How Jesus Queues at the Foodbank (Matthew 25:31-46)

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Inspired by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s words on the rise of food banks in the UK.

In Matthew 25, Jesus presents an image – a flock of sheep and goats separated, a metaphor for humanity at the last judgement. The sheep are praised for feeding Jesus when he was hungry, for visiting him in prison; likewise, the goats are condemned for leaving him to starve and leaving him to rot. Both sides are confused – neither remember helping or ignoring Jesus like that. Then comes the twist: whatever they did or didn’t do for the lowliest members of society, they did/didn’t do for Jesus himself.

It’s shocking how Jesus identifies himself here. We might like the idea of him hanging out with us at church, patting us on the back, but he’s more likely to be queuing up for the food bank, sleeping in a doorway under a piece of cardboard, fleeing ISIS and hoping that someone’s going to open the border.

Notice that, because it’s important; Jesus isn’t helping at the food bank, he’s using it; he’s not an NGO aid worker, he’s a refugee. The difference is significant. Jesus here expresses an intimate solidarity with the marginalised and that transforms our mental landscape. That homeless guy I ran past when I was late for a meeting? Jesus identifies with him. The victims of natural disasters who fade from our memories as quickly as they fade from the headlines? Jesus again. The immigrants the media tell us to fear? Jesus.

It’s shocking enough that God became a man. It’s even more radical to think that God became a man and then associates with the poorest, weakest, most oppressed of society.

Neither the Sheep or the Goats see it like this. The Sheep just get on with helping individuals; they’re expecting to see Jesus there but they’re going to help anyway. It is, after all, the right thing to do.

The Goats are equally shocked, probably for a different reason. They don’t seem to be helping anyone much but hey, maybe it would have been different if Jesus had been there. Sure, they’d’ve taken Jesus out for dinner if only they’d spotted him cosplaying a hobo that morning. Everyone else should go away and get a job, but not Jesus; Jesus is important.

The anonymity of Jesus in this story exposes what’s really going on in our hearts. Anyone can look like a good little church-goer, but if that doesn’t translate into how we treat others, if the live and grace and compassion of Christ doesn’t get deep into our bones, then our worship is just the sort of empty religion the Old Testament prophets railed against. Jesus isn’t fooled by cynical photo opportunities. Rather, he’s present for every moment of shame, every moment of humiliation, every punch thrown, every second of suffering. “Immanuel, God with us” is something we hear a lot at this time of year. The implications of that aren’t just stunning, they’re also heartbreaking. We don’t always recognise him, not unless we have eyes to see, but he’s there.

But then again, that anonymity is shattered the moment he reveals himself to the Sheep and the Goats. We’re invited to see the image of Christ – the image of God – in the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned and the starving. That should have a radical impact on how we live life, everything from how we shop to how we vote. Too often it doesn’t: we sanitise things like the incarnation, the Imago Dei, the Sermon on the Mount. States proclaim Christian values then arrest a 90 year old man for feeding the homeless.

So, are we Sheep or are we Goats? The answer isn’t in what we claim, it’s in what we do. And while we’re figuring that out, Jesus still queues at a foodbank.

Listening for the Voices of Prophets (Luke 3:1-20)

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A wild-eyed prophet preaches repentance out on the edge of town. His cry is for justice, his cry is for mercy, and with every baptism he builds a road through the desert for the Saviour to come.

And when he talks to tax collectors, he doesn’t tell them to eat the right things, he demands they stop taking more money than they should, that they stop getting rich through the poverty of others.

And when he speaks to soldiers, he doesn’t send them to the synagogue. He insists they stop extorting money from those under their power, he insists they cease their false accusations against the public they patrol.

When he meets the general public, fishermen and carpenters and farmers and shepherds he tells them to look after each other, to make sure no-one is left in need while someone has the resources to help them.

And when he confronted kings, demanding that they end their immorality, well, that’s what got him killed.

John the Baptist lived in the wilderness, he wore animal skins and ate locusts, yet even out there on the fringes, he knew what was happening back in town and he spoke into it. And yes, he proclaimed the coming Messiah, but in the meantime he railed against injustice because he lived in the light of a different Kingdom, and in that Kingdom, justice can’t be separated from faith. In that Kingdom, the prophetic is practical, the prophetic is proactive.

