I love the romance of camel caravans trading across deserts and continents in Jesus’ time.
Travel was dangerous, but there were established routes. A caravan of camels, loaded with rich goods, would set out each day. They were guided by a ‘dragoman’; his job was to travel ahead of the caravan to find and prepare the night’s stopping place and return to the caravan and guide it in.
The stopping places were called ‘khans’, which is sometimes translated as ‘inns’, but these inns were nothing like today’s Holiday Inns. A ‘khan’ was a basic circular mud-brick wall enclosing a water supply and spaces for animals and people to sleep. Just places to stop along the journey.
According to Jesus, in his Father’s household, ‘there are many stopping places’. (John 14:2) Jesus compares himself to a dragoman, going ahead of the caravan and preparing each night’s stopping place (John 14:2-3). He returns day by day to guide us there.
Because we regularly read this passage at funerals, we often read it upside down. We think Jesus is telling us about a destination for the dead, a ‘room’ in his Father’s ‘mansion’. That may be true, but it is not the main meaning.
Being a Christian is not so much about the dead as it is about living on the Way. This is strength for times of anxiety, times like the present. The risen Jesus spurs us ‘not to be disturbed’ (John 14:1), because he walks with us on the Way. He prepares our stopping places for us every day (not just at the end of our lives) and guides us to them. He is not simply a companion on the Way: he is the Way (John 14:6)
The Good News is two-fold: Jesus has gone ahead to prepare us a place, so he is a knowledgeable companion, wise in the Way of living. He’s already been this way, through plague and pain. There is nothing that we face that he has not already experienced. Secondly, when we encounter Jesus, we encounter the Father. We don’t need to wait for the appearance of a shadowy God from heaven: God in person, in Jesus, already treads the Way with us.
We know the risen Jesus, both in every act of kindness done to us and accepted by us, and in every act of kindness we do to others. The Way is as simple, and as profound, as that, so ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.’ (John 14:1)
One of the tragedies of our times is the war on animals, the war we have been waging for two or three centuries, seizing their territory and subjecting them to ever more inhumane conditions.
Human activity was one of the causes of this year’s bushfires in the Eastern States which took away from koalas much of their habitat. Iconic species such as the Bengali tiger and the white rhinoceros are on the brink of extinction. Presumably the thylacine (the Tasmanian tiger) and the dodo would still be thriving in Tasmania and Mauritius if human beings had not ravaged their living space.
Only a few wild animals thrive under the relentless expansion of human activity. Mobs of kangaroos near my town relish in the green pasture and endless water supplies human beings have created.
We clobber our domestic animals too. In the past decades, more and more cattle have been squeezed into feed-lots, unable to exercise and terrified by their imprisonment. Battery hens are confined to less than a square metre and never see the sky or scratch in the fresh air.
We use horses and dogs for sport. Not only do they strain to entertain us, but our society allows some of their keepers to inflict on them excruciating pain when they are away from public view.
Our treatment of animals shames us human beings. We are given no licence by Scripture to dominate the environment and crush our fellow-creatures. There is no Biblical excuse for setting ourselves up as gods destroying whatever we will.
We consider ourselves superior to other creatures, but the evidence shows that we do not make a good shepherd. We are cruel and despotic in our treatment of the environment.
In today’s Gospel, John teaches us two things about animals and salvation. The first is that Jesus is the good shepherd. No creature, including us human beings, can put ourselves above other creatures. Jesus is our shepherd, caring for us, and he is the shepherd of all creation, restoring all things, not only the human world.
Secondly, we are called to be part of the community of creatures, living together with animals and ecosystems as our brothers and sisters. This is the great vision of Saint Francis of Assisi: to live in harmony with all life as part of the community of creation.
The Good Shepherd proclaims to us that God will draw into a community all his creation and that we will live in harmony with death adders and scorpions, both of them wild animals Jesus ’was with in the wilderness’ (Mark 1:13a), as we will with cats, horses, and especially dogs, the animals who have co-evolved with us and who are our familiars.
There are many signs of new life. Most farmers I know are concerned about any animal cruelty and do all in their power to care for their animals. WWF and other organisations keep on reminding us of the plight of the non-human world and establish programs to restore habitat and rescue species. More and more middle-class people express real care for pets. Our Jack Russell Lottie is our little sister, a member of our family. There are new ways of feeding the hungry that do not exploit animals, so I have hope that lifting the poor out of poverty will be done ethically.
