Preacher Man

Meditations and Sermons (copyright applies to the works on this page, to be used only with permission of the Unsubtle Reviewer)

JOHN 2:1-11 The Wedding at Cana

I am a stone jar.

I have a name,

like every other aspect of creation;

I have a name,

but that’s not for you to know.

That’s between me and God.

I haven’t been a stone jar long –

forty odd years –

but that’s nothing in my time

or God’s time.

When time was young,

more spaced out, fluid,

I started life

as a molten mass ejected by fire

from the heart of the earth,

cooling fast at the bottom of the ocean,

the pressure of fathoms forcing me

into a harder form.

Then I was thrown out of the sea,

flung up high to fashion

the craggy side of a mountain.

And there I stayed for more years

than anyone could imagine,

except God.

I stayed watching, waiting, weighty,

holding up my side of mountain

until the time of men

who, with pick and axe,

rope and mule,

began to mine and quarry.

Then I began to dream of usefulness.

Of being close to God in his Temple,

of being an acanthus carved capital,

a keystone or even

a cornerstone.

But instead I’m a stone jar.

Sitting here in this village

in the back of nowhere

with five other identical jars,

at the edge of the green.

And all I do is hold water,

gallons of it.

And all that water is for

is so that men can wash

their impurities away.

I hold twenty gallons;

I get refilled every day.

There’s a lot of impurity around here.

But now it is the third day.

The third day of this wedding celebration.

The third day since a man rose

out of the river water,

the heavens split open and a voice

shivered through every sliver of stone

that God is here.

Creation shifted,

humanity missed it,

and the wedding goes on –

as weddings always do –

with wine and dancing

and guests arriving

that the bride and groom hardly know.

Like that woman, her son and

his gang of friends.

The buzz of the wedding is dying:

dancing feet have slowed in their rhythm,

glass is broken, leather skins are empty,

the wine has run out.

There is disgrace licking at the dust.

The woman and her son talk.

She is in control;

he acts like me, a stone,

not wanting to be moved,

not wanting to roll.

But then he looks my way.

That crack in his face

might be called a smile.

More talking,

servants lifting buckets,

walking in this direction.

Poured liquid splashes

down, down, down,

deeper inside me

than I ever knew it could.

The cool of the water

of purification fades away.

There is a warmth in this

liquid that is rich,

sinuous, sun-soaked,

vine-cloaked;

it makes every particle

of every atom in my

time-worn mass

sing out with every

name known to creation.

The waiting is over.

LUKE 9:28-43 Peter

My name is Simon and he,

Jesus, the Messiah, the Lord, the Chosen,

the one with a hundred names, each more beautiful,

more powerful, more holy than the last,

gave me a new name.

He said ‘You are Peter, the Rock, and on you I will build.’

I was so proud of that name – the Rock.

Because I was strong, I was constant, he could rely on me.

But then my mates – his friends – said

‘Here comes Old Granite Face –

he’s got a head the size of a boulder and he’s twice as dense.’

They laughed, and even my brother Andrew

smiled into his sleeve.

Well, this is my account of that day upon the mountain.

This is Old Granite Face’s version of the event

the scroll-studiers call ‘the Transfiguration’.

There were three of us with him that day –

me, John and James,

and the first thing on which we all agree

is that none of us can remember which blessed mountain

it was that we climbed.

I feel bad about that,

I am, after all the Rock, and I should have some affinity

with these craggy places.

The names of the others we travelled to

stand proud in my mind and

the name of the hill of his killing is etched upon my soul.

But all the three of us are certain about is

that this was one of the big ones,

or at any rate mighty steep

because we were all fair winded when we hit the summit.

We could have been out of breath

because we had been gabbling, gossiping, barracking –

the other two had been teasing me

about how I’d shot my mouth off eight days ago.

Eight days ago –

a shade longer than it took for the Almighty

to create the heavens, the earth and all things in and on it –

but eight days which now seemed an eternity away

with all that we had seen and heard and felt.

Eight days ago Jesus had been questioning us,

getting the low down on our country men’s views

on who he might be.

Then he’d turned from the general to the particular,

stopped our gossip dead with

‘And who do you think that I am?’

Silence, eyes scouring the ground, embarrassment,

the perfect moment for Old Granite Face

to try and fill that awkwardness

with an involuntary lava flow of bubbled words

‘You are the Messiah, of God.’

Oh yes, I said it, the others had thought it,

but once out into the air, those words hardened,

solidified, took on a heavy physicality

that weighed upon us still.

Jesus must have felt that weight as much as the rest of us.

Why else would he have so immediately turned the talk

to suffering, to rejection, to religious persecution

and the bit I blotted out at the time

about death, the third day, new life?

Perhaps it was the burden of those words,

clinging to my limbs,

which turned them to stone

as we plodded our way up the mountain.

We talked to keep the exhaustion at bay,

we spoke of all that we had seen –

the seas obeying him, thousands fed,

twelve baskets of leftovers from five loaves,

the sick cured, the dead raised,

the people energised,

the authorities antagonised.

