A Christmas Carol – for a New Ebenezer Scrooge

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On the 19th of December, 1843 when much of our frontier was still unsettled and where Christmas was not even a recognized holiday in much of the United states, Charles Dickens’ publisher, Chapman and Hall released a novella about the power of the human spirit to embrace new and revive old ways of celebrating the nativity of Our Lord.  A Christmas Carol told the story of bitter and hardened Ebenezer Scrooge, a type of many joyless lives of the period, and his nocturnal encounters with the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley.  Three spirits representing Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas yet to come then visit Scrooge.  From these three encounters, Scrooge has a revelation about himself and the world in which he lives.

But to understand why this story had so much power, we must look at why it was written.  In Great Britain, festivals such as Christmas had been banned during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (commonly called the Interregnum by Anglo-Catholics), an 11-year change of constitutional government that eliminated the monarchy in favor of parliamentary control.  During this time, the Puritans in control banned the Book of Common Prayer, replacing it with the Westminster Directory, assumed a Presbyterian form of government, and stripped the calendar of most of its celebrations – including Christmas.  So the original Grinch, or Scrooge, that stole Christmas was Cromwell’s protectorate.

That brief point in time, and the Puritan influence that remained thereafter, was a joyless time liturgically. Many of the customs that our families observe were eliminated.  There were no Christmas trees (a Germanic custom), no Christmas cards, and no carolers.  These three things began to make a renaissance at the same time that Great Britain was dealing with some of its social ills.

Slavery in England and her colonies was abolished in , But they were only beginning to deal with the social ills of their day.  Tiny Tim in the story becomes the archetype of struggling families, borne out of Dickens’ own struggles with poverty.  Now on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, English families had a decision to make, and so do we.

While we have trapping abounding in nearly every store since August, the spirit of Christmas that Dickens sought the standard Englishman to embrace was not a thing of externals.  Sure, the tree and cards are nice – they point to a joyful cause to celebrate.  But I think Dickens was inviting us into something deeper – a turning around of the coldness of heart to see the image of God in others amidst a holy season.

Consider the Tiny Tims of your life.  Perhaps the forgotten person fed at Messiah’s Saturday suppers.  Or consider the hungry man who has exactly $17 left from his disability check to feed him for the month – a man who is a regular visitor at our church office.  Maybe it is an aunt or uncle that is lonely, but the whole family has written off as odd or eccentric.  We all know that one person.   

So as we prepare for the 12 days of Christmastide, as we have our office parties and our Christmas get togethers, let us not forget those to whom Dickens’ addressed the Christmas Carol.  Soften your hearts toward those who would know no real Christmas.  And hopefully, it will not take three Christmas phantoms to remind us of the true purpose of the Incarnation. God so loves us that he took human form and in his life, ministry, atoning death and resurrection, he shows us what real life is all about.

A most blessed Nativity to all,

Robert+

A Triduum of Sorts

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All across the face of the earth, the days of October 31st, November 1 and November 2nd will be celebrated in different ways. Some will border on the fiendish or the macabre. Still others will speak the joys of heaven and the need we have for a savior. Each year, the church invites her members to contemplate what it means to be human and live into the promises of life everlasting. It is a Triduum of sorts. It is not sacred in the same way that the Easter Triduum is, but important nonetheless.

First, let’s explore Halloween. It depends who you ask, but in Christian circles this day is either celebrated as a joyful celebration with children in costumes, bobbling for apples, and scaring neighbors for treats, or a sinister side, dark, and demonic. To some, Halloween finds its place in churches as a cause to get together children and celebrate a night of fantasy. Others find this very close to Satanism. Today, in all but the most reformed or fundamentalist traditions, the former is true. Episcopalians have embraced the celebrations of Halloween when they were revived in the 1800s. It is important to note that Christmas was not observed in America until the 1800s except among Roman Catholics. The Calvinists in New England even made its celebration illegal. When the Church of England was reformed in the years following Henry VIII, many celebrations we find common and popular today were effectively outlawed.Today there is even an official liturgy for an “All Hollow’s Eve Vigil” found in the Book of Occasional Services. In our American culture, we have come to understand that Halloween can be a fun time byall. We need not dwell on the superstition that once plagued these events and concentrate on the community fellowship that these celebrations provide.

