Martin Luther King Day 2016: Tombs for the Prophets (Matthew 23:29-32)

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Look, the last thing the world needs is another white guy talking about Martin Luther King. I get that. But thoughts have got lodged in my head, and I keep going back to words spoken by Jesus in the last few days of his life. In a searing attack on the Pharisees, he yells “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous”, even though they’re complicit in the acts that put the prophets and the righteous in the tombs in the first place. And Jesus is rightly furious at this, because it’s hypocrisy of the highest order.

Martin Luther King is a towering figure of the 20th Century. “I have a dream” isn’t just a great speech, it’s a prophecy, a glorious, beautiful vision casting that’s rightly remembered decades later. But the tragedy is that King gets frozen in amber during the March on Washington. He’s considered a Great Man, and we learn about him in schools, and the Americans have a day dedicated to his memory. He’s an icon.

But he was more than that. He was a flawed man who found himself caught up in history, and he made mistakes, and by the end of his life, people were questioning his relevance and noting the tensions inherent in his message. He was also a prophet, but not in the sense of a plaster-cast saint; he spoke words of righteousness, against racism and inequality and violence and war. And so the FBI wanted to destroy him, and people beat him and firebombed his house; he got thrown in jail and, ultimately, he was murdered. We like prophets who talk about non-violence, because we can be violent towards them in response.

That’s what happens to real prophets. We like them once they’re dead and gone and we can sanitise their message, but while they’re actually running around on earth, we’d much rather just shoot ‘em. Two thousand years ago, Jesus railed against how we treated prophets and just a couple of days later he was nailed to a cross. If we think about it long enough, we can probably come up with the names of prophets who are being persecuted right now.

The worst of it is, we then erect statues to their memory and publish their words in nice little gift books, and the rage and the fire and the Spirit that danced through their words gets extinguished. We praise Martin Luther King for his vision of an integrated word, but we’re still cheering on wars, we’re still a grossly unequal society, we’re still seeing unarmed black people shot by police. And the prophets will still rage, and they’ll still get killed, and we’ll still use them as inspiration porn in an effort to quiet their cries and put out their fire.

Maybe we should just start listening and changing instead.

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Childermas Day: Feast of Holy Innocents (Matthew 2:13-18)

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It’s the Christmas hangover of commemorations, isn’t it? The joy and beauty of the Nativity give way to the world’s brutal realities as Herod’s death squads march into town.

It’s not a part of the story we like to think about too much, a liminal atrocity on the fringes of the narrative. And yet so many of those kneeling beside the manger are either affected or complicit – Herod issues the order, sure, but it’s inadvertantly thanks to the blunders of the Magi. Jesus, Mary and Joseph have to flee to Egypt, but what of the shepherds left out in the fields? Did any of them have infant sons waiting for them at home?

We pretend, of course, that this sort of thing is rare. That we live in a civilised society where children are valued and loved. And yet there are 3.7 million children living in poverty in the UK; in 2014, UNICEF reported that one in three children in the USA are in poverty. The UN tells us that around 41% of the world’s refugees are children, but it takes a photograph of one of their bodies washed up on a beach to make us give a damn about that statistic for five minutes. Churches cover up child abuse.

Herod casts a long shadow.

Over the last year or so, I’ve slowly begun to appreciate the wisdom of the church calendar. Not just the big celebrations, but the hidden feast days, the obscure remembrances, the idea that someone somewhere decided it would be good to honour Herod’s victims, and in doing so remember all the other infant victims of our politics and greed, our rage and corruption. Childermas isn’t just a call to memory, it’s a call to repentance.

And yet there’s also space for hope – there has to be, because this is too important to fall victim to nihilistic cynicism. There are people working to end child poverty, people operating shelters so families can escape domestic violence, people opening their homes to refugees. They need our support and our prayers, because they’re saving children from war and want, violence and apathy; because they’re a sanctuary along the flight to Egypt; because they’re building the Kingdom of God in the shadow of Herod’s legacy and that’s a sacred calling, at Christmas and beyond.

Jesus at the Gates: Some Thoughts on *That* Cartoon

20140620-152543-55543223.jpgI’ve got no idea what it’s like to lose everything.

I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to be on the run from oppression, or to see my friends and neighbours beheaded or incinerated, to hand over hard-won money to me who sell hope in the faeces-stained corner of a cargo container.

