How we ruined worship: The church of me, for me, and about me.

 Not all change is good. 

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We humans are remarkably insular creatures. We tend to assume that our tiny slice of experience is the way things have always been and the way they should be. The here and now is the measure of our reality. Most high school seniors, for example, have never owned a non-smartphone. Yet before the iPhone was released in 2007, most of us survived with the internet bound to our desktop. Speaking of the internet, 97% of all telecommunicated information is moved over it. But twenty years ago, unless you had a government scientist in the family, you had never heard the word “internet.” When I grew up telephones were not only wired to the wall, you had to spin a rotary dial seven times and hope the person you were calling was home to answer. In elementary school a series of amazing inventions changed the way we lived: push buttons, the answering machine, and then, a couple of years later, the telephone company (there was only one) came out with Call Waiting. If you are under forty you cannot imagine what a hassle it was to call someone for days hoping they would answer. We take these things for granted and cannot remember life without them.

In a similar vein, we assume the way we worship is the way it always has been. And, as with smartphone technology, we often assume uncritically that we are better off now than before…

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Technology: “Can” doesn’t necessarily mean “should.”

Today it is common to hear the “song set” referred to as “worship” in the evangelical church. The four song and a sermon liturgy is not exactly like the iPhone – 7 years old. It is more like the internet: 40 years old, widely embraced 20 years ago, and now assumed. But is it biblical? Is this a formula found universally around the world? How does it play in say, Zimbabwe or Belarus? How does 4 songs and a sermon, fog and lights, and coffeehouse and workout rooms in the church stack up next to the unbroken witness of the worship of 2000 years of faithful Christ-followers? And, most importantly, does this help us form God’s people for the building of God’s Kingdom now and prepare us for eternity with our creator and redeemer?

The word worship comes from the Anglo Saxon “worth-ship” – the act of paying homage to God because God is worthy of being paid homage to. In scripture we see the people of God bowing before God in gratitude. In scripture worship is communal, God centered, and based in God’s glory (Ex. 12:27, 2 Chron. 29:29-31, Neh. 8:5-7, Ps. 29:1-3, Matt. 2:11, Matt. 28:17, Acts 2:42, Rev. 22:3).

Yet, far too often, what we call “worship” today is characterized by…

1. Individualism: Me and my experience

2. Narcissism: Me and my desires

3. Power: Me and my potential

And, 4. Entertainment: Me as spectator vs participant (1 Cor 14:26)

So what does Sunday morning look like at your church? Is it geared to you or to God? Look up the lyrics of the song set on your smartphone this Sunday. How often does the pronoun “I” appear versus “we”? Even more telling, how many songs could be sung unchanged if “she” was substituted for “he” and it became a love song to a girl rather than God? St. Augustine said, “He who sings prays twice.” And since, as the early Anglicans pointed out, our “praying shapes believing,” ask yourself a critical question, what exactly are we being shaped into in the church today through our sung and said prayers?

We sing songs that are, in their lyrical content, silly love songs to Jesus. Songs that not only could have been written by a secular band about a girl and the pronouns changed but, I’m told from a friend in the worship “industry,” sometimes actually were. How is it then, that…

…after teaching our young to think of Jesus in the same terms as a teen crush, we wonder why our young people’s faith has all the sustaining power of one.

We evaluate our worship by our warm feelings…feelings carefully created by melody line and key change. Bob Kauflin in his helpful book, “Worship Matters” talks about the worship leader who “spontaneously” fell to his knees in a song. Then Bob realized that the musician had preset a second microphone at knee level.

Health and wealth preachers promise us our “blessing” …if we give to their ministry, of course. I once watched a pastor justify his enormous new house to his congregation by lining up his staff on the stage behind him and telling his congregation, “Don’t hate me because I got mine. God gets me out of the way in order to bless ____” (the next one in the line). “God is going to bless ___ to get him out of the line so that he can keep blessing his way down the line…to you!” It is the God of the pyramid scheme. And we wonder why our young adults, with their BS meters attuned, tune out?

God is no longer the Lord of Creation redeeming and calling humans to join in His great mission to save a lost and dying world. He is a genie in a bottle to be rubbed in order to get more of whatever I want at that moment.

