Holding Hands With The Untouchables (Mark 1:40-42)

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In Hinduism there’s a festival, Raksha Bandhan, which celebrates the bond between brothers and sisters, girls tying a rakhi – sacred thread – around a boy’s wrist to symbolise her love, respect and prayers for her brother.

I only know about this because a colleague recently told a story from the school she teaches at, about how an elderly rag picker showed an interest in the school’s Raksha Bandhan celebrations. Noticing this, the young girl, aged just 12 or 13 went up to the rag picker and tied a rakhi to his wrist.

The old man burst into tears, then knelt down and touched the girl’s feet – a mark of great respect but also a cultural taboo, as this is a gesture intended only for your elders, not for children.

“You don’t understand,” said the rag picker to those embarrassed at this outpouring of emotion, “This is the first time in my long life that anyone has shown me this sort of compassion and respect.”

Then there was the time Jesus met a leper. “If you’re willing, you can make me clean!” begged the man, and so Jesus reaches out, touches and heals him.

41 verses into Mark’s Gospel and Jesus is breaking a taboo. Leprosy – which was used as a catch-all for any nasty skin-related disease – wasn’t just a medical condition, it was also spiritual: Leviticus 13 and 14 goes into painstaking detail on the subject, and while the whole thing seems to be about infection control, you can’t escape the negative connotations that would attach themselves to sufferers.

Dirty. Unclean. Infectious.

That’s the taboo Jesus is breaking. Let’s face it, if he has divine power to heal the man, he’s surely got the power to heal him at a distance. He doesn’t – he reaches out, touches him, and momentarily joins him in his unclean state (ceremonially at least) before taking it away, leaving everyone whole.

This isn’t just platitudes, this is radical compassion. In some ways it’s even a foreshadowing of what Jesus would accomplish on the Cross.

And that’s something his disciples are called to reflect.

It’s something that I react against; I’m an introvert, I never know what to say, I’m tired and I don’t have any answers to why terrible things have happened. Lord, don’t send me to an Aids orphanage in Africa, it’s far easier to set up a direct debit and be done with. Being compassionate at at distance is a piece of cake, being compassionate in person wears me out.

Deep down we know that isn’t always enough, that it’s economics, that it can’t hug or weep. We know that sometimes a situation is so heart-breaking that any attempt to provide answers would just be sociopathic. Those situations require something more human; community, compassion, contact.

I’m not going to pretend I know what it’s like to be completely on the margins – I’m a white, western man with an iPhone and enough spare time to write two blogs; as someone once said, my demographic plays life on the easy setting. I have no grasp on what it’s like to be an Indian rag picker or a Galilean leper.

But I claim to follow Jesus, and that means not only trying to communicate his words when I’m safely sat behind a laptop, but also being his hands and feet in the world. That means showing love and compassion, recognising and celebrating the humanity of those around us. That’s not always easy, and sometimes it has to be downright sacrificial: Jesus touching the leper opened up a whole can of worms about acceptance and compassion and love triumphing over doctrine. Do I really want that hassle?

What does that say about me?

Well, it may say a lot, but there’s Jesus reaching out to a worn-out and selfish man, just as he reached out to a leper two thousand years ago. And if a rag picker and a twelve year old can model radical compassion and acceptance then it’s time for me to try and do the same.

The Golden Calf and the Importance of Plurals (Exodus 32)

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This post was inspired by an almost-throwaway comment made last Sunday in the sermon at Mars Hill Bible Church. Heck, this blog wouldn’t exist if I wasn’t obsessed with the obscure references and readings used by preachers; on the other hand, I should probably try not to get so distracted half way through a sermon…

Anyway, the Golden Calf. Moses has climbed Mount Sinai to receive the Law of God, and he’s been gone so long that the people back on the ground start getting twitchy. They go to Aaron, the brother of Moses and designated high priest, to get something sorted; they don’t want a God stuck up a mountain who may well have just fried Moses, they want a god who they can see and touch and understand. They want a god to carry before them.

And Aaron, who is either an idiot or terrified he’s about to fall victim to a lynch mob, goes along with it. He collects all the gold he can – much of which was plundered from Egypt, so there’s perhaps something here about their relationship with their former oppressor – and forges it into a golden calf. “Here are your gods!” he proclaims; notice he uses the plural even though there’s only one calf. This may be important.

Anyway, Moses returns, sees what’s happened, grinds down the calf, makes the Israelites drink the resulting gold dust (a metaphor for the lack of sustainable provided by the memory of Egypt?), people get executed, it all ends badly. The story is the archetypal warning against idolatry and if that’s all there is to it then that’s enough. But there may be something else going on…

See, this story is referred to in Nehemiah 9, only there the writer corrects the weird plural thing – one calf, one god. And reading it like that leads to another possible interpretation – what if the calf is meant to be the God? We tend to think the calf was intended as a replacement for God, but what it was a mockery, a grotesque charicature that reduced the majestic God of the universe, God the Uncreated, to a tacky bit of bling made only to shut up some whiners? They’ve turned the God who liberated them from slavey into a craft project, a cynical craft project at that.

