Running Down The Road From Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)

This post was inspired by a recent edition of the Pulpit Fiction podcast.

A man called Cleopas walks towards his home. It’s been a difficult few days; death and violence, rumours and confusion, blood and whispers. The day is drawing to a close, and Cleopas just wants to sleep, if he can, just wants to cover the last few miles to Emmaus.
He turns and sees someone approaching, a Stranger on the road. They strike up a conversation, small talk at first, pleasantries about Passover. To be honest, Cleopas doesn’t much want to talk; the Messiah’s been crucified, maybe the disciples are next. That thought, and the look on his face, seem to beg a question; the Stranger asks what’s been happening. That’s all the excuse he needs; Cleopas gets the events of the weekend off his chest: Jesus is dead, and a messianic dream with him, despite disjointed whispers of an empty tomb.

The Stranger reacts strangely; instead of nodding and taking in this news, he instead launches into a free-former exegesis, ancient scriptures and the words of the prophets dancing with this very weekend. The group walks through the dusk as their shadows lengthen, Cleopas listening with rapt curiousity as the jigsaw of his faith is reassembled with the help of a different picture.

As the sun sinks, and everyone pulls their cloak around them, the laws of hospitality kick in and Cleopas invites the Stranger into his home. They continue talking as they throw wood on the fire, as the table is laid, as the Stranger takes bread and breaks it, as the eyes of Cleopas are opened and he suddenly recognises the face and the scars of Jesus himself. And suddenly Jesus is gone and all Cleopas can think of is finding the other disciples and singing of what he’s seen. He needs to go back to Jerusalem.

But here’s the thing: this is all taking place at night, centuries before street lighting, before night buses. Bandits lurk beyond the threshold, prowling the streets between Emmaus and the city. Under normal circumstances, most people would stay safe behind closed doors; this, however, is Easter Sunday, a day that takes those normal circumstances and transforms them, illuminates them, raises them from the dead.

So Cleopas runs out into the night, no thought for the bandits, stumbling along the way in the moonlight, abandoning safety in favour of proclamation. He runs into Jerusalem, ignoring the looks from all those people who hang out on city streets at night. He finds the disciples and tells them what he saw as the Stranger broke the bread. That’s where we leave him, in the Upper Room, celebrating and singing as the chains of guilt and abandonment quietly fall to the floor.

Today the journey feels dark. We walk through life knowing that our leaders are in love with nuclear missiles, knowing that our theologies can sometimes become weapons, knowing that economic and social gears creak and grind as the innocent are caught in their teeth. It would be easier to stay home, safer, easier to stay in our pews and sing and mingle and wait for the dawn to come.

But it’s not that simple, is it? The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. The resurrection has come, and even though it’s dark outside we need to tell of what we’ve seen by its glory. We run through the night unafraid of its shadows and holding the hands of those we find there as we wait for daybreak.

May we encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus, but never let this be the end of the journey; let us always be found on the road from Emmaus, dancing through the dark because the resurrection breaks the power of the shadows, because freedom is found in broken bread, because even though the night feels long, a beacon shines as we sing of the dawn that’s come.

Joshua Norton and Jesus: A Post for Christ the King Sunday

In 1859, America got its first Emperor.

He wasn’t  a traditional emperor, because America officially doesn’t do that sort of thing. Nevertheless, emerging from a self-imposed exile following his bankruptcy the previous year, Joshua Norton proclaimed him the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

Now, it’s clear that Norton wasn’t a real emperor, but he did become a much loved part of San Franciscan life as people played along. He wore an ornate uniform and wrote dramatic proclamations in the local press, and if he liked a local restaurant he’d award it royal patronage. At one point he walked into the middle of a riot targeting Chinese workers and recited the Lord’s Prayer until the rioters dispersed. And when he died in 1880, tens of thousands lined the streets to say their final farewells to their beloved emperor. Reading the tributes is a moving experience: “Emperor Norton has killed nobody. robbed nobody and despoiled no country, which is more than can be said for some fellows of his line.”

