Sunday, May 17, 2015

There’s a fundamental tension in Christianity. We believe in an incarnate God, who was born and dwelt among us. We believe in a bodily resurrection, where Jesus came back from the dead not as a spirit, specter, or ghost, but as an embodied soul, a living human being, with physical scars from his crucifixion and breath in his lungs, who ate and drank and embraced his followers. A living human being who can never die again, who can never become an disembodied spirit. If Christmas is about the incarnation and Easter about the resurrection, they both celebrate a world in which God, in the person of Jesus Christ, walks around with us, wholly God yet also a human being with a physical body.
So where is he? Where is Jesus? If incarnation and resurrection are at the core of our belief system, and they are indeed, then the incarnate, resurrected God should be here, right? Like Thomas, we should be able to touch his hands and his side, and embrace our Lord and God. We too should be able to walk by sight, and not by faith. Because if we can’t, it rather puts a damper on this bodily-resurrected, incarnate God of ours, no? If God has a body, and we don't know where that body is, it adds a new urgency to the evangelicals' question, "have you found Jesus?"
Despite our faith in Christmas and Easter, we live in a Pentecost world, a world marked by God as Spirit. We walk by faith, and not by sight, and depend on the gifts of an unseen Holy Spirit to perform our ministry in the world. In this Pentecost world, we are called to see Christ in the least of us, and to be the hands of Christ to one another. This understanding of God is no less real, but more spiritualized — the ordinary people, things, and institutions of the world are imbued with the Spirit of God to take on divine significance. In this Pentecost world, the Body of Christ less resembles a particular literal human body and becomes more elastic, more conceptual. The Body of Christ can be the Church, a consecrated loaf of bread, the poor, a particular person in need, a particular person doing God’s will — all at once, and in many places simultaneously. That’s a different reality than seeing a person called Jesus standing on a particular hillside outside Jerusalem.
How do we get from one to the other? How do we go from the fleshy God of Christmas and Easter to the spectral God of Pentecost? What connects these two disparate understandings of God?
The point in the church year that we've reached now is so vitally important. Last Thursday was the feast of Ascension. We celebrated Jesus being taken up bodily into heaven. Today we hear about choosing a successor apostle to replace Judas. Today, we are still celebrating Easter, but things have changed. In the 1928 prayer book, we would have put out the Pascal candle on Thursday. We keep it burning now, to remind us of the continuity of the Easter season, but it's not the same sort of Easter we celebrate today that we celebrated last week.
This season we have arrived at is the bridge between the Pentecost reality we live and the Christmas and Easter faith we profess. At its core, Ascension is an acknowledgement of this juxtaposition: Jesus used to be a person who walked around on the earth like other human beings, and continues to really be present with us, but our experience of Jesus’ presence today isn’t the same as the apostles’ experience. Encountering Jesus after the Ascension is not the same experience as encountering him before the Ascension. He was with us then, he is with us now, but something is different.
The move to replace Judas that our first lesson today describes is another sort of bridge. Shortly after the ascension, Peter told the other apostles that they needed to select someone to replace Judas. Another follower of Jesus needed to join the ranks of the apostles, to "become a witness with us to [Jesus'] resurrection."
Now witness doesn't just mean that this new apostle would have seen the resurrected Jesus. Both of the candidates for the position had seen the resurrected Jesus, as had many others. But to become a witness is more that to become one who has seen. A witness testifies to what he or she has seen. Peter needed someone to become a witness because he needed someone to join the ranks of those giving testimony.
Why now? Judas had been dead for weeks. Why the sudden need to appoint someone else to take his place? The apostles were not yet empowered and emboldened as happened on the day of Pentecost. Today's account falls right between the story of the Ascension and the story of Pentecost. Today's account falls after the physical body of Jesus went away, and before the coming of the Holy Spirit was made known. Between these two earth shattering events, we have this administrative reshuffling in the church.
This Ascension makes it all the more essential to bear witness to Jesus' resurrection. The apostles can no longer point to Jesus and say, look there he is. Proclaiming the resurrection is less obvious, and requires more work. And what's the first thing the apostles do after Jesus is ascended into heaven and is no longer among them in the same way that he was? They hold an organizational meeting. They elect a vestry. They select wardens. They set up a structure for the church. Those apostles were good Episcopalians.
Now the work of the church is to bear witness to the Gospel.  The work of the church is to proclaim in word and deed the good news. The work of the church is to make the love of God known in this broken world. The work of the church is not to perpetuate the structure of the church. And yet…
And yet the apostles bothered to take the time to restructure the church at this critical point in its history. The author of the Acts of the Apostles bothered to include this inside baseball story between the dramatic accounts of the Ascension and the Pentecost.
How we structure the church isn't important as an end of itself. Proclaiming the good news is the end. Mission is the end. But the structure of the church matters if it helps us to do mission. It matters to find someone to do Judas's job because Judas did important work for the church, and in his absence, the administrative work he did (one Gospel said he was the treasurer for the disciples) helps the movement the Church exists to advance move forward.
When people can't see fleshy Jesus walking around with wounds from the crucifixion, testifying to the truth of he resurrection becomes so much more important. It doesn't take any great persuasive effort for me to point to our rector over there and say look Laurel is alive. You all can see that. Believing in the incarnation takes no great leap of faith in a Christmas and Easter world. But in this Pentecost world in which we live, it is harder to see the body of Christ. The persistent witness of those who believe can help the world to see that God in fact has taken flesh and dwellsamong us. The body of Christ is among us now as much as ever. And the world so desperately crave that body of Christ. But they cannot see it unless we testify to it. Unless we, like Mathias, become witnesses.
The church is there to strengthen and support us in this ministry, and to call and to challenge us to go forth and do it. It is for this reason that as each of our liturgies end, our service in the world continues with a charge to go forth into the world being the face of Christ all those we meet. We are called to be that bridge between the incarnate Christ we encounter at the altar and the world so desperately in need of his presence.
And so let us continue the liturgy. Let us be fed at the altar in our encounter with the incarnate Christ, and then let us go forth into the world, testifying, witnessing, bringing, being that incarnate Christ to all those we meet. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Friday, April 3, 2015