I can’t imagine any of this, as I’m a white man in the western world. I have a job and a house and no-one’s trying to butcher my wife and kids. If I head to Calais I’ll be described as a tourist or a holiday maker, and my Vauxhall Astra won’t be part of a ‘horde’ or an ‘invasion’, my humanity won’t be subsumed into a ‘swarm’, one locust among thousands devouring all in the resources in our path.

The Daily Mail has published a cartoon, an image of endless queues outside the Pearly Gates, among them National Treasure Cilla Black, who passe away over the weekend. An angel is policing the line, riot helmet on head, truncheon in hand. “Sorry about the long queue, Cilla,” he apologises, “There are thousands of illegals trying to get in…”

You can see the illegals in the distance, climbing the gates. They don’t appear to have wings and halos, not like Cilla and the angel, not like everyone waiting to get into Paradise. The illegals aren’t patiently queuing, like good English people would. The illegals aren’t supposed to be there.

I know, I know. The cartoon is clickbait, and anyway, looking for theological depth in a cartoon designed to provoke outrage and demonise immigrants and fire up the darker impulses of the Great British Public is never a good idea.  And yet ignoring it seems complicity somehow, makes me a party to its bigotry and cynicism and blasphemy.

I was going to talk about Matthew 21:31, in which Jesus parables the Chief Priests into submission, declaring that “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you.” But while that seems relevant somehow, it still feels like an inappropriate value judgement in this case – do I really want to cast people fleeing Syria or Iraq as ‘sinners’?

So then my thoughts turn to Matthew 25, to the Sheep and the Goats, to “Whatever you did to the least of these you did to me.” And that’s it, isn’t it? In some spiritual, cosmic way, that person fleeing with nothing but the clothes they stand up in is Jesus. That refugee lying in his own filth is Jesus. That woman drowning as she tries to make it across the Channel on a punctured lilo? Jesus.

I’m not saying we should treat ‘illegals’ with dignity because in some incarnational way they can be associated with Jesus; rather, we need to ask why, in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus chooses to align himself with the poor and broken and oppressed. The answer is so simple it’s cliche – it’s love and compassion and grace. It’s because those people storming the gates at Calais are made in the image of God. That’s why the cartoon in the Mail is so vicious – it dehumanises individual children of God and uses the imagery of heaven to justify it: “Look, even God shares our prejudices!”

And that’s a blasphemy and it’s dangerous and it’s about as far from Christ-like as it’s possible to get.

And now Songs of Praise is going to broadcast from Calais, sparking predictable outrage…

How Jesus Queues at the Foodbank (Matthew 25:31-46)

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Inspired by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s words on the rise of food banks in the UK.

In Matthew 25, Jesus presents an image – a flock of sheep and goats separated, a metaphor for humanity at the last judgement. The sheep are praised for feeding Jesus when he was hungry, for visiting him in prison; likewise, the goats are condemned for leaving him to starve and leaving him to rot. Both sides are confused – neither remember helping or ignoring Jesus like that. Then comes the twist: whatever they did or didn’t do for the lowliest members of society, they did/didn’t do for Jesus himself.

It’s shocking how Jesus identifies himself here. We might like the idea of him hanging out with us at church, patting us on the back, but he’s more likely to be queuing up for the food bank, sleeping in a doorway under a piece of cardboard, fleeing ISIS and hoping that someone’s going to open the border.

Notice that, because it’s important; Jesus isn’t helping at the food bank, he’s using it; he’s not an NGO aid worker, he’s a refugee. The difference is significant. Jesus here expresses an intimate solidarity with the marginalised and that transforms our mental landscape. That homeless guy I ran past when I was late for a meeting? Jesus identifies with him. The victims of natural disasters who fade from our memories as quickly as they fade from the headlines? Jesus again. The immigrants the media tell us to fear? Jesus.

It’s shocking enough that God became a man. It’s even more radical to think that God became a man and then associates with the poorest, weakest, most oppressed of society.

Neither the Sheep or the Goats see it like this. The Sheep just get on with helping individuals; they’re expecting to see Jesus there but they’re going to help anyway. It is, after all, the right thing to do.

The Goats are equally shocked, probably for a different reason. They don’t seem to be helping anyone much but hey, maybe it would have been different if Jesus had been there. Sure, they’d’ve taken Jesus out for dinner if only they’d spotted him cosplaying a hobo that morning. Everyone else should go away and get a job, but not Jesus; Jesus is important.