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Secondly, let’s consider the origins of All Saints’ Day. The Church celebrates each saint on his or her own “saints day”. Usually this is the anniversary of their death. But with innumerable official saints, only a small percentage can be formally recognized. To that end, in the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV proclaimed a celebration called All Saints’ Day. Originally May 13th, Pope Gregory III moved it to November 1. Beginning with the ministries of leaders like Patrick, the church sought to“baptize”pagan festivals and give them new meaning. Easter (originally a pagan celebration of spring fertility) and Christmas (the fall celebration of the Winter Solstice) share this feature. In establishing this feast, there were some problems that needed to be overcome. The ancient Celts celebrated a pagan festival called Samhaim (pronouncedsaw-in). They believed that it was around the first of November when the dead had ability to come back to the world of the living. The Church had a choice; baptize the festivities with new meanings, or risk not evangelizing the peoples they sought to reach. The Church chose to create a three-day festivity with new meanings. It is from this festival that lighting bonfires (quite literally bone-fire), bobbing for apples (in celebration of the Roman God Pomona who controlled the trees and their produce), and trick-or-treating (the Celts left out dishes of sweets for the familiar spirits that they believed roamed the streets in order to avoid a trick). In England, soul cakes were baked in expectation ofd oor-to-door beggars who would promise prayers for the deceased in exchange for these baked goods.

Recognizing saints, who by the Church’s own definition are deceased, tied in quite nicely with the needs of the people, and the aims of the church. I doubt that really convinced the native Celts of the new meaning, but the “All Saints’ Triduum” certainly has been catechized over the generations to include these odd elements of superstition,while teaching that although life is changed by death, it is most certainly not ended. At the end of the 10th century, the Church added another celebration, All Souls’ Day, an occasion to recognize all the faithful departed, even those to whom the Church would not ascribe a capital “S” to their title of saint.

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Thirdly, All Souls’ Day, observed on November 2, is celebrated with Requiem Masses. The living pray on behalf of those who are on their soul’s journey. Historically, this was understood to be the souls in purgatory, a concept alien to Anglicans, and rather misunderstood even among Roman Catholics. While the Scriptures do not speak of Purgatory as a place, they speak of the merits of “purgation”, that is, that we will be changed (1 Cor 15:51) in God’s presence as we see him as he is. Because of the association with Purgatory, a concept the Protestant reformers wished to remove from the theology of the Protestant Churches, All Souls’ Day was suppressed. It was brought back into use inthe Episcopal Church during the time of the Oxford (alsocalled Tractarian) Movement in the 1840s. Much of the Catholic elements of the Church of England before the break with Rome were restored in varying degrees in the years after. All Souls’ Day lives on today in Latin America.  All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day are collectively observed as “Los Dias de los Muertos” (The Days of the Dead). This is when when families pray for, remember, and hold vigil for the deceased–particularly the recently deceased. At St. Stephen’s these elements of our faith speak to our hope in the life everlasting.While elements surrounding Halloween are cute and novel, we need make sure they are also observed for their Christian connotations. It has been said that that is the one day of the year that the Dominical Cycle (feasts of our Lord including Sundays) and the Sanctoral Cycle (feasts of the saints) meet.

Real Government, Real Deliverance

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The year 64 CE was a particularly disastrous year for the church. It was that year that the apostles Peter and Paul were both executed, Paul by decapitation (since he was a Roman Citizen) and Peter by crucifixion. The early years of the church were not easy and Paul writes his young curate Timothy with these words that epitomize the struggle of swimming upstream in a hostile culture.

