The Resurrection of Our Lord/Easter Day (C)
Change is the hardest thing – not for God, but for us. We not only cling to traditions, but our physiology, our brain chemistry, scientists tell us, is wired against change. And Social Scientists, noting this as well, use the term “stasis,” the kind of pull we feel to always return, or stay with, what we know best, like the comfort of an old shoe. Of course the world changes all around us, whether we want it to or not. And so, Jesus gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit so that we can adapt to change in this extraordinary and multi-faceted world God made for us. In addition, we know that in our post-modern world, everything is relative, so at any given moment, one tradition is not the same as the other. And each culture does not experience the world in the same way, and doesn’t enjoy the same power, as others do. And so our desire, our need, and our hope for change, varies greatly.
So, what does all this mean? And what does this have to do with the Resurrection of Our Lord? Let’s break it down, one issue at a time. First tradition: We all love tradition! I mean, who doesn’t like egg bake and Swedish coffee cake?! OMG! That doesn’t need to change, ever! Even if you come from a different culture that didn’t grow up with these treats, chances are you could adapt for a day! It just tastes so good, unless you’re a vegan or don’t eat refined sugar, I suppose. Hmm… But food traditions, we can largely either enjoy, or just say no to, and there’s no harm, no foul. Of course, there is that ham thing, and whether or not eating off the pig, and how it was raised, is ethical. Peter, in our 1st reading, was actually wrestling with something like this issue: Whether or not to eat foods that weren’t Kosher.
So, tradition can be good because it reinforces identity, and a sense of belonging, as when Peter was resistant to eating unclean foods, lizards and toads and camels, not because they sounded disgusting, but because it helped keep his culture together for over 2 millennia. By these traditions, they knew they were Jewish!
But, this tradition was also holding Peter, and the whole Christian church, back. The world was changing around Peter. Stuff happens! For Peter and those writing the stories in the book of Acts, it’s what was happening to the Temple, the center of Jewish identity, that was one of the major sources of change. The Temple had been desecrated and then destroyed, but Jesus, the crucified savior, his followers came to understand, had offered himself as a new, boundary-less temple, the risen Son of God, himself worthy of worship and praise, and a bridge-builder between peoples. I get it, said Peter! God truly shows no partiality!
It took Peter some time to change, and get to that place, however! He had to process the amazement
he felt, looking in on the empty tomb on Easter morning, to be ready, sometime later, in meeting Cornelius the Gentile Centurion, when he could finally say: “I truly understand that …in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Not just my culture and people, but all cultures and people are welcome to worship the God we know in Jesus.
And so part of Easter morning is waking up to a new, radical-inclusion of all peoples, a change that brings the hope of reconciliation, peace and justice to all. The resurrection means, our
becoming this Body of Christ, that lives and breathes radical-inclusion, a welcome and a hospitality, for all.
It is sometimes hard for us to accept this value which prizes inter-dependence over individual freedom. But it is a free choice, a choice of loving your neighbor as yourself,
over against, choosing to build up your barns and becoming rich
Americans, of course, have this belief that there is nothing wrong with getting rich, as long as you are a good person, someone who shares, someone who still cares, and you don’t forget where you came from. But we’ve also heard by now some of the statistics about income and wealth inequality which have been widening precipitously. A popular example is, if you take two of our richest people, people that we all know, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, together their wealth nearly equals what the bottom 40% of Americans have, or 120 million people; and, that part of the reason the rich are getting richer, is the political influence money can buy in Washington. And we now know it was Wall Street money, and the lobbying of “banks too big to fail” in particular, that was significant, if not decisive, in bringing down the economy in 2008.
But beyond that even, the result for us, backed up by recent studies, is that the rich are less ethical
than others, in the words of one researcher, and more apt to disregard the [well being] of others, because
to continue in the pursuit of wealth, quote: “causes people to prioritize self-interest and perceive greed as positive and beneficial.” Today’s super-rich have been characterized as “increasingly a nation unto themselves.” (The Progressive, March 2013)
But this kind of nation, or culture, is not the breaking down of walls, within our global village, but only finding a new way to build them up – to divide and create partitions, and partiality
. Getting rich can indeed hurt the rest of us, by entombing and killing off precious resources, and turning a blind eye to lay-offs, joblessness, and the working poor – issues Jesus addressed often.
Not only is this a failure of democracy, which threatens to pull us all down, but it’s an ethic of stasis
and greed that have wandered far from the influence and saving gift of the Holy Spirit we know in our resurrected and risen Christ. Change is hard enough for any of us, but perhaps hardest for those who have, most to lose.
When the women “went to the tomb at early dawn, taking the spices that they had prepared,” they were un
-prepared for the change that transformed the grave-site of Jesus. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb.
Their first thought would have been, grave robbers, and indeed Jesus was not inside. But two men in dazzling clothes, angels,
were there, that announced, he had risen.
And asked, Why do you look for the living among the dead
?! Not a normal conversation you’d expect from bandits! Change is not hard for God and angels, only for us.
possible, however, even for us, when we as a people of faith and conviction, have a vision and a mission, that is ignited and fueled by the life and message, the death and resurrection, of Our Lord. Whether small things like, organizing a delicious breakfast of egg bake and coffee breads, and, transforming this sanctuary from plain and ordinary Lent and Holy Week, into a beautiful garden of spring flowers. Or in bigger things, like fore-seeing a plan to space share our building with mission-driven neighbors and once again fill it with life to serve our community. Or, even in really big things, like working for Mental Health Justice, quality low-income housing, the new Trans-House, and keeping our schools open and strong, in our neighborhood. Christ is risen, change, is possible!
“Remember how Jesus told you,” said the angels, “while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again?” The change that Jesus went through, in his life for us, included facing up to the powers of this world. So the question for us is: What change is harder to believe, that the stone of Jesus’ tomb is rolled away and he has risen? Or, that students in our schools, left with inadequate resources and high drop-out rates, and now having to face worse if their schools are closed and they also have to walk or ride through dangerous gun-ridden neighborhoods, can be resurrected and saved? Isn’t this what change looks like? People who are willing to stand up for our kids, and give them something better!? Teachers who are giving their all and then some?! Doesn’t the change we want, look a lot like the PCO after-school program here at Unity, that reaches out to “at-risk” kids and mentors them through middle school, high school and college, and makes sure they have the best chance for the abundant new life Jesus offers?!
Change is hard, by ourselves. But when we follow Jesus to Galilee, and join the culture of new life and the resurrection, the culture that truly understands that there is no partiality,
and the culture that has conquered death
, we are unafraid of change any longer! Amazing
is just what we see every day; angels are there to help us; greed is not all that tempting; and hanging out and working for the vision and mission of Jesus our risen Lord, is as natural, and delicious, as egg bake and Swedish Bakery coffee cake!
WORD MADE FLESH
“And God saw everything that was made. And God said, ‘It is very good.’”
But from that moment on, humanity went on to speak back to God. Everything is not good.
There are times when good people do good things.
We celebrate Nobel prizes for peace and local heroes who put their lives at risk to better the lives of others.
But everything is not good.
Power and fame become goals for teenagers and politicians; for corporate leaders and for gangbangers.
