Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Way of the Cross

Palm Sunday - C
March 24, 2013
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 19:28-40 and 22:14-23:56

O God, we prayed, help us to go with you in your passion. Help us to contemplate the mighty acts which you go through this week, which give us life.

This story calls us to enter Holy Week and Passiontide as participants, not just as outside observers or curiosity seekers. We are called to participate in Christ's death and rising to life again. We can understand the story of the passion because it draws on experiences from our own lives.

Each of us is in some way one of the disciples who fall asleep even as Jesus has asked us to come pray with him. We can find ourselves in one of the twelve -- Peter, perhaps, full of bravado, or Judas, ready to betray Jesus with the best of intentions. In each of us there are chief priests and elders, righteously upholding certain inflexible standards justifying the status quo, the correct routine. There is Pilate and Barabbas and the women who anointed his body. We can even empathize with the crowd, whose part we played today. We all sang the "glory, laud and honor," and then, before many minutes were through, we shouted, "Crucify him!" and we mocked him by calling him “the Messiah of God, his chosen one.” We walk with Jesus to dark Gethsemane, we betray him, we try him and leave him hanging on the cross. We find the worst of ourselves in the story of the passion.

We can also find ourselves -- the best of ourselves -- in Christ, Christ who walks to the cross just as human being who has been betrayed or rejected, just as any human being who knows what it is to suffer and face death. The Christ within me is the part of me that knows what it means to give one’s life for something good, and who knows, that sometimes no matter how good we are, there are those who find their power in violence who will strike me down. The Christ within me believes in love nevertheless, despite of it all and because of everything that has happened. The Christ within me wants to live, has the strength to forgive, to trust, to be healed, to create, to risk building community in a world that wants to tear all those good things down.

This is where the stories of our lives meet the story of Jesus, where what is good in us has been redeemed by the events of this week. Let us follow this story this week for what it truly is: the story of our lives, the story of the redemption of the world, the story of the good news that all the bad things we do, all the people we betray and the deaths we die are ultimately put into place by the triumph of good over evil, of love over betrayal, of community over loneliness, of life over death.

Told in memory of her

Lent 5 C 2013
March 17, 2013
Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

You may have noticed, over the years, that the Four Gospels, which tell the story of the life and ministry of Jesus, do not agree on all the details. Shepherds visit the baby Jesus in Luke, wise men from the East in Matthew; Mark and John don’t seem to care how Jesus was born, but they do agree that his mother was named Mary.

There are a few stories common to all four gospels: the feeding of the 5000 (Matthew and Mark tell the story of another miraculous meal, to 4000 more). This story, of the woman who anoints Jesus, is also told by all four gospels, but with some variations. For this event to be recorded at least four times means it must have been critically important to the early church – one of the signature events of Jesus’ life that his followers insisted revealed something essential about what Jesus was doing here on earth. Think about it: a woman’s act of loving service to Jesus was one of the few things that all four evangelists agreed HAD to be included.

As is the case with most Bible stories, our stained-glass memories of events cloud what is really going on in the text. So a pop Bible quiz here: I’m going to ask you a couple of questions, and DON’T look at your leaflet! How many of you remember that this woman was a prostitute? How many of you think that this woman has no name? Where does this story take place? Who votes for Jerusalem, at the Last Supper? Who votes for Bethany? Is it in the home of Simon the leper? Is it in the home of a Pharisee? How many of you know what the people in the story are doing when the woman comes in? Does the woman pour oil on Jesus’ head? Or on his feet?

Those things are all true about at least ONE version of this story of the woman who anoints Jesus, but they are not true of ALL of them. In the Gospel of Luke, an unnamed woman known as a sinner comes into the home of a Pharisee who is hosting Jesus for dinner. She anoints his feet with oil and with her tears, and wipes his feet with her hair. It is true that the only women in those days who let down their hair were prostitutes, or wives within their homes, and so this act – in all four Gospels – is quite shocking. I think this would be as shocking as some stranger coming in to a private party and giving the guest of honor a luxurious massage. In Luke this happens early in Jesus’ ministry, and he uses the example of this woman on the edge of propriety and full of emotion to teach his followers about the unfettered love and mercy of God.

