This seventh chapter of the Gospel of Luke begins with two stories of healing: the first is the healing of the Centurion’s slave; the second is our gospel story today – the raising from the dead of the son of a widow in the town of Nain. In the first story the healing comes at the very specific request of the Centurion who implores Jesus to heal his servant. But when Jesus makes his way across the Valley of Jezreel to Nain, there is no obvious candidate whose faith Jesus is responding to. The dead son cannot be the candidate, but nor is there any reference to his mother making a request to heal her dead son.
When Jesus comes across the scene, the whole town is involved. Although death is common enough, everyone would be touched in such a small community. Unlike in our sanitised and overly formal Western experience of death, there are professional wailers and mourners whose loud cries provide the permission for those who are closest to the deceased person to mourn and weep in whatever way they wish. There would be tears streaming down the cheeks of everyone in the crowd. Others would have spices prepared to anoint the body and prepare him for burial by wrapping the spices into the burial clothes, to offset the smells of decomposition.
It seems that it is simply the compassionate heart of Jesus that is stirred into a response so that he goes to the bier upon which the young man is being carried and commands the young fellow to get up. Jesus doesn’t even seem to be afraid to make himself ritually unclean by touching the body of the deceased lad. The account of the story is stark and honest, describing the raising to new life in very simple terms. The town of Nain is just across the valley from his own village of Nazareth, so it is not too hard to imagine that Jesus had visited the town before, since it was only an hour or so’s walk away. Perhaps the woman and her son were already known to Jesus.
Another possibility is the fact that at this stage of his life, it seems that his adoptive father Joseph is already dead. So Jesus is the only son of a widowed mother, so he would certainly have known exactly what the woman in the story was going through, and her social and economic destitution that would be the result of the death of her son. Whatever the motivations of Jesus to bring new life to this young man and his mother, the crowd recognises the power of this moment in a flash. They erupt with joy and delight and perhaps disbelief that one like the great prophets of old is now in their midst, doing these great and mighty works. They knew that in this scene, ‘God had visited his people’ – he has drawn near to them to save and rescue them. Many in the crowd would have longed to see the signs and wonders like their ancestors had seen, and now their wildest dreams were being fulfilled before their eyes.
The same is true for us. Whatever the week ahead holds for us, God will again draw near to us to bring his love and salvation for us. He will draw near in the person of Jesus to provide the one thing that you most desperately need, even if it is not the first thing that you seem to want. The fact that Jesus will draw close is always enough. That he is here means that we also will be able to make our way through the darkest of nights to see the light of his dawn again.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (one of three first Holy Communion Masses this weekend; 8 mins 30)
Sunday 10, Year C. Luke 7:11-17
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Above text is from the Journey Radio Program version, available here.
Although each of the Gospels is carefully crafted, the Gospel of John provides an extra layer of rich reflection which reveal the degree to which the beloved disciple as author has pondered deeply his own experience of the life and sayings of Jesus in the light of the experience of the early church and the vast richness of the Hebrew scriptures. The passage that we have today from the original ending of the Gospel very clearly points to this extraordinary richness.