The fact that crucifixion is slow and painful is almost the least of the horror of it. Far worse is the fact that it is completely another human being's choice. It isn't an accident, or a by-product of getting what they want, like getting shot during a robbery. It can't be explained by a fit of rage, or carelessness, or indifference. It's pure evil harm inflicted on someone, with full premeditation, and continuing over an extended period of time. And then countless spectators watch it slowly unfold, powerless to help. It's a scary world out there when we realize the horrors human beings can unleash upon each other.
It is an even scarier world in here when we become participants in this macabre drama. Last Sunday, we celebrated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We waved palm branches, and acted out the part of the crowd cheering Jesus on as he entered town. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”
But today, again acting out the part of the crowd, we shouted, “Crucify him!” The crowds in these stories are all too much us. Through history, Christians have tried to duck that identification, and indeed horrible anti-Semitism has been launched in response to identifying the Jewish crowds as "other," but John's audience would have known that we are the crowds as much today when we shout "crucify him!" as we were last Sunday when we shouted "Hosanna!" In our hearts lies that very real potential to wish terrible evil on others.
I saw a cartoon this week of a priest opening a box and finding a cross and nails and a statue of  Jesus, with the caption "Suddenly Fr. Schober wasn't so sure he should have bought the new crucifix at IKEA." When "assemble it yourself" turns into "crucify Jesus yourself," it rightly gives us pause. But the sin and evil that caused Jesus to die is sin and evil that we participate in. No less than assembling a do-it-yourself crucifix, we are the crowd that made the long voyage from shouting "Hosanna" to shouting "Crucify him!"
What changed? Why did the crowd turn so dramatically on Jesus? What did he do wrong?
Messiahs are supposed to win.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the crowds’ expectation was clear. This was not just a healer, a miracle worker coming into town for Passover. When they shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” they had something very concrete in mind.
Passover is the feast when the descendants of Jacob celebrate their liberation from slavery at the hands of a foreign king, the Pharaoh of Egypt. Passover is the feast when the children of Israel celebrate the end of their status as a subject people, and the beginning of the journey to self-rule in their own land.
Jesus’ miracles showed that he was favored by God. So when this great leader favored by God came to Jerusalem for the great feast of liberation, people thought it was time: God was about to drive the Romans out, and put a descendant of David on the throne again.
After centuries of first exile and then oppression, the Messiah was at hand to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel. This Jesus was the one. The crowds gathered in Jerusalem that Passover just knew it, so they hailed him as the coming king when he entered town.
But then he committed the most unthinkable of sins for a Messiah: The worst a military deliverer can do is to lead a failed uprising. Drive the Romans out and you’re almost everyone’s hero. Unsuccessfully attempt to drive the Romans out and no one wants to have anything to do with you. The message to the Roman governor isn't "*Crucify* him," it's  “Crucify *him*”: “We were just kidding when we said this guy was the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Governor Pilate, sir, we know you represent the real king. We’ve got nothing to do with this ‘coming kingdom’ bit. Don’t crucify us too.”
John’s gospel, which we heard today, paints a favorable picture of Pilate, but the historical record shows that Pilate had a well-established record for cruelty, even compared to other Roman governors. The crowds had ample reason to be afraid of him. Could his repeated offers to release Jesus have been a perverse loyalty test? A Messiah who tried and failed to overthrow Pilate was a dangerous thing indeed for the people of Jerusalem.
Fear won out over hope: No one could free them from the Romans who wasn’t more powerful than the Romans. No one could deliver them from Pilate’s ever-present threat of torture, death, and destruction who couldn’t defeat it personally. If this would-be Messiah can’t stick it to the Romans, they’d better rid themselves of him, and fast, before the Romans get upset. It’s better for the Romans to torture to death this one person rather than lots of them.
If might must be toppled by greater might, if the way to overcome an army is to shock and awe them into submission with superior military force, then Jesus was an utter failure. Crucify him, Pilate, and forgive us for even thinking about backing the wrong horse here.
And we, too, give in to fear. We want the powers that be to lock up the bad guys, keep away the people that make us uncomfortable, smite our enemies. We want to feel safe and secure and undisrupted. And we buy into the same systems that led the Lord of Life to death on a cross.
Where’s the good news here? A man travels around for three years proclaiming that a new kingdom is at hand, and performing signs that indicate he’s really someone out of the ordinary. He enters the holy city at the time of year they’re expecting a deliverer. The crowd hails him as the coming king. He gets arrested, the crowd realizes that he’s not unbeatable, and the occupying army tortures and kills him.
Some agent of an all-powerful god. Some “good” news.
And yet we do call today Good Friday.
In today’s events, Jesus didn’t merely overthrow the Romans; he made them utterly impotent and irrelevant. Because their stock in trade for running an empire was fear, and Jesus didn’t let fear of their power to torture and kill him change his course of action. Jesus didn’t overthrow the Romans; he overthrew death itself, and in the process, negated the need to fear mere Roman armies.
Today we remember how good triumphs over evil. Because, yes, the crucifixion really is a triumph of good. But there’s also an awful lot of evil. Abandonment and cowardice and cruelty and pain and torture and death are all too real, both on that Friday almost two thousand years ago and in our own day.