There are tensions in society right now: protesters on the streets in Ferguson, in the UK, in New York, in Thailand, in Hong Kong. And, true, there’s a lot of white nose in these protests, but there are also urgent questions that demand answers, questions about race and class and democracy and justice, and if a cry for justice is rising up, then now’s the time to listen out for prophetic voices, voices that speak God’s word into agonising situations. We need to listen for these voices, to hear their call, even when those speaking don’t look or sound like us, even when they challenge us and our tenuous assumptions. Because they’ll be a call to repentance in there somewhere, and a call to do things better, but don’t hold your breath waiting for God to prop up an unjust status quo.

We live in interesting times, and there are a million voices out there, most of them ranting on Twitter. But now’s the time to cut through that. Listen for the voices that don’t get much airtime. Listen for the voice of Christ cutting through the static. Listen for the voice of the prophets and, where you can, turn that prophecy into practice.

Speaking Out To Save Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19, 18:16-33)

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So God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his only son. It’s a famous but deeply unsettling story, and we try to take the edge off it: after all, it was a test, not a genuine command. I’m not sure that makes the story any less uncomfortable, but it raises an important question – it was a test, sure, but did Abraham pass?

Traditionally, the answer is yes: he was willing to follow God’s commands, even when those commands were horrific, and revealed Abraham as a man of great faith. Isaac is shown to have not been in real danger – God provides a ram for the sacrifice – and the story becomes an echo of what would happen at Calvary, with Jesus dying in the place of sinful humanity. Certainly that’s the interpretation I grew up with.

But there’s another interpretation, one that draws upon Genesis 18. Here Abraham is told that Sodom and Gomorrah are going to be destroyed and he immediately starts interceding on behalf of the cities. There’s something of a vested interest here – his nephew Lot is living in Sodom at the time – but nevertheless, Abraham dares to argue with God on behalf of others. So why didn’t he do the same for his son? The theory being that he should have gone to bat for his kid and therefore he failed the test.

I’d like to go with that interpretation because, frankly, it’s more comfortable. Problem is, it’s pretty clear from the text that Abraham does what he needs to do, even receiving a blessing for it. In that sense, it becomes a story about trusting God: after all, Abraham names the place “The Lord will provide” – God provides an alternative to human sacrifice, which seems to have been prevalent at the time, and shows himself to be different to the other gods people worshipped at the time. Certainly the idea of child sacrifice is shown to be detestable throughout the Bible, even being at the root of the word ‘Gehanna’ – child sacrifice leads, almost literally, to Hell.

Whatever interpretation you go with, it’s clear that children aren’t to be sacrificed as part of religious or political power games. We walk away from this story, uncomfortable but glad we don’t live in that kind of world.

And yet…

And yet three teenage rape victims have been bullied out of their school in Oklahoma.

And yet there are daily reports in the UK press of child abuse cover-ups.

And yet a 12 year old with a fake gun has been fatally shot by police in Ohio.

And yet NSPCC figures state that one in twenty UK children are abused.

And yet 408 children and babies were killed in the recent bombing of Gaza.

Too often the Church – or, more fairly, individual churches – has been complicit in crimes like this; it’s covered up and enabled abuse, it’s failed to be a prophetic voice crying out for the protection of children. And those facts should bother us more than the theology of Abraham’s story because this is our society, the theology of our story. The outcome of Abraham’s story is that children aren’t meant to be sacrificed, that their lives aren’t expendable. We’ve forgotten that lesson: we want someone 3,000 years ago to cry out for Isaac, but that was long ago – we need to be crying out for children now.

Abraham and Isaac left Mount Moriah together a long time ago. But people still walk that path to Gehanna.

Advent 2014: What To Do With The Waiting?

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There’s something about Advent that feels paradoxical to me: it’s a time of beginning as the Christian year restarts, and yet it immediately pauses as we’re called to wait not only for the festivities of Christmas but also the final fulfilment of God’s Kingdom. The impatient, non-liturgical part of me thinks everything should start on December, but no, there’s a four week countdown instead.

