Holy Week: Turning the Tables

a2a3b96a746704bef869e148d1850939These are disruptive times. Work held its staff conference online this week, and I ended up feeling like one of the monkeys from 2001 who has just discovered tools. Webinars started but I struggling to enter them, looking increasingly like a grumpy old man raging at a changing world. I’m only 43 and yet I suddenly realised what my dad must have felt like all those years ago, back when I was the only one in the house who could program the VCR.

Changed sneaked up on me. I’ve been merrily plodding on, just getting on with things, then suddenly thee world shook and the tables turned and hear I am, staring at a screen and barely knowing which button to press.

I’m 43, for goodness sake!

It’s Holy Monday, the traditional day to celebrate Jesus going into the Temple in Jerusalem and calling down the thunder. There they were, money-changers and entrepreneurs happily raking in profits from the pilgrims, throwing up billboards around sacred space and hustling a quick buck from uncertain times. And then an angry looking rabbi from out in the sticks appears, stampeding the cattle and throwing around the merchandise. A wild-eyed prophet yells the words of God and the world changes, if only for an instant. Someone somewhere consults a spreadsheet, runs the optics, and decides Jesus has to die.

Change sneaks up on us all. Sometimes we’ll do all we can to resist it, but sometimes that means going toe-to-toe with Jesus.

These feel like apocalyptic times – not in the pop culture, zombie hordes sense of the world, but in its original meaning of ‘unveiling’. We find out who we are in times like this, not just as individuals but as institutions, and that takes on an extra tension for churches. The Cleansing of the Temple wasn’t just a condemnation of Caiaphas and his minions, it set a precedent – our churches shouldn’t look like loan sharks or movie stars or political hustlers, they should look like Jesus. And if they don’t, well, don’t be surprised if Jesus starts throwing tables around. Heck, maybe he’s already started.

There’s one part of this story that I missed up until a couple of years ago. There’s a deceptively throwaway verse at the end of Matthew’s description of events: “The blind and lame came to him at the Temple”.

Why is this a big deal?

Because the blind and lame weren’t normally allowed into the Temple.

It’s interesting to see how Jesus’s radical act opened up the gates and gave more people the opportunity to encounter God. Maybe that’s a message to our churches – maybe we need to pray that the Holy Spirit would turn over some tables so that we would become a more welcoming and inclusive space. That’s especially true at the current moment – we’re suddenly faced with reconsidering what it means to be church and that gives us some real, timely, essential opportunities – and also to learn from the people who’ve already been doing this for years.

Of course, we’ve got to actually want this, and here’s the thing – often the biggest threat to our individual congregations is comfort, and often churches don’t really want the disruption. It doesn’t fit in with the demographic or the ministry profile or whatever neatly-mown lawn we consider to be our harvest field. And when that’s the case, watch out, because it wasn’t just the Temple that Jesus needed to turn upside down, and we shouldn’t expect everything to return merrily to normal once COVID-19 burns itself out.

These are times in which we need to lean into disruption We need to use this opportunity to better use technology, as that’s how we’ll stay in touch with our communities. We need to reconsider how we look after each other, because grief and isolation can be devastating. We need to look at ourselves in the mirror and hope we see something of Jesus there and not just our denominational marketing department. In days of noise and confusion, we’re fumbling our way towards what God wants from us. But one thing is clear, we can’t lock the doors, we can’t hide in ecclesiastical bunkers. Because following Jesus means turning over our own tables; following Jesus means opening the gates.

Palm Sunday 2020: The Warhorse and the Donkey

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Like last week, I was meant to be preaching this Sunday, so I’ve attached the text of my sermon and a recording in case anyone can make use of it. Well, it’s this or save it until next year….

