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Wednesday: the good shepherd

Reflection by Rev. Dr. Roger Webb

For 3 years a famer in Nebraska in the USA had a sheep ranch. Each year he sheared some sheep, sold some, and butchered a few lambs for his family of cattle-raising relatives.

     The farmer then left the ranch and began studying for the ministry.  One Sunday his 3 year old son Ian was learning about the Good Shepherd in his Sunday School class.  

     “Your dad was a shepherd”, the teacher said: “What did he do with the little lambs?” She expected to hear about the care and protection Ian’s father provided for them. “He kills them and cuts off their heads”, was Ian’s answer. The teacher was dumbstruck, and didn’t know how to reply! What could she say?

     For Christian believers the biblical image of the shepherd is a precious and meaningful one. Psalm 23 is an excellent picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The Psalm gives an excellent background for Jesus’ teaching about Himself as the Good Shepherd.  In John chapter 10, Jesus links the characteristics of His ministry to the image of the shepherd as depicted in the Psalm.

“I tell you the truth; anyone who sneaks over the wall of a sheepfold, rather than going through the gate, must surely be a thief and a robber! But the one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep recognize his voice and come to him. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice.                       (John 10: 1-4 NLT)

     However, how meaningful is the biblical image to unbelievers. compared to the sight of today’s Australian sheep farmer. Who, for example, does not lead his sheep from the front, but who drives them forward with his sheep dog, and from horseback or the Quad Bike?  Is there a better image in today’s world that conveys a similar picture to that of Jesus’ teaching about the Good Shepherd?

     What other biblical images of our personal and church life can you think of, which are culturally meaningful in the biblical world, but which do not speak to the world of the non-believer of today? For example: the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin (1 Jn 1:7)? Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life (John 6:54) – early Christians were sometimes accused of cannibalism; Jesus saves; the Lamb of God; Holy Ghost; etc. 

I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay own my life for the sheep. (John 10: 11, 14—15; NRSV).

     We can be comforted as we face the challenges and dangers of our Christian walk, knowing that we are protected and led by Jesus, the Good Shepherd. 

     How might we respond to His leading and protection? 

Tuesday: take time to grieve

Today, I conducted my first funeral in this unsettling time of social isolation. It is a tough time to grieve. Both for the less than 10 who are able to gather together and for those unable to offer the comfort of physical presence and support. 

It felt appropriate for this time of excruciating grief to use the Gospel story from this past Sunday for the darkness of death and the hope of resurrection are central to the Christian faith. 

So just a few thoughts for those working through grief and loss at the moment ….

Unlike the other texts, in John’s Gospel (chapter 20, verses 1 to 18) it seems as though Mary is alone at the tomb – there in the dark of dawn and the deeper darkness of her heart ache and sorrow. 

She was one of the eye-witnesses to Jesus’s slow and agonising death on the cross and those images lie heavily upon her – along with the rawness of her grief and the empty unimagined future that lies ahead of her and, in fact, all of the disciples. 

When she discovers that the stone has been rolled away, she does not think immediately of all the promises and prophecies that Jesus would die and – in three days – rise again but simply that in this very broken and unfair world that she has experienced of late someone has hidden his body so that they cannot grieve, they cannot remember, they cannot worship as they would like.

When she goes to the room where the others are staying safe behind closed doors, looking for comfort, looking for help, Peter and John run off ahead of her. And, once they have discovered that what she has said is true – that the body is gone – they return to their sanctuary.

Mary, alone, stays in the cold and lifeless place, the empty place, overwhelmed by her tears.

In the immediacy of death, our sorrow often feels completely overwhelming as we wrestle with the loss of the physical presence of a person we loved dearly, process some of the unresolved emotions and brokenness of relationships that occur, and ask deep questions about the eternal. 

There will come a time when we will be able to remember and laugh at how a loved one brought life alive for us; when the tears do not blur our ability to look at the past and at the future and see clearly that they remain present with us in every moment.

