Friday, 31 March 2017

The dry bones

"When I was small I would sometimes dream of a city - which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was. But this city clustered on the curve of a big blue bay would come into my mind. I could see the streets and the buildings that lined them, the waterfront, even boats in the harbour; yet waking I had never seen the sea, or a boat.
The buildings were quite unlike any I knew. The traffic in the streets was strange, carts running with no horses to pull them and sometimes there were things in the sky, shiny fish shaped things that certainly were not birds." 1

Ezekiel’s dream does not say that the bones are in a desert in a  post nuclear world as just described by John Wyndham but I always think of them this way -  the science fiction of my childhood often pictured utter desolation and I see endless brownish yellow dust and bones of all creatures piled in jumbled heaps stretching before me to the horizon and I suppose beyond. There is no hope here.

Ezekiel had known desolation; born in 623 BC he was the son of a priest and was one of those carried off into exile in 598 so only twenty-five years old under the armies of Nebuchadrezza : the trek was tortuous and few of the captives survived the march. Life on arrival in exile was better and he became a priest to the jews who were there as well as a prophet. Their world collapsed when the temple, the focus of their hopes and prayers  was destroyed in 586 and soon after Ezekiel’s wife died.  Ezekiel knew despondency personally and was all too aware of Israel’s sin, profanity and their turning away from their God. And so in his vision we find ourselves in a physical and a spiritual desert. The bones represent those who really died in the conflict and the travels, they represent the spiritual dryness of the people and they are scattered as the Israelites in exile in Babylon and elsewhere.

We may draw a parallel with those on the borders of Syria and Turkey in refugee camps, exiled from their homes, whose families have been scattered or killed and who hear of the destruction of their cities. When I properly look at the pictures of Aleppo it does look hopeless - those shells of apartments were once homes, with tables and chairs, meals, conversations, vases of flowers, hobbies, market squares, coffee shops,  plans for the future. How long I wonder could it take to rebuild all that physically and spiritually?  

Ezekiel had known the depths of bad times and he paints them as the worst possible -

“Can these bones live?”

Ezekiel then reminds us who God is, just how extraordinary and beyond our imagination, he reminds us of the God of Genesis - for in the beginning

“Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. “

Notice that in the vision God again first forms the bones - “there was a noise, a rattling and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked and there were sinews on them, and the flesh had come upon them, and the skin had covered them; but here was no breath in them.”

As in Genesis there are two stages and although this is a deliberate reminder of the creation of man Ezekiel’s vision is about more than the creation of man, “Mortal, these bones are are the whole house of Israel”  “and the breath came into them and they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

We may at times have stood at the grave of our hopes - hopes for ourselves, for our families for the world and perhaps in these days for the church. Ezekiel’s vision is a message to those who find themselves spiritually thirsty, gravely ill, bereaved, unbearably lonely, trapped and unable to see a way forward. It is for those who have lost all grounds for hope. It is a message about who God truly is - the God of total renewal, God who never gives up, who does not abandon. It is not about individual resurrection but about complete transformation; in Ezekiel’s world the renewal of the state of Israel and by extension in ours the transformation of the whole of community from dryness and selfishness to a world of life.

As we shall say in a moment at the end of the creed “we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”       


1 Wyndham J. The Chrysalids, Penguin Books, 1973 London

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Samaritan Woman

The Samaritan Woman

She is used to hiding, she is accustomed to cowering, she knows what it is to feel and be invisible. It was not her fault, actually none of it was her fault. Aisha had gone to school one morning in the sunshine, expecting trigonometry, tests in English, time with her friends, but she got guns, grim faced men and kidnapped. She was carried away into the remote Nigerian jungle along with 275 others then separated from them. The so called choice she was offered was to marry a “fighter” or to become a slave; either way for a seventeen year old girl the result was the same - violation, degradation and brutality. Eighteen months later she was freed by a military operation and she was  elated and wanted to go home to Chibok. But Chibok is a very conservative community. They don’t want any “Boko Haram wives” there and Aisha learnt what it was to be stigmatised, ostracised bullied, hated and harassed. She taught herself to be invisible and to keep out of the way.  

So she comes to draw water in the heat of the day, at noon when the sun is at its highest, when she knows nobody will be around. She comes to the well but there IS somebody there. Why we wonder does the Samaritan woman who feels just like Aisha, why does she come out of the penumbra when there is a man there, a stranger, most obviously a Jew? Why does she come still to the well?

Firstly of course, she needed water, she was thirsty both physically and spiritually and secondly Jesus must have seemed welcoming, non threatening, nor should we be surprised, if just Jesus’ presence sitting by, was attractive. She felt she could safely approach.

There are always Aisha’s around us and among us. Not released brutalised hostages perhaps, but men and women who feel marginalised, who may be saying “nobody notices me”, or “I am invisible.” (Usually) it is not their fault, actually none of it is their fault. They are people who are thirsty, perhaps just for companionship, for someone to listen to them or thirsty for the God they feel has abandoned them.

The good news is that we at least in St. Margaret’s are here. We have come to what we hope and pray is a well - somewhere in our variety of services or our clubs and activities we find spiritual nourishment, support and fellowship.

The bad news is that if St. Margaret’s is a well, then we are its temporal guardians. It is we who are sitting by, we who have to model Jesus’ example. We who have to appear welcoming, non threatening and attractive.  Sitting by the well we have to be attentive, ready to discern who is coming in and how we shall receive them. This is not about those on the door, giving out the books even though our sides people are appreciated and important, but it is about how each of us responds. Our church needs to be like Jesus particularly for welcoming the other:

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me a woman of Samaria?”

Oh, it is easy to welcome those who look like us, who dress like us, who behave like us but that is not Jesus’ way:

“The disciples were astonished that he was speaking to a woman” but they were not engaged enough to ask why he was talking to her, what had taken place, what had they said to one another? And look at what they missed. The Samaritan woman went home and said “What a great well this is - come and meet who I met there.”

Will our next unexpected, unknown visitor who has come because they are thirsty go home and say the same?