Palm Sunday 2020 – Warhorses and Donkeys

Palm Sunday: The Warhorse and the Donkey

5th April 2020

So it’s Palm Sunday. Jesus heads towards Jerusalem riding on a donkey, his followers cheering him on, waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!”, “Lord save us!” He’s heading into Holy Week, the final showdown between… Well, between almost everything you can think of: between Jesus and the authorities, between God’s kingdom and the empires of the world, between sin and grace, between life and death. This is the beginning of the end. And we’re presented with a choice – who are we going to follow? Who are you going to trust to save you?

A few years ago, the American pastor Brian Zahnd used a phrase in a Palm Sunday sermon that’s stuck with me ever since. He described his travels throughout the world and visiting statues and art galleries, and he made this observation: “There’s always some dude on a horse.” And there is – everywhere you go, sooner or later you’ll find an image of a man on a horse, representing military power and might. These are the heroes of our past, the people we look up to. They ride impressive horses, because that fits their status. These are the people who defended us, these are the people who crushed our enemies. But you’ll notice that none of them were riding donkeys.

Back in the day, in the days leading up to Passover, Jesus wouldn’t have been the only one involved in a parade. Heading towards the other side of the city was something far more impressive. The Roman Empire, in the form of Pontius Pilate and his troops were also arriving to put their foot down, a show of strength at a time when the city was full of Passover pilgrims and memories of how God had once freed his people from a mighty nation. “Just remember who’s in charge around here,” says Pilate’s procession, as he rides into the city on a warhorse, accompanied by chariots and lots of men armed with very sharp swords.

Two parades, each representing a very different kingdom. On the one hand we have the superpower, a great empire, the most powerful army in the world. On the other hand, we have a grown man on an undersized donkey surrounded by a bunch of yokels. Looked at through the world’s eyes, there’s no question as to which is the most powerful, and this is where we have to make a choice about who we’re going to follow. Because Jesus’s parade looks very different to the sort of power the world asks us to trust in.

But Jesus is announcing the arrival of his Kingdom, the Kingdom of God. This whole parade is a fulfilment of a prophecy made by Zechariah – “See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey”. The donkey is important – 2 Samuel points out that King David’s household were known for riding on donkeys and mules. This parade links Jesus with Israel’s greatest king, but Zechariah takes it a step further – he’s talking about a king on a donkey who is also the foretold Messiah. This is more than a king having a parade to show off his might, it’s about God’s kingdom being inaugurated on Earth, an age of peace being brought into being. The bit of the prophecy quoted by Matthew is Zechariah 9:9, but it doesn’t end there; it goes on to say:

I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the war-horses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth

This is a king who brings peace to the world and reigns not just over a few territories but over the whole of creation. There’s no messing about here – Jesus entering Jerusalem like this announces that this king is now here. This is dynamite – it’s no wonder people start cheering and throwing cloaks on the ground to be trodden on by a young and nervous donkey. The age of peace, the age of the Messiah, the age of God’s kingdom has arrived. And while it wouldn’t arrive in the way everyone was expecting, of course, but arrive it did).

And so Palm Sunday is an invitation to dance into an upside down Kingdom. You’ve only got to look at it to see that: there’s a donkey rather than a stallion, peasants rather than soldiers, a carpenter rather than a generals. And as with so many things, we’ve got to figure out what that means for us here and now. Maybe we’re able to catch a glimpse of that upside-down world in the current situation – suddenly we’re honouring people we’ve been guilty of taking for granted – care workers and nurses and ambulance drivers. We’re suddenly noticing people who we’ve shamefully treated as invisible or unskilled – all those cleaners and delivery drivers who keep the world running. We’re learning innovation in how to do church from people who have previously been pushed to the margins, all those who are socially isolated and have been using technology to do church for years. The Kingdom of God raises up the weak, the neglected, the oppressed, and so often that’s where the Spirit is on the move.

So we have a chance to practice living in the upside-down Kingdom of Jesus, to follow his odd parade through the time of Coronavirus. We can practice generosity rather than hording. We can practice gratitude rather than entitlement. We can practice hope rather than despair. And when we hear the hoofbeats approaching, we can choose to ignore the wardrums and money and prejudices that pretend to save us, and instead pick up our palm branches and follow the King on the Donkey.