The author – which tradition has unanimously called John – wants us to know that in this resurrection appearance – on the first day of the week – brings to a climax the whole of his gospel account and launches the whole merciful mission of the church throughout history. The doubting and questioning of Thomas provides the framework for the highest declaration of faith that you find in any of the Gospels and places on the lips of Thomas the imperial declaration, but now declared in worship before the wounded healer – ‘my Lord and my God.’ John clearly wants every reader to go on the same journey of faith and discovery, to ponder carefully and deeply the seven signs that he gave us in the first half of his gospel account in the light of the eighth and greatest sign – the empty tomb and the new creation Lord who returns as a bringer of peace and breather of new creation and new life and new possibilities.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (12mins)
Sunday of Divine Mercy; Second Sunday in Easter, Year C. John 20:19-31
St Luke in the first of his Easter stories (Luke 24:1-12) provides us with a story of two contrasting reactions to the discovery of the empty tomb. The women, who unlike the apostles, stayed with Jesus through his ordeal on the cross, and began their preparations for his burial on the afternoon of Good Friday, now return at dawn on the third day to continue the ritual of properly embalming the body. Unlike the practices of other cultures, the Jewish burial custom was in two stages: the first, which the women were doing, was to wrap the body, usually in expensive clothes packed with spices, in order to facilitate the decomposition of the body – and to cover the smell for any who were foolish enough to come near. After the body had decomposed, then the bones were collected and transferred to the final resting place – an ossuary which would then be laid to rest in its final place. It was a very efficient way to use space and limited resources. So they would know where the body was buried and were simply returning to complete their duty and devotion to the one they loved. They had no anticipation that the tomb would be empty…
Recorded at St Paul’s, Easter Sunday 9.30am (8 mins)
Although the idea of journey is not as strong in the Gospel of Mark as it is in Luke, the disciples have still been following Jesus along the way for many kilometres now. And still they are struggling to make sense of who Jesus is and what it means to follow him on the road. Now that their journey is almost ended, they meet another blind beggar outside of the town. This man is called Bartimaeus and he manages to attract the wrong kind of attention by shouting out after Jesus for mercy. It is enough to make Jesus stop and call the man to him. The voices of the crowd that had been asking him to be quiet now change to voices of affirmation and courage.
The faith of Bartimaeus becomes clear. He doesn’t wait for the healing to throw off his protection as a beggar from the cold and the elements – and indeed his whole identity and purpose. No more waiting, no more confusion: he throws aside the cloak and jumps up and runs to Jesus, perhaps still with the cry for mercy upon his lips.
Jesus wants to know what his deepest desire is – so even if it is abundantly clear what this man’s need really is, Jesus takes the time to ask him the obvious question: what do you want me to do for you? Perhaps the question is necessary because Jesus knows that if he does this for Bartimaeus that his whole life will change. Perhaps his question is really – do you want to give up begging and find a completely new way to live, a new job, new friends, a new place to live?
Bartimaeus becomes in his simple determination to see and follow the Lord an example of faith and discipleship. Unlike the disciples who in their blindness wanted glory, prestige and power, this man wants to know the only one who can save him. He is able to give the right answer to this question. What about us? What do you want Jesus to do for you?
Journey Radio Program
Sunday 30, Year B. Mark 10:46-52
We are told in the Gospel today that Jesus made his way from the region of Tyre towards the Sea of Galilee to continue his ministry. The bizarre thing is that Mark tells us that Jesus goes by way of Sidon and the Decapolis region. Now Tyre is on the southern coast of Lebanon, and the city still exists today. It is not far from the border with modern Israel. From there to Galilee, you would normally travel in a south-east direction, because that is the straightest and most direct route. So you might presume that Sidon is on the way from Tyre to Galilee. But this assumption would be wrong (cue the saying – sometimes, to assume only makes an ass out of u and me). In fact, Sidon is the completely opposite direction – heading north further up the Lebanese coast, going towards the modern city of Beirut. To make matters even worse, to go from there to the Decapolis region takes Jesus even further out of his way. Most of the ten Greek-speaking, mostly Roman cities/towns of this region were located on the eastern side of the Jordan valley, well away from Galilee. Again, rather odd direction and navigation skills being demonstrated by the good Lord today. Perhaps part of the answer lies in the encounter between Jesus and the so-called Syrophoenician woman which takes place immediately before our Gospel today, but which we have skipped over in this cycle of readings. You may remember that she begged the Lord for help to cast out an unclean spirit from her sick daughter. But Jesus initially had dismissed her, comparing her cruelly to a dog, adding that his mission is only to the children of Israel. But she has one of the all-time great retorts that even the house dogs are able to eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table – and she is given her wish. Perhaps it is the encounter with this woman that provokes Jesus to take the long way back to Galilee, to see if there are others with similar strong faith. We don’t know. All we know is that somewhere along this journey a deaf and mute man is brought to Jesus and he brings healing to the man in this carefully described very physical healing.
