Monday, March 22, 2010

A Royal Waste?

Sermon for fifth Sunday in Lent (3.21.10)
Isaiah 43.16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3.4b-14; John 12.1-8

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s Epistle: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

As I was preparing my sermon this week, I came upon the following anecdote. The writer says that he “will never forget the furor sparked at a stewardship conference at which an ecumenical group of pastors gathered to discuss generosity. One presenter spoke about offering a gift directly to God, and the clergy began to yawn. Then he pulled a $100 bill from his wallet, set it on fire in an ashtray, and prayed, ‘Lord, I offer this gift to you and you alone.’ The reaction was electric. Clergy began to fidget in their chairs, watching that greenback go up in smoke as if it were perfume. One whispered it was illegal to burn currency. Another was heard to murmur, ‘If he is giving money away, perhaps he has a few more.’ There was nervous laughter around the room. ‘Do you not understand?’ asked the speaker. ‘I am offering it to God, and that means it is going to cease to be useful for the rest of us.’ It was an anxious moment.” My question is whether the presenter’s action was a great waste, a royal waste.

Something of the same thing happens in our Gospel this morning. Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, takes a pound of costly perfume, anoints Jesus’ feet, and wipes them with her hair. Remember that Jesus had a deep friendship with this family. Their house was probably more home to him than any other. The event also takes place not long after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, and so Mary’s action can be seen as an act of extreme, extravagant gratitude. The cost of such perfume would have been almost a full year’s salary for a working person. Mary uses it so lavishly that the entire house is filled with the fragrance. Her gift may in part have been meant to counteract the memory of the stench that overwhelmed Martha as she approached the tomb where her dead brother lay. Is it a royal waste?

The family may or may not know that because of raising their brother, both Jesus and Lazarus now carry death sentences. Jesus’ power with the people was simply considered too dangerous to ignore. At first Jesus retreats into the wilderness with his disciples. But then he returns to Bethany, less than a week before the Passover. We all know what this means, even if the people in the household do not.

They hold a dinner for him and Mary anoints his feet. She doesn’t say a word, drawing attention only to the One she anoints. We don’t know how she would explain what she did. But the extent of her love is clear. It’s the deep love that defines being a disciple. It’s also intuitive, spirit-driven. Jesus hasn’t yet given his explicit commands about loving, hasn’t told her explicitly that his body will be broken—tortured—on the cross. But she knows how to respond to the situation without being told. She longs to honor him and give comfort. She also anticipates the foot washing at the last supper when he illustrates servant ministry to his followers. When Jesus raised Lazurus from the dead, he revealed how the fullness of God is available. Now, in advance of instruction, Mary reveals the fullness of discipleship. She gives boldly as Jesus will give boldly, and without his telling her what to do. She simply understands—and acts. Only at the end of the passage does Jesus explain that this ointment is for his burial and that his death will not be far off. Her liturgy of love—for that is what it is—creates connections far beyond the act itself and can hardly be called a waste.

Judas, on the other hand, does not understand. Even if we weren’t told that Judas was about to betray him and that he stole from the common purse, we can hear that point of view which sees only what is useful, practical, and cost effective, what adds up in human terms. Judas does not understand the fullness of who Jesus is. He does not understand that Jesus is the gift of God and that we respond to God’s gift by loving Jesus and those whom he has entrusted to us.

But just as we had to take a closer look at the Elder Brother last week, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, so we must not dismiss Judas so quickly. If it is Jesus’ mission to save the lost, who is more lost than this one who betrays him? Judas may well have been called to do this terrible thing so that crucifixion and resurrection may follow. Yet if the Good Shepherd will leave the ninety and nine to seek for the one that is lost, can we say that any sheep has wandered too far for the Shepherd to find? These are hard questions and I’m not sure that the Gospels give us a clear answer. These questions are worth pondering in humility and prayer. If Isaiah asserts that even the jackals and the ostriches honor God, which of us can reject any of God’s creatures, judging them simply a royal waste?

