Good News

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

At the end of every calendar year, social media and other internet sites are generally overrun with articles, tweets, videos, and other posts reviewing the year that is coming to an end. This year, the vast majority of these reflections have had a distinct and consistent theme: imgresnamely, that 2016 was the worst. In some ways, it’s hard to argue with this conclusion. This year saw the Zika virus, terror attacks in Brussels, Nice, and Berlin, and the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. This year saw economic collapse in Caracas, political disaster in Ankara, and humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo. This year saw the deaths of Alan Rickman, Abe Vigoda, Florence Henderson, Alan Thicke, David Bowie, and Prince, to name just a few. This year saw arguably the most contentious election in this country’s history, one that devolved into a nightmarish carnival of fear, resentment, and despair. As we come to the end of this difficult year, it is hard not to buy into the notion that this was the worst year ever.

Human beings have experienced objectively worse years. There was 1348, when the Black Plague arrived on European shores. Less recently there was 72,000 BC, when a volcano in Sumatra exploded with the force of 1.5 million atomic bombs, resulting in the near extinction of the human species. Clearly, 2016 could have been much worse. Yet, it was an exceptionally difficult year. I think the main reason is that this year was so full of uncertainty. Nothing worked out the way we thought. Election results around the world defied the expectations of pollsters and prognosticators, the people who are supposed to be able to tell us what is coming. Traditional times of celebration were interrupted by terror and despair. Even the celebrities who died tended to be people whose presence signified comfort and stability: we lost veteran character actors, musical iconoclasts, and TV moms and dads, people we imagined would always be there. It’s no wonder Merriam Webster’s word of the year was “surreal.” This was a year of confounded expectations, one in which many of us experienced a profound sense of dislocation.

Rather than dislocation, tonight’s gospel reading begins with an almost radical sense of continuity. Luke begins the Christmas story by telling us that Caesar Augustus issued a decree while Quirinius was governor of Syria. This is one of the narrative quirks of this gospel. Luke loves to let us know who was in charge when the events he describes took place. This is about more than providing historical context. The world of Luke’s gospel was one in which the personalities of those in power had a profound effect on the lives of those they governed. The fact that the emperor could send people to their hometowns on a whim is evidence enough of that. Moreover, it was a time when rulers stayed in power for a very long time. By mentioning these world leaders, Luke strongly implies that the world is unlikely to change any time soon.

In the midst of this political stability, however, an angel proclaims to a group of shepherds: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy.” The angel tells the shepherds that this babe wrapped in swaddling clothes represents something entirely new in the world. Moreover, the angel uses a politically loaded term to describe the birth of Jesus. The word we translate as “good news” is the same word that was used to announce when the emperor had a son. It referred to the birth of a new king. According to Luke’s account, the birth of this child represents a challenge to the present order. And yet, not much changes politically after the birth of Jesus. Augustus remains the emperor and Quirinius remains the governor. The sanguine expectations of the angels appear to have been confounded. Our refrain of “glory to the newborn king” seems tinged with irony. In this gospel reading, it would appear that we are experiencing a profound sense of dislocation.

But this reading ignores a small yet crucial detail in Luke’s narrative. After the shepherds left the babe alone with his parents, Luke tells us that Mary “treasured these things and pondered them in her heart.” theotokos_3_500Though Luke could be describing the pride that every parent feels when her child is adored by strangers, there is a much more powerful dimension to this statement. By pondering these things in her heart, Mary ensures that the affairs of the world, no matter how dispiriting or dislocating, will never diminish the good news of Jesus’ birth. This is that good news: unlike those leaders that history has mostly forgotten, Jesus is a different kind of king. Jesus is the one who rules our hearts. While this may seem saccharine, even trivial, it is actually of monumental importance. It signals that God’s claim on us transcends every circumstance.

For this reason, I think that the most powerful expression of the Christmas gospel can be found in the Burial Rite of the Book of Common Prayer. The opening anthem includes these words: “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For if we live, we live unto the Lord, and if we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.” These words do more than comfort the bereaved: they demonstrate how the gospel frustrates the powers of the world. Most tyrannical regimes coerce obedience by threatening death. But, if we can say with confidence that we are the Lord’s whether we live or die, we have nullified the tyrant’s ultimate threat. The gospel we proclaim tonight is deeply and quietly subversive because it insists that those who claim worldly authority have no real power over us, that the only power that truly matters is that of the babe lying in the manger.

