Sunday, March 21, 2010

Mary's Story

I hope you'll forgive a little flight of fancy this week. I'm taking a lot of artistic license with this sermon, trying to be inside Mary's head as she pours the perfume on Jesus' feet and dries them with her hair.

Yes, I could have talked about the meaning of this and the significance of that. Others have done so, and better than i could ever hope to. What strikes me about this passage is the absolute abandon with which Mary worships Jesus.

Please offer comments and constructive criticism. Even if your name is Ken Silva, such comments are welcome.

(Thanks MissBossyPants for the help!)

Isaiah 43:16-21

Thus says the LORD,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

This is the Word of the Lord.

What a strange sight it must have been, even after so many days, seeing him lying there on that couch, eating with his friend Jesus. Laughing, conversing, listening, engaging the other disciples in discussion... you know, just being Lazarus, same as he had always been Lazarus. Look at him, telling that same old joke he always tells about the peddler and the housewife, laughing at the punchline as if he'd never heard it before!

Everyone else always laughs, not because the joke is still funny, but because you can't be around Lazarus and not laugh, not enjoy life just a little bit more.

Mary stood in the corner, ostensibly to be close at hand in case one of the dinner guests needed anything... but in reality someone could have shattered dinnerware at her feet and she wouldn't have flinched. Martha, busily serving the dinner, no longer minded. Truth be told, she would rather have dropped everything and spent all her time clinging to her brother Lazarus, just to experience him being here, just to remind herself that it was real.

Lazarus, their brother, had been dead. Not “dead” as in “spiritually lost,” like the Prodigal Son, no. Really, permanently dead.

The three of them, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, they had known for awhile who Jesus was, and why he had come. When Lazarus fell ill, the first thing they did was send for Jesus, to ask him to come and heal his friend. Days passed, and no Jesus. Then, no more Lazarus. Just like that, the anchor that kept Martha from working herself into the ground and Mary from flitting off like a butterfly, gone. Entombed. Dead.

For four days Mary and Martha had moved around their house like ghosts, like zombies, doing what had to be done, but feeling nothing. At some point, through the fog, Martha told Mary that Jesus was here, and was asking for her. Mary remembered weeping at his feet. She remembered Jesus' tears.

She remembered the stone being rolled away, and everyone recoiling at what they expected to smell.

She remembered Jesus saying the silliest thing she'd ever heard, yelling at an open tomb, “Lazarus, come out!” and the impossible, the unbelievable, the overwhelming joy of Lazarus doing just that!

She knew what that had cost Jesus. It lay there, like a rock in the pit of her stomach, the knowledge that, even now, the Temple leaders were plotting his death. Such a display of authority, such a demonstration that even death could not defeat the Christ – and rather than fall at his feet, as she had, rather than hailing him as God's anointed, their lust for power and dedication to their own greed and grandeur had driven them to a thirst for blood. And now Jesus was less than two miles from their power base, Jerusalem. She had heard some of the men talking, had heard Lazarus making sure that Jesus knew what it meant, this trip to Jerusalem.
He was signing his death warrant, walking right into the jaws of the beast.

Of course he knew. Everyone knew what it meant. Jesus had known what it would mean when he had the stone rolled away, but he did it anyway. And because of Jesus, she had Lazarus back.

How do you say “thank you” for something like that? Oh, she had said the words, over and over so many times. But she owed him more than thanks. She owed him everything.

It was almost as if she were watching someone else do it. She walked to her room, where she had kept, hidden away, that jar of spikenard. She had bought it a few weeks back, to pour on Lazarus' body, but the tomb had been sealed too quickly.

She wouldn't be too slow this time.

Made from an extract of the roots of a plant which grew only in the Himalayas, spikenard was stunningly expensive – the jar held enough to pay a years' wages to a common laborer. Thousands of dollars, but Mary didn't hesitate. Money meant nothing, dignity meant nothing, propriety meant nothing, not in the face of the gift that Jesus had given her.

As she entered the dining room, she did something that women never did in public: she let down her hair. Kneeling by the couch where Jesus reclined, she broke open the jar and poured the contents on his feet, and wiped them dry with her hair.

