Putting the Chairs Away (Maundy Thursday): John 13:1-5

images

My eldest son loves putting chairs away. Give him a church full of chairs that need stacking and he’s happy as Larry, giggling and bossing people around as he tidies up. And while I love his enthusiasm, sometimes I just want to get home for lunch, you know? I mean, surely he can leave some chairs for someone else?

And that’s when I realise that my lanky autistic 13 year old has a greater servant heart than me. Because when he gets to the end of an act of worship, he doesn’t just want to drink his cup of tea before escaping to the comfort of the living room sofa, he wants to help put things away, to collect hymn books, to wash up.

I’m reminded of this here on Maundy Thursday, when we commemorate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. The King stoops to do the job of a servant out of grace and compassion, even though the disciples don’t understand, even though he’s washing the feet of a traitor. The power of this moment extends beyond our squeamishness and our repulsion at washing another; it reveals the heart of God and as such it isn’t a ritual, it’s a fact of life.

Some churches latch on to this, making their Maundy Thursday events an act of service. Trinity on the Green in Connecticut holds a foot washing and examination service where they provide podiatric support for homeless people who, on average, walk 8.5 miles a day. There’s something of the original power of the story reflected through this – I doubt Peter ever had a pedicure. The heart of service reflected here isn’t a mere ritual, it’s genuinely showing the love of Christ to people in dire situations, a pair of socks becoming a blessing. Maundy Thursday becomes an act of remembrance of those who are too easily forgotten. In that sense we should also be convicted.

We also remember those carers who embody this every day, when they wash a child or a parent or a spouse who can’t wash themselves, when they clean up after visits to the toilet, when they stay up all night making sure that their loved ones are safe until the morning. And this brings with it stresses and strains, but it’s done out of love, as a way of showing a loved one that they are precious and protected and cared for. And those being washed are made in the Image of God and we also remember that, even when they’re persecuted, dehumanised, neglected. Maundy Thursday is a singularity of compassion; we turn it into an annual ritual at our peril.

Last Sunday I was out preaching, and eldest was with me, and at the end of the service while I’m shaking hands, he starts collecting books and washing cups and charming old ladies just by being helpful. And he’ll never be asked to preach, he’ll never lead worship, but he’s embodying the heart of Jesus and that’s far more powerful.

Many will go to foot washing services tonight. Maybe during those services there’s an opportunity to remember those who wash and clothe others, to take our rituals and turn them into practice. And as we remember Jesus washing feet, maybe the lasting power isn’t just about remembrance and sacrament, maybe it lies in the grace of putting chairs away at the end, of doing the washing up, the grace of showing up, of a clean pair of socks.

Advertisements

Slut Shaming and Virtue Signalling at the Quiet Heart of Holy Week (Mark 14:1-9)

There’s a lot of shouting in the Easter story, a lot of people thinking they’re right and making it known. We have parades and lynch mobs and debates and screams and mockery, a cacophony drowning out the truth of the situation. At the eye of the storm is Jesus; no-one seems to understand him, no-one seems to truly listen. Everyone seems convinced by the rightness of their position that the man who’s on a journey towards torture and death is almost hidden in plain sight.

At the quiet heart of Holy Week, one person seems to get it, one person seems to understand. Interrupting a meal between friends, she breaks open a jar of expensive perfumed anointing oil and pours it over Jesus. In many ways it’s a shocking moment – the unexpectedness, the scent permeating the house, the inappropriateness, the expense. The woman is immediately the victim of virtue-signalling, the disciples protesting that the perfume was expensive, that it should have been sold to help the poor. But we know that one of them had his hand in the common purse, and you wonder if they would have had a similar reaction if they hadn’t been scandalised by this woman and her actions.

In Luke’s gospel a similar incident occurs, but at a different time. There the woman is identified as sinful (and it’s always assumed that this sin was sexual in nature, when for all we know she stole stuff), and we tend to conflate these stories, pushing them through the grinder of tradition until the woman is depicted as a prostitute. There’s no evidence for this (and even if she was, what would it matter at the heart of a story of grace?) but it fits a narrative, and it’s another convenient excuse for the men to reject her act of worship.

But Jesus doesn’t reject it – he’s thankful for it. It’s a moment of intimacy, sure, but the intimacy that comes from him and the women being the only two people who know what’s going on. She knows he’s a king, she knows he’s going to die, and Jesus seems grateful for that acknowledgement. We read the Easter story as Jesus saving us from our sins, but here’s someone who’s more concerned with looking after him and his needs. On the eve of a great sacrifice, the woman ministers to Jesus and in doing so secures a place in history.

But in the moment there’s ‘slut shaming’ and virtue signalling and a criticism of her ministry. And even though she’s the one who gets it right, who helps Jesus, who worships and honours and anoints while everyone else argues and jostles for position, she’s still dismissed, her ministry and her act of prophecy devalued. That happens to women in the Church far too often, even though here the women carries out a pastoral act of worship, even though later Mary becomes a preacher of Jesus’s resurrection.

At the quiet heart of Holy Week, an unnamed woman understands what’s needed and does something about it, sacrificing her money and her reputation and her investment in the process. And in doing so she becomes a model of discipleship for us all. Maybe that, and her act of grace, is why Jesus said she’d be remembered.

Dispatches from the Ploughshares Factory: Tattoos

A recent edition of the Kind World podcast told the story of Dave Ente and Dave Cutlip, a couple of tattoo artists from Maryland in the US. Operating out of Southside Tattoo, Dave and Dave offer to transform racist or gang-related tattoos into designs that reflect a better future for people who want to start a new life. In the podcast, Dave tells the story of redesigning swastikas and Confederate flags for people who’ve left prison, left gangs, left lives of prejudice and violence. The emails he receives are known as ‘redemption requests’, messages from around the world looking for change, the transformation of their tattoos symbolising the changes they’re trying to make in their lives.