No matter how many times we may hear it, the birth of Jesus is always news, because the bad news is always changing. In the midst of a world that is filled with uncertainty, we must treasure this good news, confident that Jesus Christ is the one who rules our hearts.

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Making Music in the Heart

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

You may have heard that there is a new Star Wars movie. I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently, it’s pretty good. Most reviewers are excited that this new version is more like the original trilogy that came out in the 1970s than the prequels that were released about a decade ago. That’s a good thing, because the prequels were pretty bad.300px-Opening_crawl Perhaps nothing illustrates how poorly the prequels compared to the original movies better than the differences in the iconic opening crawls that gave the backstory for each trilogy. On one hand is the crawl for the 1977 Star Wars: “It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.” Now that’s how you begin a space opera; you definitely want to find out what happens in that movie. On the other hand is the crawl for The Phantom Menace, which came out in 1999: “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.” Taxation of trade routes? Really? That sounds less like a thrilling sci-fi movie and more like C-SPAN.

There is a level at which the beginning of Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus sounds a little like the opening crawl from The Phantom Menace. Luke unfolds the Christmas story in an unusual and frankly banal way. We would expect the evangelist to begin by focusing on the joys and trials of the Christ child and his family. But instead of tugging at our heartstrings, Luke begins his account of the birth of Jesus by talking about politics. Specifically, he reminds us that Augustus is the emperor of Rome and Quirinius is the governor of Syria. On one hand, the evangelist is just providing context; he is affirming that the incarnation is an event that can be considered part of the historical record. On the other hand, the reminder about who is in charge is deeply significant for our understanding of this story, because this story announces the arrival of a new king. When the shepherds hear the angel announce,“behold, I bring you good news of a great joy,” the word we translate as “good news” refers to much more than new information; it is the same word that was used to announce the birth of a new emperor. In other words, Luke describes the birth of Jesus with a word that usually indicated a fundamental change in the political reality of the world.

Yet, as Luke reminds us at the beginning of this passage, the political situation in the world doesn’t change much after that angelic announcement. Augustus is still the emperor and Quirinius remains the governor. The shepherds return to their hardscrabble existence in the Judean wilderness, and the Holy Family ekes out a modest living in the Galilee. God’s chosen people remain under the thumb of an oppressive regime, and tyrants persist in forcing their will on the weak. By reminding us who the political leaders are at the time of Jesus’ birth, Luke creates a stark juxtaposition: he announces the arrival of a new order even as the old order continues to flourish.

And yet, that’s not where Luke ends the story. After the shepherds depart and everything apparently returns to normal, Luke interrupts the flow of the narrative and turns our attention to the mother of Jesus: “But Mary,” he interjects, “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” Mary seems to know implicitly that these glorious things are fleeting, and yet she resolves to hold them in her heart. imgresThis may not seem like much, but remember that Mary endures trials that no mother should ever have to endure. She is forced to watch the rejection and crucifixion of the child she gave birth to in that lowly stable. In the midst of this soul piercing grief, Mary continues to be animated by the joy of the incarnation, she continues to “ponder these things in her heart.” This statement is deeply and quietly subversive. This statement is where the second chapter of Luke’s gospel moves from charming folktale to a story that has the power to change the world. Because in this statement Mary affirms that the agents of sin and death; disease, war, pestilence, oppression, famine, murder, intolerance, violence; that none of these has any power over us. Mary locates a persistent and enduring joy, an inextinguishable light that cannot be overcome by any darkness. By doing so, she demonstrates that the true Christian vocation is embodied in our ability to find joy in every circumstance of our lives. This joy does not deny the reality of evil in the world; this joy we claim tonight insists that evil has no power over us because it has been defeated through the death and resurrection of the child who was born to Mary.

Howard Thurman was the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University and a mentor to countless imgresreligious leaders, including Martin Luther King. During his time at the Chapel, a time of great unrest and upheaval, he meditated on the things Mary pondered in her heart: “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, then the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.” The ultimate “work of Christmas,” the one that transcends all our other responsibilities, is to make music in our hearts: to celebrate the salvation God has created in the midst of the earth and to claim the joy of the incarnation at all times and in all places.