Norton died alone in a rain-soaked street, but his funeral cortage was two miles long.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, and Christians around the world will be celebrating how Jesus is king over God’s Kingdom. But in doing that, we need to recognise how that Kingdom looks very different to the empires of this world. We sometimes forget that, when we look around our great cathedrals and revel in having the ear of kings and Queens and presidents. In his last week on earth, Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of an infant donkey, he caused chaos in the middle of the Temple, and he got nailed to a cross like a common revolutionary. Without the benefit of hindsight, without the light of the Resurrection, Jesus’s Kingdom probably looked more like Emperor Norton than the Caesars or the Herods.

I think that’s something we need to rediscover. We sometimes get too comfortable, too institutionalised, too powerful. We become too used to being part of the elite, the in-crowd. And yet, way back in the day, St. Paul wrote that “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Today we honour Christ as King. But his Kingdom is a different world founded on different principles. The last are first, the foolish are wise, the meek shall inherit the earth. It’s an upside down Kingdom that doesn’t ride into town on a mighty war horse;  it appears, often quietly, in the margins, in the brokenness, in forgotten spaces and ignored places. And so that means getting our hands dirty, it means being radical, sometimes it means becoming unpopular, sometimes it means speaking truth to power.

The embassies of this Kingdom should be our churches, and often they are. But sometimes the embassies of the Kingdom are soup kitchens and food banks,  sometimes they’re vandalised because the love and grace of God burn so brightly that people race to put out the fire. And then some churches are beautifully constructed and the worship sounds great, but something inside them has turned toxic and the glory of God has left the building. And that statement sounds crazy because their congregations may still number in the thousands, but the Kingdom of God isn’t measured by our metrics; the palace may be there but Christ won’t sit on their thrones.

And this reminds me of another American eccentric. James Hampton was a war veteran and a janitor,  a quiet man who kept himself to himself. He lived in Washington DC until his death in 1964, and upon his passing his family and neighbours learned of a project Hampton had been working on for fourteen years. Inside a rented garage, they discoverer a throne Hampton had made for Jesus to sit on in the event of the Second Coming. This wasn’t a professional job; it was made from old furniture, tin foil, coffee cans, vases and light bulbs. This wasn’t a traditional throne, not a million pound, gold plated project, but a piece of outsider art. And yet somehow that represents the upside-down Kingdom of God better than many things that have the ‘correct’ branding and marketing.

Today we celebrate Christ our King, and rightly so. But we need to remember that he’s King of a Kingdom that looks morelike him than the empires of earth, and that this needs to be reflected in the inhabitants of that Kingdom. And if that happens, the world may think we’re crazy.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Christ vs Christendom: Christ the King Sunday 2016

It’s Christ the King Sunday, but I find myself stuck in the wilderness. Jesus is there too; this is the moment, after forty days of fasting, that Jesus faces temptation. And although this is an alien looking landscape, and a mysterious, liminal confrontation with powers and principalities, the temptations he faces are very familiar: security, power, fame.
Jesus rejects the temptations, of course, because his path goes through the wilderness rather than avoiding it. He will still become king over all, he’ll still be enthroned, but that throne will be a cross and his coronation has crucifixion as a centrepiece.

It would be a mistake to see this temptation as a unique moment. Because while this is renowned as the moment that launched Jesus’s ministry, it’s also a moment that repeats itself, constantly, throughout the life of the Church.

Temptation is a choice, every time, and often we fail. That’s a fact of life, and praise the Lord for his mercy and grace. Forgiveness is at the heart of faith, and I rely on this far more than I like to admit.

But sometimes temptation leads us into dark places, and sometimes we dance collectively into that darkness because, let’s face it, while the Church will always brand itself as Christ’s, too often we end up rejecting him because we prefer to choose Saul as our actual king.

Saul is, after all, handsome. Saul is powerful. Saul is a warrior. “Give us a king!” we cry, and in doing so we reject the one who already has the job. And when we do this, things change; the Body of Christ mutates into Christendom, and people start getting scared.

