Friday, March 25, 2016

Stop! No More of This Betrayal: Maundy Thursday and Good Friday Reflections 

“But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table.” (Luke 22:21)

Jesus’ preclusion that Judas would betray does not exactly make it into our regular invitations to the table- come all you who will betray the Christ. We redact this portion out of our familiar sacramental liturgy.

Except for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Here, when we pass the bread and cup, we recognize the way in which we often identify more with Judas than the other eleven who reclined alongside Jesus in upper room. We are those whose hands cling to the Eucharistic table one moment and deny the crucified and risen One the next. We are those who are complicit with the powers that be and the social norms that are as we hand over the innocent for the sake of our personal and systemic gain. We are those who kiss the face of Christ only to run away as prisoners to fear, cowardice, and an inability to imagine the kingdom of God truly being able to make a difference and break into the madness of our world. 

As the hymn goes, “This night injustice joins its hand to treasons…” (This Is the Night, #206)

Maundy Thursday, when we remember the new commandment to love one another, also exposes Judas as parable for each of us and the church at large. We are called to faith yet caught within the lures of duplicitous politics of privilege and narratives of self-preservation that betray our call and witness. 

Much like the disciples, who reach for their swords and resort to old tricks of injustice and myths of redemptive violence, we need the words of Christ these days: 

“Stop! No more of this!” 

In the midst of endless streams of ignorance, discrimination, and fear of the other, Jesus says to the wayward church and world- Stop. No More of this betrayal. 

As calls to bear arms come from pulpits and faith leaders, politicians and social media feeds, and violence is assumed as able to solve violence, Jesus says to the wayward church and world- Stop. No More of this betrayal. 

When tempted to build higher walls and endorse legislation that prevents those fleeing instability and oppression from finding safety and security in our land, Jesus says to the wayward church and world- Stop. No More of this betrayal. 

When our personal, congregational, and corporate budgets exploit those who have less access and opportunity, Jesus says to the wayward church and world- Stop. No More of this betrayal.  

The list could go on and on and on...

Each of us are indeed welcome to the table on Maundy Thursday and every day we institute the sacrament. We also remember our hands are often joined with both those of Christ and those of injustice and treason. Thanks be to God for Good Friday, when Christ once and for all said, "enough," as invitation to cease our betrayal and embrace renewed faithfulness in the midst of a world desperate for resurrected hope and welcome. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Much Needed Holy Week & Barth's Warning Against Cloud Cuckooland

I need Holy Week. If it didn’t come every year, I wonder if I would ever stop to pause and reenact the drama from waved palms to upper room, wooden cross to empty tomb. I wonder if the story would be reduced to statements and doctrines, mere words on lifeless pages unable to inspire an alternative to the absurdity of the world around us. 

Thankfully, Holy Week annually confronts us and demands a pause on our pilgrimage as we linger in the same questions, mysteries, and lament that perplexed disciples two millennia ago.  Holy Week reminds us no matter how dark and troubled the world may be, God is with us and for us as those who follow a crucified Christ and embrace our call to bear cruciform witness right where we are:
“So we must not escape from this life. We must not take flight to a better land, or to some height or other unknown, nor to any spiritual Cloud Cuckooland nor to a Christian fairyland. God has come into our life in its utter unloveliness and frightfulness…We are not left alone in this frightful world. Into this alien land God has come to us.” (Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline 109). 
What I need most each Holy Week are the echoes of our agency within versus escape from this frightful world.  I need the seven-days of this liturgical narrative to leverage the cries for deliverance, prayers of forgiveness, movements of reconciliation, incarnations of enemy love, and demonstrations of nonviolent resistance in the midst of systems bent towards the powerful, drunk on privilege, and promoted by fear of the “other.”  

I need the hinge of Holy Week- a God who identifies with those who are victimized by whatever -ism the world invents and sustains through oppressive "norms." I need Holy Week to remind me that I am to be on their side, too. 

Then I need Holy Week to shape the other 51 weeks of the year as we cling to rumors of resurrection in light of overwhelming realities of death and despair.

What I don't need is Cloud Cuckooland. 

*I wonder if this is a bit of what Barth was warning us against, an escape to some naive and anarchist by and by disengaged from the real sufferings of God's beloved world. Who knew the writers of The Lego Movie were Barthians...?

Friday, March 11, 2016

Fragrance of Grace and Resurrected Hope: Reflections on Mary's Anointing in John 12:1-8

“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’” (John 12:1-8)
“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" Judas sounds like those of us passionate about the stewardship of church finances and mission dollars. In light of downward economic trends, strenuous capital campaigns, and heightened sensitivity (read: anxiety) about where and how every budgeted dollar is spent, there is little to no room for random displays of extravagance.  That said, we might think this woman in John 12 was out of line and irresponsible.
Frankly, if I had been in the home of Lazarus, I would have likely echoed the rogue disciple. I would have been quick to remind the Teacher about how snatching bread and fish from a young boy to feed 6,000+ hungry neighbors (John 6:1-15) was inconsistent with this woman’s spilling of her assets for a foot washing. The 300 denarii surely could have benefited the revolutionary movement of justice and generosity far more than an adolescent’s bagged lunch. 

And as the last words fell from my lips, my eyes would have met those of Christ. Who was I to challenge the generosity of this faithful disciple, whose name was Mary, as she washed the feet of her Teacher with her hair? How dare I question the integrity of Mary's public testament to the gospel she claimed as her own mere days after her brother, Lazarus, was raised from the dead? Was I paying any attention if I thought for a second Jesus was primarily concerned with or limited by denarii? In this moment, my self-righteousness masked as socially-informed piety would have been challenged, a la Judas, as a grand thief of grace and welcome. With my nose turned up, I would have missed the fragrance of resurrected hope that overcame any lingering scent of death and despair this family knew too well. Even more, I would have been ignorant of Mary’s newly empowered status as a steward of abundance in the midst of lonely narratives of scarcity, sorrow, and marginalization.