 

Limitless

imgresOne of the most striking elements of the West Texas landscape is the almost boundless sense of space.  Driving north to Lubbock or west to Odessa, it is easy to be overwhelmed by how far one can see, by how little gets in the way of one’s vision.  Where I come from, the only place you can see any distance is near the ocean (there are too many trees or hills in the way elsewhere); but in West Texas, you can see for miles and miles wherever you turn.  Of course, the boundlessness of the landscape allows West Texans to experience a wide variety of natural phenomena that others have a hard time imagining: spectacularly terrifying thunderstorms that you can see coming long before they arrive, towering dust storms that blot out the sun, and glorious sunrises and sunsets that seem to fill the entire world with uncreated light.  The landscape of West Texas is beautiful not because of what it features, but because it is not hemmed in by limits or boundaries.

There is a level at which the boundlessness of the landscape shapes the way that West Texans look at the world.  As a result of the fact that, in the words of one humorist, “West Texas is the world headquarters of nothing,” residents of this area are inclined to believe that you have to make your own way in this world, that no one is going to show you what steps you have to take to move forward.  And since the landscape of this region is not hemmed in by limits or boundaries, West Texans are inclined to believe that nearly anything is possible, that there are no limits on what we are capable of doing if we set our minds to it.  Both the landscape and ethos of West Texas are shaped by an abiding sense of limitlessness, a belief that the obstacles in front of us are temporary, a feeling that nearly anything is possible.

Over the past several weeks, we have heard stories from John’s gospel that involve Jesus encountering another person in a significant way.  At the beginning of Lent, Jesus had his nighttime conversation with Nicodemus.  The following week, Jesus met and had a flirtatious conversation with a Samaritan woman.  And last week, Jesus healed a blind man, who proceeded to have a protracted dispute with the religious authorities.  It occurs to me that the theme running through all of these stories (apart from being very long and making us stand for long periods of time) is that these encounters with Jesus lead people to reevaluate the limited way they look at the world.  Nicodemus wonders why Jesus and the Pharisees seem to interpret Scripture in such different ways; Jesus encourages Nicodemus to change the way he understands his relationship with God.  The Samaritan woman lives in light of the shameful identity given to her by her community; Jesus tells her that the only identity she should focus on is her status as a child of God.  The man born blind is told by the religious authorities that his condition means that he is sinful; by giving this man sight, Jesus affirms that categories like “righteous” and “sinful” are far too simple to characterize the abundant love of God.  In these encounters, Jesus moves his hearers from rigidity to openness, from shame to acceptance, from simplicity to complexity, from limits to possibility.

And the encounter described in today’s reading from John’s gospel is also meant to encourage us to reevaluate how we look at the world.  You know this story well, because it is easily one of the most dramatic in the New Testament.  It’s no wonder that this story is a favorite of those who have chronicled the life of Jesus on film.  In several movies, the raising of Lazarus is the climactic end of the second act, the moment that demonstrates how important and powerful this Jesus really is.  In many ways, the story of Lazarus is the pivotal moment in John’s gospel.  Beginning in chapter twelve, Jesus begins to prepare his disciples for his death.  He and his disciples are no longer out in public, but are in houses and upper rooms.  And though John tells us that the authorities have tried to stone Jesus a handful of times in the previous chapters, it is after the raising of Lazarus that the authorities actually begin planning to execute Jesus.  This leads us to ask: what is so important about the raising of Lazarus?  What is it that changes after Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb?  What is it about this event that makes the authorities decide that Jesus is too dangerous to live?

On one hand, the answers to these questions seem pretty obvious.  After all, Jesus raised someone from the dead and demonstrated how powerful he really is.  Perhaps a lot of people heard about Jesus’ ability to raise the dead and decided to become his followers.  The authorities, in other words, were afraid of Jesus just like they would be afraid of any charismatic leader who bucks the status quo.  On the other hand, this answer seems a little simplistic.  Roman authorities were pretty good at quashing popular movements that questioned their power.  The idea that they would have been particularly worried about a Jewish rabbi, even one who could magically raise the dead, is fairly unlikely. There is a deeper reason for the apprehension of the authorities, and it is tied to the transformation that Jesus effects among the mourners gathered around the tomb of Lazarus.