We chattered, chuntered, sweated,

he kept his cool,

his eyes fixed on the summit

and the distant speck of the thermal floating lammergeier,

the Lamb Vulture, cruciform black against the crimson sear

of the setting sun.

He rose to that summit, we followed,

as the night chased hard behind us

and waves of exhaustion rolled through our bodies.

He sought out a boulder on which to sit and pray.

We folded in a heap, trembling with cold, lean air

and the terror of possibilities.

It was then that for us the curtain of the Temple was torn.

It was on that nameless mountain

that we saw, felt, stepped through,

the thinning veil between earth and heaven.

It was like turning a corner on a cold, dry winter’s morn

to be confronted by a new dawned sun,

enormous, unmissable, dominating the horizon,

golden, glowing but not warm,

your eyes drawn compulsively to its radiant immensity,

as you stand fascinated, uncomfortable,

in a landscape rendered in uniformly high, sharp relief

by an uncompromising yellow white light.

The world appears fresh, alien and mysterious,

familiar landmarks take on elegiac forms

and the whole scene seems grand

and pregnant with seriousness.

Our Jesus, our master and friend,

was a white spark of luminosity illuminating

the mountainside,

setting stark, precise shadows

plunging into the depths of the ravines.

Then his light was not one but three.

Our dazzled eyes hazily discerning a trinity of figures,

our ears tuning in and out of talk

about exodus and the Holy City.

It was as if the whole of our people’s history

converged on that mountain top,

sucked out of the stones, the scrolls, the sepulchres

into the radiant star that was our master, Jesus.

There stood old man Moses,

who made the sea dry land,

who fed the masses in the wilderness with bread from heaven,

who led his people, our people,

out of subjugation into freedom.

There stood Elijah,

who multiplied loaves, healed the sick, raised the dead,

gave new hope to a tired and despairing nation.

Each encouraging, supporting, deferring to

our Jesus, our Lord, our friend.

I knelt with James and John in awe,

in wonder, our heads reeling with the revelation,

our minds refusing to process all that was going on.

Could we not freeze this glorious moment?

Was not the divine walking on our soil?

If we led our people in pilgrimage to this place,

wouldn’t they regrow the energy, the guts, the inspiration,

to throw off Roman tyranny and be

God’s free nation once again?

Even as these slivers of thoughts slid

through the cracks in our consciousness

the luminescence of the Law Giver and the Prophet

began to wane, their figures fading back into

the lichen clad patina of the rocks.

The veil began to descend once more.

Time for Old Granite Face to get gabby again.

A confusion of words exploded from my mouth

‘Lord, this is heavenly, this is our people’s destiny.

Let’s make three Booths so that we all

may come and worship our three great leaders.’

Even as I spoke, as my mind held an image,

of the Booths our priests make

to celebrate the triumph of the Exodus,

a great claggy, cloaking cloud,

wrapped itself around the mountain top,

enveloped us, overshadowed us,

choked our thoughts, clogged our breath.

Visibility gone we trembled and clung to each other,

shaking, as a voice,

another voice, a different voice,

a voice that was all voices,

a voice that we had trembled at once before,

when Jesus rose from the waters of baptism,

spoke from out of the cloud

‘This is my Son,

this is my Chosen one,

listen to him.’

Then silence.

We kept our eyes shut, scared of what we might see.

Frightened that what might stand before us

would be another figure from our scriptures –

Daniel’s Ancient of Days, his son of man,

descending on a cloud.

Or something else, something we were not worthy to see

with our shod feet and our confused minds.

But when at last we opened them

the cloud had gone,

the night had passed,

the dawn was cautiously rising between the hills

and Jesus stood alone,

watching a view of the whole world

unfold, take shape before him.

He swung this way and that and at last

fixed his eyes on the thin ribbon of road

which led towards Jerusalem.

He shivered, we trembled.

In silence he led us along sheep tracks down the mountain.

In silence we remained,

nothing articulate penetrating our overloaded minds,

afraid that to open our mouths

would be to start gabbling again.

The silence held until we reached the lower slopes

where the murmur and milling of a great crowd

rose to drag us back to the tangible and the imperfect.

We were drawn to the keening

of a father despairing at the distress of his only son.

There was a new fierceness in Jesus’s teaching,

a new forcefulness in his actions

as he took the boy, blessed him,

broke the power of his affliction

and quietly gave him back to his father.

But all the while his eyes were fixed

upon the trampled dust of the Jerusalem Road.

You know the rest,

of how the next time the three of us

were asked to watch and pray with Jesus,

this time on the level,

in the tranquil surroundings of a garden,

we fell asleep at his hour of greatest need.

And you know how the Rock, on which he would build,

shot his frightened mouth off three times

and got bested by a cock

who crowed the dawn into my

dense and tense and trembling mind.