We have reversed the subject and object of our worship. The church has packaged us ourselves and is feeding it back to us. As a result, for most of the church, Sunday worship is: Of me. For me. About me.

If you want to see something sad, watch what happens when a technology is bypassed…like the film camera replaced by digital, or Western Union telegraph replaced by the ATM, or the American gas guzzler replaced by dependable Japanese imports. Sometimes the technology adapts – America now makes some really good cars. Sometimes it does not. You probably haven’t sent a telegram or dropped your film off at the Fotomat recently. What will happen in the American church? Will we continue to view the church as cruise ship?

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A sign at the Urban Youth Worker’s Institute conference this Spring. What does this tell us about what the church will look like in twenty years?

I do see a sign of hope. It is found in a new generation of church musicians – ones who want to know God deeply and to help others on that journey…to worship in Spirit and truth…who know the difference between a psalm, a hymn, and a spiritual song.  There is an emerging group of musicians who know that God-centered worship needs all three, and that worship is larger than just “singing.” It is a generation that understand the historic order of worship has the power to shape lives, and that the words we use in worship matter. They are not afraid of the vetted, historic words of the church. Make no mistake, they want passion…but they are not so naive as to think that emotion sustains. They long for more Scripture in sermons and more pastoring in their own lives from their pastors. They know that art gives power to the message, and that the liturgy gives a life-shaping container to both…but also that liturgy without artfulness and a clear Gospel message is like a lunch box without a meal inside.

Will this new generation of worship leaders refuse to play the good feelings game? If they do, will senior pastors adapt? Will we listen and add these young Turks critiques to what young adults are telling us with their attendance? Will we hold all of this up to the light of scripture and the great tradition? Or will we stay stuck in what we “know” from the outmoded models of the last 40 years-models that only work for a single aging and shrinking generation? If we do not, I fear evangelicalism will go the way of the Fotomat and the rotary phone.

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Feedback Request: church plant wants to know how others see them

Snark MeterrealMID.003A few folks in our fellowship have asked how the world sees what we are doing. They asked if I could put some of St. Jude’s web info up on thegospelside.com for feedback. Here it is. Critique welcome.

St. Jude’s Church: Being changed. Inviting others. 

Our aim is to be changed by Jesus Christ and invite others to be changed with us.

Our expression of the Body of Christ does this by being…

::Hospitable – Joy, welcome and hospitality are our spiritual DNA. God has welcomed us, so we welcome you.

::Liturgical - The rhythms of the Christian Year, ancient liturgies, and daily prayer connect us to God and one       another, helping us to grow as a community of Jesus followers.

::Multiethnic - Asking God to build true unity as we grow together in Christ.

::Missional - Looking outward toward the world to share the Good News of Jesus in word and action.

Why St. Jude’s?  Visit us if you desire to…

::be welcomed and valued in a caring community

::be challenged by biblical teaching from a variety of voices

::draw near to God through the ancient words & actions of the first Christians contextualized with relevant music

::experience a multi-ethnic, outward-looking expression of the body of Christ

::be formed by daily immersion in Scripture

::serve in a faith community that is not just in Phoenix but for Phoenix

::be developed as a kingdom leader

 

About our worship 

Worship at St. Jude’s is liturgical and joyful, a mix of the current and ancient. Each week there is uplifting music, a biblical message, and the celebration of Holy Communion. All are invited!

Our liturgy is projected to make it easy to follow. Visitors can participate as much or as little as they are comfortable with. Our slides are usually in English and Spanish.

Music: Given our multiethnic context, don’t be surprised if there are a variety of musical styles: Gospel, Spanish, spoken word and chant might accompany our hymns and praise songs.

Communion: All baptized Christians are welcome at Communion. Simply come forward holding out your hands to receive the bread. Anyone not desiring Communion is invited to come forward with their arms crossed on their chest to receive a blessing. People are available to pray with you on the sides of the sanctuary during and after Communion.

Children’s Program for ages 3 through sixth grade are offered during the first part of the service.  The children are dismissed at the readings and return to the worship service during the passing of the peace to share Holy Communion with their families. Your children will study an age-appropriate version of what you are studying in the sermon to facilitate talking about the Christian faith with your children at home.