Caravaggio's "Raising of Lazarus"
Caravaggio’s “Raising of Lazarus”

There are three moments in this story that we should pay attention to.  First, even before Jesus arrives at Bethany, there is an interesting exchange between Jesus and his disciples.  The disciples remind their teacher that the last time he was in Judea, the people there tried to kill him.  The implication of the disciples is clear: “You probably shouldn’t go, because you might end up dead. Worse still, we might wind up dead!”  Nevertheless, Jesus ignores the disciples’ fears, ignores the prospect of death, and travels to Bethany to meet his friend.  The second moment we need to consider occurs when Jesus arrives.  John tells us that Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days; he is, in other words, good and dead.  The dead man’s sisters accost Jesus, telling him that if he had been there, their brother wouldn’t have died.  In the same way, the crowds say, “This guy opened the eyes of the blind; certainly he could have restored Lazarus back to health, but here we are, mourning his death.”  In response to all of this, John tells us that Jesus is greatly disturbed and begins to weep.  The crowds assume that he is weeping for his friend, but it is pretty clear that Jesus is weeping for the people around the tomb, the people who are completely paralyzed by the death of Lazarus.  Finally, notice that the climax of this story is not when Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb; rather, it is when Jesus tells the startled onlookers to “Unbind him, and let him go.”

These three moments in the story of Lazarus point to a meaning that goes beyond its surface. Sure, this is certainly a miraculous account of someone being raised from the dead, but there is far more to this story.  Throughout most of John’s account, the people surrounding Jesus are paralyzed by their fear of death: the disciples don’t want to go to Judea because they are afraid they might die, Mary and Martha tell Jesus that he could have prevented Lazarus from dying if he had just been there, and the crowds are lingering around the tomb even four days after Lazarus’ funeral.  For the most part, Jesus does not react to the fact that Lazarus has died; instead, he reacts to the fear of death exhibited by the people around him.  He goes to Bethany in spite of the disciples’ warning, he tells Martha to trust even in the face of uncertainty, and he weeps because the crowds are imprisoned by their fear of death.  And so, in the climactic moment of the story, Jesus tells the crowds around the tomb to unbind Lazarus, to free him from the prison of death, and by doing so he invites the people gathered around him to free themselves from fear, to let themselves be unbound from the specter of death.  In his encounter with Lazarus, Jesus moves those around him not from sorrow to happiness, not from despair to hope, not even from death to life, but from fear to fearlessness.

Ultimately, this is why the raising of Lazarus impels the authorities to execute Jesus.  As far as they’re concerned, the only unassailable power that tyrants have is the power to take people’s lives.  This is why the preferred method of execution in the Roman Empire was crucifixion: by executing dissidents in a public and humiliating way, the Roman occupiers instilled fear among those who might want to rebel.  But when Jesus comes along and liberates people from the fear of death, those in power are suddenly impotent; without the fear of death, tyrants have no power to control people.  By freeing people from their prisons of fear, Jesus instilled fear among the authorities of this world, demonstrating to them that their power is ultimately fleeting and is coming to an end.  By raising Lazarus from the dead and then going willingly to the cross, Jesus demonstrates to us that we have nothing to fear, that when we ground our lives in God, we are not enslaved to limits, but are empowered to embrace possibility.

There are many times in our lives that we are imprisoned by fear.  Sometimes, we are afraid to try new things because we’re worried that we might fail.  Sometimes, we are afraid to reach out to someone we’ve never met because we’re afraid we might be embarrassed.  Sometimes, we’re willing to arm ourselves behind locked doors because of some vague fear of the unknown.  But by raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus reveals to us that our lives are not shaped by success or failure.  By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus invites us to risk ourselves and be in relationship with those who are different than we are.  By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus shows us that we have nothing to fear.  In these final weeks of Lent, I encourage you to embrace this fearlessness, to turn away from perceived limits, and to acknowledge that anything is possible.