You know how he came to me,

by the lake, my safe place, my work place,

and took from the Rock the granite density,

the concrete immensity of the word ‘build’

and replaced it with the organic nurturing

of ‘tend’ and ‘feed’.

My brother told me later

that there was something different about me

after that trip to the peak.

‘It was as if’ he said,

‘Old Granite Face had been polished.’

and it convinced him

that my blurted ‘Jesus is Lord’ was gospel.

So we both took the road from the mountain

and travelled,

sometimes where we wanted to go,

and sometimes where others forced us,

and let

the shining of his good news

do the talking for us.

After us came a hundred generations,

who, like me,

were not entirely strong, constant, and reliable

but who walked and quietly shone

with a glow of which they were unaware,

of God’s love, God’s words, God’s actions.

Each one a rock, each one a foundation stone

of the most ambitious building project ever known.

And now it is your turn,

you are the rocks on which he builds.

Listen to him.

JOHN 12:1-8 – Mary of Bethany

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

John’s Gospel is brim full of riches, of words and images swinging back and forth through time, gathering up philosophies, the Hebrew scriptures, and the story of the early Church to draw us into the presence of the Divine and fill us with the breath of Christ.

John presents us with a complex masterpiece intricately woven together with a deft and delicate pattern carefully balancing light and shade. This detail and delicacy can be fatally compromised by our lectionary’s habit of reducing the Gospel flow to a series of clunky bite-sized chunks.

Today’s reading is no exception – it is untimely ripped from the context of the passages around it. Without them its significance is immeasurably weakened. But it does give us the chance to focus on one person’s experience, one person’s relationship with Jesus, and so the following meditation is drawn from John’s telling of Mary’s story.

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

There were some who thought I was doing my sister Martha’s

work that day,

on my knees on the floor cleaning.

But I knew then that what I was doing was not cleansing.

I was not washing his feet.

Oh, you may have heard from Luke

that it was my tears that washed him.

And you may have heard from Mark and Matthew that

all this took place in Bethany

but in a different house.

I want you to put aside the lenses with which those believers viewed my actions

and listen to me as I tell you what I told John.

As I said, I knew I was not washing his feet.

I had sat at those same feet many a time when he taught

and I had listened.

Listened and pondered and gone back to my scriptures

and listened again.

He was travelling God’s way

and I was anointing him to take the next step on that journey.

Anointing is what they do to priests

and to kings

to confirm them, sanctify them in their sacred role,

to impress upon them the weight of responsibility,

to act as a sign of God’s hand upon their shoulder.

It was what I felt he needed,

an acknowledgement that the path he had chosen was the right one

and that we, his followers and friends,

were with him all the way.

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

Of course it was costly this perfume,

the most expensive I could find and the most I could afford.

Why wouldn’t it be?

Jesus had just given back to me my dear brother, Lazarus.

He had raised him from the tomb

and in doing so had made my family whole again –

Lazarus, Martha and me.

If someone had done such a thing for you,

wouldn’t you want to show your gratitude?

Judas could mutter and grumble all he liked –

I’d given over and over again to help the poor.

This was about giving to the one

who spent all his days giving to others.

This was about pushing me out of my own solitary space

to express my overwhelming thankfulness and my love.

I’m Mary, the quiet one, the one who sits and listens.

Do you think I enjoyed drawing attention to myself,

becoming an object of discussion and ridicule

in a house crowded with my relatives and neighbours?

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

The fragrance of perfume was needed

to drive out the stench of death.

It was there, still lingering on Lazarus’s clothes.

When he walked into the room it came skulking

along with him,

tainting his skin.

a faint, unpleasant, unsettling odour of decay,

that nipped at your senses and snipped at your dreams.

I broke open my perfume to fill the space left by my sister’s

words:

‘already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.’

But I failed.

Death still shuffled about our house.

How could it not, with the once dead Lazarus

eating at our table,

with the village gossips whispering news from Jerusalem

of the high priest’s declaration that

‘it is better to have one man die for the people’

and with our enemies standing on the street corners

plotting the assassination of our beloved Jesus and our brother.

Amidst all that I anointed Jesus’s feet.

To me it was the right thing to do –

he was tender to others,

I wanted to be tender towards him.

He was a man on a journey,

I wanted him to keep walking.

He was a man of service,

I wanted to serve him too.

Remember – I anointed his feet.

Mine was a royal gesture – a conferring of power.

The next day he would ride in majesty

into our holy Jerusalem

to be hailed as blessed and as our king.

And there, in the city of our kings

he would kneel and wash the feet of his friends,

wiping their feet as I wiped his.

Performing the actions of a slave.

I did what I thought was right.

I acted out of love.

He breathed in the scent of death,

that my perfume could not mask,

and he told the world that I was preparing him for burial.

Feet are only ever anointed in death –

In this house where the dead lived

I too had opened the door of a tomb.
 

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But I did not know that my perfume carried with it the odour of sacrifice.

Six days before the Passover we gave a feast,

a banquet in celebration of life

and in the midst of our festivities

I was preparing the chief guest for burial.

