All Souls’ 2018 - Hope
Psalm 23, John 14:1-7
The word ‘caravan’ has been in the news lately the caravan travelling through Mexico from Central America - all those people heading north to the United States in the hope of finding a better life in the wonderland that is Trump’s America. Whatever the wonders of Trump’s America may or may not be, there are a large number of people travelling in hope from desperation. And their journeying reminds us what a caravan truly is. A caravan is not something you tow behind a car on country lanes and the slow lane of the motorway. Nor even the static caravans of holiday sites around our coasts. Indeed the idea of a static caravan is almost a contradiction in terms, so far from the original meaning has the word itself travelled. No - a caravan - as the recent news stories remind us - is a procession of people, people with possessions, goods, perhaps even everything they own. It is a procession of nomads looking for home, or a procession of traders with exotic goods to carry long distances to sell. The nearest thing we have to it in this country is, ironically, a train. And you might remember that a caravan and a camel train are effectively the same thing in the middle east.
The passage from the Gospel of St John we heard is actually all about this kind of thing. It’s all about a journey – a journey we must all take, and which our loved ones have recently made. You might remember that lovely image presented by Bishop Brent, of the ship sailing over the horizon:
A ship sails and I stand watching till she fades on the horizon and someone at my side says ‘she is gone’. Gone where? Gone from my sight, that is all; she is just as large as when I saw her. The diminished size, and total loss of sight is in me, not in her, and just at the moment when someone at my side says ‘she is gone’, there are others who are watching her coming, and other voices take up the glad shout, ‘There she comes’, and that is dying.
It is natural to think of life as a journey, and death as a journey into the afterlife, or heaven, or resurrection, or whatever word we want to use. But how do we know the way?
Jesus’ disciples, whose task it is to follow him, do not know the way where they are going. It may seem odd that Jesus doesn’t give them a map or directions, but he simply says, ‘I am the way’. ‘I am the way - follow me’.
And what we need to understand about this little passage from the gospel of John, is that it refers not so much to a ship sailing, but to the travelling of a caravan: the procession of traders who trekked across the desert. Most of them did not know the way, but this wasn’t a problem because they had someone to lead them. And this person – the one who led them from the front - he was called a dragoman.
The dragoman - he was the caravan organiser and guide. And his job was to bring everyone safely home. Not unlike the shepherd in the famous Psalm - it’s a similar idea, the shepherd, the leader, leading the sheep, or the people, home. Leading me beside still waters, leading me in right paths, so that I am followed by goodness and mercy all the days of my lofe, as the Psalmist puts it.
And although we might say the shepherd, or the dragoman ‘knew’ the way, to a great extent he ‘was’ the way, because without him the others were lost in more senses than one, and they had no hope of arriving at their destination safely. You might know of the shifting sands of Morecambe Bay near the Lake District. The tide comes in faster than a galloping horse and there are mudflats and quicksands that are extremely dangerous. The only way to cross at low tide is to have a specialist guide. A guide who doesn’t just tell you the way, but says ‘I am the way, walk in my footsteps, follow me’. ‘Follow me and all shall be well.’
And this is what Jesus does. It’s not so much that he ‘knows’ the way, rather he ‘is’ the way. He is the travel guide par excellence, who leads his people across the shifting sands of life’s journey and beyond. And he says to his disciples - and to us - ‘stick with me and everything will be OK’. And that is what he is still saying to us today. Stick with him, follow him, for he is the way, and he will lead us home.
This is our hope, and the hope we have for our loved ones who have gone before us in life and in death. At their funerals we committed them to Jesus - our leader, our guide, our shepherd, our hope. And we gather here today to remember that, and to give thanks for their lives and to rekindle love lost in the lighting of a flickering flame of hope. And it is the hope in and of Jesus, our dragoman, our shepherd through the lands of life and death who says to all of us, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life – follow me and I shall bring you safely home. Do not let your hearts be troubled. All is well.’
For ‘he offers peace eternal’. Hope – ‘he offers peace eternal’ – that’s what hope stands for. ‘he offers peace eternal’
And this is the hope which also gives us the hope that we shall be reunited with our loved ones, in one of those heavenly mansions. So, until that great, last day, may they rest in peace, and rise in glory. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 28/10/18