Tuesday, March 23, 2004

On the Eucharistic Life

In the Middle East, the sharing of a meal is deeply significant act that creates and maintains communal life. As Dr. Power reminds us from time to time, in that culture, sharing a meal with someone makes them family, and this act carries all of the blessings and responsibilities of that kind of relationship. It is in that culture that the Passover meal became the Eucharist.

One of the oldest Eucharistic blessings includes this prayer: “As this broken bread was once scattered on the mountains, and after it had been brought together became one, so may your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom; for yours is the glory, and the power, through Jesus Christ, forever” (Didache 9:4).

In the Eucharist, we rehearse the redemptive act whereby God created a people for himself. We join in that action to receive the blessings and accept the responsibilities of being that people. Taking the bread and wine is a deeply political act, proclaiming for everyone, “Who I am is not determined by my culture or job or the dictates of society. I am in Christ, and my identity is determined by His words and the life of the Community, which is his Body.”

The Eucharistic celebration is a renewal of Jesus’ commitment to us, collectively, as his Body, the people he has redeemed for himself. It is a renewal of our commitment to him and one another in being that. We are the scattered grain that has become the one loaf of bread, offered to God at the altar to be the Body of Christ. “We behold what we are; may we become what we see.”

To what extent do we really take responsibility for our brothers and sisters with whom we celebrate the Eucharist? What does it look like when we really commit to a deep, familial sharing with people who may have no more in common with us than the decision to attend a particular parish? What can be done to create that kind of “community culture” when we often attend churches full of people who have no such concept?

I don't have many answers yet, just more questions. But I'm working on it. Any suggestions?

Saturday, March 20, 2004

On the Parable of the Sower

Jesus seemed to have a confidence in his preaching that I probably shouldn’t emulate: “if you don’t understand what I’m talking about, it’s because you’re predetermined to be unspiritual.” Riiight. I’ll try it one day and let you know how well it goes over.

Jesus has a lot of work to do in teaching us to see our world and ourselves as God does, and he uses stories to get the point across. He often presented to people very commonplace dilemmas, but with unexpected twists. He leads us to ask, “who am I in this story?”

When his disciples asked about the stories, Jesus told them that they reveal “the secret of the Kingdom of God,” what the rule of Yahweh looks like when ordinary men and women enter into it. Jesus identified himself by word and deed as the Jewish messiah, so was developing quite a following of folks who expected the immanent reign of God. We have to understand, however, that in this culture, entering the reign of God was something one did with a big knife: Isaiah called Messiah a mighty warrior, and there was plenty of war to be made. Israel was under foreign domination, and the Pharisees were always struggling to maintain the integrity of Jewishness in a sea of Gentile idolatry.

But Jesus doesn’t tell them of battle and destruction at this moment. He tells them about a farmer, haphazardly throwing away seed. Not meticulously planting each one, apparently even plowing. He just throws it out everywhere and waits to see what happens. The kingdom is coming, but not through the immediate vindication of Israel, but by the transformation of lives. The poor hear good news, broken hearts are bound and prisoners are released from darkness. A Roman centurion’s servant is healed, a little girl is raised from the dead, and demons vacate the oppressed spirit of Mary Magdalene.

This is what grows up all around us when the Word finds good ground. As we journey deeper into the Lenten season, deeply aware of our own mortality and fragility, we ask, how do we receive the word? Do we live our lives in a listening way, putting down roots when the Word comes down to us? Do we lose ourselves in the addictions of media and materialism, allowing the Evil One to steal away what we’ve been given? Does our desire for comfort choke our growth into vulnerability before the Lord and obedience to his call?

Dust we are, and to dust we will return. We come before the Lord of the universe with ashes on our foreheads, dirty hands that cradle too many regrets to name, and fearful hearts that harbor deep brokenness. But that’s alright. He, in Himself, is enough for us. We come to his table to receive the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, trusting that he will impart his wholeness to us. Nothing else will satisfy. Nothing else will heal us. We wait, together, in the stillness, in the dark, for his word of compassion and healing. This altar is set up in the darkest parts of us, where shame, guilt, and our continual inability to “get it together” remain the core values of who we are. Lord Jesus, meet us here.

His word will heal us and set us free. This will not be a matter of immediate, whiz-bang “name it and claim it” prosperity gospel rubbish, but a process that will flow out of his commitment to us, and ours to him. We have re-order our lives so to be “good ground” to receive the love that he throws around like great bags of seed.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The Powers and the Death of John

Text: Mark 6:13-29.

Mark’s narrative gets strange here. He tells us the big thing God’s anointed is doing next, but then he remembers there’s a background story to share with us, and a pretty disturbing one at that.

John the Baptizer died for a very stupid reason. Herod had been afraid of him, and rightfully so. John had come on the scene preaching repentance with quite a following, while Herod was a minor ruler serving an oppressive power but had lofty pretensions to being called the King of the Jews. He feared John as a man of God, so he knew that silencing this popular prophet would bring God’s wrath, as well as kill the last of his credibility with his people. Even when John attacked his “family values,” that fox kept a respectful distance.

But then Herod had a birthday party, and probably quite drunk and not a little lusty, asked his niece to dance for his assembled guests. She must have been quite a diva, because afterwards he blustered a promise to reward her with whatever she wished, up to the half of his kingdom. Still feeling the humiliation of the Baptizer’s rebuke, her mother Herodias knew just the thing: John’s head. So Herod’s moral weakness and pride picked up where his resolve had failed. He had John executed.

