Good Friday is a mirror

Good Friday is a mirror

A long time ago, when I was just a small child, I did something terrible. I was five, maybe six years old, and I was playing in the yard with a neighbor child and his visiting friend who was three or four years older. My mom thought I was playing by myself, she didn’t know the boys were with me in the driveway of our suburban Chicago home. Together, we had an idea; the older boys would throw chestnuts toward me like baseballs, and I would hit them with my plastic bat as hard as I could.

I knew this was a bad idea because chestnuts are not baseballs. They had just fallen from the tree by my house, and the chestnuts were covered in a thick and spiky protective shell. Playing with them was dangerous; I knew this because I had been told this, and because it was obvious to me even at that young age. But I didn’t care; playing the game was my preference, and so we played. We played for just a few minutes, just a few fast tosses and hits before something terrible happened. Launched from my bat, a chestnut, hard and covered with long spikes, struck my neighbor’s friend full in the face, and he collapsed to the ground, screaming.

I don’t clearly remember what happened next. I know there was panic, and there was blood, and there was concern that other child might have permanently damaged his vision. I remember my mom and the neighbor kid’s mom and the other child’s mom rushing the poor kid to the hospital. And I remember, most of all, coming to the realization of what I had done. This other person was hurt, deeply, literally hurt, because of me. This moment was like a mirror, a moment so dramatic that it forced me to consider myself and what I was capable of doing. For the first time in my little life, I had to ask myself, “what have I done?” And the answer sickened me. I didn’t want to think about what I had done or the pain I had caused. I didn’t want to think about what it said about me and how I was capable of treating others. I didn’t want to look at myself. I just wanted to forget, because forgetting is easier.

Have you ever done this? Have you ever had the consequences of your actions come home to roost? Or, ever worse, have the consequences of your actions ever come home to roost at somebody else’s expense? Has anyone else ever had to pay the cost for your callousness, for your lack of concern, for your mistakes? Have you ever had to stare at somebody else hurting and ask yourself, “what have I done?”

I hope you haven’t. I hope your life experience has been simpler and less dramatic than mine, that you’ve avoided hurting others through your mistakes and your faults. But if you haven’t, you know that examining yourself in the light of the pain you have caused others is a brutal experience. These experiences become mirrors, moments that force us to consider ourselves and what we are capable of doing.

Gazing into this mirror forces us to look upon scars and wounds we would rather ignore. Sometimes we look into the mirror and hate what we see, and it’s easier to stop looking. So we turn away, hiding in our lack of self-reflection, hoping the memory of our actions just fades away. We don’t want to think about the people we rejected, the people we injured, the pain we inflicted. We don’t what to think about what it says about us and how we are capable of treating others. We just want to forget, because forgetting is easier.

Good Friday is a day of worship and reflection, a day where the faithful gather to gaze upon the cross and to ask ourselves, “what in the world have we done?” Does it shock you that I point out that this is a “we” moment, not a “them?” This isn’t a day where we complain about what the Romans did, or what the Jewish religious authorities did, this is a day where we place ourselves in the story and take responsibility for what we’ve done. Because make no mistake: while the particulars of Jesus’ life are rooted in a specific time and place, the gospel message involves how humanity as a whole insists rejecting God. That message is as true now as it was then, is as true here as it was there. If you think you are better or different than the people who rejected Jesus and his message, you’ve missed the whole point. If you think you are better or different than the people who cheered for Jesus’ crucifixion, you’ve missed the whole point.

Good Friday is a day where we remember the torture, humiliation, and execution of Jesus, and we force ourselves to remember why. Jesus endured the horrors of the cross at the hands of people, people like you and me, who insisted on rejecting him and rejecting the gospel. He was rejected by the leaders of his faith community, who saw his proclamation of God’s love and mercy as scandalous and unfaithful. He was rejected by the occupying empire, who saw his proclamation of God’s kingdom as seditious and a threat to their power and their peace.

Ultimately, he was also rejected by the ordinary people, by the masses who saw him bound and beaten and still called for his death. The crowds had enough of him, of his teachings, of his ways. They heard his invitation to join in a radical, transformed way of life, and they rejected him. They heard his insistence that greatness is not about dominating others but serving them, and they rejected him. They heard his prophetic witness that called them to deeper faith in God and God’s justice, and they rejected him. His announcement was so scandalous and their disappointment was so visceral that they mocked him as he suffered, bled, and died. They wanted something different. They wanted a messiah who gave them what they wanted, not what God wanted. Jesus refused to be that and they hated him for it. So they killed him.