But, on that first day of waking up to a new reality, it really hurts. It hurts to no longer hold on to the one we have lost. It hurts that his or her body no longer draws breath. It hurts that they, like so many of our hopes and dreams, have been turned to dust to be returned to the earth and the eternity of God.

As resurrection people, I believe that God would have us take time to acknowledge the darkness, to feel the loss of those loves and lights that have been of great significance in our lives, to let the tears come, and the questions weigh heavily upon us.

In our grief we can take the time that we need knowing that there is a change in this Scripture story when Jesus calls Mary by her name and Mary, in turn, names him by the essence of who he is and what he means to her: “Rabboni” or “Teacher.” 

Death cannot deny or destroy the intimacy of lives so long shared. 

It does not have the final word. 

The darkness will turn to dawn. 

The stone will be rolled away. 

The stories will change from the anguished, “I don’t know where they have put him” to “I have seen the Lord.” 

For those who are mourning in strange ways in this moment, 
may you know that the same arms which welcome your loved one 
into God’s eternal peace, 
bear you through the sorrows 
and the longings of the time to come. 
In your memories, 
may his or her life star always shine bright. 
In your hearts, 
may their love always be in full bloom.

With much love,
Yvonne

Sunday: realisation

Call to worship: Wilderness

I used to know the wilderness only as pain;
A land without food, a land without water.
But you rained down manna
And even water flows in your desert.

I used to think the wilderness was total isolation—
But the Israelites had each other,
And you had the stars in the sky.

So then I thought the wilderness must be time wasted—
Forty years of circles.
Forty years of wondering.
But then I realized, each step is a step,
And maybe there’s growth in that.

So then I concluded that the wilderness must be lonely spaces—
The woman and her well,
The blind man and his gate,
Martha and her kitchen,
Peter and his fire.
But then you showed up in each of those places,
To each of those faces.

So now I wonder—
What if the wilderness is the birthplace of creation?
What if the wilderness is where call begins?
What if the wilderness is where joy is birthed?
What if, between the dirt and the sky
And that wide orange horizon,
The wilderness is where we find you?

by Sarah Are – A sanctified Art

Welcome

Welcome, brothers and sisters in Christ, to the dim hours of dawn as the sun slowly climbs into the sky, bringing light and warmth upon the land. 

How we have travelled these weeks,
through the wilderness of scarcity and isolation,
loss and loneliness, uncertainty, ill health, and strange time which passes now too quickly, now too slowly,
to the praises of Palm Sunday and the horrors of the cross and the silent hours of waiting …
to this moment.

We begin with two questions for you to consider:
1. Why is this day special to you?
2. And, what emotions are you feeling today?

Gospel reading: John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved,and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

New International Version

Prayer

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Living One,
no tomb can keep You,
no door is closed to You,
no life is shut off from You.
Come lead us out of darkness into light,
out of doubt into faith,
out of death into life eternal.
Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord.
Amen. 

Guided reflection

Interesting that the day starts and ends at the tomb, a morning like any morning. No earthquake. No flash of light. No bright star to announce his arrival. No chorus of angel song to testify to the Good News of resurrection. Simply the awareness that what has been is gone. 

So we pause for a moment to be still, to be quiet, in the pale light of morning and we hold before God that which is gone in our own lives.

***

Mary Magdalene, in the dark, notes that the stone has been moved. And her despair is doubled  – for her mind does not go to the promises and prophecies of resurrection but to her broken experiences of a world in which a crowd one day utters “Hosanna” and the next “Crucify,” where the beloveds become betrayers, where those in authority wash hands of their responsibility, where an innocent man is crucified between thieves. In such a world, it makes sense that the very same enemies who have orchestrated all of that, will have taken the body and hidden it so that the name of Jesus did not become mightier in his martyrdom. 

We pause for a moment to be still, to be quiet, in the cold air of morning and we hold before God that which is broken in our own world.

