Which nail killed Christ?

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Odd question, isn’t it? But it keeps running through my head as I ponder the meaning of the Cross this Lenten season. Of course it wasn’t any single nail, but the perfected torture of nails through both wrists and feet (or ankles) that caused death by asphyxiation–the slow agony of crucifixion. To become human, to experience betrayal, to die a death so painful (literally, “excruciating”) and humiliating–these are powerful acts by which God expresses to us a love truly more powerful than the grave.

hammer and spike

But I’m convinced there’s much more to the method of Jesus’ death than the perverse brilliance of Roman torture. I’ve come to believe that while his executioners nailed Jesus’ extremities on those beams to stretch his body apart, he was at the same time showing us how to hold those extremes together–even at the cost of his own life. Too many of us–perhaps all of us, at some point–become convinced that we know exactly how Jesus feels about one matter or another (amazing how much Jesus’ views match our own, isn’t it?). And we nail Jesus down– He’s a moralist. He’s compassionate. He’s a judge. He’s non-judgmental. He’s a Republican. He’s a Democrat. And we each have the argument to prove it, the scripture quote to nail Jesus down to our position.

I don’t think Jesus lived, died and rose again in order to hallow any single position, particularly about many of the nonessential matters over which we disagree–but rather to show that in order to be his followers, we’d have to recognize that any time we claim Jesus’ position as our own, we’re crucifying him again, nailing him down as brutally as any Golgotha Centurion. We are called to recognize that Jesus was willing to die to make sure that, in his body, we’re all held together, regardless of the positions we’re trying to nail down. More importantly, we recognize that he calls us to the same willingness to die ourselves, to surrender our need to exclude those who’ve nailed down positions other than our own.

Playing “gotcha” has become political sport in our day–tripping someone up to prove that her/his position is wrong, or at least not as right as our own. Jesus plays a different kind of “gotcha.” He says, “I gotcha, no matter where you are, or how goofed up you might be–and I got him, her and them as well. And I’ll die to prove it. I’ve got you all, and I won’t let go.”

That’s not to say that there aren’t positions to fight, even to die for, or faithful principles that put us in direct opposition to others. But one of the powerful ways we have to witness to the world is to show how people can differ, even intensely, and still maintain unity for the sake of Christ; that difference doesn’t automatically mean division. What would it mean if only a small fraction of the people we encounter could be convinced that such unity is possible?

Where is that unity most needed where you live? How is Christ being nailed down all over again? To what do you need to die in order that the Body of Christ may live its unity to the fullest?

 

How do we get off our buts?

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Not all that long ago, I was sitting in a congregational staff meeting, discussing some of the challenges of starting and sustaining ministries, when another staff member said, “Our problem is we’ve got big buts.” When everyone at the table turned to look at her in surprise, she said, “You know, ‘I’d teach Sunday School . . .” or “I’d like to be in Bible study . . .” or “I’d give more to the church . . . ”

but

She’s absolutely right. As a rule, we are people who rationalize and excuse a lot of our inactivity and our refusal to do what we know we should by plopping down our buts–”but I don’t have enough time/energy/money/experience/knowledge . . .” It’s hard to imagine ourselves simply hopping up and following Jesus whenever he calls us, like those first four fishermen who heard, “Follow me . . .” But it is important to remember Jesus’ words to the man who wanted to wanted to follow¬†but who wanted first to say goodbye to his family: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” Jesus had little patience with conditional discipleship.

Those are pretty strong words, and most Lutherans will respond quickly, “But where’s the grace in that?” (actually, I’m prone to respond that way–I’ve got a big but, too). Yet if we’re at all steeped in a theology of the cross and a true understanding of grace, we know that grace isn’t an excuse for inaction–it’s an invitation to action without fear of failure.

My most frustrating encounters with gracelessness are those in which people are trapped in the paralysis of scarcity–”We can’t afford it;” “we don’t have enough money/people/time/space.” I think of another colleague who says of such scarcity mentality–”Do you think you can out-give God?” God’s generosity abounds, but we sometimes miss new gifts because we’re not making use of the gifts we’ve already received–particularly the gift of a willing heart. In fact, I would suggest that there’s a spiritual anatomy lesson here–the bigger our hearts, the smaller our buts.

So what are the biggest buts you’d like to get rid of? How do we get people off those buts and into the life-giving work and reward of the Kingdom? How do we take off the blinders of scarcity and see clearly through the lenses of God’s abundance? I’m eager to hear your responses, and your ideas!

