Thursday, March 28, 2013

March 28, 2013 - Maundy Thursday

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
            “Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus himself says very little about what we have come to call Holy Communion, the Divine Liturgy, the Great Thanksgiving, or Holy Eucharist. Simply “do this in remembrance of me.” Maundy Thursday provides no shortage of topics for a preacher. We could turn our focus to the new commandment that Jesus gives, that we “love one another.” Or perhaps an exploration of Jesus as the new Moses, comparing the Passover of Exodus to this Passover meal. Another option would be to dive into the idea of servant leadership, being modeled by Jesus in the act of washing the disciples feet. The themes of betrayal and allegiance as seen in Judas and Peter would also be  a good foundation for a sermon. And while some good intentioned preachers might subject their congregation to a sermon that tries to tied up all of those threads into one, I’d like to instead pay closer attention to the institution of the Last Supper and our own celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
            When I was in Israel last year I learned a lot about some of the ancient traditions of the Church, many of which are still keep alive today. And one gem in particular that I ran across comes from St. Augustine. Tonight when you receive the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, we will say “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven; the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” But there is a more ancient saying that dates back to the 4th century, coming from a reflection written by St. Augustine. These words were used as the Eucharist was distributed- “Behold the mystery of your salvation laid before you. Behold what you are. Become what you receive.” It is such a beautiful and powerful way to view the Eucharist and understand what the “this” to which Jesus was referring when he said “do this in remembrance of me.” “Behold the mystery of your salvation laid before you. Behold what you are. Become what you receive.” We’ll spend a few moments on each of these phrases.
            Behold the mystery of your salvation laid before you. Behold isn’t a word that appears in our vernacular. We say things like “see, what I’m saying is…” or “look, the way to go is…” But rarely do we behold anything. Instead, our language forces us to simply glance at things, often gazing past their deeper meaning. But tonight, we are invited to behold the Eucharist. Feel it in your hand, in your mouth, and in your soul. As the Psalmist writes in Psalm 34, “taste…the goodness of the Lord.” Let the taste of the wine linger on your lips, knowing that it is the very grace of God. Truly experience the Eucharist.
            In my work, I notice that the idea of Sacraments tend to give people some trouble. What are we to believe about these acts of faith? Do we have to believe in miracles to believe that Baptism or Eucharist are special? If you look at the Sacraments of the Church, very few of them are taken seriously. Marriage is plagued by infidelity and divorce. Confirmation is often imposed on youth who have no choice in the matter, and whom we rarely see after they are Confirmed. The same is often true of Baptism, which is a grossly misunderstood Sacrament. People are often skeptical and scared of Confession and few know of the power of that Sacrament. Burial and Unction people tend to get, because of their more serious nature. Ordination is only taken on as a choice, so there is often a great deal of solemnity in that Sacrament.
            One of the places that I feel most privileged to serve as a priest is at the Communion rail, distributing the gifts of God to the people of God. And there are many who do take the Sacrament seriously, I can see it on your faces, and it is inspiring. But I’ve also seen many people have conversations with their neighbors while kneeling at the rail. Others smack chewing gum in their mouths. And don’t even get me started on the idea of passing around crackers and grape juice in thimble sized shot glasses. At least in the Episcopal Church we have kept some dignity with the Sacrament.
            Let these words of St. Augustine to truly behold the Eucharist remind us of the importance of the Sacrament of Eucharist. The word “behold” is derived from a word that means “to give regard and obligation to.” In the verses that directly follow our reading from 1 Corinthians, St. Paul writes “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” And a few verses later, he says that because some people have not taken the Eucharist with an attitude of beholding that “many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” Now I’m not going to tell you that if you don’t take Eucharist seriously enough that God will strike you down, but St. Paul seems to be insinuating that it is a matter of life and death. Just as God told Moses to take off his shoes when he approached the burning bush, approaching the Lord’s Table for Holy Eucharist is worthy of our fear, trembling, and beholding.
St. Paul is writing about Holy Eucharist because there are divisions in the church in Corinth. And he urges them to remember what the Eucharist is about- about the Lord’s body being broken and his blood poured out. Let us remember that the bread and wine are a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where we will one day all dine together. Let us behold these elements as the great mystery which embodies the body and blood of Christ, which were given for us.
            And we would do well to pay special attention to that word, “mystery.” If you were to look up “Eucharist” in a theological dictionary, you’d find an abundance of interpretations such as real presence, transubstantiation, transignification, sacramental union, memorialism, and consubstantiation. They are all human’s attempts to explain the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. And while it can be fun and interesting to wade into those theological waters, let us remember that trying to define a mystery will have the same success rate as trying to lasso the wind. The most important meaning that we can take away from the Eucharist is that Christ is with us. Now how that plays out, the scholars can debate.
            Jesus was a Jew and would have been Jewish in his thought processes. In Hebrew, the word “remember” means to not only “recall to mind,” but to “make real again.” So when he says “do this in remembrance of me,” he is saying “each time you do this, it will happening again for the first time, and I will be there again with you.” The metaphysics of the Eucharist don’t matter nearly as much as the fact that Jesus is with us when we celebrate this feast.
