On Friday I went on a pilgrimage. The word pilgrimage used to make me think of walks along ancient tracks and pathways visiting lovely old churches along the way, or visiting far away distant places like Jerusalem or Holy Island. But Friday's pilgrimage was very different. Nowhere on Friday's pilgrimage was more than thirty minutes from where we are now, but it was a journey which took me down roads I'd never walked to places I'd never been in the company of people who, with the exception of Gretel, I'd never met before. Our pilgrimage started at Christ Church, and ended at Landport Community Rooms. We were led by Neil, from Church Action on Poverty, and by local volunteers from the Lewes Emergency Food Network, whose work is designed to tackle 'food insecurity'.. Just pause for a moment and let the full impact of those words sink in. 'Food insecurity', 'emergency food network'- and 'Lewes', all in the same sentence. Minutes from where we are now, life in Lewes, which my colleagues at work tell me makes them think of pretty timbered houses, visits to Bills and lovely downland scenery, means spending evenings in the dark and cold because you can't afford to light and heat your home, and depending on food banks for basics like eggs, bread, and milk.
As we walked, we talked about why the need for food banks here in Lewes is growing as more and more families find they can't afford the rising cost of food and energy. We met a woman running, who stopped to tell us about how she provides lunchboxes for local children during the school holidays when free school meals aren't available. We met local volunteers who lobby councillors, who collect food from supermarkets, whose dedication and passion keep the local food banks going. We talked about how to start food pantries, where for a subscription of just a few pounds a week you can buy things you wouldn't otherwise be able to afford, and we discovered how initiatives like this are good news stories for the people and communities who use and run them.
The walk had been called a 'pilgrimage on the margins', acknowledging that sense of being marginalised, of, looking on at a world in which so many people have so much, whilst you have so little. The people who were absent from the day were poignant witnesses to how easy it is to be marginalised. One of the speakers, who was going to share his experiences of living in poverty, sent a message to say he couldn't come because he couldn't afford the train fare from Worthing. We talked about ways for people experiencing poverty locally to meet with councillors, MPs, church leaders, but these pathways all depend on small groups of very dedicated and committed activists and politicians, And today's readings suggest to me that the Christian response to the inequalities and hardships we heard about on Friday's pilgrimage should be bigger than that; the Gospels challenge us all to find ways of living life fairly and inclusively, not just the powerful and the passionate.
Friday's pilgrimage was a walk designed to help us to see and think differently about our local community, and to have new ideas. Walking and seeing things in new ways, which is what we were doing on Friday, is a recurring theme in today's readings
Psalm 23 is a real walker's psalm; there are good reasons for it being such a comfort at times of sadness and despair; it reminds us that God is with us even when life's journey seems hardest, "even though I walk through the shadow of death I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me". When we say, "he leads me in right paths for his names sake'" perhaps we're being invited to ask what those "right paths" look like, where do they lead us and how do we find them, especially when the way forward isn't clear. The answer is different for every one of us, but in Acts we can see Dorcas taking just such a path. She has indeed been through the shadow of death, but hearing Gods call through Peter's prayer Dorcas gets up and walks; it's just a little walk, only as far as to the wondering crowds who've gathered outside, but the story of Dorcas walking out of death in response to Peter’s call also reminds us of Lazarus which comes straight after today’s gospel reading. A while ago I heard someone who'd been on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land talking about a visit to what was said to be the tomb from which Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. The power of the visit came when the pilgrimage leader told the pilgrims to go into the tomb, and then called Jesus' words, 'Lazarus come out!' And the pilgrims understood that they themselves were being called to be reborn, to walk like Dorcas and Lazarus, out of the darkness which they had previously known and into a new way of life, a life answering the call of Christ. That same idea is there in the ancient story of Noah's ark, where the earth itself is called from the darkness of the flood waters to be renewed by God's promise of a new covenant with His creation.
Walking into new ways of seeing the world is also part of our reading from John: John tells us that Jesus is walking in the temple. At first this doesn’t seem anything too extraordinary, but for John Jesus is the temple. the people of Jerusalem were taught that God existed at the centre of the Temple, in the holy of holies, where only the high Priest was able to go, and so the Temple in Jerusalem was a place where, to use the language of Friday's pilgrimage, most worshippers were on the margins. The closest encounter with God was reserved for the High Priest, But in John's Gospel Jesus is himself the Temple; and he is a temple who walks and acts in the midst of the busiest spaces imaginable, surrounded by people, a temple which we know will be broken on the cross before rising again, rather than one which is static and used for ancient rituals. Not only is he the new temple, he is also God, 'The Father and I are one', he declares.
Jesus invites trouble by saying that he and God are one; but his words make it clear; in God no one is marginalised. Oneness means everyone being included. Jesus offers complete inclusivity to those who follow him. 'My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me', he says, inviting us to share in that oneness, to be included in the loving inclusivity which doesn't rank people in terms of their wealth, or their status, or their privilege and power, but which simply invites us all to come to a knowledge and understanding of God through following Jesus's example, like sheep following their shepherd.
Revelation offers us a vision on a cosmic scale of what this coming together might look like, not in the future, but in the here and now. So many of the ideas we've been invited to reflect on in today's readings come together in this wonderful vision.
Anyone who has been on a long walk on a summer's day knows what the author of revelation means by being scorched by the sun and being hungry and thirsty. But Revelation offers something more;
'the lamb at the centre of the throne will be our shepherd and he will guide us to springs of the water of life.'
I went on Friday's pilgrimage in response to an invitation which came out of nowhere. Today our readings offer us God's invitation to share in the wholeness and inclusivity which we are offered through Christ. Perhaps the first step in tackling the problems of hunger, poverty and marginalisation is for us to say yes to that invitation, and then to start out on a pilgrimage of our own; and in walking with Christ as our guide and shepherd we can begin to answer God's call to ensure that the water of life is shared by everyone.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,