“I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

Surely you have heard the old saying, Nero fiddled while Rome burned. I hate to point out the serious error of this phrase, you see, viols, the precursors to modern violins and violas were not invented until the 16th century. But what is true is that Rome did burn. And Nero, who is alleged to have set the fire himself to raze the slum parts of the city, blamed the Christians for setting the fire.

The year of that fire, you guessed it– 64 CE.

So if Paul trusted in the Lord for his deliverance even though he knew his time of martyrdom was coming, so what does that deliverance look like.

#1 – Deliverance does not come from the state. We live in a country that is often called post-Christian. I really think that was a misnomer. Sure, more people were in church in the 1950s and early 60s, but that was because of cultural associations, not true faith. I think the number of true believers is probably pretty constant in communities like this, but when the benefits of association are no longer culturally supported, then the numbers dwindle.

Let me be clear. We are not a post-Christian society because we never were a truly Christian Society. In fact, a vague deism is the best way we can describe any spirituality America ever had. The “In God We Trust” slogan referred to a vague God, un-defined by doctrinal precepts, and constructed in such a way that orthodox Christian, Jew, Unitarian, and Muslim could rally around the idea.

Furthermore, while the first amendment’s freedom of religion clause allows the expression of Christianity, it does not support anything but its right to exist. In fact, if ever the tax-exempt, and tax-deductible status of churches were revoked, you can bet that the institutional model of Christianity would disappear altogether.

The Bible does not even support the idea that the state is reliable to defend the believer. God allows human governments, but he certainly is not blessing America any more than he blesses any other government. God alone is our true governor.  When we read these words of Paul, we must note the context of his defense. Since he was a Roman citizen, he was allowed certain unalienable rights (sound familiar). This was the right to a fair trial, the right to face his accusers, and in the case of a capital crime, the right to a “humane execution” whatever that means or does not mean is the subject of another blog.

So Paul is correct in stating that God provides our deliverance. And even in his imprisonment, God was working. Since Paul had the right to have his capital crime judged by the emperor, this put the Praetorian Guard (the defenders of Caesar) as his jail keepers. It gave him a premise to share the gospel, and a great many of them became Christians due to Paul’s personal testimony.

#2 Deliverance is not from friends – When Paul is accused, his friends scatter, just as the apostles scattered in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested.

We read on that only one friend is even still around:  for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me.” 2 Timothy 4:10-11a NRSV

Yet for all his associates in the ministry, deliverance is not coming in that way.

If we look Acts, chapter 8, we see that there is no evidence of the church coming to the aid of Stephen before he is stoned. In fact, Acts 8:1 tells us that the believers were scattered and “devout men” only buried Stephen. No one came to save Stephen – they ran!

3# We cannot expect deliverance from non-Christians (and some of these are from with n the church as well as from outside)

Paul, says that just as his friends are off in distant places, accusation came, not from friends, or the state, but from those who are intent on discrediting the church.

He writes:  Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds. You also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message.” 2 Timothy 4:14-15 NRSV

Even for all the problems Alexander caused, he simply offers caution to Timothy, not a cause for revenge, or even avoidance. He is not saying discredit him on Facebook or dig up some dirt on him.

Today’s world is filled with angry vitriol about how people perceive the church. We are either irrelevant, or to some, we are an evil to be opposed.

The Post-modern Alexander the Coppersmith is still with us saying :

+ look at all the priests who sexually abused children, tell me the church is not corrupt, or,

+ look at how big Joel Osteen’s house is, tell me we shouldn’t tax the church, or

+ those who simply tell our children that the institutional church is just a con game.

We simply must remember that our citizenship is in Heaven. It is from there that we expect our supreme governor.

Heed the warning of the Psalmist, “Put not your trust in rulers nor in any child of earth for there is no help in them.” So if there is no help in Government for Paul, no help in friends, no help from outside the church how are we to proceed in this postmodern world.