            And the last word in that initial phrase that I’d like to point out is “salvation.” Anytime that word comes up, it is helpful to ask “saved from what?” Now I don’t want to get into the weeds of atonement theology, that will be Michael’s task tomorrow when preaching on Good Friday. But I’d suggest that we look at the roots of the word “atonement;” break it down and you have at-one-ment. Atonement is about reconciling and uniting, and that is also what the Eucharist does. It brings heaven to earth in the bread and wine that are for us the body and blood of Christ. The Eucharist makes Christ present in a very tangible and real sense. The Eucharist saves us from being alone.
            So then we might rephrase “behold the mystery of your salvation laid before you” as “take seriously the unexplainable but very real and very saving presence of Christ with you in the Eucharist.”
Next, St. Augustine’s Eucharistic wording invites us to “behold what you are.” Again, everything I said earlier about behold, repeat it. The linkage of the Last Supper to the Passover meal is quite clear in the gospels. And if you boil both of these holy meals down to their most basic parts, they are meals about identity; they are meals about beholding who we are. What does the Eucharist say about who we are?
            The word “holy” is often tacked on in front of words such as “Communion” or “Eucharist.” Holy means “set apart,” as contrasted to what is ordinary and every day. And when we consume that Holy Eucharist, we become set apart as well. We become set apart for the task of following Jesus. When we eat the bread of heaven, we are given the nourishment to transform this world so that heaven might come to earth. When we drink the blood of Christ, we share in his martyrdom. When Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist, we are then made holy so that we might take Jesus with us into all aspects of our lives.
            As I mentioned earlier, St. Paul was writing because the Corinthians were divided. The issue is that they were coming to the Eucharist as individuals and not a community. He writes “For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk…So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” People who had bread for Eucharist weren’t sharing with those who needed bread, and others were guzzling the wine, becoming drunk as they waited for others to join them to celebrate the Eucharist. They were not beholding what they are- the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ receives the body of Christ in the Eucharist. The people of God receive the gifts of God. So when you behold who you are, remember that you are part of a community, and how we treat other members of our Body matters.
            And the last thing to know about who you are is that you are beloved. Tonight in John, we heard Jesus say “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Jesus washes feet out of love, he gives himself up to betrayal and death out of love, on Easter he will rise out of the tomb on account of love. We all have scars and flaws. We’re all self-conscious about something. Whatever doubts you might have about yourself or your worthiness- you are loved, deeply loved. And that is as much a part of the Eucharist as anything else- the beloved of God receiving the love of God.
“Behold what you are,” or in other words, when you receive the Eucharist, value and hold in your heart that you are set apart for God’s service, that you are part of a larger community, and that you are loved.
And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, “become what you receive.” We receive the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, the body and blood of Christ. What does it mean to become those things? We can dedicate ourselves to following Jesus in his willingness to be betrayed by the world. We can forsake our seeking of worldly comforts and stand in solidarity with the poor and marginalized. We can be willing to be broken just as Jesus was as we follow him in taking up our crosses. We can pour out our blood, sweat, and tears working for the justice and dignity of every part of Creation until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. We can be the bread which gives nourishment to others, either literally in helping to feed the hungry, or metaphorically in being a shoulder to those who need one to lean on. We can be the wine of rejoicing to those are struggling to find a reason to give thanks or celebrate.
            One misunderstood part of Christian theology is the concept of the Second-Coming. The problem is that it has created as bunch of people who look towards the sky for the Messiah to come again, meanwhile, as St. Paul suggests, our brothers and sisters are going hungry down below. But Jesus clearly says that the Kingdom of God is a present reality. You’re perhaps familiar with the phrase “be the change you want to see in the world;” to become what you receive is an invitation to be the salvation you want to see in the world. If you have a heart for hunger issues, feed the hungry; if you are passionate about animal welfare, volunteer at the animal shelter. Our salvation is that we are reconciled to God, so be vessels of that reconciliation with the world. Wear your discipleship on your sleeve. Let the whole world behold and know that God is doing a grand thing in your life and in our world.
Regardless of how we view what happens during the Eucharist, some sort of transformation happens. That is part of what makes it a Sacramental event, something changes. Some unleavened grain and fermented grape juice, whether literally, symbolically, or metaphorically, become the body and blood of Christ in some fashion. Transformation happens. So if we are to become what we receive, we must be transformed, because in the Eucharist, we received something that has been transformed. Anytime we have an encounter with the Divine, we are transformed.
But for that transformation to truly take root in our lives, we have to plant those seeds of transformation deep within our soul. The Corinthians weren’t doing that, hence St. Paul wrote this letter exhorting them to become what they received- a transformed people who bear the image of Christ. Be changed in receiving the Eucharist. Let the petty things go, change your outlook, act differently, be transformed.
So we might hear “become what you receive” as an exhortation to “be the body and blood of Christ to those who need it, be the salvation that the world needs, be transformed when you receive the transformation of the Eucharist.”
Behold the mystery of your salvation laid before you. Behold what you are. Become what you receive. They are good words for us to consider on this night when we remember the Last Supper and the first Holy Eucharist. I hope and pray that this has been a truly holy week for you thus far. As we enter the most sacred three-day period in our Christian life and faith, may it be beholding the mystery of our salvation, knowing that God is with us. May it be beholding what we are, the sacred and beloved community of God. And may we become what we receive in the Holy Eucharist, the salvific transformation of this world. Amen.       