The anonymity of Jesus in this story exposes what’s really going on in our hearts. Anyone can look like a good little church-goer, but if that doesn’t translate into how we treat others, if the live and grace and compassion of Christ doesn’t get deep into our bones, then our worship is just the sort of empty religion the Old Testament prophets railed against. Jesus isn’t fooled by cynical photo opportunities. Rather, he’s present for every moment of shame, every moment of humiliation, every punch thrown, every second of suffering. “Immanuel, God with us” is something we hear a lot at this time of year. The implications of that aren’t just stunning, they’re also heartbreaking. We don’t always recognise him, not unless we have eyes to see, but he’s there.

But then again, that anonymity is shattered the moment he reveals himself to the Sheep and the Goats. We’re invited to see the image of Christ – the image of God – in the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned and the starving. That should have a radical impact on how we live life, everything from how we shop to how we vote. Too often it doesn’t: we sanitise things like the incarnation, the Imago Dei, the Sermon on the Mount. States proclaim Christian values then arrest a 90 year old man for feeding the homeless.

So, are we Sheep or are we Goats? The answer isn’t in what we claim, it’s in what we do. And while we’re figuring that out, Jesus still queues at a foodbank.

Cheek Turning and Nekkidness: Remembering the Subversive Jesus (Matthew 5:38-42)

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Sometimes we forget how subversive Jesus is.

It’s not surprising; we’ve spent 2,000 years trying to tame him, to make him part of the establishment, to use his kingdom as a way of consolidating our own empires rather than accepting who’s really on the throne. He calls us to radical discipleship; in return we’ve used him to justify violence, oppression and hate. Forget the shrill accusations of heresy over some point of doctrine, co-opting Jesus as a figurehead for our own agendas is often the worst kind of blasphemy.

Take his command to “Turn the other cheek”. Read that from a position of power and privilege and it’s easy to turn it into a way of maintaining the status quo. Don’t cause trouble, don’t make accusations, just wait for your reward in heaven.

The world’s a comfortable place when you’re at the top of the pile. So when that comfort is disrupted we find terrible things happening. Look at the mess surrounding abuse within the evangelical church. Look at some of the misogynist responses to the #YesAllWomen Twitter meme. The response to these outrages from those perpetuating and empowering often amounts to “Stop moaning and go away.” Don’t threaten the system. Don’t be disruptive.

Do we really think that Jesus, Prince of Peace, healer, the Good Shepherd calls us to that level of passivity when innocents are being abused, when those in a position of power make excuses for that abuse?

“Turn the other cheek” isn’t about being passive, it’s about non-violently asserting your humanity. We’re not talking here about a bar fight, we’re talking about a back-handed slap designed to humiliate and keep you in line. Turn the other cheek – reversing the situation – means establishing yourself as an equal. You don’t respond with violence, but you sure as heck don’t have to empower your oppressor.

If you’re dirt poor and give the guy who’s suing you for your tunic your cloak as well, you’re going to be standing naked in the court room. That’s going to draw some attention to the injustice of the situation.

If you’re forced to carry an occupying soldier’s pack for a mile, then insist on carrying it an extra mile, you ‘re breaking the rules – the soldier would beg to take the pack back or risk court martial.

Jesus never promotes violence, but that doesn’t mean we cower and embrace victimhood. After all, Martin Luther King was a proponent of non-violence but no-one can call him passive. Rather we’re called to creative ways of confronting oppression, violence and abuse – there are ways of winning through storytelling, through satire, through direct action, through modelling a better way… We’re called to live in God’s kingdom, not use the tools of empire for ourselves. And that’s sometimes a tall order for those of us who benefit from worldly privilege, even when that privilege flies in the face of Christ calling us towards love and justice. Remember, the Sermon on the Mount was delivered mainly towards people at the bottom of the pile. Those with power are called to not slap or sue in the first place.

God’s Kingdom is more creative and counter cultural than we ever give it credit for. We’re citizens of that kingdom, and empowering other empires is sometimes a form of treachery; we need to embody the love, grace, justice and compassion of Christ, and that means turning the other cheek as a way of helping everyone. It’s not an unrealistic ideal; it’s a way of telling, a way of living a new story.

PostScript: If you’re encountering domestic or sexual or emotional abuse then please, get out of there, seek help and tell someone. Because what’s happening to you is wrong, no matter how often you’re told that you should respect and forgive your husband or your pastor or whoever else is abusing you. You are a human being, you are made in the image of God, and you do not deserve to be treated with violence or contempt.

And if you’re carrying out abuse, if you believe that hitting your wife is okay, if you’re a leader covering up sexual assaults on kids because it protects your organisation, if you believe that sex is something to be taken rather than something mutual and consensual, then stop. Get help. You are harming children of God and none of your excuses and justifications will change that. Do something about it today.