Thursday, September 28, 2017

On Challenging Sacred Symbols in Church and Society: A Word for World Communion Sunday

When he bent down on his knees, he knew he was about to do something that challenged everything they knew. He was about to uncover a hard yet central truth to the movement he had inaugurated.
“You call me Teacher and Lord- and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to was one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you…” (John 13:13-15). 
The Gospel of John is the only of the four to tell this upper room story. The Gospel of John is also the only of the four not to include the Eucharist just before Jesus' arrest. 

This was no accident. It also was not unnoticed by the early church reading this rendition of the Jesus story in the latter portion of the first century. 

The gospel writer, in a bold, prophetic, and likely controversial move, replaced one of the more sacred symbols of the Christian movement with another ritual that would challenge the social norms and intra-community privileging that had begun to creep into the witness of the church. There is reason to believe,  see 1 Corinthians 11:17ff, that less than a generation after Jesus broke bread and shared the cup, calling his disciples to become the broken body and blood of Christ in and for the world, they constructed fences of elitism around the praxis. Was the table in danger of becoming a means to elevate status of persons within this grassroots community versus assurance that all had a place within God’s dreams for the reconciliation of all things?

John knew whenever a sacred symbol became more important than the fuller meaning to which it points, it was no longer a sacred symbol but an oppressive idol. The gospel writer knew that whenever a sacred symbol impeded upon our call to love and serve our most vulnerable neighbors, the sacred symbol must be challenged and deconstructed. This was less an affront to the symbol, in this case the Eucharist, and more a subversive attempt to rescue the holy from being misappropriated as an icon for a movement of exploitation, isolationism, and injustice. John aimed to draw the church into a fuller meaning of what it meant to participate in the mission of the Christ.

So John replaces the Eucharist with a foot washing and call to radical servitude, turning the servant into the very embodiment of Christ, and flipping social hierarchy upside-down. In essence, the beloved disciple added another layer of significance to the sacrament, whenever you eat the bread and drink the cup, remember this and do likewise.

It is important to note that the Eucharist is not necessarily absent from John’s gospel. If we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, it shows up in another place. 
“Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’” (John 6:10-12).
Here we quite literally have the eucharist: when he had given thanks, or eucharist─ôsas, among the hungry crowds who would be satisfied by the one who was the very bread of life. The sacred symbol reframed until all are seated to be satisfied with the fuller meaning of God’s story incarnated in the person and work of Jesus then carried on by those who professed their allegiance to him and him alone. 

The church must remember, especially as conversations about flags, anthems, pledges, and national symbols swirl around us, there is nothing so sacred and worthy of human reverence that it is immune to being confronted and reformed. When any symbol or system it represents begins to stymie human flourishing, wholeness, and what the Scriptures call shalom, there is biblical warrant for subversion and a great cloud of witnesses to back the protest. This includes, as John reminds us, the Eucharistic table.*  After all, what makes a thing sacred and holy, in good reformed theological language, is when it points away from itself and towards God’s grace and dreams for justice, righteousness, and the reconciliation of the whole world. This redemptive grace is wrapped up in the person and work of of Jesus. 

In the midst of the pressing national and global realities that not all are free, treated equal, and valued as bearers of the very image of God, dare we heed the witness of Jesus and bend down in servitude until we can hear the cries for justice. May we ensure the movements that began as a confrontation against the killing of black lives by the hands of those sworn to protect are not reduced to generalized calls for unity by those who are privileged. May we not allow Twitter tirades by those in positions of power to distract us from the harsh realities that there are islands of U.S. Citizens and other global neighbors who go without electricity, food, water, or certainty about how to rebuild after Hurricane Maria. 

On this World Communion Sunday, may the Christian Church not allow flags to replace the table as our most sacred symbol of a unified allegiance that pushes us to link arms with the marginalized and broken until equity and justice are afforded to all. May we have the faithfulness to take a knee at the Table as a reminder of our call to always be on the side of those who are most vulnerable in our neighborhoods, cities, nations, islands, and larger world. The table, lest we forget, is what binds us together as the people of God, not any banner of one country. And when we do lapse in memory, may we turn to the pages of John’s Gospel as reminder of who is our Teacher and Lord and then go and do likewise. 