Sunday, March 24, 2013

March 24, 2013 - Palm Sunday C

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
            Today is of course the most confusing of all days in the Church year. Is it Palm Sunday, or is it Passion Sunday? Yes, is the answer. And as I say every Palm Sunday, it’s a travesty that we’ve combined the two liturgies into one. The combining of these two distinct movements in Jesus’ life is an error of convenience, and the Passion is certainly not about what is convenient. The assumption is that people won’t be coming to Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services, so we give you the back story today, lest you show up on Easter Sunday, forgetting that there had been a crucifixion. Much of Palm Sunday’s significance is lost in the face of the Passion reading, and that is a shame because there is a lot of material worthy of our attention. On Christmas, we don’t give you the story of the Epiphany and the entire Lenten season; and it makes no more sense to dilute all of Holy Week into one service on Palm Sunday. If you’re looking for a sermon on the Passion, I’d recommend coming back on Good Friday. Today, we’ll celebrate and honor Palm Sunday and the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem.
            That Palm Sunday nearly 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem would have been a tense one. It was Passover, the highest of the holy days in the Judaism. Scholars tell us that Jerusalem usually had a population of around 40,000, but for Passover it swelled to over 250,000. And as the crowds filled the city, they had salvation on their minds- salvation from Rome. You’ll recall that Jerusalem was under Roman authority and oppression. Each Passover, the Jews would gather at the Temple to recall the events of Exodus, that victorious event where God led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. And the people each year would wonder “if God overthrew Egypt, why not Rome?” Messianic figures would pop up from time to time, promising to lead that effort, but Rome always crushed them.
            And so at the beginning of Passover, the Roman governor Pilate would always be sure to quell any rumors of an insurrection. From the west, a large procession came for Pilate’s headquarters in Caesarea Maritima. And it was a procession of power- soldiers clad in gilded armor, mounted on their horses, swords blazing. They marched with the fanfare of drums and trumpets, declaring the supremacy of the Emperor of Rome, with titles such as “son of God,” “prince of peace,” and “savior of the world.” And the procession also included prisoners being dragged in shackles, reminding everyone of what happens to those who dare stand against Rome.
            In the same way that the United States has been flying B52 bombers over South Korea this week as a reminder to the North Koreans what awaits them if they get out of line, Rome was sending a clear message to all those gathered for the Passover- “have your religious ceremonies, but don’t do anything stupid.”
            So that parade of Rome is coming from the west. And on the other side of the city, coming from the Mount of Olives, is a rag-tag bunch of people who are also taking part in another parade. That parade, of course, is the Palm Sunday procession, being led by Jesus riding on a lowly donkey. There are three movements to this Palm Sunday narrative- preparation, procession, and prophecy.
            Preparation was a big part of what Jesus was doing in this passage. Let’s be clear, Jesus, several times, has told his disciples that he would be killed soon after entering the holy city. Jesus knows that this parade is a foreshadowing of his walking the way of the cross later in the week, and he is preparing for that. Jesus makes preparations for a counter-protest. He knows that Pilate will be leading a parade from the west, so he tells two of his disciples to go into the city and bring him a colt. Jesus is preparing for a political protest, his own sort of “March on Jerusalem.” But he is very clear, this is a counter-protest. Everything that the Roman parade stands for, his claims the opposite. So instead of signs of military strength, his parade involves palm branches and people spreading their cloaks on the road. Palms were the Roman symbol of victory, and so this procession mockingly declares triumph against the Roman parade.
            Jesus is preparing for what he will be doing all week- speaking out against Rome and the Temple. He will be refuting the oligarchy of the Temple and Rome, the economic domination system that keeps the rich, rich and the poor, poor. And he is rejecting the idea that the evils done by Rome and the Temple are legitimized by God. That is the story of Holy Week, and in this parade, Jesus sets the tone by having peasants peacefully participate in this protest. Jesus offer the pax Christi in the face of the pax Romana.
            This was not an accidental parade, Jesus planned it out and seized the perfect opportunity to stage a counter protest against Rome and its strange bedfellow, the Temple. At this point in the narrative, we ask ourselves what we are preparing for? There are a lot of things that, as people of faith, are worthy of our protest. It might be the use of drones by our government, and epidemic of rapes of female officers in the military, the exploitation of the poor, the inability of Washington to function. Where ever you might see injustice, how are you preparing to face it?
            Next, Jesus makes the procession that he has been preparing for. It was just about a year ago to the day that I was standing on the Mount of Olives, looking towards the city of Jerusalem and where the Temple used to stand. And there was something that becomes clear from that vantage point- Jesus’ procession had a destination. Looking towards Jerusalem, there would have been two major landmarks in Jesus’ day. The first was the Temple in all its splendor. And right next to the Temple was the Roman military headquarters in Jerusalem called the Antonia Fortress. It gave Rome the ability to keep an eye on troublemakers in the Temple and make a quick deployment, should the need arise.
