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.

The War on Easter

So. An Easter Egg hunt organised by Cadbury and the National Trust only used the word ‘Easter’ once in their marketing material and the internet has predictably broken. The Church of England are outraged, the Prime Minister is outraged, everyone’s outraged. The branding of admittedly delicious chocolate products has triggered something of a meltdown

It’s interesting the things we get angry about, isn’t it? Because, whisper it carefully, the link between chocolate eggs and the death and resurrection of Christ is pretty tenuous. I’ve heard that that the hollow egg represents the empty tomb, but eggs and rabbits feel more like a connection to Spring and fertility than anything else, and it’s not like they make it into the gospels. And let’s not start on the etymology of the word ‘Easter’…


I know this sounds like I’m being dismissive, and if someone told my church that we couldn’t celebrate the resurrection on Easter Sunday then yes, I’d have a problem. But that’s not happening; what is happening is a gradual erosion of cultural Christianity, whereby Easter and Christmas have become more about bank holidays and Santa and bunnies and less about markers in the life of Christ. And if we want to defend the bunnies, well, okay, but are they really doing much to communicate the message of the Crucifixion? There’s a disconnect between the cultural trappings of these great festivals and the heart of faith beneath them, and we really need to navigate that before the Church ends up part of Theme Park Britain, where men in funny hats pop up to sanctify our days off but have no relevance to the rest of the year.


Relevance arises out of engagement, or at least positive, constructive engagement. If all people see of us is our anger, if all people know of us is what we’re against, then are they really seeing Jesus reflected in us? Are we really building the Kingdom when we, from our privilege, claim persecution and yet ignore our brothers and sisters around the world who are dying for our collective faith? Are we going to be known for our love for others if we melt down Twitter over the National Trust, and yet don’t speak into situations like, say, the asylum seeker beaten by a gang in London while a larger crowd watched?


Which of these two news items will get the most coverage in sermons this Sunday?


The National Trust’s marketing department doesn’t represent a War on Easter. Christian extremists cannibalising Muslims in the Central African Republic? Churches covering up child abuse? The KKK? That’s something else entirely. Maybe our anger and our voices would be better employed standing against those who’d drive people from Christ by using his name to justify the unjustifiable.

But let’s not be characterised by our outrage, because at our best I don’t think we are. All the children’s clubs and bereavement groups and charity work, all the ways in which we use our blessings to bless others, all the ways in which we try to promote healing and hope and rebirth… These things speak more to the power of the resurrection, the presence of the living Christ, than chocolate. That’s the message we need to take out there; that’s the hope in which we live.


It’s not about the rabbits!

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.)

Guerrilla Gardening and the Gospel (John 20:11-18)

noli-me-tangere-ca-1500I’ll be honest with you. I’m not a gardener. I don’t have the patience or the aptitude and my favourite plants are dead and waiting for me on a plate.

But I’m fascinated by guerrilla gardening, a branch of street craft in which public spaces are turned into ‘gardens’. This isn’t the formal nurturing of city parks or green spaces, it’s a radical attempt to reclaim public spaces for everyone, a mission to bring beauty to places where a lack of care or investment has turned them into blighted concrete wastelands. And I see the reports of this happening and something nags at the back of my brain, and while I wouldn’t see turning a roundabout into a sea of sunflowers necessarily as prophetic, I do wonder if there’s a spiritual dimension to all this, a theology of radical urban gardening.

There’s a moment towards the end of John’s gospel – just a moment – when Mary Magdalene looks at Jesus and doesn’t see her friend, she sees a gardener. And while we tend to see this as her being blinded by grief and loss, there’s more to it than that. It’s a case of spiritual face blindness. Prophetic mistaken identity.

Pastor Brian Zahnd tells the story in a sermon of being in an Italian art gallery and trying to guess which passages from the Bible inspired the various paintings. One picture depicted a man and a woman, the man dressed in a sun hat and carrying a hoe, and Zahnd struggled to figure out which story this represented – until he realised it was John 20. Because while the agricultural uniform looked a little out of place, in reality it’s no more bizarre than all those pictures of Jesus carrying a lamb and acting as a shepherd. Jesus is, in fact, a gardener.

Guerrilla gardening is all about reclaiming the world around us – abandoned spaces, neglected places. It’s about cultivating beauty where previously there was nothing but garbage, growing life where the ground was barren. And in doing so, those spaces blossom and flourish, they bring new life. And what makes this so powerful and inspirational is that it’s not happening in carefully tended gardens, it’s not even the expansive random beauty of a  wilderness,  it’s in parking lots and waste land and at the bases of lamp posts. Dead spaces are resurrected, and when you witness this in action, if you have the eyes to see, you can see something of the gospel in all this.

Mary mistaking Jesus for a gardener ties the whole Easter story back to the book of Genesis, when the original gardeners failed in that role and ended up in exile. Now a greater Gardener rises up in the springtime and starts tending those in his care. It’s the reclamation of Eden, the end of the exile, the return to the Garden. The explosive blossoming of new life and new creation we see on Easter Sunday is also seen wherever the Kingdom breaks through into the world around us. The Gardener is still at work, but he doesn’t just work in the places we reserve for him, he doesn’t just work within the limits of a walled garden. He goes to work in the dark places, the broken places, the abandoned places, the barren places.  And in doing so he brings new life to the dead places, just as he’s been doing ever since he broke out of his borrowed tomb and bumped into Mary.

Jesus is a gardener. His garden is our lives. Let’s remember that every time we see a corner of a parking lot turned into an oasis, every time we see wild flowers bursting through the cracks in the pavement.

Reclaiming Easter 4: Easter Sunday

(This is one post in four parts… Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

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Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed!

It’s a joyful bit of liturgy that’s been proclaimed this morning, that will be proclaimed this morning, all across the timezones as we move from shadow into light.

This is the day that, as the church, we need to grasp onto as if our lives depended on it. Not just our eternal lives – we do Christ as disservice if we treat him as nothing more than a business transaction, an insurance policy for our soul – but every day in the everyday.

That means living in hope, which sounds trite sometimes, especially when a pessimistic blogger types it. But this whole series has been about proclaiming Easter, reclaiming it from our power struggles and our greed, our selfishness and our prejudice. And that hope is rooted in resurrection – a one time event 2,000 years ago, sure, but also all the other resurrections that branch out of it. We’ve made ‘born again’ a label, an identifier, a tribal password, and in doing so we’ve gutted its power.

Across the world there are thousands of community gardens and youth clubs and food banks and baby groups and homeless shelters and refuges, places and spaces where the transformative power of a phrase like ‘born again’ is life, not a label.

These are corporate things, of course, but they grow out of millions of changed lives. That’s the only place it can start; Jesus and us, standing outside an empty tomb. And there’s a danger of getting too comfortable with this story, a danger of it turning into something political and legalistic rather than letting it get into our hearts and our bones, rather than seeing it as being about redemption and resuscitation and rebuilding, creativity and community and creation.

Maybe we need to spend more time trying to be more like Jesus than in trying to make other people look like the messed up Jesus of our stunted imaginations.

And that starts early in the morning, in front of a tomb that should be full but is mysteriously, miraculously empty. And that quiet voice whispers behind us; the garden bursts into bloom; life begins anew.

And we, not just Easter, are reclaimed.