Perhaps that is just the way it is.

When Passover is in mind death is never far away.

The Angel of Death is preparing to strike down the first born.

The people of God are preparing

to get up on their feet,

forsake the security of their homes

stride out into the empty spaces of the desert

and walk through starvation, disease and despair

to obtain their own freedom.

Six days before the festival

and the Passover lamb

was still waiting to be sacrificed.

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

Or as one of our Rabbi’s once said:

‘the fragrance of a good perfume spreads from the bedroom to the dining room;

so does a good name spread from one end of the world to another.’

On the day of his killing

the stench of death drowned out the good perfume.

But when the door of the tomb was rolled away,

the perfume of his goodness,

the scent of freedom,

spread through gardens and streets,

over hills and fields,

across oceans and deserts

until it covered the whole earth.

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

May it fill this house,

may it fill your house

and may the extravagance of God’s costly love

fill your lives.

……………………

Step outside of John’s writing for a moment. Go back to the end of this story in Matthew & Mark:

‘Truly I say to you, wherever the Gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.’

 

Mary has done a little thing, but it is a very costly thing – in terms of money – equivalent of a year’s wages – her dowry, her inheritance? Making a fool of herslf in front of family/neighbours; drawing attention to hslf as a follower of Jesus – dangerous. Declaring her love – always a costly thing to do. She spoke & acted in the moment – as we do not knowing that her actions might change lives in the future. Her story reminds us that God gives to our words & deeds a life beyond our own intentions.

 

Above all she has declared her love for Jesus. Not in a vacuum – it is because she is reflecting back what she has seen & received from him. His love for the world & her – God’s love channelled through him. And she anoints his feet – mirroring the action which Jesus uses to define what discipleship is – in washing discples feet he tells them what she has already discerned that it is by acts of love and service that we show that we truly follow him. And that it is by those acts of love and service in this world that the perfume of love will continue to overcome the stench of death.

John the Baptist

I came from out of the desert,

from the womb which before me was barren.

And after my mother had weaned me

and my father had given thanks at the altar of the one true God

I took up the mantle that had been thrown down to me from the     heavens

and I walked

back out into the desert.

Why? Why did I go out there?

Why did I desert the ones who had waited so long to bear me,

my dear, loving, God-fearing parents?

Was it to fulfil a prophecy?

Or was it to clear my head of prophecies, words,

the babble of messages, sensationalist and pregnant with terrible    meaning?

I went out into the desert to find my own way.

I stumbled along many paths,

some were crooked, others were straight,

some ran high, others ran low,

some wound through green pastures, others through a valley of      rocks,

I needed to find out for myself who I was,

I needed to hear for myself God calling,

I needed to be sure that my feet were ready to tread the chosen       road,

I needed to make sure that at the moment of truth

my voice would not fail.

You know my story –

from the dumb show that heralded my beginning

to the lewd dance that pantomimed its end.

But who am I?

I am the last of the patriarchs,

the final prophet in an ancient lineage.

My parents were the Abraham and Sarah of their age.

I was born into the dynasty of the priesthood

and a priest I was.

But I had no altar to attend

because my devotions were paid directly

to the one I served.

I was not worthy to buckle his shoes

but I came out of the desert,

where the wilderness had watered my voice,

I rattled down the through the scrub and scree

and I cleared a new highway for him to travel.

I went down to the Jordan

and I brought a new cleanliness to the land.

I washed out the ears of the people

so they could hear his word,

dashed the sand from their eyes

so that they would catch his light.

Do you know why I went out into the desert?

Because at my birth my father sang a song so beautiful

it shivered through by bones

and set my limbs a-quaking and a-walking,

bound for the harsh trial of a wilderness revelation.

The desert is the place where prophets are formed.

The Lord speaks to them in the abrasive roar of the sand storm

and in the still silence of the freezing night.

The Lord feeds them on manna from heaven,

on the ravens’ leftovers,

on the wild riches of insects.

The Lord sets them aside from the normality of life,

from the busyness and bustle of the day,

so that they can observe, take stock, evaluate, listen,

cultivate a new vision of a new way of living

and the language to communicate it.

I came out of the wilderness,

my eyes burnt with the light of desert sun,

my lips were parched by my zeal to sing the Lord’s song,

I went down to the people of Judea,

I opened my mouth to cry God’s word in my feral voice

and I found that the desert

had made its home in their hearts.

I cried out:

Repent, say you are sorry, beg forgiveness for your evil deeds.’

They heard my cry and walked on by.

‘You dress differently from us,

you eat differently from us,

you are not one of us –

why should we listen to you?’

I took them down to the Jordan

I called on them to bathe:

‘Wash away your impurities like Naaman,

scrub yourselves clean and ready

to meet your one true king.’

As I stood waist deep in the river’s surge

they looked down at me from its mud-caked banks

and laughed,

‘Why should we listen to you?

Where does your authority come from?

Are you our prophet, are you Elijah?’