Again the Psalmist provides wisdom: “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where shall my help come? Our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” The Lord, who spoke our present created order into existence. Knows you, loves you, and cares for you in a way no other deliverer can muster or promise.

We are at the edge of an election. Lots of titles and praise, slander and bitterness is being thrown out. Facebook and Twitter are cause for angst. Families fight as if elections are salvation.  People have forwarded things that easily could be considered slander – all for what? They really don’t convince anyone. And furthermore, if we pledge to respect the dignity of every human being, that means even one who may be the candidate of the opposition.

The next time you post, or tweet or argue, I pray the words of Paul to Timothy would ring true. Our deliverance comes not from the state, or friends, or strangers, but from God. In the end of life, as Paul was facing, truth becomes clearer. Paul understood with the clarity of eternity and not the myopia of current events.  I encourage you to see this time with the lenses of eternity.

Robert+

Justice and Discipleship

Justice and Discipleship

 

I confess that one of the most difficult part of my Christian journey to address within myself is God’s desire for us to be a people of justice. All too often in our western society, justice is confused with political agenda. At times that agenda is from the right, and at times it is from the left. Even within our own Episcopal tradition, that tension is lived out by both sides, some “the Republican party at prayer” and others, who “eat, sleep, and dream on their left side.” I am a self-professed centrist or moderate. It is far easier for me to talk of issues of mission or evangelism. Perhaps that is because these are usually places where the thrust is from a united front. We want people to love God, be cared for, and fed. Thus, if we are to care for our neighbor, we are automatically people who must seek justice.

Recently, I got into a rather heated ‘discussion’ regarding the Baptismal Covenant in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. In previous versions of the prayer book, the covenant is implied, even if not overtly proclaimed. The last question is one that causes some to cringe, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? (BCP p. 305). Perhaps my defense of this question is rooted in my love for a book that I think is the finest piece of liturgical scholarship in nearly five hundred years. The Baptismal Covenant is my framework for understanding myself in relationship to a God who loves me to the uttermost. So why the issue? This, and other perils in our faith journeys, might have a tendency to point to self and not to God. I wholeheartedly want my life to witness to God’s justice and God’s peace. How are we to reconcile the confusing messages of justice and righteousness? How are we to choose from what is God’s and not a reflection of our own understanding given our culture and upbringing?

First, let me point out that so many of our struggles can be classified as “right” or “left”. In times of great social and moral turmoil, there are “new lights” and “old lights”. In fact, Diana Butler Bass does a phenomenal job of clarifying the whole basis of the movement we are currently experiencing in her work Christianity after Religion. In every age there are those who resist the move of the age and those who radically embrace it. It was true in both the first and second Great Awakenings, it was true in the Charismatic movement of the 20th Century, and it is true now.

I think we are finally getting to be a place where more and more people are being accepted as part of the human family. Don’t get me wrong, the work is far from finished, but more and more people are finding a voice in the church. That is a good, healthy, and holy thing. In fact, when we take the verses of the Bible that speak of justice to our neighbors, or purity of life out of the Bible, there really is not much left. Oddly enough, when the church ought to be living into the issues that bring the most people into the fold, we still are arguing about the barriers that drive us apart.

Author William Herzog tells us in his book Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: a Ministry of Liberation, that if we remove the texts from the Bible concerning debts and purity in the Old Testament, we have little else. On one hand, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with justice references concerning debts. What is left are verses describing purity. The church has been an old pro at enforcing these boundaries for a long time. What we have failed to realize is that Jesus essentially challenged all of those teachings while emphasizing justice. The unthinkable under the Old Covenant is commonplace – and expected – in Jesus. The un-clean are made clean; the Sabbath is given for the betterment of humankind, and not humankind just to live into a rule. Even taboos of food and drink, established for a time, are now no longer necessary. They established a chosen people’s boundaries for a season, but after it was established, no longer were those confines needed.