This is the message of the gospel. This is the witness of the church across every generation and geographical place. This is the fuller meaning of the sacred and the holy we find at Christ's table. 

Related Post: An Alternative Pledge of Allegiance

*In this year when we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this also includes the church as (oppressive) institution. Thanks Martin Luther! 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Children & Youth Ministry as Resistance: A Brief Word for #BackToSchool

We were talking at home the other day about how, in many ways, to raise a family and rear children in the way of love, welcome, and commitment to justice is to participate in the faithful resistance to empire. When we say, “as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD,” (Joshua 24:15) we are declaring our commitment to a counter-narrative to those of hatred and oppression that have been given a renewed platform by those in positions of power.  When we read Scripture and pray at table or bedside, the stories we choose and the content of our prayers reinforces to our children what it means to be a people who follow Jesus in such a time as this. 

The same is true for those who serve in varied forms of children and youth ministry. In every age, to include our own, children and youth ministry is critical and subversive discipleship work. This work moves beyond Bible trivia, church membership programs, sporadic mission blitzes, and the handing down of abstract doctrinal statements into the craniums of young people. Instead, this work aims to equip young people for a counter-movement of love and generosity, forgiveness and welcome, justice and commitment to God’s preferential option for the poor and oppressed.  

Children and youth ministry is not about the preparation of future leaders in the church, although partially true, but strives to empower change agents in the here and now. This ministry is about joining them in their efforts to embody the gospel in the places they have discerned most pressing. Children and youth ministry is about nurturing the prophetic imaginations of Jesus' youngest disciples as we trust the Spirit’s movement in and through them. 

As social media feeds are flooded with chalkboard #backtoschool photos (we posted our own), my prayers are with those who serve in various capacities of children and youth ministries. I pray for mentors, teachers, listeners, counselors, and facilitators of conversations able to spark small and large expressions of faithful resistance. I pray for school administrators, faculty members, and coaches who worship in the pews on Sunday and walk into school campuses on Monday. I pray for Sunday School teachers, choir directors, and ministers and youth directors. I pray for weekend retreats, before and after-school programs, and fellowship gatherings that cross all lines of division based on race, class, language, and religious tradition. I pray that in each and every way adult disciples walk alongside children and youth, that they would do so aware of the significance of their call. I pray the church would equip all for their vocation, too. 

Even more, I pray for the children and youth. 
I pray they would know they have been called for such a time as this. 
I pray they would know God’s love is not based on the best or worst thing they have done, but rooted in the very image they were stamped with before they could even take a breath or speak a word. 
I pray they would know they are loved to love and blessed to be a blessing.
I pray they would feel empowered by adults to resist evil as an extension of their baptism whenever they feel their most vulnerable neighbors are being exploited by either church or state. 
I pray they would experience the church as a place where their questions about the intersection of faith and public life are welcomed as much as their neighbor whom they invited to the mid-week event. 
I pray the Bible and church history would come alive to them as they learn of the great cloud of witnesses who participated in the resistance against systemic injustices, even those perpetuated by religious institutions and traditions. 
I pray they know the world can and will be better because of the contributions they make, even as they lead us closer to the day when God once and for makes everything new and right again. 

Every day, as I move through the car line at drop off, I pray these prayers for my children and yours. It is one way I commit to the resistance that is the gospel, especially as we send our children back to school. 

"However we may be justified in wagging our heads over modern youth's fantastic drive for freedom, it is certain that our final attitude cannot be surprise and opposition; the youth movement of the present time in all its phases is directed against authority for its own sake, and whoever desires to be an educator today must...stand in principle upon the side of our younger people” 
---Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, p. 292

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Demanding Inclusion: Did a Canaanite Woman Know More About the Gospel Than Jesus?

