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Friday, May 11, 2018

Warnings

And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone...
-1 Thessalonians 5:14 (NIV)


We wish we had been warned.
     On a family vacation this past week, we got the chance to swim with some dolphins. Lots of fun, of course. When we were done, though, Laura asked me to look at her back. She thought maybe she had gotten sunburned, but the welts she had looked nothing like sunburn. I noticed a few similar welts on my arm; they itched and burned considerably. Then Josh mentioned that his back was burning a little too; sure enough, the red, angry-looking welts were raising up from his shoulders to the middle of his back. We were pretty puzzled, at first. Had the dolphins passed on some rare cross-species skin disease? Was the Caribbean sun particularly dangerous to pasty-skinned people from the Midwest? 
     We started asking a few questions, and the guys who worked at the dolphin place came back with a quick answer: “Fire coral. We put vinegar on it.” So Laura and Josh spent the rest of the day smelling like salad dressing. (Laura also bought some hydrocortisone cream, which probably worked better than the vinegar.) They recovered quickly. Vacation crisis averted.
     As near as we can guess, the fire coral was growing on the dock we were holding onto while waiting our turn to play with the dolphins. After we had been there for a while, the trainer did mention we shouldn’t brush up against the side of the dock, but by then the damage was probably done. A late warning is really no warning at all. Would have been nice if, while he was telling us exhaustively what the dolphins did and did not like, the trainer had mentioned that there were little sea creatures growing on the dock that hated us and would take advantage of any opportunity to make us miserable. Guess that didn’t cross his mind. I suppose it isn’t very Christian of me to wish for fire coral to grow in his underwear drawer.
     We recognize from time to time that warnings are necessary. We even understand that it can be irresponsible to fail to warn someone. Ever seen a child doing something dangerous right under her parents’ noses? Ever noticed a person about to brush up against wet paint? If you’ve stopped someone from straying into traffic, called a friend to tell her about traffic on her route to work, or pointed out to your neighbor a house repair that needed to be done, then you know what I mean. Sometimes a warning is exactly what’s needed.
     So why, I wonder, do we not consider warnings to be necessary to our walk with Jesus?
     The Bible says we should warn each other. The text above mentions warning those who are “idle and disruptive,” but there are actually quite a few places in Scripture where warnings are encouraged, for all sorts of things. According to the Bible, folks need to be warned about the likely future consequences of their actions. Warnings are needed against sin as a general category, along with specific sins. The expectation for God’s people is that we won’t be afraid to warn each other when we aren’t living in a way that’s worthy of the label. 
     Expectation is the right word, actually. The Old Testament book of Ezekiel says explicitly that we’re responsible for warning “a wicked person.” He probably has in mind especially people who claim to worship God, but whose behavior belies that claim. If we don’t issue a warning, he says, we’re “held accountable” for what happens to them. The human heart can be deceptive, and sin can do such damage that it’s irresponsible of God’s people not to warn one another away from ways of life that can hurt others and undermine our own spiritual lives.