[‘We have like sheep gone astray.’ (Isaiah 53:6). Quoted in I Peter 2:25, and in the Introduction to Evening Prayer in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer]
They were walking away from the city, just two of them, when they were joined by a third. Chapter 1 of this story is entitled ‘Meeting’, or ‘A Gathering.’ The two share their hopes, their dashed hopes, with the stranger. ‘We had hoped,’ they say. ‘We had hoped we could find acceptance in the church,’ we say. ‘We had hoped that our fellow believer would forgive and reconcile with us,’ we say. Like the two followers of Jesus, we too have dashed hopes.
The stranger then begins to explain the Bible to the two men. ‘He opens the Scriptures.’ This is Chapter 2, ‘Making Sense of the Bible’. The Scriptures are not just history. They are not just theology. They apply to our day to day experience. They prepare us for an encounter with the living God.
Eventually, the three travellers arrive at Emmaus. The two men assume that this place of rest and hospitality is where they will spend the night. But in the sharing of bread, they recognise the third man. They know him to be Jesus. Chapter 3 is ‘Jesus Reveals Himself’. However, at the moment of recognition, Jesus disappears. There is an elusive quality to the presence of the Risen Christ. Where we might want to pin him down and feed on his presence, Jesus constantly moves us on.
Emmaus is not the resting place the two travellers expected. After their long walk, they are so filled with energy that they run back to Jerusalem to tell the other believers that they have met the risen Lord. Not only that, their understanding of who he is has been deepened by the teaching Jesus has given. This final Chapter is ‘Being Sent’.
The shape of the story is familiar to us from worship. Every Sunday, before the pandemic stopped us, we gathered, the Scriptures were opened to us, bread was broken and shared and we experienced the often elusive presence of the risen Lord with us, and then we were sent out to encourage others on this same journey; this journey away from Good Friday, away from dashed hopes and into the joy and energy of living in the power of the risen One.
Our worship follows the same story line as today’s story of the two travellers going to Emmaus. But just because we can’t gather for worship doesn’t stop us from living out this pattern. We find ways to gather, even if it is remotely by technology. We read and reflect on the Bible and the way it prepares us to encounter God. We read and hear sermons and reflections that are delivered through the internet. The presence of the living Lord still encourages us – to ‘glorify God and enjoy him for ever’ (Westminster Shorter Catechism) and the whole story invites us to declare ‘how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread’. (Luke 24:35b)
Thomas wants to see the wounds, to thrust his hand into Jesus’ torn hands and ruptured side. He wants to know that this Jesus is the same Jesus who died on the cross.
But this is more than an identity parade for Thomas. Yes, this is Jesus. But there is something about the wounds themselves that draws Thomas.
St John’s Gospel compares Jesus to the Passover lamb, the sacrifice that was made annually to celebrate the freedom of the Jewish people. Their freedom was conditional: the Jews were under the brutal rule of the Roman Empire, so the freedom they celebrated was a freedom of the mind and of the heart. No occupying power could take away their interior freedom, so it was worth celebrating.
John’s idea is that Jesus is himself the sacrifice. The strange thing is that, for a sacrifice, Jesus doesn’t fit the expectations of the Jewish people. The lamb to be sacrificed, according to Exodus 12:5, must be ‘without blemish’. The New English Translation says that the lamb must be ‘perfect’.
Jesus’ wounds are significant. He is not an unblemished lamb. He is marked and disfigured by the wounds of the nails and the spear. 400 years before Jesus, the prophet Isaiah had a flash of insight: ‘By his wounds we are healed’. (Isaiah 53:5). Jesus the blemished lamb is offered to God. The empty tomb on Easter morning proclaims that the blemished offering is accepted by God.
It is good news that, as a sacrifice, Jesus is not ‘perfect’. It means that we too do not have to be ‘perfect’ to be acceptable to God. We come to God wounded and scarred by life and we can have confidence that God loves us, not despite our imperfections, but with our woundedness and hurt. By our wounds, we are healed.
The Easter proclamation is that heaven is for human beings – imperfect, blemished, scarred. God does not ask for our perfection; like Thomas, God asks to see our wounds. God asks for the marks to prove we have opened ourselves to love, that we have been vulnerable, and we know the pain that scratches all our attempts to love.
I’ve tried to express this in sonnet form:
Behold, the blemished Lamb of God, and scarred with unhealed woundings of the nails and spear, Thomas seeks to know what it was that marred pure God to now mutilated appear.
Thomas had seen his rising power before, No question that God could raise the son of Nain, But why upend complete Prophets and Law and accept a sacrifice of bloody stain?
And then he saw altar priests cutting throats and the violent contest of sacred police, then the deep purpose of the Bible’s quotes: to bring violence to an end with world’s peace.