But why not? After all, a craft project is controllable. You can worship it as a god if you want, but you’ll always have the upper hand because you know where it came from and you could always throw it away and get a better one, maybe in a nicer colour and with full social media integration. God isn’t that safe – he’s in charge. Maybe that’s why the calf is still an attractive prospect – given how some Christians treat others, I’m convinced they want God less than they want a golden calf who justifies hatred of whatever group they’re angry at this time.

And maybe that’s one of the greatest sins that makes up idolatry, turning God into our mouthpiece rather than us acting as his. And it’s a blasphemy because it results in a brutalised representation of God when God has already made himself visible and present in the world, through the person of Jesus. I mean, look at how Jesus is misrepresented and co-opted. Goodness knows what we could do if we were still making our own gods.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? If, as Christians, our God doesn’t look like Jesus, it’s just another golden calf. And it’s time for it to go.

Swords into Ploughshares (Isaiah 2:3-4; Micah 4:3)

20130121-051014.jpg“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Martin Luther King

Sitting on a mountainside one day, Jesus wove a story of love for enemies and turning the other cheek, a picture of a world dominated not by the sword of Rome but the love of God, a vision that engages with two ancient prophets who saw swords beaten into ploughshares.

It’s easy to get caught up in the majesty of this vision and not think about the implications. There’s an obvious contrast between war, which brings death, and agriculture that produces life, the warrior and the farmer, but let’s not stop at imagery and metaphor. There’s a practicality to this message.

The current budget of the British Armed forces is £37.5 billion; in 2012, the military budget of the US was around a trillion dollars. Isaiah’s vision effectively sees all this pumped into feeding people; Micah’s messianic world completely rewrites the economic rule book. And yes, this is a future age, not tied to the structures and brokenness of our world, but what if we prayed till our knees bled that we’d see just a taste of this, a foreshadowing, instead of school shootings and wars? Is it possible that, despite the visions, despite the commands of Christ, we don’t really believe that such a world is possible?

“Swords into ploughshares.” It’s a phrase that shatters one of our most ancient idolatries. In Isaiah 31, he warns us not to put our trust in chariots horses, in Predator Drones or aircraft carriers. We think they make us strong, but let’s not kid ourselves, their power pulls us away from the Lord; it becomes easier to trust in our arsenal and not in our God. We’re called to take our idols and turn them into something more productive. We’re called to take our resources and use them as a blessing, not as tools of intimidation, fear, violence, anger. And that’s way bigger and more spiritually demanding than just the percentage of our taxes that goes on defence or the money a shooting fan may spend on their hobby.

This demands a change of heart; it’s not just about an absence of weapons, it’s about an absence of the desire to use them. And maybe that’ll be easy to achieve in the future messianic age, but achieving it now, in a society that seemingly loves to turn us against each other? That’s when we see the true power of this idea.

Today is Martin Luther King Day, on which we celebrate a man faced with a choice – to lead a revolution open to the idea of violence, or to inspire a movement driven by love and non-violence. Given how African-Americans were oppressed in the sixties, it would have been simple to do the former; instead he chose the latter and created a legacy of non-violence that persists to this day. King was rooted in these biblical ideas, with his own dream of mountains, unity and peace.

It’s a dream of wholeness and shalom, living in a fundamental, divine state of grace. And in the now-and-not-yet Kingdom of God, Christ’s call to turn the other cheek tells us to live like this now, in a world where conflict is real and recourse to weapons – words, guns, ‘God Hates Fags’ banners – is still an instinctive reaction. What if we took all the effort and resources we put into those weapons, into all that spitting hatred, and used it to feed our ‘enemies’ instead, to invite them to a banquet? To take seriously the words of Jesus and actually love our enemies, both real and imagined?

There’s a beautiful article over at SheLoves about a woman who has seen the power of taking this literally; today we celebrate a man who did this too, even under a starless sky. Dare we take these example’s of Christ’s love in action and use them to look at our weapons, to see how we can transform them into tools of radical blessing? Maybe that’s why the farming metaphor is so potent; tied up with ideas about the healing and restoration of the world, it invites us to share its produce with those around us, mending communities and forging fellowship as we do.

One future day, when war and death are broken, swords will be beaten into ploughshares. Let’s be revolutionary and begin this transformation today.

Update: It turns out that someone has coined a name for a gun that’s been transformed into a guitar – Escopetarra. Invented by Columbian peace activist Cesar Lopez, there’s a video of his work over at Cultures of Resistance.

Epiphany, the Wise Men and John the Baptist (Matthew 2;1-12; John 1:29-34)

WiseMenAdorationMurilloTraditionally Epiphany celebrates the Wise Men visiting Jesus, and immediately that raises a whole bunch of questions. After all, they figure out what’s going on because they’re familiar with stars and prophecies, but all that knowledge is from outside a Jewish context. Effectively they’re astrologers, as far as we know, and Judaism wasn’t all that impressed with astrology. And yet, in this case at least, studying the stars leads them to Jesus. It’s almost like, for once, God is speaking a different language to bring those who are far away into his family.