The crowds wanted a Messiah who would overthrow the Romans. If Jesus was taking on more than that: death itself, for instance, we’d still like a more spectacular demonstration. Because Jesus suffered, and died, and yes, he defeated death, and yes, it no longer has dominion over him, as we’ll sing on Sunday, but there’s still a lot of people suffering and dying now. If the crowds thought Jesus was a failure as a Messiah for not making a more spectacular public show of driving out the Romans, we’re not all that different. It sure would be nice for us now to see a more spectacular show of driving out suffering and death. We know that death doesn’t have the final word, but the word it does have is pretty intimidating.
The crowds didn’t see it. His closest followers didn’t see it. Even today, sometimes it’s hard to see. But in the actions of this day, the Messiah completely and utterly overthrew the reign of not only the Romans but anyone who would attempt to enslave God’s people. The crowds didn’t realize, but today their savior ended the need to live in fear of the threat of death. A conqueror could threaten to kill them, but death no longer had the final word.
We might wish Jesus had somehow destroyed death, rather than just neutralizing it. But if Jesus had met power with power, we who don’t have omnipotent power would still need to fear power. Jesus didn't defeat the Romans. He defeated the whole idea of the Romans. He defeated the Romans and the Nazis and the Stalinists and ISIS and anyone who would subjugate others through fear of unspeakably horrible acts. Because he lived out perfect love and said he wouldn't fear their unspeakably horrible acts.
If Jesus had met the Roman army with the hosts of heaven, we who don’t have legions of angels at our command would still need to fear the might of earthly rulers and the horrors they can do to us.
If Jesus had met death with immortality, we who are mortal would still need to fear death from those who would inflict it on us.
Instead, Jesus stood in the face of all the pain and suffering that evil could throw at him, and let it wash over him. He endured mocking, beating, sinister betrayal by Judas, cowardly betrayal by the crowd, abandonment by his closest followers, flogging, humiliation, lugging heavy beams, drinking sour wine, and even death itself. Jesus stood before the evil of the world, and somehow, through amazing grace, he didn’t use his infinite power to drive it off.
He let evil do its worst, and it did not prevail.
The good news here today is that evil can’t win. If we are baptized into Christ’s death, we share in this passion today. We share in Jesus’ facing up to all the terrible suffering that the mightiest empire in the world could throw at him, and not resisting it precisely because the worst they had to give was incapable of destroying him. The man who said “Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you. Bless those who curse you.” didn’t need to add a clause “unless they’re about to kill you; then, nuke 'em.”
The crowds we acted out today represent the victory of fear over hope, but the passion of the Christ represents the victory of love over fear, and we are baptized into that victory. Evil has no power over us, because it can do its dreaded worst but not change our trajectory.
The crowds in today’s Gospel seemed to have in mind the old admonition “do unto others before they do unto you.” All this talk of loving enemies is great, but when things are really on the line, sometimes you have to be realistic, right?
But the triumph of the cross is the triumph of idealism over realism: Jesus said no to the temptation to abandon the strength of nonviolence, the power of selflessness, the might of love. The cross today is the ultimate act of practicing what one preaches. This passion and death that we heard in today’s gospel is the very enactment of the Sermon on the Mount.
The world is too much with us. We have much in common with the crowds we acted out today. We often let fear win out over hope, and power over love. Sin and fear are all too present, and we do not always live with the awareness of the present Kingdom of God. Disease, cruelty, loss, and death are realities. And even Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, even when he was about to bring him back from the dead moments later.
But our baptism into Christ’s passion and death helps us to share in Christ’s triumph today: sometimes, in moments of hope and glimpses of grace, we can act differently than the crowds in today’s story. We do not need to act out of the fear of suffering or death. To Jesus, death did its worst, and now death is all used up. Even when it’s hardest to see that it’s true, death doesn’t have the final word. All of us go down to the dust, but even at the grave we make our song. Amen.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Jews were longing for a messiah, a leader anointed by God to restore their freedom from their oppressors. Now there was a great deal of flexibility in the Jewish tradition who that anointed leader could be. In Isaiah, the Messiah is proclaimed to be Cyrus the Mede, who wasn't even Jewish, but whose defeat of the Babylonians ended he exile and allowed the people to return to the promised land. The stumbling block about Jesus is that the one critical feature of a messiah is that he's supposed to win! He's supposed to deliver them from the oppressors, not get killed by them.
Now the Greeks were looking for a philosophy: prudent rules to live by, a consistent moral code. This enemy love thatJesus preached sounds like foolishness: it sounds like utter suicide in the face of hostile forces that want you dead.
And the Romans? They proclaim Christ crucified, although the opposite of the Christian message! They did it, after all. They crucified him. This is what the Pax Augusta is all about: peace through strength. If you stand up against their law and order and they will make an example of you to keep the peace
Paul didn’t write about Jews and Greeks as “them”. They weren’t the other. Paul’s community was made up of Jews and Greeks. Paul himself was a Roman citizen! When Paul sets the cross against the expectations of Jews and Greeks, he shows us how our own expectations resist the message of the cross. We are the Jews. We are the Greeks. We are even, all too often, he oppressing Romans at whose hands Jesus died. In each of us is a resistance to the radical, absurd love of God witnessed by Jesus’ passion. But, by the grace of God, we can receive the message about the cross. As we fear danger, we cling to wisdom and power, but the cross of Jesus offers another way: a way of fearless nonviolence, of powerful powerlessness, of foolish love.