Matthew, Mark and today’s reading from John all place this story near the end of Jesus life, actually as one of the last things that happens before Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time. In Matthew, Mark and John, Jesus is in Bethany – both Matthew and Mark agree that Jesus is having supper at the home of Simon the leper. All of the disciples are gathered – which might be why we confuse it in our minds with the Last Supper. The unnamed woman comes in, loosens her hair, shockingly, and extravagantly pour expensive oil on Jesus’ head. Judas gets angry – “this could have been sold and given to the poor!” – and both passages end telling us the importance of this story. Mark tells us that Jesus said, “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” And remember: the FIRST words in the Gospel of Mark are “The Good News.”

Now let’s turn to the version of this story we read today: from the Gospel of John. In this version, the woman has a name: Mary. Mary who is Jesus’ close friend. Mary who is far from being a shameful woman or a sinner or a prostitute. Mary whose sister is Martha and whose brother is Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back from the dead. Mary, who called for Jesus when Lazarus died and greeted him on the road with the words, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary, who with her sister and brother, had enough family resources to host Jesus and his disciples many times before. Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet to learn from the Master. Mary, who absorbed it all. Mary, who acted as a prophet, telling us what Jesus meant.

That is indeed Mary’s importance, as John tells the story: she is a prophet, acting out in ways that people do not at the time understand – signaling that Jesus’ actions are heading toward a confrontation with the powers that will conspire to put him to death – powers that include a Judas whose false concern for the poor masks his coming deception.

As John tells it, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet: only the feet of a dead man are anointed. Mary uses an ointment that cost the equivalent of a year’s wages for a working man -- $15,000 worth of ointment, in today’s money. Any sensible person WOULD object to this behavior, this extravagance, but Jesus accepts this gift graciously, assertively: “Leave her alone,” he says. She knows what is going on. The way she takes care of Jesus now is the way he will need to be taken care of in a very few days’ time.

Soon after this story, Jesus enters Jerusalem. He rides in on a donkey, when glorious Roman rulers ride in on chariots. When he eats his last meal with his disciples, he steps down from the head of the table, removes his robe, and with a towel, washes the feet of his disciples. They are shocked at this turn of events, this reversal of roles. This is his last act with his friends, his embodiment of what the love of God means, what service means. “Do this in remembrance of me,” he says. And it is Mary, in her home in Bethany, who has taken his feet in her hands, who has foreshadowed Jesus’ own action of love and service. Mary the prophet, who today show us the way, to give all she has to the one who has given everything for the life of the world.

Whose home is this?

Lent 4-C
March 10, 2013
Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:17-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Whose home is Canaan? The people of Israel, after leaving slavery in Egypt, wandering through the desert for forty years, have come into the promised land: Canaan. Joshua is now their leader, with God’s servant Moses having seen the Promised Land but died before he could cross over. This is the home God has promised them, when God called them his people and delivered them from the bad Pharaoh and separated them from the middling bad non-Israelites whose land they passed through. Now they’re here, in their new home, eating food they grow with their own hands. What could be a better metaphor for the commonwealth of heaven? For the just and merciful reign of God?

People were living in Canaan when the weary and grateful Israelites marched in, just as people were living in 20th century Canaan – Palestine – when weary and grateful survivors of the holocaust sailed in in 1947. One person’s promised land is another person’s occupied territories, setting the stage for generations of conflict, violence and war. Home is not just a simple, warm metaphor for cozying up with God.

Privilege, displacement, inheritance, resentment – Jesus sets the stage for a doozy of a story about a not-so-happy home.

There are several points of view one can take in hearing this story. One could see the story from stage left, from the point of view of the son who takes his inheritance, squanders it and then comes crawling home, knowing he deserves nothing but at least hoping for a roof over his head. It’s the “home is where they have to take you when you have nowhere else to go” point of view – except that I know plenty of people not welcome in their own homes to find any universal truth in that saying.

One could see the story from stage right – the point of view of the stay-at-home brother – the “good” one who felt he deserved the inheritance because he worked so hard and so faithfully. When we look at the story from those two points of view, the conflicts multiply exponentially. Disagreement, even violence, becomes inevitable, as each side seeks justice and mercy – but what is justice and mercy to one son is cancelled out by the other son’s equally compelling claims: this home, this promised land, this Canaan flowing with milk and honey becomes a battleground between entitlement and displacement.

This is not the story of the Prodigal Son, the name usually given to it. This is not the story of the older brother. This is the story of a man with two sons, two sons he loves equally and profligately, two sons with whom he shares everything. One son stays at home, works hard, lives well. The other son wanders off, does bad things, feels bad, needs help. He comes crawling home, afraid that he will be punished for breaking the rules he knew all too well, hoping that his father will forgive him enough to let him live at least the minimally secure life of one of his laborers. And what does the father do? This is the story of a man with two sons, two sons he loves equally and profligately, two sons with whom he shares everything. Everything.

