Sunday, March 31, 2013

Resurrection People...

I hope you find the promise of Easter morning to be a renewing and sustaining gift. We are Resurrection people.

John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

This is the Word of the Lord.

This morning, we have been privileged to participate in the sacrament of Baptism. As Presbyterians, we practice what is called Covenant Baptism: the sprinkling of the water is a sign and seal of Xander assuming his identity as a child of God. And certainly, while anyone of any age can be baptized in the Presbyterian Church USA, the baptism of children holds a unique place as a witness to the truth that God's love claims people before they are able to respond in faith.

The Book of Order says that those presenting themselves for baptism “profess their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, renounce evil and affirm their reliance on God’s grace, declare their intention to participate actively and responsibly in the worship and mission of the church,” and so on. Now, although Xander is an exceptionally bright youngster, he may not yet know what words like “profess” and “renounce” and “affirm” and “reliance” and “intention” mean. Thus as part of the baptismal covenant, we his parents, his godparents, grandparents, uncles and aunts and friends and church family have promised to guide and nurture him by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging him to know and follow Christ and to be a faithful member of his church.

We bring him up in the faith, with Christ’s help. We believe for him, until he himself can believe.

And in my mind there is no better time to celebrate this amazing sacrament of baptism, this act of affirming God’s love and acceptance of someone regardless of their ability to respond in faith, than Easter morning. The sacramental act of baptizing anyone, infant, toddler, teenager or adult, only makes sense in the light of the Resurrection, after all. This wonderful youngster gives us the opportunity to do take the question close to the bone, down to its bare minimum: What does it mean to be a Christian – to be a Resurrection person?

We Christians live not only in the shadow of the cross, but in the shadow of the empty tomb. We are all Resurrection people, we live in the Resurrection, and we've had two thousand years to contemplate, postulate, investigate, argue over, codify, verify, testify, solidify, sanctify, theologize, homogenize, and package for public consumption this idea of a risen Savior. We Resurrection people have developed our own language of multisyllabic words and a thesaurus full of ways to explain how and why and for whom Christ arose.

The danger in all of that, of course, is that it becomes perhaps far too easy for this idea of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ to be just that – an idea, a concept, a point of doctrine that we must mentally and verbally assent to in order to be allowed to take part in church. And yes, it has been necessary over the centuries to take the journey through understanding and verbalizing what it means to say “Christ arose,” and “Jesus is Lord,” to explain the whys and the hows, what we are blessed with on this particular Easter morning is an opportunity to peel away the layers, to look anew at this empty tomb, this central, astounding act of God's grace.

What does it mean to be a Resurrection person?

Mary woke from a fitful, accidental sleep, there in the corner of the room, the other women sitting around her. It's Sunday. Of course, if you're Jewish, like Mary Magdalene and everyone in the room, it's been Sunday since sunset, and they've all been cooped up in this room since Friday just before sundown. The tables are still set up from the Passover Seder, the couches still in place... Mary tries to keep from looking at that one couch, at the head of the table, but her eyes keep going back to it. That empty couch, the one He had reclined in during the meal. No one had sat there all weekend, of course, even if it meant sitting on the floor. No one dared to. She could see them all glance toward that couch from time to time, then look away quickly, ashamedly, knowing that the Master would never lay there again.

Some of them had been nearby when they laid him in the tomb. Mary and the other women had been very close, of course; it was the womenfolk's job to prepare the body for burial, though with sunset and the Sabbath fast approaching, there was precious little they could do. The stone had been rolled in place, and a wax seal had been placed across it with the Roman governor's seal. Guards were there to prevent anyone from stealing the body – Mary scoffed, thinking about it: steal the body? Who? These men, this band of cowards, jumping every time a dog barked in the distance, certain the Temple guards were coming for them like they came for Jesus? Or perhaps these guards were there for fear of the women of the group, who together couldn't muster the strength or leverage to roll the stone from the tomb's entry, much less lug a corpse any distance? Ridiculous.

And her eyes went back to that empty couch again. There had been hushed, urgent conversations at first, among the disciples. There had been tears and mournful embraces, but as the hours rolled on, everyone had grown more and more silent, more inside themselves, all contemplating, as best they could, what it meant. Jesus was dead. They had lost their friend, their leader… all that life, all that energy, the way he laughed and the way his eyes flashed when he commanded a demon to come out, his gentle jokes around the cooking fire and his way of teaching that cut to the bone… all of that was gone forever.

