Ashes on the Church Door: Ash Wednesday 2015 (Psalm 51)

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Ash Wednesday’s one of those Christian traditions that’s always been a bit alien to me. It’s not a ritual I’ve ever been involved in; maybe actively so as I’d much rather focus on the grace of God than the sin of Matt.

Don’t get me wrong: I know I’m far from perfect. But I like my penitence to be private,  thank you very much; I’m not keen on sackcloth and ashes, and I have no idea how King David had the guts to write something as raw and confessional as Psalm 51.

Hypocrisy? Probably.

There’s the question of corporate repentance. A lot of people have been hurt by the church – through unChristlike attitudes, through the abuse of power, through shaming and shunning. And while it’s tempting to shake our heads and mutter “Not all Christians!”, the fact is we’re one body and we need to acknowledge where that body’s gone wrong.

So maybe that’s a role for Ash Wednesday. Individual repentance, ashes smeared on the forehead, is fine, but maybe we need to smear some ashes on the door posts of our churches too. It could also be an act of humility too – the church has wielded so much temporal power that it’s always good to pause and remember that we’re not perfect, we have fallen short of the glory, that our true power comes from the Holy Spirit, and that our organisations are just as much in need of God’s grace as our individual lives. Today’s ashes are last year’s palm branches of praise, which is a good reminder that our failings and our worship aren’t that far apart.

Because the fact is this: I can’t throw the Church under the bus. Denominations need to change, some organisations need to fall, but the church as the body of believers remains. I can’t walk away from that body as a whole.

But then we’re back to individual repentance. Preachers are fond of saying that the church isn’t buildings but people, so there we have it: Don’t spread hate instead of love. Don’t fiddle the accounts. Don’t abuse children, or cover up that abuse. Don’t get drunk on power. These things need to be confronted, dragged into the light, brought to justice.

And yet the ultimate message of Easter is resurrection, healing, grace. Don’t dwell in guilt – confront it, be penitent, turn onto another path, but we’re heading towards the Cross, towards the empty tomb. Forgiveness and mercy are central to the story – hope and healing are there for the taking; those ashes get washed away.

Carnival: Shrove Tuesday 2015 (Mark 10:35-45)

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Today is a day of disruption.

We stand on the edge of the Lenten wilderness, forty days of fasting and desolation ahead. We may be heading towards the resurrection, but to get there we have to go through temptation and betrayal, conspiracies and false hopes, the violence of the Cross and the silence of the tomb. Easter is hard won.

We have Pancake Day in the UK, using up what’s left in cupboards. Elsewhere, however, things are more colourful; there’s music and dancing and colour; there’s carnival, in other words, and while there’s something subversive and transgressive about this, it’s also an echo of an upside down Kingdom.

After all, one of the themes of carnival is inversion – peasants become kings for the day, the normal rules can be suspended. This can be limited to taboo-breaking if you want, but there’s something deeper behind this, something that riffs on the words of Jesus:

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

We don’t always see this around us – kings aren’t servants, they’re politicians and businessmen, celebrities and sports stars. Jesus idea of kingship seems far away.

But that upside-down Kingdom was inaugerated with the Resurrection, and so while it may not always be visible, it is already here. It’s dotted throughout Lent – the mock military procession of Palm Sunday, the foot washing of Maundy Thursday, the victory-through-horror of Good Friday. If Carnival reminds us that another world is possible, then maybe it also serves to remind us that another world is already here.

If you want to really reflect Christ, you need to turn you hierarchy upside-down; don’t pursue riches or power or self; raise up the downtrodden, honour the marginalised, serve rather than be served. They may think you a fool but you’ll be dancing in Christ’s Carnival.

The New Year of Trees: Tu Bishvat (Deuteronomy 14:28-29)

sycomore-fruitIt’s cold. It’s cold and it’s winter and tomorrow I fully expect to see frost on the ground. Rumours have been going around work that we’re expecting snow overnight. It seems a funny time to think of trees and fruit and harvest, and yet that’s what today is: Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year of Trees,

But trees in winter are naked silhouettes in the dark – the harvest is a promise at the moment, the almost primordial promise that seedtime and harvest and summer and winter will endure. And maybe that’s a good thing – start thinking about the harvest before anything has even been planted. Hold on to the promise.

That promise isn’t just for those who work the earth – far from it. The harvest is inseparable from justice; the edges of fields are set aside for the poor, tithes are given for foreigners and orphans and widows as well as for God. Harvest is a gift of grace.

It’s a gift we often take for granted. Sustainability is a sign of weakness in some quarters and so we race to despoil the earth, to fill oceans and landfills with toxic leftovers. There’s a perverse ecological eschatology behind this – why worry about the earth when God’s just going to burn it up anyway? – but that’s flawed and twisted and confuses stewardship with profit. And it ignores the human cost, the poor and the vulnerable who God expects to share in the harvest.

It’s hard to know how to square that with the theory that deforestation in Africa has forced bats and humans into closer proximity, contributing to the Ebola outbreak that’s claimed so many lives. Harm the earth, harm ourselves, not in some apocalyptic future in which the climate is changed beyond recognition, but here and now, real people in real communities. This isn’t hypothetical anymore.

We’re slowly emerging from winter – days are getting longer, spring starts to make its presence felt. The promise of the New Year of Trees begins to be fulfilled, and it’s a promise of hope and justice. But it’s not aimed at our greed and our rapaciousness; it’s aimed at the poor, the refugee, the dispossessed. Because it’s the promise of the harvest, and harvest is justice.

(You can help Oxfam plant trees and provide training in forest management here.)

