Thursday, March 28, 2013

Thursday in HW - Knowing God, Knowing Jesus

Have you ever been on a blind date? I never have—not because I was opposed to them. There were moments in my high school and college years when I would happily have gone out with someone I had never met. I get the impression that the Internet has increased the incidence of two strangers meeting for the start of a potentially romantic relationship. It must be both fun and scary to walk into a restaurant not knowing which person is waiting for you.

There is a beer commercial on television right now that features a man and a woman sitting in a table at a bar getting to know each other. Each of them keeps pointing out ways that they have protected themselves in case the date didn’t go well. “See that group over there at the bar? Those are my friends in case this didn’t work out,” the woman says to the man. “Yeah?” he replies, “Well those guys over there are my friends, and it looks like they are hitting on your friends.” The viewer gets the warm, fuzzy feeling that everything is going to work out—if for no other reason than that both of them is drinking the same beer.

I think that many people approaching heaven like a blind date. They go through life expecting to enter paradise upon their death even though they don’t really know what they’re getting into. There’s no safety net, though, and they have made plans to spend eternity in heaven even though they have no idea what it’s like. These are the people who talk about Jesus and God in ways that I find not only novel or confusion but downright contradictory and anti-Christian. And I’m not just talking about people of other denominations. Denominational differences, while sometimes extreme, are far less insidious than the unsanctioned beliefs of Christians like you and me who decide that God is supposed to work the way we expect him to. But it’s a dangerous thing to approach a relationship by expecting the other party to be the person you expect her to be. She never is, and then where are you?

In the gospel lesson from today’s Daily Office (John17:1-11), Jesus prays to the Father, saying, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” We all know that Jesus came to give us eternal life. I’ve been taught that since I was a little child. But, to me, eternal life has always meant going to heaven. But that’s not what Jesus says. What is eternal life? To know the only true God and Jesus Christ. To know them. Not to believe in them. Not to acknowledge them. Not to ask them for favors. To know them.

We are entering the triduum—a fancy word for the three days of drama that begin tonight. We will watch Jesus wash his disciples feet, go out into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, be betrayed by one of his friends, be tried and convicted by a mock court, be tortured and mocked and humiliated, be nailed onto the cross where he will die, and be laid in a tomb. And, right before all of this begins, Jesus says to his disciples and to us, “Eternal life is knowing God and me, whom God has sent. Pay attention. This is what it looks like!”

Is the faith we claim rooted in the next three days? Do we worship a king who was crucified, or do we claim allegiance to a ruler of our own design? Are we sitting down at the heavenly banquet on a blind date, or are we taking time to get to know the one who accepts humiliation as the glory of God? Are we seeking eternal life by desiring knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, or are we hedging our bets and saying some magic words that we think will get us to heaven?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Wednesday in HW - What about Judas?

You know that scene in movies and television shows when the wife walks in the front door to find her husband and another woman on the couch in their underwear and the husband then says, “This isn’t what it looks like?” Then the wife says, “Then what is it?” and the husband responds, “Let me explain.” Well, that’s a little like Judas. It’s a different kind of betrayal, but it’s still pretty hard to explain.

What are we supposed to make of Judas? All four of the gospel writers make him out to be the ultimate bad guy. John calls him the “son of destruction” and makes it clear that Satan himself had entered into him. Why would Jesus have called Judas to be a disciple when Jesus should have known what Judas was going to do? If Jesus had been a good teacher and mentor, wouldn’t he have been able to guide Judas away from his evil intent? When Jesus said to Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do,” does that mean that Jesus wanted Judas to betray him? Was this part of the plan all along? Were they in on it together?

In the first century, when the case of Jesus was being built for the first time, one of the hard parts that the church struggled to explain was Judas. How are we supposed to convince people to follow Jesus as the Messiah if he can’t even get twelve people to follow him without one of them stabbing him in the back? We’ve had a couple of thousand years to get over that and to see Jesus and the Christian movement through the lens of history. I don’t think any of us finds Judas as threatening as he once was. He’s just a part of the story—another player in the drama.

The deeper question for the church today is how bad things fit in with God’s plan. How are we supposed to make sense of people who become so obsessed with evil that they act out in deeply harmful ways? How do we explain things like cancer and tsunami and car crashes? How do we maintain belief in a God who is supposedly God when the walls come crumbling down over and over and over? Where is hope in a world so consumed by hatred?

Part of the answer is that there is no answer. Sometimes it takes hundreds of years and the lens of history to help us see that the story keeps playing out. But part of the answer comes in the moment itself. After Judas had departed, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” It would be easy to think that Jesus is completely shifting gears—that there is no connection between Judas and his statement about glorification—but John makes it clear that the two are linked.

What does that mean? It means that God’s glory—what it means for God to be God—is expressed not only in the moments that are easy to explain but also in the moments that defy explanation. God’s glory is revealed when darkness comes and yet that darkness does not defeat God. Even Satan himself, working through Judas, could not hold Jesus in death. Our hope, therefore, is found not in the avoidance or the explanation of the defeat but in the triumph over defeat which is promised one day. Judas’ betrayal demonstrated that nothing can overcome God’s plan. His glory is revealed in that fact. Even if our hope takes longer than three days, our hope is still fixed on the one who defeats evil. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tuesday in HW - Hating Your Life

“I hate my life.” There have been moments in the past when I have said those words in jest. I have that luxury. My life is great, and that’s part of the point. Things are pretty good for me. I really have no reason to complain. Yet there are, of course, things within me that I don’t really like. Just because everything seems to be going great doesn’t mean that I don’t have my own struggles. But, when I’ve said, “I hate my life,” I haven’t really meant it.

The radio program This American Life featured a two-week, two-hour episode on life at a public school in Chicago. This is a school in which violence has become such a way of life that shootings, although shocking, aren’t really surprising. As I finished my run the other morning and was walking the last block to my house, I heard one of the students talking about how he felt after accidentally shooting and killing his brother. His grief had been featured throughout the two hours, and I felt like I was starting to get to know him. Then, as he spoke to a social worker in the school while the radio recorder was running, he said, “I hate my life.” But, when he said it, there was no joking. And, even though I was all alone and was listening to a story on a podcast, I exclaimed out loud, “Whoa!.” It was that serious.

In the gospel lesson for today (John 12:20-36), some Greeks—some curious, honest seekers—sent word to Jesus that they wanted to meet him. And Jesus said, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Whenever I hear Jesus say those words, I want to say he’s joking, but he’s not. I want to say that the Greek word for “hate” means something else that we have hard time translating, but it doesn’t. I want to laugh it off as Jesus being Jesus—taking things to the extreme and speaking hyperbolically—but I can’t. I think Jesus means what he says.

How much do you really love Jesus? It’s easy to say that we love him with our whole heart, but do we really? What matters to you? Where do you spend your time? How do you spend your money? What do you think about and care about and worry about most of all? I don’t know what it is for you. For me and for my generation, I think the answer is our children. The world is in trouble because parents like me have given so much attention and love to our children that one day they are going to grow up and be pretty spoiled. That’s just how we live today. I don’t know if my father’s father ever hugged him. My dad hugged me when it seemed important. I hug and kiss my son ten times after he brushes his teeth and before he goes to bed. Am I willing to give it up? Am I able to count it as meaningless when compared with the call to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? What about you? What must you give up?

We must hate this life. We must rip it off and leave it behind. When Jesus responded to the Greeks’ inquiry, it was a moment when East and West came crashing together. Semitic wisdom collided with European philosophy. And Jesus’ question was, “Where do you start? What has meaning?” Do we begin with the life we have and try to make space within it for God? Or do we start only and purely with God and let this life fall where it may? Your life—your very breath and the blood pumping through your veins—is an empty, meaningless accident when compared with the life that is to come. Jesus died upon the cross to give real life to the world. If you’re hanging on to this life—if you’re looking at your existence through the lens of this life—you’re in the wrong place. Start with your redemption. It’s the only thing that matters. Stop building a life for you in this world. This world doesn’t matter. Let it go, and give yourself completely and totally to God.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Monday in HW - Mary's Faith

You know those moments that are so powerful that you can tell they will make a good story even before they finish playing out? I think the anointing of Jesus was one of those moments. The funny thing, though, is how differently the gospel writers tell it.

·         Mark presents an anonymous woman who pours a flask of ointment made of pure nard on Jesus’ head, causing some to question whether it should have been sold and the money given to the poor. (Mark 14:3-9)

·         Matthew tells almost the same story, but this time it’s the disciples who question whether the ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor. (Matthew 26:6-13)

·         Luke changes the story completely. Although the name of the dinner host (Simon) remains the same, in Luke’s version Jesus and his companions are eating in a Pharisee’s house, and “a woman of the city, who was a sinner,” comes and anoints Jesus’ feet, wetting them with her tears, wiping them with her hair, and anointing them with the ointment. He omits the exchange about the ointment being sold and the money given to the poor and replaces it with a teaching about forgiveness. (Luke 7:36-50)

·         John, whose account of this story we heard in church a few weeks ago and again today, tells the story more like Mark and Matthew, but he adds his own twists. Instead of eating at Simon’s house, Jesus is at the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha—his friends in Bethany. Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with the costly ointment, and there’s an exchange about whether it should have been sold for the sake of the poor, but John identifies the objector as Judas—the thief betrayer of Jesus. (John 12:1-11)

Since the gospel appointed for today is John’s version, I find myself asking, “Why did John tell the story the way he did?”

·         Instead of an anonymous woman, John identifies the anointer as Mary, one of Jesus’ closest friends. The physical contact made between man and woman in this scene is a loving touch shared among friends.

·         By singling out Judas as the thief who objected to the use of the ointment, John tempts us to ignore a legitimate question—should the ointment have been sold and the money given to the poor?

·         This chapter in John’s gospel account comes right after the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11. Jesus has shown Mary (and her sister Martha) that he has the power to raise the dead. That miracle, a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death and resurrection, has given Mary the confidence and faith needed to approach the end of Jesus’ life in the right mindset. She might be the only one. She can tell that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem in order to be killed and rise again. She uses this costly perfume not only as a gesture of love but as an expression of faith. She embraces Jesus’ death in a way that no one else does.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Scattered-Garment Sunday

Palm Sunday. A lot happens on Palm Sunday. Over the years, I’ve read several posts and heard several preachers talk about the lectionary’s loss of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. One of those critics has been Steve Pankey, who rightly observes that the lectionary has acceded to the reality of church-going life by lumping all of the Passion story into Palm Sunday. We used to be able to wait until Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to hear those parts of the story (Last Supper, Betrayal, Crucifixion, and Death), but things get sped up now because too few people are in church throughout Holy Week. (That fact isn’t helped by the local school system’s decision to make Spring Break the same as Holy Week—a death knell for clergy with children who won’t get a Spring Break this year.)

Yesterday, Steve reblogged something he read on Lay Down Your Nets. It’s a good article, and you can read it here. For me, it reinforced the powerful image of Jesus coming into Jerusalem—a story we miss if we omit the reading before the blessing of the palms (which many churches do). Palm Sunday is supposed to be about palms. We’re supposed to cry out, “Hosanna!” We’re supposed to bring our palm branches and lay them on the road that leads into Jerusalem.

Except this year.

Has anyone noticed that there are no palms in Luke’s accountof the triumphal entry into Jerusalem? Instead of leafy branches, the people put their coats and garments on the road to keep the dust down. So what does that make this Sunday—Coat Sunday?

Sure, the image of palms being laid on the road is strong enough to overcome Year C’s palm-free text. But this seems to be a particularly good year to sing “Ride on, ride on,” the first stanza of which concludes with the phrase, “thy humble beast pursues his road with palms and scattered garments strowed.” For me, this year we’re celebrating Scattered Garments Sunday. And I’m curious how that changes things.

What are we bringing to the dusty road? Are we clipping some shrubbery from our neighbor’s yard and lining the streets with branches? Or are we scattering the path with the coats off our backs? The latter seems more costly to me. It seems more self-giving. It seems like the kind of think we would do for a king and not just an icon of pop-culture. When Justin Timberlake visits Decatur, we cordon off the sidewalks to keep the crowds back, but no one (at least I hope no one) bows with reverence and casts his or her jacket on the street as a sign of obedience.

We have a part to play in the Passion Story. And it’s not just yelling out the chilling words, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” during the dramatic reading of the gospel. We start on the dusty road. We start by taking off our coat and throwing it on the road in front of the king who enters the holy city.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

When Family Guy Falls Flat

A week ago I used a Family Guy reference in a sermon for a midweek healing service. I warned the congregation that Family Guy references almost never belong in a sermon, but I shared it with them anyway. They laughed politely.

Today, in the same service with many of the same people in the congregation, I used another Family Guy reference. Something must be wrong! Actually, this time I didn’t actually tell them a story from the crude cartoon show. Instead, I told them about a time when I preached at a Lenten service and tried to use a different Family Guy image that totally and completely fell flat. I should have known better. The average age in the congregation that day appeared to be 70, and I knew before I even opened my mouth that the ironic, satiric, biting humor of the cartoon would fail to connect with the audience. I used it anyway, and no one—except maybe the rector—laughed. It wasn’t the first time I’d used an image that didn’t connect with the congregation, nor will last week’s poor attempt be my last.

The reason I bring it up is that in today’s gospel lesson (John 10:1-18) Jesus uses an image that falls as flat as my Family Guy story. “Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief or a bandit,” Jesus said. This is the beginning of his sheep-and-shepherd talk. He goes on for a little while, using the image of a sheepfold to convey to the disciples what the true, God-sent, good shepherd is like. But, about halfway through, John zips a little editorial zinger in that makes me laugh out loud: “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” In other words, they didn’t get it.

So Jesus keeps right on going. He explains it a little clearer—“I am the gate”—but he still dances around with conflicting images that don’t make a lot of sense to me and, I’ll guess, made even less sense to the disciples. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Can you see the puzzled looks on the disciples’ faces? Can you hear them muttering to themselves, “What’s he talking about?” They weren’t following someone whom they expected to die. Why would anyone follow a savior who is going to be crucified? That doesn’t make sense. How could it…on their side of the resurrection?

What Jesus says to his disciples about laying down his life and picking it up again makes sense to those of us who live on the other side of the empty tomb. And the disciples themselves would figure all of this out once they had experienced the risen Christ for themselves. But until then—until you live in the place of resurrection—Jesus doesn’t make sense.

Too often, I forget to look at the world through Easter goggles. That’s the lens through which we are supposed to view the world. And it’s a hard way to see things—a way that doesn’t make sense. Why would someone lay down his life? Why would we take up our cross? Who wants to worship a messiah who died on a tree? Only fools who live in Easter would. I forget that God’s ways are not the world’s ways. I forget that, with God, life comes through death. I forget that suffering leads to rebirth. I forget how to empty myself and accept the costly call to discipleship because I forget to start with the resurrection.

God has redeemed the brokenness of the world, and God chooses brokenness to reveal himself to it. That doesn’t make sense to the world, but it does make sense to Easter people. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How Much Is Salvation Worth?

Ever feel like God is asking too much of you? Ever look at the sacrifice of God’s son and wonder whether he’s demanding too much in return? Ever think that the value of salvation is overstated?

Sunday we will read John’s version of the story of the anointingof Jesus’ feet with perfumed ointment. We’ll hear strange sentences like, “You will always have the poor with you.” And we’ll surely reserve our disapproving anger for Judas, who, as John puts it, “kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” But I think the real value of this gospel lesson isn’t found in the odd reference to the poor or the vilification of Judas but in the tension between the three main actors on stage—Jesus, Judas, and Mary.

Jesus is about to die. The original readers of John’s gospel knew that. And we know that. We’ve been getting ready for it for almost five weeks. And, as the story is told, Mary also knows what is going to happen, and she acts appropriately. Judas, on the other hand, isn’t able to grasp the significance of the anointing and so asks a perfectly reasonable question: Why not sell the ointment and give the money to the poor?

It all depends on how you see the story ending. If you’re like Mary and can foresee the sacrifice that Jesus is prepared to offer, pouring the expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet as a responsive gesture of love makes sense. With the cross in view, no offering is too rich—no gift is too costly. But, if you’re like Judas, whose zealotry confused political and military victory with God’s plan for the messiah, the anointing is a lavish, wasteful act. I think John’s editorial comment about Judas’ motive is a red herring. Even if his motives weren’t pure, Judas’ words point not to dishonesty but to an honest questioning about the nature of Jesus’ mission. If you don’t expect Jesus’ death to be the path to new life, why would you waste the ointment on his feet?

We, too, are in the room that night. At times, we see Jesus’ life and death for what they really are—the sacrifice of love that brings life to the world. In those moments, our answer is always “Yes.” No matter what is asked of us, we willingly give it to the Lord, pouring our very hearts out at the feet of Jesus. Other times, however, we lose sight of God’s plan. We forget that our salvation was bought with a price that we could never repay, and, when we fail to see the value of that free gift, our hearts are hardened and our answer becomes “No.”

Church again this Sunday? Don’t I deserve a day off?
Why are they asking for more money? Haven’t I given them enough?
How many times are they going to ask me to volunteer? Don’t they know I’m busy?

Is any gift too costly? How much is Jesus’ sacrifice really worth? Although we can never give enough to ransom our lives from the grave (Psalm 49), shouldn’t we count the cost of our salvation?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Electing a Bishop (of Rome)

A few months ago, I saw an article from The Tablet, the Roman Catholic periodical published in the UK, in which the editors and church officials offered their strong criticism of the Church of England's proposal to permit women bishops. When I read it, I felt a strong defensive reaction--not because of my opinion about equal-opportunity access to all three orders of ordained ministry but because of my opinion that denominations should leave each other's polity alone. I recognize that bishops are historic "symbols of unity" in the wider church, but, since the Roman section of the body of Christ doesn't acknowledge Anglican ordinations of any sort, I didn't think it was their place to offer public criticism of the CofE's plans.

Pot calling kettle black, I have my own observations on the election of a bishop that I'd like to share on the eve of the papal conclave.

In the Episcopal Church, we elect our bishops publicly, and I believe the Roman Catholic Church would make significant strides toward overcoming the bad press of clergy sex abuse and reversing the decline of the church's relevance in the modern world if they did the same.

I write as an individual who has helped elect two bishops. Although important, neither of those elections held a candle to the roaring fire of importance that the papal election holds. But the model is informative. Here are some observations I have made, and I offer them as suggestions to the next Bishop of Rome:

1.  Make the Results of Each Ballot Public

How many news stories have you read in the last two weeks about the secrecy of the papal conclave? I must admit one positive from this centuries-old (and thoroughly outdated) system of electing the Bishop of Rome--media fascination. There's an undeniable mystique about it all, but that's exactly what's wrong with the process. In this moment of heightened scrutiny, wavering loyalties, and outright anger, the best thing the Roman Church could do is publish the tallies of each ballot for all the world to see. When the public can see how the will of the Spirit and the will of the electorate coalesce around a candidate, speculations about back-room deals and party politics (a la  the NYT's Romans vs. Reformers) evaporate. More than anything else, this would be a signal to the world that the RCC isn't ashamed of how God works through its princes to elect a pope. That restores confidence in the papacy and in the church hierarchy as a whole.

2. End the Communications Ban

Sure, votes should be private. How I voted in the past isn't public information, nor should it be. But I should be free to discuss the process and my sense of the Spirit's leadership with whomever I wish. By setting up jamming devices to prevent any incoming or outgoing communication reinforces the sense that what happens in the Sistine Chapel stays in the Sistine Chapel. Friends, this isn't Vegas. The world should know what priorities the leaders of the church hold most dear. Right now, all we have is speculation. Some people think this group wants an affable fellow to wear the white cassock. Some people think another group wants a strong, take-charge autocrat to hold the reigns (keys). But why can't they tell us that themselves? In the Episcopal Church, we hold communications during the actual balloting, but, in the days and weeks before and after the election, we are encouraged to share our own reflections and seek the input of others. Isn't this an opportunity for the RCC to show the world what it really thinks is important?

3. Take Longer than Fifteen Days to Hold an Election

Needless to say, this election is a big deal. It should be. So why, then, do we think the cardinals can go from the shock of the pope's resignation to the election of his successor in less than three weeks? That's insanity. Sure, the world moves fast, but, in this case, it shouldn't. I know, I know--there are lots of papal bureaucracies (like accepting a bishop's resignation) that only the pope can do, but they can fix that. In the Episcopal Church, we have Standing Committees to take up the slack when a see is vacant. That might be going too far, but can't the church acknowledge that a decision of this magnitude deserves at least a month or two of consideration? Let Catholics from around the world have input in the process. Let someone who doesn't sleep in red underwear voice an opinion that gets heard. Although I'm not suggesting that the Cardinals have a Walkabout (aka "dog and pony show") in which candidates are interviewed by the worldwide church, but I do think the whole world should be given time to think and pray and talk about what the church might need in its next pope.

There are other things to think about. In the Episcopal Church, we have two houses--clergy and lay--that elect our leaders. We permit women to serve in all levels of leadership in the church. We do lots of things that might help our Roman brothers (and sisters), but let's start small. And by small I mean with three earth-shattering changes. Let us see how the balloting works. Stop muzzling the cardinals who want to talk about how God is speaking to them. Pause long enough to let the whole church offer input into the process. It might not make for very good television, but it could make for a much better church.

Intimate Friendship

What a difference friendship makes! This Sunday—the fifth in Lent—we have the anointing of Jesus’ feet with precious ointment. It’s a sign of burial preparation. It’s a gesture of love. It’s a controversial moment of physical intimacy between Jesus and a woman named Mary. But, unlike the synoptic versions, which involves either an unidentified woman or, as Luke puts it, a prostitute, this lesson—John’s version—portrays that love between two friends.

Until today, I hadn’t realized that the anointing appears in all four canonical gospels. Matthew and Mark, predictably, give us very similar expressions of the same story: Jesus goes to Simon’s house and a woman anoints him on the head with costly perfume. Luke characteristically takes the story a step further and gives us a “woman of the city, a sinner” who pours the ointment on his feet but only after bathing them with her tears and hair—a really exaggerated gesture that makes even 21st-century dinner guests uncomfortable. Then John, as he so often does, takes a narrative and weaves it into his own story seemingly to suit his own unique purpose.

Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, the man Jesus had raised from the dead. Jesus has come to his friends’ house. Lazarus is sitting at the table with Jesus and his companions. Martha is serving the dinner guests, and Mary takes a jar of costly perfume, breaks it open, anoints Jesus’ feet with it, wiping them with her hair, and allowing the fragrance to fill the whole house. John recalls for us the tension between Judas Iscariot and Jesus: “Why was not this perfume sold…and the money given to the poor?” And Jesus states plainly why this was important: “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” That’s a little confusing—Jesus isn’t dead yet—but we see the connection well enough. Jesus is on his way to the capital city, where he will be killed soon enough.

But back to friendship. John is the only one who puts Mary of Bethany on the administering end of the anointing. She is the sister of Lazarus—the man at whose tomb Jesus wept, deeply disturbed by his death. In fact, when John introduces that scene in chapter 11, he starts by calling Mary the one who anointed his feet—a foretelling of what happens in this Sunday’s gospel. Mary is the one who ran out to see Jesus while her brother’s dead body lay in the tomb. She is the one who fell at his feet, weeping and crying out, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

Unlike her sister, however, Mary hasn’t had a moment where she says aloud, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ.” Maybe this is her moment. Maybe the anointing is her way of acknowledging in public her faith in the Christ. Or maybe it’s a way of showing that, like Jesus, she is overcome with emotion at the thought of her friend’s upcoming death. Maybe the costly perfume is the only way for two people who love each other deeply to acknowledge that love while still remaining friends.

I think this gospel lesson is about friendship. Or maybe I just want it to be about friendship. Jesus goes to Bethany—the place where his friends live. He stops there on his way to Jerusalem to receive the ministrations of his closest friends and to be anointed for burial. Mary plays her part—the friend who gives all that she has to the one she loves. Is there a similar role for us to play as we prepare for Jesus’ passion?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Adam's Sin Unmasked

Do you ever read a familiar passage from scripture and see it more clearly than you ever have before? Ever had that happen and not really know why? This morning, I read the New Testament lesson (Romans 5:12-21) and thought, “You know, I don’t know why, but that actually makes sense to me today.”

Paul writes about sin. He’s using some typology that I’ve always found both helpful and confusing: Adam and Moses and Jesus and sin and grace. This time, though, instead of trying to line everything up, I think I read the lesson as a broad-brush picture, and I saw something new. This morning, one little piece of the puzzle jumped out at me, and I find myself celebrating the modernist Paul whose words stick out of this lesson like a 19th-century rationalist.

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned-- sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. (Romans 5:12-14)

Paul uses the Genesis account of Adam to explain something more basic than that. He isn’t necessarily insisting on Adam’s role in sin, but he’s offering that as a tool that we may or may not find helpful. Basically, what I hear this morning is this:

Sin is real.
Sin is universal.
Sin leads to death.
The law highlights that fact.
But the law doesn’t change it.
Only Jesus can.

Anytime we deal with fundamental forces of human nature, we like to use stories to convey those truths. It’s harder to talk in the abstract about “original sin” and the human condition. It’s easier to tell a story that we all identify with. My problem has always been reading what Paul wrote as if it was a systematic approach to sin and redemption. You can systematize Paul, and Romans is a great place to start. But I wonder if that leaves something hanging.

Paul has an exciting story to tell. It’s a story that has shaken him to the core. But Paul uses familiar images to convey a truth that his readers would understand. I don’t think he’s asking us to understand exactly how all the Adam and Jesus images line up. Instead, he wants us to see the truth of sin and redemption in ways that we connect with.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Putting Down the Map

Sometimes Jesus says things that I have a hard time believing.

In today’s gospel lesson (John 8:12-20), Jesus said, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but with have the light of life.” Never walk in darkness? Never? I’ve been alive for 32 years, and, for all of that time that I can remember, I’ve been trying to follow Jesus. And, even though I haven’t been alive long enough to experience the full depth of darkness that life can bring, I’ve found myself in some pretty dark places. And most of those dark times have not resulted because I’ve forgotten to follow him. In fact, sometimes following him leads specifically to those places of struggle.

And that’s where the trap is. It’s the same trap the Pharisees, whom Jesus addressed in this reading, fell into. Jesus said, “You don’t know where I’ve come from nor where I’m going.” I forget that following Jesus isn’t a journey down a path of feeling good. Being a disciple doesn’t mean everything is “coming up roses.” In fact, following Jesus rarely looks like a birthday party. It usually looks more like a journey through wilderness.

If I’m following Jesus, where should I expect him to lead? His path leads to the cross. His path leads to death. His path leads to shame and struggle and torture and abandonment and agony. Yet, of course, that path is not the end of the journey. Life is not about pain. The “light of life” that Jesus offers is an answer to that pain and struggle—not a denial of it.

Jesus is the light of the world, the light of life. That is the light that shines on the path ahead. And what does that mean? It means that our suffering is not empty. It means that we do not carry the burden of this life alone. To walk in the light of Christ does not mean sparklers and streamers and fireworks. It means knowing that even the path of suffering is a path that God has set before us. We are not alone in this life. There is no place of darkness where the light of God’s love cannot reach.

I’m following Jesus. That means I need to put down my own map and let him lead. He may not go where I want him to go, but I won’t be by myself on the journey. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Wading in Deep

Is it just me, or has it become harder to be a prophet in recent years?

I read today’s Old Testament lesson (Jeremiah 7:21-34) and thought, “You couldn’t say anything close to that these days.” Delivering the sharp message of judgment, Jeremiah predicts that the valley of Topheth will have its name changed to “the valley of slaughter” because the corpses will fill it like an overstuffed landfill. And, yes, according to Jeremiah, that’s God’s will.

Hyperbole has its place in modern preaching, but I don’t think you could go that far and get away with it. Why is that? What about our religious culture has changed so significantly that a message that is considered sacred—the inspired word of God—if uttered today would be labeled as blasphemy? Have we changed? Has our understanding of God changed? Is that a good thing?

I certainly believe it’s a good thing that we don’t look at someone in the midst of their disaster and say, “Tough cookies; I guess God is mad at you.” But I also don’t think it’s right for us to be so squeamish about God’s role in those horrible moments that we can’t talk about it. I feel like the only acceptable pastoral responses to a person surrounded by tragedy is either A) shrug your shoulders and claim ignorance or B) insist blindly that God isn’t involved without offering any reasonable justification for that claim.

I think part of the problem is our enlightenment. We’ve discovered that God isn’t an angry, vengeful, punishing God who is waiting to strike us down with lightening (or train wrecks or earthquakes or cancer). We can probably all agree that that’s not how God works. But, because of that, we’ve implicitly decided that God’s will must reflect what we think about God and not the other way around. We’ve created God in our own image. If it’s what we think is bad, then it’s not of God. If it’s what we think is good, then it is of God. Earthquakes = bad = not God. Victory over our enemies = good = of God. But that’s exactly why we need prophets. We can’t trust ourselves.

No one likes a prophet. Prophets are always pointing out what’s wrong and explaining how a failure to act (repent) will lead to terrible consequences. But just because we don’t like prophets doesn’t mean we should run them out of town as soon as they open their mouths. Maybe it’s time for us to create a safe space (non-judgmental) to allow people to ask, “Where is God in the tragedy?” and to allow the prophets among us to help us see that, perhaps, “judgment” is God’s will.

Disclaimers: I’m not suggesting that God punishes us for our transgressions. I’m on the record as being a strong believer in God’s impassability, which means he isn’t affected by the created order. But I am wondering whether we can say that “bad things” are “God’s will.” If it’s easier to talk about it in the abstract (hypothetical earthquakes) than it is in the concrete (my nephew’s cancer diagnosis), that’s fine. But why can’t we simply ask whether the consequences of our actions (or more obliquely the consequences of original sin) are part of how God intends the universe to work?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Don't Overpreach It!

Of all the parables, Jesus’ tale of the prodigal son has taken on a life of its own. It has inspired paintings. It has become the basis for the plot of several movies. It has been told and retold—both within and outside the Christian context—so many times that people sometimes forget that it is a parable. In other words, the story has become so important that we sometimes forget that it was originally just a story.

The authors of the lectionary keep verses 1-3 of Luke 15 as a way of forcing us to remember the context of the story of the prodigal son: “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So Jesus told them this parable.” Jesus, the wise storyteller, comes up with a brilliant tale just in time to stymie his critics.

What the casual listener on Sunday morning may not realize is that Sunday’s gospel omits two other parables in verses 4-10—the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin. The three come one after another without interruption. None of them is intended to be Jesus’ entire reply to the Pharisees and scribes. All three, taken together, are supposed to underscore the fundamental nature of God as one who searches for the lost. Sheep, coins, and a wayward son—all three of them are images of the lost who are found.

I think the biggest mistake preachers can make with the prodigal son is to over interpret it. I’ve heard clergypeople identify this parable as a summary of the gospel. But it isn’t presented to us as the prototype for faith. Sure, it has elements of repentance and forgiveness. Yes, it contains evidence of God’s unconditional love and grace. Some might call it a tale of salvation, but I think it has more power in its original context.

God seeks the lost. God welcomes back the estranged. Although there may be implications for those of us who have gone astray, the real thrust here is a message of further inclusion to those who are already included. Jesus isn’t preaching to the tax collectors and sinners whom he welcomes back. He’s telling the religious elites to open their hearts.

Sunday’s sermon on the prodigal son shouldn’t be aimed at the people who aren’t in church. It’s a message to those in the pews. “Look around you,” a preacher might say to his congregation. “Who isn’t here? Whom have we excluded?” Whether we intend it or not, we shut out the divorced, the unemployed, the elderly, the disabled, the poor, the noisy, the rabble, the punks, the druggies, the drunks. What sort of person welcomes them to their table? Jesus. Then why are all the people in the pews like you and me—people who have their act together?