The conflict that the two brothers lay at his feet – the disputes over inheritance and privilege and duty and goodness and responsibility and freedom – the claim of justice and the plea for mercy – are cast aside by the father. None of that matters. The one who was lost has come home. The one who was estranged is now reconciled. The one who was dead – meaning the father – is now made alive again by the sight of his lost son. All that remains is for the one who was broken – meaning the older brother, broken by his resentments – to be made whole by coming home as well to an understanding of his father’s overwhelming, abundant, profligate and generous to the point of wasteful love.

If we identify with the older brother, we will never understand this story. We will always be confused by God. We will always resent that bum who got away with it. And we will never understand what it means when that offer of abundance comes our way. The day will come when on some level we have screwed up, made a mistake, or tried to do everything right and still failed, and then someone, standing in for God as that benevolent father did in the story, will say to us, “Come on in! Great to see you! Now that you’re here, we can have a party!” We won’t know what to do when we’re offered something we don’t deserve, and we will never think we are worthy of a life of abundance and security and comfort.

It’s not that rules are wrong, or that the life the older brother lived was ungodly. Perhaps now, the younger brother will realize that squandering his life and living among pigs is not such a good thing to do, either, and that life on the farm has its benefits. The problem is that for both of them – and this is so true for all of us – the rules were the goal—either to follow or to overthrow -- and life was a zero sum game.

God holds out a different vision, a different hope for the lives of the people he created and loves. In God’s house, there will always be enough to go around. In God’s house we can experience that same kind of radical welcome and embrace that the father in today’s gospel story offered to his two sons. When we come home to God’s house, we can celebrate and rejoice, for the dead come to life, and the lost are found.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Got Grace?

Lent 3-C & St. David’s Day
March 3, 2013 
Exodus 3:1-15
Ps. 63-1-8
1 Thessalonians 2:2b-12
Luke 13:1-9

“Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves …”

In the first few hundred years of Christianity, those would have been fighting words. That phrase sums up one of the major theological controversies of the church, a battle which raged over what it meant to say that humans had “free will” – over what the grace of God meant in our lives. Were human beings born into “original sin” and so helpless – “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves” – or were we born innocent of wrong-doing, and so able to reject sin and choose goodness on our own? Were we utterly dependent on the grace of God, or could we go it on our own? David, the patron saint of Wales, our own parish namesake, a kindly and good bishop, a scholarly and eloquent preacher, a man who just wanted to stay home in his own monastery and cell, to pray, to study, to receive the sacrament and dwell in peace, was drawn into two major councils, synods, conferences, where his eloquent denunciation won the day, and the heresy of Pelagianism was defeated.

Pelagius was an English theologian, from the 4th century – 200 years before David – and that phrase “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves” seemed to him the ultimate cop-out. Pelagius was a reformer: clergy and laity alike, he believed, needed to improve their moral behavior, and that improvement would be impossible with all this talk about dependence on the grace of God. For Pelagius, the line, “we are all sinners from before our birth” meant that no matter how badly anyone behaved, they could claim the depravity of original sin; why be good, if the grace of God would always save you? Human beings should choose to follow the example of goodness in Christ; human beings could progress from sinfulness to holiness.

I don’t know if any of you have ever been around any church meetings where controversial topics are discussed, but the phrase, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” about sums up how arcane and complicated the arguments on both sides can become. But in this fight, what Augustine, and his followers like our very own David, cared about was grace: the grace of God, God’s free gift that we cannot possibly ever earn or deserve or work hard enough to attain. God’s grace, theologians like David believed, was so expansive and so good, that we could not possibly work out a plan to get there on our own. All God wanted was for us to bask in that grace – “to love God and do what we will,” in Augustine’s words.

So if you think about grace as something we humans could never possibly earn or deserve, this peculiar story from today’s Gospel begins to make sense. Jesus uses these strange parables – about the tower that fell and killed 18 people, and about the fig tree that might need a little more manure to flourish – to shake up his hearers and to get them thinking about the power of God.

Let’s take these two parables one at a time: the suffering and death Jesus talks about comes to everyone, the sinners and the repentant, the just and the unjust. So from what is he saying we are supposed to repent? How sinless can one be to prevent one’s death? And how foolish does that sound for us humans to say such a thing – that if those 18 killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them had just been a little better they would not have died? How foolish does that sound when the only truly sinless one – Jesus, the God in human flesh – is marching toward a horrible and undeserved death on a cross?

