Game Shows: The True Cross in a “like” culture.

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Have you noticed how fuzzy the idea of “truth” has become? Things are no longer “true” in any objective sense. They are, as Stephen Colbert said, “truthy” – true enough…ish. Sort of. Our social media usage illustrates this. We no longer live our lives. We curate them, packaging the bits we want others to see. We crop out the ugly for public attention. The “like” culture has blurred the line, not just between truth and “truthy,” but also the line between actual life and media. This blurring may have been started by Alan Funt on the old tv show, “Candid Camera.” Candid Camera played jokes on ordinary people, and when the joke was revealed, host Alan Funt would pull off his disguise and deliver his catchphrase, “Smile, your on Candid Camera!”

One of the people to fall victim to Alan Funt’s blurring of real vs media was Alan Funt himself. In 1969 Alan Funt was on an Eastern Airlines flight to Miami when the flight was highjacked. The highjacker held the stewardess at knifepoint and demanded the plane fly to Havana. When passengers noticed Alan Funt seated near the highjacker, they began to applaud. When the man disappeared into the cockpit, Funt tried to explain that this was not television.  According to the Radio Lab October 15, 2015 podcast episode, “Smile My Ass,” when the passengers didn’t buy it, Funt attempted to enlist a priest sitting in first class to explain the situation. The priest didn’t believe him either. They took him seriously, though, when Cuban military boarded the plane. When we resort to packaging our own truth, how are we to know what we can actually believe in? This is where the Feast of the Holy Cross comes in…

The year was 326. Constantine, who became emperor in the wake of Diocletian’s “Great Persecution” (303-311),  was betting his empire on upstart Christianity. Unlike other religions, the Christian faith depends, not on creed or philosophy, but upon a historical event: the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The Christian message is that death has been conquered and humans reconciled to God through the sacrifice of Jesus (2 Cor 5, Col 1:22, 1 Cor 15:1-8). But Constantine needed to know if the story was true. He sent the one person he could count on to go see the Holy Land and confirm or deny the historical reports: his 78 yr old mother, Helena. Helena arrived in Jerusalem and found no tomb. Emperor Hadrian had destroyed Jesus’ burial place two centuries earlier and built a temple to Aphrodite on the location, inadvertently marking the place of Christ’s passion in perpetuity. When she asked whether or not the events in the New Testament actually happened, surely she would have met others her age who would say things like, “Well, my great-grandpa was healed by Jesus, does that count?”

Tradition tells us that Helena had Hadrian’s temple torn down. In the rubble they found three crosses left over from before the destruction of Jesus’ tomb in 130 CE. Consider that 130 date: a century after Jesus’ resurrection, a mere 3 decades after the death of John, the last living apostle. Legend has it that to identify “the true cross,” Helena had a sick woman approach the three artifacts. Upon touching the third she was healed. The “true” cross was left behind to adorn a church Helena commissioned to be built on the site. The Feast of the Holy Cross, celebrated on September 14th, marks the bringing of that cross outside of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the day after the church’s dedication (335 CE) so that the community could see it. The cross was removed when Muslims conquered the Holy Land in the crusades, and bits of it were distributed all over Europe. By the 1600s John Calvin would remark, “if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load.” Helena also saw the place of Jesus’ birth, the location of the feeding of the 5000, and many other sites of Jesus’ life, marking them with state sponsored Roman churches.

Was Helena’s cross the “true cross”? Who knows. Are the fragments distributed around the planet pieces of that cross? Probably not. But the Feast of the Holy Cross does tell us that the places Jesus walked are there – as described in the New Testament. There were worshippers, people whose lives were still being changed by the power of Jesus’ actions on the cross, still gathering where their great-grandparents had been gathering since the resurrection. And, especially in light of repeated persecutions, there is no reason for people to have begun gathering and commemorating in those places were the stories they told their children not true.

In this age when the line between truth and truthiness is blurred, there is another old game show that is a better model for us: Groucho Marx’s, You Bet Your Life. The truth is that you and I can bet our lives on Jesus Christ and his great acts of salvation on our behalf. And while we don’t have any kind of a sure claim to the “true cross” we have rock solid knowledge of a Gospel that is true. The places described in the Gospels are as described in those Gospels, because the Gospels are the narratives of dependable witnesses.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”   -‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭1:18‬ ‭ESV‬‬

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Spiritual but not religious: Code for “trendy yet not helpful”

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I recently walked the final leg of the El Camino de Santiago in Spain.[1] Before leaving I was in a coffee house having a conversation about the trip. A guy behind me asked, “Why Spain?” My response, “It’s a spiritual thing.” Today a lot of people, particularly millennials, care about “spirituality.” 250,000 people walked The Camino in 2015. More will this year. My coffeehouse acquaintance, reflecting the cultural trendiness of “spirituality” said predictably, “I’m curious about that, after all, I’m spiritual but not religious.” To be “spiritual but not religious” is all the rage. Everyone wants “spiritual,” but many desperately reject “religious.” The question is “What do people mean by, “not religious“?

My friend Michael, a really smart priest in Dallas jokes, “‘Spiritual but not religious’ is code for ‘too lazy to get out of bed on Sunday.’” But I don’t think that’s it exactly. After all, millennials seem to be fine with ritual: We watched 2000 people a day crowd the pilgrim masses at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. So while my coffee house acquaintance and many others seek “a personal experience of the divine,” and are also willing to check out a religious service, they are most definitely not running out and joining a church. So, if “religious” doesn’t mean, “I don’t like ritual” or “I’m too lazy to get up on Sunday,” what does it mean?

What is “not religious”?

In the very least, “not religious” means “I don’t see value in joining a faith community.” Perhaps this is because the churches they know are engaged in social causes they don’t like. Or because it is too narrow…or too broad (“everyone is too similar,” or “no-one is like me”). The cynical might say millennials are like Goldilocks – impossible to please. My snarky reply is that the body of Christ has done church by focus group and now doesn’t like it when the masses return the favor.

The second thing “not religious” seems to mean is “I want to do my spiritual life on my own terms.” It is to this group I appeal: Doing your spiritual life on your own is ultimately empty.

Look for example in Luke chapter 7. The first ten verses give us the story of a Roman centurion whose favorite servant is dying. Hearing that Jesus is on his way to town, he sends the town’s Jewish religious leaders with whom he is on good terms to request that Jesus heal his servant. Jesus turns and heads toward his home. The centurion, realizing that a rabbi visiting the home of a gentile becomes ceremonially unclean, sends a second set of friends to tell Jesus, “Lord, do not trouble yourself. I am not worthy” for you to be in my house, “therefore I did not presume to come to you.” He finally says, “You don’t even need to come. Just send the word to heal, and I trust that it will be done. After all, I am under authority too.” Jesus sends the word and the servant is healed. Then it says, “Jesus marveled at his faith.” He then turns to the crowd and, in one of the very few instances of Jesus interacting with a non-Jew, holds the gentile military occupier up as the example of “spiritual.”

What makes the Centurion Jesus’ model for “spiritual”?

First, notice that the man calls Jesus “Lord” (master). Every single one of the the bible’s 66 books uses the word “lord.” It appears nearly 8000 times in the Bible. (For comparison the word “love” is used about 800 times.) As a title for Jesus, “lord” emphasizes his authority, his rule over the whole world. Unlike most religious leaders, the centurion calls Jesus, “Lord.” Let that punch land for a moment: the leader of the most powerful military the world had ever seen calls Jesus, “the one with authority.” Whereas the religious leaders treated Jesus as a colleague, the truly spiritual defer to Jesus as Lord.

Jesus calls that deference “faith.” Faith in the bible is the opposite of sin. Soren Kierkegaard, father of existential philosophy, in a little book called The Sickness Unto Death said, “Sin is: in despair not wanting to be oneself before God….Faith is: the self, in being itself and wanting to be itself, grounded transparently in God.” Sin, regardless of what you may have learned in Sunday School, is not “doing bad things.” Sin is more subtle and much more dangerous: It is seeking our identity apart from God. While its’ antithesis, faith, is finding our identity in God. Faith, finding our identity in the God revealed in scripture and lived out in community, is why being truly “spiritual” always involves being “religious” as well.

Why do we need a defined faith and a defined faith community?

 Simply because they bring us into our created purpose: Finding our identity in Christ as we humbly, confidently surrender to the one rightly called, “Lord.” And having to express that faith by surrendering to other troublesome humans in the community of faith.