John was the greatest and last prophet of Israel, Jesus said. He announced the arrival of Israel’s Messiah, and began the work of ushering them into the Reign of Yahweh, warning that “the powers that be” were coming to an end and that people who responded to Yahweh and those who kept serving the powers would be separated like wheat and chaff, and once the chaff started burning, wasn’t nothing gonna put the fire. The forces of greed, lust, domination and oppression, were about to be dethroned.

And yet.

We see Herod and his family and friends, people controlled by the “principalities and powers,” wallowing in their own excess and dispatching John on a drunken whim.

There is no Hollywood ending to wrap it all up very neatly. Perhaps John recovers while in hiding, and makes Herod pay, or Jesus and the crew show up and break down his palace to rubble. But that doesn’t happen.

His disciples took the body and laid it in a tomb. How melancholy.

What is God’s response to this? Let’s recall what reminded Mark to tell the story.

“They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.”

Jesus disarms the powers not by fighting puppets like Herod, but by undermining them. The principalities and powers, and those that serve them, can control with lies. They cannot make free by the truth. They can hurt. They cannot heal. They can inspire hatred or lust, but love is beyond them. Jesus and his disciples, however, could do these things.

So how will we live under the rule of Yahweh when we’re surrounded by fear and the domination of “the powers that be”? We will listen for and speak to one another the prophetic words that there is nothing in life, death, heaven, hell, sickness, poverty, or any fear that can separate us from the love of God that has been demonstrated to us in Jesus Christ. Nothing at all. We will approach the altar of God as free people and receive Jesus again into ourselves, and trust in his love and dedication to us, the promise that our life is in Christ.

Then we will go. We will carry the peace of God with us and give it away to others by our words and the tender works of our hands. The Kingdom is coming, and nothing will stop it. It is here among us now. Amen.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Discipline of Community

Provocative reading.
3. Fellowship can only be on the surface because we are all way too busy to invest real time in each other. In addition, we have no clue how to have real relationships because we have been through so many bad ones, and biblical principles for confrontation, reconciliation and restoration are rarely followed (because we don't want to offend anyone).

4. People have become immune to church initiatives geared toward making them feel welcomed into and part of the church. Sadly though, these are mostly "programs" to promote a "healthy, growing church" and focus more on the church's interests than on the interests of the people to whom they would minister.
From Why churches are REALLY dead..., Diana Baldwin

Points 3 and 4 of Ms. Baldwin's essay resonate deeply with my own experience in churches, and help me to articulate just why it is that I am so desperate to discover a communal Christian discipleship we can rightly call "apostolic" instead of the comfortable, consumer-driven church culture that pervades North American Christendom.

We put together attractive programs in our churches and water down the call to discipleship as much as we can in order to make it easily digestible. We hope people will reorder their lives just enough to make the "Sunday event" a regular, positive experience. "We got them in." This is the important part, you say. That's evangelism. Is it? One of my buddies would be quick to quote Augustine to me: "It's the walls that make a Christian, then?"

No. It's not the walls. It's a changed life. We aren't going to offer the evidence of Christ in our midst by creating glitzy worship "experiences" or clever programs designed to offer the gospel as a "yes/no" proposition as convincingly as possible.

People are not out there so we can convert them to an institution. Our institutions, our ways of doing things, exist to faciliate and challenge our life together as the Body of Christ, God's New Community. We're only going to draw people to Jesus if we lift him up in our lives by loving people in the hard ways.

So what would it look like if I were to really re-order my life so that I could learn the Way? I would use language as a tool for sharing, rather than trying to make people think I'm clever. I'd be friends with people who don't seem to "get me" all the time. I'd invite people over and cook for them more. I really think I would give up the addiction of having my own way all the time. I would talk more with people that I know will challenge me. I'd stop being too afraid to challenge them. You can do that when you love and know you're loved, after all, this idea of saying hard things.

These are just some of the things I've been thinking about, and some of it I've been living into.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

On Spiritual Disciplines

I've been reading Dallas Willard and Richard Foster in preparation for a three week teaching series on "Spiritual Disciplines." I chose to teach on the topic because I've sensed for quite some time that I need to learn about this stuff.

Willard's got a pretty tough proposition he sets forth in his Spirit of the Disciplines: we don't live like Jesus (the way he called us to live) because we don't order our lives like he did. We assume that a "spiritual" life is one divorced from the "real" world around us. To the contrary, the spiritual life is one lived in the real world according to principles of God's Kingdom instead of those of the world around us.

Kingdom living means choosing deliberate solitude, intentional community, time for prayer, meditation, and fasting. It means living a life of premeditated submission to the people around us and serving them, washing feet like the Master. It's a different way -- a redemptive way -- of living life in the world, not a way of stepping out of it.

My biggest thought right now is that "gee, I've got a lot to change if I'm going to recieve the Kingdom." But I don't think that a big, unsustainable life change is the point. It's the smaller, sustainable changes that will create a place in our lives for the Master. The purpose (says Foster) is to live in continual communion and obedience with the Lord, free to love and live in joy. The Disciplines are a matter of how we get there from here.

So I'm going to do it, bit by bit. I can take twenty minutes out of the day to pray for people who matter to me. I can take thirty minutes a few times a week to sit in silence, to let empty places form without seeking to fill them with noise. I can meditate on scripture, and invite Jesus into those places. It's those little things, that way of arranging my life -- not being morally perfect -- that will bring about a life lived under the Reign of God.