Tattoos can be art, and art can be violent, and when the podcast starts with a screwed-up description of a ‘messianic’ Hitler covering someone’s entire back, you can see the scale of the challenge that faces the two Daves, but also that facing those who want to move away from a legacy and a history of hatred. Art can be violent, but it can be transformed into something more beautiful. Sure, the hateful tattoos could simply be covered up, or removed, but the act of transformation has a symbolic purpose, a rite of passage. And in offering a welcome environment, the Daves befriend people who have left behind family, gangs, institutions because hey, it’s hard to change when you’re also battling loneliness.

By coincidence, I heard this podcast on the same commute that I listened to an episode of Shane Blackshear’s Seminary Dropout in which Shane interviewed Michael Beck, a pastor who has started a number of ‘fresh expression’ churches, including one in a tattoo studio. In the interview, Michael talks of how tattoos are sometimes seen as sacraments, an expression of something deeper reflected in the design etched onto an individual’s skin. And I can’t help but think of that in the light of the work done by Dave and Dave, in all the swastikas turned into roses, in the ink that beats swords of art into ploughshares. Redemption can be found in the strangest of places; grace can be written in the tattooist’s ink; hope can be found in art that transforms.

 

 

(Cross-posted from Bezalel’s Legacy.)

Who Belongs?

212818

A couple of years ago I was on a panel interviewing new ministers for a local church, and as part of that process we asked candidates what they felt was the greatest question currently facing the church. You can probably guess the answers, but the whole process got me thinking about that one question. And after all that time, I think I’ve got an answer:

Who belongs?

It’s not just relevant to the church, of course. The question of who belongs where is something that informs everything at a fractious time such as this, although it’s normally framed in a more negative sense – who doesn’t belong?

We try and convince ourselves that our communities, our politics, our institutions, our very hearts are inclusive and open, but the reality on the ground is often very different. We have dark urges pushing us to declare some of us on the inside while others – the Other – remain outside the gates. Because, after all, some of us just belong, and therefore deserve all the perks and privileges that entails. Others don’t quite belong – they look like us, but there’s something about them that means they don’t fit in. And to accommodate them is just too expensive or too difficult or too resource intensive. And bad things keep happened to them, but it always seems to be their fault, so what are we supposed to do about that?

There are others, of course, we’d rather shun, that needs to be ostracised for the good of the whole. They live among us, but we wish they were just a little more like us. Some of them will never really be like us though, and while we’re benevolent, we’re not foolish. So we decide they belong fractionally less than the rest of us – say two-fifths? Because civilisation belongs to those with the wherewithal to win, right?

Some of us are just too different, or just too in the way. So we try to concentrate them in one place, where we can keep an eye on them. Others are just a drain on resources, so we go with the deportation option. They get to live, but somewhere else.

Others we just herd into ovens, or in front of bullets, or at the business end of a machete. And the generations after us will say “Never again!”, but there’s always someone who doesn’t belong…

Who belongs?

Terrible, terrible things are wrought as a result of that question. And the reason that it’s the most important question facing the church, and our societies, is that too many of us gleefully act as cheerleaders and enablers of policies and attitudes that ultimately treat other people as less than human, as less worthy of justice and dignity, of happiness and opportunity, as less worthy of their very lives.

We don’t ask the question enough, we don’t ask it seriously, we make assumptions and in those assumptions are born both nightmares and apathy. And if our churches are rooted in the love of God and the grace of a man who stood between mobs and demons and those who allegedly didn’t belong, then our answer to this question needs to be as compassionate and as expansive and as merciful and as loving as the Spirit will empower us to be.

Gardens and Gates (Matthew 19:13-14)

This morning at church, Easter was accompanied by a dedication service, a happy baby boy grabbing for the mic and being blessed in the name of Jesus. And as part of all this, the pastor quoted from Matthew’s gospel: “Let the children come to me.”

It’s not an Easter reading, not traditionally, but in other ways it’s something that’s deeply, intrinsically bound up with today. Because the disciples are driving children and their parents away from Jesus, self-appointed religious gatekeepers conspicuously jangling the keys to the Kingdom. Jesus, however, snatches that job from them, throwing open a welcome to those others would reject.

The Church sometimes acts more like a machine than a family, gears grinding too many of the faithful between their teeth. We build walls and guard the gates and set up metaphorical machine gun nests upon the parapets. The gatekeepers are real, their swords are being sharpened. And yet Jesus still calls people to him, hanging out in gardens, cooking fish on beaches, eating dinner with sinners. Each of these welcomes is a transformation, a liberation, a resurrection.

So Jesus meets Mary the marginalised. He meets Peter the denier. He’s raised to life and in that first dawn of the new creation he doesn’t go to temples, he doesn’t shake hands with priests, he seeks out the ignored and the forsaken,  the broken and the lost,  the victims of racism and misogyny, ableism and homophobia. He appears on the margins, he seeks the mourning, he walks through locked doors and brings hope, not through the righteousness of saints but through the wounds torn through his wrists. In doing so he sabotages the machine, because he threw himself into the gears; never forget that the gatekeepers sought to keep out God himself.

Easter embodies grace, bleeds forgiveness, resurrects hope. Nails pick the locks on our gates and build a Kingdom out of the broken. And the gatekeepers can dance with joy over this, or they can keep feeding the machine. But machines rust, they erode, they crumble; resurrection grace, nail-pierced love, Calvary’s redemption? They shine forever.

Other posts for Easter 2017 are here.