The weight of the shocked silence pressed in on her. No one understood what she was doing, no one understood the depth of her gratitude, the compulsion to worship at the feet of the One she knew – she knew – to be the Messiah.

The fragrance of the spikenard filled every corner of the house, thick enough to cut, as she looked into his eyes – a bold move, but there was nothing left of propriety now, was there? – someone was protesting, and loudly. One of the Apostles. It didn't matter, she could see that Jesus understood.

Less than two miles – that's all that's left between Jesus and the night where he will wash the feet of his disciples – all of his disciples – even the feet of Judas. Less than two miles separate Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane. Less than two miles from the trial, the torture, the scourge, the crown of thorns, the cross. Less than two miles from the cold, dark, silent, airless tomb.

What should our faith cost us?

What did faith cost Mary?

Mary probably didn't understand what Jesus' death would mean for humanity. She didn't understand any of the six or more doctrines of atonement, didn't understand the weight of sin that Jesus would bear on that cross, probably had no concept, even with Lazarus sitting right there across the table, that Jesus would conquer death once, for all. She didn't know that the redeeming work of this man, whose feet she knelt at, would permeate every nook and cranny, every time and place of creation like the perfume that still hung in the air of that house. All she knew is that no amount of money, no level of dignity, no expectation of social propriety was as important as this man, this teacher, this Lord, this Messiah.

The theology, the doctrine, the nuances meant nothing. Mary had seen what salvation looks like. She had seen salvation as it walked into the sunlight from the open tomb door. She had seen the face of salvation when she loosed the rag over Lazarus' eyes.

Our time? Our treasures? Our dignity? Our social standing? Does any of this really matter in the face of the Cross?

What should our faith cost us?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Extravagant, Overwhelming, Breathtaking... and Unexpected God

If I ever meet Barbara Brown Taylor, I owe her, at the very least, lunch. Yes, I thank her in the sermon text, but I what I don't say is that her sermons gave me some direction last week, and changed my entire sermon path this week, and in a very good way, I think.

As always, comments, criticism, and the like are deeply appreciated.

Joshua 5:9-12

The LORD said to Joshua, "Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.
While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So he told them this parable:
"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe-the best one-and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"

This is the Word of the Lord.

Many thanks this morning to the writing of Barbara Brown Taylor for help in building this sermon.

Our God is a God of the unexpected. An extravagant, overwhelming, breathtaking God!

Now, this isn't so easy to see in our Gospel reading this morning; after all, the parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the best-known, most-preached parables in the Gospels. We approach it as a parable about repentance, most of the time, because to our 21st-century Western minds, that's the obvious message: no matter how bad we mess things up, if we repent, God is faithful –eager, even – to take us back, to restore us to fellowship with God.

There's nothing wrong with that view, of course; yet as you might expect, there's more to this parable than meets the eye.

Remember that when Jesus told this parable, he was speaking not to 21st-century American urban and suburban Protestants, but to first-century Middle Eastern Jews. Most of those listening to Jesus were farmers who worked and lived on land that had been in their family for generations untold. In their society, one didn't grow up and move away, one didn't strive to make it alone, to be self-sufficient, independent, autonomous. Each generation took the place of the one before it on the land, raising the next generation to do the same after. Your livelihood, your status in the community, your identity, all of this came from the soil.

So for a son to refuse to fulfill his duty to the family was reprehensible. Horrible! And it gets worse! The patriarch of the family, the father, held a place of honor in society. Patriarchs didn't run. Patriarchs didn't get up from the table when a guest arrived. Patriarchs did not plead with their sons, they told their sons what to do, period. Add to that the fact that a son would never, ever receive his inheritance while the father was still alive! The rabbis had a saying: “three cry out and are not answered: he who has money and lends it without witnesses; he who acquires a master; he who transfers his property to his children in his lifetime.”

What's more, dividing the inheritance meant more than just writing his son a check. The father had to divide the land, then watch as his son put that land up for sale – there was no way the community could not see the shame, both of the disrespectful son and the father who could not control his children. I mean, honestly! What is a bag of gold when you have land? Who ever heard of such a thing?

And of course the son throws his money away, losing it all to Gentiles, no less, and of course he is reduced to wallowing in the mire with pigs. And up to now, the people listening to Jesus are right there with him. Nothing at all out of the ordinary with this scenario, happens all to often. So often, in fact, that the Talmud describes a ceremony to deal with it—a qetsatsah ceremony, to punish a Jewish boy who loses the family inheritance to Gentiles.

Here’s how it works. If he ever shows up in his village again, then the villagers can fill a large earthenware jug with burned nuts and corn, break it in front of the prodigal, and shout his name out loud, pronouncing him cut off from his people. After that, he will be a cosmic orphan, who might as well go back and live with the pigs.

Perhaps some of the people who have been around Jesus for awhile hear the Prodigal's words, “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands,'” and thought that making the son a hired servant would be a very compassionate, loving thing to do. Certainly better than qetsatsah, and perhaps the son could work enough to buy back a little of the land he'd lost. Perhaps, in time, if the son is faithful in his service to the father, he can earn a place at the foot of the table. Surely this is the message of the parable! That even when we sin and dishonor God, we have the opportunity to work our way back into God's good graces. What a message of freedom, what a message of hope!

But they ain't heard nothin' yet!

Our God is a God of the unexpected. God is extravagant in mercy, overwhelming in love, breathtaking in compassion. The son returns, and before he can approach the house his father does that thing that patriarchs do not ever do! He runs! Runs! Crashes into his son with a warm embrace, and before his son can get out his well-rehearsed speech, his father has covered his rags with a robe, has put a ring on his finger, has killed the fatted calf!

I've said it before, I'll say it again: preposterous! What kind of patriarch – what kind of father – what kind of God – would do such a thing? Ignore propriety, thumb his nose at tradition, flout the rules? You don't just forgive, man! There are procedures for this kind of thing! There are expectations! What will the neighbors think?

Propriety? Tradition? Expectations? God is extravagant in mercy, overwhelming in love, breathtaking in compassion. There are more important things than rules, than what the neighbors will think!

Not many more days now, and Jesus will top that last hill overlooking Jerusalem. He may look like he's walking, but no. If we are the Prodigal in this story, then he is the father, and he is running – to the Cross? Yes. Because in the mind of our extravagant, overwhelming, breathtaking God, what is important is not what we have done to hurt the relationship – how many times we've sold our inheritance, wallowed in the slop, and come dragging back up the road. What is important is reunion –reconciliation – healing the relationship between ourselves and our God.

All during the season of Lent, I've been asking questions about our faith: should it cost us something, and if so, what? And here, while the party is going full blast inside, stands the other son. He is angry, and isn't afraid to let his father know all about it! “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”

And you know, when it comes right down to it, he's right! It isn't fair, is it? It isn't right, is it? We can take the high road, and deplore the faithful son for refusing to take part in his father's joy, but can we – must we – not also admit that we understand – even agree with – his point?

Maybe that's part of what faith should cost us, though – the right to be “right.” The right to be angry at who the father wraps in his embrace, insulted at who gets to wear the ring and the robe, indignant over who gets the fatted calf.

And isn't it interesting that the father doesn't just let the indignant son stew in his own juices, doesn't ignore the problem because he's too busy having a party? The father doesn't react in anger to being chewed out by his son, or love him any less for it! “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Faith costs us something. Peace and reconciliation always involves change, always provokes a crisis. You can’t have peace and stay exactly who you are, or even who you want to be. Sometimes you have sacrifice things as real as land that has been in the family forever. Sometimes you have to sacrifice honor, rightness, and even self-respect. Sometimes you have to run like crazy to protect your loved ones, even those loved ones who have done you irreparable harm. It’s all a matter of priorities, and for this father, reunion is all that matters. Extravagant, overwhelming, breathtaking reconciliation. Reunion that finds the lost and brings them home. Reconciliation that brings the dead back to life.

Oh, yes, it feels good to stand in the yard. It feels good to know who’s right, who’s wrong, and which one you are. But there is a banquet going on. You can hear the music and the dancing even out in the yard, and there is plenty left to eat.

Faith costs us something. We can go to the party as we are, as long as we don’t insist on staying that way. Our God is a God of the unexpected. God is extravagant in mercy, overwhelming in love, breathtaking in compassion. God's banquet doors are flung open wide, the table is spread and the chairs pulled out for anyone who will come.

So... you gonna stay out here all night, or are you coming in?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Sermon (I never thought I'd) Preach

This is the text of the sermon I shared on Pastor Nar's "Losing My Religion" podcast. I welcome constructive criticism and dialogue.

Mark 1:40-45
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean."

Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Back in the mid-1980’s, I worked at a local television station as a studio manager and camera operator. One of the shows we did was a daily talk show, with tons of guests, comedians, musicians… I got to meet folks like Rita Mareno, Fannie Flagg, James Gregory, Sinbad, even Harlan Ellison – which for a science fiction nut is a really big deal.

One morning, though, we got news that one of the guests was a nurse who worked directly with AIDS patients.

Now, you may remember that back in the mid-‘80’s we didn’t have a lot of information about AIDS and HIV. I can’t speak for the scientific or medical communities, but we in the general public weren’t too sure of how easy it was, or how many ways there were, to “catch” AIDS. It sounds kind of stupid now, but we were afraid to one degree or another of salad bars, toilet seats, door handles… and when we found out this person was coming to the studio, some of us got nervous. One of our jobs, you see, was to put a lavaliere microphone on the guest, which meant, by design, close contact – touching. This person was surrounded by AIDS every day… what if we could “catch” AIDS by miking her?

You have no idea how much I wish I could stand here and say that I was the heroic one who stepped up and told the others how ridiculous they were… I mean, honestly. Touching someone gives you AIDS? Please. I wish I could tell you that I boldly went and miked the guest and got on with my day.

No… the heroic one was a tiny little blonde with big 80’s glasses and hair. She heard what we were talking about and just blew up! I don’t think I have been as effectively ripped to shreds before or since.
The nicest thing she said to us was, “You guys are idiots! Never mind – I’ll put the mike on her!” And as she walked off she was muttering, “Stupid, stupid, stupid…”

The guest got miked, the show went on, and of course no one got sick. I honestly hate to tell that story, because it does nothing to improve either my self-image or my dignity before others. It is not at all an example of being Christ-like, and what is worse; it isn’t even the worst example from my life of being un-Christ-like. But whenever the Gospel discussion of leprosy comes up, this is what comes to mind.

Our Gospel reading paints the picture of Jesus traveling all around Galilee, preaching and casting out demons. Somewhere on the road, or in some town, a bell dingles, and a voice cries out “unclean!”

The people surrounding Jesus recoil in horror at this stinking, walking pile of dirty rags and festering sores. You can almost hear the voices hissing in revulsion, “leper!”

This leper then did something that was strictly forbidden by the Law – he approached Jesus. He got close. He fell to his knees in the Galilean dirt and said something astounding: “If you choose to, you can make me clean.” What an interesting phrase – “you can make me clean,” not “you can heal me.”
What he was asking for was healing, yes, but in fact he was asking for so much more.

Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, still exists today. According to the World Health Organization, over 212,000 cases exist worldwide, though those numbers are dropping.
The disease is not very contagious, is quite curable with multiple-drug therapy, and while no one is sure what exactly causes Hansen’s, experts agree across the board that it is unnecessary to ostracize the infected person. Even so, leper colonies still exist in countries like India, Japan, Egypt, Nepal, Somalia, South Korea, Vietnam… and the United States.

Saying all of that gives us some modern perspective, it’s true, but it kind of talks around what was going on in the Gospel reading today. Isn’t it interesting that Mark doesn’t call him a man, or a person, or give him a name; he is identified only by his disease, a “leper.” This removal of humanity from a human being is, to say the least, instructive.

For the Jews in Jesus’ day, the discussion of leprosy began with the book of Leviticus, the thirteenth and fourteenth chapters. In the thirteenth chapter you’ll find a very detailed discussion about identifying leprosy. You’ll also see the words “clean” and “unclean” used a lot.

You see, the word that has been translated as “leprosy” is “Tzaraath,” and it’s a very generic term that is applied to humans, clothing, and houses. It got translated as “leprosy” about 250 years before Christ when the Hebrew Bible was translated from Hebrew to Greek.

“Tzaraath” comes from the Hebrew word for “smiting,” because – and this is important – in the Jewish understanding of the day, the skin diseases and, well, mildew described in Leviticus were thought to be punishment for sin.

Thus a person was not “diseased” or “healthy,” they were either “clean” – meaning acceptable to take part in the community and its worship activities – or “unclean” – meaning unacceptable to the community, untouchable, dirty, sinful, and ostracized from that community and prohibited from worship. These people were required by the Law to mess up their hair, wear rags, and live away from friends, family, and prohibited from taking part in the worship of God. As the children of Israel inhabited the Promised Land, and city populations grew, these people were required to ring bells and cry out “unclean, unclean” wherever they went. They could not be touched, could not come into close contact of any kind with any other – “clean” – human being, until they died, or until they were somehow cured.

I have to confess to you that I really, really have a problem with this. I know, yes, it’s in Leviticus, for the most part, and yes, Leviticus is part of the Scriptures, and yes, the Scriptures are the written word of God.

And I guess I should understand, because I remember full well the terror over the AIDS epidemic, and not knowing if you could catch the disease from mosquito bites or being sneezed on.

Yet it still turns my stomach to think of someone being denied their family, their life, their livelihood, and their hope because of something that might well have been a nasty case of psoriasis, we don’t know, and in any case it wasn’t at all about the lepers being sick – it was about the lepers being the walking, talking, embodiment of sin. Keep them away lest their sin infect you through their speech or through their actions or through the very air. Don’t touch them lest the sin rub off on you. They are no longer humans, they are lepers, and their very existence is an abomination!

“If you choose to, you can remove this sin from me. You can let me go home to my family. You can let me work for a living again. You can let me go to the Temple and sing Psalms again.”

There’s something fascinating about what happens next. You see, many ancient manuscripts say what our reading this morning says, that Jesus was “moved with pity.” However, there are a lot of ancient manuscripts that use a very different word, a much more uncomfortable, challenging word: they say that Jesus was not moved to pity, but moved to anger.

Jesus saw this disheveled man, reduced to wearing rags and bells, utterly cut off from all human contact, hated, loathed, and feared by everyone, robbed of his humanity, reduced to groveling in the dirt, and begging not for healing but for forgiveness… and it made Jesus mad!

I wonder – why anger? Of all the emotions one might feel when confronted by this stinking, diseased mass of humanity, groveling in the dirt – revulsion, disdain, compassion, horror, perhaps love – anger? Why was Jesus angry… and with whom was Jesus angry?

The possibilities are intriguing. Could Jesus have been angry at the way a simple set of instructions, meant to keep a nomadic people safe from disease on a long sojourn, had been corrupted and maligned in order to make scapegoats of people who may well have suffered from Hansen's or any variety of skin conditions? Power loves to scapegoat, after all, even when that power is a king of Israel or Judah, or a group of powerful priests. Even a cursory glance at history will prove that when a regime wants to bolster its power, it finds someone to focus their people's hatred upon – Jews or the Irish or African-Americans or Asian-Americans or Muslims or gay and trangendered people...

I wonder if Jesus was angry about how things were about to change for him? After all, up to this point he had enjoyed a moderate fame, enough to garner a group of listeners whenever he came into town and spoke, but not so many as to impede his progress or put him in danger of being pulled off-message. Could it be that the leper presented Jesus with a choice – respect the status quo, keep the oppressed in their place, stay in a comfort zone and do just enough to get by with fulfilling his calling, or break through the barriers, rip wide the curtain, and open the floodgates of healing and hope for all humankind. Respond to the leper's plea, and nothing will ever be the same.

The narrow streets of the towns and cities won't hold the crowds straining to see, hear, and touch this healer-prophet, he'll have to spend all his time out in the countryside; people will be more and more interested in seeing a miracle than in hearing the healing words of the Kingdom of God; those in power will become more and more interested in, and threatened by, this itinerant Rabbi from Judean flyover country, and events will be set in motion which will culminate with a cross.

I don't know why Jesus got angry, but I know that his anger produced an astonishing response.

Well, “astonishing” is probably the wrong word. More like “shocking.” He did something which was horrifying, unthinkable, repulsive to everyone around him.

This kneeling leper said, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”

And Jesus did the one thing that a person in first-century Palestine must never, ever do, no ifs, ands, or buts, no discussion groups about the pros and cons, no opposing views on a split-screen on CNN, no questions, just do not do this ever: Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him!

“I do choose. Be made clean!”

He knew what would happen to his ministry, he knew that this one touch would end with the scourge and the cross, he knew this!

He touched anyway.

I wonder if we who are in the institutional Church have ever really read this passage of Scripture?

Now, please understand that I am a card-carrying member of the mainline Protestant Church, the fully organized and institutionalized and westernized and homogenized and sanitized-for-your-protection middle-class North American Church.

I have been a member of evangelical, Fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and mainline churches, and have taken part in worship with Catholics and Episcopalians of both traditional and charismatic stripes. I have been to faith healings, baptisms of varying degrees of wetness, tent revivals, prayer vigils, and meetings too numerous to count. I am in the club. I know the password and the secret handshake.

And I am here to tell you that somewhere along the way, while we were debating theology and doctrine, arguing and fighting and suing and splitting up over the nature of Christ and the meaning of the Eucharist and the importance of baptism and the rightness of slavery and of segregation and of excluding women from ordination, while we were whoring ourselves out to this political cause or that candidate, we lost our way. We forgot who we are and Whose we are, and it may well be too late to fix it, I don't know.

I know, I know, I'm coming in too hot on this, but hear me out. I am an utter and unrepentant theology and church history geek. Ask me about Reformed Theology or about the Council of Nicea and I can bore you to death for hours talking about it with gusto and passion. Historically speaking, the institutional church is the best possible vehicle to determine orthodoxy, direct orthopraxy, provide structure and accountability and offer support for local church bodies.

Yet when theology and doctrine becomes not a stepping-stone to a closer relationship with out Savior, but a checklist to determine who is in and who is out, when theology and doctrine becomes not a beacon of hope to the lost and marginalized but a bludgeon to all who dare disagree with our obviously perfected understanding of all things God, when we have divorced our first love in favor of a nice, safe, predictable set of mental assertions and codes of conduct, we have become little more than one of the hundreds of pagan temples dotting the first-century Roman empire, where one's outer performance was everything and one's inner spiritual state was irrelevant.

We no longer reach out to touch, because we know who is clean and unclean. Touch this one and you might get AIDS, or that one and you might catch the gay. Our youth groups are more concerned with making sure the students we have are well-behaved and properly entertained than in reaching out to the freaks and geeks and the malcontents and ne'er-do-wells. Our pastors are more concerned with making sure the stewardship campaign and the building program is healthy and the PowerPoint is working and the Praise Team is on cue than in shining the light of Christ into the city's darkest corners. As long as our numbers are good, as long as our Christian Clubs on the high school campus are well-attended, as long as the paychecks cash and our people say all the right things and vote the right way and write their congressman when we tell them to, we are all good. No reason to reach out to the leper. We don't need the leper.

Oh, we talk a good game, we do. Every now and again, one of us preacher types will pop up and wish aloud that we could be like the first-century Church. I admit that I always laugh at that, because when we say that we generally want to pick and choose the ways in which our modern, westernized church should imitate the earliest believers. Do you really, really want to be like the first-century church? Do you, pastor, want to give up your salary and your staff and your buildings and your support structure? Do you want to meet in secret in people's homes, do you want to have to sneak around and be in constant fear of getting caught? Do you really want to be in danger of being imprisoned, of being tortured in ever-more-imaginative and horrifying ways, of seeing your family slowly and carefully killed before your eyes?

Well, of course not, but I must admit that there are elements of the first-century church that we could very well embrace, which very well might save the institutional church from obsolescence, if there is still time.

See, the thing about the first-century church is, once the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples, all bets were off. People were coming to faith in Christ all over the place, in greater and greater numbers, and for these disciples, born and raised in Judaism, they were struggling to deal with the fact that many of those receiving the Holy Spirit were people who had always been excluded – sometimes with solid Scriptural backing – from worshiping Jaweh. There were Samaritans and Gentiles, women, even a eunuch!

No one was left out, no limits were placed on how and when and where and to what degree God's Spirit could move. The Apostles may well have looked at one another and said the same thing that Adam said to Eve: “Stand back, honey, I don't know how big this thing's gonna get!”

All of this was happening not because their doctrine was precise or their theology flawless – quite the opposite, in fact. As the letters and Gospel accounts were being written – the books that would, several hundred years later, be canonized as New Testament Scripture – what you believed about atonement and the nature of Christ and his deity depended not on your denomination but on which letters and Gospels your section of the world had access to. The test of faith was not mental assent to a set of core beliefs, but a dangerous declaration which, when uttered, placed you in direct opposition to the mores of the society you inhabited, and in immediate conflict with the governmental authorities. That declaration was simply “Jesus is Lord.”

Yet even not knowing where the road was leading, except to certain persecution and conflict and torture and death, the church reached out, grew, thrived. Despite the dangers, they touched anyway.

Look, I know that we in twenty-first century Western Christianity have our lepers, our groups and people and thought patterns and belief systems which are repugnant, frightening, off limits, despicable – things that strike us with the same level of revulsion as the thought of drinking raw sewage. The tendency has always been, when threatened by danger, to circle the wagons, strengthen the things which make us unique, find safety in people who are like us. Yet this has never been what the description of “church” should be. We are the Body of Christ, and as such, we are called, commissioned, depended upon to be like Jesus, our Head. We are called to break through the personal and societal barriers and mores and limitations and expectations and to reach out to the very people and institutions and places and belief systems which threaten us.

We are called to touch anyway.

Reverend Carlton Pearson was a well-known pastor, a protege of Oral Roberts, whose church boasted attendance of over 5,000 people every Sunday.

He had everything a minister could hope for, all the fame and adulation and power and creature comforts, until one day he lost it all. He didn't embezzle money or have an affair, no. But one evening he stopped believing in Hell, which, for an Evangelical, is tantamount to praying to Satan. He lost his church, and his denomination ousted him and labeled him a heretic. No one reached out to him, no one tried to listen or to just be his friend through this journey.

He became a Universalist, which is another matter altogether – one wonders if a more gentle approach from his denomination would have influenced him differently – but he was utterly alone. He took whatever speaking engagements he could, and tried to find his way.

One of the speaking engagements was with a group he would not have been caught dead with before – a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Christians. After he spoke, the woman who had asked him to the conference invited him to go down into the audience, the congregation, and let them minister to him. There were touches, warm embraces, healing words... and then, from the stage, the woman reappeared with a bowl of water. Right there, in that auditorium, she washed Carlton's feet.

The lesson of the story, for me, at least, is this: If we, the Church, are counting on the lepers to touch the lepers, it is already too late. We should stop right now, take the cutesy sayings off the marquee out front, nail the doors shut and paint “Ichabod” across the threshold. We're done.

Or, we can resolve that, whatever the cost to us in membership and prestige and political clout, even if we lose the high-five- and low-six-figure salary, even if the denomination disowns us and people talk bad about us on the radio, we will touch anyway.

Yeah, it'll be dangerous. It'll be dirty. And we don't know how big this thing is gonna get. But if the institutional Church is going to put truth to their claims of caring about the lost and the hungry and the homeless and the naked and the imprisoned and the fatherless and the marginalized and the misunderstood, there is only one choice.

Be like Jesus.

Touch anyway.

The Scapegoat...

Here's the sermon! Please feel free to comment, offer constructive criticism, etc.

Isaiah 55:1-9
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.

See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you
because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.

Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.
Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play." We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

Luke 13:1-9
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"

This is the Word of the Lord.

On the morning of September 15, 1963, a group of children were filing into the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Just outside the basement, 22 sticks of dynamite had been planted on a time-delayed fuse.
At about 11:22 am, that dynamite went off. 22 children and adults were injured, and four children, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Diane Wesley, Carole Rosamond Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins, were killed in the blast.

I learned details about the bombing some years later, of course, since I was not yet two years old at the time, and one of the strangest things I heard was a rumor that circulated in the white community about why those girls died. It was told that these four had sneaked into the bathroom of the church to smoke cigarettes, and that's why the bomb blast killed them! It's breathtaking in its audacity, isn't it? This idea that it wasn't the fault of “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, or Bobby Frank Cherry or Thomas Edwin Blanton, Jr. or possibly a couple of others – the men who designed and built and planted the bomb – it was the fault of the little girls that they died!

I've talked before about well-known preachers who blame natural disasters on the victims – Pat Robertson's comments about the earthquake in Haiti, for example, or John Piper blaming a tornado in Louisville, Kentucky on the gathering of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, where they decided to allow the ordination of practicing homosexuals – but the sad fact is that most, if not all, human beings practice scapegoating in one form or another.

We want the universe to make sense, for the laws of cause and effect to apply to people we don't like or agree with... or sometimes even to ourselves.

Barbara Brown Taylor tells about her days as a hospital chaplain, when she sat with the mother of a little girl undergoing an operation for a brain tumor.

“On the day of the operation, I found her mother sitting under the fluorescent lights in the waiting room beside an ashtray full of cigarette butts. She smelled as if she had puffed every one of them, although she was not smoking when I got there. She was staring at a patch of carpet in front of her, with her eyebrows raised in that half-hypnotized look that warned me to move slowly. I sat down beside her. She came to, and after some small talk she told me just how awful it was. She even told me why it had happened.

“'It’s my punishment,' she said, 'for smoking these... cigarettes. God couldn’t get my attention any other way, so he made my baby sick.' Then she started crying so hard that what she said next came out like a siren: 'Now I’m supposed to stop, but I can’t stop. I’m going to kill my own child!'”

In our Gospel reading this morning, some of the people with Jesus mention the doubly horrifying deaths of some Galilean pilgrims, who were not only slaughtered by Pilate, but whose sacrifices were defiled by their blood. Surely something so horrifying as this was the fault not of the bloodthirsty Roman governor, but the result of some sinfulness on the part of the victims!

And isn't it interesting that Jesus really doesn't engage the question of degrees of sinfulness beyond a single-syllable “no.” He immediately puts the focus of the people's attention not on the errors and shortcomings and perceived evil of others, but where it should be: on themselves. On personal repentance.

Remember that repentance doesn't mean simply asking forgiveness, doesn't mean groveling in the dirt and thinking of yourself as lower than a worm, wearing sackcloth and ashes. Rather, repentance means “to think differently.” A change of mind, a change of the heart.

This Lenten season, I've asked the question, “should faith cost us something?” Part of the answer is that, yes, faith should cost us our preconceptions, our expectations, faith should cost us our comfort level. Faith should cost us the freedom to focus on the shortcomings of others, and should compel us to look at ourselves.

Now, I do not at all believe that our salvation, our faith journey, is works-based: we not only cannot do anything to come into relationship with Christ, without God's grace we lack even the desire to come into relationship with Christ. It isn't just that there is a gap between man's sinfulness and God's holiness that we can't bridge, it's that we just don't care that there's a gap or that there's a God or that God has provided the bridge in Christ Jesus!

That being said, it is incumbent upon us, during Lent and in every other season of the year and of life, to take to heart the reminder Paul offers us in the Epistle reading that, even when recounting the sins of the wandering children of Israel, the lesson is not what they did, but that repeated phrase “we must not. We must not.” We are called upon, in the ongoing practice of repentance, to examine ourselves for the ways in which our thoughts and practices and beliefs and our stuff compromises and impedes a closer relationship with our Creator. Through the guidance and fellowship of the Holy Spirit, we are day by day and moment by moment drawing closer to the One who loves us and died for us. That is the faith journey.

But the question comes up, doesn't it? What about those other people? What about the ones who are living wrong, doing wrong? One of the ways we might understand the parable that our Lectionary concludes the gospel reading with is this: God is not asleep. God doesn't simply ignore or dismiss the things that humankind's innate tendency toward sinfulness produces.

Jesus is, at this very moment in our Gospel narrative, headed to Jerusalem, where he will endure torture and a humiliating death so that God can provide a completed work – can do everything possible to bring sinful humanity into relationship with God. He is tilling the soil with his stripes, and fertilizing the roots with his blood. We share the Truth of the Gospel in word and in deed with everyone around us, regardless of who they are or what they are doing, even if – especially if – it makes us uncomfortable or unpopular, and we trust God to do the rest.

We trust God.