Jewish tradition teaches that the Torah, the law, contains six hundred thirteen commandments. And yet there are ten that hold a particularly special place in our memory. The first lesson we heard today isn’t known as “ten of the commandments”; we call it “The Ten Commandments”. As if these ten were so special that beyond them, there are no others. What’s so special about these ten?
There’s a long rabbinical tradition of trying to summarize The Law, and perhaps the ten commandments do that. They start by recalling God’s relationship with the people: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
And then continue:
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol.
You shall not bow down to them or worship them.
You shall not make wrongful use of the Name of the Lord your God.
Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.
We sometimes divide the commandments, saying that those are about the relationship between God and humans, and the rest are about the relationship among humans: Honor your parents, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not covet.
But they aren’t in neat categories there. When we covet things that do not belong to us, we both hurt our fellowship with our neighbor and reject what our God has blessed us with. When we do not allow those who work for us to keep the Sabbath, we defile God’s holy day and we exploit our neighbor. And what more wrongful use of the name of the LORD is there than to invoke the name of God to oppress our neighbor? To use the holy name to gain power over others?
When Jesus was asked to summarize the law, continuing in that rabbinical tradition, Matthew 22 tells us that he said
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with 
all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great 
commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt 
love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments 
hang all the Law and the Prophets.
Hear that transition: “The second is like unto it.” We’re not talking about two completely different things. Our relationship with God shapes our relationship with our fellow humans. Our relationship with our fellow humans is a necessary consequence of our relationship with God.
Love the Lord and love Humankind – these are two sides of the same coin. And this love was brought to its fulfillment in the cross. Jesus doesn’t abolish the law, he fulfills it. The Law, the 613 commandments, the ten commandments, the two commandments – the cross of Jesus demonstrates their most full expression. But the message about the Cross is indeed foolishness to those who are perishing.
The wisdom of the world says protect yourself. The wisdom of the world says be strong, to fight off your enemies. The wisdom of the world says hold back from helping others, and be sure you can take care of yourself first.
The message about the cross is foolishness to those who embrace worldly wisdom.
The commandment to love others as much as you love yourself resists seeking of power for self-preservation. The commandment to love others as self says the impulse to help oneself – to save oneself – is only to be embraced as a part of the helping and saving of all humankind. And there in the heart of the summary of the law is the message of the cross.
The Christian message about the cross is that the ultimate manifestation of power and strength is to totally empty oneself. To lay down one’s life in resistance to evil – not by fighting it, but by bearing witness to the power of God. Love God with every fiber of your being, and love yourself as a part of loving all humankind.
The Roman message about the cross is that power can bring order. The cross itself was a tool of Roman subjugation. Put down rebellions, quell dissent, keep calm throughout the known world.
The power of the cross, to the Romans, was in fear. People who dared to defy them were hung up on display, so everyone could see them very painfully die.
But the Christians embraced the cross as their own symbol. The cross became not something to fear or be ashamed of – look, your movement’s leader was tortured to death here – but rather a source of strength. When Jesus died on the cross, and yet rose from the dead, he showed that the ultimate symbol of violence, the ultimate symbol of peace through strength, the ultimate claim that “power over others makes you strong” was, in fact, powerless against him.
Without fully loving, hoping, believing in the power of God, Jesus could never have embraced the cross. The first of the great commandments makes the second one possible. We have the courage, and grace, and power to serve others only because we are first fed by our God. We go forth into the world to serve only in response to the abundant grace that God first gives us. We can engage in the crazy, foolish, subversive act of loving neighbor as self only when we are animated by the love of God.
But where are we today? Which side are we on? Are we Jews, longing for someone to effectively deliver us from our oppressors, and looking for signs of hope? Are we Greeks seeking safe prudent dictums to live by? Are we Romans, living out the creed of peace by strength, shock and awe, and law and order? Or do we dare to embrace the cross, the strength of weakness and the wisdom of foolishness?
On Thursday February 10, Dr Randy Beckum, the chaplain of MidAmerica Nazarene University preached to the university community on the message of the cross, on love for enemies, and challenging American militarism as another Pax Augusta and how patriotism and Christian faith were not always complementary. He pointed out the the movie Selma might be a better Christian witness than American Sniper, and that the higher revenues the latter earned compared to the former might indicate that as a society, we worship the empire more than the crucified one. There was much outrage that he might suggest that, and less than two weeks later, he was removed as chaplain of that university.
Which side are we on? Are we Jews, Greeks, Romans, or Christians? Do we dare to embrace the utter foolishness and weakness of nonviolent servant leadership? Do we dare to embrace the cross?
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