Worry

Today is Saint Joseph’s Day.

imgresMost of the information we get about Joseph comes from the first chapters of the gospel according to Matthew.  Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man who had great respect for and devotion to God’s law.  Matthew’s gospel also indicates that Joseph is of the line of King David; he is the means by which Jesus is connected to Israel’s storied monarchy.  Finally, the First Gospel makes a pretty strong connection between our St. Joseph, who is told in a dream to hide the Messiah in Egypt, and Joseph the son of Jacob, the dreamer who saves his people by bringing them into the land of Egypt at the end of Genesis.  The Gospel of Matthew, in other words, paints Joseph as a noble and righteous protector, the first-century equivalent of a knight in shining armor.

So it’s a little surprising that the gospel reading appointed for St. Joseph’s Day comes not from Matthew’s gospel, but from the gospel according to Luke, in which Joseph is a parenthetical character at best.  The reading is the one story canonical story that describes the young life of Jesus: when Jesus is twelve, he and his parents go to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.  On the way home, Mary and Joseph realize that Jesus is not with them and they return to Jerusalem, only to find Jesus holding forth among the elders in the Temple.  Mary scolds him, saying, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”  It’s striking to me that in this gospel reading appointed for his feast day, Joseph neither says nor does anything of significance.  The only thing we are told he does in this particular situation is worry.

I can't see why they were worried...
I don’t know why they were worried…

When I was a kid, I had a tendency to wander.  Most notably, I got lost at the State Capitol building in Connecticut and at the cliff walk in Newport, RI.  None of these incidents ever seemed like a big deal to me; after all, knew where I was the whole time.  Needless to say, my parents did not feel the same way.  When I finally turned up after these unaccompanied sojourns, my parents would greet me with that strange mixture of relief, anger, and concern that is typical of worried parents.  As I’ve entered adulthood, I’ve come to understand that the worried emotions my parents exhibited stemmed entirely from love.  I think this is why the lectionary appoints the reading from Luke’s gospel for Saint Joseph’s day.  Joseph’s anxiety is typical of all worried parents who would rather die than see something bad happen to their children.  This is particularly extraordinary when you consider the unusual circumstances of Jesus’ birth.  In spite of the fact that Jesus was not technically his son, Joseph loved Jesus as his own.  This sacrificial love is emblematic of the love that God has for each and every one of us.  We put our trust in a God who worries for the creation he loves, who is concerned those who are his children by adoption.  And the ultimate message of Lent is that God would rather die than see something bad happen to God’s children.

Steps

Note: Donald Romanik, President of the Episcopal Church Foundation and my father, preached on yesterday’s lectionary at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pontiac, Michigan yesterday.  Below is the sermon he offered to that congregation.

urlTwo years ago I had bilateral total knee replacement surgery.  In other words, I had both knees done at once. While it was a pretty rugged surgery and a very challenging recovery and rehab period, I was fully prepared for this ordeal physically, emotionally, intellectually and even spiritually. I planned for this elective surgery well in advance and all my business and personal affairs were in order. I was in good physical shape, spiritually grounded and had done extensive on-line research on all aspects of the procedure. I even arranged for appropriate pastoral care for both me and my family during the various stages of the process.  All I had to do was trust my surgeons, therapists and caregivers and put all my energies into getting, better, stronger, and back to normal. I became the poster child for bilateral knee replacement patients as my recovery was quick, successful and complete. I was fully confident that my knees were fixed for at least a twenty or thirty year period.

Seven weeks ago, I began to have flu-like symptoms, including swelling and discomfort which turned out to be a rare and unanticipated infection in my left replacement knee joint. Consequently, I needed immediate surgical and medical intervention.  While they didn’t have to replace the entire prosthesis, the surgeons did have to open up the knee, clean it out and replace some of the parts. More significantly, they put me on heavy duty, self-administered IV antibiotics via a PIC line inserted in my arm which resulted in very severe and annoying side effects. This type of complication, by the way, only occurs in less than 1% of knee replacement patients two years after the fact.  So much for odds.