 

We Believe

::St. Jude’s is shaped by and passes along the historic Christian faith. We are passionate about the Father’s radical love for the world; we embrace Jesus Christ and the fullness of new and eternal life offered through His death and resurrection; and we respond to the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit.

::We are anchored in the Bible as the ultimate standard for life and faith. The Great Commandment (Love God, love others) and Great Commission (Share God’s love) orient us toward the world. The historic statements of the Church (the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds) guard our belief, and our worship is shaped by the Book of Common Prayer.

 

This matters. Stay on your pace.

USLYF00Z

 

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Does your ministry lose steam at the end of the year? We all know that finishing well is important, but like a fatigued runner, we often lose our stride a bit at the end of the program calendar.

Now we have a fabulous group of youth workers. They love God, one another, and they really care for our students, most of whom are the entry point to the church for their families. But it is the end of the year and…

  • Games become a little less purposeful…and a few kids stop coming.
  • Instead of carefully planning the meeting so that all things work together to build Christian community and take kids deeper in their faith, the various components begin to stand alone…and a few more kids drop off.
  • Bibles aren’t opened and read by students quite as much.
  • Leaders start doing more – more sharing, more preaching. Students start doing less – and passive kids quickly become disengaged kids.

This happens every year in youth groups all across the country.

For us, this came to a head at our end of the year badminton tournament last week. The kid across the street, a young man we have been inviting to youth group for three years, showed up. O, he joins us occasionally for games and food, but he skips out when students go inside for worship through song and scripture…after eating, of course. Last week he handed me a badminton racquet and asked if I would be his partner for the tournament. I am not a youth leader and had a bunch of stuff to do, but one look at his insistent face and I heard myself saying, “I would love to. But if I do, you stay for Bible study.”

“Deal!” He said, sticking his hand out to shake.

Two leaders were standing behind me. The older one had missed the planning meeting. He whispered to the younger one, “What is the Bible study?”

“We are just having fun tonight.” She said.

His reply, “Hey, our core values include ‘don’t waste kid’s time’ and ‘have fun with a purpose.’ A kid we have been inviting for three years just said he would stay for Bible study. You get a song. I’ll do a message.”

In a highly unlikely turn of events, the neighbor and I won the tournament. As the mob tromped from backyard to living room, the neighbor kid proudly paraded the trophy inside over his head.

When the song finished we passed out Bibles and students read the story of Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30). The older leader retold the story of Jesus angering his home town to the point that they took him to the edge of a cliff to toss him off when he turned around and walked away through the silenced mob. He concluded with Jesus, the God of the universe in human form, whose life, death, and resurrection offering us the opportunity to be a Kingdom bringer (a Luke 4:18 life of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free“). He asked if anyone who hadn’t yet was ready to have “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19) by allowing the Lord, Jesus, to become their savior (John 1:12). Three hands shot up. One of them was the neighbor kid’s. He was waving and pointing to himself. The same young man who ignored three dozen invitations…who snuck home early another two dozen times…who had told us repeatedly, “I’m not into God.” That kid, with tears in his eyes, was smiling ear to ear, waving, and saying, “Me! I’m ready.”

And by letting our core values slip in end of the year fatigue we almost missed it.

“how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him?                                                                      And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?”    -Romans 10:14, NLT

So stay on your pace!

Three students had what they experienced as their first God moment Wednesday night. And we darn near dropped the baton in the relay between them and our God.

In track and field finishing well is called having a strong “kick.” Races are won or lost on the final straightaway. Most runners fade. Champions find another gear and shift into it, pulling away from the pack.

The baton we pass is nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus. So end strong friends. Find your kick. Because this race really does matter.

 

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Ministry: The world’s easiest job

 

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The woman looked up from her desk in the apartment rental office and asked, “So you are a pastor? A priest?” This did not take clairvoyance on her part. I was wearing a clerical collar. She followed up the question with what I suspect many think but are too polite to say out loud: “That sounds like a cake job. You preach a little message and do a little communion – full-time pay for what, like a 4 hour work week?”