 The world, my friends, has realized the vacuousness of life without God. “Spirituality” is an acknowledgement of our unavoidable religious nature. “Spirituality without religion,” though, is an attempt to be nourished through a steady diet of dessert. It is the idolatry of the almighty self. The repeated more than reflected upon millennial mantra of “I’m spiritual but not religious,” reminds me of the six junior high girls I once saw walking through the mall wearing matching red “Dare to be Different!” T-shirts. Convinced they were saying something unique and profound, they failed to see the irony.

Whose fault is this?

Whenever those outside the Christian faith fail to connect there are two dynamics at work: Humanities’ own sin nature (“There is none who seeks God, no not one.” Rom. 3:10-11), and the church’s communication and demonstration of the faith. Unfortunately, instead of showing the way of faith as joyful surrender, popular Christianity has too often attempted to make faith palatable – serving up healthy doses of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, “Cheap grace.” Too often the evangelical church has dropped surrender for wish-fulfillment. Conservative churches have often settled for a message of self-help: “seven steps to…(fill in the blank) – diminishing God to one who exists to meet our desires.

While the conservative church has lowered God, the progressive church, on the other hand, has tended to elevate humanity. The progressive church removes the need for redemption by purging our documents of the words of surrender: Father, king, Lord…if a symbol might be deemed “oppressive” or “problematic,” it is not to be understood in its’ redeemed context, but struck from our hymnals, prayer books, and bibles. But God is not known either by shrinking him or elevating us. God is known through faith in the triune one who joined us and became “obedient to death, even death on a cross.Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

In the 1970’s there was a movie called “The Stepford Wives.” In it, a newcomer to an idyllic NYC suburb notices that the wives are unbelievably beautiful and docile. It turns out that the husbands have been eliminating their wives and replacing them with lifelike robots who behave according to the husbands wishes. “Spiritual but not religious” is code for “I want God on my terms.” “Spiritual but not religious” creates a Stepford God who comes on command and exists as a cosmic Jeanie in a bottle or as a dysfunctional parent who wants to be your buddy but won’t give you the discipline your heart craves. And, by the way,”spiritual but not religious” is a natural result of American Protestantism’s uncritical embrace of individualism and rationalism. It is Protestant Christianity that insisted that the world is not a magical and sacramental place and that the almighty self does not need the church to mediate God’s presence. How is “spiritual but not religious”  not the ultimate natural byproduct of the Reformation?

Overcoming the idolatry of the Almighty Self is why the historic church does the things she does when she gathers in worship: In the liturgy we remind our hearts that God is God and we are not. That God is Father and we are not. That God is King and we are not. That Jesus is Lord and we are not.

Jesus calls us to be spiritual and religious; to view our humanity perfectly fulfilled in Christ and our broken idolatrous selves perfectly redeemed by Christ. That can only truly happen in a community of other broken, annoying people.

 

[1] We did a very small portion. Our iPhones say we walked 150 miles in 10 days. It is fantastic!

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Smudgy Foreheads

 

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Wednesday you will notice people with smudgy foreheads. When you see this, resist your inner-parent urging you to dab at them with a moist napkin. They are not the victims of poor grooming habits, nor have they lost a dare. It is merely Ash Wednesday, the day in which Christians of the ancient traditions commemorate the beginning of the season of Lent by attending religious services in which they were charged to, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  (Genesis 3:19)

What is Lent?

Lent, is the archaic word for “Spring.” It has come to refer to the 40 days of spiritual preparation preceding Easter. Christians traditionally spend the season before Easter in repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial in an effort to remember our need for God and God’s great saving acts in the passion and resurrection of Jesus. (40 is symbolic of Jesus’ 40 days fasting and temptation in the wilderness)

Where did it come from?

The tradition of ashes has its roots in the ancient Jewish prophets who urged “repent in sackcloth and ashes.” Among Christians, the imposition of ashes and the 40 day fast began in Europe in the 4th century.

What’s the point?

Ash Wednesday and Lent are not about spiritual brownie points, impressing God, nor making belated New Year’s resolutions, like dropping that last five pounds by cutting chocolate.  Rather, Lent is about mindfulness – Thinking more about God and others, and less of ourselves. Christians are penitent during Lent because we are grateful for God’s provision for humanity through Jesus.

We go to church on Ash Wednesday to be marked outwardly with ashes as we remind ourselves inwardly of our need for the unquenchable, fierce love of God to enliven us.

Christians of the ancient tradition spend 40 days in Lenten practices, either giving up something we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity. The mindfulness generated by self-denial and self-discipline prepare our hearts to be more fully present for the remembrance of the saving acts of Jesus during Holy Week.

What happens at an Ash Wednesday service?

They are usually brief. You will hear biblical passages calling people to repentance and have ashes imposed on your forehead with the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19) Holy Communion is then celebrated.

Checking out a service…

You do not need to be a member to attend. EVERYONE is welcome at an Ash Wednesday service. EVERYONE is invited to receive ashes. Although different churches have different rules for receiving communion, in the Episcopal church our canons ask you to be a baptized Christian to receive communion. (If you are not baptized you may simply stay in your seat or come forward with the congregation, arms crossed, to receive a blessing).

Tired of the noise?

In the midst of debates and news cycles and narcissism, when even America’s pastor urges us to be our own “I Am”, engaging in self-examination and the contemplating our own mortality is refreshingly against-the-grain. Ash Wednesday and Lent create space to become more aware of our need for reconciliation with God and others. Ash Wednesday is an active way to do that with the support of other seekers. This Wednesday, find a service and attend!

Millennials still in the church: What do they have in common?

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I had an interesting conversation with a millennial today. This young man was part of a vibrant youth ministry in a large, fast growing church. He described the youth program as “fantastic!” It was led by a gifted and godly leader, a person I know and hold in high esteem. “Hundreds came through and at least 60 of us had genuinely transformative faith experiences in that group,” the young man told me. Then he dropped the bomb, “But five years later I only know of four of us that are still in church.”

Think about those numbers. Even if you only count those who had a conversion experience, that is still a staggering 94% drop out rate!

Survey after survey has told us this is going on in the White evangelical world, but these millennials went to a Spanish language church – churches that we are told are immune to this phenomenon.

My young friend was visibly discouraged so I changed the subject and we spent a few minutes thinking about what the four of them who “made it” have in common. Here is what we noticed:

The young adults who stayed…

1. Read: Regularly, even (gasp) daily.

2. Listen: They spend regular time alone listening to God (you know, prayer).

3. Learn: They have learned the historic answers to the basics of the faith and the church. This is not being able to argue Calvinism vs Arminianism or defend inerrancy, but what used to be called “catechesis.”

4. Reflect: They apply the Scriptures and the catechesis they have received to the issues in their lives.

5. Gather: They regularly worship with other Christians to grow in their faith through song, Scripture, sermon and Sacrament, in a format (and this is important) designed for the training of Christians.

6. Follow: They are in active relationship with a mentor who spends time with them…who loves and challenges them.

7. Lead:  They are in active relationships with people they are mentoring. People they know and spend time with…whom they love and challenge.

8. Lean: They are surrounded by a community of others who are doing the same – people they “do life” with and lean on.

These things are both internal and external: Internally the ones who remained have built up reserves of Scripture, prayer, study, and worship. They know the “whats” and “whys” of the faith, and have a method for dealing with questions and struggles in their lives.

And at least as important, Externally, they have a leader above, a community around, and a group below that depend on them.

An obvious question formed: Is there anything on our list that is different from what “built” a young Christian in 1914? 1514? 514? 114?  

As we spoke, it dawned on us that the four had received essentially what disciples in every generation have received from the church: Internal scaffolding to support them in their faith, and webs of external relationships that weave them together. Together these tend to produce people who go through life singing in the key of Jesus.

It became obvious that the ones who are “making it” are exactly the ones we would expect…the ones who learned to love doing the things Christians have loved doing for 2000 years. Wasn’t this what was going on in Acts 2:42-47? Maybe ministry to millennials really isn’t rocket science…unless, of course, we stop doing those things the church has historically done.

My guess is that if you look at the young adults who are in your church, the chances are good that they are specifically the ones who have not just had preaching and programs, but whose lives are intertwined with others, giving them these webs of relationships to go with their faith scaffolding. What would happen to millennials if the church stopped giving students “relevant” curriculums and programs, segregating them away into youth rooms, spending piles of money on lights, fog machines, and xboxes, and simply went back to incarnating the Gospel? The Great Commission is strikingly simple: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Let’s try that and see if, “lo” and behold, it isn’t just Jesus who is “with us till the end of the age“, but a generation of millennials as well.

 

By the way, the millennial was Julio Torres, our music leader. The other three are a youth director, a children’s minister, and a youth volunteer. …Which, come to think of it, validates my contention that if you want a millennial to stay in your church, give them a task

This matters. Stay on your pace.

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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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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.