            Now remember, everyone was awaiting a Messiah to lead them against Rome. So as Jesus approaches the gate of the city, they all expected him to make a right turn towards the Antonia Fortress. That is where the Messiah would lead the charge against Rome, where the second Exodus would begin. But Jesus didn’t make a right turn; instead, he turned left and entered the Temple. Instead of reading the Passion today, we really should have some readings that describe what happens after Jesus enters Jerusalem, because that would enable us to better understand the events of Holy Week.
            Jesus enters the Temple to cleanse it and says “My house [should] be a house of prayer; but you have made it a den of robbers.” He then begins a series of confrontations with the Scribes and Pharisees. He tells the parable of the wicked tenants, reminding the Temple leaders that they are the wicked ones, who have rejected the stone that has become the chief cornerstone. After some more scathing remarks, then predicts the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, which was certainly blasphemy. Jesus didn’t pull any punches in stirring up the hornets’ nest. Jesus always delivers the telling blow if the telling blow will tell. And so after entering Jerusalem on Sunday, by Thursday evening he has told enough parables to make people want to kill him, so they start plotting.
            This procession has a purpose, and it is to challenge the corrupt religious regime of the day. Jesus’ procession reminds us that we are a part of the problem, not those other people. Everyone wanted Jesus to go to them, to the Antonia Fortress. But he cut right to their hearts instead and challenged them in their complacent and idolatrous religion. His procession wasn’t just a parade; it was the beginning of a movement.
            As St. Paul wrote it our reading from Philippians this morning- “[Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him.” How often though does religion do the opposite? The Temple was certainly guilty of many sins, and I wonder where we are just as guilty? Where are we obedient to the Gospel? And where do we ignore Gospel living in favor of safe living? Are we willing to die for God’s mission? Because if we aren’t, it’s awfully hard to live for it if it isn’t important enough to die for.  Are we humble in following Jesus? Or do we tend to use religion for our own purposes instead of God’s? As we see in this text, exalting comes through obedience and lowliness.
            And so considering Jesus’ procession this morning, we are invited to ask ourselves which parade we march in? Is it the parade of Pilate- of wealth, of power, of self-preservation? Or do we instead join the procession of Jesus- of humility, of challenging the status quo? And let us not forget, Jesus procession first stops at the Temple, but it will eventually lead to the cross. Marching in that procession is not easy. Before us this morning there are two kingdoms, two visions of what life looks like, two parades. Which will you join?
            And so after the preparation and procession comes the prophecy. The Pharisees don’t like the ruckus being caused by Jesus and his disciples. They don’t want the Roman authorities to know that there is a counter-parade going on; they don’t want any trouble. So they say “order your disciples to be silent.” And Jesus responds “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” The prophetic shout of “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” must be heard. It cannot be silenced, though people will try. What a surprise it must have been to Rome and the Temple that the very movement that they sought to silence ended up becoming the largest movement in the history of the world. Indeed, all of Creation shouts out with this message.
            The question put to us is- are you shouting, or are you silent? Over the years, people have tried to silence this message in many ways. Today if you go to the Mount of Olives and look at the city of Jerusalem, you’ll of course notice that both the Temple and the Antonia Fortress are gone, and the gate leading into the city on that wall is gone. In 1541, the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman sealed off the entrance and put a cemetery in front of it, working off the myth that a prophet is not allowed to walk through a cemetery. Thus, he sought to prevent Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah, from ever entering that gate again. And though we might not go to such lengths to try to silence the message, sometimes the shouting isn’t quite as vociferous as it could be. In our practices of stewardship, is our witness to Christ strong or silent? How about in our prayer lives? In our relationships with others? In our stand with those in need?
            Earlier in the story, when Jesus tells the disciples to get the colt for him, he tells him to say to the owner of the colt “the Lord needs it.” Today, in Jesus’ preparation for the furthering of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, what does the Lord need?
            Perhaps one thing that we can offer that the Lord needs is our voices. Our shouts to the Romes and Temples of our day that cry for justice, reconciliation, and peace are something that our world needs more of. Silence in the face of prejudice, discrimination, violence, abuse, and greed is apathetic complicity. Are you prophetic? We are all called to be prophets and truth-tellers who shout out. That day in Jerusalem, a donkey was the vehicle for God’s message; today, we are that vehicle, we are the donkey. And the Lord needs us to shout out and carry the message.
            Palm Sunday is a truly proleptic event. Jesus prepares for a counter-parade against Rome. His procession leads him not against Rome, but the thing that lies deepest in our heart, our faith. We must choose which procession we will join, the parade of Suffering Servant, or of the imperial power. And Jesus invites us to carry his message of prophecy, along with the stones that shout out, to all corners of Creation. May God bless you this Holy Week, that it might be a time of walking with Christ in his counter-cultural kingship, in his Passion, and, come next Sunday, in his glorious Resurrection. Amen.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