So you could call today mother-in-law Sunday. The one day we hear the story about the healing of Pater's mother-in-law, that only has a chance to occur once every three years, and even then there's a 40% chance we'll miss this reading because Easter falls early, and the season after Epiphany is short enough that we don't get to today's gospel. The story appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but only the Mark version makes it into the Sunday lectionary at all. It's almost like the people putting the lectionary together had it in for mothers-in-law. Mine has been out of town for the past two weeks, and I'm eager for her to to return home. She's a retired minister, and I usually talk with her about my sermons before I preach, so today you all might miss her too if this sermon turns out to lack something because I didn't talk to her.
In baptism, each candidate is asked Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
And  Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
In the sacrament of confirmation, or in the renewal of our baptism, the bishop asks each candidate, Do you renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?
Our response is this: I do, and with God’s grace I will follow him as my Savior and Lord.
Claiming Jesus Christ as both our Savior and our Lord lies at the heart of our identity as Christians, central to our initiation into the Body of Christ, the Church. Despite this, the phrase "our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" might be such a set phrase that we tune it out. It's just a clue that the prayer is coming to an end — one more churchy thing people say, but does it mean anything? What does it mean for Jesus to be both Savior and Lord? Do they mean different things? Is this an abstract theological distinction, or does it shape how we live our lives? Today's lessons give us a clue.
The name of Jesus comes from the Hebrew for "YHWH saves," an affirmation that our right relationship with God is what gives us health and strength and deliverance from the forces that threaten us. Because Jesus himself came to reconcile us to God, to restore our right relationship with the source of our being, we can say by extension that Jesus saves.
St. Paul was not in right relationship with his God, despite trying with all his power. He upheld the Law of Moses with all his might, and was zealous in persecuting the followers of the Way, as the early church was known, because he thought they had turned away from true worship of God. And yet, he was deeply at unease, because he could not obey the law in its fullness. Despite his best efforts, he could not obey the Law of Moses completely, and did not feel connected with his God.
And then, on the road to Damascus, Jesus appeared to Paul, and called him to transform his life. Through Jesus, Paul entered into a new relationship with his God, and was reconciled and healed.
In our own lives, Jesus heals. Jesus reconciles. Jesus loves. Jesus is our savior.
Today's lessons, though, point beyond the identity of Jesus as Savior to that of Lord:
Jesus gives us a mission. We have work to do, because our response to Jesus' saving love is to follow him as Lord. To work for the spread of the Kingdom.
Today's reading from Paul's letter to the Corinthians, though, tells us that Jesus is not just Paul's Savior. Jesus is clearly Paul's Lord. Paul was not healed and reconciled then spent the rest of his life basking in his newly restored relationship with God. Instead, he observes that "an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!"
The story of Peter's mother-in-law is perhaps one of the most striking connections between Jesus as Savior and Jesus as Lord. Simon Peter's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
Not even a separate sentence. Jesus as Savior, and then, Pow! Jesus as Lord. The fever left her and she began to serve them.
We are not healed as an end unto itself; we are healed to be agents of the Kingdom of God. We are healed to spread healing to others. We are reconciled to bring reconciliation to others. We are loved and we then spread love in the world. We are restored to connectedness with our creator so we can help all creation also become new.
In one of our Eucharistic prayers, we ask God to "Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal."
Today's lessons seem to drive home that Jesus is Lord. That discipleship is work, and that we are called not only to be in relationship with the God who heals, reconciles, empowers, restores, and strengthens us – that is, the God who saves us – but to act on that relationship in our lives. As the epistle of James reminds us, faith without works is dead. Our relationship with our savior empowers us to follow him as Lord.
Next week we will hear about the Transfiguration, a glorious mountain top experience where Peter and James and John encounter Moses and Elijah and Jesus in resplendent glory. And Jesus has to admonish Peter not to build tents to stay up on the mountaintop, but rather to go back down the mountain after the encounter, because there is work to be done. At the end of our liturgies, we are prodded to go out into the world bringing the peace of God we encounter at this altar to a world that so badly needs it.
And sometimes we need that prodding. Sometimes we need the encouragement these lesson seem to be giving us: don't just be in relationship with God; do something. Be healed, then get up and start serving.
But after Jesus healed so many people in Capernaum, he went out to a deserted place to pray. He spent time simply being in relationship with God, the source of his strength and love.
As much as we sometimes need prodding to be delivered from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal, we also need deliverance from the presumption of looking only for strength and not for solace; only for renewal and not for a restored relationship with God.
Eventually, our relationship with God needs to inspire us to spread God's love. Eventually, our relationship with our Savior inspires us to follow our Lord. But that must not discount the importance of healing. The importance of solace. The importance of drawing near our Savior and rejoicing in that loving presence. Yes, we will eventually be called to leave. But let's not forget to draw near. Let's not neglect to be healed, to be reconciled, to be present with our glorious God, whether on the mountaintop or at the altar or in healing or reconciliation or wherever we find our God. We can't stay there forever. We will need to get up and serve, to proclaim the Gospel, to share the love we receive. But we first need to receive it, to be fed, to be restored.
Sometimes, like Peter's mother-in-law, we move immediately from encountering God to serving God. Sometimes we need to spend more time on feeling God's healing love in our lives. Sometimes we need to linger at the altar, on the mountaintop, at Jesus' side. Sometimes we need to go out to that deserted place and spend time not doing, but being with our God who loves us. Sometimes it's hard to strike that balance between needing a Savior and following a Lord.
And that's when we need to pray and listen the most. We need solace AND strength, pardon AND renewal. There are times to get to work proclaiming the kingdom, and times to be still and know God. What is God saying to you today? Who is God to you now? Savior? Lord? W see God differently each day, but our God is both.
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Their eyes were kept from recognizing him

