Saturday, April 19, 2014

My Father and Your Father, My God and Your God

I got the movie 12 Years A Slave in the mail yesterday from Netflix. It won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2013 and I was glad that it did. Even though I had not seen it, I was pulling for it to win the Oscar. I was excited after their name was announced at the end of the Oscar telecast.  I felt like celebrating with Steve McQueen the director and the various other cast members. It was nice to see. But, within a few moments it was all over. Ellen DeGeneres said good night. I turned off my TV and went to bed. Ultimately, while it was fun to watch the Hollywood celebration, it was their joy and not mine.

It's a mistake if people of faith approach Easter the same way. When we take a look at the resurrection stories in any of the four Gospels, are we just reading something on a page, or listening to someone tell this old, old story again? When we worship on Easter, do we go to hear a staff performing at the top of their game like it's their Super Bowl? Are we looking for an amazing show with trumpet sounds and colorful paraments and the smells of spring?  Easter is our celebration. Easter is our time. God turns our mourning into dancing... our sorrow into joy. John's telling of the resurrection puts that to us in a powerful way.

In one of the most touching stories of all Scripture, Mary Magdalene is overwhelmed with emotions on that first day of the week. She goes to the tomb, sees that it is empty and then goes to tells others that "they have taken the Lord." The other disciples believed right away when he saw the empty tomb, but Mary is still bewildered. After the rest had returned to their homes, she remains and weeps.  Angels appear to her first and then the resurrected Christ. She doesn't recognize him until he calls her by name: "Mary." Immediately her mourning turns to joy. It's a powerful story.

Jesus says something interesting to her that reveals that Mary is not the equivalent of me watching 12 Years A Slave win the Oscar. She is not simply a witness to something great that happened to Jesus. Instead something has also happened... or at least will happen... for her as well.  "Jesus said to her, 'Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God (John 20:17)."'"

Jesus' gift to Mary and to all of us, is that through the cross, the empty tomb, the ascension, and his promise to return... all of us have been united with these events. His life is our life... His celebration is our celebration.

When you celebrate Easter... Celebrate that Christ has done all of this for you. This is your hope. So join the party. Share the good news. Don't hold on to Jesus, or the performances of others. Celebrate and share the good news. Hallelujah! Christ is risen!  

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Love and Humility

On this Commandment Thursday I once again think about the Law of Love. It is so tempting to rip out the page with John 13 from my Bible and start waving it around as I get into people's faces with some smug moral indignation. "Look at this guys. You're so quick to snub your nose at others in judgement. You're so certain about who is saved and who is going to hell. Well, let me show you this. There's a new commandment Jesus has given us. It's a commandment to love. How are you doing with that? I don't think he's making some suggestion here.  He says commandment. You need to love. So, what do you think of that? Hmmmmmmm?"

Judge not lest ye be judged.

The wonder of John 13 and much of the way that John describes Jesus' passion, is that Jesus is giving us all of this out of love and concern for his sheep. Followers of Christ are going to face all kinds of dangers. The temptations of sin are going to pull those who ought to be united, apart.  He prays for our unity and gives us a new commandment... not as some law to dangle over us again. This is not "do this and live." This is: "I know what it means to be empowered, to be liberated,  and live in peace as people of the Kingdom of God, and it all stems out of love. Love one another, my children, and you will be blessed."

All the images of John 13... the foot washing, the conversation between Peter and Jesus, the talk of betrayal, and the commandment to love... they all stem from the underlining reality of God's Kingdom: Greatness comes through service and humility. Freed from fear and doubt, you are now able to sincerely serve your sister in need. Freed from fear and doubt, you are now able to sincerely open up and be vulnerable... to allow your brother to minister to you in your need. All of this stems from a love that goes hand-in-hand with humility. The one living as Christ is the one who humbly approaches the other with compassion. The one living as Christ is the one who is not afraid to listen and receive what the other is offering.

Foot washing becomes the ultimate symbol of humility and Christian love. It calls upon us to serve. It calls upon us to be vulnerable.  When done with a sincere heart, it truly reveals what Christian community ought to be.  Jesus does command us to wash one another's feet and there are many ways that it has been done in Christian community. It is nice when a whole community ritually washes one another. It's touching when a spiritual leader can submit to the least in the community and wash. It makes a great point when a community may choose to wash hands instead of feet. It's all very nice.

But Jesus wants our hearts. Have genuine compassion for the friends in your community. Love through service. Allow yourself to open up and be served. When those are happening: it is foot washing and Jesus is present. I like the way Jesus puts it: It is not just in the act that your blessed... but it is in the knowing. You are blessed by what is found in your heart. "Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them (John 13:16-17)."

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Great Flood of Human Sinfulness

I got to see the movie Noah a week ago... a movie that has had its fair share of controversy. Among film-geekdom the question was: "Why would such a cool director want to make an old-fashioned Bible epic? What's he going to do next, Ben Hur? Among conservative Christians the question was: "Why would an atheist make a movie about Noah and change the story? Where's he going to go next, Hell?"

Noah is a breathtaking movie. It's good film-making and it does speak to life... even a life of faith. It looks amazing and its story pulls you in. It does get distracting when the director Darrin Aronofsky goes way off course in terms of sticking with the story. There were times I wanted to scream "come on" while I was twisting in my seat. It's not everyday you are exposed to rock monsters building the ark and a Noah wandering the narrow, short-sighted path of a zealot. But in light of where Aronofsky wraps up the film, I can now appreciate the struggle I had. It pays off in a fair way.  
Abandoning the priority of sticking with the Biblical account, this Noah seeks to go deeper into the very human sinfulness that led to the flood in the first place. That human sinfulness is why we still cling on to the promise of the rainbow.  Aronofsky lifts up in a powerful way the horror of the events that revealed to us in the early chapters of Genesis. Honestly, do baby nurseries full of cute pandas, giraffes, and elephants waltzing two-by-two into the sweet old man Noah's big boat really portray the story accurately?

In Noah we witness the title character's struggle with the enormity of what is about to happen, and with the realization that he is not so squeaky clean himself. In a terrifying scene, Noah goes among the humans to seek wives for his son, as if they are available for a price at a market. He witnesses unspeakable horrors and in the midst of all that he realizes that he is no different. The human sin that leads people to treat others with contempt is even found within him.

In the past when I have led conversations about the Noah story in Genesis, people are often surprised by what happens to Noah once he is able to re-establish life on land. Look at Genesis 9:20-29. I call this "The Naked Noah." You won't find this scene in any nursery.  Sin continues after the flood. Noah, like all of us, are at the mercy of a loving God who promises to never again do this.

Wonderfully, Aronofsky includes "Naked Noah" in his story. Of course he has, because it ends up being at the heart of his message.  We hurt one another. We don't understand life. We are afraid. Real meaning and real life is found only in love, when we can break away from the asinine choices we make out of fear.  Noah needed to discover that and we do as well. God is not going to leave us. He's not going to destroy us again. He has given us a Savior in Christ who points the way to this reality called love... called the Kingdom of God. I am thankful for what Noah contributes to our continuing struggle with what it means to live as God would like us to live.