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.
Two 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.
Which 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.