This is a blasphemy, of course, and a heresy. We envisage enemies at the gates, we hallucinate a Fifth Column within, taking all we have. The fasting Jesus was challenged to turn rocks to bread, and that’s a temptation born out of scarcity, of security. When we ask for stones to be made into loaves, it’s a lack of faith. After all, where would we stop? Provision becomes prosperity, we think we’re sating our greed but in reality it always becomes more. We make ourselves rich while others starve outside our gates, and we like kings who encourage that prosperity.

Power is another concern. We like power.  Someone has to slay our enemies, someone has to weed out the traitors, someone has to bomb the bad guys and make all the thugs and the terrorists get into line. And if you can achieve that, well, you’d be a legend, a star, everyone would look up to you,  praise you, kneel before you. Don’t worry about all the menial things, you can always subcontract the foot washing if you want.

It’s easy to give into temptation. It’s easy to ignore that Christ is on the throne. It’s easy to set up our own imperial cults that code our own baser desires. Voices within our congregations will claim thst the biggest threat facing our churches is same-sex marriage, or radical Islam, or liberals. I suspect the greatest threat is a more insidious thing.

It’s Christendom’s Empire facing down the power of God’s Kingdom.

It’s the structures that have given in to the wilderness temptations beating down those who resisted those same temptations.

It’s triumphalism crushing others underfoot.

It’s praising Christ as King but following someone else because we think thry’re going to save us and our faith.

Institutions don’t save. Politicians, priests an emperors don’t save. Jesus saves, and as the Church, we’re just here to provide ground support. And we can’t do that without being rooted in Christ himself, not surrogates or substitutes. Maybe that’s our cue to start refocusing on the one who’s really on the throne rather than building our own empire. It’s far too easy to become the ones doing the crucifying rather than those who look to the King on the Cross; we become radicalised rather than sanctified.

We’re all in the wilderness, every one. The question is, who do we follow out of the desert?

Disability and the Church: Prophesy in a Dangerous Time

The United Nations has recently released a report stating that welfare reforms in the UK have led to “grave and systematic violations” of the rights of disabled people. Along with the implementation of the reforms, one of the areas the report criticises is the portrayal of people with disabilities as lazy, scroungers, burdens on society. And that portrayal is the most insidious, because it allows all the other violations of rights to be rubber-stamped by those who buy into the negative depiction of, say, someone with ‘invisible’ disabilities, or who doesn’t need to use a wheelchair 24/7 (and who therefore gets criticised for walking when they can).

All of this is horrifying, and while some may quibble with the wording or the findings, research has found that attacks on disabled people are increasing, and while some of that may be down to increased reporting, it’s sobering to note that in the same period, violent crime in general has actually reduced.

All of which makes me worry about the future for my kids.

Now, I’ve posted here before about the need for the church to better engage those with disabilities. Inclusion is something that every church thinks it does well, but in reality there are a lot of things we can do better, a lot of things that need to change – buildings, yes, but also language, structures, attitudes… So many people feel exiled from the wider church community, so many people struggle to find acceptance within a congregation, so many have to fight every step of the way to be treated as an equal, for their kids to be respected like everyone else.

I’ve argued here before how the church needs to get past this, to recognise the Image of God in everyone and to make our sacred spaces more accessible and inclusive. All of this remains true.

But at the same time churches are meant to be outposts of the Kingdom of God. And they’re supposed to reflect the heart of Christ for those around them. And in a society where some of the most vulnerable are being treated terribly, where people are being scapegoated by the media and opportunistic politicians, the church has to decide whose side it’s on. In a sense it faces similar temptations to Jesus in the wilderness – keep quiet and bow the knee for earthly power, or take a stand. And that might be costly. We might offend some people who give generously when the collection plate comes round. We might have to divert some of our church budgets away from cosmetic enhancements in order to make sure we’re accessible to all. But people are becoming the victim of hate crimes, they’re being crushed in the gears of our political systems, and we can’t ignore that without fatally compromising who we’re meant to be.

The church needs to reclaim its prophetic voice. We need to speak the words of the God who has a heart for the poor and the marginalised. And some of that will mean challenging the entrenched views of some members of our congregations, and putting our own house in order first, but at the same time we need to show some leadership here. Because the world has the potential to go into some dark places here – we’re already on the way – and if we’re going to be the light of the world then we need to flick the lightswitch. Salt’s no good if it’s lost its saltiness, just something else to be walked all over.