If they had to ask then their hearts were hardened.

Even the words of the angel at my conception:

‘the spirit and power of Elijah will be upon him’

would not shift their blind certainty.

But enough of the people came down

and took the river in their stride,

washed the dirt of the day out of their clothes and their minds.

Enough of the soldiers cleansed the blood from their hands,

Enough of the tax collectors scrubbed the grease of corruption from their skin,

Enough of the lost, lonely and the uncertain

washed the filth from the windows of their souls

for the flame of my Lord,

the light of the world

to take root in their hearts,

to shine in the dark places of the land.

I came from the desert of stone

into the desert of stony hearts.

I disturbed its dust and watered it

but it was the one whose messenger I am

who made it bloom and crop like it had never done before.

He turned dry land into an oasis,

he turned boulders into stepping stones

and boundaries into walkways.

He made the blind see and the lame leap for joy,

he made the sick whole and broke the chains of the poor.

And today I still cry

‘Make a straight path for my Lord to enter your hearts.’

For if you open the gate of your soul

he will bring light to your dark corners,

he will make your barren places bear good fruit

and your desert spaces will blossom with bright garlands.

MATTHEW 15:21-28: The Caananite Woman

Some days it doesn’t feel right that the sun is shining,

that folks are getting on with their daily lives,

that the crops are growing

that fishermen are pulling another catch in from the sea,

and I am stuck here in this small house in the dark,

tending to my adult daughter who won’t get well,

and won’t get well and won’t get well.

The demons in her head throw her about,

she weeps, she wails, she’s frail and scared by

the sunlight on the walls,

and she won’t do anything for herself.

It’s a beautiful day but what’s that to me?

My husband left, took a ship from Tyre and sailed away,

couldn’t take the stigma of a tormented child.

So I have to take it all – the funny looks

(single-parent),

the whispered remarks (she’s the mad girl’s mother)

and worst of all,

the way the Jewish families in the town

walk on the other side of the road when passing my house.

So it is up to me to hold the family together.

Her brothers and sisters do their best –

the boys try to get what work they can

to keep the household going,

the girls tiptoe round the home,

making silent conversation, sewing in the dark,

waiting for the explosion, the screams, the flailing arms,

then they come running and pin her to the bed.

When my daughter eventually quietens down,

and the screams turn to sobs,

turn to gurgling incoherence,

we listen and all around us is silence,

no noise from the neighbours,

the community holds it breath.

But today a circus has come to town,

A Jewish circus, a healer, a teacher, an itinerant preacher

with his motley circle of zealous disciples –

fishermen and political rebels, loudmouths and tax collectors,

Jews to a man

and they are catching the eye of each Jewish man that passes,

telling him about good news for their people,

that a saviour is here,

that better times are coming and God is on their side.

Not that everyone is listening.

This is a Greek city and many of us are not of a Jewish line.

We are mixed up races from all over,

here to make a living beside this rich sea.

Just like everyone else we are under Roman rule –

even the Jews should remember that

and try not to openly tell tales

of a new king come to wipe all oppressors away.

That could get us all into trouble.

But no, here is this teacher walking in the sunlight

and his disciples calling their people

to bring their sick, their crippled, their demon possessed

up to the great man, who will say a word

and send them on their way, whole and healed.

Not all of them believe that such an unlettered countryman,

a Galilean, so they say,

from the roughest piece of rural backwater,

can do anything their scribes and Pharisees can’t.

They laugh and smile and look embarrassed,

kick sandals in the dust and walk away.

But this is Jesus –

I’ve heard so much gossip about his healing ways,

the women at the well chattering on about how

he has made the lame walk,

the blind see, the deaf hear, the mad sane.

Said with meaningful glances in my direction.

It’s not all idle talk, of that I’m sure.

This man can heal, work wonders, make the broken whole.

His people are fools if they don’t take the chance

to bring their sick and shattered to his feet.

Well, what sort of mother would I be

if I didn’t grab this chance myself

to get my daughter healed?

What sort of woman would I be

if I didn’t try and get this damned curse lifted

from my own shoulders?

It’s begging, I know – the neighbours will shudder –

and I’m not of his tribe –

but why should that matter,

my need, my daughter’s need is as great as any Jew’s.

Now, who’s that ancient hero

the Jews are always going on about?

Oh, yes, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!

Lord, Son of David, my daughter is tormented by a demon.

Have mercy on me!’

I shout out for all I’m worth.

He looks my way.

His face is serious, his eyes are creased against the sunlight.

He doesn’t look at me with anger or contempt or embarrassment,

yet he looks away.

No answer, just silence,

like the quiet in the neighbourhood when my daughter stops screaming.

What am I to him – a single woman, not of his tribe?

But he can heal us.

I shout again:

‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me.’

Suddenly all his cosy followers are crowding round him,

all shouting, heckling, urging, drowning out my voice.

‘A Canaanite woman – the old enemy.’

‘A mouthy Gentile.’

‘A nuisance, don’t listen to her.’

‘Send her away.’

He looks at them the same way he looked at me,

holds their gaze for a moment,

stills their shouting,

turns from them to me,

he answers them, questions me:

‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’

They smile, clench fists,

but that’s not fair,

we are all lost sheep

and the lost sheep in my house have as much right to be saved

as the lost sheep in his.

He has the ability to heal

and I have the right to ask for that healing.

A chance like this cannot slip away without my trying.

I push through the crowds,

kneel at his feet,

look up at his face.

‘Lord, help me.’

My neighbours watch from their doorways,

my dignity lies in the dust.

Does he answer me, his disciples or someone else

when he says

‘It is not fair to take food from children

and throw it to puppies.’?

Whose children – his or mine?

Does he know what children are like?

They reject as much as they eat

and there is much goodness in leftovers.

Does he know what dogs are like?

They trust the ones who feed and house them.

‘Yes Lord,’ I dare to say,

‘but even little dogs catch the little bread that falls from

their master’s table.’

His followers gasp,

I crouch, head bowed waiting for the blows.

Instead a hand reaches down,

lifts me up,

I look into his face,

his serious eyes,

his serious mouth,

‘Woman.’ he says ‘you truly believe,

what you wish for is done.’

My heartbeat is all I hear,

his disciples are silent, numb, staring at their feet,

the dumb, nervous crowd peels apart

to let me walk through the dust alone.

I race back to my home.

All is still,

the table is clean,

the floor is swept.

My daughter at the bowl

washing her face

hears my approach,

turns and looks straight through the sunlight.

She sees me with sharp, focussed eyes,

speaks to me with a clear voice ‘All is well, mother,

peace be upon this house.’

………….

Did the disciples listen when Jesus said: ‘It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’? They had taken in all they had learnt about their faith from scripture, tradition and the religious teachers. But if what came out still treated women, strangers, the sick as outcasts not worthy of God’s grace then they were defiling themselves, their faith and God.

With his encounter with the Canaanite woman Jesus challenges their attitudes towards the outcast, just as he challenges us about the way we treat those who are not of our ‘tribe’. His message is for his people, but the message is that God is asking them to participate in his great plan to save the world. If they won’t listen then he will find another way to do it. Just as he will find new ways to break into this world either with us or despite us and anyone who listens, believes and listens again will be welcomed to his table to sit and eat with him.

ACTS 8:26-40; JOHN 15:1-8: Phillip and the Eunuch

An Ethiopian and a eunuch.

Two reasons why my adopted faith

felt compelled to reject me,

sideline me, keep me on the edges

of faithful respectability.

As an Ethiopian perhaps there was a hope

that my worship might be acceptable.

I was not of the chosen race

but I was of the nations,

the nations which my scrolls would tell me

were drawn to the light of God’s truth.

There were many like me in Jerusalem that festival.

We knew our place,

and even though that place was not part of the

inner heart of the Temple

we could feel the spirit of God radiating out from that centre

into our own hearts, our own deepest spaces.

As a eunuch I was never going to be

an acceptable worshipper.

I was damaged, crushed, umanned.

There were other scrolls – Leviticus –

which made clear that my brokenness,

my lack,

would keep me on the edges, the outskirts,

the desert byways of faith.

I was neither here nor there,

Neither this nor that.

Yet this was my faith.

I chose it.

I was educated, I was literate,

I could read several languages,

I had responsibility, I had money,

I could have followed any one of a thousand

different religions

and chased after a thousand different deities.

But this one God, this Lord God,

who sticks with his people,

who binds up their wounds and carries their stragglers,

who walks with them across the wastelands,

who searches them out time and again

when they have turned away from him

and chosen the paths that lead to the mountain shrines,

this God was different.

I’d read the Scriptures,

I’d followed his faithfulness through the histories,

I’d puzzled over the mix of compassion and strictness

in the law books,

I’d sung the songs of his people and heard their cry,

listened to his response

and wept with them in their exile and their joy.

But most of all I’d read these prophets called Isaiah,

whose prophecies had stung me and stunned me

as they called the broken and the marginalised,

the blind and the lame,

home to God,

as they drew all the nations

into the light of his presence.

I loved this book so much that when scrolls from the final Isaiah appeared on the open market

I spent half a year’s wages in buying them.

Perhaps looted by Roman freebooters from some minor synagogue on the fringes of the empire,

they were the later Greek translation,

which suited me fine –

my Hebrew was conversational,

not subtle enough for the more abstruse delicacies

of the classical idiom.

These scrolls were my most treasured possessions.

They went everywhere with me,

never far from my sight.

In a sense, taking them with me to worship in Jerusalem

was like bringing them home.

Now we were on the wide highway to Gaza,

a main thoroughfare,

and I had one scroll in my hands,

trying to read as the chariot bumped and crashed

over the un-metalled road.

I’d been worshipping in Jerusalem.

All true believers must make that journey someday.

Even if, for those like me,

you are only permitted in the outer courtyards of the Temple.

