Turning the Tables (Matthew 21:12-17)

We’re into Holy Week now, the journey towards Calvary becoming more and more inevitable. There’s a moment, during Palm Sunday, when everything feels a little more triumphant, but 24 hours later, the fate of Jesus is sealed.

This is what happens when you challenge vested interests – the powerful bite back. The Temple in Jerusalem was, at the time, dominated by the family of Annas and Caiaphas, two men who became bywords for corrupted religion. They’re often described as ecclesiastical gangsters who own the lambs to be sacrificed and the money to be changed. The Temple had become a giant, exploitative ATM for a single family, an early example of the 1%.

Enter Jesus, who immediately causes chaos. He stampedes the animals, he throws around tables, he breaks down the walls that confined people so that the blind and the lame are entering parts of the Temple from which they’d previously been banned. And then kids start singing, which really seems to scare the gangsters, because this is more than just a protest, this is something far more earth-shattering; this is messianic, and there’s suddenly a risk that the tables of society may all be overturned. Jesus’s actions are disruptive and confronting, deliberately so; when a centre of faith works to drive people away from God, then something needs to change, and Jesus rains down condemnation on toxic religion.

There’s a warning here; Caiaphas wasn’t some anomaly, a pawn in the plan of salvation. Caiaphas and his cronies were just the local iteration of a corrupt religious class that gets reborn in every faith and every generation, and if Jesus were here today, someone would have him down on a list while others call him a heretic. The Church is capable of accumulating riches and spitting out the bones of its own people, and we kid ourselves if we think we’re not vulnerable to the temptations of power and money, sex and violence.

So maybe Holy Monday offers us an opportunity.  We know Jesus would be more than willing to clear out our own Temples,  so maybe we need to get in there first, aligning ourselves with Christ so that our congregations look more like his Kingdom than they resemble Caiaphas. And where we’ve served as a barrier between God and those around us, we need to repent, publicly, and open our gates. We need to ask forgiveness and to confess our sins; sometimes the tables that need to be turned are our own.

Repair the Broken Things

My new favourite TV show is tucked away on BBC2 in the early evening. The Repair Shop is a fly-on-the-wall show set in a maker/fixer space. People will bring along eccentric but broken possessions, like accordions and jewellery boxes and garden gnomes, only for them to be repaired and restored by the end of the show.

Now, I like The Repair Shop because I’m a bit geeky but have the technical aptitude of a banana. It’s interesting to watch people who can take apart a silent music box and make it sing again. But seeing the reactions of people to their restored heirlooms, the emotional weight and memories tied up with old toys and artwork, puts another slant on the programme. Fixing broken things is a sort of resurrection.

That sounds a bit pretentious; maybe it is. But think about all those technical and practical skills that are represented in our churches. Think about how repairing a friend’s car or their shower or their lawnmower can help support them through a financial crisis. Think about how the fixer movement helps challenge consumerism and conserve resources. There’s a whole world of stories and opportunities bound up in the idea of taking something that’s seemingly dead and destroyed and making it live again.

We have hundreds upon hundreds of conversations about what the church should look like in the 21st century, we debate strategies and ecclesiology, we realise we’ve become divorced from our communities and spend good amounts of time analysing the break-up. But all these things should, at their heart, reflect hope and grace and resurrection. A broken clock that’s suddenly made to work again is a suitable metaphor for this, so why not embrace that metaphor?

There are lots of skills sitting in our pews, gifts from God that may remain unused because they don’t fit the template. That’s when we need to get radical – why not get a bunch of churches working together to facilitate a fixer space?  Why not draft plumbers and electricians and craftspeople into serving our communities?  Why not embody resurrection,  revival and restoration in all their forms?

Let’s get to the point where carrying a set of tools is seen as just as much a part of worship as carrying a guitar; let’s release the skills and craftsmanship of our people to serve those around us and, in doing so, bringing hope and new life into every situation we can.

(This is related to a post I wrote years ago, which can still be found here.)

Not a Problem: A post for Autism Awareness Week

My kids are not problems.

They both fall on the autistic spectrum, they both have their own difficulties. Life isn’t always easy for them, but they are not problems.

I think it’s important to keep stating this, because sometimes it feels like autism is seen as a threat to the status quo, that someone on the spectrum is going to cause disruption somehow. And when those attitudes prevail, you can see the portcullis fall; people rush to protect the “norm”, and that’s when the exclusion kicks in.

I mean, often everything’s okay until adjustments need to be made. But suggest that things might need to be done differently, that a different level of support might be needed to help people participate on an equal footing… That’s when truths are sometimes revealed. That’s when a call for equality and inclusion are portrayed as being unfair to everyone else. That’s when we find out just how welcome our kids are. That’s when we find out the on-the-ground truth behind claims towards inclusively.

And when this is true of the Church, well… I’d be willing to bet that many people with disabilities and their families have some horror stories. And sometimes, heartbreakingly, it feels that autistic kids are made to feel more welcome by Big Bird and the Cookie Monster than by God’s people on Earth.

And still my children are not problems.

My children are made in the Image of God, they are fearfully and wonderfully made. They are loved by their Creator and they are welcomed by their Saviour and the Holy Spirit dances through their lives. This I believe, even when institutions try to shackle them and dismiss them, even when we’re trying to extinguish flaming arrows while pulling knives from our backs. Faith under these circumstances requires an element of badassery.

