Monday, April 19, 2010

Lost in the Shuffle

Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. (Luke 2.44)

Caught Up in the Drama

The 90’s BBC hit “Absolutely Fabulous” is an outrageous sitcom about two women, Edina, a rich divorcée, and her best friend, Patsy, a supermodel past her prime. They’re joined at the hip by wantonly immature preoccupations—to the constant horror of Edina’s prim daughter, Saffron. In one episode, a video the women plan to show at a swingers’ party gets swapped with a tape Saffie intends to use in a school presentation. When they determine Saffie grabbed the wrong video (patently “unsuitable for young or sensitive viewers”), Eddie, Patsy, and their guests make a mad dash for the school. The group splits up, hoping to retrieve the tape in time. Along the way, a gay couple—one of them in full drag—glides by. “What are we looking for?” one asks, to which the other replies, “I don’t know. We’re just caught up in the drama!”

For reasons I can’t fathom, that goofy episode pops up when I read Luke's story of Jesus, age 12, being inadvertently left behind when His parents return home from Jerusalem after Passover. It takes a day for them to discover He’s not traveling in their caravan, and three more to locate Him. They find Him at the Temple, astounding the teachers with His insights. I assure you I find nothing at all funny about a lost child. Nor am I suggesting Mary and Joseph are irresponsible, oblivious parents. Yet I can’t help imagining the search for Jesus evolves into a chaotic situation not unlike the “AbFab” scenario. It must include people we don't hear about—family and friends, surely, as well as strangers who get caught up in the drama with no idea Whom they’re looking for. And since I’ve already made a wild leap by connecting Luke with a bawdy TV show, I’m going take a second leap based on experience and observation. Many strangers join the search for the same reason they make the Passover pilgrimage: to get lost in the shuffle.

Mistaking Invisibility for Inclusion

The Jerusalem Temple at Passover is the New Testament equivalent to today’s cathedrals and megachurches. It’s a place to be seen without being recognized, where all that’s known about you is what you reveal. For many, Passover in Jerusalem is the one tendril tying them to their faith. In villages where they’re well known, some are banned from synagogue and others stay away for fear they will be banned. The Passover Temple is a haven for anonymous worshipers. Getting lost in the shuffle gives them a sense of belonging they can’t find at home.

But there’s a problem—a big problem—in mistaking invisibility for inclusion. The same dogma and restrictions governing local synagogues also apply to Temple rites. Temple rulers and lawyers directly influence hometown rabbinical councils. Furthermore, since the overwhelming majority packed into the Temple come from provincial congregations, it’s foolish to believe they’re more apt to embrace you here than in smaller confines. Neither congregational size nor apparent sophistication is a reliable gauge of open-mindedness. The test for inclusiveness passes or fails in the preaching and practices. If they don’t passionately lead their people to find and reflect God’s unconditional love revealed in Christ, all anonymity offers is a chance to disappear. It changes nothing—not you, not them, not the dogma that divides and harms you and them.

A Place to Be Found

When Mary and Joseph track Jesus down, He’s confused by their anxiety and why it took so long to find Him. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” He asks. (Luke 2.49) If we fault Luke for anything here, it’s for not including a sample of Jesus’s dialogue with Temple leaders. He settles for: “After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (v46-47) Based on all Jesus says and does as an adult, however, it’s probable He’s already questioning the climate of rejection that emanates from the Temple and seeps into every area of Israel’s life. It’s also possible His uncanny ability to divine the inner turmoil of those He helps is starting to surface. If so, young Jesus spends the Passover looking into eyes of people hoping to get lost in the shuffle. And if there’s any merit to this, it significantly alters His response to His parents from “Didn’t you know where to find Me?” to “Don’t you know My Father’s house is where you go to be found?”

Later on, Luke recounts an incident with a little man who gets caught up in the drama and tries to get lost in the shuffle. This occasion has nothing to do with Jerusalem or Passover. It happens in Jericho, the home of Zacchaeus, a tax collector whose profession qualifies him as a “sinner”—an excommunicated Jew. When Jesus comes to town, Zacchaeus shimmies up a tree, ostensibly to see what’s going on. Jesus finds him, calls him down, and invites Himself to Zacchaeus’s house. It appalls the townspeople that Jesus would enter the home of someone legally barred from their synagogue. Yet the moment He steps into the house, it and its owner are transformed into everything the synagogue and locals are not. Once Zacchaeus experiences Christ’s acceptance, he has nothing to hide. He gives half of his wealth to the poor and offers to repay anyone he’s cheated four times over. Jesus declares, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19.9-10)

What’s extraordinary about this story is it’s not extraordinary at all. Over and over, Jesus seeks out people who feel compelled to get lost in the shuffle. He turns houses into temples and outcasts into insiders. He finds them so they know they’re worth finding. He ends their drama so they know it’s not worth getting caught up in. Size and sophistication of the crowd are irrelevant. He defies a religious posse set on stoning an adulterous woman by banishing her shame. He heals seven lepers and instructs them to show themselves to priests who barred them from worship. When an ostracized woman brushes His garment, Jesus calls her out and corrects the menstrual problem that prohibited her temple access for 12 years. Trying to find Jesus by getting lost gets everything backwards. First, Jesus isn’t hard to locate. He’s readily seen through every door that’s open to His Father’s unconditional love. Second, He came to find us so we won’t be lost. There’s no such thing as Christians Anonymous, because there’s no reason any authentic believer—gay or straight—should ever need to hide.