Noticing Injustice and an Unburning Bush (Exodus 3:1-4)

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The story of the Burning Bush is iconic. Every Sunday School student has drawn it, and it’s almost too famous – when we know something so well we can take it for granted. That’s dangerous: always be on the look out for the new thing God’s trying to tell you.

For instance, it took me years to notice how God waits for Moses to spot the bush before He speaks. This isn’t a sudden Road to Damascus experience, it’s a pause, a pregnant moment in history. We don’t know how long the bush was burning, only that the conversation was initiated when Moses went to investigate. God seems to be waiting for him.

But then Moses noticing things is what brought him to this point in the first place: he may have been raised in a palace, but despite this privilege he still noticed the suffering of the Hebrew slaves; later he sees Zipporah and her sisters attacked by shepherds and intervenes to save them, an act that draws him into another adopted family and gets him the job that takes him to the Burning Bush and an encounter with God.

You know, the God who has also recognised the suffering of his people.

Maybe, despite his later protests, Moses is exactly the right person to lead the Hebrews out of slavery because he and God both share an attentiveness to injustice (and notice that what really catches Moses’ attention is that the bush is on fire but not destroyed – it’s wrong and out of step with how the world should work, so how does that reflect on his earlier attention to injustice?).

God appears to Moses, but waits for Moses to take the first step toward him, to plant his feet on holy ground. It’s a dynamic that echoes throughout the Exodus, God doing the heavy lifting but with Moses serving as herald. It’s a lopsided partnership, but a partnership nonetheless. And maybe that partnership is important, as it’s not just about defeating Pharaoh, it’s about making the Hebrews into the people of God.

So God wants us to partner with him to tackle injustice, to break the chains of slavery, to serve as liberators. That means we need to be attentive to what’s going on around us, to see where darkness reigns and to spot where the Kingdom needs to come. And as we step towards those places, we’ll see that God is already there, waiting to transform situations but also his people. Bushes still burn; we just need to look out for them.

Six Miles: Epiphany 2015 (Matthew 2:1-12)

Bray,_Jan_de_-_The_Adoration_of_the_Magi_-_1674Six miles.

Six miles isn’t very far. If you’re fit, you could probably walk it in a couple of hours. Not a big deal.

Six miles.

That’s how far it is from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The wise men were just two hours from Jesus before everything started going wrong. They were so close, but they made a wrong turn and tragedy ensued.

I suppose it’s understandable why they went to Herod. They were looking for a new born king, and I guess the palace would be the obvious place to go. But there was no baby prince at the palace, and when the Magi heard panicked whispers around the palace and in the streets outside, maybe that’s when they realised their mistake.

Today is Epiphany, the day on which we celebrate the Magi finding Jesus. It’s a time when we think of them receiving a vision of glory, pagan dignitaries bowing before the infant Messiah. It’s a powerful image, and yet one we don’t always make the most of. That’s a shame, because as we stand at the start of a new year, maybe it’s a good time to seek a fresh vision.

Because it’s easy to take Jesus for granted. We know the hymns, we can quote the Bible, but are we really seeking him? Or do we assume that because we found him once long ago, he’s safely on the shelf, treasured but undisturbed? That’s easy to do, especially if we’ve been in the church for a long time. We’ve been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. And that’s dangerous.

Because look at what’s going on around the wise men. They ask Herod where the new king is, which gets Herod disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. Don’t let that verse pass you by – when a bunch of strangers from another ask where the Messiah is prophesied to be born, the answer is right there in the scriptures, in the book of Micah. The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, six miles down the road.

And yet no-one else goes, except Herod’s death squad. Everyone seems more happy with maintaining the status quo, with staying at home with their feet up, or with not venturing out because they’re scared of the consequences. There’s a chance to see what God is doing in the world, and it’s handed to them on a plate, and yet no-one wants to take it. Pagan astrologers are more interested in what God’s doing than the religious elite. Worse than that – thirty years later, the successors of Herod and the priests would be instrumental in getting Jesus crucified.

And that’s a challenge for us, because sometimes it’s so easy to be in the church, to enjoy the rockin’ worship and the friendship groups, that it gets in the way of us finding Jesus; ditto for Herod’s religious think tank a couple of thousand years ago. and that was a huge mistake, because Jesus wasn’t there in the Temple or Herod’s palace; the work of God was happening beyond those walls. The apathy of the priests and scribes is a warning to us all.

But thankfully the wise men were more open to an encounter with Jesus – the whole purpose of their journey was to offer him worship. They’re best known for bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh, but maybe the most important thing they brought was themselves.

And then comes the dream: take another route home because to go back the way you came would be disastrous. If ever there was a metaphor for encountering Jesus, there it is, but there’s something in this moment that’s left hanging. We don’t know what happened to the Magi after they left, we don’t know if the experience changed them, or if they just considered it the fulfilment of their diplomatic duty. Their journey ends as mysteriously as it started.

And maybe that’s okay, because Matthew doesn’t just tell their story in the interests of reportage, he’s also using them to represent us – the outsiders, the ones who were once far from God who nevertheless find themselves kneeling before the Messiah. Their journey is our journey, following as best we can as God manifests and challenge and welcomes. He draws us to him, and despite the bumps in the road, he invites us to respond – with our gifts, with our worship, but most of all with ourselves.

So maybe this Christmastide, we need to find ourselves in Bethlehem’s stable, not Herod’s palace. At the start of 2015, maybe it’s time to rededicate ourselves to finding Jesus anew, to seek his face and to point others in his direction. Let’s rediscover Epiphany and see where the journey takes us.