Being human, we believe, means choosing to do some things well and choosing to do other things
out of a hunger to make ourselves better by pushing others aside – even to hurt or kill.
That’s what it is to be human we simply say to ourselves;
as if to offer a perfectly acceptable answer for the sad, bad, and even evil things we find ourselves choosing.
But out of simple word, God chose to create sun and moon, planets and our planetary home.
Out of simple word, God created waters filled with living creatures and lands filled with plants, animals, and us. And out of simple word God chose to meet humanity’s life’s predicament.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him.
In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it……
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
From his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace upon grace.”
He rose up from being buried by water in the Jordan to have God speak the words:
“This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him!”
And, like a conquering hero, he told the devil that his days of power and control were numbered.
He quoted words of scripture to his family to reveal his mission.
“The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; release to the captives; sight to the blind;
freedom to the oppressed.”
He called out “follow me” and taught a new philosophy that the poor would inherit a kingdom;
those who hunger would be filled; those who weep would laugh.
He even said “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
But now, the Word who is part of creation’s goodness;
who became human in a stable; who taught and preached and healed and even raised the dead;
this Word incarnate is now treated like the enemy.
All those very human traits – selfishness, lust for power, fear of loss- seem to hover around him.
Judas, one his closest, brings soldiers and temple police with torches and weapons to arrest him.
And with simple words of identification (“I am he”) they fall to the ground.
But because he loves his own so much, he allows those powerless power-seekers to arrest him.
“I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me,” he prays to the Father.
Peter, another of his dear friends, has the opportunity to show himself as a brave disciple
but, instead, three times Peter declares with an oath, “I am not!”
Words, words, words!
Annas and Caiphas, men who know the words of scripture and who offer
sacrifices on behalf of the people in the Temple use words to trick the
Word-made-flesh into giving them an excuse to have him killed.
“It would be better to have one person die” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for Caiphas.
The Jewish leaders want to have this Jesus of Nazareth business finished!
Pilate challenges the Word-made-flesh to a verbal duel.
“Are you the king of the Jews?” “So you are a king?” “What have you done?”
“Don’t you know that I have the power?”
But when Jesus challenges Pilate to think about what is really true, all he can do is throw his
hands in the air and proclaim, “What is truth?”
So, in the end, Pilate puts on a show for the Jewish leaders.
He releases a terrorist because they will not allow Jesus to go free.
He allows the soldiers to beat Jesus; flog him;
place a crown of thorns into the flesh of his head; dress him mockingly in a royal robe and
orders him to be crucified.
Getting up from Gabbatha, the seat of power, Pilate gives in to the angry crowd.
Do you really have power?
Echoing through his mind are his own words“what is truth?”
Finally,Pilate is just happy that he is finished with Jesus.
It is finished, he fools himself into thinking.
But just to make sure he has covered all the bases, he commands a label to be placed
on the instrument of Jesus’ torturous death:
“Jesus of Nazareth; King of the Jews.”
He wants to be finished.
But he does not have the power to finish it.
Neither do the Jewish leaders.
Neither do the soldiers carrying out the punishment.
Neither do the disciples who run away and hide.
Neither do those few who stand at the foot of the cross while he hangs between two criminals.
The Marys are there: the wife of Clopas, Magdalene, and his mother;
and with them the disciple whom he loved.
“Woman, here is your son,” he breaths out to his mother.
To John, he speaks, “here is your mother.” And John remembers the night before
when, washing the disciples’ feet,
the Word incarnate gives a new commandment; a new word never spoken before:
“Love one another as I have loved you.”
Having taken care of those he knows he will leave behind, he offers one more word of broken humanity:
“I am thirsty.”
And then with the power and authority of the Word which was in the beginning with God at creation;
with the power and authority of God who so loves the world, with one word
It is finished!
It is accomplished.
What was planned from the very beginning; what all the power of church and state could not stop;
what has puzzled and confused people from that moment until this one; GOD DIES FOR HUMANITY.
Episcopal priest, Amy Richter writes:
“And so Jesus’ word, word of Word incarnate, this one word, which we translate as “It is finished,”
is the final punctuation on a sentence begun before all that is,
before we were knit together in our mothers’ wombs,
before the first light, first life, first spark, first dream, first bursting forth of creation.
The final punctuation on a sentence spoken in love, spoken across space and time;
through ages, prophets, patriarchs, matriarchs, sages, and in these last days, spoken to us by a son:
Words. Words. Words. Words of love spoken through teaching and preaching;
love reaching out, healing, embracing, lifting up;
calls “beloved” those whom humanity calls wrong.
Those whom humanity bullies and batters;
those whom humanity sees as poor, weak, small, outcast, sinner, “other”;
these now become sisters and brothers to one another; children of God;
those who would dare to lay down their lives for the Word-made-flesh because,
finally, with truth and power and authority and glory
IT IS FINISHED!
This is now a GOOD Friday.
The Word of God incarnate has spoken the word that sets us finally free:
IT IS FINISHED!
Jesus' Public-Private Reconciliation, Pastor Kinsey
The Three Days: Maundy Thursday (C)
God never wearies of forgiving sin, and giving the peace of reconciliation.
Behind closed doors, at the Last Supper, Jesus did not say or do something different than he had all along in public. As he taught and healed, and made his way to Jerusalem – the city that kills its prophets – he remained consistent and true to himself and his mission. On this night, in the upper room, just before his glorification, Jesus gave the clearest example yet of his forgiving love and peace, behind closed doors, within the intimacy of his closest friends. On the night in which he was betrayed
, he went the extra mile
and got down on his knees -as servants and slaves do- to wash his disciple’s feet
. “The last must be first,” Jesus had taught along the way. “Do not take the seat of honor, when you are invited to a dinner party, but wait to be called up higher.” And in Jesus’ parable about the great dinner
, when the important guests made feeble excuses not to come to the eschatological banquet, he declared that we should just go ahead and go out into the streets and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame
to feast at the communion table.
With words and demonstrations of love, Jesus taught and lived this example in all he did. And on this night, the night in which he was betrayed
, Jesus whispers in our ear, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer [but] I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another…”
Jesus calls it a new
commandment, but it is not new for him, only for us. For us, the sound of the term, foot washing, and even, forgiveness of our sin, can be jarring. So let's just say, in the words of our liturgy this evening, that in Jesus, we come to know that God never wearies of forgiving sin, and giving the peace of reconciliation.
Whether behind closed doors, or publically, this is good news to us. Not like the president of the Chicago Teachers Union who yesterday publically accused the Mayor of working behind closed doors to come up with the recommendation to close 53 schools, and thereby taking away the rights of students and parents; Or the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who publically accused the President of devising, behind closed doors, a gut-less policy of not defending DOMA.
And not like any of us, really, who in our humanity, whether we admit it openly or not, usually default to, defending our own interests, enjoying personal independence and the virtue of needing no one. We like to be in control more than surrendering; and deciding behind closed doors what works best for us. Yet the community ideal, all things being equal says Jesus, is inter-dependence and inter-communion with all things and all Being. Therefore, God loves vulnerability! In Jesus, we see a God who, whether behind closed doors or out in the open publically, fully discloses – for the sake of the other, and for our abundant life in this global village we share.