***

She goes to get help. Or at least, some company in her grief – but Peter and John run off ahead of her.
The one who was at the cross and entrusted with the care of Jesus’s mother cannot bear to go, at first, beyond the door but notes that the body is gone and the wrappings have been left behind. The one who denied any association with the Lord, goes straight into the burial place and pronounces it empty of the Christ. They see and believe – not in the resurrection – but that the body is gone. And they go back to where they are staying – leaving Mary outside the tomb, crying and alone.

We pause for a moment to be still, to be quiet, in the wake of bad news and we hold before God those who we have left alone in their frailty or sickness or grief.

***

As she weeps, Mary bends over again to look into the place that has been declared empty. She knows that the one she is looking for is not there so I wonder why she does so. Why she alone stays in the dark, cold place of death when the others have returned to a safe place. What instinct drives her to look again. What she expected to find. Certainly not two angels who she doesn’t even recognise as angels through her tears. Nor Jesus, himself, standing behind her. 

We pause for a moment to be still, to be quiet, in the blur of tears and we ask God to hold those times and places in our lives which it feels like God is not present with us.

***

“Mary,” Jesus names her. “Rabboni!” she cries out. And the whole reality shifts. He was dead. Now he is risen. His body was gone. Now he is here. She wants to reach out and hold on to him in her relief- but Jesus gently stops her. Nothing will ever be the same and he is to leave his disciples in order to be with all people. His Father has become our Father. His God is our God. 

We pause for a moment to be still, to be quiet, in the truth that changes everything and we ask God to hold the realities that need to named and challenged and transformed.

***

Again, Mary returns to where the disciples have sought sanctuary. Her news is radically different from what it was. The misery and uncertainty of “they have taken the Lord and we don’t know where they have put him” is now the joy-filed eye-witness testimony “I have seen the Lord” and the careful retelling of what he said to her. 

We are not actually told how her news was received; whether they believed her or wrote her good news off as the imaginings of an overwrought woman. Certainly, it did not seem to change their fearfulness for when Jesus next appears to them, they are still behind locked doors. Yet, that does not really matter. Easter Sunday reminds us that we all have a testimony to offer of the personal touch, the power, and the presence of Jesus.

So we pause for a final moment to be still, to be quiet, in the brightening light and we ask God to hold our lives as living signs of God’s love for the world.

Prayer for the world

Lord, like Mary, we weep.
We weep with all who suffer,
with all who are persecuted,
with all creatures who endure our cruelty.

Lord, we weep with those who are lonely,
with those who have buried a beloved,
with those for whom life is harder than death.

Lord, we weep with all who are oppressed,
with all who are bound by their addiction,
with all who are wrapped up in suspicion and hate.

Lord, we weep where disease is spreading,
where war has erupted,
where tempers run high.

Lord, we weep with children abused by the people they trust,
with young people bullied, and silenced, and shamed,
with homes where the anxiety of this time is made worse by violence.

Together Lord, we weep. We weep.

May we all, at the end of this Lent,
though many of our lives still feel like the wilderness place,
receive again with the rising of the light each day,
the knowledge that You are with us,
that You call us by name,
and that You have left us – like the empty tomb and and the folded wrappings – as signs for all the communities of earth
of Your power and Your purpose:
to heal all who are hurting
and bring us back to life.

Amen.

Hymn: Christ the Lord is risen today

Christ the Lord is risen today:
Hallelujah!
Let the whole creation say:
Hallelujah!
Raise your joys and triumphs high:
Hallelujah!
Sing now, heaven, and earth reply:
Hallelujah!

Love’s redeeming work is done;
Hallelujah!
fought the fight, the battle won;
Hallelujah!
vain the stone, the watch, the seal:
Hallelujah!
Christ has burst the gates of hell.
Hallelujah!

Lives again our glorious king;
Hallelujah!
where, O death, is now your sting?
Hallelujah!
Once he died our souls to save;
Hallelujah!
where your victory, O grave?
Hallelujah!