At a time when the church is fighting itself, perhaps we can be the better people and get out of our own boundaries and parameters and get back to the part of the scriptures that Jesus said was important. Can we find a united front in recognizing that the church is the one institution or movement that has the ability to work with the power of God? I think we can.

Think of it this way:

-If you have ample food, you should care that others are fed as well. That is justice!

-If you have a job that helps you earn what you need to survive, you should care that another has the same chance at that pay, however different they are from you. That is justice!

-If you have been fortunate enough to be in a clean, safe house, you ought to care that others have clean, safe homes too. That is justice!

-If you live in freedom, we cannot be blind to those who live in modern slavery (human trafficking). That is justice!

-If you received an education, then you should care that others can get a good education too. That is justice!

And the list goes on…

I think at the end of life, when we stand before God, he will not ask us how well we separated ourselves from others in an attempt to be pure. Perhaps just as our righteousness is imputed, so also our purity will be. After all, Scripture tells us we will be as a chaste virgin…without spot or wrinkle (Eph. 5:27, Col. 1:22, Jude 1:24). God cares deeply about his people – all of them. God wants us to be perfect as God is perfect, therefore we must learn to be just as God is just.

This has been a difficult post to write, challenging to me in so many ways and I hope you that read it find it just as challenging. If you are like me and need to work on this part of your Baptismal Covenant, take comfort. God is working in us to accomplish all that is good and pleasing in his sight (Eph. 2:20, 2 Cor. 6:7).

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being? I will, with God’s help!

Examining our Prejudice and asking, “Do you want to be made well?”

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Every person I know seems to like an underdog.  We look for those people who exemplify the person who persists above all odds.  This is the stuff of made for television movies, especially those found on the Lifetime Channel.  When we look at stories like that of righteous Job in the Old Testament, we see courage to face our tails in the midst of things we do not understand.

This week, the church will read the Gospel of John, 5:1-9.  I am particularly struck by a question, “Do you want to be made well?”  Jesus asks this to one person, not the many that are gathered there.  Likewise, Jesus confronts us with what it means to understand what it means to be truly human, created in the image and likeness of God.

First, the setting.  Bethesda is known for its five porticoes and its stirring, curative waters.  It is not unlike Lourdes or Walsingham, places that are sites of pilgrimage and where the water is associated with healings of various kinds.  Even the name, Bethesda means “House of Flowing”.  So the belief was, if someone were the first to enter the pool when the waters became stirred up (presumably by an angel), that person would receive the curative effect.

The scene must have been ghastly.  Unwashed, handicapped bodies all hoping for a miracle.  The area would have the scent of an out-of-control Port-O-Let latrine.  I cannot imagine Bethesda being high on the AAA’s must visit list for tourists.  But this is the imago humanitae – the image of the state of humans in the full effect of fallenness.

Then Jesus enters the story.  Jesus sees an individual with a story.  He sees a person, with infinite human dignity.  A person for whose sinfulness, he would offer his life.  Jesus was also confronted with the powers of death and Hell, powers that seek to reduce us to categories and generalizations, instead of looking at the person, the face, and the name. Interestingly, he does not address with a massive program.  No 501c3 is launched here.  He addresses the issue by loving a person.

To appreciate this one person’s journey, we journey back thirty-eight years.  This is the time when the affliction first hit this man.  The pharisaic tendencies of all of us are like those that ask others whom Jesus healed, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”  We want to point the finger – to call out the blame instead of resting in the situation and saying, “It is what it is, now, what can I do?”  If we could put ourselves in these shoes it would be like looking back at  1977, 38 years prior.  Jimmy Carter was President.  Debby Boone was topping the Pop charts.  Anita Bryant had just received a cream pie in the face for her opposition to gay rights.  That is a long time ago.  For thirty-eight years this man bore the effects of fallenness:  the world, the flesh and the Devil.