And then the fig tree: do we really think that if we do a little bit here, a little bit there, it will all work out? The figs will grow and we will all live happily ever after?

That is what grace is about: we can never possibly do enough. But at the same time, we are free: if we acknowledge there is nothing worse that can happen to us than death, then we have nothing to fear. We are let off Scot-free, just as Pelagius feared. The grace of God frees us from being trapped by our own bad behavior, frees us to love God and to love our neighbors and all the rest of creation, just as God would have us do. No work, no worry; just let go.

David of Wales came into this world in difficult circumstances. His mother was “seduced” by the son of the local strongman, and she went off to live in a remote place to bear the child. Legend has it David was born during a great thunderstorm. All the accounts of David’s life agree that his mother was “outraged by violence,” and retired to a chaste and holy life. As a bishop, David cared for widows and orphans, protecting these vulnerable victims of the violence of their time. He lived a rigorously abstemious life, drinking only water and eating no meat, and, as is common to the accounts of lives of Celtic saints, the natural world always rose up to bless and nurture David.

At the church council where David was pressed to make his case against the Pelagian heresy, the synod where he was made the bishop of all Wales, the accounts tell us,

While S. David’s speech continued, a snow white dove descending from heaven sat upon his shoulders; and moreover the earth on which he stood raised itself under him till it became a hill, from whence his voice was heard like a trumpet, and was understood by all, both near and far off: on the top of which hill a church was afterwards built, and remains to this day.[i]

“Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves …”

Why should we want such power to help ourselves, when the grace of God sends snow white doves to sit on our shoulders, and raises the very earth under our feet?

[i] Sabine Baring-Gould, The Lives of the Saints, Vol. III, p. 12 (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1914)

The saving embrace of the cross

Last Epiphany C; Feb. 10, 2013
Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-43

“This is my son, my chosen. Listen to him!”

Where have we heard that before? Well, not exactly that but something very similar:

”You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

Today we are reading form the 9th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, but way back there on the first Sunday of Epiphany, the first Sunday in January, on the day of Ava’s baptism and the first communion, we read from the 3rd chapter: the story of Jesus baptism. In that story, as in today’s, the voice of God thundered from the heavens. God talked about – or to – Jesus, God’s beloved Son, the one God chose to do God’s work here on earth. When he was baptized, God said, “With you I am well pleased.” Today, however, on the mountain of the Transfiguration, with only three disciples to witness it, with Moses and Elijah at Jesus’ side, God thunders, “Listen to him!”

Listen to Jesus. If we were there, on that mountain with Peter, James and John, listening to Jesus, what would Jesus be saying?

These two stories bookend our season of Epiphany, the time when we have been reading about how the light of Christ shines in the world. Way back there at the baptism, God’s pronouncement heralded the beginning of Jesus’ work of announcing the Kingdom of heaven – the rule of God – life lived in the here and now the way God intended us to live. This Kingdom of heaven, as Luke depicts it, is a kingdom of reversals, an upside down kingdom. 
  • Remember Mary’s song when she learns that she is carrying Jesus: the mighty are cast down from their thrones, and the humble and meek are exalted. 
  • Remember what John the Baptist said to the people anxious about what this new rule of God might mean: share your coats, don’t steal, don’t cheat. 
  • Remember what happened at the wedding party at that out-of-the-way place of Cana, when scarcity and deprivation was turned into abundance and joy.
  • Remember what made the people of Nazareth so mad at the hometown boy; Jesus told them that God’s blessings came to outsiders, not only the traditional chosen ones. 
When Jesus healed the sick, he healed their social status as well. Women, lepers, paralytics, beggars, the outcast of society: Jesus restored them to health, and restored them to the community as well. The first thing Jesus did when he came down from the Mount of Transfiguration was to heal the boy possessed by the demon. He restored that boy to his family: “He gave him back to his father.” When Jesus healed, he reversed the social order that expected the privileged to be at the center and the poor and sick on the outs. Jesus proclaimed a holy community, a whole community, with a radical equality. That is the light that has been shining on us all through this season of Epiphany.

“This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him!”

What is it that Peter, James and John are supposed to hear, up there, on that mountain? This is not the first time we encounter these three: remember them fishing on the Sea of Galilee, remember when Jesus said, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And “they left everything and followed him.” When Jesus talks to the disciples, to those who are following him, or who say they want to follow him, Jesus talks about what it costs to follow him. There’s a cost to discipleship, a cost to this upside-down kingdom where the privileged are brought low and the desperate raised up, where the playing field is leveled and there is always enough to go around. There’s a cost. It makes people mad to challenge that much power.