Soar we now where Christ has led,
Hallelujah!
Following our exalted Head;
Hallelujah!
made like him, like him we rise:
Hallelujah!
ours the cross, the grave, the skies.
Hallelujah!

Together in Song

Sunday’s sermon: Breathe

Audio

Grace, hope and peace to the gathered community as we meet, not in person, but in the person of Christ Jesus who binds us together beyond boundaries of time and space and solid lines on manmade maps ….

I love this Sunday in Lent which marks the beginning of Passiontide. It is a time of prophecy and of promise as we get ready for the old, old story of Jesus’s joyful entry into Jerusalem, his final meal with the disciples in the upper room, his anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, his trial before Pontius Pilate who chooses to wash his hands of him, his slow death on Calvary’s cross between two thieves, and – ultimately – his resurrection. Our Scriptures on this fifth Sunday in the wilderness journey give us something to hold onto us we face the darkness that lies ahead. 

As we lead into a time of prayer this morning, I invite you to take a moment to light a candle or open a curtain and be reminded that we are a people of promise, prophets in this time who kindle a flame to lighten the dark and take our fear away. 

You may want to listen to the chant below as you do so, or to simply repeat the following words three or four times:

Kindle a flame
to lighten the dark,
and take our fears away.

Let us pray (based on Psalm 130):

Lord, we cry out to You
from the very depths of our despair.
Hear our voice. 
Listen to our plea for mercy
and answer our prayers.
You do not measure us 
and find us unworthy.
You do not mark our sins 
and find us unclean.
You welcome us with Your forgiving love –
so we love and worship You.

We wait for Your word of hope;
We expect Your breakthrough;
We long for the morning’s light.

Keep us hoping,
keep us trusting,
keep us waiting 
on Your tender heart 
and Your liberation. 

In Jesus’ name.
Amen.


So we hear the words of the prophet Ezekiel 

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

Ezekiel 37:1-14, NRSV

Our Gospel reading (which you are welcome to take a moment to read in John 11) paints, for me, one of the most intimate pictures of Jesus that we find in Scripture. 

It is a story of relationship, of friendship, of deeply human connection which we know because it begins by fleshing out for us the characters who make it so real and relatable. 

We know Mary and Martha from the Gospel of Luke and remember how one – Mary – chose to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his teaching while the other – Martha – did not have too much of a choice in taking responsibility for extending the hospitality of their household to Jesus and his followers. We are told that Mary was the one so moved by love for the Christ that she anointed his feet with an expensive perfume and wiped them with her hair. We hear quite plainly in verses 4 and 5 that Jesus, in turn, loved each of them: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, the brother who lived with them in the village of Bethany.

Yet, Lazarus is ill. It is obviously a serious sickness for Mary and Martha write to Jesus with the expectation that he, their beloved friend, will come immediately and help – even though the Jews in Judea have recently tried to stone him. 

That’s friendship. The reaching out for the comforting presence of another in a time of need and knowing that they will show up because that it the nature of the love between you, because the give and take and mutual self-offering is how it has been consistently over time ….

But Mary and Martha wait. They wait and they worry. They take turns looking out the door or the window for a sign that the one they have sent for is coming. They wait and they worry and they watch. They watch helplessly as the day turns to night and Lazarus slowly slips away. 

Hope turns to grief. Without breath, Lazarus’ body is buried – to return again once skin and flesh and sinew have decomposed to dry bones, to the ashes of the earth.

It is only four days later that Jesus shows up and, in an interesting turn, it is Martha who goes first to greet him. In the bleakest of circumstances she professes, “Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 

We can move quickly now to the end of the story where the stone is taken away and Jesus calls his friend out of the tomb and all who see Lazarus breathe again believe that Jesus is not just some healer but the Promised Messiah, the Resurrection and the Life.

Yet I would have us wait for that moment between Martha’s professed faith and the miracle, to sit with the heavy accusation that falls from Mary’s mouth when she sees him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” to open ourselves up to the anguished weeping that moves Jesus himself to weep – even though he knows that this story will end with restoration and resurrection. 

