Pandemic Pentecost

mark wiggin pentecost

Art by Mark Wiggin

Happy birthday, Church! It’s been a bumpy couple of millennia (could have done without that whole Constantine business, frankly), but here we are. It’s not the sort of Pentecost we’re used to – lockdowns and social distancing and Zoom galore – but maybe, like Easter, this gives Pentecost 2020 its own special authenticity. After all, two thousand years ago the disciples were hiding away, trying to figure out what to do next, waiting for God to make clear the way forward. And then the Spirit blows up their circumstances, wind and fire and a explosion of expression as suddenly the disciples are speaking languages they’ve never spoken before.

That last one is important. The Holy Spirit is a communicator, after all, and this feels like one of those moments in which the Church is learning to communicate all over again. It’s easy to get all Zoomed out, but look at the way congregations have been embracing the challenge of going online. And for many people who have needed to be part of an online fellowship due to the inaccessibility of many church buildings, this is an affirmation and a chance to show what the Spirit has already been doing.

Because behind all these Youtube videos and Instalives is code – language, if you will. And while Peter and the others couldn’t have even imagined Skype and Facebook as they spilled out onto the streets of Jerusalem all those years ago, the Holy Spirit could. Maybe this is its own little heresy, and if so forgive me, but I can easily imagine the Spirit biding his time to speak in a language of ones and zeroes, to send his fire through the wires and the broadband signals, to become the (Holy) Ghost in the Machine. This isn’t just theological musing – look at how many people have, in the midst of a lockdown, been able to explore issues of faith for the first time because so many churches have embraced technology? How many creative people – not just musicians and speakers, but coders and video editors – have been able to get involved in church services for the first time? All these new technologies, new expressions of art, suddenly they’re playing their part in the Church because the Spirit can bring together new languages and new creatives and make them shine.

Every year we hear the reading from Acts 2, and some poor soul has to pronounce the list of ancient nations correctly. But I think there’s a bigger idea within all this than we sometimes appreciate. Pentecost is a reversal of the Tower of Babel, language being used for unity rather than division, and in a world where so much much divides and isolates us, we need a big-brush approach to language. And so that’s a prayer for us – which languages do we need the Spirit to help us use? Sign language? Makaton? Braille? Many communities have been isolated from the Church because we don’t use their language, we can’t communicate with them effectively. May God forgive us for this; may God give us the wisdom and humility to learn from those communities that have already been led by the Spirit to embrace technology because it was the only way for them to form congregations.

The Spirit is a healer as well, and so may we use these strange and scary times to seek that healing – in terms of COVID-19, yes, but also in terms of attitudes and prejudices. I turn on my TV and America is in flames; I open my email and find that our local Chinese church is facing increased xenophobia as a result of the pandemic. Too many people thrive on Babel’s curse, and that’s something we have to confront. And then there’s the silence – of mental health, of domestic violence, of suicide, of injustice. Communication can help defeat those as well, as long as there’s power behind it and not just words.

The Spirit is big, really big. We can list his attributes – Healer, Communicator, Artist – but the whole is bigger than the sum of his parts. He can heal through art, heal through communication. He can make his people change and grow and signpost Jesus. He can make old things new again, and he can bring hope to the silence, even in lockdown.

Happy birthday, Church.

Holy Week: Easter Sunday in Lockdown

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Hallelujah, He is Risen, Wayne Pascall

Christ is risen!

It’s strange to say that without hearing the response, centuries of liturgy all left hanging. This isn’t how any of us expected to be celebrating Easter. We should be gathering and singing, but the virus is still circling and we need to be protecting the most vulnerable among us.

But here’s one of the great plot twists of the mad year of 2020: this may be the most authentic Easter many of us have experienced for a long time. After all, that first resurrection day wasn’t celebrated with parades and chocolate, it slowly emerged into a quiet garden, into locked rooms full of frightened and confused followers. Two thousand years later, and once again this feels like the sort of Easter on which Jesus sneaks up on us while we’re trying to figure out where to go from here.

The first person to meet the risen Jesus was looking for him through a veil of tears, and at first she doesn’t recognise him. There’s too much grief, too many broken expectations. Mary is broken by the moment, trapped in heartbreak and the what-happens-next, but she hears the footsteps, hears a half-familiar voice, and then hope raises from the dead, echoing outwards and forwards and backwards from one garden to another.

(I have a strange image in my head, Mary meeting Eve in some corner of Heaven, saying “I was in a garden too, it’s gonna be alright”).