Jesus was dead, and with him lay dead the hopes for the coming Kingdom of Heaven. All the promises of God's Messiah lay mouldering in a rich man's donated tomb. There could be no kingdom if the king lay dead. There could be no redemption for Israel if the redeemer was gone. All of that big talk and all of those wild dreams were gone. For a group of people whose whole reason for living was found in this itinerant Jewish miracle-working rabbi, the future was black, hopeless, pointless.

The sun wasn't up yet when Mary had finally had enough of the cramped, airless room, fetid with the smell of fear and failure. She slipped out, and walked without thinking toward the last place she'd seen Jesus. Jesus, who had done so much for her, whose feet she had washed with her tears, whose words she had clung to like a drowning person clings to a lifeline. Whose words would offer her hope now? Where would she ever again find hope for the future, the promise of eternal life? All of that was gone, dead, wrapped in burial linens and sealed in the to...

Where are the guards? Had Pilate come to his senses, realizing none of Jesus' followers had the guts or foresight to steal the body, and taken the guards someplace they could do some actual guarding? ... but wait, the tomb, its entrance is open! With the sky becoming lighter, Mary can see the stone rolled away, the seal broken, why would anyone have done this?

She ran back to the house, and found Peter and John just outside the door, their faces creased from fear and grief. The horrible news poured out of her mouth in a confused gasp, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!” There was barely time for a double take, for Peter and John had the same thought at the same moment. Like an arrow shot from a bow, they were gone at a full run. Mary of course ran behind, but slower, dreading what they'd find, but all the time knowing what they'd find.

They had stood there, in that empty tomb for what seemed like hours, but was really only a few minutes, watching the rays of the morning sun drift across the sepulcher floor to the shelf, and up across the empty linen wrappings and the cloth that had wrapped his face. Peter and John were silent, but she could see Peter was beside himself, fear fighting with rage over those who would steal Jesus’ body. John had had the strangest look on his face, though… as if he knew something that Peter, and Mary Magdaene, did not.

Finally, though, Peter and John had left, because what could they do? So now Mary stood alone at the tomb, alone in her confusion and grief. She bent down and looked into the tomb, there was no reason to do it, really, but she looked in, and there were... people there... sitting where Jesus had been. The exhaustion, the grief were taking its toll on Mary’s mind: all she could think was how odd it was that two people were sitting there.

Then they spoke, they asked her why she was crying, and she told them, but they didn't say anything else. After a long moment, Mary turned back from the opening, and saw the gardener. Suddenly embarrassed to be a woman alone in such a remote section of the city, she lowered her face and turned her body away, not daring to make eye contact. Even in grief, there were certain things that were simply not done.

Yet if he was the one who tended the gardens, who cared for the land around the tomb, perhaps he knew where Jesus had been taken! Who knows, after all, perhaps the rich man had second thoughts about giving his tomb to a man Pilate had condemned, and had ordered Jesus removed and taken to another sepulcher. It was worth a try, anyway!

“Sir,” she said, “if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Ridiculous, of course, there was no way she could carry a body that size anywhere, but still, she wanted to care for him, this man who had given her back her life...

And then he spoke…

Jesus said to her, “Mary!”

What does it mean to be a Resurrection person?

No one expected the Resurrection; not Mary Magdalene or Peter or John or any one of the other people who had spent the weekend in that Upper Room gave a thought to Jesus rising from the dead. Yes he had told them, yes he had promised, again and again he had spoken of his execution and of his ultimate triumph over death. But we know better, don’t we? There is a natural progression in all of nature after all, and as terrible as it is, everything born eventually dies, and that is it. The end.

The Resurrection turns all of that on its head. Now? Now there is no end!

One of the beautiful promises we are reminded of when we baptize a child – someone too young to know what belief is, who has faith because his parents have faith, because his family has faith, because he learns the language of faith as he learns to speak the language of his culture – is that God loves us, God has saved us, God has accepted and welcomed us into relationship even before we knew it, even before we believed it, even before we accepted it.

In that moment in front of the garden tomb, Mary Magdalene became a Resurrection person. Not because she understood what had happened, not because it made sense, not because of a solid grounding in theological teaching or because she had studied the Westminster Shorter Catechism or said the Sinner's Prayer or gotten baptized or recited the Apostle's Creed, no!