Where are the leaders who have the courage for this Grace-filled model, to love one another as Jesus loves us? Though Jesus and the martyrs are continually being sacrificed from Jerusalem to Memphis, we are not disheartened, for we have the gospels’ and their eternal witness. Jesus washed the disciple’s feet, not as some kind of test if we can stand the smell of our neighbor’s feet, but as a jarring and powerful transformation of a well-worn, everyday custom, of a 1st century Palestinian tradition, that only servants
wash the feet of their masters
. “[But] That I, your Lord and Teacher,” said Jesus, “have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet… Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master… Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another…,” he says.
Jesus loved, by giving himself away – by losing himself. Genuine love always means losing oneself – in another's arms, in another's laughter, in another's tears, and in doing so, to find ourselves, and our true humanity. This was and is the love of Jesus, who lost himself and gave himself up for us in his public ministry, culminating on the cross. And in rising, the first born of the dead, he now lives in us who are his body, the baptized, gathered by his Spirit. The love that Jesus commands, he also gives. (Phrases in this paragraph from: "Proclaiming a Crucified Eschaton," by Frederick Niedner, Institute for Liturgical Studies, Valparaiso University, copyright 1998, pp. 10-14.)
On this night, the night in which he was betrayed
, Jesus, in the intimacy of the Last Supper, behind closed doors, shares with his closest friends exactly what he will demonstrate publically, on Good Friday and Easter, in his death and resurrection. He loves us, and asks us to love one another, and in giving ourselves away, we become leaders who lead by being servants.
The banquet is set before us. And, in the bread and wine of the Last Supper, just as in Jesus’ foot washing, we receive a new commandment
, celebrating that God never wearies of forgiving sin, and giving the peace of reconciliation
"Counter-Intelligence," by Pastor Fred
The drama of Jesus’ Passion is unfolding (after 15 minute Gospel reading!) …And, I bet your thinking right about now, when is this thing gunna end?! When’s the intermission?! We know how this drama ends, already – so why do we have to be tortured too?
All I can say is, this is our story. The death and resurrection of Christ, is each and every one of our stories. And the passion story continues to change and transform us anew, each and every year we hear it. The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward,
in this case, God's kingdom – though, sometimes it seems like chaos is winning. And so hearing the Passion once a year, twice if you come on Good Friday, is probably not too much, especially if we decide we want to center our lives, “in the joyful procession of those who with their tongues confess Jesus as Lord, and with [our] lives praise him as Savior.” (Prayer of the Day)
This Holy Week, then, is an opportunity for us to ask the question: How are our personal stories intertwined with, in, and around the Passion story?
What has struck me in its reading this time, something that is still working on me, is the innocence of Jesus
- how many see and acknowledge it - and yet there is still this inevitability of his arrest and trial, his torture and execution, that are unstoppable. Why? Why is that?
For one, of course, we have the advantage of 20/20 hindsight. The Passion story was shaped by the apostles in such a way that we might see what they failed to see as they went through it. Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, goes uncomplaining forth
. But the question still remains: Why?
On the 10th anniversary of the declaration of war in Iraq this past week, stories of its most famous whistle-blower started popping up here and there. As with a kiss, Bradley Manning was handed over to be arrested some 3 years ago for allegedly giving classified information to WikiLeaks. He is still awaiting trial, scheduled finally for June 3rd. Private Manning was subject to torturous conditions, a clear violation of pre-trial standards, or any Constitutional standards, really, and has been held in military detention, in Iraq, Kuwait, Quantico, Virginia and Leavenworth, Kansas. Of the 22 charges he faces in military court, Manning denies that his intention was to compromise U.S. security. Instead, in a two-hour testimony, reading a 35 page statement on Feb 28, Manning “detailed charge by charge how he only wanted to tell the truth about the war crimes, not to aid the enemy,” and “to place the truth into the public record, a priority that exceeds any concern for his own personal well-being,” which indeed is now in jeopardy.
Just as it was hard for the country to see 10 years ago that going to war with Iraq was a mistake, Bradley Manning, and the shame he has revealed about war crimes, cover-ups, and the fraud and waste of millions of U.S. dollars, is practically invisible to us. The government says they will not seek the death penalty, but Manning could serve many years, if not life. The truth has come out, but the country doesn’t seem ready or equipped to deal with it, even as this sacrificial scapegoat, ironically, understands and accepts his fate – and, “goes uncomplaining forth.”
Jesus stood trial, twice in Luke’s Passion: first before Pilate, the local Roman ruler in Jerusalem, who could find no truth to the 3-fold charges that, (1) Jesus perverted the nation, (2) forbid taxes to Caesar, or (3) claimed to be a king. Pilate then sends Jesus to Herod Antipas, who is in town for the Passover from his kingdom in Galilee. King Herod is first excited to finally meet Jesus, but soon disappointed that Jesus would do no miraculous tricks for him. And when Jesus declined to comment on Herod’s question if he was a king, or Messiah, as a parting gift, “Herod put an elegant robe on Jesus,” a mockery and public bullying, before releasing him back to Pilate.
In one of the oddest, yet most telling details of the Passion story in Luke, “Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that day; [though] before this they had been enemies,” it says. Politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows
, and they came to an understanding so that both of them could wash their hands of Jesus. In the end, however, wanting it both ways, they would not stand in the way of the crowds' insistent demand to crucify him
. An innocent victim, offered up like a paschal lamb, Herod & Pilate knew, would bring peace, at least for a time, despite the utter injustice of it.
So, one possible answer to Making Sense of the Cross might be: Jesus must die to satisfy our sin. But in this particular story, this Passion story, we see our sin, wonderfully (sic), in a whole new way. Our sin is also a failure of “sacred” sacrifice to be truly effective anymore, because it is revealed so blatantly as, not right, justice that is not done, not according to the loving God we have come to know and understand in Jesus.
And so what we see is that the Passion invites us to walk into a new world, a new reality. This Passion invites us to walk into the story of counter-intelligence, where a new and deeper truth about who we are, has been leaked and revealed; or as St Paul said, a story with a stumbling block, where we are set free to see that the cross is not folly, but wisdom. And once we have walked in, once we have taken the story into our hearts by faith, we no longer see Jesus, or the Bradley Manning’s as demons, or even victims to be sacrificed, but as the truth-tellers who are our true kings and leaders, willing to sacrifice themselves, so that now, we will be able to follow them, and take up the cross of Jesus, or really, our own crosses; in order that no more innocent victims will die.
This is a counter-intelligence that is not found in the wisdom of the world, but only comes by way of the Spirit, from the “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” from “the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”
In asking, how are our personal stories intertwined with, in, and around the Passion story, we find that the Passion invites us to walk into a counter-intelligence story, and experience, not only the world as we know it, but the world and realm of God’s grace that changes and transforms us, so that we “joyfully” desire to center our lives, “in the procession of those who with their tongues confess Jesus as Lord, and with [our] lives praise him as Savior.”
The Fifth Sunday in Lent (C)
From Skeptic to Believer to Disciple to Friend
Since we began this Lenten journey, we have heard from Luke’s
gospel how determined Jesus was to go to Jerusalem and complete God’s plan to
conquer Satan, sin and death through his own death at the hands of political and
But, with only a week to go before Jesus actually enters the Holy City, the Church has given us
a gospel reading from John’s gospel.