Jesus chooses to look into the humanity and see the goodness of the person.  I like to think that I choose to think in this way.  Often I fail.  Often, I am the one who needs the healing because I see with eyes that see situations, not the human face of God staring back at me. I wonder how many of us do that.  When does it happen? All the time.

There are those who choose to see addiction as moral failure.  They use phrases like, “Once a user, always a user.” They fail to see the disease as the effect of the fall and not the sum total of the person.  The addict is one for whom the power of the Prince of Darkness is actively influencing and oppressing.  To see addiction as moral failure (and not disease) is to dismiss the fact that the spiritual warfare is all around us.

Consider poverty.  We have all heard things like, “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps – you wouldn’t be in this mess if you made better choices!”  Having worked among those who have lost so much of their freedom to poverty, I know that there are so many other issues to figure into this equation.  No one wishes to be poor, no more than one wishes to be an addict.  For some, important life lessons need to be learned (and taught).  For others, there are issues of family of origin, or culture that contribute to the poverty paradigm.  In these cases too, can we see the human face – the one so beloved of God?

In all of the “others” we might consider seeing the shadowy reflection of ourselves.  These are they who are in the midst of the Great Tribulation – real life – the world the flesh and the Devil all around us.  But do we want to be made well?  Do we want the eyes of the Kingdom, or the eyes of fallen humankind?

There are still others that will see a hopeless victim.  A pawn in the game of life, one to be pitted, but no more.  These are these who see a problem, acknowledge its reality, but still choose to do nothing.  This is a victim mentality.  In all of this, the Apostle Paul tells us that we are more than conquerers!  We are not looking at a victim at the pool, we are looking at a human being created in the image of God.

When we see the disabled man at the sheep gate, who do we see?  Do we see “a sinner”? Well, so are we!  Do we see “a victim”? So are we!  Instead, I choose to see myself, my own failing attitudes, the things that need to be drowned out of me that I may show Christ, and not self.  Furthermore, I see that same man who struggled for those 38 years reflected in this 38 year old priest.  “Yes”, I reply.  “I want to be made well!”

What Jesus offers us is healing.  Do we wish to be made well, place blame, or play victim?  When we come to the waters today, who are we and what do we seek.  For many of us, we will choose to die in our prejudices.  This is both a physical and spiritual death.  These attitudes are too engrained for many.  Some folks even see prejudice as the construct that affirms that they are somehow better.  That is sad, it is a tragedy.  Still others will make a choice to see that when they make distinctions between themselves, they are actually choosing to identify with the oppressor, instead of the liberator, the King of Kings that sets men and women free from their bondage.

Healing also means walking – getting on with life.  We WERE brought to the waters with curative power.  It is Baptism.  There the fallen bits of humanity were buried with Christ in his death.  But there we also mdd a promise to respect the dignity of every human being.  That means the “other – the shadowy reflection of ourselves.

Do you want to be made well?  It starts with a change of perspective.  When you see the “other”, I hope you hear the voice of the Spirit asking you, “Do you want to be made well?”  God is in the resurrection business.  For some, it is old ailments healed.  For others, it is mental bondage broken.  For all of us, it is putting to death any idea that we are better or worse than others.  In all these things, we can be, if we choose, more that conquerers through him who loved us to the uttermost.

 

 

 

Opening the Kingdom of Heaven

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Good Friday evokes many things for many people.  In surveying Facebook this morning, I found some people going to work without any observance of the occasion, some that came to an empty workplace, some who loved that school was out today, and then, in my priestly cohort, scores of pictures of stripped altars and bare worship spaces.  To some, it almost appears to be a celebration of Cromwell’s troops making off with the goods.  It occurs to me that perhaps both secular and sacred have sterilized the day.

Some ten or more years ago now, Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of the Christ debuted.  I recall watching it for the first time.  Much of the imagery was jarring.  We grow up (if we are in Christian circles) seeing Jesus neatly portrayed on  crucifix.  The image is often gilded, polished, or simple stained lindenwood.  It does not convey the graphic brutality of crucifixion.  But then, how could it?