Their rejection must be viewed as something much broader and more universal than just something that happened 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem. Their rejection was so thorough, so violent, and so complete that it speaks to something that lives in the heart of all of us, everywhere. Good Friday is a mirror. Good Friday is the day we all participate in the story. Good Friday is the day when humanity took measure of God-in-the-flesh, thought about what following him would require, and answered with a resounding, NO.

There is no Easter here today. 364 days a year our empty altar crosses proclaim the majesty of the Resurrection, but a body hangs limply on the cross on Good Friday. It’s the least we can do to acknowledge it. God entered the world through Jesus Christ, to proclaim good news to the poor and recovering of sight to the blind. God entered the world through Jesus not to condemn the world but to save it, and we refused to be saved. What is it about them, what is it about us, that could lead to this? Don’t look away from this moment. Don’t turn your head from the crucifixion just because it makes you feel sad or ashamed. Good Friday is a mirror, a chance to stare upon something that lives deep in your heart, in my heart, in all our hearts. There is something about us that takes the freedom God gives us and uses it to rebel, to reject, to fear, and to hate. Don’t try to forget because forgetting is easier. There is no growth in your life, there is no transformation by grace, there is no hope in the resurrection until you can stare upon Jesus, dying on the cross, and ask yourself “What have I done?”

The scandal of Good Friday is that it was inevitable. The road to the cross was paved the moment that God entered the world on that cold Christmas morning. The good and perfect God put on flesh and dwelt amongst us, setting a stage for an inevitable conflict with a horrible conclusion. Good Friday is a mirror, a chance to gaze upon what we’ve done and ask what it says about us. But what does it say about Jesus? What does it say about Jesus that this rejection was inevitable and yet he still came for us? What does it say about Jesus that this rejection was inevitable and he still wept for us, prayed for us, fed us, and healed us? What does it say about Jesus and his capacity for love, his willingness to hope, and his commitment to announcing the coming of God’s kingdom?

What does it say about the world that Jesus looked at us in all our sin, all our frailty, all our faults, and decided that we were still worth it?

Good Friday is a mirror. When we gaze upon the cross we see what we’ve done, who we are, and what we are capable of doing. My prayer is that when you stare into the mirror and see the ugliness, you also see yourself as Jesus saw you. As flawed but worthy of love. As sinful but ready for redemption. As broken, but worth saving.

Amen.

(Photo credit: Rent House)

Palm Sunday takeaway

Palm Sunday takeaway

Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week, the most sacred portion of the Christian calendar and the culmination of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. Before this scene, Jesus taught and worked outside the main metropolis of Jerusalem. He enters Jerusalem now at the height of his “fame” and reputation as a Jewish leader, which strongly influences the reception he receives.

Matthew 21:1-11

Entry into Jerusalem

21 When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. 2 He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anybody says anything to you, say that the Lord needs it.” He sent them off right away. 4 Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, 5 Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.”[a] 6 The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.
8 Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord![b] Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Jesus receives a hero’s welcome, but in just a few short days the same crowd of people calls for his execution. Why?

Two key concepts: The Maccabean Revolt and the Roman Triumph

Triumph: In this context, a Triumph is like a parade, a massive display of power and authority that a king or general orchestrates in order to establish themselves in the eyes of the population. This is Jesus’ triumphal entry, yet he enters on the back of a borrowed donkey wearing simply clothes and with only a small band of humble followers. He intentionally parodies the cultural expectations of an arriving king. Why?

Jesus is sending a message; he is a king, but not the kind of king that people have seen before. Cultural expectations thought of “kingship” in terms of military and political authority. Jesus implicitly reminds those who receive him that his kingship is rooted in the kingdom of God, not the earthly kingdoms they have come to know.

Maccabean Revolt: The crowds that welcome Jesus into Jerusalem are subjects of the foreign Roman empire, taxed and oppressed by outsiders with very different values. Just under 200 years prior, the people of Israel faced a similar situation under the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes IV and the Seleucid empire. The Jews were eventually able to overthrow the foreign rulers and re-establish Jewish rule under the revolt led by the Maccabees, a dramatic moment that remained central in cultural memory. How do you think this might influence the crowds’ reaction to this arriving Jewish king? (Hint: Hosanna means “save us,” which should give you a clue …)

Jesus enters Jerusalem and is greeted as a military hero and revolutionary leader, even though he has repeatedly made it clear that he is a very different sort of king ushering in a very different sort of kingdom. The crowds, however, see what they want to see, and their disappointment turns to rage when they realize that Jesus won’t behave in the way they expect. Palm Sunday is a powerful story that communicates how far people will go to project their desires onto Jesus rather than listen to him for himself.