Our job is probably not to see ourselves either as Mary or Judas, but to understand that they are models, paradigms, and that we undoubtedly combine both. At times like Mary, we adore and give thanks to our holy and awesome God. But in the figure of Judas, we see all those who have gone astray. Please don’t misunderstand me; I am not excusing the actions of the historical Judas. But surely the grace of Jesus must extend to those who are at least sometimes unfaithful. Peter, who becomes a leader of the church, denied Jesus three times. Without sinners, there would be no need for the pain and the light of the cross.

Paul is wrestling with these questions in the passage from Philippians. In him, we see a person in the round, and also ourselves. Paul is asking us to draw up a life assessment, a ledger in which we note gains and losses. All of the considerable perks with which Paul came into the world, all his accomplishments and achievements, he is discarding because nothing equals “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus.” What does that mean: “knowing Christ”? Mary presumably does know him; Judas presumably does not. Knowing Christ Jesus is not abstract or theoretical or a matter of a few prayers. For Paul it is a privilege and it calls us to set aside what we formerly valued, to turn away from what keeps us from Christ, and then act. To act because Paul wants to share in Christ’s “sufferings by becoming like him in his death” so that somehow he may attain also the resurrection from the dead.

This isn’t just fancy language. Paul is asking us to dive in royally, even if it is painful. This is where we need to be extravagant with our time and efforts. With our very being. Paul calls us to look hard at our own definitions of righteousness and to turn to God’s grace for answers. Paul urges us to participate in resurrection by finding our story as part of God’s larger story. Paul asks us to identify so closely with Christ that we seek where he continues to bring life into places of death and that we join in that resurrection. This is work for what remains of Lent and beyond. It reminds us that we can be part of God’s continuing faithfulness and join God in bringing about new things for our own broken hearts as well as for a broken world. Any apparent waste of our lives and labor in this way will indeed be royal.

Let us pray: Dearest God, Heavenly King, let us remember that you are still at work in us and in your world, and that you invite our participation. As we faithfully accompany our Lord through the darkness of Holy Week, let us offer Him all our love and gratitude. Let us accept whatever discomfort or sorrow occurs as we try to know Him better, assured that we are not alone and that we can press forward for the new life of resurrection. Amen.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Prodigal Love

Sermon for 3.14.10 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)
Joshua 5.9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5.16-21; Luke 15.1-3, 11-32

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s Gospel: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion.”

Last week’s parable of the fig tree reminded us of the need to be fruitful and of the likely need for repentance in order for that to happen. Although God will often give us time and the support of his word and sacraments, we do not really know how much time we have. Today’s gospel shows how God receives our repentance, how God seeks out what is lost. Right before the parable that we have just heard this morning, Luke tells us the parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. But the final and longest is the Story of the Lost Boy. It is only found in Luke.

This is a story to break our hearts, for very personal reasons. In the inevitable process of growing up and separating from the parent, how often does a child make poor, even dangerous choices, sometimes over and over again. As Jesus tells the story to us, there is only one disastrous self-imposed exile on the part of the boy, but Jesus only needs to tell the story once since he is focusing on the significance of the younger son’s behavior.

The actions of the younger son are shameful and would have been considered even more so in ancient Palestine. He rejects family solidity and makes the incredibly insulting demand for his inheritance before his father’s death. It’s not really important that the father doesn’t refuse and that the older son doesn’t object. This is a worst case scenario. The inheritance the son demands would have been a portion of the family’s land holdings, presumably ancestral. In a land-based economy, a family needed its lands. What is truly shocking here is the sale of land that families believed were a gift to their family from God and then waste that money on a shameless lifestyle.

Money goes fast and it’s clear that the son would have gone broke sooner or later. He’s unlucky enough to encounter a recession—a famine—and a job shortage. The only work he can find is tending hogs. Hogs are not kosher and no Palestinian Jew would have been caught dead taking care of them, much less asking to share their food. So he’s lost his family, his hometown, and his religion. Perhaps worse than death is the feeling of being lost, having become a nonperson.

