Holy Week: Singing on Calvary’s Tree

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus gasps these words from the cross at the height of his suffering. We read them and hear abandonment, despair, a fracture in the order of things. This is, after all, ‘Good’ Friday, the day we took the artist behind the universe and smashed nails through his hands, sanitising our violence through theology and an act of nominative irony.

But to this blood-soaked hill, to this skull-shaped memento mori, to this violent, enraged species, to this lynch mob, Jesus sings. He sings to Calvary, he sings to all the persecuted, assassinated, disappeared down the ages. You can hear different rhymes in the song, different remixes, you can bring to it samples of an advocate in a courtroom, an unlikely champion, a doctor in the hospital. You can do all that but first you’ve got to hear a man in pain.

It’s easy to miss the singing, even when you know that Jesus is quoting Psalm 22. We’re a literate culture, we’re used to individualistically reading the psalms in our bibles. But Jesus would have recognised it for what it was, a song.

So when we picture Christ bloody and battered and bruised, maybe we need to hear him gasping out a song, finding expression and comfort in ancient lyrics. Music is powerful, after all, a source of empathy and visions. In the midst of pain and crushing despair we often turn on the radio and find hope in singing along; maybe Jesus was doing the same with the ancient songs of his people.

Or maybe the message was for us, for those who come to the cross and try to find glimpses of a future, any good future, in the asphyxiated, shattered saviour held in place by both love and nails scientifically deployed to prolong the agony. Maybe the message was for us, because while Psalm 22 begins in violence and defeat, it’s a musical journey towards hope, towards grace, towards a future. It begins with godforesakeness, but turns and heads towards conviction:

For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.

There are times when we don’t have the words and we need to borrow them, especially in times of great pain; why shouldn’t the fully-human Jesus do the same?

But let’s not race to the end of the song, let’s not ignore the suffering because we’ve caught a glimpse of a better world. For now it’s still Friday, and Jesus still hangs on a tree, surrounded by terrorists and lynchings and weeping and pain. This is the day Jesus dies; a day for sad songs and mourning.

But as we do, remember that even sad songs can crack open a door through which life gets in, even sad songs help us press through the pain, even sad songs help us see Sunday from the broken depths of Good Friday.

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.

Mary anoints Jesus (John 12:1-11)


John 12 – 29th March 2020

I was due to preach at church tomorrow as part of our Lent series, a journey towards Easter through John’s gospel. Obviously COVID-19 has put paid to that, but I thought I’d post the sermon and recording I put together in case anyone can get something out of it.

The text is John 12:1-11, in which Mary anoints Jesus at Bethany, which is full of implications for how we worship and how we relate to the world, especially at a weird time like this.

Stay home, stay safe everyone. We’ll get through this.

Shrove Tuesday

Today’s the day of Carnival for many, one last explosion of music and joy and excess before the clock ticks over into the ashes of Lent. Feasting passes the baton to fasting and, if you’re of a sacrificial bent, you have just hours to decide what needs to be set aside for the next forty days.

Me? I know what I have to give up. I don’t have the healthiest relationship with food. I stop off at the supermarket on my way home and buy chocolate or sandwiches that I don’t need. And this is stupid of me, because most of the time I’m not hungry, and because I’m a sedentary office worker who is putting on weight, and because all those extra pounds are bound to be aggravating my sleep apnea. I sit in the car, eating; “Okay, this is the last time,” I say, but it never is. A thousand commuting carnivals that never give way to Lent.

None of this is about hunger, nor is it about fuel. If anything it’s medication, I guess, something that fires up a hormone in some gland or whatever that makes me feel… I’m not sure what. Not good, not really. Numb? The comfort of a familiar habit? Because I suffer from depression and anxiety, and over-eating gives me something to focus on than my own thoughts, my own fears, my own lurking anticipations.

So Lent 2020 is less than a spiritual practice, more like a floating plank I need to grab hold of. We domesticate sacrifice sometimes, give up something we don’t really need to give up but that sounds good when we talk about it on a Sunday over coffee. But then there are the times that the sacrifice has to look more like Abel’s than Cain’s, times when it has to mean something real for the sake of my body, my heart, my soul. There’s a scared voice that tells me I’m of no worth, that tempts me with revelations of coming disaster and the anesthesia of despair, and I naively try and momentarily stop that with an all-day breakfast sandwich. Often the Co-op looms larger than the Cross.

So I’m writing this on Shrove Tuesday with a feeling that’s halfway between honesty and self-indulgence. This is just how I process things, and I throw the thoughts out there in the hope that they’ll be recognisable to someone who needs to know they’re not alone. I tap my phone with a pen top and the thoughts become words and that makes them real somehow. And they need to be real to me, for the sake of my health, for the health of my soul. Tomorrow is the Day of Ashes but everything feels like ashes lately. No, tomorrow starts a journey that leads somewhere more True than food and lies. And here I sit, staring at my walking boots, to scared to put them on, too scared not to.

Stations: Death (Good Friday)

7-8-33tWe’ve encountered a lot of darkness during this journey; betrayal, violence, conspiracies and injustice, wars and prophesies of wars, all of these have walked alongside Jesus. Now these forces are gathered at the top of a hill, powers and principalities coalescing around a piece of wood, crowding around for a glimpse of the nails.

Those nails are driven through Jesus’s wrists, hammered through his ankles, and he’s raised up, hanging naked from a cross, crown of thorns burning into his brow, a sarcastic sign posted above his head. He is raised up, a spectacle for all the world to see, and people spit at him, hurl abuse and insults, the apparently victories of Palm Sunday forgotten by the mob as they scent blood.

The gathered soldiers, the weeping relatives, the curious bystanders, all of these see a young man cut off in his prime, struggling for breath as his blood falls and is absorbed into the dust.  They see what the world sees, but for those who sing of incarnation during the long nights of winter, something else is happening. Maybe the principalities sense it too; this isn’t just a moral teacher dangling from a cross, this isn’t a demigod reaching the end of his myth. This is God Himself, become human to take on the worst of the world, and now we can almost hear the baying of violence, the mockery of injustice, the whispers of betrayal, guns cocked for war and swords unsheathed. This looks like a victory for the bad, and even Jesus feels foresaken.

And yet this is a divine self-sacrifice, and instead of turning spirits to stone and sin to noxious smoke, instead of salting the earth with the crushed bones of legionaries, instead of unleashing angels of judgement full of rage and fire, God hangs on the cross, suffocating.

I can’t pretend to know how this works, can’t sit here and turn this into some mechanism, some transaction, a coin in a slot. This is something far more profound, something ineffable and unknowable. Its roots reach from sacrifices in the desert and from a King in his Kingdom and crying in a stable. The supernatural collides with the natural, earth is staked to heaven by an executioner’s tree, and God refuses to flood the earth anew, refuses to cleanse the world with fire. Instead he dies, the one without beginning or end piercing a veil. And in doing this, by dying in grace rather than warring with vengeance, those powers that climbed the hill are neutered and defeated. The skies darken; the world shakes; a centurion acknowledges that which has always been true, and death and sin are broken and brought to heel.

It’s a victory, no matter how it works, but at a cost. A bloodied body hangs on a cross as oblivious crowds pull their cloaks around them and start down the hill for home. We may be forgiven for thinking that this is the end.

But the final victory is still to come, and that will be as strange as today’s upside-down inauguration. And we’re going to have to wait – two days left to go…

The other posts in this series can be found here.