It was still a soul-stopping moment,

to be present when the sacrifices were made,

when the smoke rose,

the Psalms were sung

and the prayers were chanted.

The sacrifices, blood sacrifices,

they stay with me.

I am a man of intelligence,

some would say an intellectual,

my education was good,

my position in government is responsible,

I have power and wealth,

I have discernment.

I get troubled by all religions

which constantly rely on this

eternal offering of burnt blood and flesh

to appease a furious deity.

From what I have witnessed in the Temple,

I wonder whether my faith is any different.

In my bones I feel it is.

In my Scriptures I feel it is,

but as I read the scroll I can only half taste the meaning,

the truth bounces away from me,

thrown overboard as we cross every jarring pot hole.

My body might be travelling down the main highway,

but my mind is stumbling along a desert path.

I’m reading these verses:

‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’

And I know that there is much more

to this sacrifice than charred flesh,

but the meaning twists away from me

as the words billow out behind me,

scattered along the road.

Then there is this man,

this man running alongside the chariot.

A dusty man, a travelling man

pacing himself with my horses

and he’s hollering

‘Do you understand what you are reading?’

Is he telling me off?

Shouting at an Ethiopian for reading his sacred scriptures.

Is he laughing at my lack of understanding?

Or is he a prophet,

A holy one, come to guide my chariot along the true path?

We stop. I invite him aboard.

Between gulped breaths he tells me his name – Phillip.

‘Do you understand what you are reading?’

he repeats.

‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’

I reply.

Gently he takes the scroll from my hands,

reads the passage, rolls it back up

then unrolls it like the road before me.

My question:

‘Is this prophet talking about himself or someone else?’

Unleashes his answer.

Phillip takes a straight path through the scriptures.

He guides me from creation, to fall, to exodus, to exile and home again,

and along the way he weaves in certain stories I had half-heard on the Jerusalem streets this festival time.

Stories of a prophet, of a preacher and healer and teacher,

of a dead man.

Of a man who bound up the crippled, gave sight to the blind,

proclaimed the saving love of God.

And who died.

Led to the slaughter,

silent in the face of his accusers,

abandoned by the courts.

Killed, crucified, sacrificed for his beliefs, for his God.

Behold the lamb.

Scripture falls into place like cobbles on a street.

I start walking.

But there is something still missing.

Until Phillip tells me.

‘And he is alive. We have seen him.

He has sent us out to tell of God’s love to all nations.’

Time stops.

The chariot keeps moving.

My mind is halted at a gateway.

This is so new, so unexpected, such an unreeling of my faith.

I go with the rhythm of the journey.

I pass through the gate.

I keep travelling.

Phillip is the prophet who is not Jesus.

Jesus is the prophet who is God.

The Messiah, Saviour, the story-teller who is the story.

My prophets, my Isaiahs knew of him,

knew the tenor of his tale

even if the time and detail where not shown to them.

But by grace of God through Phillip

they are revealed to me.

Gaza is approaching,

the coast is appearing,

the sea is rolling forward on the shore.

My chariot is stopping.

I turn to Phillip.

I say:

‘What’s to stop me dying like Jesus now?’

Gently he takes my hand and leads me to the waters.

I wade in.

I go down.

Once, twice, thrice.

Father, Son and Spirit.

I die. The old me floats way.

Father, Son and Spirit.

I rise again – a eunuch before men

– a whole man before my God.

Father, Son and Spirit.

I rise again, a thousand questions bubbling on my lips.

I open my eyes to the sunlight

and Phillip is gone.

My questions…

No matter, Phillip is gone

but the road ahead is clear:

there will be other journeys,

other guides, other companions on my travels,

other markings on my scrolls.

The story is unfinished,

the road is still being built,

I am part of it now,

I take my place,

I will become a Phillip to others

and when I find myself back on the desert path

others will become Phillips to me.

But now I return to the chariot,

turn its wheels towards Gaza city

and I go rejoicing.

For Jesus is the Way.

And we are risen indeed.

 

LUKE 24:1-12: Magdalene at the Tomb

 

‘These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.’

 Women – not just unreliable witnesses but unrecognised as witnesses in Jewish law,  perhaps it is now time to hear their description of the events of Easter morning.

 

Well, yes, I’d be the first to admit

that the stupidest thing we did that morning was to run away.

We just panicked.

It was so completely weird,

and what with the tension we had been feeling

over those last few days

all sense went out of our heads

and we ran, and we ran.

 

Then we did the next most stupid thing that day.

We went and told the men what we had seen.

And they didn’t believe us.

Why?

Well, because they are men, first of all,

not willing to take anyone’s word for anything,

especially not a woman’s,

until they had seen it for themselves.

But also, because what we had to tell them was so strange, and our report was so chaotic, garbled,

all talking at once,

that it was difficult for them to work out what it was

that they were not going to believe in.

Peter, give him his due,

was the only one to go and look for himself,

he was so desperate to see the Teacher again and

apologise for the way he had behaved on Thursday night.