We live in interesting times. We live in dangerous times. And those are the times at which the rubber needs to meet the road; those are the times we need to unleash the prophets and fling open the gates and declare that we’re not going to look like the world around us, instead we’re going to look, however imperfectly, like Jesus.

He’s waiting for us to join him.

Why Your Church Needs An Environmental Strategy

Look, I know there are people reading this who don’t believe in climate change, or at least who don’t think it’s influenced by humanity. And I’m no scientist, and I’m not going to be able to present a bunch of data that will convince you otherwise. All the same, I still think your church should have an environmental strategy. Here’s why.

A lot of Christians see the earth as transitory, that our ultimate destiny lies in the recreated new heaven and new earth described in Revelation. And so when climate change is described in apocalyptic terms, it almost feels like a clash of eschatologies, a theological Mexican stand-off. Now, this is fascinating as far as it goes, but it’s an indulgent theological dead end; there are plenty of people experiencing environmental problems now. This isn’t an issue for the future, it’s an issue that’s rocked up and sat down on our doorstep.

Just ask the people living in areas impacted by the Dakota Access Pipeline. If you live thee, environmental issues have a daily impact, especially if you’re getting manhandled by security and railroaded by corporations and watching your rivers get poisoned. And it’s not getting a vast amount of airtime, but it’s a lived reality for a lot of people right now. It’s not a hypothetical situation, it’s something that needs an immediate, local, incarnational response.

Of course, you and I may have been fortunate enough to have dodged this, at least in the immediate sense. That’s great for me, but it’s a major reason to think about how our churches respond to environmental issues. Because acres of the Bible teach us that we should have compassion and concern for the poor, and yet who’s on the front line of climate change and other green issues?

Exactly. The poor.

That immediately places a responsibility on the church. People are suffering as a result of environmental issues, many of those our brothers and sisters in Christ, and as disciples we need to be aware of this. We need to develop a greater appreciation for what’s happening in the wider world, we need to have a greater awareness of how our choices affect people on the other side of the globe, we need to get better at foreseeing all those unforeseen circumstances.

Now, that might be beyond the resources of most churches, but we can keep an eye on our neighbours, we can be better stewards of our resources, we can build more informed relationships with all those countries we support through our mission budgets. And that means asking some very focused questions about our local communities: how does all this affect churches in rural, agricultural areas? What happens if a town or city becomes more prone to flooding? Is your churchyard a Noah’s Ark? Who in our congregations are most at risk from extremes of temperature? Kids? The elderly? How do we look after them? Does everyone have decent drinking water? Is someone about to dump toxic waste into our local river? Are there any decent green spaces in our town? What about outdoor leisure facilities? How many jobs depend on the environment (or on trashing the environment)?

“Environment” is a big word. It encompasses climate, biodiversity, waste management, public spaces, public hygiene, plants and animals, soil and seed. And all of these impact each one of us, so your church needs an environmental strategy because it’s another way of serving your community and demonstrating God’s love to those around us, both right now and in the future. It’s not a matter of scientific or theological debate; it’s a matter of compassion and justice.

There are oportunities here, if we’ll open our eyes to them. Maybe it’s the impetus you need to do something fun and creative with that patch of land at the back of your church. Maybe by saving energy you can save money and reinvest those savings into new and existing projects. Maybe this could transform your next harvest festival. Maybe it could bring you out onto the streets for justice. Maybe it’ll wake up some prophets.

And as the environment is a global issue, there are opportunities for us to act as the worldwide Body of Christ. Congregations in the west could learn something about biodiversity from Ethiopia’s forest churches, for example; maybe this is another reason we should act as a network rather than in silos.

I don’t know what all this looks like in your church community – that’s for you to figure out. But I do know you need to plan for how your congregation interacts with its environment because that’s not something that’ll be dealt with by the eschaton, it’s something that affects all our lives, every minute, every day. And if we’re going to live out the Kingdom of God in our world, the least we can do is make sure the streets are clean, that the baptismal waters are non-toxic, that the least among us are protected. And that the good creation gift of God is honoured and respected.