The end of religion flashed before Thomas: in faith and love alone the godly promise.
The cup and the bread are held up high so we can see and worship. The bread snaps as it is broken. The white circle lands softly in our palm. We caress the cup as it is handed to us. We taste the wafer and the wine, and the rich sweet aroma of the wine greets us as we drink.
Sight, sound, touch, taste and smell: five senses animate us as we come to Holy Communion.
And our five senses together trigger a sixth sense: that of memory. The heart of the ritual of Holy Communion brings vividly to mind all the hundreds, or thousands, of celebrations of the Eucharist that we have been part of. For me, they have been in parishes, in cathedrals, in homes, in school chapels and in the bush – everywhere Christians gather for the Lord’s Supper. Our memory reaches further back through generations of Christians to the night Jesus gave bread and wine as a presage of his death.
The memory of that night, the night he was betrayed, the night before he died, is strong, so strong that the events of the Last Supper reach forward into our time. We re-member Jesus, his disciples and his actions, and it’s as if they are happening here now. The scholars call this phenomenon of re-membering ‘anamnesis’– the very opposite of amnesia.
There’s a paradox at work here. The Eucharist is focused on the material of bread and wine, and yet its heart is the presence of Jesus with us. This presence is in fact an aching, loving absence that Franciscan friar Fr Thaddée Matura calls An Ardent Absence . Some Christians speak of the Real Presence, others of the memorial meal, but the effect is the same. When we touch the bread, we name it the Body of Christ, but we are not touching the actual body of Jesus; the bread somehow invokes his presence with us.
This is the Easter mystery: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Jesus Christ is both absent and truly present. Only with the consummation of all things at the end of time will the absence and the presence be drawn together into one ubiquitous and unambiguous presence.
This Easter most of us will miss the Eucharist, the touching, the tasting and smelling, the gazing, the hearing. At best we will have disembodied seeing through the medium of a screen. But in these times of quarantine and physical isolation, the risen Lord is even more closely present to us. The Psalmist affirms,
‘The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)
And there is one rich gift, a gift of the Risen Word, which binds us all together. Words reach across the screen, whether in text like this, or the words spoken by a priest somewhere streaming the Eucharist. Because of Him who is the Word, these words have the power to hold us, to enfold us, to bring us into the presence of the Risen One.
We human beings are sometimes called homo viator, meaning a person on a journey, a pilgrim. We think of the pilgrimage we make each year from Palm Sunday on as the journey to Easter.
Palm Sunday is a journey by itself; a journey through packed and narrow streets, trying to keep the man riding the donkey in our sight. But he is always just ahead around a corner. It’s a journey where we cheer ourselves hoarse. ‘Hooray,’ we shout, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ it’s a journey where we are jostled in the friendly crowd. Excitement is contagious. ‘Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!’ we cry out together.
I recall Palm Sunday processions at St David’s, Applecross, when the whole congregation walked from the nearby oval to the church, singing ‘Hosanna, hosanna!’ to a guitar accompaniment, chatting and socialising on the way.
I also recall more formal processions around church buildings with processional cross leading, robed servers and clergy, and all waving zamia palms and singing ‘All glory, laud and honour’. Usually, we managed to get out of time with the organ inside thumping out the tune!
This year, because of the pandemic, we will miss these cheery processions. We will make do with worship at home and online, poor substitutes for the real thing.
We can still reflect on the pilgrimage of Palm Sunday. We know that we are in a crowd that cries ‘Hosanna!’ today and ‘Crucify Him!’ tomorrow. We know that it is hard to keep in view the real Jesus, the humble donkey-rider. We know that our enthusiasm for Jesus will be challenged by the realities of suffering. And we know that our faith holds out against darkness. But this does not erase the truth of joyous praise as a season in our pilgrimage.
As we hear the story of the Entry into Jerusalem this Palm Sunday, whether it is our solitary voice reading it, or someone reading it to us from our screen, let us enter into the emotions of the Jerusalem crowd that day: the joy, the hope, the cheeriness, and the enthusiasm. These emotions can be a powerful antidote to the fear and uncertainty around us. We can own those feelings as a valid and notable season in our journey of faith.
Let us walk in imagination this Palm Sunday with the pressing crowds in Jerusalem and shout with them, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!’
Lent 5 (March 29) 2020. Reflection on Ezekiel 37:1-14, ‘The Valley of Dry Bones’.
I grew up on a farm and remember being able to wander far from the house. Often, I would come across old bones. They intrigued me. I would wonder whether they were bones from sheep, which was most likely, or from kangaroos or dingoes. I would try to picture where the bones had fitted into the animal when it was alive. I found this hard to imagine: the difference between the bone in my hand and the living creature was too great.