March 17, 2013 - Lent 5C

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Those are the words of the prophet Isaiah to Israel in Exile in the 6th century BC. Remember from your Bible classes, Jerusalem has been sacked and the ruling elite of Israel had been exiled to Babylonia. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann defines exile as “the loss of the known world.” Everything that they knew was gone- their careers, their homes, family members, and the sacred Temple in Jerusalem. It even seemed as if God was absent, because the Babylonians practiced polytheism, being led by the god Marduk. And the way that the Babylonians worshiped was by participating in rituals which reenacted stories about their gods. Their worship focused on the same, old stories.

And so the God of Israel tells Isaiah to be looking for a new thing, in contrast to the old reenactments of the Babylonian gods. The God of Israel is not stagnant, and is not a statue to be worshipped, but instead is a living God who will act to save the people. It is a truly inspiring message of hope- “I am about to do a new thing.” And God did, as eventually they would return home to Israel and build a new Temple. And though Isaiah wrote to a different audience in a different time, the question is still a good one. God is doing a new thing; do you perceive it?

As Jesus says in the chapter following what we heard today- “When the Spirit of truth comes, it will guide you into all the truth.” Or as we read in Revelation, the one sitting on the throne says “See, I am making all things new.” One of my favorite prayers comes from the Ordination service and in part, it prays “let the whole world see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.” The question before us this morning is “do you perceive it?”

Today is the feast day of St. Patrick of Ireland. He was born in 390 to a Christian family on the British mainland, and at age 16 he was captured and sold into slavery as a shepherd in Ireland. Five years later he escaped and returned to Britain. Patrick was then ordained as a priest, and later a bishop. Then, in roughly 431, he was called to return to Ireland as a missionary, some say in a vision and others say by the Pope. Tradition says that he landed not far from where he served as slave. And he did grand missionary work there. I think what allowed St. Patrick to do this was his firm belief that God was doing a new thing.

Returning the place of his capture, perhaps even running into his former masters, was no easy task. He knew all about the Irish, and probably regarded them as brutal savages for what they did to him. And yet, he was open to God and perceived that God would be able to do a new thing through him.

This ability to see the new things that God is doing in our lives is a helpful lens as we approach this well-known story about Jesus, Mary, and Judas found in the Gospel according to John. The first thing that needs to be pointed out is that the Passion in John differs from the other gospel accounts. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Judas hands Jesus over to the authorities, betraying him. That event never happens in John. In John, Jesus remains in power throughout the entire Passion narrative and he turns himself in. So Judas is not the one who betrayed Jesus. When John refers to Judas as “the one who would betray Jesus,” he is not speaking of handing him over, but instead of being blind to what new thing Jesus is doing. In John, discipleship is measured against the measuring stick of faith; and Judas doesn’t quite measure up, so that is his betrayal- not handing Jesus over, but giving up on him.

And with this attitude of giving up on Jesus, Judas closes himself off to the grace of God that unfolds before him. Mary though saw something new and holy in this encounter with Jesus. I know it seems like a somewhat odd story- wiping someone’s feet with oil and your own hair. But the Bible is from another culture, so her actions don’t shock us as much as they should. What Mary did was absolutely unacceptable and scandalous in her culture.

A man having his feet washed by a woman was a rather intimate act; certainly it would have raised a few eyebrows. Furthermore, the perfume that was used wasn’t some cheap stuff. It was worth 300 denarii, or roughly the yearly income for the average worker. It was simply too much, it was over the top, it was silly.

And we must consider why Mary just so happened to have so much perfume on hand. It was likely the very same perfume that they had planned to use to anoint her brother Lazarus, who had died, but was now sitting at the table eating with them after Jesus had miraculously brought him back to life.

And this too was a scandalous event- the raising of a dead man. In fact, right after word of it gets to the Pharisees the Bible says that it was such as scandal that “from that day on they planned to put him to death.” And when Mary uses that perfume on Jesus, it reminds everyone of the scandals that always seem to follow Jesus.

And then Mary untied her hair and let it down to dry Jesus’ feet. That simply isn’t done. No self-respecting woman, let alone a host, would do such a thing. In all of her actions with Jesus, she does too much, she goes over the top; there is an abundance of scandal. And part of the reason for her abundant grace and love offered to Jesus is in return for the abundant power and glory that Jesus has shown them by bringing her brother back to life. It is a response to the abundance that Jesus showed in feeding of the 5,000. And it is a foreshadowing of the abundant love with which Jesus will give himself up on the cross.

Mary knew that there was an abundance of God present with her, and so she responded in a fitting, but scandalous way. She perceived that something new was happening in their midst, and it needed to be addressed; it needed to be adored. There are two competing theologies out there. On one hand we have the theology of scarcity, and it says things like “there just isn’t enough time to get it all done,” “if I just had a little more money,” “what I really need more of.” In the theology of scarcity, the world is a place of supply and demand where we have to compete to get to the top. But there is another way, the theology of abundance which calls us to realize that we will be given our daily bread, that God will provide, that there is enough love to heal our world. Judas clearly operates out of a theology of scarcity because he doesn’t realize that there is an endless supply of love and grace in this world. Mary though has a theology of abundance and knows that because God does new things, that there will always be enough. So she is free to act and shows great grace in her action. Do you operate out of a theology of scarcity or of abundance?

And much in the same way that we’ll read next Sunday during the Palm Sunday procession, people who witness this scandalous abundance want it to stop. Next week, during the parade into Jerusalem, the Pharisees will tell Jesus to stop his disciples from making such a commotion and he responds by saying “if they were silent, the stones would shout out.” In today’s story, Mary is the stone that is shouting out, though Judas tries to stop her.

