
I would have felt refreshed and more rooted even if I had had a companion on my paddles. But solitude helped. On that last day, I paused to give thanks to God for you, and for my family, for allowing me to take that time by myself. I have always liked time alone. But having more solitude this summer than I normally do really reinforced just how enriching quiet time can be. I don’t always get enough of it. A lot of us don’t.
But there was a flip side to that solitude, and it brings me to our reading. Even when I was at home, I spent a lot of time by myself this summer. At one point, I realized I hadn’t left my house for three days. And, ironically, that reminded me how important community is.
Our reading from Hebrews says, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us… lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
The cloud of witnesses in Hebrews is composed of all the biblical heroes who provide an example for our lives of faith. The cloud of witnesses includes the saints who inspire us and intercede for us. It includes our loved ones who have died. I love imagining my grandparents watching over me as part of that great cloud. I am grateful for all of them, of course.
But the witnesses who most obviously surround me these days are you, the people of Saint David’s. You are the ones who encourage me to persevere, to do my best to lay aside my sin, to follow Christ as best I can.
I felt your prayers this summer. But I missed being surrounded by you. I missed worshipping with you and sharing Eucharist with you. I missed being an active part of this community, this “cloud.”
Whenever I was in town, I worshipped at Saint Peter’s in Springfield. They welcomed me warmly and provided a kind of home away from home. They were wonderful. But I was out of town a lot, so I worshipped considerably less than I normally do. And a home away from home is not the same as being at home.
Three months is by far the longest I have been away from Saint David’s in the last eight years, and I felt that. My time away was great, but more time away would not have been good for me.
One of the lessons of my sabbatical is the value of Christian community. A lot of people don’t experience that. But I need it. I am better with you. Following Christ is hard to do alone. Surrounding ourselves with a cloud of witnesses helps us on our spiritual journey. We all need witnesses to point us to Christ and to encourage us to keep on. Otherwise we might not persevere.
Sometimes I need to be alone with Christ. We all do. But this summer was a reminder to me of how important it is to join with God’s people, to pray and to worship together as the body of Christ. And it was a reminder to me of how special the Saint David’s community is.
And so, as I return from sabbatical, I thank you for being a cloud of witnesses for me. And I pray that as we continue our journey together, we can help each other look always to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
In his name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan