Friday, April 6, 2012

Following Jesus to the Cross


Maundy Thursday-April 5, 2012

Following Jesus to the Cross

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

A friend of mine told me the other day that he had 582 Facebook friends. A few weeks ago a young teen who I am counseling reported that she had sent 14,346 text messages in the previous month. The last time I was at McCarren airport, I overheard a businessman telling his traveling partner that he no longer needed anything but his iPad. “It has eliminated my need for a computer, a television, and a phone,” he declared. At the doctor’s office last Thursday, there were 14 people in the waiting room; 11 had electronic devices on which they were communicating to some other electronic device. Of those 11 people, 6 wore earbuds, listening, I presume, to some piece of music downloaded from iTunes.

Intrigued by the effect of the growing Internet phenomenon, I decided to “jump onto” the Internet myself. I settled in at my desk and developed a series of Google searches that focused on questions such as “What is the Internet doing to our society?”

After reading several boring and quite a few absolutely fascinating articles, it became clear to me that the rapidly expanding universe of information to be found on the Internet, and its proliferation of social media opportunities for individuals of all ages, has resulted in many of us turning to the Internet for answers to life’s questions, and for companionship.

I then wondered, “What is the Internet doing to church attendance.” I did not find many serious answers to that question. However, I did come upon an article that appeared in the November 8, 2011 edition of Episcopal News Service - “Episcopal Church membership shows some regional growth; overall decline,” authored by Mary Frances Schjonberg.

Schjonberg wrote, “While membership in 16 of the Episcopal Church's domestic dioceses and eight of its non-domestic ones grew in 2010, recently released data shows that overall membership has declined. The decrease is part of a trend that has seen membership decline by just more than 16 percent since 2000.”

Further into the article, Schjonberg quotes Bishop Stacey Sauls, the Episcopal Church’s chief operating officer. Bishop Sauls responded to the release of this data by saying, "These statistics reveal something very important about the challenges we face as a church," One of those is that we cannot allow statistics like this to make us anxious about our survival. Earthly survival is not of much value to the Gospel. Striving for the kingdom and righteousness of God is. Concentrating on the latter is likely to yield more abundant life than the former (Mt. 6:31-33)."

Sauls said that the statistics also show that "we cannot continue to pretend we are the church of the establishment entitled to the power, prestige and privilege that comes with that."

"Right now, I think the cross calls us to die to those trappings of our old establishment life, and that means turning our attention single-mindedly to God's mission and our participation in it, which means that we are going to have to restructure and reform ourselves accordingly," he said. "Churches that turn inward will die. Churches that turn outward will not only live, but thrive. The numbers call us to strengthen our commitment to turn outward."

Wondering about the decline in church attendance versus the increase in Internet usage I performed yet another Google search and found that in 1990 only 2% of the population used the Internet. By 2011 that number had increased to 79.3%. That is an increase of over 77% - a great many people; especially considering that during that same period of time the population in the United States also increased – by approximately 10 million people.

Episcopal Church attendance down 16% despite a population increase of 10 million people; Internet usage up 77%; and, a mandate from the national church to “restructure and reform ourselves… to turn outward.”

Critical thoughts for us to ponder today -  Maundy Thursday.  Derived from the Latin word mandatum, meaning "commandment," Maundy refers to the commands Jesus gave his disciples at the Last Supper: to love with humility by serving one another and to follow him to the cross.

Before the Passover meal, Jesus demonstrated his humility and his love for the disciples through the ritual of footwashing:

 “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…he got up from the table and took off his outer robe and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciple’s feet and to wipe them with the towel that was around him.”
By performing this lowly act of service, Jesus showed his disciples the full extent of his love. By his example, Jesus demonstrated how Christians are to love one another through humble service. Jesus tells the disciples: “For I have set you an example, that you should also do as I have done to you.”
A bit later in the evening, Jesus says to the disciples:

“Little children… I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Our teacher, our loved one has told us that he is leaving. He gives us final instructions – simple ones: be humble, serve God only, and love one another. Through his actions Jesus shows us how these commandments should be carried out – by washing feet - the lowliest of tasks performed only by gentile slaves,  and by being crucified – by giving his life to God..

Jesus intentionally and indiscriminately loved us, and he intentionally and passionately journeyed to a place in which he knew he would sacrifice his life for his God. Filled with God’s passion for the Kingdom of God, Jesus offered himself up as a gift to God. His love flowed outward.

It is quite easy on this emotional evening for us to end with tears and silence, exiting into the dark evening, painfully anticipating Jesus’ torture, his suffering, and his death. We experience a dreadful emptiness – Jesus is no longer with us.

It is also quite easy to sooth ourselves by remembering that Easter is only a matter of hours away. Jesus will return. He will be raised from the dead in all his glory; he will become Christ our Savior.

That’s the easy way to experience this painful evening - the easy way out.

But, I would like to ask you to think about and to experience this evening in a different way. I would like to ask you to experience this evening in the context of our society here in Nevada in the year 2012, and in the context of Bishop Saul’s observation that “the cross calls us to die to those trappings of our old establishment life, and that means turning our attention single-mindedly to God's mission and our participation in it, which means that we are going to have to restructure and reform ourselves accordingly… The numbers call us to strengthen our commitment to turn outward.""

These are simple words that convey extremely complex concepts – “die to the trappings of our old establishment life; restructure and reform ourselves accordingly; strengthen our commitment to turn outward.”

What do these words mean, in general? What do they mean for us here at Grace? Can we, like the Internet entrepreneurs, turn our numbers around by going into the community and witnessing God’s love through thought, word, and deed? Can we attract crowds by providing healing through acts of mercy and social justice just as Jesus did as he journeyed from Galilee to Jerusalem? Can we renew and reinvigorate God’s community in the world? If so…HOW?

Tonight as we exit Grace in the Desert and return home to good food, comfortable beds, and, yes - the Internet, will we be mourning the loss of Jesus, or will we be racking our brains in an effort to figure out what our cross looks like?

Are we satisfied to keep Christ alive only for ourselves here at Grace – is that what it means for us to “take up our cross” and follow him in 2012? Or, do we feel a sense of urgency to reverse those foreboding statistics – 16% decline in Episcopal Church attendance?

To follow Jesus is not to mourn his suffering and death this evening; but rather it is, with singleness of heart and courage, to take up his challenge of servanthood and love, and to offer ourselves to the cross with a passionate love of God, and as disciples of Christ, now and for eve.

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