My 12 year old loves going to church. He keeps asking to go. And that’s fantastic and I hope it’s an indication that God is whispering to him, meeting him where he is because that’s what God does. But it means we have to protect him from our cynicism, our history, our experience; he’s unaware of the stories that weave around his joy at being able to put chairs away. I kinda hope it stays that way. He doesn’t need to bear our scars.

Because he isn’t a problem.

There are families out there who are nursing wounds, and sadly those are often inflicted by friendly fire, eccesiastical collateral damage. And that can’t help but affect how we feel towards God, and so we have to hold on to the One who welcomed the weak and the humble, who stood alongside them, who blessed children when his disciples wanted to send them away.

And the Church needs to pray for healing, not for disabilities but for the way in which we’ve pushed people away, for the gossip and the ableism and the looks. We need to repent in the most literal sense – we need to change our minds and live differently. Because that’s what God call us to do.

And my children are not problems.

(There are a lot more posts on this subject here.)

Mothering Sunday

It’s Mothers Day and the kids have sorted out breakfast in bed. They’ve given their mom their presents and she’s had her choice of DVD so we’re sat here watching Frozen (the story of which I blame completely on bad parenting).

But Mother’s Day isn’t always straight-forward. Many people struggle with their relationship with their mother, others never had that relationship in the first place. Others were abandoned, others were abused. Some women were never able to have children, others know the pain of losing a son or daughter. This isn’t the easiest of days for many.

But there’s a phrase ‘Mother Church’. It’s a bit of archaic term, we don’t hear it much nowadays, but maybe there can be truth in it. We talk about good game about how church is a family, a community, and that’s a reality we need to embrace, especially on days like this.

Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber tells the story of how her church, which had initially been made up of younger, ‘alternative’ people, suddenly started being attended by middle-class baby boomers. This sparked a bit of an identity crisis until one girl stood up and hit the nail on the head: “I’m glad there are people here who look like my mom and dad,” she said, “Because they love me and my own parents can’t.”

There’s a word there about God’s heart for each one of us, a heart that the Bible describes in terms of motherhood, and the Church should be a reflection of that. Often it fails – I’ve written here about the way in which families with disabilities are often pushed to the ecclesiastical margins, and we can all think of other examples of how religious communities can shun, condemn and ostracised. All that does is push people away from God, but when Church gets it right, it shows the heart of Christ to the world.

So that’s why intergenerational church communities are so important, that’s why taking an interest in the lives of those sitting next to us in the pews is a ministry in itself. That’s why Sunday Schools can be a lifeline, that’s why Saying Goodbye services can mean so much to so many.

It’s Mothering Sunday, to use the old fashioned name. While that’s a day to honour and remember and treat our moms, maybe it’s also a day to commit ourselves to being a Mothering Church as well.

Always Listen to Old Ladies (Acts 6:1-6)

So, the early church – shining example of ecclesiastical perfection or not?

It’s easy to romanticise those first few years after Pentecost, but chapters like Acts 6 point to a far more complex situation. Here we read that, while the Hebrew speaking widows in the church were being looked after, Greek widows were getting overlooked in the distribution of food. This cultural faultline was a problem that festered away under the surface until eventually the apostles had to jump in and sort things out. But why did it get to be a problem in the first place? Because no-one was listening to the Greek speakers? Because no-one was listening to the women? We can admire how the apostles dealt with the situation, and that’s fine, but why was no-one talking to each other in the first place? Why were vulnerable people being overlooked over something as important as food?

Maybe this particular organisational problem was caused by everyone taking their eyes off the basics; no-one was looking out for a whole group of Christians, part of their own extended spiritual family. There were hungry people out there who weren’t being fed, and it seems that even the apostles had been dropping the ball. You’d’ve thought they would have been on top of things – after all, these were the guys who had picked up leftovers after the feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand. But hey, even then they only counted the men who ate; They weren’t so accuate about the women and children.

So yeah, the apostles eventually sorted out the logistics of distributing food to a whole bunch of widows who were at risk of starving. They had fixed an important problem, but take a step back: someone had to listen to those widows. Someone had to be relationship with them, someone had to advocate for them. I don’t know, this may be heresy, but I reckon the apostles found out about this problem because of some old lady, who’s already sorting out all the church’s cooking and cleaning in the first place, finally cornered Peter at the end of a meeting and wouldn’t let him leave until he promised to get the whole thing sorted.

(Always listen to busy old ladies. They know more about what’s going on than you do.)

(Don’the you think it’s odd that one of the people chosen to distribute food while the apostles focus on preaching the Word is, in the very next story, arrested and executed for preaching the Word? Maybe it’s harder to separate all these things than we might think.)

Problems begin when everyone’s busy having debates about, say, the mechanism for feeding vulnerable elderly people, but no-one’s actually doing the cooking, no-one’s loading up the van, no-one’s getting the food out there, no-one’s in relationship with the people they’really serving, no-one’s even doing the washing up. And by the time the gears of bureaucracy finally turn, there’s already been too many scared elderly people wondering where their next meal is coming from.

For the church to truly be the church we need to constantly have our fingers on the pulse of our communities. We can’t get so caught up in theological debates and organisational maintenance and political campaigning that we miss when someone living next door doesn’t have enough to eat. Because that’s where Jesus wants us to be, and sometimes the first to realise that aren’t priests or CEO’s.

It’s all those busy old ladies.