But when bottom has been hit, through some miracle, some memory of home or love, the boy realizes that who he has become is not who he really is—or was. He takes the most difficult first step of facing himself in that pigpen. Somehow then he is able to speak the word “father,” that word he used with such arrogance and entitlement when he asked his father to hand over what was not yet his. The only place to go is home and home means a restored relationship. And so on the way, he rehearses a speech of deep apology, a speech that acknowledges that he can no longer be called his father’s son. Knowing this, he intends to beg for a job as a servant.

Then, of course, the miracle happens. One has the sense that the father has been waiting, praying, and watching, longing to see that dust on the road. Without regard for his dignity or his previous humiliation, he runs to embrace his son. The boy then delivers the first part of his speech, but before he can beg for anything, his father orders all the signs of sonship: the best clothes, a ring, and sandals.

What a wonderful way to describe Grace. If we can cry out to God and try to find him, God’s prodigal love runs out to meet us and we begin to realize that we have been found, that we are precious enough to be worth finding! I suspect that many of us can see something of ourselves in this younger son and hope that such unconditional love will be waiting for us too. That is true, but even more important; it is true because of God’s incredible love and the abundance of God’s grace. No matter how much stuff we’ve thrown at God, God is determined to find us, if at all possible. The son turned home, but the reconciliation in the story comes from the father’s huge generosity. The father did not respond to separation by distancing himself; the boy always remained his son.

The father’s deep love is key to his relationship to his older son. I can so easily see that son’s point of view. Sin is a serious thing—especially since he is assuming that his younger brother enjoyed it. He, on the other hand, has been responsible, hard-working, respectful. And so he’s angry. When I asked the children this morning which son needed God the most, I was hoping they had seen that there are two lost boys here. This older one is in danger of being lost in his self-righteousness, his pride, and jealousy. By making his father leave the guests and come out to beg him, he is not showing respect. He’s smart enough to know that the party is not only for his younger brother, but is face-saving for the entire family, showing the neighborhood that they are united again. Notice that the father doesn’t defend the younger brother nor does he criticize the elder. He speaks only of his own love and abundance, which is more than enough for both of them: “You are with me always, and all that I have is yours.” These words are counter-intuitive for us, difficult to understand. Something limitless, something that is given away and yet still remains; something that can belong to all equally?

We don’t know whether the Elder Brother finally comes in to the party or not. Clearly Jesus is giving the same invitation to the Pharisees and Scribes who had been complaining about the people Jesus was eating with. The party, whether in the story or anywhere else, is God’s party, thrown for many more than we like to imagine. We had a party here last night. Not large, but a real gathering. We knew everyone who came, including friends from the Reformed Church. Everyone, that is, except one. I’d hoped something like this would happen. A man just walked in, first name only, ate, talked with those at his table, obvious knew Port Ewen and families from this church. Then he left. Who knows?

God is planning the party of God’s mercy even before we think of responding—and certainly before we contribute very much. It is the party that asks us to think less about ourselves, about how things may affect us, and more about how we can build up the body of Christ in this world. God’s on-going party urges us to come to our senses, our right minds; to come to our selves and never stop praying that the world and our loved ones will return home as well. All of this means not forgetting the determination with which even the wronged and humiliated father—Our Lord as well—waits and watches and longs for each of us to return.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, it is hard to admit that we have strayed from our best selves, following too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. It is hard to forgive the sins of others and to ask the same tolerance, the same mercy for them that we ask for ourselves. Help us to see your goodness in each other, in ourselves, and in the world you have created. Help us to live into your abundant, prodigal love. Amen.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Drinking Sand

Homily for 3.07.10 (Third Sunday in Lent)
Isaiah 55.1-9; Psalm 63; 1 Corinthians 10.1-13; Luke 13.1-9

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s gospel: “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.”

I made a quick trip to Pittsburgh midweek for the Confirmation of one of my nephews. He’s a wonderful 13-year-old, he took this step very seriously. We were all so proud and happy for him—and for ourselves in being part of his growing up in this way.

Two people were not able to be present however, Patrick’s godfather and his wife. Ten days ago, she was delivered of her first child by C-section. Little Bryce is fine, but some twelve hours later Katie began to have seizures and was found to have a blood clot on her brain. She is now breathing on her own, but is in a coma with massive neurological damage. Imagine three such events colliding. The birth and the confirmation were full of hope and promise, and then this totally unexpected tragedy. I am telling you, not only so you can grieve and pray for Katie, but because it has shocked me into taking Jesus’ words today more seriously.