Holding the bones, I felt how dry they were. Bleached by the hot sun, the smooth bones were made even smoother by the drying-out process. Even though I knew it to be the case, I couldn’t imagine how these bones were once alive, part of a creature that knew hunger and fear, vitality and the cool taste of water.
It amazes me when I hear of scientists who extract DNA from old dry bones, much older than the sheep in our paddocks. To measure the life in the bones needs extraordinarily sensitive equipment.
So Ezekiel’s question of the Lord, ‘Can these bones live?’ is perfectly understandable. The common-sense answer, even the scientific answer, must be that life from dry bones is impossible. But in his vision, Ezekiel sees God choreograph the resuscitation of an army of dry bones. Ezekiel describes a drama of rattling, the sound of the four winds, the bones being covered with sinews and skin, then rising in their ranks. He then pictures God breathing into them and making them again living human beings.
Ezekiel is in exile with the people of Israel, a captive with them in Babylonia. Many of them believe that Israel is destroyed. The Israelites will assimilate into Babylon and lose their identity altogether. They will become a footnote to history.
But Ezekiel becomes their comforter. He is disgusted by their ‘shepherds’ who have no vision of the future. He insists God will put a new Spirit into the people of Israel. Even if they seem as dead as dry bones in a valley, God will breathe life into them, just as God did for the first human, Adam.
In the midst of death, Ezekiel is a strident voice of hope.
Ezekiel speaks into the guts of this pandemic, where death is stalking our community, tearing loved ones away from each other. He reminds us that God is Creator. Where there is death, God insists on creating life.
The impact of Covid-19 will fall disproportionately on the poor in our community and the poorer nations of the world. We see the sweep of its story in Italy and China and know we will see something similar here. We have work to do caring for each other in the valley.
Yet Ezekiel reminds us that there will be an end to the scourge of this infection, and there will be new life – new, surprising life.
Our task as Christians is to speak that hope. We are to be Ezekiels, prophets, who speak our hope into the valley of dry bones and affirm, ‘Yes, Lord God, these bones will live!’
In 1527, the reformer Martin Luther was asked how Christians should respond to the plague. His response is gentle and challenging. You can download the whole letter from Lutheran Witness here.
His words are surprisingly relevant for us in 2020 as we face the upheaval of Covid-19. These are the four points I gleaned from his letter.
Trust God – not tempt God
‘Why bother with all this social distancing and hand-washing? God will look after us.’ It is disappointing to hear this from fellow-Christians. Luther claims to admire those who have such strong faith, but most of us need to do what we can to minimise risk to ourselves and to others. Christians who ignore expert advice and carry on hand-shaking and not taking precautions are ‘putting the Lord their God to the test.’ (Deuteronomy 6:16)
Love your neighbour, which is loving Jesus.
This is a time to look out for your neighbour, particularly your vulnerable neighbour. We should be ‘caremongering’ and not scaremongering. Caring for neighbour, even if that somewhat elevates the risks, is the way we show love for God. ‘Even as you did not do this to the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ (Matthew 25:45)
Don’t run from responsibility
There are people who are loading their vehicles with stores and heading out to farms where they plan to live ‘off the grid’ for as long as the pandemic runs.
Luther begins his letter by addressing ‘Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague’. In itself he can find no sin in running from the plague. Luther’s concern is that people with responsibility in both spheres of life, preachers and politicians, should not run away from their duties.
Clergy need to stay in their post to accompany their parishioners on their journeys through illness and death. Even if they cannot be physically present with their people, they should devise means of encouraging them in a time of fear. Our age has the internet, and churches are using email, Skype and live-streaming to maintain Christian connection as well as possible.
Choose life – not resign yourself to death
We Aussies sometimes say, ‘If your number is up, it’s up’ in a fatalistic acceptance of death. Christians, however, should ‘choose life’. (Deuteronomy 30:19)
Death is part of life, and we should not fear it. We should approach the possibility of our own death through this time of plague with the assurance that whatever we think follows this life is better than we can imagine. (I Corinthians 2:9) On the other hand, we should honour the life that we have been given now by living it to the full, in self-giving to our neighbour and in gratitude to God.
To me that means living mindfully and choosing to find and share joy where we can.
I’m a proud Noongar woman. I belong to this country. And I know how to open the gnamma hole to get water. I know what to sing to the spirits. I shout loudly to tell them that I’m coming. I’m about to throw sand down the gnamma hole to purify the water, when this wadulah man appears.
He’s a wadulah and he’s a man.