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
At St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Davidson, N.C., a new statue was recently installed. It is a statue of Jesus curled up on a bench, covered by a blanket. From a distance, he appears to be a person without a home seeking shelter on the bench. Only on closer inspection can one see the wounds of the crucifixion that reveal his identity. The statue bears the title Jesus the Homeless.
Someone in the wealthy neighborhood where the church is located called the police when she first saw the statue. She thought the statue was an actual homeless person, and she didn't want homeless people in her neighborhood. Her eyes were kept from recognizing him. Oh, how foolish we are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!
With a statue, the wounds known as the stigmata serve as the punch line, the big reveal to say, "Hey, this is Jesus." What about real people who are without a home? How often is Jesus in our midst without that big reveal? How often do we fail to talk and to break bread with him, so we never have our eyes opened and recognize him?
Matthew's Gospel tells us: The king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?" And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."
Jesus is among us all the time, but our eyes are kept from recognizing him.
The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread. How do we know the Lord Jesus? One body are we, alleluia, for though many we share one bread. How often is this true? How often do we keep our bread, our body, our lives so deliberately set apart from those in need? How often do we build walls so we don't have to associate with "them?" So we don't shop at the same stores, or send our children to the same schools, or have to wait in the same waiting rooms as those we find less desirable to be around? How often do we cut ourselves off from the one bread, the one body? How often do we cut ourselves off from the chance to encounter Jesus in the face of the poor?
Jesus is in our midst. But like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we don't always know it. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, our eyes are kept from recognizing him. But Jesus is in our midst.
The disciples thought they could help this poor fool they met. They managed to meet the one ignoramus who didn't know about the things that had taken place there in those days. They managed to find the only person who hadn't heard about what happened to Jesus of Nazareth. The disciples thought they were bringing enlightenment to someone who was in the dark. They thought they were the ministers, and the uninformed stranger on the road was the one to be served. And it is meet and right that we should help the uninformed become informed. It is meet and right to help those who need our help. But in this case, their eyes were kept from recognizing him. The ones who thought they were the teachers were, in fact, the students. Those who thought they were doing the feeding in fact were the ones being fed.
When we feed the hungry, when we welcome the stranger, when we visit the prisoner, we are not helping the unfortunate. We are encountering Jesus himself in the face of those in need, and all that we do to serve is no more than we owe to our Lord and Savior, who feeds us and gives us grace. When we prepare meals for South Oakland Shelter, when we reach out to help the refugees at Freedom House, when we sing with the home bound, we, like the disciples, think we are the ones serving. But we need to look for the face of Christ in those we encounter, and treat those we encounter with all the dignity and love that is due to the body of Christ. When we extend hospitality, like the disciples on the road, our call is that we too come to know the presence of the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread. That we too come to realize that when we think we are serving, we are in fact encountering our Lord. When we think we are teaching, we are in fact learning the truths we truly need to know.
Jesus is in our midst. Are not our hearts burning within us while he is talking to us on the road? The Lord is risen indeed, and is made known to us in breaking bread with strangers. Alleluia.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