And it is not a story about Jesus’ determination to die.
It is a story about time he spent with his friends.
You remember, of course, the story that precedes today’s Gospel.
Jesus was at the Jordan River.
He was there because there were already threats against his life.
While he was preaching at the Jordan, word came from Bethany that his
dear friend Lazarus was ill.
Mary and Martha wanted him to come to Bethany to heal their brother.
But instead, Jesus stayed two more days at the Jordan before making the trip to Bethany.
The disciples tried to stop Jesus, warning him that going back to Judea meant the possibility
that he would be killed.
But Jesus had something important in mind for his disciples and for his friends:
Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
When he arrived in Bethany, Lazarus was already dead four days; so dead that his body stank;
so dead that Jesus stood in front of his tomb and wept for the friend he loved so much.
Then he shouted so loudly that he scared death away.
And Lazarus walked out of the tomb, his burial cloths falling off of him like a cocoon.
And, it is this event, in John’s gospel, that sets in motion everything that was to follow Jesus because
some of those who witnessed Lazarus’ resurrection became believers that day.
But others, knowing that there might be a reward from the Chief Priests and Pharisees, made their way
quickly to Jerusalem to report that Jesus was getting close to Jerusalem.
By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus had moved from “manageable nuisance” to “serious threat.”
Jesus, knowing that he must die at the Passover, takes his disciples to safety in Ephraim near the wilderness.
This gives the religious authorities time to influence the Roman authorities.
Surely, Pilate would not want this kind of a threat to stability in Jerusalem when hundreds of
thousands were coming to celebrate the Passover.
They had to put Jesus to death – and Lazarus too, since it was on account of Lazarus’ resurrection
that many Jews were becoming believers.
On his way back to Jerusalem (he HAD to go there!) Jesus spends
just one more night with his good friends: Lazarus, Martha and Mary.
Lazarus’ body probably still had the smell of death on it.
Martha, as was Martha’s way, got busy preparing a good meal and a house
of rest - for her Lord, yes; but more than Lord, her friend.
They reclined around the table to eat.
Everything (except maybe Lazarus) smelled good.
They must have talked about the good times they had all had together;
especially that day when Jesus brought Lazarus back to life.
They probably avoided talking about all those rumors about Jesus’ enemies wanting to
hunt him down to kill him.
At some time during the meal, Mary slipped away.
Martha was used to that.
Mary was always disappearing, even when she was sitting right there with everyone else.
Mary would get this look on her face like she was in another place;
like she was listening to music no one else could hear.
Soon, Mary came back holding a clay jar.
Without saying a word, Mary knelt at Jesus’ feet and broke the neck of the jar.
Immediately, the smell of the perfumed salve filled the room – no more dinner smells;
no more stinky Lazarus smells.
The smell was strong but soothing like the incense they knew from their visits to the Temple.
And, as everyone watched, Mary did four things; as remarkable as they were unusual.
She uncovered and unloosed her hair.
In a room full of men, it was not something an honorable Jewish woman ever did.
Then she poured the perfume on Jesus’feet.
They might have understood her anointing Jesus’ head – Jewish kings and prophets were
anointed this way and they thought of Jesus as both a prophet and a king.
Then, horror of horrors, she rubbed the perfumed salve into his weary feet.
A single Jewish woman touching a single man’s feet! Never done!
Then, to top this all off, she used her hair to wipe off the extra salve on his feet.
Most of us are so moved by this story of devotion that we don’t even question its appropriateness.
But Judas noticed it.
He complained that the perfume, which could feed a poor family for an entire year, was used so wastefully.
But Jesus tells Judas and everyone there, “Leave her alone! She has anointed me for my burial.”
Jesus knew that, by her actions, Mary was acting as a prophet.
For you see, perfumed oil was not only used to anoint kings and prophets,
but to anoint those who were to be buried.
By anointing Jesus’ feet, Mary was prophesying that Jesus was soon to die and be buried.
Soon after, during his last meal with his friends, Jesus would set aside his tunic;
wrap a towel around his waist; and wash the feet of his disciples.
Then he would give them a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.
Peter will object. Judas will have his feet washed and then leave to betray him.
But many probably remembered the prophet Mary washing Jesus’ feet with precious perfume
and wiping his feet with her hair.
And they will know that she had obeyed this new commandment even before he spoke it.
What does this all mean for us? I believe this tells us about a natural
progression in the lives of all who follow Jesus from skeptic to believer to disciple to friend.
Weeks ago, Mary (and her sister Martha) greeted Jesus at their brother’s tomb saying,
“If only you had been here, Lazarus might not have died. Why did you wait so long?
Why didn’t you heal him? Now he’s dead four days.”
They questioned Jesus.
They questioned his love for them and for their brother.
Maybe they even questioned that Jesus could make it better.
They questioned his love, his friendship, his power, his authority.
Just like we sometimes do!
In today’s Gospel, their friendship and love for Jesus renewed;
and certainly having their faith renewed in Jesus’ power and authority after Lazarus’resurrection,
they were firmly in the category of believers.
But Mary, perhaps because it was her nature, became more than a believer;
she became a true disciple and prophet.
Her faith moved her to act.
That’s what it means to be a disciple – not just to believe but to act.
And sometimes we move beyond faith to act like Jesus.
That’s what Paul is talking about in today’s second lesson.
No longer the skeptic; believing that Jesus is the Christ, Paul tells the Philippians that,
even while he is in prison, his daily life pushes him forward to act;
to BE the crucified and risen Christ; even to his jailors.
And the good news for us today is: no matter where we are at any given moment;
a questioning skeptic; a person of firm faith; a disciple who does God’s work through our own hands;
a loving friend; or a prophet whose dreams and visions give hope to our community –
no matter what, we are loved by God through our Lord and Savior Jesus, the Christ.
Our baptism anoints us into Jesus’ own death and resurrection.
Sealed by the Holy Spirit, nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Now, the only things we have to decide are what we are going to do with that beautiful and extravagant anointing.
Will we follow Jesus during Holy Week with the same devotion that Mary did?
Will we choose to be disciples of action and prophets of hope to the world in our daily living?
God, stay with us as we press onward in love, in peace, with strength and openness to those you call into our
March 10, 2013
The latest and greatest David E Kelly show on TNT, is called Monday Mornings. You might know David E Kelly if you were a fan of Boston Legal, or Ally McBeal, or Picket Fences. Monday Mornings is about a bunch of talented, some might say, conceited, surgeons, and the risky surgeries they love to do. In a recent episode, two doctors treat a homeless man, named Carter, who after spouting nonsense, something about CIA plots, ends up in the hospital psych ward where he is diagnosed with schizophrenia by the young Dr. Robidaux. Just to be sure, Robidaux asks Dr. Wilson for a consult, who orders an MRI which shows something completely different at play, a large brain tumor, which Wilson thinks has been there 5 years or more, and insists they prepare him for immediate surgery. In the O.R., Carter, still not in his right mind, now thinks Dr. Wilson is a CIA agent and refuses surgery. But they go ahead with it anyway, saying he’s not able to make an informed consent.