What is the Gathering? Part V: Why we receive communion every week.

As I mentioned on Sunday, the New Testament regularly employs the metaphor of “the body” to describe the community of people united by their commitment to Christ. It is vital that each of us comes to understand this image and live into it, to understand ourselves and each other through this concept of connection, purpose, and unity as parts of the body. Thinking in this way helps us understand why the sacrament of communion is the vital, climactic conclusion of each Gathering worship service.

There are two sacraments in our church; baptism, which is a one-time only event that initiates a Christian into the body of Christ, and communion, the regular, ongoing sacrament that draws the body together into a deeper relationship with Christ. Our theological reflection on communion is much too rich to fit into a letter as short as this, I recommend you read This Holy Mystery if you want a deeper understanding of the practice and what it means. Instead of focusing on the theology of communion, I want to focus on its practice, and why I think it is so vital that the Gathering observes communion every time we come together as the church.

I had two groups of people in mind when I decided that we would receive communion at every Gathering. The first group is those who actively live as disciples of Christ, the people who say yes to God’s offer of grace and seek to grow in their connection to the Holy Spirit. For these people, communion is the highest act of worship, the action that provides the regular foundation for their lives of worship, learning, giving, serving, praying, and playing. I knew that act needed to be as steady and regular as possible, a firm foundation onto which our relationship with God can be built.

The second group I thought of is very different. These are the people who are just kicking the tires on the whole “faith” thing. These are the people who may have been dragged to church by a loved one, who are first-timers in a service of worship, or who are returning to church with a lot of accumulated hurts and baggage. Our Methodist theology proclaims that the communion table is not our table, it is Christ’s table, open to all people who desire an encounter with the living Son of God. God’s grace is present and active in the communion table, and nobody needs that grace more than the people who are yet to encounter and accept it. So, with those people in mind, we offer communion at every Gathering, knowing that each week there will be a person who is approaching the table for the first time. We know that they need Christ, and so we open Christ’s table to them. Every. Single. Time.

What is the Gathering? Part IV: Why the Sermon is the way it is

Aah, the sermon, the most “Gathering” thing about The Gathering! There are many different schools of thought regarding preaching, but all agree that messages need to be customized to their context in order to make an impact. So what is a Gathering sermon like, and why do we do it this way?

We started The Gathering from a blank slate, and I tried to take a fresh approach to the formation and content of the “sermon” portion of the service. I challenged myself to re-imagine how I could design the message, focusing on the lessons I have learned as a preacher and as a congregation member.

In my own experience, I respond most strongly to messages where the speaker teaches me something, providing me with a deeper understanding of the context and meaning of the scripture we are studying and how it relates to the Christian faith. I grew up going to church, but I still have a lot of learning left to do. I am invigorated, inspired, and motived in my life of discipleship every time a new “piece of the puzzle” falls into place, and I try to provide that experience for others as often as I can. As I tinkered with new forms of sermons and ways to communicate in church, I decided to prioritize teaching as a primary goal of every Gathering message.

As a congregant, I always respond to a sermon most powerfully when the speaker is authentic, willingly sharing aspects of his or her life that are vulnerable and relatable. I don’t expect speakers to be two-dimensional caricatures of a preacher or teacher. I expect them to have human experiences and make human mistakes, and I really want them to trust me enough to share those lessons and reflections with me. As a speaker, then, I have to be willing to do the same, to be authentic in the “pulpit” and willing to share who I really am in order to help others grow in their faith.

Finally, I always love when a speaker really “risks” something in the message — when they put their convictions and their hopes and dreams for the congregation out on the line. At the end of the message, I want the speaker to proclaim how this is Good News and how we can be a part of it. Mixed together with insightful teaching and authentic reflection, this proclamation of the gospel stirs my heart and moves me to a deeper place in my relationship with Christ.

So that’s what a Gathering sermon is like.