This past week, local celebrity and UVA alumna, Tina Fey, made a special appearance on SNL and invented the word“sheetcaking.” In the face of the all that’s going on in the world, comfort eating as escape was her solution.  The bit was quite funny.

Blogger, activist, and Presbyterian pastor, Carroll Howard-Merritt, pushed back on the sketch. Don’t sheetcake in avoidance but hit the pavement as witness- engage.

I say have cake and be an activist, too. Take cake to the pavement?

In this week’s gospel story, Matthew locates Jesus at the center of confrontation and controversy related to a deep-seeded racial and ethnic divide.  Yet, unlike any other texts that I can think of, Jesus appears particularly vulnerable and initially on the wrong side of welcome and embrace. 

While we may be tempted to sheetcake away this uncomfortable story, the Spirit’s work through the lectionary dares us to engage it.

The story begins with Jesus in a home along the Mediterranean coast, the region of Tyre and Sidon. In what appears to be an intended sabbatical at the shore, Jesus could not escape notice and was immediately greeted by an unexpected Canaanite woman and her possessed daughter. This woman comes from a region known for violence, aggression, and oppression- including historical violence against the Jewish people; quite possibly violence against their own people. She is from enemy territory- a foreigner. Mark is even more explicit, identifying her as a Syrophoenician woman, i.e. from Syria.  Does she not know of the present and historical racial-tensions as she approaches Jesus?

Unconcerned about her heritage, history, or the reputation of her country, or maybe seeking refuge from it, this woman pleas on behalf of her possessed daughter, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” She expects a miracle and so evokes not only the Hebrew name of the Messiah, but also one of the central Hebrew characteristics of God- eleison or mercy. In Hebrew, the word is chesed, i.e. loving kindness or undying and steadfast love. My kids’ Bible turned the word into a lyric, “God’s never-stopping, never-giving-up, always-and-forever love.”  Chesed is central to understanding the good and just activity of God.   

Monday, August 14, 2017

On Charlottesville and the Call of the Church: Standing in the Tempests of Racism and White Supremacy

One thing I have learned lately, the Lectionary has a way of serving as a channel for the Spirit to speak into the issues of the day- and weekend. This was true with yesterday’s familiar Gospel story- Jesus (and Peter) walking on the water in Matthew 14:22-33. 

As I reflected late last night, with the events of Charlottesville on my heart and mind, I landed on this simple charge: upon the waters of chaos is where Jesus calls his disciples to walk. These are the same waters the Spirit hovered over in the beginning and called forth light.

Yet, when the strong winds of this world bellow upon us, like Peter, we are tempted to become become fickle and afraid. When our sure-footedness feels like a thing of the past and safety and security are as questionable as the waters beneath us, we wonder why we ever left the boat in the first place.

This is what Jesus saves Peter from- questioning that upon these waters is exactly where he and all disciples are called to wander in faith, hope, love, and an unwavering commitment to justice. Upon these waters is where he- and the whole world- will find deliverance.

In these days, with squalls of racism and violence and the tempests of white supremacy trumpeted with renewed energy under the banner of God and country, I am giving thanks for those who dare to step out of the boat in faith and to stand. I am giving thanks for those who refuse to sink in the chaotic waters even as they embrace the hand of Christ and walk upon such seas- exposing the evils and injustices that seek to unsettle the spirit and slow the progress of a nation through fragile acts of terror. I am grateful for preachers and prophets, teachers, bloggers, sisters and brothers across faith traditions, and advocates of all kinds who have refused to disengage, remain silent, or white-knuckle their own security and public image and instead have taken to the front lines of holy solidarity and cruciform love.

I pray each of us would have the courage to do the same. Only there, as we walk upon these turbulent waters armed with God's grace and compassion, can we find salvation. This is where the Spirt hovers and brings forth light.

This has always been so.

Some quick links to stories of those walking upon the waters of chaos in these days, please let me know of others I should add: