Stations: Dismas

dismas-crossBut while Jesus sets out towards Calvary’s hill, another man is beginning a similar journey. We remember this man as a thief, a bandit, but it’s possible that’s a quirk of translation and that he was just as much a political prisoner as Jesus himself. What you call this man depends on how you view his cause: if you think the Jews had a point and were right to violently rebel against Rome, then he’s a freedom fighter; if you think, say, stabbing tax collectors and collaborators to death in a dark alley somewhere is indefensible then maybe he’s a terrorist.

Either way, he’s facing death, heading towards a cross and nails just like Jesus. We don’t really know his name, although tradition knows him as Dismas; we don’t know what brought him to this point, what got him into criminality, how he got radicalised. His life, like thousands of others, was lived in parallel with those who’d go on to become more famous, never intersecting ’til the last possible moment.

His anonymity is the power of his story. Two thieves hang either side of Jesus, one spitting curses, the other seeking mercy, two responses to Jesus in the face of infinity. Dismas, either through second-hand knowledge or the insight of a dying man, recognises the King beside him. Maybe, for a criminal fighting for every gasp of breath, the Crown of Thorns was a prophecy.

“Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”

And Jesus, lungs screaming, turns to Dismas and promises that they’ll walk side by side into a different world, whispering hope through the pain.

Dismas is immortalised in that moment of grace, his image part of so many Easter scenes, his name even running through cult films. His hanging body comes to be an embodiment of mercy, forgiveness overriding everything so that while we don’t know the nature of his crimes, we do know where he found himself after taking that final walk.

And as we watch, grace threads its way around the nails and the wounds and the grain of the wood as Jesus looks at the man next to him and remembers.

The other posts in this series can be found here.

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Lent 2014: Ash Wednesday (Psalm 51)

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It’s been a while since I’ve seen a street preacher, especially one that fits the stereotype. Maybe they’ve gone out of fashion, those wild-eyed would-be prophets, loud of voice and high in volume, each one carrying a hand-painted sign proclaiming a single word.

REPENT.

Nowadays those signs have faded from view; you just don’t see them as much. Some of them have mutated into marquees and hang outside churches. It’s probably safer that way. Besides, ‘repent’ is a word only church folk use, sometimes for good reason, other times as a way of shaming those who are already scared and hurting and vulnerable.

Ash Wednesday‘s traditionally a time of repentance, a way of entering Lent with honesty – yeah, I’ve screwed up, I admit it, I’m sorry. And I’m not into shaming or yelling about the indiscretions of others on the street, but I know that there are times I need to admit my guilt and actions and apologise, to confess to both God and those around me.

Yeah, even for things no-one knows about. Like hurling abuse at tailgaters the other day.

Psalm 51 is a traditional reading for Ash Wednesday. It’s King David’s hymn of confession – here’s a man who slept with someone else’s wife then committed murder to cover it up. He’s pouring out his heart and guilt to God, almost as an offering. After all, he knows a ritual sacrifice isn’t going to cover it, God’s more interested in his heart.

But it doesn’t end there. We sometimes think of confession as a guilt trip, but often it’s a moment of release. Stop carrying around the baggage of your wrongdoing, stop running from your past.

Turn around.

That’s what ‘repent’ means, ‘to turn around’. And looked at in that way, there are so many metaphors we can use – it’s the moment we head back home, the moment we start a new journey, the moment we return to God.

Because that’s what Lent’s all about, a journey towards an empty tomb via a cross. Rebirth, resurrection, new life, all these things… But we have to turn towards them; something has to die before it can be reborn.

I was going to talk about how sometimes the church needs to corporately repent of how it props up and creates systems and attitudes that hurt and oppress others. I still think that’s true, but I’m a part of that church, and I can yell at the system all I want, but it won’t change anything, because I’m as broken and guilty and as loved and wanted as anyone else in God’s eyes.

The change starts with me turning around, facing a new direction, running back towards God. Look at the Psalm again; David prays that he would change and be forgiven before he prays for his city. Somehow he knows that our hearts and our structures are all connected, and transformation starts with individuals.

No; the transformation starts with Easter, with a specific individual; with a cross and a garden and death defeated in ashes. This is the message of Easter; that forgiveness and a new start are both possible. Maybe today’s a good day to do a u-turn and start a new journey.

(By the way, I’m having an eye operation tomorrow. If anyone fancies sparing me a prayer feel free…)

The Song of the Sword (Genesis 4:17-24, Matthew 18:21-22)

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There are shadowy chapters in Genesis, full of mysterious characters and events that give hints of a doomed primal world. Between the Fall and the Flood, dangerous figures lurk.

One of these is Lamech. The sixth generation from Cain, we know little of him; he was a polygamist, and his children would go on to become innovators in the arts and other technology. We also know that he was a killer.