In the quiet, I invite you to breathe. 

To breathe in deeply the breath of God, the gift of Spirit. To breathe out slowly the grief, the pain, the disappointment, the loneliness, the fear, the questions, the heartache that has settled deep within our bones. 

Breathe in the promise of restoration and resurrection, and breathe out the years of longing, watching, waiting, weeping, praying with little sign of the newness coming, of the vision taking shape. 

Breathe in the love and friendship and intimacy of the Christ who weeps with us in the darkest night, and breathe out that love, that friendship, that intimacy as though you are filling the whole world with it. 

Just breathe … and in your breathing in and out, I invite you to hold all who are struggling to breathe in this time through sickness or sorrow or suffocating life circumstances before God. 

Lord, we cry out to You
from the very depths of our despair.
Hear our voice.
Listen to our plea for mercy
and answer our prayers.

Amen.

May you know the friendship of God
who draws near to us in the darkest of days,
who weeps with us when we are weeping,
and who leads us to resurrection life.

And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Saviour’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain –
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

’Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies!
Who can explore this strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love Divine!
’Tis mercy all! let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
’Tis mercy all! let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.
’Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness Divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Charles Wesley, Together in Song 209

Love letter 7

To my fellow pilgrims on the way to the promised end

As I write the letter for this fourth week of Lent, I have just secured a precious treasure from the Aldi next door: a single packet containing 4 rolls of two-ply toilet paper. The conversations as I stood in the long queues were mainly centred around how mad the world has gone, concerns for elderly parents, and recommendations on where people might find other rarities like hand sanitiser and antibacterial baby wipes. 

In this anxious time, we face not only significant concerns about our health and the capacity of our health care system to handle this rapidly changing situation, but also considerable interruptions to our daily life as we are called to care for another by maintaining our distance and self-isolating in the case of overseas travel or any sign of illness. 

At church, we cannot pass the Peace as we are accustomed or share in a common cup or offer a hand on the shoulder or a warm embrace – even though these signs of Christian fellowship are sometimes the only experience of community and connection that we might encounter in a week. 

Yet, as Jesus heals the man born blind by counterintuitively covering his eyes with a mixture of mud and spit in John 9, perhaps we can find new eyes with which to see how we can expand our circle of care beyond one sacred hour in the week or the physical limitations of our church buildings. 

Yosef Kanefsky, a Rabbi in Los Angeles, offers some provocative thoughts on how we might protect each other by mutual distancing yet still offer meaningful and much-needed connection: “Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise.”

Yours in Christ
Yvonne  

Love letter 6

To my fellow pilgrims on the way to the promised end

“What you have just said is quite true ….”

John 4:18b

This third Sunday in Lent, we meet in the Gospel of John a woman who is almost offensive in her forthrightness.

Jesus asks her for a drink of water and she points out that Jews don’t talk to Samaritans.

Jesus offers her living water and she wants to know how he will get it since he has nothing to draw water from the well beside him.

Jesus instructs her to fetch her husband and she speaks the ugly truth of her life in plain terms.

Jesus reveals his knowledge of her personal circumstances and she bombards him with questions that are both political and religious. 

And when Jesus reveals that he is the Messiah, even as she hurries home with the good news, she is wondering, “Can he really be?”

At each stage of their conversation she is true to who she is – plain-spoken and prickly and rough around the edges. Yet, in return for sharing her truth, Jesus reveals who he truly is. (For those who are curious, have a look through the Gospels and see how rarely Jesus claims the identity of Messiah for himself). And when she shares his truth, many in her community become believers and are open to his teaching.

This week, may you know that God already knows what is happening in the hidden and sometimes desolate spaces of your life – but when you speak your truth, you will find a more intimate friendship with the Saviour of the world. He longs to sit a while with you.

Yours in Christ
Yvonne