So marred was his appearance beyond human semblance, and his former beyond that of mortals. Isaiah 52:14

I wonder, in an age of alternative theories of atonement, how we can escape the idea of blood shed for us.  The Old Covenant points to that promise – a covenant in blood.  The people of the first Passover in Egypt used blood as a sign of salvation.  The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews boldly asserts that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.  No matter how unpopular the traditional blood atonement may seem to postmodern minds, it is this that I grasp onto with hope in the midst of my own cretain mortality.  I know I am secure in knowing whose I am based not on the Incarnation, not on the miracles, not on my participation, but 10 units of fully human and fully divine blood offered in exchange for my soul.

He entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. Hebrews 9:12

The old Gospel Hymn “Power in the Blood” echoes in me this day.  The same blood shed for an individual soul is also offered for congregations.  This is OUR story.  We find our humanity as congregations in this day.  Our voices cry out against the suffering servant. We are in the crowd.  Every time we attempt to run churches our way, or from places of power or influence.  Each time our churches make their place among the wealthy, powerful, and strong we need the blood.  When we fail to, in the words of Pope Francis, “Smell like the sheep” by finding our place among the marginalized and needy, we need the blood.  It is this blood, the new and more perfect covenant, that transforms us from being a self-seeking and self-serving country club into a missionary outpost for the salvation of humanity.

The human experience is subjective and myopic.  We often fail to see what is right in front of us.  The Cross is about more than just one event, it is our story, our inheritance.  This act of violence is also the gateway to knowing the power of God in resurrection.

Show me life, and I will show you death.  There is no Easter without Good Friday.  There is no new life in congregations without finding a new covenant.  All too often, we run our churches as though we still were working the sacrificial system.  Our offerings consist of our programs, our personalities, our liturgies.  The writer of Hebrews cuts to the point.  All these things point to a greater reality. Sadly, in our myopic view we fail to see the larger picture.  We are simply living out the redemptive plan of God among mortal people.  All that our congregations can offer is to present this loving act of Jesus to a society that often forgets that they are loveable.

So why do we still proclaim the gruesome reality of the day, because it is the path to life.  Show God death and he will show us life.

 

 

Out of Death – into Life

 

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I write this post in the midst of preparations for Maundy Thursday.  These sacred days recounting our Lord’s last acts, betrayal, passion and burial are a time held sacred by all Christians.  In the events of this week are all of the ministries of the earthly life of Jesus brought to their conclusion, and the church universe continues that work into our present reality.

What does it mean to follow a dying Lord when it comes to renewing and empowering our congregations?  In a world saturated with messages that reinforce that it is “all about us”, how do we find the stories of our congregations in the midst of death?

For many of us, it is not death that is a mystery, but rather life.  As I write this there are untold people who struggle to lead their churches into new vitality and life.  In some of these churches, there are unhealthy family dynamics.  In still others, age and privilege have yielded a new, uncertain standing.  Our lives reflect the one we serve, the Lord Jesus who calls us all to have new life.

But before we can find new life, we must meet death.  Squarely and realistically, we must recognize that there is but one path to life and that is the Cross.  While to individuals, that message is clear, “repent and be baptized”- live anew as one born again.  But for congregations, there is no obvious parallel.  The church is understood in scripture as enduring to the end, but what does that mean for the ‘local’ church, where Dad was baptized and confirmed and where all of our family members were married.  We face decreasing numbers.  Where is life?

This is the same question that the disciples were asking in these sacred days.  And then, as Passover preparations were being made, Jesus takes everything that these ragged uneducated folks knew to be the sacred story and writes it anew.  Somewhere, in the midst of these words, we find our congregations:

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” John 13:1

Did you get that, he loved them- to the end.  This is referring to his own end, but it might also be understood in its contemporary application with the seeming ends of our congregations.  We see red ink and large bills.  We note that people, even very seriously spiritual people, simply do not attend as often as they once did.  We ask ourselves the hard questions like, “Where is faith”, “Is there any purpose to this”, and these very questions were the same things that the disciples wondered as well.