But then why shouldn’t there be a pause, a time of preparation? After all, the stable is the entrance to the roller coaster: look at the baby, sure, but once we do that we’re pushed onto the road to Easter and all the highs and lows and excitement and screaming along the way. Advent gives us time to prepare; Advent gives us space to hope. It’s a season to remember the first and second comings of Christ, but one of those happened a long time ago, the other at an indeterminate point in the future. Maybe the holy pause of Advent gives us space to reflect on what it means to live between those two points.

Because the liturgical needs to be practical. Jesus in the manger and Christ on the throne can’t be abstract concepts. We need to figure out how they relate to the mess of day-to-day life. If you’re anything like me, it’s easy to focus on just getting through the day without yet another microcrisis erupting and bigger questions get sidelined. But that’s a false dichotomy, isn’t it? If Jesus is with us and Jesus is king, then day-to-day life is lived out within a sacred Kingdom, a Kingdom focused on healing and restoration and resurrection and hope. It’s not a time to be lulled to sleep.

So what does it mean to be the Church in the face of food banks and Ferguson, institutional sexual abuse, fear of immigration, homelessness, war, poverty and plague…? Big questions, no easy answers, but nevertheless, we need to wrestle with the uncertainties. We also need to wrestle with our complicity.

Because Advent should be a time of justice, hope and expectation of a greater Kingdom, but also a time of repentance. To repent literally means to turn around, and sometimes that takes time, an ocean liner of our baggage slowly turning to avoid a catastrophic iceberg. The Church has not always been innocent, has very often failed to be holy, and that history may make it difficult for us to know what we’re supposed to look like.

But the answer to that is deceptively simple: we’re supposed to look like Jesus. After all. Advent doesn’t so much point to moments in time but to a Person, and if we’re supposed to reflect that Person to the world, maybe we need to pray that this Advent is transformative. I know I need that.

So does the world.

Those Who Stayed (The Book of Esther)

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Look, I admit it – I have a degree in history but I’m useless with dates. I don’t remember who ruled when, I can’t keep in my head whether various empires coexisted or if they succeeded each other, or… Well, let’s just say I’m more reliant on Wikipedia than I should be.

So when I read a post from Covered In His Dust this morning, I was shocked. I’ve always lumped together the books talking about the Jewish exile into Babylon as one cataclysmic event followed by a difficult but triumphant homecoming. And that’s entirely my fault because I don’t read books like Ezra and Nehemiah enough.

In reality, the deportations to Babylon took place in waves, as did the return home. And then there were Jewish communities that decided to stay in Babylon and Persia, less exiles and more immigrant communities; long-established communities at that. After all, the Book of Esther is set almost a century after the final wave of deportations and around fifty years after the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem.

So Esther’s story is set among an established Jewish community, where her uncle Mordecai is a respected member of the local elite. For whatever reason, their great grandparents chose to never return to Jerusalem, and so suddenly this changes from the story of a group of exiles to an exposé of the cracks in a community.

I guess we should see that coming: the heroes of the text are from the Tribe of Benjamin and descents of Saul; Haman, the antagonist, is descended from Agag. The central conflict is almost a replay of 1 Samuel 15. Mordecai, Esther and Haman may be a long way from their ancestral homelands but history never really goes away. And those historical tensions threaten to explode into genocide in Esther’s present.

But we see things from the perspective of those being threatened, those with their neighbours turning against them due to the machinations of a power-broker with an axe to grind. Mordecai may be respected, but he’s still a part of a minority community threatened with violence, and while we call Esther ‘queen’, let’s not romanticise that – she’s drafted into a harem because she’s a hot virgin. It’s difficult to fully read the Bible from a position of power because so much of it is written from the perspective of the oppressed, and because God is on the side of the oppressed.

Now, I’m writing this blog as a white guy in a nice house in the UK. Stories like Esther’s help remind me that I’m not exactly first in line when oppression is being dished out.

But things like immigration and race relations are hot button topics at the moment, and you don’t have to read or watch the media for long before the scapegoating and the stereotyping become evident. And in the midst of this, we need to ask ourselves whether we’re listening to the voices of immigrants, of minority’s communities, of those lacking in the privilege of those controlling public discourse?

Because even if we’re not, God is..