Here is what I have done in the four hours since my four hour a week job was “over”:

  • Had a conversation with a staff member about stepping up their job performance
  • Drove 23 miles to feed the dog of a person in a psych ward
  • Did behind the scenes warming up of board members for future conversations about leadership expectations
  • Provided emotional support to a woman choosing not to treat her reoccurring cancer
  • Talked to a parishioner in jail
  • Supported our children’s workers by lovingly suspending a child from church for a pattern of behaving badly
  • Led a board meeting in which I had to communicate bad news and then help people remain confident in the face of it
  • Anointed a teenager in the hospital who has been shot in the head and prayed with his mom

Don’t misunderstand me, ministry is a fantastic gig. But an easy one? Not so much.

Good thing this is only part-time. People might start having expectations.

The Bottle Caps Man

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A parable of sorts

Growing up there was an old man who used to ask us kids the same question every day. We had no idea what he was talking about. More than four decades have passed, but when the crowd from the old neighborhood gets together someone will always ask, How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?”

Central Phoenix was a very different place in the early 1970’s. The “busy streets” were still lined with trees that shaded the open irrigation canals. The ranch style neighborhoods built in the 50’s and 60’s were here, of course, but they were interspersed between what was left of family farms – old homesteads surrounded by the remnants of citrus orchards and horse, cotton, and dairy operations. An enormous farmhouse stood where the school bus turned off of 7th Avenue into our neighborhood. It had nine chimneys. We counted them when the bus went past.

The most coveted thing in our kid world was Bottle Caps – the brand new candy that looked like the metal top on a bottle of pop and tasted like the soda inside. Back then Bottle Caps came in flat foil pouches. They were larger, harder, and with nifty ridges that allowed them to hang on the end of your tongue when you stuck it at the other kids on the bus.

Bottle Caps were an early lesson in the economics of supply and demand – the only place you could get them was from the ice cream truck, a large white panel van with giant decals of frozen product on the sides. The truck would drive through the streets playing music over a loudspeaker mounted to the roof, a Pavlovian cue for kids to grab their nickels and dimes to buy Popsicles and ice cream cones and most everything else moms claimed would “spoil supper.”

The first time I heard the notes of the ice cream truck’s carnival music in the distance I didn’t know what it was. I was playing Kick the Can with the big kids when suddenly the shrubbery began to rustle. All over the street kids emerged from hiding shouting, “Run! We have to get there first!” I ran as hard as I could to keep up with the bigger kids.

We weren’t first though. An old man was already in line. Kids were positively downcast as they watched the man buy every single pack of Bottle Caps in the ice cream truck and stuff them into his bulging pockets. Kids began to shout, “No fair!” “You can’t buy them all!”

And I wonder, How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

He wore an old cardigan sweater and corduroy pants and had the most piercing blue eyes. He turned those piercing eyes on us and in a faint Southern accent asked, “So you are upset that I have all the Bottle Caps?”

“Yeah!” Kids shouted in outrage.

“I suppose you want some of these?” He questioned, patting his bulging pockets.

“Yes!” I shouted, reaching over Mark Hickens in front of me.

He bent his head around Mark and looked down upon me. “You are very young. Do you even know what Bottle Caps are?”

“Not really.” I admitted.

He smiled and I couldn’t help but like the way his eyes lit up. “Bottle Caps,” He began, “are the tastiest candy ever invented. Eating them is like being able to chew on soda pop. Bottle Caps make you smile a smile that starts deep inside your tummy and goes from the inside out. How would you like to eat a candy like that?”

My eyes became wide. “Would I? You bet I would!”

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

The man pressed, “What would you say, young man, if I gave you a pack?”

Johnny Dodson said, “Aww, he doesn’t have any money. He’s too little.”  My head dropped in shame. The man lifted my chin and his piercing eyes held my mine. “I didn’t say anything about money. I said, ‘gave,’” he continued.

“FREE? Nobody gives away BOTTLE CAPS!” yelled Johnny’s indignant older brother.

“Well now, I didn’t say ‘free’ exactly either.” The old man moved his gaze to the group.

Now 10 kids were indignant, “What are you talking about Mister?”

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

“Suppose I gave you two packs of Bottle Caps,” the man said turning back to me. “Would you promise to only eat one and give the other away to someone else?”

I was very confused.

He repeated the offer, “If I give you two packs of Bottle Caps, will you promise me that you will eat one and share one with someone else?”

I nodded seriously, “Yes.”

The man held up two green envelopes full of Bottle Caps, one in each hand. I grabbed them and wheeled to leave before he could catch me. “Remember,” he yelled after me. “One for you. One for someone else.”

He then turned to the crowd of kids, reached into his pockets fat with Bottle Caps and said, “Who else will promise to share a pack for a pack of their own?”

I probably don’t have to tell you that every hand shot up. By the time we left, the man’s pockets were empty.

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

The very next day we heard music and jumped on our bikes. When we got to the truck, that old man was at the front of the line again stuffing his pockets with all of the Bottle Caps. He saw me and said, “Hello son. Tell me who did you give your other pack too?”

“My little brother,” I said. “He was really happy.”

“And how did that make you feel?” He asked.

“It was almost as fun as eating my own, Mr. Bottle Caps Man!” I replied, giving him a name that would stick.

He seemed amused by this new moniker and said, “That’s what I thought.” And then he looked around, “So, who can tell me about the person you gave your Bottle Caps to? If you tell me a story I will give you two more packs of this deelicious candy.” He said, his drawling reminding me just how like pop, which was just short of a forbidden substance in our house, they tasted. And again, the man went home without a single package of Bottle Caps for himself.

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

Every morning that summer the same thing happened. When we heard the music in the distance we jumped on our bikes, and tore through the neighborhood to beat that Bottle Caps man to the ice cream truck. And every day the old man with the twinkling eyes would be standing at the front of the line stuffing his pockets with the truck’s entire stock of Bottle Caps. And each day, as we finished our melting popsicles, the Bottle Caps man would listen to our stories and place two packs of Bottle Caps in each of our hands to share with others. And most days the Bottle Caps man went home with empty pockets.

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

Well, as all kids do, we grew up. And the Bottle Caps Man, he aged as well. He became a little slower. His shoulders stooped. He began to use a cane. But somehow he still beat the kids to the ice cream truck. One Saturday, though, after I was far too old for ice cream trucks, the kids arrived and the Bottle Caps Man wasn’t there. It was the ice cream truck driver who told the kids that the Bottle Caps Man had died. Needless to say, you’ve never seen quite so many young people at an octogenarian’s funeral.

At the funeral, much to our surprise, the ice cream truck driver stood up and gave the eulogy. That was how we discovered the secret to the Bottle Caps Man beating us to the ice cream truck all those years – the ice cream truck driver was the Bottle Caps Man’s son. The Bottle Caps Man had an inside line on the route!

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

The son told us that in his early years, Bottle Caps sales kept his ice cream truck in business. When business picked up he told his dad that he didn’t need him to keep buying a case of Bottle Caps every day.  His father told him, “I don’t just do it for you. I do it for the kids.” The ice cream truck driver said, “My dad gave away a fortune in Bottle Caps, one pocket full at a time.” And as he said it, tears filled his eyes…and ours too.

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

The bottle Caps Man taught us that empty pockets can bring smiles. And he didn’t just teach the kids. Parents couldn’t help but smile too when they saw us sharing with each other…and, occasionally, with them.

And as I age, I wonder what kind of old man I will be. Will I be a man, like other old men, who sit in their house counting and recounting a carefully hoarded collection of my favorite “candy”…a collection that is neither useful for others nor joy producing for myself? Or will I live generously?

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

What we did not know was that the Bottle Caps man was teaching us about grace – that we drink from cisterns we did not dig (Deut 6:11), in a land given rather than toiled for (Joshua 24:13). We have been invited to drink from the spring of the water of life without cost (Rev. 21:6), receive an inheritance we did nothing to create (Heb 9:15), and enjoy a salvation purchased at another’s expense (1 Pet 3:18). We are, in every way possible, recipients of grace. Grace is an inexhaustible supply of the goodness of our God, a spigot that can only be turned off by refusing to let it run out on others.  It is a sweet gift that makes us smile a smile that starts from deep inside our tummies. There is abundance in the hands of the great Bottle Caps Man of our souls. Will you share it?

And, since they really are connected, I must ask you, one final time, How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

Surprise Endings: Superheroes, fat ladies, and hope for humanity in dark times

 

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We all love the surprise ending. One where the hero miraculously reappears and the bad guys get their due. First it was the western. Then war movies. Next came the Sci-fi, followed by adventure movies. Then it was fantasy…Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter. Now we have superheroes.

When you think about it, aren’t they are all the same plot? How is it that no matter how many times we see this story, and no matter how well we know the narrative, we keep coming back for more? Why do these movies resonate so?

It seems our hearts love the plot line that, no matter how dark the night appears, help is on the way. “Look, up in the sky…” Or as Washington Bullets coach Dick Motta famously said, “The opera ain’t over ‘till the fat lady sings.”

Perhaps it is because no matter how far fetched they are, these movies hum a melody our hearts already know…a tune, sung by that large lady of song which says, “Yes, this is impossible…but a final scene yet remains.”

I think the superhero saga is simply a retelling of the Christian story – the story that our hearts were made for.

Here is that story in a nutshell: Once there was One God – a glorious being who dwelt in perfect unity and love…a holy trinity. Not the self-centeredness of the human trinity of me, myself and I, but the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in self-existent, self-giving love. God desired to share his fullness and joy, so he/they (words fail us in the presence of such glory), created. And God, the creator of creativity, created intricately, painstakingly…lovingly. The first two pages of the Bible describes this in detail.

Then, in less than one page of script, we wreck the entire operation.

And the whole rest of this Bible, all of the other 2000 pages, tell of God’s relentless pursuit to win his wanderers back.

It’s a story of a growing hope. God starts with a single man, Adam. He moves on to a family, Abraham and Sarah’s. From there he widens his rescue to a nation, Israel. Then, finally, God throws out the lifeline to all of humanity.  This deliverance tale finds its fulfillment in the person of Jesus: God becomes one of us, lives among us as a servant. He goes to a cross as the most unlikely part of his Father’s rescue plan. The climax of the story occurs in the days we commemorate as Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

Let me remind you of that story line: Jesus is grabbed by angry religious leaders and sentenced by a private mob under the cover of darkness. As an occupied people, his countrymen lack the ability to pronounce the death penalty. So they take him to their Roman occupiers and change the charges against him – Romans do not care about local religious rules, they re-label Jesus a traitor. Jesus doesn’t defend himself. The governor, Pontius Pilate, tries to placate the crowd by having Jesus savagely beaten. But, rather than satisfy the mob, the beating raises their blood lust. Pilate acquiesces and sentences Jesus to the death reserved for the worst criminals: crucifixion. They force Jesus to carry his cross to the hill over the highway where they execute enemies of the state. They nail Jesus to his cross and erect it between two thieves. Six hours later he is dead. But before he dies he says two fascinating things: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” And “It is finished.”

Let that sink in: Jesus actually asks his Father to forgive to forgive his executioners. Then he says, “IT is finished.” Not “I” but “It” – his reason for being on that cross is what Jesus “finished.”

In the end, they take his lifeless body down and place him in a tomb. They seal it with an enormous stone, stamp it with the mark of the emperor, and station a Roman guard unit to protect it.

The end.

Or so it was supposed to be.

But the cosmic filmmaker had other ideas…

But why was Jesus up there anyway? What was his “it”? The power in any story is not only in the action, but what the actions mean.

Jesus was on the cross as an innocent but, we are told, most certainly NOT as a victim. Why way he there? Because you and I really do have a problem that has trapped us. One that reaches into every recess of our existence…a problem that is environmental, relational, interpersonal and existential. It is a problem we cannot avoid and will not go away.

In our hearts we know that God is perfect and holy. …And, when we are honest, we painfully aware of just how much we are not.

It’s a dilemma: A God whom the prophet Habbakuk says, “is too pure to look upon evil,” (Hab. 1:13) has a love that will not allow him to look away.  In Jesus, God manages to right what we made wrong. To ride in and save the day. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life”(John 3:16).  The unlikely storyline God chose involved a cross, a tomb, and a man who wouldn’t stay dead.

It is called salvation…deliverance…rescue. We were as good as dead in trespasses, and then, As Peter said, “Christ died for our sins once for all. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. (1 Pet 3:18)

Again, he was not a victim: This was in the script all along. Jesus’ death was the rescue plan.

But Jesus is a savior who, no matter how “over” the story appeared, still had a surprise ending up his sleeve. We know that plan worked by the Easter event – Jesus walking out of a tomb. We give it a fancy, religious sounding name, resurrection. But the shocking news was that a man very carefully put on ice did not stay that way. And, now that death cannot hold him, he holds out the hope of life to us as well. Paul said it like this: “Christ has been raised from the dead…the first of a great harvest of all who have died…just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life.” (1 Cor. 15:20-22)

God offers his rescue to all. But God, always a gentleman, will not arm twist or manipulate us to accept his offer. In Terminator 2, the terrifying cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up to rescue Sarah Conner. She is terrified. After vanquishing her enemies, the Terminator reaches out to her with the words, “Come with me if you want to live.”

Do you want to live? Will you come with Jesus?

Will you allow his forgiveness to be yours? Will you allow his Spirit to breath new life into you? Will you allow the great author and director to give you love and acceptance…to write a new ending to your story?

John said it like this, “To all who receive him, even to those who call on his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.” (John 1:12)

Tonight, what scene are you in? Are you at the height of success? If so, you might want to resist the temptation to arrogance. You have seen this story. You know the heights are an illusion.

Are you being overcome by the adversities of life? Do times look dark? You need to know, that in Christ, you have an Aslan…A hero with superpowers, unstoppable like a cyborg. A man in a white hat who has already ridden to your rescue…

He purchased your forgiveness on a cross, guaranteed your ultimate rescue when he walked from the tomb, and offers a life transformed in the in-between.

So when all looks lost, look up. For it is not until we are at the end of us that our Super Man can do his thing.

Is it just me, or is that the fat lady I hear warming up her voice in the wings?

Or as the church says, The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”

 

Real Worship: A summons to the feet of Jesus

 

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Real worship is about Jesus. It IS costly. And it DOESN’T make sense.

Scientists tell us of the powerful ability of the sense of smell to trigger memories—that the olfactory bulb in our brain links scent to event. That is why walking into a home with cookies baking in the oven can carry you back to the security of grandma’s house decades earlier. Scent, somehow, unifies and cements all 5 senses and places us, momentarily, in the experiences of our past. One suspects the story of the anointing by the woman at Bethany provided just such a fragrant link in the disciples’ minds between burial perfume and Jesus’ looming Passion.

The story of the woman of Bethany was obviously an important one in the early church, as all four Gospel writers record it (Matthew 26:6-12, Mark 14: 3-9, Luke 7:36-49, John 12:1-8). As a whole, the Gospel writers tell us three things in this story: Real worship is about Jesus. It IS costly. And it DOESN’T make sense. That is why it is so odd that in this fragrant Gospel narrative, the memory of the eyewitnesses seems fuzzy… There is a woman. There is an anointing. There is expensive, perfumed oil. There is the objection to using it on Jesus. But then the details start getting jumbled.

Are these four accounts one event? Two? Three? Scholars have wondered for centuries. It’s easy to get frustrated with the Gospel writers here. They carefully name and give character to the Twelve, yet they blur the details of this woman and her story.

Who was this woman? Both Matthew and Mark have Jesus predict that this story will always be told in memory of her…but then her name conspicuously escapes them. Luke tells us she was a “a sinner.” John alone tells us that her name was “Mary.” But Mary was the most common women’s name in first Century Palestine. There were three women named Mary present at the crucifixion that we know of. Which Mary is this?

Luke places the story early in his Gospel. Matthew, Mark, and John place it in Bethany, the day before the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest by the mob in the garden. Here are a few more details: Several days before his betrayal and death, Jesus and his disciples dine at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. While they recline at the table, a woman, whom John, the last Gospel writer by decades, identifies as Mary of Bethany approaches Jesus. We don’t know how long she had followed Jesus. What we do know is that Mary knew that worship has an object: Real worship is about Jesus.

Mary has an alabaster jar of expensive perfume, worth a year’s wages. These jars, we are told, were permanently sealed. To let the perfumed oil out one had to break the neck off. Once opened, like a jar of mayonnaise, it had to be used. Mary broke her jar, and emptied the perfume on Jesus. Real worship is costly.