Then there are the disciples, locked away in a room somewhere, to scared to go out onto the streets, trying to process what’s going on while getting under each others’ feet, too much mourning and testosterone in a confined space. But suddenly Jesus is in the middle of them and their lives are rewired along with the universe.

Thomas is late to all of this, so he doesn’t show up till later. He hears what the others say, sees the hope exploding on their faces and he thinks they’re crazy. The situation is, after all, hopeless; sooner or later reality will catch up with them. And I guess it does, for Thomas anyway, because he too will encounter Jesus, his doubts becoming part of a bigger story.

I’ll be honest, here in the quiet of Easter Sunday morning – I’m not always the most hopeful person; I worry, I fear the worst, I avoid thinking too far into the future because I don’t like not being able to see beyond the horizon, and the lockdown isn’t exactly helping that.

But it’s Easter, and Christ is risen, a guerrilla gardener sowing hope in places that need it most, walking quietly into situations and whispering our names to show us he’s still here. And that’s true even when we can’t meet together, when our celebrations pass through screens, when the world is fraying at the edges. If Easter isn’t good news while we’re all still on lockdown then it’s not the Good News. The Garden is springing back to life.

Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed.

 

 

“When the last star burns out, God’s love will be there for whatever comes after.” Brian Zahnd, Water to Wine

Spy Wednesday: Betrayal

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Judas: The Departure by Ghislaine Howard

Today, if you follow a traditional church calendar, is Spy Wednesday. The liturgical observance with the coolest name, this is when Holy Week starts getting dark, when  players start meeting in shadowy corners and thirty pieces of silver change hands. Decisions are made that will shape the days to come, with one name being forever tainted by the events of the next 72 hours.

Perhaps appropriately, Judas Iscariot is a shadowy figure. We’re not entirely clear on why he did what he did: some think he was a zealot (maybe even literally) who misunderstood Jesus’s role as messiah, who wanted to provoke a confrontation between his leader and the authorities, but who then got steamrollered by events as they turned out differently from how he expected. Others claim that Judas was in fact working with Jesus as part of their masterplan, making him the one true disciple. There are those who see him as a thief who ultimately decided that Caiaphas would be more profitable than Jesus; there are those who think he was just a man born bad. Maybe he thought he could get away with it, that the Prince of Peace and the King of Love would be an easy mark. It’s sometimes easy to mistake Jesus for being weak.

Whatever his motivations, Judas is now a synonym for betrayal. And yet tomorrow we’ll remember the Last Supper, and how Jesus washed Judas’s feet, and we’ve got to figure out what to do with that moment of grace. There are plenty of us who wouldn’t blame Jesus for publicly condemning Judas – there were, I’m sure, eleven other disciples who would have been happy to make sure Judas never got past the car park. We can argue that, knowingly or not, Judas is playing his part in cosmic events, but for a moment stop to consider the humanity of the moment – Jesus is sold out by one of his closest friends, the first hammer blow of Good Friday taking place here on Spy Wednesday.

Betrayal can be big business, ratings fodder for soap operas and occasionally politically advantageous. But for all that, it never hurts any the less. The lies, the deceit, the gas-lighting, the knife in the back, the clandestine emails, the violence, the theft, the world come crashing down as a friend or lover, child or colleague, ally or homeland turns Judas. And let’s not pretend there aren’t those who’ve been betrayed by their church, who were told they’d be welcome but who were then rejected, those who felt safe until they found themselves alone with the wrong person, until the cover-up swung into place.

The textbook answer is to say we should forgive when we’re betrayed, because it’s what Jesus would do. And there’s truth in that, but here on Spy Wednesday let’s acknowledge how difficult that can be, how much work and rebuilding has to go into something as simple as saying “I forgive you.” Sometimes it’s easier to put the burden of reconciliation onto the person who was hurt the most without recognising that this is a process of healing, of re-learning to trust, of reconstructing our self-image into one that we don’t think deserves to be betrayed. If you’re in that place, then I hope you can heal, that you can move forward. You didn’t deserve it. It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t your fault.

And then there’s the other perspective. There are times in everyone’s life where the choice is clear, to take the thirty pieces of silver or to remain true. The damage I described above? It’s a lot easier to heal from if the betrayal never happens in the first place. And yes, that may sound dramatic, but there’s not a one of us who hasn’t been hurt, from Jesus on down, and silver glints in the shadows like a beacon.

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 struggled 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.

Change sneaked up on me. I’ve been merrily plodding on, just getting on with things, then suddenly the world shook and the tables turned and here 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 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 denomination’s 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.