A Time to Weep and a Time to Mourn

2013121303There’s a strange atmosphere in the world, normality and history rubbing shoulders and no-one quite sure what to do with that. My wife was able to do a supply run today, emerging from self-isolation to grab some basics from ourselves and some friends, and it was a heavy experience; a local farm is about the close because of the virus, shoppers look at each other with suspicion and mistrust, a country tries to evoke the spirit of wartime against an enemy that doesn’t even know we’re here. I don’t think any of us were psychologically prepared for this.

Lines from the Bible (or the Byrds, take your pick) keep swimming through my mind: “A time to mourn”, “A time to weep”. In one sense it’s obviously a time for these; as of a quick Google search ten minutes ago, 36,000 people have died due to COVID-19, 1,651 of these in my country. My family knew some of those victims, friends or friends of friends; of course it’s a time to mourn, it’s what we need to do at times like this.

And yet the scale of this pandemic can be guilt-inducing. The numbers are so big, the impact so devastating, that we can feel bad about the more prosaic effects this thing is having. We can feel self-indulgent when we see others going through hell, our heads  being messed with every minute of every day.

But it’s okay to mourn. I’m saying this out loud, in public, because even though I have no authority over your life or anyone else’s, I want you to have some sort of permission to deal with everything that’s going on. Not just the deaths, although these are terrible, each one a fracture in someone’s world, but also all the other losses we go through. We need to process, to reflect, to deal with the anger and doubt and frustration and to heal, because for all we’re told to keep a stiff upper lip, sooner or later we either allow ourselves to grieve or we simply shatter. It doesn’t have to be in public, you don’t need to be on Zoom for this, but like the man said, there’s a time to weep.

And so we’re allowed to mourn for our communities, for the businesses that are struggling or going under, for those losing their jobs, their careers, their livelihoods. We can mourn the loss, however temporary, of our libraries and schools and churches and coffee mornings and Slimming World meetings.

We’re allowed to mourn the lost opportunities, the trips that now can’t be taken, the plans that need to be cancelled, the goodbyes that can’t be said.

We’re allowed to mourn our rites of passage, all those kids pulled out of school without having a prom or a graduation, the chance to have their shirts signed or a fumbled first kiss behind the fire escape, the chance to bid farewell to the friends going in different directions after the summer has passed. The exam days and the results days and, for those of us who may be looking nostalgically back on this there are still the weddings and the stag-stroke-hen nights, the retirement parties, the anniversaries, all the markers in time against which we orientate our lives and the changes we’ve seen.

We’re allowed to mourn for justice, for inequality, for those struggling through this pandemic through no fault of their own – the healthcare workers who don’t have enough time or resources or equipment, the neighbours who don’t have enough groceries, all those who are starting to cough and run a fever but who can’t go to hospital because there’s no-one to take them, or they can’t afford it, or because they’ve convinced themselves they shouldn’t be a bother. All those dealing with the ugliness that situations like this inevitably reveal.

We’re allowed to mourn for all the impossible decisions, the doctors on triage, the managers looking in despair at their staffing budgets and overheads, the mourners who have to choose who among them gets to go to the funeral and the pastors who have to help them navigate that, the leaders who are trying to tackle a situation that nothing ever prepared them for.

We’re allowed to mourn for the things we don’t understand, like my eldest son who knows that things just aren’t right, who knows life has changed and the world’s been shaken but who doesn’t quite understand why, despite him asking every day but getting repeated answers from mom and dad that just don’t fit in with his jigsaw life.

We’re allowed to mourn the silence, we’re allowed to mourn the loneliness, the anxiety, the fear.

These too are loss.

And so I’m thinking about what it means to be a beloved community in times like this, and all I can think is that we need to create and hold space for the mourning and the tears, for lament and the sad songs that are still to be written, for the candles that burn, flickering in the dark, each one saying that we’re still here, we still hurt, we still love.

