My favourite internet meme from the last few days is a tweet which says: my favourite bit of every flight is when the pilot screams “Bend to my will, metal sky bird and take us to the big blueness!” And the passengers chant “Sky Bird! Sky Bird!” to persuade the plane to take off.
Or perhaps that isn’t how it worked. I don’t know – it’s been such a long time since I’ve been on a plane that, when I see one overhead, I gasp “dragon!” and stop moving so that it can’t spot me.
Which is a way of saying: a long time ago Anne and I did the Camino de Santiago. It was an amazing trip – we walked something like 800 kilometres from a little town on the French side of the Pyrenees, then up and over the Napoleon Pass and then forty days more to get to the town of Saint James at the Field of Stars, better known as Santiago de Compostela forty or so days later.
Every day the same: get up before dawn, strap my feet, organise my backpack, walk, breakfast, walk, lunch, walk, check in to the next hostel, shower and wash my walking clothes, go to the local café to drink quite a lot of very weak wine, eat a modestly priced meal, and into bed by 9pm, ready to do it again the next day.
It was a simple life, with one clear goal. But, nonetheless, there were days when it felt profoundly discouraging. For instance, when we’d already been walking for weeks, and still had weeks to go. Also, my feet hurt essentially all the time, and I was often so stiff I could barely move. Also I was getting profoundly sick of the pilgrim menus at the cafes, and the weight of my pack, and the sheer monotony of stick… stick… stick… Walking across the Pyrenees was one thing – the views, the sound of the bells on the hillside cattle. Walking around Burgos airport in the heat for several hours was something else altogether.
It’s a strong memory, which is probably why the thing which struck me from today’s passage, was the bit where Jesus said: come on, time to go: We’ve got a lot of walking to do before we get where we are going. No matter how amazing yesterday was, that was then, and this is now. The Way calls us on.
Let’s look at a couple of things in the text.
Firstly, did anyone feel a bit uncomfortable that the first thing which happens is that Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law and she immediately gets up and starts serving the men? I mean, it is very much of its time. She doesn’t even get a name, just a role. And it’s not doubt that first century Palestine was, like the rest of the Mediterranean world, a profoundly patriarchal society. But there are things happening here which mark the beginning of a change.
The fact that Jesus “took her by the hand” seems like a bit of window dressing to us, a bit of atmosphere to make it seem realer. However, just like Orthodox Jewish people now, men, especially rabbis didn’t touch women they weren’t related or married to.
So, the fact that Jesus took Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand was stepping outside of the purity regulations, making women and men equal.
The fact that she immediately got to work serving them is also problematic for us. Do we really want to say that the only acceptable place for women is in the kitchen? But from the perspective of the times, as the senior woman in the household, serving honoured guests was itself her honoured role.
Even now when an important meal is being cooked, people are shooed out of the kitchen, or only allowed in if they are prepared to follow orders. To be in charge of, say, Christmas dinner is an important thing. How much more in the much more patriarchal culture of first century Israel?
The second thing, which is interesting rather than challenging, is that the townspeople waited until sunset to bring the sick to Jesus. At one level, it seems a bit inefficient. Instead of coming in ones and twos during the day, they all showed up together, creating a huge crowd outside the front door, which must have made it a difficult job to get to the sick in a timely kind of way.
The reason for this is actually pretty obvious when you think about it – if you know that the day ended at sunset, rather than at midnight as it does for us. Coming after sunset meant that people could do the “work” of carrying their sick to Jesus and staying on the right side of the law against working on the Sabbath. And it also meant that Jesus could do the “work” of healing during the week, when such things were meant to happen.
We will see this consideration becoming important as Jesus’ story unfolds.
However, the main point I’m interested in is what happened next.
Early in the morning, well before dawn, Jesus gets up and find somewhere private to pray. It makes sense that he would need to get out of the house to do it – it sounds like there were a lot of people there, and he would have needed some privacy. Obviously he had a lot on his mind. The previous day must have been overwhelming. Throngs of people at the door, healings left, right, and centre. Perhaps, Jesus thought, I should just stay here? People can bring their sick, I can establish a good teaching programme at the synagogue. Also, perhaps Peter’s mother-in-law was a good cook, and you can’t guarantee good eating on the road, that’s for sure.
Or perhaps nothing like that at all.
But that’s certainly where my mind would go. And it also seems likely that that is what the disciples, and indeed the people in the town, were assuming would happen. That, it seems to me, is the context of their early morning search for him.
After all, it would have been a much easier life for the disciples. Perhaps they could get in a bit of fishing between teaching and healing? Certainly it would be a much easier life being a big noise in the home town, compared to the tiring life of trekking around in the wilderness on the dirt roads, which even now is hot, thirsty, and dusty work.
And, as we see in the parable of the Good Samaritan, dangerous as well. There were bandits around, and in a world without a police force, let alone mobile phones or uber, wandering around the countryside was risky.
No wonder there is a slightly plaintive note to the disciples. Perhaps it was beginning to dawn on them that their familiar life, and their home comforts were about to become a thing of the past. That this call was going to demand a lot more of them than they had bargained on.
And that’s why it reminds me of walking the Camino de Santiago. I remember sitting around in a bar with friends, coming up with the idea – we’d meet up in Paris and then take the train to the border, and then… adventure!
It felt quite different on the first morning when the reality of lugging my stupid pack up hill and down dale for day after day exploded into reality.
It must have been exciting to be called as the first disciples. One minute you were fussing over your tedious nets worrying about whether you had caught enough fish that morning, the next you are caught up into the glamour of local celebrity.
But then, in the cold light of dawn, the disciples had to make a choice. Were they going to stick with it when the going got tough? Because it unquestionably was going to get a lot tougher.
Last year was extremely discouraging. Exhausting, frightening, boring – it had a lot of problems. Not the least of which is that it has left us with a sort of hangover. We all begin the year less energetic, and less hopeful, than we began last year. Our hopes from last year seem distant, and maybe implausible. It’s hard to plan, because we aren’t confident that we aren’t going to suddenly get locked down again.
Even last year the way ahead was far from easy, or even clear. The massive cultural change we call “post-Christendom” was already radically reshaping the relationship between church and culture. And, of course, in our own context the change has been particularly acute, with the thirteen churches which made up the parish at union in the seventies reduced to two.
Our comfort zone is a long way away. Life feels more like slogging through the light industrial area of a provincial city than walking through a pleasant wood.
But this is, in fact, where we meet Jesus. Jesus didn’t sit at home in Capernaum. He got out on the road with his disciples. With us.
There is a saying on the Camino de Santiago: the real camino begins when you get home. When the clarity of the pilgrimage is over and you have to pick your way through the complexity of your everyday life where you have to do more than strap your feet up and pick up your walking poles.
The way is unclear, but this is where we meet Jesus.
Let me finish with one of my favourite prayers. Written by Thomas Merton, a twentieth century mystic and writer, it expresses something of what it means to be a disciple in uncertain times.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I think I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
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