In another fuzzy detail, John has the woman anoint Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. Matthew and Mark report that the woman of Bethany anointed Jesus’ head.  Both actions flower with symbolism. In the ancient Near East, anointing the head signified Kingship – Kings were anointed at their coronation by the high priest or prophet. The word “Christ,” is a transliteration of the Greek word “Christos,” itself a translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah, which means “the anointed one.”  As Rachel Held Evans says, “This anonymous woman finds herself in the very untraditional position of priest and prophet.” Only in the upside-down Kingdom of Jesus, does this make sense.”  Because real worship DOESN’T make sense.

Anointing feet, on the other hand, models humility, service…love. John’s account is more intimate. Awkward even.  In a culture in which a woman’s touch was forbidden, for Mary to cradle Jesus’ feet in her hands and brush oil over his ankles and toes with the ends of her hair was unthinkable. This is most likely the oil for her own burial she has poured out. Mary breaks her treasured bottle of burial perfume and empties it on Jesus. She spares no expense. She is fully committed. She is “all in” –  sacrificing her own future. The self-emptying of this action foreshadows Jesus’ washing the disciples feet to come the next day on Maundy Thursday. And just as we see the male disciples discomfort at that event, the disciple’s unease at her display of affection is palatable. Real worship is about Jesus. It IS costly. And it DOESN’T make sense.

In the midst of all this symbolism and foreshadowing, Jesus interprets this event for us: It is an act of worship in preparation for his burial. When the disciples rebuke the woman for what they see as a waste of money, Jesus returns the rebuke saying, “Why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. You always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” Jesus had been speaking of his impending death for a good while, but the Twelve kept missing it. The idea of a kingdom ushered in with the death of their friend rather than the death of their enemies was unthinkable. It is no wonder they complained about the “waste” of money the anointing represented – they assumed they would need to finance their ministry with Jesus for years to come. Mary alone seems to get it. She is the first of Jesus’ disciples to acknowledge his impending death… the one who anoints “the anointed one.” For this, Jesus gives her his highest praise. “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” What a remarkable thought—that from open air revival to cathedral, Europe to Uruguay, Israel to Africa, this woman’s story would be told.

Jesus wanted us to remember. Yet we aren’t even sure of the woman’s name. How is it that, unlike other Gospel stories in which details drop out as we get to the later Gospels, her name does not appear until very late? I suspect it is because this good lady did not want it to appear. The beneficiaries of Jesus’ ministry joined the early church after his resurrection. They shared their stories to encourage one another. Later, when it became obvious that Jesus was tarrying in his expected return, writers gathered and recorded those stories. In the early stories of blind Bartimaeus, for example, we know Bart’s name, his dad’s name, and even that a blind friend was beside him in the early Gospels. But by the time (and distance) that Luke writes, Bartimaeus is presumably gone and his name is dropped. Bart’s story had been told so often that it does not even make John’s Gospel, the last one written. So why is this woman not named by the early authors? The obvious guess is that it was specifically because she was still around. And SHE did not want it named.

We know that Mary was a worshipper. My guess, knowing a few Mary types, is that, for Mary, worship was, first and foremost not about her, but about Jesus. And she didn’t want folks to get distracted in admiring her. My guess is that Mary is named by John specifically because she is no longer around to keep a witness from recording her name.

But what of you? Where is your focus? What is your perfume? What do you guard and value above all else? Is it material possessions? Is your perfume your reputation? Friends? Career? Take a moment and name that which you value most, because you cannot pour out that which you cannot name.

The challenge of Mary this Holy Week is that we would dare break open that which we value most and pour it out as a fragrant offering upon our Lord. Perhaps, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the scent might trigger a memory… like the comfort of grandma’s house, bought through decades of difficult labor during hard times, we would be reminded that our comfort from God was bought at a high price. Because Real worship is about Jesus. It DOESN’T make sense. And it IS costly.

*This was the message from “Dinner Church,” our Wednesday Holy Week liturgy for families. The service is based on one done at St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn. It has a contemplative feeling (with Taize-esque music.) It is based on 1 Corinthians and what is thought to be the earliest non-canonical Christian literature, a teaching tool called The Didache. It is essentially the biblical “love feast” (Jude 1:12, 1 Cor. 11). The candle lit room set in a circle and contemplative music work well for our rowdy urban kids. The people prepare the meal together, light the worship/dinner space, pray and sing, and eat over candle light. It also gives us a chance to give folks an overview of the upcoming Triduum of holy week and pass out devotionals for families to use at home.