Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The story of a Promise, a Prophet, and a Passion, Part 3

A bit of drama is good for a church's heart. I've read a few places that any good worship service should be dramatic, in one sense or another. Worship should tell a story--the story, if worship is good. And worship should tell this story in such a way that the events become present, after a manner, once more to those gathered. It's participatory theatre (or is it simply eucharistic?).

I believe scripture itself works a bit "eucharistically" or re-present-ationally. The latter stories of scripture retell or recapitulate the former.

So after weeks of retelling the Hebrew Bible's narrative of promise and purpose and another four weeks with that story enacted by the prophet Jonah, we told the story one more time (the final time? the ultimate time?) through a staged reading of John 18-19 on Good Friday.

I wasn't sure if the drama would get the enthusiastic participation telling the Good Friday story (= telling the promise & purpose story) would meet. But as our worship committee dove right in. One man built a rough-hewn, life-size cross out of cherry beams. Another woman dug through the dusty costumes in the church basement and her own sewing pile, while another collected various props. A contractor erected a beautiful empty door-frame. (Doors are very important in John's story!)

By rehearsal on Wednesday of Holy Week, our cast included nearly twenty people, ranging from their early seventies down to some girls in grade 3. We all were wrapped in bathrobes or old pillow cases. Some of us were comfortable with our lines. Some folks' hands and knees were shaking, nervous. As default director, I ran and jumped and shouted and waved my hands around, helping folks figure out when to enter, where to stand, or what my typo-ridden script was trying to communicate.

The performance on Friday morning was beautiful and appropriately tragic. Jesus was betrayed by friends and buried with strangers.

Beginning on the third day, we'd tell stories of resurrection (John offers plenty!). But on Friday morning, we left Jesus lying in the tomb while we went off to family gatherings or fasts.

The Bible begins with a promise. God says, "I love you and I will be with you." Jesus came restating that promise in his own words: "God's kingdom is arriving" and "a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth."

Along with that promise, humanity received a purpose. We were to image God, to care for everything that had been created just as God did. We refused that task, in the Garden and ever since. Jesus called us back to that purpose: "Repent and believe the Good News" and "whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst; indeed, the water I give him will become in a him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

At Golgotha we rejected that promise, that purpose once more. But at Golgotha, Jesus accepted it for us all. I think it was Karl Barth who first got me thinking about how even while Jesus is God-with-us, Jesus is also us-with-God. Jesus is the perfect human, the first person to receive God's promise in complete joy and to cooperate wholly with God's purpose.

Jesus' obedience unto death, even death on a cross, gives us one concrete point in history to point to and say, "That's what working with God looks like." The cross surely shows us the extent of God's love for a lost and sin-sick humanity. It also shows what one person's love for God looks like when it is really true.

At our Good Friday service I didn't sermonize. We simply performed the story and sang a few songs. I trust that the Spirit-inspired story preaches much better than I do. I'm not sure what people took away from that morning. I trust though that God was at work there, speaking God's good promise to us and directing us out into mission.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Forays in Civic Religion

When Jesus appeared in Galilee announcing the Good News, he said, "Believe the gospel: God's reign is arriving!" (see Mk 1.15)

When Peter outlined the same gospel after the Holy Spirit arrived during Pentecost, its heart was that the one who was crucified and resurrected has been made "both Lord and Messiah" (Act 2.36). Years later, when a vision directs him to the residence of a Roman centurion (the equivalent of an US Army captain), Peter states the gospel again: "God preached peace to the Israelites through Jesus Christ--this one is Lord of all" (Acts 10.36).

Paul has the same thing to say when he meets an overwhelmed Roman jailor after an earthquake in Philippi: "Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved" (Acts 16.31). In his later letter to the house churches in Rome, he wrote, "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe with your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved" (Ro 10.9).

The Good News has a great deal to do with Jesus being Lord (a title the Roman emperor like to claim, meaning master or ruler). The generations of believers that followed the NT saints often were penalized life itself for holding steadfastly to this claim. They wouldn't offer the incense to the emperor, because their allegiance was to another.

I believe the gospel still boils down to this bold assertion: that in every single area of human existence, God has made his Son and Messiah Lord and Ruler, and there is no other. Not President Obama. Not Prime Minister Harper. Not any part of the government or economy or culture of the Land of the Free or the True North, Strong and Free. My allegiance isn't to job creation or economic growth or security. Nor is my obedience commanded by advertising or brand loyalty. My allegiance, my obedience is to Jesus alone. No one else, nothing else has the right to make me pull out my credit card or take up arms. Jesus is Lord.

So when our local ministerial decided to host a Canada Day service in the park, I was a bit nervous. So often our public church service, especially during seasons of national enthusiasm, are nothing more than civic religion. (We burn incense to our Caesars in our own ways.) God's name gets inserted into blessings for us, against them, that reflect nothing of the divine heart we meet in Jesus. We praise the godliness of our leaders, living or dead, and attribute every good thing in our lives to the good moral quality and good deeds of our neighbors, in a tit-for-tat divine economy.

After talking with folks in our congregation, I went forward with participating in the service. One way to love our town is to be present for our group celebrations. I scrambled to put together a musical number for the morning. 

Then I sat down before a blank page, praying for the right words to say. 

You can read below what I came up with. I'm not sure I hit the mark, struck the proper balance between honest thanksgiving and prophetic reminder.

I can say that I'm thankful for how many of the other churches and pastors handled the morning. Civic religion dominated the morning, but at points speakers sounded through the noisy "Hail Caesars!" with words about Jesus and his call to generosity, care for the refugee, and prayer.

I'm curious to hear your stories about negotiating the sketchy terrain of religious ceremonies on national holidays. Let me know in the comments.

Check out my short talk after the jump.
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