Just before the trip up the mountain, Jesus had said this to the disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily – daily – and follow me. For those who want to save their life with lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” That is the cost of discipleship, Jesus tells his disciples. Of course, that is not what they want to hear, up on this lovely, shining mountain top. They don’t want to hear the possibility of betrayal and death, and yet that is just what God means when he says, Listen to him.

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the time when we remember our mortality, confess our sins and strip down our spiritual selves in preparation for the Easter Feast. But we also mark ourselves with the sign of our discipleship. We have ashes put on our foreheads in the shape of a cross. We wear, at least for a short time, anyway, an outward and visible sign of how much the world disapproved of Jesus, a sign of betrayal, a sign of violence and power, a sign of death.

Yet even as following Jesus meant bearing that cross daily, the cross also means, in the words of writer Toni Morrison, “the human figure poised to embrace.” It is a sign, then, of the love of God, in human form – a light that not even the darkness of those ashes can quench.

Be an EPIPHANY of God

Epiphany 4-C Feb. 3, 2013
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-32

Scene 1. Jesus, the hometown boy, preaches the good news to his home congregation. The poor folks of Nazareth like this Good News, because it blesses their understanding of themselves: God WILL vindicate US. God is on OUR side. They applaud when Jesus says, “Today this scripture has come true in your hearing.” They love Jesus.

That was last week’s Gospel. Today picks up right after that.

Scene 2. Jesus, the hometown boy, throws it all back in their faces. “You want me to do the things I did in Capernaum? Hah! You won’t accept me, really. You think it’s all about YOU. What do you suppose God was up to here?” He tells them one story, and then another, of biting incidents of God gracing outsiders, aliens, troublemakers, instead of the chosen people. He makes them so mad they try to throw him off a cliff. They hate Jesus.

One modern criticism leveled against religion is that all we are doing is creating a God in our own image, a God who fits our world view. Prayer to this God is to meet our needs, and we can be utterly dependent on this God, in a mindless way, because we are assured that this God, our creation, will do and say just what we need God to do and say.

That’s not such a modern criticism. You could say that that’s what Jesus is doing in this story. You might like that Good News I just quoted from Isaiah, he says, the release for the captives, the light for the blind, the acceptable year of the Lord’s favor, and yes, it’s true. But it applies not only to you. It applies to outsiders, to heathen, to the unclean, to anyone whose attitudes make you cringe and whose lifestyle makes you throw up. It’s the challenge that any serious spiritual tradition makes to the believer, or community of believers, that want to keep things cozy and their God domesticated. It’s what Jesus said all along: don’t stop with me; look through me to the one who sent me, listen to the one who sent me. Don’t let your God be too small.

The first lesson also tells of a prophet who had a hard time getting people to listen to God. This is the story of the call of Jeremiah, God as a discernment committee of ONE saying to Jeremiah, Don’t worry about your insecurities; you shall speak what I command you. You shall have my authority, “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” God didn’t say to Jeremiah, you have to be nice, you have to follow the community norms, you have to be patient, work with the people, bring them along, get a process consultant. No. You, Jeremiah. You speak for me. Tear down. Build. Plant. Be an Epiphany of God.

Predestination. Jesus and Jeremiah were predestined to be prophets. God knew when they were in the womb what they would do and what they would say. Now you recall the dark side of predestination from the heyday of the Protestant Reformation: the elect (us good guys) would be saved; the rest (you know who – whoever) would be damned. But if we listen carefully to what God says to Jeremiah, and what Jesus says, predestination is not about salvation, but about service. God is calling you forth; whom do you serve? To whom are you to speak, and from whom do you hear God speaking? The people of Nazareth did not like Jesus implying that God was speaking through widows in Sidon and not in Israel, or Syrian lepers instead of Jewish ones. Their God wouldn’t do such things. In response, they tried to throw Jesus off the hill, but he just walked through them and went on his way.

So here is our challenge: we read the call of Jeremiah, and realize, too, that we are called to be epiphanies of God, to let God’s light, God’s good news shine forth in the world. And we are reminded by Jesus that that world is wider than we first thought it would be. We are given a choice:
  • to let God slip away, because the idea of Good News for the whole world is too upsetting to our world view;
  • or to enter into God’s imagination where barriers are torn down, injustices overthrown, scarcity destroyed, and mercy and abundance planted in their place.