“You do not know what I am doing, but later, you will understand.” John 13:7

I often marvel that what seems to be the worst times in our congregations experience are often, in retrospect, where we find his provision and promise most mighty.  When God is busy writing our story, we wait for it to clear the desk of the publisher.  That takes time, and we are impatient.  Into this questioning and perplexity, Jesus takes a basin and fills it with water, one by one, he washes our feet, for we are his modern day disciples.  Sure, the hands and feet of Jesus are different now simply because we are those hands and feet.

Often, when God is working, we totally misinterpret it.  Peter is no different.  He sees the washing and the servanthood, but misses the bigger idea – HE is to serve.  He wants the washing!  He wasn’t to be an even fuller recipient.  In the uncomfortable times in our ministries we often want the role of recipient, but Jesus is clearly saying that in those most difficult times, the Gethsemane of our congregations’ lives, we are to serve.

“And you are clean.” John 13:8

All that is needed for you to excel in doing the work of God is already in your grasp.  We often look for the next gimmick.  We are not unlike the secular press that lives to find the one “lost” book of the Bible or provide the one “lost” gospel account.  We scramble for the next study, the next conference, or the next program.  We have exactly what we need.  What we lack is the vision and the faith to put it into practice.

“A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.” John 13:34

Love in the midst of what we perceive to be death is difficult.  The old self chronically asks, “What is in it for me.” As congregations, tragically, we see new recruits and new membership to be key in dealing with decaying properties or unfunded budgets.  We instead must look to the giver of every good gift for all of those things.  As we “consider the lilies of the field, how they are clothed” we find that our worrying about scarcity of resources is choosing poverty when God always sees abundance.  If we “seek first the Kingdom and his righteousness, all these will be ours as well” and that includes the daily needs of people AND congregations.

It is in this Upper Room that two ancient things take new meaning, a washing with water – an act of service to humankind, and then the giving of oneself.  Jesus even models this concept in the Eucharist.  This completed act of Passover, where new meanings are ascribed to old actions, where the resurrection of Job, the priesthood of Melchisidek, and the lamb of the Passover have their confluence.  And we see our congregations here too.

“Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, broke it, and gave it to them saying, take and eat it, this is my Body” and “This cup that is poured out is the New Covenant in my Blood.” Luke 22:17, 19

Broken – poured out – given.  Those words are not those of one who wished to possess, but to set free.  The Old Covenant sought to maintain by strict adherence to a code of law, the new covenant is lavishly given, poured out, and uncontainable.  When we look at our churches, how often have we sought to our out, give, and break ourselves for the sake of another.  Have we simply asked “what is in it for me?”  When we find scarcity of resources, perhaps it is because we have not seen the lavish giving of the one who sees resources in abundance.

Ten precious pints of blood, shed to prove the love of one who can and does make every drop count.  Ten precious pints to demonstrate redemption to a people that are constantly holding back and counting the costs.  If Jesus paid it all, why do we say we wish to be more like Jesus, but then manage our resources as miserly as Judas.  If we cannot outlive God, why do we hold back?

When all of these things had taken place, Jesus goes out to pray.  In his words and instructions we find our response.

“Why are you sleeping?  Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial” Luke 22:46

In north America, we have for too long been a slumbering church.  We wait for more resources when we have not used those we have.  We pray for people in our congregations to serve, but have not served the least of them that surround our churches daily.  We are, much like the disciples in this seemingly hopeless night, and it would seem that tomorrow we die.

So tonight, let us take into account the actions of one who is among as as one who serves.  Let us recall the saving acts which are not just ours, but belong to the entire world.  Watch, wait, pray.

(More to come tomorrow)