To Judas, what Mary does is unreasonable. This show of abundance is just too wasteful to tolerate. Such a demonstrative act is making him too uncomfortable to stand it. And so to end this travesty, he refutes Mary and suggests that instead, this costly perfume should have been sold and the money given the poor. Now I know that the text says that he was doing this out of his selfish desire to steal from the common purse, but that is very likely a later addition to the text. John doesn’t know what Judas was thinking when he said that, nor do we, so we would do well not to go down that rabbit hole. Judas is responding not out of greed, but out of an inability to see that God was doing a new thing right in front of his eyes.

Jesus responds by supporting Mary, noting that his Passion is quickly approaching and it is fitting that his body be prepared for burial. And then he says “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” The misinterpretation of that one line has done a lot of harm over the years. It has led to a laissez faire attitude towards the poor, a defeatist and hopeless attitude towards solving poverty, and has given too many people a clean conscience when they turn a blind eye to those in need.

In his response, Jesus was alluding to Deuteronomy 15:11 which says “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” Everyone in the room would have known exactly what Jesus was talking about; he didn’t finish the sentence because everyone knew what follows. Jesus is not saying that the poor will always be with us, so don’t worry about it. He is saying that the poor will always be with us because we are selfish, and therefore we will always have the need to open our hand to the poor.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas remarked that the poor that we always have with us is Jesus, who always identified with the poor, and himself was poor. The Rev. Dr. Colin Miller lives and works at the Community of the Franciscan Way in Durham, North Carolina. And he reminds us to thank God for the poor. It is often assumed that those with money are the patrons to the poor, giving them what they need. But he invites us to consider that perhaps the poor are patrons to those of us who have means. Without the poor, he wonders, who would call us out of ourselves, with whom would we share our treasure, where would we find the salvation of our souls without the poor to serve? Instead of us serving the poor, what if the poor serve us by allowing us to meet Christ and calling us to focus on giving more than receiving. This is a new way of thinking.

Poverty is certainly an old problem, and for too long we have treated it that way. We have forgotten that indeed, God can do a new thing, even with poverty. But we are going in the wrong direction. In 2012, the top 100 billionaires in the world added $240 billion dollars to their wealth (source), which would have been enough to eliminate poverty four times over. There is a video circulating the internet right now that shows the story of wealth and poverty with images (video). The takeaway message of the video is that Americans’ perception of the gap between the poor and the wealthy is nowhere near reality. Over 90% of Americans admit that the gap is wider than it should be, but the reality is that the gap is much larger than anyone realizes.
The Roman Catholic social worker Peter Maurin wrote a poem called “Better and Better Off,” saying: 
The world would be better off, if people tried to become better. And people would become better if they stopped trying to be better off. For when everybody tries to become better off, nobody is better off. But when everybody tries to become better, everybody is better off. Everybody would be rich if nobody tried to be richer. And nobody would be poor if everybody tried to be the poorest. And everybody would be what they ought to be if everybody tried to be what they want the other person to be.
Poverty is not an impossible problem to solve, but it will take a new approach. It will take getting away from the ideas that “you get what you deserve,” or that the poor receive “handouts” from the rich instead of what they are entitled to as human beings who bear the image of God. We must remember that we will be judged not on the efficacy of our prayers or worship, but on how we treat the least of these. We must recall that grace is unearned and free. And most importantly, we have to open ourselves to the moving of God’s Spirit that is doing a new thing.

In our debates about debt ceilings, sequestrations, budgets, welfare programs- what if we thought in new ways? What if we realized that uncontrolled and ever expanding debt is doing no one a favor? What if we realized that a balanced budget is just an idol, and one that shouldn’t be put on the backs of those most in need? What if in our tax discussions we remembered that Jesus said “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required?” What if we acted as if we are all called to work for our mutual welfare? What if we remembered that despite our fears and greed, that God operates out of a theology of abundance? What if we tore down the old systems of oppression and injustice and rededicated ourselves to a new vision of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all? What if we could find the strength and courage to open our eyes and see that God is doing a new thing? What if we sought first the Kingdom of God instead of the kingdoms of power, prestige, wealth, political party, or philosophical ideology?

If we could, I think we’d encounter an extravagant and abundant life. We might then discover the truth of Jesus’ words that he “came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.” We might find more Marys in our midst instead of so many Judases. Now I realize that this is a scandalous message. As the great preacher Peter Gomes once said, “the Good News to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others.”

This encounter between Jesus, Mary, and Judas is a story of new possibilities and abundant love and grace. Mary was open to it, and Judas was stuck in what was comfortable and familiar. This story is a foreshadowing of what we will find in a week on Palm Sunday. God comes offering abundant joy, love, and redemption, especially to the poor. Jesus upsets the oppressive structures of the day with his scandalous Gospel of extravagant abundance. It happened with Judas, and it will happen with the Pharisees. His good news was indeed bad news to those who were being challenged in their old and complacent ways, and he will be killed for it. Our hope next Sunday is the same as our hope this Sunday- that no amount of blindness or fear can stop the abundant love of God from gracing our lives. God is doing a new thing, can you perceive it? 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

March 3, 2013 - Lent 3C

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

How is your Lent going? Lent is a good time for us to take a good look in the mirror and consider how we are doing. It is a time to journey into our souls and passions. And any part of healthy introspection will lead us to consider sin, both the sins we commit and the sins that have been committed against us. Our focus this morning will be forgiveness.

Before considering the Gospel which addresses forgiveness, the backdrop of Exodus is a helpful one. What we see in this particular passage is that God indeed hears our cries for redemption.