Sure, I would have been right about there being worthy neighbors able to benefit from these funds. I also would have been very wrong to dismiss Mary, as though she was not one such neighbor, whose story illustrated what the Psalmist wrote:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
    and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we rejoiced. (Psalm 126:1-3)

Lent, a pilgrimage over which the Spirit hovers, is hard. The related lectionary readings, which illumine our way to Holy Week, are complicated. The liturgical season questions us and dares us to turn away from self-righteous cynicism and towards an assurance that the very One who raised Lazarus from the dead and welcomed Mary at his feet has equipped us to practice the same resurrection and hospitality in our communities today. May the church never cease to do so as we dream alongside the poor and marginalized always among us as empowered stewards of God’s extravagant grace.  May God’s people fan their fragrance of resurrected hope in the midst of our wearied churches, communities, and world- even when such activity appears out of line, over the top, and irresponsible.
“However that may be, it is practical love for one’s neighbor which is played off against an act which can be made explicable only as an act of love for Jesus...What emerges clearly in all four accounts is that Jesus not only defends unconditionally the act of the woman but in all solemnity acknowledges that it is a good act which belongs necessarily to the history of salvation, even though it seems to be wholly superfluous, an act of sheer extravagance, which can serve ‘only’ the purpose of representing direct and perfect self-giving to Him.” 
(Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.2, p.797).

*This post was originally published for the Presbytery of Philadelphia as part of the weekly Lenten reflections on the lectionary by the executive staff: 
**Image above from the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth 

Friday, March 4, 2016

What a Cable Company Taught Me About Evangelism and Nonviolent Communication

When I am on the phone with customer service for both cable or cell-phone providers, I frequently become the worst of myself. 

My complaints laced in rage are rooted in what I believe to be an injustice to my personal finances. But I have done this to myself. I have willingly complied with a culture that says cable television is a necessity versus perk of the privileged. 

So when my return fight from the NEXT Church Conference in Atlanta was re-routed to Pittsburgh, it was ironic who struck up conversation with a friend and me as we taxied on the tarmac. 

“What were you doing in Atlanta?” the young woman seated next to us asked. 

The unveiling of my vocation can be rather delicate, but I responded, “We were attending a conference for pastors and church leaders related to ministry innovation and leadership. What about you?"

“I work for [popular cable television network].” 

Aware I was one of their customers, I jokingly asked, “Do you work for customer service?"

We all laughed. Then I realized, she was the personification (read: manager) of those who may have been on the receiving end of some of my rants of rage. And in that moment, my raw observation of cable company employees shifted to a more humanized evaluation, i.e. from jerks to people with stories and a shared desire to get home to their families in Philadelphia.

Love your customer service agent as you love yourself.  

But what was even more intriguing about this in-flight conversation was what I learned about evangelism. In the midst of sharing marketing, media, and creative communication strategies pertinent for both corporation and congregation, she shared about a recent shift in terminology for some of their employees.  In light of how customer service is (poorly) perceived by the public, executive leadership adopted the term “social evangelists” for those on the front lines of product promotion. 

I cringed. The word evangelist has become like sour grapes or cheap wine, bitter beer and expired milk. What was once good turned bad and needed to be tossed. But what the church has considered throwing away, this mega-corporation has only recently claimed. 

I asked for the rationale. 

“We believe social evangelists will better enable our employees and customers to be educated, informed, and empowered as we humanize one another."

Evangelism and humanizing the other in the same sentence?! The very conflict of terms was at least in the top three reasons why many are abandoning the words “evangelism” and “evangelists."

The conversation took off from there [pun intended], as we discussed what the church and this cable company can learn from one another. In solidarity, we shared about the need to heal from real and false perceptions, even turn away from (I so desperately wanted to say “repent") our missteps frequently rooted in the treatment of persons as means to and end versus fellow neighbor. 

Let me be clear, I am not naive about new corporate strategies of public concern for people still being rooted in a primary concern for the bottom line. Actually, I am deeply skeptical of altruism in the corporate world. When it comes down to it, they have a product to sell. In this sense, their evangelism is just as problematic. Nevertheless, this conversation confronted me with a reminder that the church must not abandon the words evangelism and evangelists altogether. Instead, our evangelism needs to be reframed and renewed as a concern for our neighbors and faith-based efforts that educate, inform, and empower others so frequently marginalized and exploited as less than human, a mere means to a greater end.

So moving forward, what does it look for God’s people to reclaim and reform what it means to be social evangelists? 

How can evangelism be about education as we learn from our communities what good news looks like in contexts of poverty, pervasive violence, institutions bent towards the privileged, questions about racism, immigration, and growing refugee crisis, corruption in public schools and prison systems, and hate speech that has dominated public and political rhetoric?

How can evangelism inform our most vulnerable neighbors about the good news that God is on their side, even when the rest of the world has turned against them? How can we, as evangelists, be informed by the questions raised to us about where and how we have missed the mark and participated in sinful systems? 

How can evangelism empower our neighbors, many who are skeptical about the church and its work in the world, to contribute to our ministries, collaborate in advocacy efforts, and participate in revitalized extensions of welcome as we embody the love of Christ to others. 

How can we be about evangelism without hidden agendas or primary concerns for the bottom line? 

When evangelism becomes the church’s work of affirming and advocating for the humanity of us all, customer service agents included, this sacred activity truly bears witness to good news still worth sharing. We become agents of God’s grace, even on late-night flights re-routed from Philly to Pittsburgh. 

So just maybe we do not need to run from evangelism after all...