Recorded at St Paul’s, Albion Park – my first weekend in this new parish as Pastor. All three Masses are available.
Any truly compelling story always seems to have one common element: just as the protagonist or hero of the story is nearing their goal – whether it is true love, destined position or treasure – some major setback interrupts everything and this hurdle needs to be overcome before we can reach the conclusion, and everyone lives happily ever after as the credits roll. This is not just in Hollywood films but also it seems in many saints lives. For example, it was only after the death of (Mother) Teresa of Kolkata that her diaries revealed the extent of personal darkness that she experienced in prayer and her difficulties to continue to believe. The writings of St Therese of Lisieux show a similar depression and darkness in her final years. We can surmise that what St Paul reveals in today’s passage from 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 was a similar hurdle that he really didn’t want to dominate his life. Yet here was this skolops that Paul was experiencing in his flesh – usually translated as a thorn, but perhaps better translated as a stake – a military description of the sharpened stake of timber driven into the ground around your defences to impale an invading soldier. Paul didn’t need or want this skolops – so he prays to the Lord again and again and again to remove it. But the Lord doesn’t provide a simple solution or resolution. No Hollywood movie here. No instead the Lord addresses Paul and tells him that “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” This is the only saying of the risen Lord in the letters of Paul. We are on sacred ground here. It is not in our strength that God has room to move – but in our weakness. As Paul concludes this section: “when I am weak, then strong I am” – channelling Yoda he was.
Recorded at St Col’s (Vigil and 9am; 10-11 mins)
Sunday 14, Year B.
Ezekiel 2:2-5; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6
As we reflect on the place of family this Sunday, the liturgy offers us the example of four very different yet faithful people in the Gospel of Luke in Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna. The other readings provide us with the foundational example of faith in Abram and Sarai – who were called to leave behind their land and kin to go to the place where the Lord would lead them (Genesis 12). Although Abram is faithful to the Lord in leaving behind his land, he is not faithful in leaving behind all of his kin. It seems that one of the motivations that Abram has in taking his nephew Lot is as an insurance policy. He and Sarai are already old and past the point of natural childbearing; if the Lord does not come through, then perhaps Abram thinks that at least a nephew is a near substitute. But when Abram arrives in Canaan, he does not find a land of abundance – he finds a land that is in the middle of a famine and they are unable to stay. So after a series of misadventures and deceptions in Egypt, followed by battles in Canaan, Abram finally begins to respond to the original call of the Lord, and asks Lot to go his own way. It is only then that Melchizedek arrives on the scene (Genesis 14) to bless Abram – which prepares the way for Abram to receive the word of the Lord – our first reading today. Even so, as the Lord prepares to make covenant with Abram – now to be known as Abraham – Abram continues to argue and bargain with the Lord. At which point Abram is invited to go outside and consider and count the number of stars in the sky. Although we imagine this scene to take place at night, in fact we are told a few verses later that the sun then begins to set. So it is in broad daylight that Abram is asked this – which helps to explain the “if you can” part – it is not just that there are so many stars to be counted, but it is also that you cannot see the stars in the daylight. It is a beautiful reminder of our need to renew our own faith in the Lord – especially if we have been like Abraham and not always been totally faithful and completely honest with the Lord. There is still hope for all of us!
Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am
Feast of the Holy Family (Year B)
The Gospel that we are presented with today is hard to deal with (Matthew 15:21-28). We expect that when Jesus is presented with a situation of desperate need that he answer with compassion and mercy. Instead today, when he flees to the pagan northern region of Tyre and Sidon and meets a local woman in need, he addresses her first with silence, then a third-person rebuttal based on her ethnicity and then an outright and disgusting insult, comparing her to a house-dog. Even if you make allowances for Jesus being tired, or choosing the description of a puppy rather than a wild dog, the insult is still shocking. The fact that the liturgy today pairs this reading with the prophecy from Isaiah that longs for the day when even foreigners who ‘attach themselves to the Lord to serve him and to love his name and be his servants’ will also be brought to the holy mountain and their offerings will then be acceptable. It is perhaps even more shocking to us who have lived through too many genocides and episodes of racial cleansing and violence and hatred that is based on race, skin colour, religion and sexual identity. The continuing poor way that we treat refugees and asylum seekers in our country is also surely motivated by such factors. So how can we make sense of what Jesus says and does today? Is there a way that we can even begin to understand what may have motivated such action on his part?
Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (8’22”)
Sunday 20 in Year A.
The audio at the start of the homily today is from the video “Elijah” by Dan Stevers. Elijah in I Kings 17-18 is presented as the dude – the great hero of the people of Israel. He is able to break a 40 month drought, beat a chariot in a 30km race, raise the dead, call down fire in a contest with 450 prophets of the false God Ba’al. He is a verifiable super-hero and I suspect that most of the young children in Israel would want to be Elijah when they grew up. So it comes as a shock in I Kings 19 that his whole world-view has fallen apart. He flees for his life after Queen Jezebel threatens his life, going first to Beersheba in the southernmost point of the next Kingdom of Judah – well beyond the powers of King Ahab and Jezebel from the northern kingdom of Israel. But then leaving his trusted servant there, Elijah heads out into the wilderness and calls out to God to take his life because he has had enough – perhaps a little like Moses in Numbers 11. But instead the Lord provides food and drink for Elijah to give his strength for the journey. Elijah then sets out on a pilgrimage even further south across the Sinai peninsula to the mountain of the Lord – Mount Horeb (also called Mount Sinai). There he finds the cave that Moses had gone to when he wanted to experience the glory of the Lord (Exodus 33). The Lord first questions Elijah and then promises to make his presence felt. While Elijah waits on the side of the mountain, three mighty signs that normally signal the presence of the Lord are unleashed upon the mountain – the wind storm that is so strong that rocks are split and shattered (the sounds of the storm); an earthquake that continues to break apart the mountain (the feeling) and a fire that can be seen. But despite these mighty signs that can be heard, felt and seen, the Lord is not present in any of these signs and wonders. Instead Elijah hears the faintest whisper of a voice – literally ‘the sound of fine silence’ [qôl dĕmāmâ daqqâ].
Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am (13’17”)
Sunday 19, Year A. I Kings 19:9a,11-13a; Matt 14:22-33
The magnificent story of the healing of the man born blind occupies the whole of chapter 9 of St John’s gospel – although the miracle itself only takes two verses to tell; the controversy around the healing takes the other 39 verses. The first question that arises and which continues through the drama as it unfolds is – who is to blame for this? Who sinned? There was a very clear teaching in the Torah about sin and its consequences and so there must obviously be someone to blame for this man’s affliction. The must have realised that it was a bit rich to blame the poor man, since this is the way he was born – so did his parents sin? Where does the buck stop? If only the church and the christian community had taken on board the teaching of Jesus here: “Neither he nor his parents sinned.” How much grief would be avoided if we stopped looking for causes and blame for so many things in our world, and just got on with fixing them instead? But the discussion about sin is not yet finished, because we soon discover that this sixth sign in the Gospel of John happens on a Sabbath day, so that gives cause to the Pharisees accusing Jesus as a sinner for working on the holy day (creating the paste with the dirt and spittle). But what really is sin? Is it just breaking random commandments – or is it something deeper? Perhaps a definition that I read this week might shed more light on this area of darkness: the culpable disturbance of shalom. The Lord intends that we experience a world that is based in Shalom – peace, wholeness, blessing. We know that so many things disturb this shalom, and the blindness of this man is an example of this. The wonderful thing is that after the healing, the man begins to journey from physical sight to spiritual sight as he slowly ponders about who this man Jesus is that he brings such restoration.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 5.30pm (9’39”)
Sunday 4, Lent, Year A. John 9:1-41.
This insight on sin is contained in a blog series by Rob Bell called ‘What is the Bible?’, which I have published in book form on my website.