We don’t know who he killed or why. We know it was an act of vengeance, but disproportionately so. It was also a way of declaring his independence from God; only a few verses earlier, God has assured the exiled Cain that he’ll be avenged seven times over if anyone kills him. Now Lamech takes matters into his own hands; if anyone hurts him, they’re going down. God only avenges seven times over; Lamech will make you pay seventy-seven times just for looking at him funny. His arrogant, threatening words declaring this to his wives have become known as the Song of the Sword; it’s not exactly edifying, and maybe Lamech should disappear into history, just another violent man to be forgotten.

But his words seem to have resonance centuries later. Look at the numbers used: seventy? Seventy-seven? Sound familiar?

In Matthew 18 , Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother – seven times? No, replies Jesus, seventy-seven times.

I’m not sure there’s a direct connection. It’s more likely that there’s a link between Jesus’s words and Leviticus 25; after all, he’s using the language of Jubilee. But it serves as a powerful contrast to the actions of Lamech. Within a few generations of the creation, humanity is majoring in revenge and a twisted form of Justice that states that it’s okay that to make others suffer if they’ve wronged you. Countering this with the idea that forgiveness should not only be necessary but boundless is a form of liberation.

After all, Lamech’s attitude was doomed to keep mankind trapped in a cycle of payback and vengeance for whole lifetimes. In the case of Genesis, that involved a life being snuffed out; nowadays it might mean decades of not speaking to a whole branch of the family because of something that was said to a grandparent just after D-Day.

Jesus steps into this debate and is pretty clear about it – you forgive. You forgive and you forgive again and you go on forgiving because ultimately it’s God’s justice that wins out, not Lamech’s. The cycle of revenge needs to be broken because it’s a trap that leads to anger and bitterness and destruction and those things aren’t of God. There’s a reason Jesus uses jubilee language, the language of release from slavery, when it comes to forgiveness. It’s because unforgiveness and the constant search for payback are just another form of captivity and Jesus, fortunately, is all about freedom.

There’s a reason Lamech is largely forgotten, a footnote of history sandwiched between other, more interesting stories. Because Jesus’ words of forgiveness are more compelling than Lamech’s words of blood; it’s far more liberating to sing songs of deliverance than songs of the sword.

Never Assume Anything… Jesus anointed by the ‘wrong’ sort of person (Luke 7:36-50)

Mary Magdelene Anoints Jesus Feet 03Never assume anything – it makes an ass out of u and me. I first heard that at school; the person who told it me was a Christian and couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud, so he wrote it down. That was twenty years ago. It’s taken me a long time to learn that lesson.

In Luke 7, Jesus goes to dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Somehow a ‘sinful’ woman gets in and pours a jar of expensive perfume over Jesus’s feet in an act of anointing. Needless to say, this does not go down well. A lot of that is down to people’s assumptions.

For instance, why was the woman sinful?

The traditional assumption is that she was a prostitute, but that’s not mentioned in the text. Church history as her sins pegged as sexual, but for all we know she’d been robbing banks with a sawn-off shotgun. And yet we look at people, see how they act and how they dress and how they look and assume we know everything we need to know about them. It’s tragic how our image of people can be reduced to a short skirt and a couple of tattoos.

This woman certainly had a reputation, and it’s that reputation that, in the mind of Simon the Pharisee, also confirms Jesus’s own status; after all, if Jesus was the prophet everyone thought he was, surely he’d know that the woman was a ‘sinner’? Surely he’d send her away in disgrace and preserve the sanctity of this occasion, the dignity of this meeting between two religious authorities? No, the woman was a sinner and Jesus was a fraud.

Never assume anything.

Jesus basically takes Simon’s assumptions – which he seems to know about even though Simon hasn’t voiced them out loud, showing that yes, Jesus is a prophet after all – and drop kicks them over the horizon. “If you’re forgiven a lot, you’re going to love a lot,” Jesus says, highlighting that, while the woman’s undignified actions are socially inappropriate, she’s displaying a depth of love and emotion that Simon is incapable of.

After all, Simon’s committed a few social faux pas of his own – he doesn’t treat Jesus as an honoured guest, which is an epic failure of hospitality. Maybe he was being lead by his assumptions again – did he assume Jesus was a fraud all along, hence the dismissive way in which he treated his guest?

“Do you see this woman?” Jesus asks, and the answer, although Simon couldn’t very well miss her, seems to be ‘no’. Simon sees her sins, her past, her reputation, but he seems  to miss out on seeing her as an individual looking for grace. Jesus, on the other hand, sees her as someone worth honouring, someone to forgive rather than someone to condemn.

Our assumptions, prejudices and arrogance keep us from God; worse, they also keep others from God as well. Constantly seeing the ‘sins’ of those around us blinds us to our own, leaving us like Simon the Pharisee, a man so intent on recognising sin that he missed the Messiah right in front of him.

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.