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.

Open the Gates: How Jesus clearing the Temple speaks to how the Church should view disability (Repost)

It’s the Monday of Holy Week, on which we remember the cleansing of the Temple. I thought it might be a good time to repost this entry from a couple of years ago…

I don’t know how many times I’ve read the story of Jesus clearing out the Temple. It might have reached the hundreds by now, because it’s a cool, dramatic story. But there’s one element of the story I never noticed before, an almost throwaway line that nevertheless helps transform how we read the rest of the story.

It’s well known that, in the week leading up to the Crucifixion, Jesus marches into the Temple and throws around the tables of the money-changers and stampedes the cattle. So far, so familiar, but in all this chaos, something happens: “The blind and the 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.

The reason is rooted in Leviticus 21:17-20 and 2 Samuel 5:8, and is interesting context for Peter’s interaction with a disabled beggar in Acts 3. But it points to something important that remains an issue for the church today.

Because the church isn’t always open to people with disabilities; the gates are shut and those with disabilities often find themselves stuck outside (again, Acts 3). And yet, pretty much the first thing that happens once Jesus causes chaos and disrupts the commerce and corruption and toxic respectability that had infected the Temple is that “the lame and the blind” come flocking in. It’s like people were just waiting for a moment like this.

I’ve blogged previously about families with disabilities at church and the hidden issues that affect their experience of Sunday mornings. TL;DR – it’s  often not easy. And this isn’t about the need for ‘pity’, because that’s patronising, it’s about everyone being able to take an active role in the Family of God.

So it was 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.

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 in 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.

We need to be open to some disruption so that we can truly be the church. And that may mean days of noise and chaos as we find our way into what God wants from us. But one thing is clear, we can’t lock the doors. We can’t pity from a distance. Following Jesus means turning over our own tables; following Jesus means opening the gates.

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.

Jesus and the Fig Tree: God Hates Figs (Mark 11:12-25) – #BigRead12

Well, no, God doesn’t hate figs, but I’ve never met a pun I didn’t like. And besides, I’m celebrating getting back on the blogging horse by publishing two tree-related posts today. I feel productive.

All that said, there’s one instance in Mark 11 when you’ve got to wonder whether Jesus had fruit-related issues. There he is, walking towards Jerusalem, when he gets hungry. Finding a nearby fig tree he finds that there isn’t any fruit, mainly because it’s only spring and it’s not the right time of year to harvest figs.

And then he does something that seems, on the surface of it, to be out of character. Saying, in earshot of the disciples, “May no-one ever eat fruit from you again”, he gives up on the tree and heads off to Jerusalem. The next day the group is passing the tree again but now it’s dead.

Hmm.

Of course, there’s more to this story. There has to be – Jesus isn’t the sort of person who kills trees in outbursts of petulance. And the key to it is what happens in the middle of Mark’s narrative, because that turns the incident with the fig tree into a physical metaphor. In the middle of this story is the cleansing of the Temple, the moment when Jesus launches into his most dramatic attack on corrupted religion.

Some context: the Temple was central to Jewish religious life, but at the time of the gospels, the wheels were falling off. The priesthood was corrupt, profiteering, nationalist and painfully nepotistic. Here, during the Passover festival, the place has become more of a market than a place of worship, specifically excluding the poor and non-Jews from getting close to God. The key function of the Temple is crippled and, because Jesus really doesn’t like religious leaders who put unnecessary barriers between the people and God, he starts overturning tables, driving out animals and accusing the authorities of turning the place into a den of robbers. Obviously this doesn’t make him popular, and is one of the dominoes that falls and leads towards the crucifixion, but what’s it got to do with dead fig trees?

Well, the answer lies in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly Jeremiah 8, which talks about the corruption of religion, how Israel turned away from God, and which includes the following:

“‘I will take away their harvest,
            declares the LORD.
   There will be no grapes on the vine.
There will be no figs on the tree,
   and their leaves will wither.
What I have given them
   will be taken from them.’”

There’s also a piece in Micah 7, where Micah prophetically surveys the land and is horrified by its corruption:

What misery is mine!
I am like one who gathers summer fruit
   at the gleaning of the vineyard;
there is no cluster of grapes to eat,
   none of the early figs that I crave.
The faithful have been swept from the land;
   not one upright person remains.

So Jesus’s encounter with the fig tree is nothing to do with having a problem with a tree and more about his anger at the way in which the structures of his nation’s faith and politics have been corrupted, abused and turned into a means of oppression. The tree is a metaphor for the Temple, and in Mark 13 we get to see a fuller prophecy from Jesus about the destruction of the Temple (which also includes a reference to fig trees!).

And so the story of the fig tree is about the failure of people of faith to show the fruit of their beliefs, and about how false, corrupted religion will not stand. Looked at in that way, it becomes a difficult passage, especially for those of us who claim to follow Christ. How much fruit – and I guess we can use the Fruit of the Spirit here as a guideline – do we display? Is our religious practice just a case of going through the motions and grieving God? Are our temples on the verge of collapse, even though we don’t recognise it?

 

(This post was based on this week’s reading for The Big Read 2012 – ‘Signposts’.)