Unlike my first knee surgery, this one was not planned. The physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual preparedness of two years ago was utterly and totally absent. I had no time to plan anything and had no control whatsoever. In fact, rather than the experience of a deep spiritual journey and time set aside for reflection and discernment which characterized the last surgery, this  time I very soon felt hopeless, frustrated , angry and, for a while, totally disconnected from God. I even railed against God with a few choice words.  This was truly a wilderness time for me – in a sense, a ready-made Lenten journey that I did not want to take. It was forced upon me totally against my will.

In this morning’s psalm, we proclaim that the Lord has done great things for us and therefore we rejoice. We are also reminded that those who sow in tears and go out weeping shall come home with shouts of joy. While the message of the psalm is clearly meant to be comforting, I think it is often unrealistic especially in times of tragedy, illness, loss or total devastation. Do you really think that the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre are finding comfort in these words, even three months after the fact? Six weeks ago, my mouth was not filled with laughter nor my tongue with shouts of joy.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians presents an alternative approach and point of view, at least for me. In the passage we read today, Paul begins with identifying those valuable things in his life that give him status among the people of Israel so much so that he has reason to be “confident in the flesh.” After all, at the time he was knocked off his horse on the way to Damascus, Paul had lived a good life and had all the credentials he needed for fame, fortune and influence. He was at the top of his game and recognized that fact even at this point in his ministry.  And yet, Paul goes on to say that whatever inheritance he shared with God’s chosen people, his social, religious and political status, he now comes to regard as loss, not gain, because of Christ. He even refers to all this as rubbish. Paul states that any righteousness that may be associated with him comes not from his status or the law but because of his faith in Christ, in other words, righteousness from God based on faith.

For Paul, nothing is more important to him than sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He even says that he wants to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.”  This is incredibly powerful stuff, and in essence, the very core of what it means to be a Christian. But isn’t this easier said than done? How can I, as a Christian, participate in the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ when I even have difficulty feeling some connection to God as I did during my recent illness?

Fortunately, Paul doesn’t stop there. Like me and you, even Paul hasn’t quite figured it out – at least not yet. He acknowledges that he has not already obtained or reached this goal of participating in the death and resurrection of Christ, but presses on to make it his own – forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. For me, these words of Paul are much more realistic than the seemingly comforting words of the psalm. Paul is basically acknowledging that we live in a world where bad things happen and people are oppressed and suffer needlessly, all of which often results in pervasive feelings of alienation, isolation and separation from God. In other words, we live in a world that has not yet been fully transformed by God’s ultimate plan of salvation. But still we are called to press on. We are called to strive toward the heavenly goal of God in Christ Jesus. We are called to forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead. That’s all that matters. That’s all that really counts. It’s really okay if we have not yet reached this ultimate goal.

The good news for me is that I am recovering from this medical ordeal and have completed the arduous and necessary regimen of antibiotics and other medications. The better news is that my feelings of frustration and abandonment are gone and my Lenten wilderness experience has morphed into something more anticipatory and hopeful. I guess I took Paul’s advice, whether I knew it or not, and forgot what lay behind and attempted to strain forward to what lies ahead.  For deep down inside, I ultimately realized that nothing can ever separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not even infections, rashes, nausea, fever, chills or PIC lines.  I realize and appreciate that despite this setback, I am healthy, I am strong and, with some PT and exercise, I will be able to walk normally again and, hopefully, avoid any further complications in the future. God was indeed with me on this entire journey and will continue to be with me no matter what lies ahead.

urlWhich brings me to today’s Gospel from John. On first blush, this passage can be interpreted as a subtle endorsement of conspicuous consumption and even excess. Here we have Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing the feet of Jesus with perfume that was obviously worth a small fortune. We also have that famous quote from Jesus – “you will always have the poor with you but you will not always have me”. Clearly, that is not the point of the story. What is significant in this passage is that the perfume bought by Mary, pure nard, was to be kept for the day of Jesus’ burial, a necessary and important element in ancient Jewish funeral rituals. But Mary was not saving the perfume for Jesus’ burial, which at that point was about a week away. She was using it now. Perhaps, rather than being extravagant, Mary’s simple but poignant act of anointing his feet while he was still alive was a powerful symbol of  her active and ongoing participation in the imminent death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After all, why waste expensive burial perfume on someone who is going to rise from the dead? You might as well use it now when everyone can appreciate its value and enjoy the fragrance wafting throughout the house. I think that Mary of Bethany from 2000 years ago is giving those of us gathered here today in Pontiac, Michigan an elsewhere some clues on what it means to be in relationship with the person called Jesus.