It’s easy to get lost in overcrowded cathedrals and megachurches. Yet that’s not what any church is meant for; our Father’s House is where we go to be found.


Fran said...

Wow- this is such a GREAT post!!

I don't know where to begin and time does not leave me the option to say all that I want to.

You say some really important things here and I am thinking about a Dorothy Day video that I saw earlier this morning. She speaks about small groups that bubble up rather than what comes from hierarchal structures. (Her comments could actually be co-opted by and claimed by the Libertarians and it is a Catholic libertarian who pointed the video out to me... that is another story for another day!)

In any case, I love that you bring my friend Zaccheus to the party too. One of my favorites as Jesus implores Z to get out of the tree - Jesus MUST dine with him. I love that.

In my imagination, I always see Danny DeVito playing Zaccheus in the film version!

Now I wish I could say more about the postmodern condition and faith but I am out of time!

Blessings and prayers to you my beloved friend!

grant said...

I love this concept - (our Father’s House is where we go to be found). Thanks

Tim said...

Thanks, Fran. I was a little concerned about the piece being misread as "anti-big church" which it's not. But I think it's important for us to realize some of the pitfalls in the larger sized congregations. Re de Vito--absolutely, but if I had my way, I'd bring back Cagney and shoot the film in glorious Technicolor!

Grant, as I wrote this, that leapt out at me as well. It's something that we all should be more cognizant of, whether or not we're "hiding out" in church. We all need to be found at every step of our faith journey.

Thank you both--it's always a great joy to hear from you!


claire said...

As I read your last paragraph where you describes Jesus turning houses into temples and outcasts into outsiders, I fell close to tears because this is what I would like the Catholic Church to be.

Of course, if it cannot, it is up to each one of us to do this to those we meet -- from whatever denomination we may be. This is part of our call, isn't it?

Blessings, Tim.

Tim said...

Claire, I'm fairly convinced turning houses into temples and outcasts into insiders is a task that will fall to each of us. The challenge we humans have with any group is deciding who's in and who's out. If everyone can get in, then our group won't be "special" and the "good people" won't show up!

Of course, how focused on this each group/church is varies. Bbut since I've already run amok in conjecture here, I guess the institutions that stress compliance to moral codes, the RCC, as well the Fundamentalists, have the toughest time with inclusion and empowerment. There's that nasty control issue, you know.

So it is up to us. We are the Church, after all. And it is/will be we who enter the houses and meet the outcasts. What a blessing to have this gift and responsibility!

Blessings always,

Sherry Peyton said...

Tim how ironic that you would point me to this post, which I scanned but didn't have time to read the other day. I was just having a talk with my priest earlier this week, and she told me not to feel "not good enough" to be there because I couldn't do all the ministry work I wished due to my location. I sometimes yearned for the anonymity of a large city church where I could just come in, worship and leave unannounced. It is important to be part of a family as it were. It is the way we learn to minister. Thanks for drawing me back to read this thoroughly. Indeed we find ourselves in our congregations as long as we remember they are to be treated as family.

Tim said...

You're exactly right, Sherry. Belonging to a church family is how we learn to minister. The personal interactions make the difference between a hermetically sealed faith we observe and an organic one we live. And I think it's especially vital for anyone who's ever felt excluded from a faith community, whether on purpose or by passive disregard. Then, in cases like yours, where we're geographically removed from daily personal contact with fellow believers, it's just as essential we have a "home base" where we can find ourselves!

Thank for this. It gives me joy to know it helped!

Blessings always,

Edgington said...

Is this a picture of a mega-church? I can't even imagine this, especially when my greatest communion with God is sitting quietly by the ocean or in the timber alone.
Thanks again for your insightful comments Tim.
Hello to Walt. Mariah/Byron

Tim said...

Yes, Mariah and Byron, it's really a church, though I don't want to mention any by name here. And you're spot-on. What's also lost in this shuffle is the opportunity for quiet introspection and communion. While I've worshipped in huge environments where God's Spirit was most assuredly felt, I've also experienced the other end of the spectrum, where the sacred has been sacrificed for crowd-pleasing entertainment and motivational speaking rather than the power of the Word.

Blessings to both of you--and thanks for your comment. It adds much to this topic.