     Maybe this is the problem for us: we don’t feel adequately responsible for one another. “That’s between him and God,” we sometimes say, as though that absolves us from responsibility to say something if we see something (to borrow an idea from the TSA). Of course a person’s behavior is between him and God. But how do we know that ours isn’t the voice God would use to warn someone and get him or her back on the right track? How do we know that warning that we decided not to give wouldn’t be the very thing that might bring someone to his senses?
     Our world has created a disconnect between private faith and public life that didn’t really exist in the early church, and probably was never supposed to exist. Simply put, “my” faith is a community matter, and the community has the responsibility to help each other in our walks with the Lord. A community in which no warning against sin is forthcoming when necessary is not really a community at all.
     Look, don’t get me wrong here: this isn’t an excuse for gossip, judgment, and self-righteousness. I’m not judging you if I warn you that a bus is coming and you should get out of the street. I have no right to take pleasure in your predicament, or point out to others how much better a person I am than you because I didn’t walk out in front of a bus. The holier-than-thou, the self-righteous, the judgmental snobs who look down their noses at everyone else’s sins need to be warned as well. Their attitudes jeopardize the community too. But that possibility is no excuse for winking and laughing at the most obvious, blatant sin in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ. 
     Maybe it’s our own sins that discourage us from warning each other. Most of us probably don’t feel very qualified to warn anyone about anything, knowing that if someone were to look hard enough at our own lives — or maybe not very hard at all — they’d find plenty to warn us about. That’s a fair concern, but really it’s exactly that attitude that makes a warning go down a little more easily. Warning a sister or brother is not about having any power over them, or pretending to be better than them. Often, a warning is most credible when it comes from someone who’s upfront about their own failings, and maybe has even been burned by the very thing he or she is warning against. No one person in a community should be doing all of the warning while holding him or herself above receiving a warning, either; that’s a disaster waiting to happen. 
     The kind of warning I’m talking about comes out of a sense of love, not judgment, anger, control, or disdain. It should be expressed in loving words and tones. It should invite repentance, not demand reparation. It should make the person being warned feel valued, not diminished. It should honor their agency and freedom to make their own decisions. It should always be offered in a way that emphasizes God’s grace, compassion, and forgiveness. It should always offer a way forward. It should be accompanied by reassurances of the person’s place in the family of God and the family’s commitment to their support, encouragement, and well-being. 
     Maybe we should look again at what Paul says: “warn…encourage…help…be patient.” Warning should be part of our life together in the community of faith. Love demands it. But encouragement, help, and patience will ensure that those warnings are delivered in the proper context and with the right spirit, and that they accomplish what they’re supposed to accomplish.
     Trust me: sometimes the most loving thing you can say to someone is “Stay away from that!”

     And a warning not given may be something you end up regretting.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Disciples

     …[G]o and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. 
-Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV)


If you’re a college student looking for a summer internship, and you don’t mind the wind in your hair and the sun on your neck — and sitting on a motorcycle for hours each day — I may know just the thing for you.
     Harley-Davidson is looking for eight college students to spend the summer riding Harleys around the country (and possibly overseas), attending motorcycle events and documenting their travels with photos, videos, and stories on various social media. The program is open to students looking to pursue careers in social media, communications, public relations or marketing. Harley-Davidson will teach the students to ride, give them bikes, and send them out for the summer. And, here’s the thing: you get to keep the motorcycle when you’re done.
     Harley is doing this because they recognize that young adults aren’t gravitating toward motorcycles in the same numbers as previous generations. They believe that the only way to ensure their health as a company going forward is if they grow the next generation of riders themselves. By teaching students, equipping them, and sending them out, they hope to create a whole new market for their products. Their 10-year strategy is to train 2 million new U.S. riders.
     They want to train new riders. They don’t mean by that, primarily, that they want to build large buildings where people interested in motorcycles can come to hear lectures about building, riding, and repairing them. They aren’t interested in creating spaces for people who might be interested in motorcycles to come and eat together or watch movies together. They aren’t going to be content with gathering those with a casual interest in motorcycles for singalong versions of Born to be Wild or Roll Me Away or Wanted Dead or Alive. They want to get people on bikes, get them to adopt biking as a lifestyle, an identity. And they believe that lifestyle will be contagious and create even more new riders. And, incidentally, grow their market.
     The book of Acts tells us that “the disciples were first called Christians” at a town called Antioch, in Syria. The sentence is kind of a throwaway reference that, by the time Acts was written, those who had once been known as disciples of Jesus were now also called Christians.
     In some ways, that is a better name. Disciples isn’t as descriptive: disciples of whom? Christian removes all doubt. The way we mostly use the term “Christian” in our day, though — well, I’m not sure disciple isn’t better.
     What Harley-Davidson is trying to do, by way of illustration, is to create disciples. They’re training people to ride, equipping them, then sending them out to adopt biking as a lifestyle and an identity
     Those 12 guys who followed Jesus around: before they were called apostles, they were disciples. Before they were “sent out,” they were learners. Students. Apprentices. They didn’t sit in a classroom. They didn’t do assigned reading. They did listen to him teach, but then they taught too. He sent them out in his name to heal and serve. He trained them, equipped, them, and sent them out. So when they took the message of Jesus to the world, it was natural to call those who came to believe in him disciples.
     I don’t want to lose the word Christian, but I would like to recover the word disciple.
     Most churches today are likely struggling at some level with declining membership. We explain it in lots of ways: increased immigration of non-Christians, failure of the church’s witness, the secularization of our culture. Could it be, though, that people don’t need another vicarious experience? Could it be that they aren’t looking to be told what following Jesus is like? Could it be that they’re not looking for another cause, another ism? Maybe they’re looking for an identity. A lifestyle to adopt. Something, or someone, to give their life for.
     That’s what Jesus offers: “whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We’ve sometimes acted in the church as though that’s something to be hushed up until people are ready to hear it. But maybe we should own it. Maybe discipleship is something people are looking for. Maybe some people, at least, are looking for someone who’s so good, so liberating, so freeing that following him is the easiest decision they’ll ever make. 
     And we offer them an hour on Sundays: a few songs, a sermon, the chance to throw a few bucks in a plate. 
     Could we, church, take a page from Harley-Davidson’s strategy? Could we start to spend more of our money, time, effort, and other resources to train, equip, and send out disciples
     We’ll have to begin by being disciples ourselves. If you’re a church leader, ask yourself if you’re more enamored with corporate leadership models and “vision-casting” than you are of following Jesus. Do you spend more time in meetings or in prayer? Telling people what to do, or showing them how to do it? More time standing before the church teaching, or standing beside other disciples trying to do what Jesus says?
     Let’s get rid of the notion that making disciples is about conversion. Conversion is the beginning. We baptize, sure — but then we teach. We tell people that they should come to Jesus, yes — but then we have to show them what they do once they get there. Baptism is the beginning of being a disciple. Not the end.
     Let’s finally, once and for all, let go of the idea that making disciples is just about the transfer of information. Teaching people to obey what Jesus commands isn’t just about telling them what he says, explaining what he meant, and ending with “go and do likewise,” any more than teaching someone how to ride a motorcycle is about those things. At some point, you have to get them on a bike and show them. Let them give it a try, and maybe even fail a time or two. Be there to cushion the landing and help them learn from those mistakes. Show them a better way to do it. Keep them excited and focused on the lifestyle they’re learning. Don’t leave them alone with frustration, fear, grief, or guilt.
     Living as disciples is something a community of faith does together. It’s relational. We teach each other by serving together. The greatest lessons I’ve learned about ministry were not learned in a church building, or a classroom: they were learned by seeing others live out what Jesus teaches in the world, among the people that he sends us to. When we serve together, share expertise and encouragement with each other, combine the gifts the Spirit gives us, pray together, even mess up together, we learn better what being a disciple is all about.
     May we never forget, finally, that disciples are eventually sent. If we’re faithful in creating disciples, then goodbye will be a word we’ll say and hear often. We aren't creating disciples of ourselves, or of our church or our leaders. We’re creating disciples of Jesus, and sometimes he will send them out of our range of influence and association. But that's as it should be, so they can create more disciples.
     Let’s never be content with the polite form of church life that doesn’t really require all that much of us. Let’s live as disciples, willing to give up everything. Let’s train, equip, and send disciples. Let’s go where discipleship takes us and tell the stories that come about because of it.

     Get your motor running. Head out on the highway.       

Friday, April 20, 2018

Infiltration

     …[E]ven if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins,  the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. 
-1 Peter 3:14-18 (NIV)


Chick-fil-a has infiltrated Manhattan.
     The restaurant chain showed up in the dead of night, unannounced, stealthily building four restaurants, including the largest in their chain, without anyone knowing about it. I mean, I guess it was something like that, since Dan Piepenbring used the word “infiltrated” in a hard-hitting New Yorker exposé, and as far as I know “infiltrate” implies a lot of secrecy. It’s kind of tough to believe that a company could open four stores, even in a town the size of New York City, without someone knowing about it, but I’m sure Mr. Piepenbring must know what he’s talking about.
     Mr. Piepenbring seems to have a lot of problems with Chick-fil-a. That’s his right, of course. He clearly doesn’t care for their famous “spokes-cows” — his issue there is apparently with an ad campaign “in which one farm animal begs us to kill another in its place.” (I hope no one tells him that the meat other restaurants serve doesn’t come from animals who have willingly given their lives, or died of natural causes.) 
     It seems, though, that the cow evangelists (cowvangelists?) aren’t the main problem Mr. Piepenbring has with Chick-fil-a. He doesn’t care for a well-known quote by the late founder of Chick-fil-a, S. Truett Cathy, expressing his belief that America is “inviting God’s judgment” by supporting same-sex marriage. The fact that Cathy, a Southern Baptist, was speaking to a Christian news organization and more or less echoing the position of most Christians for centuries doesn’t seem to throw Mr. Piepenbring off his stride at all.
     That’s kind of the crux of the matter, as I see it. Think of it this way: if Chick-fil-a were outspoken supporters of same-sex marriage, I doubt Mr. Piepenbring would have penned an article blasting them for their outspokenness. Neither, probably, would he excoriate in print a halal restaurant that made no effort to hide its owner’s Islamic beliefs, or a bookstore devoted to Buddhism. The real problem that Mr. Piepenbring has with Chick-fil-a, I think,  is summed up early in the article:
“…[T}he brand’s arrival here feels like an infiltration, in no small part because of its pervasive Christian traditionalism. Its headquarters, in Atlanta, are adorned with Bible verses and a statue of Jesus washing a disciple’s feet. Its stores close on Sundays.”
     What makes Chick-fil-a an infiltrator? What makes them outsiders, as far as Mr. Piepenbring’s New York is concerned? Bible verses. Jesus. In his eyes, they’re a “Christian” company. Or, at least, “Christian Traditionalist.”
     Leaving aside the question of whether or not a corporation can be in any sense “Christian,” Mr. Piepenbring can believe and write what he wants about Chick-fil-a, and it doesn’t make a lot of difference to me one way or the other. (More chicken sandwiches for me!) His words certainly don’t rise to the level of persecution. I even understand where an attitude like his could come from: The church, historically, hasn’t always practiced love as much as we’ve talked about it. Too often we have reflected society’s prejudices instead of our Lord’s love and grace and used the gospel for our own selfish ends. We should, and will, receive our Lord’s judgment for that sort of thing.
     But I would like to point out to Mr. Piepenbring — but more to my sisters and brothers in Christ — that for people who believe, faith is not a buffet where we pick and choose what we’d like to keep and what we’d prefer to discard. Our faith is in Jesus, and he tells us to be light and salt in the world, to make our presence known by doing and saying the things that we learn from him. He tells us that when we do sometimes people will insult us and persecute us because they don’t really care for him, but that even if that happens we have to be faithful. Following him makes us Christian. If it makes us traditionalist as well, I’m OK with that.
     We’re called to follow the Scriptures, too. Admittedly, figuring out what those Scriptures from another time and place have to do with us in our time and place is not always easy, and undoubtedly we’ve made mistakes — and likely will again. Yet, part of our faith tells us that those Scriptures are God’s word. Believing it and obeying it is part of what makes us Christian. If it makes us traditionalist as well, so be it.
     Keeping our faith to ourselves isn’t really an option, either. Sometimes people who don’t believe seem to expect that those of us who do should just not talk about it, should separate our public personas from the faith that means so much to us privately. That isn’t something we can readily do, though. Nor should we have to. Faith that means anything at all — even if it’s faith in science, or reason, or words — will inevitably show itself in the things we say and do, the priorities we set, the values by which we live. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. 
     My suspicion is that believers are going to encounter assumptions like Mr. Piepenbring’s more frequently, that our faith is going to be increasingly pushed to the margins, that the pressure will increase for us to keep it to ourselves. One way to respond to that is to panic, to lash out, to try to push back into the center of power. But Jesus didn’t do that, and millions of his followers through the centuries never had that option. Our faith doesn’t lose its legitimacy if it loses its majority. 
     Another way to respond is to go into stealth mode, to do exactly what Mr. Piepenbring and those who share his opinions of faith think we should do and just be silent. Jesus didn’t do that either, and neither have millions of his followers who those in power have attempted to muzzle before us. 
     May we respond like Him, and like them. May we live without fear, anxiety, or defensiveness. When insulted, slandered, and told to be quiet, may we respond with gentleness and respect, keeping our consciences clear. But may we never hesitate to continue to speak about the hope we have. And may we learn — in this world in which every injustice, every slight, can immediately be exposed — that suffering for doing good can actually be a blessing. May we remember that we learn that from our Lord, who suffered for the sins of others in order to bring us to God. May our sufferings, if they should occur, bring many to God.

     And may we be as earnest and clear about our message as those cowvangelists are.     

Friday, April 6, 2018

Nobodies

     …Think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not —to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
-1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (NIV)


She’s nobody.
     I suppose I should say “spoiler alert,” but if you haven’t seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi by now, I think it’s safe to say that you don’t have a lot of interest in it and don’t much care if I spoil it for you. 
     Rey, the character introduced in the previous Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, has been the subject of two years of fan theories, mainly because The Force Awakens left a huge hole where her backstory should have been. All we knew about her history was that she was left by her parents to fend for herself on a remote planet for something like twenty years. There were all kinds of intriguing hints as to who her parents might be. Fans theorized that she was everyone from Luke Skywalker’s daughter to the reincarnation of Darth Vader (and everyone in between). The more outlandish the theory, the more it seemed to catch on. 
     And then The Last Jedi came out and it was revealed that she’s nobody. Rey’s parents, the film’s main villain, Kylo Ren, says, “were filthy junk traders” who “sold [Rey] off for drinking money. They’re dead in a pauper’s grave….” “You come from nothing,” he tells her. “You’re nothing.”
     So many fans hated that big reveal. Hated it. (I loved it.) They wanted her to be somebody. They wanted an easy explanation for her power. They wanted their theories confirmed. More than that, they wanted it confirmed that greatness could spend 20 years toiling in absolute obscurity. 
     Maybe we like the idea, more than we would even want to admit, that people can be important and significant, even if nobody knows it.
      Actually, though, that’s what the movie’s saying. It just doesn’t want us to make the mistake of thinking that greatness comes from your bloodline, your inheritance, from the privilege you enjoy or the DNA you’ve been given. Rey is, apparently, chosen by the Force. That’s why she’s special. Who her parents were has nothing to do with it. By listening to and following her calling, she makes a difference in spite of the fact that she’s nobody.
      We live in a world where, to successfully run for public office, you have to be able to get your hands on large sums of money. You have to be wealthy, or know a lot of people who are. Leaders in business and finance are generally from important families and have the connections to get into exclusive schools and run in exclusive circles. Sure, nobodies from nowhere sometimes make good through exceptional talent and hard work, but that’s the exception and not the rule in our world. 
     That was even more true in Paul’s world than in ours. In his world, it was almost impossible to escape your social class. And that’s why the gospel was so earth-shaking and revolutionary. Imagine a plebeian in Rome or a member of the Dalit caste in India hearing these words: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not —to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” Imagine a kid in American’s inner city hearing them, surrounded by poverty and crime, decaying property and hopelessness. Imagine a young girl in Appalachia, or an old woman alone in a nursing home hearing those words. The foolish things, the weak things, the lowly things, the despised things, the things that are not — there are a lot of people in our world who know those terms well. 
     The aged. The infirm. The mentally ill. The socially awkward. The deformed. The unattractive. The depressed.  Those who have been marginalized for their gender or race. They can identify with every category Paul mentions. And if the church would only preach the gospel like this, we might just change the world. People who everyone else dismisses or ignores just might start to believe that God loves them and can do great, significant things in the world with them. If only.
     In that scene in The Last Jedi, when Kylo tells Rey who she is — and who she’s not — he doesn’t stop there. “You’re nobody,” he tells her, but it isn’t in a sneering, villainous way. Kylo wants Rey to join him, see. He doesn’t care that she isn’t seemingly important, that she doesn’t have a name or a bloodline. “You’re nobody,” he tells her. “But not to me.” And he holds out his hand. 
     It has to be tempting. For someone to know you don’t matter, you’re not important, you’re nobody…and they want you anyway, they love you anyway — man, that’s compelling. You don’t have to pretend with someone like that. You don’t have to be someone you aren’t. 
     But see, that’s the gospel: God chose what the world dismisses and devalues. When Jesus was made human, it was as a nobody. The people in charge of the world around him would have said he didn’t matter. He collected the ignored and despised around him as followers. He spent most of his time with the dregs of society. He died as the worst of the worst would have died, in the worst of the worst of all the ways possible to die. When God raised him from the dead, it was with the promise that anyone who put their trust in him could share in his new life. Even the nobodies. Especially the nobodies, because how better to prove that God takes what the world doesn’t know better than to discard and does beautiful things?  
     But the church too easily forgets this. We market ourselves as successful, hip, and slick. We trot out the best and the brightest as leaders. Our websites feature smiling, happy, people who seem to have it all together. And we send the message that it’s those folks we want.
     But those folks don’t want us, by and large. Jesus said they wouldn’t. They have too many other options. 
     But those nobodies — they need to know that God values and loves them just as they are. And how better to show it than for us to own the truth: most of us are nobodies, and that’s just as it should be. And even those few of us who might be somebodies will choose to be nobody here. And instead of praising ourselves we’ll praise our Lord. And instead of recruiting the successful so we’ll feel better about ourselves we’ll proclaim to the other nobodies that they’re somebody to him. And to us.   

     God does beautiful things in the world with nobodies. He always has. May we embrace who we are so that we can embrace who he makes us. And so we can embrace the other nobodies who he might call. 

Friday, March 30, 2018

Fully Human in Every Way

     Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death….For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
-Hebrews 2:14-15, 17-18 (NIV)


Jean Dolores Schmidt takes her calling very seriously.
     You might know her, if you know her, from watching this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. She’s Sister Jean there, the smiling little nun in the wheelchair on the Loyola University sidelines during their surprising run to the Final Four (at least). You might have heard that she’s the chaplain for the basketball team, and you may have heard one of her pre-game prayers/scouting reports. (“Lord, help our boys to not be afraid of Tennessee’s height, and help them to remember that there are more important things than height. And help them to remember that they’re vulnerable in the low post.”) It says something that casual fans probably could name her before Loyola’s head coach or best players.
     Sister Jean is certainly devoted to her calling as chaplain. She’s traveled with the team to every game during the tournament, age (98) and wheelchair (temporary, hopefully) notwithstanding. She prays with them, encourages them, and even does press conferences. Some fans have a little Sister Jean fatigue, and that’s understandable. But she’s been doing this for decades.
     And consider this: basketball chaplain is only one of her gigs. 
     She also has another chaplain role that she takes just as seriously. She doesn’t get to do press conferences or go to basketball games in this role, but it's just as important to her. She’s also chaplain for a freshman dorm on the Loyola campus. 
     She takes that role so seriously that she lives in the dorm.
     “He had to be made like them, fully human in every way,” the writer of Hebrews says of Jesus. “Since the children have flesh and blood,  he too shared in their humanity.” Jesus said that he came to serve, not to be served. He came to give himself, not to receive the gifts of others. He came to live with us, even to share in our suffering. He moved in down the hall. He got to know our problems, didn’t get frustrated when we played the music too loud, and welcomed us knocking on the door at all hours of the night. He ate with us, showed patience with our pettiness, comforted us in our grief, and taught us that the thing we most feared was nothing to fear at all.
     Death roams free and unopposed among human beings. He takes no prisoners, offers no mercy, gives no quarter. And, left to ourselves, we're terrified of death. We hold it at arm’s length any way we can. We chase any imposter who claims to have a way to beat it. We cram experience after experience into our lives to create the illusion that death can’t touch us — or we live with regret that we couldn’t. We buy stuff and chase wealth and pleasure and prestige in the mistaken idea that by doing so we can fill the hollowed-out place that the fear of death leaves in us. 
     And then when we can’t deny it — when it’s staring us in the face through the empty eyes of someone we love or breathing down our necks with every trip to the doctor, every candle on the cake, every new wrinkle or gray hair — when we can't deny it we collapse in paralysis, anger, and depression.
     Even those of us who say we aren’t scared of it are whistling past the graveyard, because we all can imagine a half-dozen deaths that do terrify us. 
     One of the reasons that our culture loves superhero movies, I think, is because they provide an antidote to our fear of death. Superman is invulnerable to almost every kind of harm (and even comes back to life on those rare occasions when he is killed). Iron Man has his armor. Batman his gadgets. Thor and Wonder Woman are immortal, practically. Even the ones who can die are so powerful that death is rarely a likely outcome. And, even when it happens, it's almost never permanent. 
     That's our answer to our fear of death: lose ourselves in a mythology in which our heroes defeat death time and again with power, intelligence, magic, or immortality.
     What believers celebrate this weekend, though, is that Jesus didn’t conquer death through any of those means. Though he might have wanted, like Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi, to brush the cross off his shoulders like so much dust, he did the opposite. His death, the writer tells us, was to “break the power  of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” In becoming fully human, and in suffering and dying as we do, he showed us without a doubt that God’s love and grace are stronger than death. 
     Make no mistake: Jesus’ resurrection isn’t a bullet bouncing off the hero’s chest. It isn’t an immensely powerful superhuman making the claim that death can’t touch him. Because death can touch Jesus. That’s what it means for him to share in our humanity. In the cross, death takes from Jesus the same things that it takes from us. It exacts the same cost: it exposes his weakness, lays bare his fears, and leaves him feeling helpless and utterly alone, feeling forsaken even by God. That’s how he serves God as a high priest, as a chaplain, on our behalf. By giving himself to the terrifying prospect of death, and letting it have its way with him. 
     The empty tomb, though, is the rest of the story. It proclaims that a completely human Jesus, by learning to obey God through human suffering, pain, and even death, atones for human sin and breaks Satan’s power over us. It promises that God is greater even than this greatest of our fears. The empty tomb that we’ll celebrate Easter morning is meaningless without a Savior who takes on our weakness, suffering, and fears as his own. But his Friday afternoon death is terrifying without that Sunday morning light and the angels' declaration: “He is not here. He is risen.”
     When you affirm your faith in that this Sunday morning, also affirm that he understands your suffering too. He understands your pain, your fear, and why you feel sometimes like they’re the only things that matter. But just as he shares your suffering and death, you will also share his resurrection and life. Just as surely as Sister Jean will be at that game tomorrow.

     He is risen. He is risen indeed.     

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