It almost seems like the cross would have been enough.
If Good Friday were the end of the story, we would have ended with a message of profound hope, consolation, and sympathy. Because the passion is all about com-passion, suffering with, about God becoming flesh and dwelling among us and being with us in the midst of our most profound sorrow and pain. The message of the cross is this: whatever burdens you bear, you do not bear them alone. Whatever demons torment you, you are not alone in your torment. Your God loves you so deeply, so profoundly, that God took human form to join us in facing whatever demons plague us. Oppression by empire? Imprisonment? Hunger? Pain? Abandonment? Being misunderstood? Rejection by society? Rejection by our closest friends? Guilt for the wrongs we have done? Failure to communicate with those closest to us? Loss of faith? Whatever we suffer, the message of the cross is that we do not suffer alone. God says, "I am with you, and I will stay with you to the end, even if it kills me." Which it did. What wondrous love is this, o my soul?
The crucifix, a cross with the statue of the tormented suffering body of Jesus on it, became a symbol of popular devotion as Europe suffered from the great plague. As large numbers of people endured a painful death by disease, they found solace in the image of the suffering Christ, for they knew that they had a God who could meet them in their suffering. The crucifix told them that they did not suffer alone, that God knew what it meant to suffer and loved them and was with them.
If Friday were the end of the story, this would still be a story that hope is stronger than fear, that companionship is stronger than Empire, that solidarity and community and love cannot be vanquished by torture and death. If Friday were the end of the story, we would be left with the gift of the crucifix, the gift of com-passion, the gift of God's boundless love. If Friday were the end of the story, we would be left with the knowledge of the wondrous love by which we know that whatever demons we face, we face them in the companionship of a God that loves us and stays with us even unto death.
And so they laid Jesus in the tomb. But Friday was not the end of the story. So we move from a glorious gift of grace to an even more glorious gift of grace.
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. They wanted to see it. Jesus had been taken away from them, but they still longed for whatever connection they could still experience. But when they got there, suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.
For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid."
God's great reversals continue. The armed Roman soldiers guarding the tomb faint in fear, but the unarmed women coming to mourn their friend and teacher who was just tortured to death are still standing. The mighty are cast down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up.
The angel continues, "I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you."
Do not be afraid. Jesus is risen. Believe, and spread the good news.
So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
But before they got to the others, these apostles to the apostles met Jesus himself.
Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."
In the face of profound evil, Jesus did not succumb to hate or fear or the desire to avoid pain. He let the profound inhumanity of empire run its full course without summoning the hosts of heaven to his aid. But as if that itself were not enough of a miracle, we now have this: evil did its worst, but he lives. He lives, and now there is nothing that we need to fear.
He lives, and whatever demons torment us, God is stronger. He lives, and however long our pain lasts, God's love lasts longer. He lives, and however much death we encounter, there is more resurrection.
Because evil tried to encompass Jesus, but it could not contain Jesus. Death tried to take in Christ, but it could not hold Christ, and now it is a broken container. Like a bottle full of water that bursts when the water freezes, death is forever cracked. Like a sweater stretched over a person several sizes too large for it, death is forever misshapen. Death can no longer hold us, because it tried to contain Christ, and now it is broken. Death can try to take us in, but we can see through the light shining through the cracks, and now we too have the promise of the resurrection. Christ is the firstborn from the dead. But we all, as we die with Christ, so too shall we be raised with Christ.
And because of this, our story does not end with the solace of the cross. In our Eucharistic prayer, we pray that God might deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. And so the resurrection empowers us. We move from being comforted to being both comforted and comforters. We move from being merely the recipients of God's abundant grace to also being agents who share that grace in the world. Like Mary Magdalene, we are told first Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples. Solace, then strength for mission.
For Christ has been raised from the dead, and we who live in Christ are empowered to love and serve without fear because nothing — neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore, do not be afraid. Proclaim God's love to the world. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Table, altar, throne