What is the Gathering? Part III: Praying People

Few things are more intimate than in-person conversations. In a day dominated by screen time and digitally mediated communication, sitting in the presence of others to speak and to listen is a radically counter-cultural act. Inviting God into the conversation is even more outrageous. Yet we do this every Sunday in The Gathering during one of our most ancient and reverent practices: Prayers of the People.

You may not recognize the intentional structure and flow of this portion of the service. We always begin our time with a prayer of confession, together acknowledging the ways in which we all struggle to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. But remember, confession is about self-awareness, not self-recrimination. Before we can take the next steps with God, we need to take an honest assessment of where we are today. We confess so that we can repent and return, re-aligning our lives back to God and God’s purposes.

After confession, we speak to God through a Trinitarian prayer, engaging the mystery of God’s work as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This has two functions; first, it’s theologically informative, drawing us to reflect on the fullness of God’s beautiful self-relationship as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Second, it challenges us to rethink whatever “boxes” we have placed God into — the Trinity refuses to be contained by simple images or pat metaphors, and our prayers shape how we envision God in our lives. Our Trinitarian prayers draw us more deeply into the mystery of God and God’s faithful relationship with all of creation.

Finally, Prayers of the People ends with us lifting up the names of the people with whom we share our lives. These people may need extra doses of God’s mercy in times of trouble or they may bring joys to God in praise. They may simply be the names of people on our hearts and in our minds. As we speak, we speak together, our words running together and over each other, a perfect display of the living and breathing church. At every moment, millions around the world pour out their hearts in earnest prayer to God, and Prayers of the People joins us to that worldwide communion of saints.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.

What is the Gathering? Part II: Music, Different

Of all the unconventional aspects of The Gathering, our use of music during worship may be the most unique. After we begin the service we feature some music to open our hearts and minds and to help us get into a worship mindset. But unlike most church services there is no standing, no singing, and no live musical performance. We remain seated, drink a cup of coffee, and take in a video of a performance that we find particularly meaningful or impactful. What in the world are we doing?

Like so many choices, this approach to music in worship was born out of necessity. Our worship leaders from the Sunday evening service were not available on Sunday mornings due to other commitments. Additionally, the room we started in wasn’t well-suited to congregational singing. Instead of trying to retrofit a previous service into this new format, we started from scratch, focusing on what we did have at our disposal.

What we did have, and continue to have, is wonderful audio/visual equipment, a limitless collection of new and undiscovered musical resources (thanks, Internet!), and a particularly resourceful church member who loves nothing more than taking a theme and finding a perfect song to match it (thanks, John!). So, with a spirit of adventure and a willingness to try new things, we started a “contemporary” worship service with no live music — just to see how thoroughly we could break the mold.

We still use videos to guide our worship one year later. This will change someday; after all, I do have a job opening for a worship leader listed on the church website. But in the meantime, we will continue to search deeply for music that stirs the soul and moves the heart — music that you want to listen to outside of church, not just during the service. Our unique approach to music in worship is evidence of a can-do attitude and a willingness to think outside the box. That’s part of what The Gathering is and who The Gathering challenges you to be.

What is the Gathering? Part I: Making Friends

The Gathering continues to grow as more and more people invite their friends and family to experience this new approach to community and worship. Each day this week we will look at a different portion of the service to better examine what’s happening and why.

Part I: Making Friends

The Gathering starts at 9:30 am sharp, but it doesn’t start with anyone talking into the microphone. Instead, it starts with delicious coffee, real breakfast foods, and everyone putting on a nametag. For the first 10 minutes of the service, the community focuses not on the speaker but on each other, visiting, shaking hands, and getting to know your neighbors. Have you ever thought about why we do this?

Our social interaction isn’t something that happens before worship — it’s an integral act of worship itself.

I learned an important lesson early in my ministry. People will come once or twice if they really like the preacher or the music. But they will come back, again and again, if they like each other. Churches aren’t groups of worship consumers; they are communities of friends and family. The Gathering so deeply values forming relationships that we put a social time in the service. Our social interaction isn’t something that happens before worship — it’s an integral act of worship itself.

Our new 11:00 am service will take place at a different venue at FUMCFW. The 9:30 am service will remain in Wesley Hall, but the 11:00 am service will be in the Justin Building, another space that was designed with interaction and hospitality in mind. This space will support our existing focus on community as well as provide a few new extras. (Fresh cinnamon rolls, anyone?) This is a perfect opportunity for you to invite a friend to attend The Gathering with you. When they do, they will experience a community of people who love God, love church, and love each other.