And yet, despite this, the Magi don’t quite get it. They find themselves in a palace in Jerusalem, not a stable in Bethlehem; they’re working to a stereotype of what a king should be, not the reality of who Jesus was, and because of this they’re just one angelic dream away from screwing everything up.

So we’ve basically got a bunch of people half making it up as they go along, possessing some knowledge of the situation (the gifts they bring are prophetic, whether that’s intentional or not), but also blessed with a new vision – an epiphany  of the Messiah. Of course their misunderstanding is imperfect – whose isn’t? Frankly, this blog is just my way of trying to figure this stuff out, same as everyone else who tries to get to grips with the Bible. It’s big and complicated and fascinating and worrying and sometimes it would be really, really nice to have an epiphany that straightens out all those tricky bits.

We start with Jesus though, not that he’s easy to figure out either. That’s my only real problem with the WWJD? bracelets that were popular a few years ago – Jesus didn’t always do what people thought he would. He did the unexpected and he’s not the sort of person you can tame by sticking him into a pigeon-hole somewhere. Jesus is bigger than that.

jesus-baptismHeck, even his relatives didn’t have him figured out. Look at John the Baptist’s reaction to him in John chapter 1 – “I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”

Wait, what?

John was Jesus’s second cousin, or at least a member of the family. Look at the Nativity narratives, Mary and Elizabeth both know their children will grow up to be the key players in God’s plan of salvation. Thirty years later and Jesus comes to be baptised by John and John only then seems to recognise that he’s the Messiah. Wasn’t he expecting his cousin to show up as liberator one day? Didn’t the family talk about this stuff? Didn’t his mom or dad tip him off?!

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Epiphany also celebrates the baptism of Jesus, and so it’s worth thinking about John’s revelation that Jesus was the Messiah. Because for all we think we know Jesus, for all we believe we can put him in a box and use him to rubber stamp our politics and our prejudices, sometimes he’s a surprise, a shock, an unexpected arrival into a belief system we thought we’d all got figured. If John the Baptist needed the Holy Spirit to point him in the right direction, when he’d grown up in the same family as Jesus, the rest of us definitely need to put some work into finding out what Jesus expects of us.

So maybe this Epiphany, it’s worth asking God to give us a fresh vision of Jesus and to show us the truth of Christ, not the stereotypes that lead us astray. We need to find ourselves in Bethlehem’s stable, not Herod’s palace.

Loving Your Imaginary Enemies (Matthew 5:43-48)

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(This post was inspired by a TED talk by Ronny Edry, telling the story of how he accidentally created an online movement for peace in the Middle East. It’s well worth a listen.)

“Love your enemies” Jesus said, but it’s not always that easy, is it? What about the people who troll us and bully us, who betray and abuse us? Taking that terrifying initial step towards forgiveness is important, yes, but easy? No way, and I don’t want to trivialise that.

But there are two kinds of enemies – the real ones, the individuals who have genuinely caused us harm, and the other kind. Or rather, the Other.

In the talk I linked to earlier, Israeli Ronny Edry describes how he posted a Facebook poster of himself saying “We love Iranians”. This was when war between the two countries seemed inevitable, and yet the poster had an unexpected reaction – people reciprocated, seeing those from the other side as individuals and giving them the opportunity to relate to each other as human beings, not as some amorphous group of enemies.

A while back, I was in Cairo on business, and on the flight home, I overheard a conversation in which people were blaming Israel for shark attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh. Now, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert in Middle Eastern politics, but I’m pretty sure Israel doesn’t command a navy full of remote controlled sharks. It’s a story of what happens when one group perceives another simply as the Enemy, the Other – the truth of the situation, the humanity, gets subsumed in conspiracy theories and prejudice and fear.

And so we get proclamations that gay people are responsible for hurricanes, that Muslims are all barely-undercover terrorists, that Israel hypnotises sharks to attack Arabs. In the UK, attacks on the disabled are increasing and those claiming state benefits are somehow responsible for a precarious global economy. “Look at them,” say the whispers in the media, in pubs, on Facebook, “They’re the Other. They’re the Enemy. Fear them.”

Fear. This is what all this is rooted in. An enemy has been created and we’re told to fear them, and let’s not kid ourselves, the Church has been complicit in this thinking. For all we say we believe in the supremacy of God, we act awfully scared sometimes.

“Perfect love drives out fear,” wrote John, and maybe we can link this to Jesus commanding us to love our enemies. Because how often are our enemies not a genuine threat but people we’ve been told, for no good reason, to be afraid of? How often did Jesus reach out to ‘enemies’ and outsiders, simply because he loved them as individuals? He wasn’t scared of the Other – why should he be? He wasn’t motivated by fear.

It’s a new year. Maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at how we view the world, to re-examine some false dichotomies and see people as people, individuals to be loved and enemies no longer.