People have been telling Jesus about two horrible events, wondering what the victims had done to deserve them. Unlike Job’s friends, however, Jesus refuses to speculate about crime and punishment. “Do you think they were worse sinners than anyone else because they suffered?” he asks. There are no simple answers. Shallow theological thinking about those others keeps us from thinking about ourselves. It also betrays a very deep fear. Something like this might happen to us—has happened to us or those we love. Over and over again, we ask “Why?” Should we fear divine retribution? Jesus challenges us in two ways: Knowing that we are all flawed, he asks each of us to consider the state of our own souls and then helps us understand what to do next.

He uses the word “repent.” That’s a hard word to swallow and it means hard work. To explain, Jesus tells us the parable of the fig tree. Fig trees are pretty important in the Middle East with their juicy, fat, ripe fruit. Substitute pear or peach, if you like, fresh-picked in summer from your own tree. Now think of yourself as a dead-ripe fig or pear or peach, the perfection of what you were created to be.

Well, here comes the absentee landlord, all ready for his harvest, and for the third year in a row a particular tree has produced nothing for him! It’s wasting the soil. Chop it down! Certainly a tragedy for the tree. But the gardener—could this be Christ?—has another idea. What he doesn’t say is “Oh, we have plenty of other trees and plenty of room. Let’s not be hard on that poor old tree. I love it; I’ll just let it be.” No. He gives it another chance. He will loosen the soil around it and add compost to nourish it. Well, actually, he doesn’t say compost; he uses the blunter word “manure.” Maybe such effort will transform the tree and it will become more productive.

Jesus was talking about us! Are we bearing fruit or just taking up space, year after year? Maybe we can become juicier. We can interpret the challenge of this parable in many ways. One thing is clear. The parable ends without an ending. The gardener doesn’t know for sure what the results will be. What the future may bring is a mystery, known only to God, whether it is a physical healing, or the gradual transformation of a stony heart, or the success of a mission project that we’re involved in only at the beginning.

The returning landlord in Jesus’ parable might be dismissed as the God of the Old Testament, a God of power, anger, and judgment. But it would be unwise, I think, to believe that God never judges. For Jesus, God’s judgment can be balanced, softened, restrained by mercy. In the parable of the fig tree, Jesus’ warning is also a compassionate invitation. God wants us to share in unfolding a fruitful future for ourselves and for those in widening circles around us. He wants us to drink deeply, and not of sand, which sticks in the throat and cannot hold any nourishment.

How do we do that? Repentance or metanoia requires us to turn around, to change direction. What kind of tilling, what kind of manure will it take? Because of my farm, my own manure pile at home is impressive. We call it Mount Muckmore. Powerful stuff—and transforming! It’s black gold, a constant source of nutrients for any garde, if my woodchucks allow me to have one. Sometimes I think I need a Mount Muckmore of the soul: an endless composting of humility, of selflessness, of obedience, of faithfulness, of trust. You can fill in your own needs.

What Jesus urges is for us to start that tilling and composting. We know that life is fragile and that all the foresight and love in the world cannot protect everyone we love or ourselves. Jesus tells us here that such tragedies are not God’s doing. If we are given another year or five or ten, that time is a gift of God’s love and mercy: A time to gather together the gifts we will present to God and a time to make the best use of the gifts given to us by God.

These gifts are not only personal. They are also sacramental and that means that in our work, we are not alone. On a Sunday on which we share Holy Communion with one another, surely we might see that the prayers, the bread, and the cup are ways in which Christ, our gardener, tills and nurtures us, pouring his sacrifice, his very life, into the roots of our being. Through the gift of his flesh and his blood, he transformed and is still transforming the soil in which we are planted and from which we can grow and flourish.

Let us pray: Dearest God, through your grace, open our hearts to praise and thanksgiving this morning, so that we can take your sacrament to our comfort, knowing that the Holy Spirit makes us one with your Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world. Amen.