Mary Magdalene became a Resurrection person because Jesus was alive! Jesus had called her by name!

What does it mean to be a Resurrection person?

You and I are Resurrection people, too. If we dare to peel it all away – set aside the particular doctrines we've professed, the churches we were attending when we came to believe, our age or how wet we got when we got baptized, all of the stuff we've heard and learned and taught and thought, if we allow our faith to get down close to the bone, what we find is this:

We Resurrection people, we live in the Resurrection not because we know or understand or profess anything, but because Jesus is alive. Because Jesus loved us before we knew it, before we believed it, before we accepted it, he loves us in our doubts and our fears and our disbelief. We are Resurrection people because Jesus has called our name!

This truth gives us hope when we speak the words of the sacrament and witness the sprinkling of the waters of baptism on a young child’s head, and see this wonderful journey of faith begin even before that child knows it is a journey! This truth gives us hope when we sit at the bed of someone whose journey is ending, and we speak the soft words of assurance over the hum of the life support…

We are Resurrection people. Jesus is alive. Jesus has called us by name.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Christ Our Passover....

The hands that waved the palms would clench into fists waved in the air, as the voices which sang hosannas screamed for blood. And it was all part of the plan.

Grace. Amazing.

Luke 19:28-40
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it'" So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" They said, "The Lord needs it." Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
"Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!"
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I don’t think you could have fit another person into Jerusalem with a shoehorn that day. Passover was in full swing, after all, and people had come from all over the known word to bring their sacrifices to the Temple, to eat the Seder meal together, to remember the night, fifteen hundred years ago, when the angel of death passed over the Children of Israel, striking terror into the very souls of the Egyptians, clearing the way for their freedom.

Freedom was very much on everybody’s mind, make no mistake. For seven hundred years, one foreign power or another had controlled Judea. Not since Zedekiah had Israel had its own ruler, and many felt it was high time to overthrow the Romans and take back their country.

So when the rumors started flying around, saying that Jesus of Nazareth was on his way to Jerusalem – hey, you remember, Jesus, right? He was that prophet who had opened the tomb of a man dead for four days, and had raised him? That guy has to be the Messiah! Well of course they would want to get a glimpse of him, to perhaps be witness to the next King of Israel coming in to claim his throne.

Now, those hoping to see a conquering King riding in to take his throne from the Roman occupiers weren’t the only ones craning their necks, straining to see Jesus top the hill from Bethany. Plenty of people had heard about Lazarus, and had heard about how this Jesus fellow had opened the eyes of a man born blind, and had heard about how he fed thousands and thousands of people with just a few barley loaves and fish. Some were hoping for a show, hoping they’d see him do something interesting, maybe say something entertaining.

As Jesus and his band of disciples crested the hill, someone in the crowd started waving a palm branch and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And every neck craned, every eye peered to get a glimpse of Jesus.

Now, what they expected to see, I can’t tell you. Perhaps the people looking for entertainment expected him to come prancing over the hill, turning water into wine, and passing out sandwiches. Perhaps the people hoping to overthrow Roman rule once and for all were looking for a rider on an armored steed, bloody sword drawn, leading a mighty army into the city to take his throne by force.

What they saw was a man, on a saddle of cloaks, riding a donkey, its colt not far behind.

Some were let down, no doubt. But many remembered the words of the prophet Zecheriah: “Rejoice, O people of Zion! Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—riding on a donkey’s colt.”

And shout they did! The “Hosannas” grew to a crescendo, and people began cutting palm branches off of trees, throwing them on the road in Jesus’ path. Others even put their cloaks down, so the royal donkey’s feet wouldn’t touch the dirt. It was amazing to see, a joy to be in the midst of!

But how soon the words that crowd shouted would change!

All too soon, the same throats singing hosannas would be raw from screaming “Crucify him!” The same eyes which strained in hope to see a King would look with revulsion, disappointment, and naked hatred upon the bruised, bloody form of a man condemned to die.

Oh he was still a King, make no mistake. The people were too busy trying to make Jesus fit their own agendas to understand, to see what kind of King Jesus is, though.

Jesus was no stranger to being misunderstood. Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus when he spoke of being born from above. The woman at the well misunderstood Jesus when he spoke of living water. His own disciples, even the inner circle of Apostles, regularly (and it seemed, sometimes, intentionally) misunderstood his words, actions, and intentions. The other people who followed Jesus for the free food and entertainment value, as well as those who expected Jesus to overthrow the Roman government and establish an eternal earthly kingdom misunderstood Jesus as well.

And it’s a misunderstanding which persists to this day.

Today, one week before Easter, we celebrate Palm Sunday in the life of the church. Many churches make it a point to combine this day into Palm/Passion Sunday, taking care to balance the celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem with the horror of the Crucifixion. The thought behind this is that, unless people were careful to attend Holy Week services like Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, they would go from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the triumph of Easter without experiencing the darkness and pain in between.

It’s a valid argument. Especially for Western Christianity, we seem to spend far too much time acting like those people outside of Jerusalem, hoping for free food or entertainment from Jesus. All too often we treat God like a loving but slightly forgetful grandfather, or a heavenly vending machine. We pray most attentively when we need something, and judge our faith and the faith of others by how prosperous we are.

And especially for Western Christianity, we seem to spend far too much time acting like those people outside of Jerusalem, hoping to see Jesus riding on a war horse, hip deep in blood, slaughtering the oppressive Romans and claiming his rightful throne. We think that God agrees with our politics, supports our country over any other, and especially likes the same football team we do.

But when Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he wasn’t dancing before the crowds, providing bread and circuses. He was silent.

And Jesus didn’t ride a warhorse. He rode a donkey, a symbol of peace.

The thing about Jesus was that he was so in love with the Father, so committed to being completely invested in the will of God and about the work of God, and so radically different from any other person who had ever walked the planet, that, invariably, Jesus did – Jesus does – the unexpected.

He is a King who doesn’t waste his time on an earthly kingdom, because that would be nothing more than regime change. His agenda, God’s agenda, was – and is – justice: both that the poor, the sick, the forgotten and the despised would be recognized, healed, and brought in to community, and that God’s ultimate justice, the reconciliation of humankind to God, is accomplished through the cross.

This King conquers, this King reigns, not with swords or cannon or bombs or proclamations or coups. This King conquers by enduring execution. This King on a donkey conquers by dying. This King conquers death itself through allowing himself to be killed by a ruthless society using the most horrifying of methods.

This king who enters Jerusalem riding a donkey represents something more frightening to the Roman authorities than a thousand legions of enemy soldiers: He represents hope. And because the Temple elite served (and prospered) at the whim of the local Roman leadership, Jesus represented to them something more horrifying than a pig on the altar: the dissolution of the status quo.

It’s no secret that Jesus turned the tables on the halls of power and upset the status quo. Marcus Borg says that by laying down his own life, Jesus denied “the temple's claim to have a monopoly on forgiveness and access to God....God in Jesus has already provided the sacrifice and has thus taken care of whatever you think separates you from God.”

And in that statement is a truth larger than merely upsetting the Romans or abolishing the power of the Temple rulers, far more important than simply overturning the accepted norms, more eternal than the conquest of any kingdom or power or ruler or economy or government. This King on a donkey, in one selfless, eternal act, is God’s statement to the cosmos that we are forgiven, that we are loved, that we are valuable beyond measure, that we are forgiven.

This is a radical grace, one without limits, a depth of love that begs description. This radical grace that God gives, this wildly extravagant love that God has, this egregious infatuation with mankind that God shows is sealed and made sure by the Resurrection.

God’s love is proven in that, at the point in time when we were furthest from the truth, when we were as far away from God as we could be, Christ died for us. On Calvary, as the lambs for the Seder meal were being slaughtered in the Temple courts, Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us… and for everyone.

Better stated, Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us, and for everyone. While the crucifixion was a singular event in human history, the effects are eternal, ongoing, without pause or cessation. We were saved that day, and are being saved from that day, and shall be saved on the day of Christ’s return.

How, then, shall we respond?

The only possible response is to, as the Apostle Paul writes in the Letter to the Philippians, “Let the same mind be in [us] as was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself…” – the NIV translates that phrase as, “…he made himself nothing…”

Our agendas, our enrollment of God into our own passions and ideals, our co-opting of God into our plans and as a member of our particular interest or cause or political party, all of this must be laid aside in the stark light of God’s abundant, unfathomable love.

This conquering King tops the hill from Bethany, and the donkey he is riding pauses, perhaps confused by the shouting and singing, mesmerized by the waving palm branches and the colorful cloaks laid out before it. And Jesus looks down into Jerusalem, into the belly of the beast, where even now evil men are plotting his death. He hears the songs and cries of hope and lets them float on the air lest the rocks themselves explode with praise. He looks on the people shouting, he looks on the city stretching out before him, he looks upon the occupying Roman legions and their rulers and the Temple elite who whisper their plans… with love.

And with a gently nudge, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Lamb of God rides on in to Jerusalem.

Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us.

Alleluia, amen.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Broken and Poured Out...

This is in large part a flight of fancy, a narrative. We aren't told, and I cannot speak with authority upon, what Mary, Martha, Lazarus, or anyone else there (save Judas) was thinking, what motivated their words and actions.

But I know how I would feel.

(Many thanks to Kathryn Matthews Huey for her insight into this passage)

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.

There are a couple of accounts in the Gospels where Jesus’ feet are anointed with a costly ointment or perfume, and dried with a woman’s hair. In Luke’s Gospel, the event takes place in a Pharisee’s house, and the woman doing the anointing is called “a sinner.” Today's reading finds Jesus among people who love him. Jesus and the disciples travel to Bethany and have dinner with Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha.

What a strange sight it must have been, even after so many days, seeing Lazarus 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, once complained to Jesus about having to do all the work while Mary gawked at him, but she no longer minded. Truth be told, Mary 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.

I imagine that the three of them, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, they had known for awhile, to some degree, who Jesus was, and understood, to some extent, 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.

It still made Mary’s skin go cold to remember that time. Days passed, and no Jesus. Then, no more Lazarus. Just like that, the anchor that kept Martha from working herself into the ground and kept Mary from spinning off like a top, 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 even now, her heart pounds in her chest as she relives, in her mind, the impossible, the unbelievable, the overwhelming joy of Lazarus doing just that!

Deep down, she knew what that act had cost Jesus. Even now, the Temple leaders were plotting his death. Such a display of authority over death meant that many Jewish people were now following Jesus. The Temple elite felt their stranglehold on power weakening, and this, coupled with the knowledge that if they lost control, Rome would swoop in and take control by bloody force, meant that Jesus must die, and the sooner the better. Word had it that the Temple leaders were even plotting to kill Lazarus!

And now Jesus was less than two miles from their power base, Jerusalem. As relaxed and joyful as this meal among friends and family was, there was no ignoring the underlying tension, the knowledge that Bethany was the last stop before Jesus entered Jerusalem. She had overheard Lazarus making sure that Jesus knew what it meant, this trip to Jerusalem.

He was signing his death warrant; he was walking right into the jaws of the beast.

Of course he knew. Jesus had known what it would mean the day when he commanded the stone rolled away from Lazarus’ tomb, but he did it anyway. And, Mary thought, because of Jesus, she had Lazarus back.

And yes, perhaps Jesus had always said he would die at the hands of the powerful, but, in Mary’s mind, this miracle that restored her family made this a certainty. Jesus gave up his life to give Lazarus life.

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.

The idea grew slowly, budding like a young plant in her mind. A few weeks back, in a daze of grief, she had bought a pound of spikenard to pour on Lazarus' body, but she had moved too slowly, and the tomb had been sealed. It was just one more disappointment in a sea of grief. She had hidden it away in her room, thinking that sooner or later she could sell it and perhaps make some of her money back.

But now she knew what to do, and she wouldn't be too slow this time.

She walked to her room, and returned with the jar of spikenard.

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 in the light 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. In my imagination, this act startles Lazarus, who begins to stand up. Martha happens to be near him, and she sees what Mary has in her hands and instantly understands. With a hand on his shoulder and a reassuring nod, she lets Lazarus know to let Mary be.

I would think that the Twelve were intrigued, but not scandalized. They had seen lots of people do lots of things that were out of the ordinary, and a woman letting down her hair in her own home, even if it was in front of men she wasn’t related to? Not all that big a deal, thanks.

Her face already wet with tears, Mary walked around the table, behind Lazarus and Martha, and knelt behind Jesus’ couch at his feet. She broke open the jar with a snap, and poured the contents on his feet, wiping them dry with her hair.

The weight of the silence in that moment pressed in on her. No one, not even Lazarus or Martha, understood the depth of her gratitude, the compulsion to worship at the feet of the One she knew – she knew – to be the Messiah.

Jesus sat up and looked at her. The fragrance of the spikenard filled every corner of the house, thick enough to cut, as she looked into his eyes – another bold act, something women in that day never did, but there was nothing left of propriety now, was there? Money meant nothing, dignity meant nothing, propriety meant nothing, not in light of the gift that Jesus had given her. Someone was protesting, and loudly. One of the Apostles. It didn't matter, the only thing that mattered was what she saw in Jesus’ eyes. He understood.

Mary washed Jesus’ feet with that perfume in a home that was less than two miles from the gates of Jerusalem. Less than two miles away, a few days later, Jesus will himself wash the feet of his disciples – all of his disciples – even the feet of Judas. Less than two miles away, after the towel is put up and the Passover meal is eaten, Jesus will sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. Less than two miles… two miles from the trial, from the torture, from the scourge, the crown of thorns, the cross. Less than two miles from the cold, dark, silent, airless tomb.

And in Mary’s heart, all of it would be for her.

Honestly, Mary probably didn't understand what Jesus' death would mean for humanity. She didn't have the benefit of being taught any of the six or more doctrines of atonement that Christians fight over, she didn't understand the weight of sin that Jesus would bear on that cross, and she probably had no concept, even with Lazarus sitting right there across the table, that Jesus would conquer death once, for all.

Mary 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, nothing was as important as this man, this teacher, this Lord, this Messiah.

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 her trembling fingers loosed the rag over Lazarus' eyes.

Jesus’ ministry began in Cana, lavishly, with wine in wash-pots. It ends here, at a dinner table in Bethany, lavishly, with the fragrance of expensive perfume hanging thick in the air.

This is a picture for us of the love of God, the breathtaking, extravagant, lavish love of God in  Jesus Christ… a love that caused Jesus to empty himself for all creation – all creation – in the same manner that Mary emptied that jar on his feet. Quoting from the Epistle to the Philippians, “…though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”

Not too many more minutes, and Jesus will slip his sandals back on those anointed feet, and stand and walk out the door and down the road into the belly of the beast, through the gates of Jerusalem. Now, we turn with Jesus toward the road to the cross. May our vision be clear and our hope fixed on the one we follow. And may we loose the rags that bind us and blind us and see the face of salvation, and know, like Mary, that nothing – no amount of money, no level of dignity, no expectation of social propriety, nothing is as important as this Lord, this King, this Savior, Jesus Christ.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

God Ran...

My thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor,  Roger McCort, and Jean Moon for insight on this sermon. It was first preached in 2010, and Roger and Jean's comments on the blog helped me with this edition.

The image of God running fascinates me.

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. And 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.

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

Now, this is 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.

And that’s true, 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 as the parable begins, the listeners are scandalized. 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. And 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.”

Yet the son makes this demand, and the father complies. Now, 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, they would have said to one another, who ever heard of such a thing? 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. That’s predictable, after all. And up to now, the people listening to Jesus are right there with him. As scandalized as the crowd is, there is really not too much out of the ordinary with this scenario. It happened often enough 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 the offending son ever dares to shows up in his village again, 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, a nonperson, someone better off going back and living 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 little honor back for the family name. 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!

So the fatted calf is killed. That calf would have been enough to feed the whole village. Roger McCourt says that the fact that the father held this party and fed the people of the village served to begin the process of reconciliation between the son and the people of the community he had broken faith with.

And while the party is going full blast inside, the other son stands outside. 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!”

Sure, we take the high road when we read this, we deplore the faithful son for refusing to take part in his father's joy, but can we not also admit that we understand – even agree with – his point? It isn’t fair. None of this – the dishonor and embarrassment to the family when the younger son sold off his inheritance, the whispered reports of that younger son’s debauchery, and the galling sight of him – skinny, smelling of pigs – walking right down the middle of the road right there in front of God and everybody – none of it was right or proper or fair.

But sometimes? Sometimes love isn’t fair, is it?

I think that the elder son’s problem was that he didn't understand his father's heart. He had only seen his father as someone to work for and obey. He obeyed the rules, but he did not have a close relationship with his father, and all that father wanted was a relationship.

God is wanting a relationship. God wants to have fellowship with us, to fill us with God’s love, fill us with his Holy Spirit. God delights in us. God desires our time, our adoration, to walk and talk with us. Jesus died to reconcile us to God, so that wall of separation between us would be torn down.

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 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. Sometimes we have to give up the right to be right.

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 parable, then Jesus 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. That is everything.

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?