God longs for reconciliation and redemption for all of Creation. There is a divine yearning to respond to the cries of injustice and inhumanity. And, with all of my being, I believe and trust that just as God heard the cries of the Hebrew people, God also hears our pleas for reconciliation and justice. But justice and redemption do not exist in a vacuum, they come through the process of forgiveness.

As we all know, forgiveness is a two way street. Recall that Jesus, when he teaches his disciples to pray, doesn’t include much at all, but does include the line “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” First we’ll consider what it means to forgive, and then what it means to be forgiven.

When we forgive someone, there is an embedded moral judgment. You do not need to forgive the things that you can condone, those things don’t need our forgiveness. What needs to be forgiven are those actions which we cannot condone. Before we can begin to forgive someone, we must recognize that we have been wronged, that we have been sinned against. And so we must consider what sin is.

A good way to define sin is “that which strains relationships.” It was the Anglican priest John Donne who famously noted that “no man is an island.” We are creatures of relationship. And, invariably, we will strain and stress those relationships. Each time we make a decision, we are affecting someone else, and sometimes we are a bit short-sighted or selfish in our actions, and that is where sin exists.

When we begin the journey of forgiving those who have sinned against us, there must be some recognition and naming of that strained relationship. But it is important to remember that though we might recognize the sin, it is not our task to judge the sin, nor is it our place to dictate what justice look like. Judgment and justice belong to God.

When Jesus is speaking about forgiveness in today’s reading, he wonders “Those eighteen who were killed
when the tower of Siloam fell on them- do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No.” Jesus makes it clear that there is no cause and effect relationship between sin and divine punishment. But too often we suppose that there is. Someone recently told me the story of a mother in another church being confronted by a parishioner who told her that her 5 year old son’s cancer was due to their sins as parents. And as repulsive as that sounds, that sort of thinking is commonplace in our culture.

We see someone in prison and we assume that they’ve done something to deserve to be there, that their sin has lead to this punishment. And while sometimes that is the case, our overcrowded prison system is indicative of a culture that fails too many people. I recently heard a presentation about the Augustine Literacy program that operates out of the Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill. They remarked that several states base their long term prison system planning on the literacy rates of second graders. Is it really their fault for ending up in prison when our educational system has failed them? Sin is not about cause and effect, but it’s far too easy to think that it is. So let us remember in our work of forgiving, we are called to recognize sin, not judge it.

The second part of forgiving is that forgiveness requires forbearance. This is where the letting go comes in. We’re not very good at this part of it; we often make bad situations worse. In arguments, it is far too common to break confidences or bring up the past. Forbearing must be a part of forgiving. We all know that the concept of an eye for an eye is self defeating.

An angel came to a someone one day and told them that they could be granted any wish in the world, the only caveat is that their worst enemy would receive double. So at first they thought about asking for a bag of gold, but they changed their mind when they realized that their enemy would be getting two. Then they thought about asking for a farm, full of livestock and crops to live on. But they couldn’t stand the prospect of their enemy having a farm that was twice as large. And so the angel pushes them and says, “I need an answer; what is your wish?” And they think about it some more and say, “I wish to be blind, in one eye.”

If we seek vengeance and avoid forbearance, we will do irreparable harm to ourselves. If we do not let go of the sin, it will consume us. Now, we’ve all heard the phrase, “forgive and forget,” and let me make clear that is terrible theology. Nowhere in all of the Bible does God ever call the people to forget anything. In fact, one of the refrains of the Old Testament is “remember.” A better way to forgive would be to “remember and forgive.” When we forget, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes, and acting as if the wound never happened won’t lead to healing. For forgiveness to come, we must let go of the sin so that it does not grasp all of our life.

In forgiveness, there must also be empathy with the wrongdoer. Empathy, not sympathy. But trying to understand the sin is important. There are very few people that do evil for the sake of doing evil. Many of the sins that we do are done invisibly. None of us want children in third-world countries to be enslaved in sweatshops, but sometimes our clothing choices lead to that. It wasn’t an intentional sin. And many times, when we are wronged, the person wasn’t out to get us, they were just consumed with their own agendas that led to their sinful and selfish behavior. Perhaps they acted out of anger because someone else had wronged them. It’s a vicious cycle, and in forgiving, we must break the cycle and try to understand one another.

And finally, in forgiving someone else, we have to desire a new relationship. The theological word for this is “metanoia,” which literally means to change your mind. We go in a new direction. Without this step, inertia will control our relationship and we will not be able to live in forgiveness, but will be stuck in the past. And this is important to remember: the relationship is new, not the same one in which the sin strained. If we try to simply to return to the way things were, the sin will return, but forgiveness is about a new relationship. There are some sins that are so grievous that though there can be forgiveness, the relationship will never be what it used to be. Often we see this in sins of adultery- forgiveness is possible, but intimacy may never be again.

So those four elements are required to forgive- a recognition of sin without judgment, forbearance, empathy, and the desire for a new relationship. And that is only half of the equation of forgiveness; in addition to forgiving, we are also called to seek forgiveness from ourselves, from others, and from God. In the thought of the Old Testament, there was a process to being forgiven, and it started with the recognition of our own sin.