The good news is, the tumor is successfully removed, the risk seems to pay off, and Carter is a new man, he literally, returns to himself.
The other news – not sure if its good or bad – is that he now tells the doctors, his name isn’t Carter, but Bryan Cooper, and that he’s married and has two children. It’s then that he notices on the TV screen, over the doctor’s shoulder, that the year is 2013, which makes him agitated. The last time he had been Bryan Cooper, it was 2006.
Sure enough, the doctors track down his wife, who’s stunned, because Bryan had showed signs of confusion and personality change five or six years ago, she explains, and then suddenly, just disappeared. Unable to locate him, she had to go on with her life. And as difficult as it was, she had Bryan declared dead, and eventually she had remarried. Bryan, of course, is devastated by this news, but still, they agree to see each other.
And so in the final scene, there is no small amount of apprehension and anxiety, in anticipation of meeting again, after so much has changed. But there, in Bryan’s hospital room, the two daughters, now grown teenagers, tearfully hug their dad. And his wife – or ex-wife – filled with shock and wonder, and seemingly speechless, finally says, “welcome home, Bryan” as they all hug together! It is a joyous a return, under the circumstances. He was considered dead, and is now alive again!
What was lost is found
I find some interesting parallels here to Jesus’ parable of the man with two sons. For instance, there is a brokenness in the families when one leaves and is considered dead. And also similar is the return that reunites family. Neither story, utters the word “repent,” however. But there is great joy in the welcoming home!
Jesus tells a parable about a lost son, who eventually returns, and is welcomed home by an overjoyed father. Does the younger son repent – is an interesting question to ask of this story? Certainly he does hit bottom, before returning! After spending his inheritance away in a downward spiral of dissolute living
, you’d think that would be bottom. But actually it takes a stroke of bad luck, a famine, or a kind of Great Recession, to strike, which forces him to hire himself out to feed pigs in a pig pen, just to survive, until finally he realizes: “He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; [because] 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’!” Now at bottom, he decides to return, but simply to try and buy his way back into his father’s good graces as a hired hand
It’s interesting to me that he works in the food industry, but still is under-nourished! As crazy as that is, it may sound quite familiar to us! We know that in the food industry in this country – in orchards & farms, restaurants and grocery stores – the rate of those using Food Stamps is 50% higher compared with the general population. The minimum wage for restaurant workers, you might know, is $2.13/hour, plus tips, but still, for most, the take home pay is simply not enough. And so, 20 million food workers, some 1 in 6 of our total work force, toil every day …harvesting fields, killing and cutting up animals, packing boxes, driving trucks, cooking meals, ringing up orders, serving tables, and cleaning up our mess. And so, like the Latin American countries we import most of the rest of our fruit, vegetables and meat from, many of the workers who help to put food on our tables – including lots of hard working undocumented immigrants – don’t eat from the fields, farms and tables, the great bounty in which they work. They have no feast, and sometimes, little welcome!
At a discussion here at church the other day, someone told me how they heard a news story about how the Lutheran church is in decline, some have just walked away, and it surprised them. “Are we doing anything about that,” she asked?
Well yes, practically everything we do here at Unity is about that. Like being intentional as a welcoming worshiping community for each and every guest that walks in our doors; and in reaching out to the Arts, the LGBTQ, and immigrant communities, as we develop partners through our Space-Sharing program; or by the events you create (like Girls Wanna Have Fun); and also individually in how we tell the story of our faith and faith-community to others; how about in calling an Associate Pastor for outreach and mission- in so many ways, renewing and transforming, is what we’re about.
But it’s true, the way we do church, or better yet, the way we are church, has rapidly changed, our foundations have been shaken. Most of us experience it as, our children, siblings or friends leaving the church we call home, wandering away, while we wonder why. Why have they left? Aren’t they squandering their faith inheritance? Spending the gifts of God foolishly?
Though, I have heard those who have left, describe us
in similar terms! Why has the church squandered its inheritance on lavish buildings, insular programs, and feel-good suppers, while the world around them that God calls us to serve, is in turmoil and neglect. Doesn’t Jesus call us to serve those in need?
The Benedictine, Richard Rohr has said, “The cross is the standing statement of what we do to one another and to ourselves. The resurrection is the standing statement of what God does to us, in return
.” Lord, what have we done to one another?! Help us to know and live the resurrection.
So, the question is still on the table. Does the younger son repent? Does he need to? I’m not sure there is a clear answer. But I do notice when the son returns he starts to tell his father the speech we’ve already heard him rehearse back in the pig pen: “I have sinned against heaven, and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” The father, though, doesn’t let him finish his speech, and so never hears the part about, “…treat me like one of your hired hands.” For the father has already run out to embrace him and welcome him home as his lost son now found. He has been accepted! He cannot earn his way back as a hired hand
. Perhaps then, this is what it’s all about. Relationships! Often broken, sure – then, sometimes also repaired! We cause hurt and feel estrangement, and nothing is better than coming to our true selves,
to the incarnate whole person God has created us to be. It’s not about inheritance or property, the family farm or church-as-building. It’s about the community and building relationships, repairing and restoring that which is bound together, ultimately and most powerfully, by God’s Holy Spirit. Realizing we belong together in vision and mission, is the only thing that can create joy from sorrow, and life from death! Try and hold us back from celebrating that!
On the theme of repentance in our Parable, Richard Jensen says: “Repentance is our acceptance of the reality that God has found us in Christ Jesus. The father simply gives him back his sonship as an act of grace.” His repentance is then, “he accepts being found!”
(Preaching Luke’s Gospel, p.175)
Ironically, this may be the hardest thing to do: if repentance is not about our sackcloth and ashes, not about our guilt or working off our mistakes, but accepting that we are being found by God, that takes a true change of mind, a turning around and going in a new direction – which of course, is the literal meaning of repent.
“The cross is the standing statement of what we do to one another and to ourselves, and the resurrection is the standing statement of what God does to us, in return.” That kind of forgiveness can bring us from death to life, and transform us as a community of wayward entitlement, into a community in celebration at the table of grace. Welcome home, dad or mom; welcome home daughter or son – for you who were dead are now alive again; you who were lost are found!
Come to the feast!
Lent 3CThe Owner and the Gardener
Have you ever eaten a fig before? It’s not your everyday menu item, here in the cold mid-west! But knowing they are plentiful in the Mediterranean and Palestine, immediately I thought of the Middle East Bakery & Grocery on Foster just off Clark. And sure enough, they had two brands of packaged dried figs, imported from Turkey. They were tightly wrapped in plastic rounds of 25 or 30 figs each. As I considered which one to buy, I noticed a pint container of figs just a shelf above, which were larger yet, and even though there weren’t as many, were more expensive. Ah, and it had the Middle East Bakery & Grocery label on it. As I paid, I made sure there was no added sugar, and then asked if they were actually made there, and the man broke into a big sheepish and proud smile. Oh yes, I’m a fig farmer he said. I make these!
Well, I couldn’t wait until lunch time, and as soon as I got to church, I opened the container and chose the largest fig of all and took a big bite. Umh! As many of you know I give up sugary deserts for Lent, and this fruit was so sweet and delicious that I felt like I was cheating somehow, the little gooey seeds sticking to my teeth.
Figs are a kind of luxury and wonderful gift. The fig tree is also iconic for Israel, a kind of gift, the chosen people of God. And practically, it’s a very beautiful tree, the fig tree, its leaves are large and its branches welcoming and inviting to owners and guests alike, providing a place of shade and rest from the heat of the day.
Here in the city it’s so easy to feel disconnected from the land, and the source of our food and nutrition. But the ownership of the land and its wealth are still important, perhaps more so than ever.
Having been to the Palestinian West Bank of Israel, the Occupied Territories, I’ve seen the rocky soil that actually is perfect for growing fig trees. We visited farmers near Hebron, where families lived in villages, that by our standards at least, were extremely primitive. For centuries they have planted and harvested and never worried about their social standing. But living day to day, like this, has its risks. And when radical-fundamentalist Jewish Settlers, many from the United States, came to live illegally on the edge of their farms, occupying the highest hill across the valley, their way of life became threatened. In addition to verbal intimidation, and even throwing rocks at their school children walking to school, they began night raids. Not attacking villagers, but on the eve of the harvest, they came to uproot and destroy their fig trees. It’s a tactic that’s been used for a decade or more, as the radical Settlers try to push the Palestinians off their land and take it over.
As one young American working in Palestine said writing home: “I am a proud Ohio farm girl living and working as a Christian Peacemaker with our Palestinian partners in Palestine. [Coming from the farm life] My rootedness to the earth has helped me feel at home here in West Bank, Palestine where the land is valued so strongly. …For them the earth is mother. It provides for their families. …Back home in the States, however, I never had seen my home demolished, my trees uprooted, my land confiscated, my irrigation lines destroyed like my Palestinian friends have. …No one ever forced me to leave my … huge fig tree shading my courtyard, or my terraced garden that feeds my soul.” (http://www.cpt.org/cptnet/2010/11/15/al-khalil-hebron-reflection-we-love-land)
Who owns the land makes a difference when it’s your livelihood and your life blood.
Jesus tells a parable of a fig tree, unique to the gospel of Luke, as he’s on his way for the last time, to Jerusalem. As Luke says, “Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem.” He’s not exactly looking forward to Good Friday! But he has taken on the prophet’s mantle of speaking the truth, living with the people who don’t make the history books, and leaning into the cosmic healing of the world God calls him to, in the work of the Three Great Days. And, along the way, Jesus isn’t afraid of sitting down with friend, or foe, enjoying a fig, or maybe some fig pudding, and a locally produced glass of wine. But no one owns him. Rather, he proclaims release to the captives, sight to the blind.
The owners of 90% of this country’s wealth, the 1%, received another gift just this past Friday, as the latest politically manufactured fiscal crisis by our elected leaders, reached a new low. This time the game went bust, and for the first time we actually went over the cliff. No deal was reached on the Sequester, a deal so draconian, its across the board cuts so clumsy and intentionally unfair, it was never meant to stand, only to force the two parties to sit down and compromise. But a radical fundamentalist minority in the House prefers to further gift the obscenely wealthy owners – sometimes ironically called ‘the job creators.’ They continue to pay half the tax rate you and I do, while the real problem, jobs, is predicted to get worse, as a consequence. And the true-believers actually think they’re doing the country a favor!
Whoever owns the wealth, owns those who hope to make a living off the land and the manufacturing economy.
So Jesus tells a parable, a story of a fig tree that disappoints! Even after 3 years, it still isn’t producing fruit yet. But the gardener graciously pleads for one more year to give it a chance to bloom and grow. At first we might identify the owner of the vineyard as God in the story. He’s in charge, and we recognize the management style: that this fig tree, that doesn’t produce, shouldn’t have the right to sit there and waste the soil – cut it down and find a new one!
But when the gardener surprisingly intervenes and asks for a pardon, and is willing to come down to, to kneel in the earth, to actually till and care for it, to give it some nourishment, water and feed it, suddenly we recognize this one, as the God we know in Jesus. The owner, is just another owner trying to capitalize on his investment, which isn’t bad in itself, except he hasn’t bothered to factor in Mother Earth or the garden workers – he stops by only to look for his profits. But Jesus – just like the Gardener Mary Magdalene mistakes him for in the garden of his death and resurrection – this Jesus, is a compassionate advocate for us all.
And so, to the worker working 2 or 3 jobs to feed a family today, and then is characterized as “lazy” because his or her “job creator’s” company merged with another corporation, and needed to lay of thousands of employees, and the worker, still working a job or two, now has to apply for SNAP to feed his or her children – Jesus says, wait, they’re not wasting the soil, don’t chop them down! I will come down to them, I will feed them; I have come to release the captives, and give sight to the blind – to pardon and feed, to proclaim and reveal.
All of us can use that, a little metanoia, a little transformation, an opportunity to repent and turn around from our destructive ways and selfish captivity. That’s what Lent is all about. And it’s what Jesus tells the disciples and the crowds on his way to the cross. You may not get it quite yet, but you will, after the cross and resurrection. Just let me till the soil and give you a little more “bread of life” fertilizer.
Jesus teaches in parables, but is much more than a Teacher. Jesus is a revealer, a living icon, who reveals to us the way of abundant life by transforming us, changing us, feeding us, because he is the cross and resurrection, the dying-to-this-world and rising-to-God’s-world, agent.
And so we may even recognize Jesus in Isaiah’s Lady-Wisdom character,
as she’s hawking us:
“Hey there, you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.”
Come away from your Exile, Jesus invites us, from that land of death;
Learn the way of metanoia
, and transformation;
Come to the feast, the table is set,
Uhm, uhm, uhm! Let us eat figs!
The Second Sunday in Lent (C)
Of Foxes and Hens
I was born and raised in the city.
There’s not much I know about life on the farm.
But I have heard the stories about foxes threatening animals on the farm, and chickens in particular.
When a fox appears at the edge of the chicken coup, most of the chickens (and probably
roosters too) will run around the coop and balk-balk-balk-balk to get the attention on the farmer.
But not the mother hen.
I’ve been told that mother hens will, above everything else, protect the lives of every one of her chicks.
She may peck at the fox, trying to hurt the fox if possible.
But, if the fox is focused on her chicks, she will cover the chicks with her own body;
offering herself up to the fox, if necessary, for the sake of the lives of her chicks.
Again, not from first-hand knowledge, I have been told that the way a fox hunts is quite wily.
A fox may even make its prey feel at ease to force its intended meal into a false sense of security.
(Remember the story of henny-penny? When the hen, the goose, and the turkey
meet the fox at the end of the story, the fox tells them that he wants to help
them get their message about the falling sky to the king by leading them right into his den.)
Today’s readings are all about trust.
The seemingly homely and powerless hen is much more trustworthy than the powerful, yet self-centered fox.
It is that way in the kingdom of God.
Abram and Sarai were already old when God first called them to leave the comfort and safety of their home
in Ur of the Chaldeans.
God had given them two promises:
first that they would have an heir and second that they would claim a new land for themselves and their posterity.
But weeks and months had gone by as they traveled to this new land. They weren’t getting any younger.
Abram was ready to adopt his slave, Eliezer of Damascus.
But God was not about to accept Abram’s Plan B.
Abram was asleep and had a vision.
Frustrated by God’s seemingly lack of fulfillment, Abram offers this alternative to God.
God takes Abram out under the skies and tells him, “count all the stars if you can.
That’s how many descendants you will have.”
Yep, that’s just like God.
When a promise is hard to believe, God promises more.
“Ok,” says Abram, “I believe you’ll give me the heir you promised.”
Then Abram, still dreaming, challenges God about the land God had promised.
God tells Abram to bring a calf, a female goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon.
Laying them out for sacrifice, Abram even chases away the vultures.
But then Abram went deeper and deeper into sleep; so deep that he became terrified at the darkness.
And an incense pot with a flaming light passed over the sacrifice.
God was making a solemn promise, an oath, that all the land between Egypt and the Euphrates would be the land of Abram and Sarai.
When a promise is hard to believe, God swears by God’s very being. God puts the life of God on the line.
That’s the same thing Jesus is saying in the Gospel reading.
Some Pharisees come to Jesus to tell him, “Herod wants to kill you.”
“What else is new?” Jesus might have said.
Herod Antipas, this Herod who put the head of his cousin John on a plate to entertain his wife;
whose father, Herod the Great, had killed the innocent children of Bethlehem to try and kill him;
this Herod who had even invited Jesus to court for a “talk;”
this Herod would not scare Jesus.
This Herod is just an old, tricky, manipulative fox!
When daddy Herod died, he split his kingdom for his three sons.
All the Herods were foxy rulers. On the one hand, they built roads and
bridges and palaces and even made major improvements to the Temple.
That Temple is still referred to as Herod’s Temple.
But all of them used their capital building projects for the sake of propping up their own power.
Herod Antipas, THIS Herod, the beheader, the one to whom the Pharisees in today’s Gospel refer;
wants to do what daddy Herod couldn’t accomplish.
He wants to have Jesus eliminated.
But Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Go and tell that fox for me that I have work to do.
I’m just not that into you, foxy-loxy!”
I’ve got to cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow and the day after that and……
and eventually I will get to Jerusalem because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem”
Have you ever noticed that in all the sacred art produced over the centuries, you see Jesus praying,
walking, knocking on doors, gathering crowds, climbing hills, calling disciples, writing in the sand with his finger,
spitting into dirt to heal a blind man, raising dead people, sharing bread,
preaching to crowds, even weeping – but never running away.
Beginning with the devil’s temptation to be afraid, Jesus is cautioned time and again by friend and foe alike
to be afraid of what he’s doing. But he never runs away.
It doesn’t mean that Jesus never felt fear.
He was just as truly human as he was truly divine.
But Jesus knew what his mission was and nothing; not Herod, not the Pharisees, not his disciples,
not even the devil, would keep Jesus from finishing that mission.
Because that mission is God’s mission.
That mission fulfills the promise made to Abram and Sarai.
That mission, I tell you today, is OUR mission.
It is my mission and it is your mission.
There are still many wily, cunning, manipulative foxes around us today.
“Don’t worry about missing church once in a while,” they say to us,
“after all God wants your Sabbath to be a day of rest so sleeping in late on Sunday morning is just as important
as being in church.”
“Don’t feel bad about walking past someone who asks for your help on the street,” they say,
“after all, wasn’t it Jesus who said, ‘the poor you will always have with you.’”
Again and again, they will tempt you and lure you and make you false promises.
They will ask you to put your own needs, your wants and your desires,
ahead of the mission God sealed in us in our Baptism.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the holy city, the city that God chose to be God’s dwelling-place,
the place where foxy rulers and foxy priests gather together to kill prophets and stone messengers of God,
your God still wants to gather you all as a hen gathers her chicks under her protective wings.
But sometimes, little chicks, you’re just not willing.
You’re not willing to keep the mission going.
And so, beware! See, your house is left to you.
I tell you, you will not see me or hear me or touch me or taste me until the time when you say or sing,
“Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
It’s all about trust, you see. In the end, Abram and Sarai trusted the promises,
the unbelievable and fantastic promises that their heirs would be the
caretakers of the land and would be as many as the stars.
There was no reasonable way to believe yet they believed and were seen by God as righteous.
There were so many reasons why Jesus could have run away from Jerusalem.
Instead, he became more and more determined to be sacrificed for the sake of his brood, his flock, his children;
for the sake of you and me.
So, now it’s our turn.
Will we walk the way to Jerusalem this Lent?
We will participate in the mission God gave us at our baptism:
“to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the Word of God and share in the Lord’s
supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to
serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and
peace in all the earth?”
That’s a lot to promise.
And there will always be cunning foxes to get in our way.
But “trust me” God says to us.
Like he told Abram in a dream,
“Do not be afraid; I am your shield, your brooding mother hen; and your reward shall be very great.”
God of the covenant, in the mystery of the Cross you promise everlasting life to the world.
Gather all peoples into your arms, and shelter us in your mercy,
that we may rejoice in the life we share in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
And let the people say:
First Sunday in Lent (C)
"Don't Live by Bread Alone"
Jesus faced every test and temptation the devil could think of: like ignoring the conditions of being human, for an immediate gratification of changing stones into bread. Or, agreeing to live comfortably among the 1% with its trappings of royalty and fame if he would but worship the devil, and basically spit in the eye of the 99%. And thirdly, to disrespect the Temple and test even God, twisting the gift of abundant grace, into a few local favors.
But Jesus turns down all the frat boy pranks, the hazing tricks, and insider trading privileges. Jesus, it would seem, is just no fun at all!
Jesus, really did, face temptation, just like we do, but you have to figure he was also incredibly centered as a human being, and could see through the emptiness of it all. The wilderness desert experience of being tested and tempted is an archetypal story of many sages and religious leaders, and Jesus faces it with a curious lack of heavenly fire-power, hungry and fully human, guided by a Holy Spirit’s power – nothing more than a gentle and unpredictable blowing breeze.
Some years ago, during the season of Easter, Kim had a moment of clarity, and said, it’s nearly impossible any longer to understand feasting, because we eat like that all the time, in this country! This was even before the obesity epidemic was declared. Which isn’t to say we don’t have a hunger problem as well, but for many of us, the next snack, the next meal, the fast food lane, the great restaurants, our super -markets, are omnipresent, and whether its good and whole food or not, there is a plenty, for many. And so it’s hard to understand feasting if you’ve never fasted. If there is no regular or basic meal time, how do we know what a special feast time looks like?
Jesus went without eating for 40 days in the wilderness. This is different than a food desert, at least so far as it was self-imposed. But how many of us have lived in the desert wilderness, not knowing where our next meal will come from?
Jesus went to the place his ancestors wandered with Moses for 40 years, who had lived on the manna God sent them, one day at a time. This is the context of the story of our first reading too, the part that comes from Moses’ last speech before the Israelites were about to enter into the Promised Land. Moses asked them to look both, backwards to where they had been in the desert, and to look forward to a land flowing with milk and honey. And Moses gives them a very curious liturgy – don’t forget that you come from “a wandering Aramean,” Jacob, who went down to Egypt for famine relief, like most of his people. And now, as you have wandered back through the same desert, don’t forget too that God is about to give you this land as an inheritance. The proper way to remember and celebrate this is to offer the first fruits from your inheritance – make a gift right off the top from all that you have, and give it away at the Temple as a thank offering.
Jesus is a wandering Aramean. He lives in the desert wilderness for 40 days, depending on God for his life – for, one does not live by bread alone. Jesus was ready for a feast after that. But a feast is not self-gratification, or a party for yourself. A feast is always grounded in the inheritance God gives to all: A rich and endlessly complex gift of life within this created good world, that is shared with others, with all.
It’s hard to know what a gift an inheritance is, if you never lived without one. Casey Johnson, a fabulously rich friend of Paris Hilton, and grand-daughter of Robert Wood Johnson, of the Johnson and Johnson Pharmaceutical Giant, was tragically found dead in her home a few days after New Year’s, at the age of 30. She had squandered her inheritance spectacularly, lost her child in a custody battle due to drug abuse, and was awaiting trial on charges of burglarizing a friend's home. The heiress’s death wasn't news, as much as it was a foregone conclusion. Few people survive being born with an inheritance as large as Casey Johnson's.
If we’ve never experienced the desert, if we’ve never been taught to look back with understanding, or forward with hope and promise, how can we be ready for the feast that is our inheritance?
We have an inheritance as large as Casey Johnson’s. Not a million dollar trust-fund, but a promise of abundant life now and forever, a promise we know in the cross and resurrection, in bread and wine. Today, on this 1st Sunday in Lent, we remember the desert we came from before we met Jesus at the water well that never runs dry. And knowing full well the temptations to squander it all in frat-boy style, and forget who and whose we are, in this simple season of repentance and renewal, we dare to trust Jesus, and with him, look long and hard and directly into the face of the tempter, and see those empty promises as they are, a false path out of the desert, tempted to use God’s gifts to our own ends, or cheat our friends or the creation, out of peace with one another.
Only through this desert-wilderness experience can we understand what Moses is talking about in offering back the first-fruits-gift in: “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you,” said Moses, “shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.” The Levites and aliens?! Here, the Levites represent the top of the food chain, and the aliens the bottom. The Israelites’ that had taken possession of the land were once like the aliens. They descend from a wondering Aramean, and were the Exodus desert people.
This can be a difficult God to understand: everyone, all, are entitled to the inheritance of God’s land of milk and honey. Everyone is invited to celebrate at God’s banquet. All people’s and ethnicities, those born into citizenship, and those passing through. How do we transform this essential way of life gifted to us, this deep-as-a-well theological understanding of our faith, into true inclusion of the alien today? Can ‘immigration reform’ really be just and open to the alien? Who’s land is this? Why are the borders there, today, on that line? Are we native to this land?
Jesus was a wandering Aramean. He began his ministry being led by the Spirit in the wilderness, and faced the tempter’s most attractive deals, walking away from them, and exposing them as silly and perverse. He became an alien, so that we too, followers in his path, might know what it is like to depend on God’s grace alone. Jesus, offered the power of a pantheon of the god’s at his finger-tips, humbled himself instead, and offered it all back to us, a perpetual gift of milk and honey, a table fellowship of bread and wine, where Priest and alien are welcome, and expected, to sit down together, at the celebration that knows no end.
We practice this table fellowship whenever we gather here. Jesus offers himself as the first-fruits of salvation, and we dine on his body, which is the centering life-blood of the new creation. We cannot live by bread alone. We live by the bread of life, that sustains us through every wilderness desert, and fills us with the hope and promise of a land flowing with milk and honey, a new land of abundance and peace, for all.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Someone let the cat out of the bag! Our prayers on behalf of establishment and empire, our giving up sweets just for Lent, our offerings with strings attached, does not cut it, and hasn't really, for at least a generation. Church people, when they act like that, are perceived as hypocritical, and no one wants to be a part of that!
Some one let the cat out of the bag, and they didn't have to read it in scripture to know. But if they did, they'd have found it in the gospels, in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Jesus let the cat out of the bag 2,000 years ago! Do your alms-giving, your praying, and your fasting in secret and God who sees in secret will reward you. How can you make these disciplines of Lent a part of who you are and how you live out your faith? These aren't bad things to do, if they're a part of a more wholistic life-style of faith.
But even before Jesus, the prophets had already let the cat out of the bag, 2,500 years ago. The crisis of Israel's Exile to Babylon, due to a whole people's disobedience, was the precipitating event, which proved to be a continuing problem upon their return. Having been set free from captivity and allowed to return home, still they had not repented, that is, turned in a new direction, but came back fractious and fighting amongst themselves, and assumed their privilege and their piousness would carry the day. Too much of rebuilding the Temple was the temptation every age faces when it thinks there is some good ol' days to return to, instead or finding restoration in the ways God leads us today, continually reforming our mission as God's people.
And so specifically tonight, we hear the prophet Isaiah, letting the cat out of the bag: The fasting acceptable to God is not a one time, one day of the week add-on to our life, but is a daily fast from domination, blaming others, evil speech, self-satisfaction, entitlement and blindness to one's privilege, as professor of Christian History, Amy Oden says. The fast that God seeks calls for vigilance for justice and generosity, day in and day out.
Perhaps it might not be totally inappropriate to say, that the Holy Spirit has been letting the cat out of the bag for a very long time, in every age, whenever God needs to speak to us.
And so, Isaiah also makes the restoration of Israel conditional, which in itself may rub our modern ears the wrong way. This generation, that has rejected moralisms and hypocrocy, is wary now, even of God's words. But imagine if Isaiah had quoted God saying, “Don't worry there's nothing you can do toward your healing and wholeness, or your relationship with me. It will either happen or it won't. Cei la vie!” Then there would be no hope and no moral compass at all.
But, the conditional if/then language of Isaiah, can and does create a life-giving relationship:
“If you remove...
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
[and] if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
… and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
God is not a lone ranger, acting in isolation. God expects a partnership with a restored and reformed people. We are participants in God's life, an assembly of action in the realm of God's desires for us. The conditional if/then language is the heart of our hope, and the blueprint for our new life. If we repent, then God will restore us like a watered garden! Repenting includes turning from our old understanding – that just being near holy things, like church, bible, or good people, makes us holy – and means turning in a new direction:
“Is not this the fast that I choose [for you says God]:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?”
Being in relationship with God means having a clear, meaningful, and defined mission amongst God's people and creation. God wants a partnership with us, not to curtail our freedom, but to enhance life, justice and peace among all. If we will be God's people, then we have abundant life. And more and more, the cat is let out of the bag! Not just for us, but in this life-giving relationship, even God listens and can change God's mind, as the realm of God increases in, with and under us.
The cat's been let out of the bag for a long time. But the question is, are we ready for the 40 day journey to the great Three Days of Jesus' death and resurrection? Are we ready for the discipline of Lent – repentance, fasting, and works of love, for the sake of God's world? And are we ready to take it up as a practice that becomes who we are, all the time? – Are we ready for the realm of God that dawns in the new life of Easter?