He went to the garden

found everything as we had told it

and so could have backed us up,

stopped the others from calling us hysterical gossips.

Except that he went back to his own home,

took his boat out on the lake for a spot of solitary fishing

to mull over all that had happened –

typical man –

and only later told us what happened next.

 

The men weren’t much good that day,

all over the place they were,

some locking themselves in the house,

others dashing off on long pointless errands.

But then they’d been pretty useless

since before Jesus had been arrested,

falling asleep when he needed to talk,

wading in half-heartedly with swords

when Judas and the soldiers came,

then scattering in blind panic

as it became obvious that this time

Jesus wasn’t going to argue it out with the authorities.

 

So it was up to us, the women,

to keep track of what was going on.

If you’re not too pretty and don’t catch the soldiers’ eyes

then you’re invisible as a woman,

little better than a slave,

not always as highly regarded as a servant.

We could come and go as we pleased,

following the trial,

following the road

to the hill of killing.

 

And we had to follow.

Not just because he was our Teacher,

the only one to treat us with respect,

to listen to us

and to tell us about God

in language that made sense in our homes and in our work,

but we had to support

Mary, his mother,

she needed our tears to be mingled with hers,

she needed our shoulders to fall back against,

she needed the information we could bring.

 

So we followed him

right to the top of that bloody hill.

We watched as they took the tools of his trade,

the hammer, the wood and the nails

and used them against him.

The agony was unbearable,

but together we stood firm,

watched, cried and stayed to the bitter, bitter end.

That’s how we knew what happened next.

One man stood up for justice that day –

Joseph, one of our detested religious leaders.

Bit late, of course, the deed was done, Jesus was dead.

But still, it was a brave thing to do

making a fuss of a criminal’s body,

making himself tainted by corrupting flesh,

and unable to celebrate the passover.

Laying the body of our dear Lord

in his own rock-hewn, very expensive family tomb,

and doing it all properly,

wrapping the body in fine linen.

 

So that’s how we knew where to go.

Joseph had left some of the rituals undone,

for fear of breaking Sabbath law.

So we women consulted each other,

allotted jobs,

mixing herbs, pounding spices, filtering embalming fluid,

and we were determined

to show the love

every mother wants to give her son.

 

There was solidarity among us women.

Even those who had always stood faintly aloof

when I came into the room –

the Magdalene,

the one with the unclean reputation –

now welcomed me into the heart of the group.

Well, they needed me now,

there were soldiers to deal with,

and I had had dealings with soldiers before,

knew their ways,

how to keep them plaint,

how to get information.

 

So that morning,

that morning which I will never forget,

that morning they pushed me to the front of the group

as we entered the garden.

It was early,

night shadows still tricked

and flickered under the trees

and we were scared.

It was a garden, it was a graveyard,

sometimes the unclean, the outcast, the outlawed,

would hide there,

today there would be soldiers guarding the tomb,

soldiers grouchy and unshaven after a fitful night’s sleep.

But that’s not what we were afraid of,

not really.

We were afraid of what we might find when we got to that new cut tomb,

freshly barred by a great stone.

We had listened to Jesus,

we had heard what he said about

death, three days, new life,

we had talked about it among ourselves,

and unlike the men,

who dismissed it as allegory and symbolism,

as a coded message about a political uprising,

we had realised that Jesus meant

something vitally important

and radically different by this.

We just couldn’t work out what.

But whatever it was made us shiver

as we approached the tomb.

 

And then we found it.

No soldiers, no stone,

A gaping wound of emptiness.

Fine linen rolled up,

no body, no signs of struggle or of a dragged weight.

It was mad, strange, untrue

and yet real.

We turned round and these two men

appeared from who knows where –

Angels? Messengers of some sort –

all I know is that

I could never get my whites as dazzling and pure as theirs’.

And they unravelled Jesus words for us –

death, three days, new life.

And we ran.

We ran back to the house,

but then it was panic, accusations, bickering, name-calling.

I couldn’t stay.

Like Peter I needed some thinking space.

 

So I returned,

returned to the garden.

I don’t know why,

don’t know what drew me there.

But it was good to be in such a cool, green place.

Clean, despite the fact that it was a cemetery.

It was good to see the trees growing tall, covered in leaves,

their wood fresh and full of life,

not hacked and misused like that other wood

on the killing hill, bearing its strange fruit.

It was good to hear the pure, clear notes

of the blackbird’s song,

instead of the tink, tink, tink

of the hammer hitting nails.

It was good to smell the scent of freshly opening flowers,

instead of the stench of sweat and fear and death.

 

My feet drew me reluctantly back to the tomb,

still gaping, still empty,

still waiting for a future,

and I turned to sit

and there stood another man in dazzling white.

My question, instinctive, gabbled, garbled.

His answer, my name – his voice!

My Teacher, my Lord.

Death, three days, new life.

I ran, but this time I danced, I sang, I wept for joy.

 

 

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