Admitting sin is something that we all struggle with. I think of people like Lance Armstrong, Bill Clinton, and Tiger Woods, all people who instead of admitting their sins, chose to hide them and only made their situations worse. I am a sinner. You are a sinner. It is time for us to stop pretending that we have nothing to hide. Our Church, our nation, and our world need more courageous people who are willing to admit their wrongs and seek reconciliation instead of self-preservation.

We also need to take caution that we don’t confuse excuse making with the admission of sin. If we think we have a good excuse for something, then why should we ask for forgiveness? But too often when we come to God, we are asking God to accept our excuses instead of our regrets. It is not easy to take ownership of our sins, but it is the first step in being forgiven.

And I should also point out that, for the most part, sin doesn’t fall entirely on us. We live amidst sin. Sin is a reality of living in this world, so we don’t need beat ourselves up over it. Self-loathing is not the path to forgiveness. But we do need to recognize that we participate in sin. As Jesus suggests in the Gospel, our fate will be sealed if we do not seek forgiveness. And Lent is a great time to do this soul searching. Part of being healed by God is in our willingness to show our wounded places to God and each other.

Hebrew thought suggests that remorse is the second step in being forgiven. Another word for this might be “compassion,” which is derived from the root meaning to “suffer with.” To be forgiven, there has to be an acknowledgement of the pain and suffering that we have caused others. Before St. Paul converted to Christianity, he was an oppressor of the early followers of Jesus and one day he was traveling on the road to Damascus when the resurrected Jesus appeared to him. His name at the time was Saul, and Jesus asks him “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” In this encounter, we see that Jesus identifies with those being oppressed and persecuted.

When we sin against our neighbor, we sin against God. When we grieve the heart of a loved one through sin, we grieve the heart of God. When we tell ourselves that we’re stupid, or ugly, or worthless, we are rejecting the God in whose image we are made. Our sins are not isolated. Now I’m saying this not to make you feel worse about sin, but as a way of encouraging compassion and remorse in seeking forgiveness.
Next, we must desist from the sin. This is where repentance comes. The root meaning of repentance is “to turn away.” Whatever the sin is, we put our back to it and we move in a new direction. It is important to remember that forgiveness is not the reward for change, but it is the source and condition of that change. We amend our lives not because we feel sorry, but because we seek forgiveness.

The wisdom of the Old Testament then suggests that restitution is needed in forgiveness. We find this referred to in the Bible in examples such as, if you kill someone’s cow, you need to replace it. We can’t always fix the situation or undo it, but we can seek to make things right. As you might have picked up earlier in this sermon, I’m not a big fan of our criminal justice system. And part of that is because it is not a system built on forgiveness or that works towards reconciliation. Instead, it is a system of vengeance and judgment. But there is an ancient, and new-found, understanding of justice that is emerging known as restorative justice.
Instead of justice being about punishment, justice is about metanoia, and forming a new and healed relationship. Instead of focusing on the offender, this sort of justice focuses on the victim and the community. In January, there was a powerful article written in the New York Times called “Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?” It tells the story of 19 year old Conor McBride who killed his long-time girlfriend, Ann Grosmaire, after an argument. It happened in Florida, so you’d expect him to be on death row. But instead, Ann’s father recalls standing next to her hospital bed, hoping and praying that she’s wake up and hearing a voice in his head saying “forgive him.” He said “no, no way, it’s impossible.” But he kept hearing his daughter’s voice calling to him, “forgive him.” It’s a long and complicated story because the legal system didn’t know what to do with the forgiveness that Ann’s parents wanted to offer Conor. They realized that in forgiving him, they found release for themselves as well. Now Conor is still serving time in jail, because as we all know, forgiveness does not mean release from the consequences of our actions. But this restorative justice has given Conor the prospect of living a life with meaning instead of being a murderer on death row; it gave Ann’s parents the ability to be defined not as the parents of a murdered daughter, but as people of hope. Restitution has been missing from our understanding of being forgiven, but it is the vehicle in which grace enters the picture.

And finally, in being forgiven, we must make a confession. In Israel, this was done though a liturgical act. For us as Christians, it can be done through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or Confession as some call it. What is so powerful about this Sacrament is that forgiveness becomes an actual experience instead of a vague idea. It is often said that sacraments are the outward signs of inward and spiritual grace; sacraments are a way of feeling the presence of God. And I wonder what our lives would look like if we had more experiences of being forgiven. I invite you this Lent to consider the Sacrament of Reconciliation, even if you’re not sure if you’re ready for it, perhaps we can begin a conversation. The Israelites knew that for forgiveness to happen there had to be an act of confession once the sin was recognized, remorse felt, after the sin ceased, and restitutions were made.

Jesus offers us the interesting parable of the fig tree that isn’t producing fruit. Earlier in the gospel, Jesus says that we should “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” The tree didn’t, and was going to be condemned for it. But it is given another chance. Let us remember, God gives us the grace of another season to work towards repentance. But let us also remember that it is not an indefinite period of grace. The tree is expected to produce soon. Now is the time to forgive others. Today is an opportunity to practice forbearance and seek new relationships in forgiving others. This moment is a chance to start down the path of being forgiven. Forgiveness is a powerful instrument of grace and transformation in our lives and for our world. Our Father in heaven- forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Amen.