How do we as Christians in our own time and place actively, relevantly, practically yet completely participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the ultimate goal and challenge posed by Paul in his letter to the Church in Philippi? Maybe the answer is simple – one small step at a time. Let’s go back to my knee replacement rehabilitation metaphor. Physical therapy is a process of small and often simple movements, stretches and exercises that with repetition, discipline and time ultimately result in the ability to walk again. I suggest that Christian discipleship is similar. Through simple acts of prayer, worship, fellowship, stewardship, outreach, empathy, sympathy and love, we, both individually and as a community, ultimately come to participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

As we approach the end of Lent and begin the powerful drama and pageantry of Holy Week, may we continue our journeys of forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead – again – one step at a time.

Waste

I don't know which department regulates salmon in blog posts.
I don’t know which department regulates salmon in blog posts.

One of the consistent refrains we hear during elections is that our government is too big and inefficient.  Though Democrats and Republicans disagree about the nature of the inefficiency (Republicans talk about paring down the size of government; Democrats tend to talk about making government more nimble), complaints about government waste come from both ends of the political spectrum.  A favorite example of inefficiency and waste has to do with one of our government’s inexplicable redundancies: when salmon are in freshwater, they are regulated by the Department of the Interior; when they are in saltwater, they are regulated by the Commerce Department.  Our President joked in a State of the Union address that “it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”  This concern with waste and inefficiency is emblematic of a broader human impulse: we like to make sure that we don’t waste the resources we have, that we use them effectively and appropriately.

It is for this reason that we might find today’s gospel reading offensive, as it tells the story of someone who is praised for her wastefulness.  In the twelfth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus visits the home of his friend Lazarus just after raising him from the dead.  While he and his disciples are sitting in the house, Lazarus’ sister Mary pours a bottle of expensive burial perfume mixed with nard (a burial spice) on Jesus’ feet and wipes his feet with her hair.  Judas, who eventually betrays Jesus (John never tires of telling us this) is indignant and claims that they could have sold the perfume and given the proceeds to the poor.  Jesus responds by telling Judas, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

It’s important for us to notice that this story takes place immediately after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.  It is in the story of Lazarus’ resuscitation that Mary’s sister Martha approaches Jesus and says, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Jesus’ tells her that Lazarus will rise again, to which Martha says, “I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day,” as if to imply, “that’s not much comfort now.”  In response, Jesus proclaims, “I AM the Resurrection and the Life.”  Resurrection, in other words, is not the product of a distant future; it is an undeniably present reality.

These words of Jesus are still hanging in the air when he and his disciples gather with the recently resuscitated Lazarus and his siblings.  John makes sure we know that this is the context by reminding us that Lazarus was the one whom Jesus raised from the dead (as if we had forgotten from the previous chapter).  When Mary pours burial perfume over Jesus’ feet, she may well have been thinking of his theophanic proclamation that he is the Resurrection.  Perhaps she realized that the nard she had been keeping for his burial was unnecessary, because the grave would not be able to hold Jesus.  And so she pours out the superfluous perfume, filling the house with a worshipful testament to Jesus’ identity as the Resurrection who destroys the power of death.

I think that it is in this context that we are meant to hear the statement of Jesus that concludes this passage.  It’s easy to read it as narcissistic: “You always the poor with you, but you don’t always have me!”  We might be tempted to imagine that Jesus is saying, “Pay attention to me!  I’m the important one!”  If we read this in the context of Resurrection, however, the statement is far from narcissistic: “You always have the poor with you.”  In other words, you always have to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves; you always need to give to the poor from your abundance because this has implications in the Resurrection.  The things we do in this life matter, the things we transform in this life will be transformed in the Resurrection.  We can’t assume that those who are poor deserve their lot in life, we can’t agree with Hobbes that life is “nasty, brutish, and short” for most people, because we affirm our faith in the Resurrection, our faith in life that continues and brings transformation to the world.  During Lent, we are called to affirm our faith in the Resurrection, to give to the poor, and love with wasteful abandon, just as our God loves us.