Crossing borders or bordering the cross

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I’m writing this in the San Juan airport, heading home after a week at the Bishops’ Academy. The focus of the academy was “Ministry at the Margins,” and we spent a good deal of time talking about ministry with people whose distance from the centers of power and wealth make them nearly invisible. We focused particularly, though not exclusively, on ministry among Hispanics/Latinos.

This is a helpful and essential conversation, and one that needs to be sustained, for two key reasons–first, the gospel of Jesus Christ sends us to the margins to proclaim good news, and second, we remain a predominantly Anglo/white denomination. Every day, we look less like the rest of the country.

This isn’t the place for a conversation about immigration reform. Rather, it’s about finding ways to go to places and people that are largely new to us. As our speakers pointed out, even 2nd- and 3rd- generation Latinos are “border crossers” every day. Particularly in predominantly Anglo communities, the assumption is that Latinos aren’t natives; on the other hand, residents of their country of origin, whether their family left it months ago or generations ago, now see them as Americans and no longer quite Guatemalan, Mexican, El Salvadoran, etc. So whichever community is encountered, it is encountered as a “border-crosser.”

For the Church to be effective in connecting with Latino communities, it has to be comfortable crossing some of its own borders. Our forebears gathered in ethnic enclaves and continued to speak the language of their home countries until their children began to learn English in school. It’s not so different for immigrants today. The difference–and it’s an uncomfortable truth to acknowledge–is that most of “our” forebears (not all of us are descendants of European immigrants) looked a lot like the people in the neighborhoods they moved into. They spoke a different language and practiced different traditions, but they¬†looked like their neighbors. Most of today’s immigrants–not only Latino, but African and Asian and Middle Eastern–look different than the majority of Americans. That majority is shrinking, however, and America is becoming much more diverse. The fastest growth in the changing American complexion–what has been termed the “browning of America”–is among Latinos. This reality requires us to be more aware of, sensitive to, eager for and committed to ministry in and among Latino communities.

In our hesitation to change–in any area–we often come right up to the very edge of the cross; but we hesitate to pick it up and bear it. The burden of change seems too heavy, too challenging, and we stop at the edge; we border the cross.

Christ’s call isn’t simply to consider the cross, but to carry it; not merely to note those around us, but to engage them–to stop bordering the cross and start crossing the borders; those borders that keep us from Christ-following, cross-bearing, gospel-proclaiming faithfulness.

What are the primary challenges for you, and for the communities in which you live, as you contemplate how to cross the borders you encounter in order to minister to those at the margins? Who are those marginalized neighbors, and what ministries–what risks–do they call us to?

Bishop Maas’ 2012 Christmas Message

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It’s not easy being blue

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I suspect we long ago passed the one millionth sermon/bulletin/newsletter/blog by a pastor about it not being Christmas until December 25, so it hardly bears mentioning again.

Except that it matters.

I’m no humbug. I love Christmas, and I still manage to experience the little thrills of a favorite carol over the radio, setting up the tree, and trying to surprise a loved one with a gift. And I know I’m not going to change the culture. But I can–WE can–offer an alternative to it.

I’ve known congregations (very few of them Lutheran, thankfully) that start celebrating Christmas right around Thanksgiving (even one that decided it still should have Advent, somehow, so celebrated it in November). But let’s be honest–we’ll never out-Christmas the malls. They’ve got all the exciting characters–Santa, Frosty, Rudolph, Grinch, Ralphie (“you’ll shoot your eye out!”) and more. All we have is a homeless couple putting their newborn in a critter’s feedbox. And angels and shepherds, but they aren’t around long.

So what if we put forth what we do have going for us–preparation, anticipation, longing, restraint, and peace. For the world around us, the colors of the season are red and green, stoplight colors that perfectly express the hectic stop-and-go craziness that marks so much of these weeks. But within the church, the color is blue–the hue of the sky just before dawn. It’s the color into which people sitting in darkness stare to catch a glimpse of the coming light. The church is, or at least can be, a place where people can come to escape the frenzy and experience the nearly-lost art of waiting, the gift of silence, and the optic relief of staring not at millions of LED bulbs, but one more candle’s flame a week.

I know there are people looking for a little dose of religion this time of year–a live nativity, a Christmas cantata, candlelight and Silent Night. But what of the people dazed and crazed by the excesses of the season? Will we dare to be faithful enough to offer them an alternative, to show them a place where less truly is more? Where we hear God’s call to prepare not our houses and stores but our hearts and lives for the simply incredible good news that God so cares for this mixed-up world–even the tackiest, gaudiest, over-seasoned parts of it–that nothing short of entering into it and sharing the wonder of human experience would do to express it?

By almost all measures, Advent is simply weird–unusual, different, out of the ordinary. Which is exactly why we need it.

Or maybe I’m just an old humbug after all.

What do you think?