Then tomorrow we light the candles all over again, and the next day, until it’s a time to laugh, a time to dance.

Church in the Time of Coronavirus

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This is a strange time to be Church.

I think it’s because, for most of us, this is so unprecedented. We’re so used to be gathering on a Sunday, to meet and sing and pray and learner, that when we can’t do that it leaves a gap, a hole, Sunday morning in limbo. Maybe that’s why COVID-19 feels so apocalyptic, in its technical meaning of ‘an unveiling’ – we appreciate our communities, we want to see those we care about, our friends and family, and this whole situation challenges this, shows where we need to become more resilient, exposes the weaknesses in our structures.

That last bit is important. In the middle of a global pandemic, we’re now scurrying to figure out what it means to be church in the time of Coronavirus. Sometimes that’s a positive – we pull together, we figure stuff out, we re-discover our ability to innovate and adapt and do things we never thought we’d do because they always felt too complicated, too expensive, too radical. At other times, though, there’s a darker flipside to all this – we retreat, become entrenched, get into debates and arguments about theology and sacraments and whose sin is to blame for all this. For good or ill, we’re all just trying to get through this, figuring it out as we go.

But here’s the thing – we need to remember that this is a privileged way of looking at things. Because if we look beyond the centre, if we turn our eyes to the horizon, if we seek out the spaces that have, shamefully, been pushed to the margins, we’ll find that many of the answers we’re looking for are already here.

The Church of God already includes those who are living in isolation, because of illness or rejection or imprisonment.

The Church of God already includes those who have practiced church in online spaces, because sometimes buildings and communities have been made inaccessible for them.

The Church of God already includes those who have been rejected, scapegoated, othered, because we’re too damn good at doing all of these.

All these are part of the Church’s collective memory, experience and knowledge, it’s just that most of the us have been painfully slow in accessing it all because it’s out there in the margins, in the corners, in the places we’re ignored or avoided, belittled or patronised. In the past I’ve used the phrase “Be a voice for the voiceless”, but that was naive – plenty of voices are already speaking words that can help us through this current crisis, but it means we have to cultivate the precious spiritual discipline of shutting up and listening.

I don’t want this to sound mercenary either. I want the Church to be stronger, yes, but we do this by practicing love, respect and humility, and by giving all our voices space to be heard and acted upon. Because quite often the Holy Spirit will be speaking through those voices; sometimes an apocalyptic unveiling is a good thing.

In I Corinthians 12, Paul describes the Church as a body made up of many parts, before pointing out that the parts of the body that have been dishonoured are actually those we need the most. That’s a message we need to hear over and over again, but particularly now.

So it’s a time to listen and to learn. Listen to disabled Christians who’ve created online church because our buildings are so often inaccessible. To our brothers and sisters who can’t meet together because of persecution or rejection. To those who who know how to make resources stretch because they don’t have any choice. To those who sound the alarm because they’ve already witnessed the darkness that can come in the aftermath of tragedy, and who know that we need to be speaking out for justice. It’s a time to listen to the teachers and the nurses and the cleaners and the binmen among us, because in a time of crisis, our theology needs to be embodied out there on the front lines. It’s a time to remember that a global pandemic is impacting a global Church, not just the corners of Christendom with the pointiest hats. It’s a time to repent of all the things we could have done to make church bigger and wider and more present but didn’t, not until it affected us personally. And, more than anything, it’s a time to stop shaming the Body of Christ and finally start listening and honouring all its parts, all its people.

Mary anoints Jesus (John 12:1-11)

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John 12 – 29th March 2020

I was due to preach at church tomorrow as part of our Lent series, a journey towards Easter through John’s gospel. Obviously COVID-19 has put paid to that, but I thought I’d post the sermon and recording I put together in case anyone can get something out of it.

The text is John 12:1-11, in which Mary anoints Jesus at Bethany, which is full of implications for how we worship and how we relate to the world, especially at a weird time like this.

Stay home, stay safe everyone. We’ll get through this.