He thinks he knows everything, and he thinks he owns our country. But he waits, back where I called the spirits, and says to me, respectful-like: ‘Can you get me some water, Aunty?’
I’m a bit surprised. I’ve never heard a wadulah ask before. For anything. If they know where the gnamma hole is they rip the top off and help themselves.
I’m a bit suspicious too.
‘What wadulah asks a Noongar woman to get him a drink?’ I ask.
‘If you knew who was asking you,’ he says, ‘you would ask him for living water.’
‘Where would you get living water?’ I ask him, ‘You got no gnamma hole and you got no spirits here. Our ancestors told us how the gnamma hole was made, and how the Wagul passed through the country. You’re not greater than the ancestors, are you?’
He said, ‘When you drink your water you get thirsty again. But whoever drinks the water I give will never get thirsty again. The water I give will be a water-hole gushing up to eternal life.’
I didn’t know whether to laugh or run away from this wadulah.
‘You’d better give me some of your water,’ I says, ‘so I don’t have to come out to the gnamma hole to get it no more.’
So he said to me, ‘Go and get your husband and come back here.’
‘Ain’t got no husband.’
He says, ‘Too right you’ve got no husband. You’ve had five husbands. But the man you’re living with now is not your Law husband.’
I swallowed. ‘Uncle, you must be a prophet. Our ancestors called on the spirits on this mountain and you wadulahs say people should worship in church.’
He replied, ‘Believe me, Aunty, time is coming when you will worship the Father not on this hill nor in church. You worship spirits you do not know. We worship God because he brings salvation. But time is coming when true worshippers will worship the Father in a real true spirit. The Father is looking out for people to be his true worshippers. God is spirit.’
I says, ‘The Mission told us Christ will come and when he comes, he will tell us everything.’
Then he turns to me and puts it to me: ‘I, this one talking to you, I am he. ‘
Just then, his followers came back. They looked shocked to see him talking to me, but they didn’t say to me, ‘What are you after?’ or to him ‘Why are you speaking with her?’
I dropped my water-can and ran down into the camp shouting to everyone, ‘I’ve met someone who’s told me everything I’ve ever done. Could he be Christ? Whoever he is, he’s made me proud of being me!’
Jesus made a habit of embracing people he shouldn’t.
For the woman at the well in Sychar, there are three reasons he shouldn’t speak to her.
First, she’s a woman. It was unthinkable for a man to talk to an unaccompanied woman in public. Think Saudi Arabia today, only more restrictive. It wasn’t a matter of waiting for an introduction, men just did not talk to someone else’s woman. But Jesus did.
Second, she’s a Samaritan. The Jews were supposed to hate Samaritans. When most of the Jews were taken off into exile in Babylon, the Samaritans were left behind. Even then, they weren’t as high status as other Jews. But while the Jews were away, the Samaritans started to marry out. So they were neither Jews nor foreigners, despised by both. Jews would go to great lengths not to speak to Samaritans. They avoided even travelling through Samaria, although it was the shorter route from Jerusalem to the Galilee. But Jesus spoke to this Samaritan.
Third, the woman was probably morally unclean. She was fetching water in the heat of noon, presumably because the other women would not associate with her. The village saw her as an adulteress because her previous husbands had divorced her. Morally clean folk do not talk to morally unclean folk. But Jesus did.
Just as he embraced lepers, who were outside proper society. Just as he engaged with Gentiles, who were not Jews, and therefore beyond the boundary of social interaction. Just as he laid his hands on dead people who were unclean and told them to live: the widow of Nain’s son, the 12-year-old girl in Jericho, his close friend Lazarus.
There is so much to unpack in this story of the woman at the well. But this morning I would like to reduce it to just one challenge.
Jesus made a habit of embracing people he shouldn’t, and their lives were transformed for the better. Who are the people who you shouldn’t embrace? The people who are outside our social world change as society changes. In the nineteen eighties, people didn’t embrace folk with AIDS. It was thought to be contagious. And yet courageous people did and made their lives better. Up until the 19th Century, you didn’t embrace lepers. Yet people like Saint Damien in Hawaii lived with lepers and turned their hell into a loving community.
Who are the untouchables for you today? It might be the homeless man begging near Coles. It might be the druggie creating a fuss at the Op. Shop. It might be someone who has abused children. It might be a family member or neighbour who is estranged from you, probably by their fault, of course.
Two things are certain: if you follow Jesus, you are invited to follow him in embracing people you shouldn’t. Engage them. Talk to them. Treat them as human beings.
Secondly, if you embrace these untouchables, your care will transform them.
For Jesus has embraced you and is transforming you too.