I want to talk to you today about furniture. Specifically, this piece of furniture that we've moved and then set up a temporary smaller version thereof. It's one of the most prominent things front and center in our worship space, rivaled only by the cross hanging on the eastern wall of the sanctuary. Today's lessons give us the opportunity to reflect on this key fixture in our worship space, even as we are in the midst of discerning as a congregation about how we might best arrange our furniture here.

The Prayer Book has several names by which it refers to this key element of our worship space.

On several occasions, the Prayer Book calls it both the Lord's Table and the Holy Table. This is a table around which we gather for a meal.

On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread. After supper he took the cup of wine. We come to the Lord's table to eat and drink. And table fellowship was key to Jesus' ministry of radical hospitality.

Today's gospel talks about Zaccheaus. Zaccheaus, was a tax collector for the hated occupying Romans.  He had personally enriched himself in this position at the expense of his countryfolk. Zaccheaus was thus in disrepute among his own people. Outcast. Unwelcome. It scandalized the Jewish faithful for Jesus to announce that he was going to be Zaccheaus' guest. But Jesus made a point that his ministry was focused on seeking out and saving the lost. This included being the guest of those who were not considered polite company. By dining at the table of Zaccheaus, Jesus sent a powerful message about the reinstatement of those who turned away from their sins. Jesus' company at table testified to the radical reality of reconciliation.

This Holy Table is certainly a sign of present reconciliation, as we gather together, but also serves as a foretaste of the feast to come, the heavenly banquet. The radical inclusion of the outcast modeled by Jesus in table fellowship in his earthly ministry foretells the reign of God, who casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, who fills the hungry with good things but sends the rich empty away. The counterculturality of whom Jesus chose to dine with reminds us that the last shall be first and the first last.

So this is a meal table: we gather here, and are fed by our Lord. And in recalling the stories about with whom Jesus chose to be at table, we hear our own call to welcome the stranger, to visit the prisoner, to seek out the lost, and even echoes of the judgment of the nations: Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

But this is not only a meal table.

The prayer book also refers to it as an altar. Now an altar is a place where sacrifices are offered to God.

Our first lesson from Isaiah talks about the practice, demanded by God in the Law as given to Moses, of "burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts." The practice in the temple was to offer twice-daily sacrifices of animals to God, and more on special occasions. The letter to the Hebrews talks about this at length, and contrasts the offering of Jesus, our great High Priest. "Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself."

When we celebrate the Eucharist, we make present once again the one sacrifice of Jesus on the cross at Calvary, given once for all, "having in remembrance his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension; rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same." The old system of sacrifices of animals on the altar was replaced by the sacrifice of Jesus, given once for all, but every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we make that sacrifice of Jesus present yet again, here and now.

I can't pretend to understand how this sacrifice works, or why God calls for it. Indeed, the God who speaks through Isaiah says "I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats… they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them… Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow."

In other words, our God seems to reject sacrificial offerings in favor of demanding… wait for it… radical hospitality in the table fellowship we just talked about. But there is a powerful link between the sacrifice of the cross made present on the ALTAR and the radical fellowship made present at the HOLY TABLE.

A mentor of mine now helps run Manna House, a house of hospitality that provides showers, clothing, coffee, and a place to stay during the daytime to homeless people in Memphis, Tennesee. This ministry is an example of radical table fellowship at its best, as they try to see the face of Christ in all their guests. But reaching out to the outcast is not always popular. There are plenty of people who would rather that the outcast stay away. Last month, in their attempt to provide a safe space to the neediest in our society, Manna House volunteers had a run-in with the Memphis police.

As a local group reported, "On October 21, Memphis Police Department officers came to Manna House claiming they were looking for a suspect. A Manna volunteer approached the officers before they entered the property. On the public sidewalk outside of the house, she explained that Manna House sought to provide a safe space for the homeless. Therefore, under Manna's policy the officers could not come inside the privately-owned building without a warrant unless there was an emergency.

When the officers refused to produce a warrant or offer any other justification for their presence, the volunteer began filming. One officer responded by claiming the volunteer needed a permit to film, which is not true. When the volunteer refused to stop filming, the officers took her cellphone, placed her in handcuffs, and arrested her for obstructing a passageway, which apparently in Memphis means standing on a sidewalk to record MPD officers attempting an illegal search. Soon after the volunteer was arrested, a local organizer arrived, began filming, and asked that the officers identify themselves. In short order, the officers grabbed his phone, handcuffed and arrested him for obstructing a passageway, and, presumably for asking the officers who they were, tacked on a disorderly conduct charge for good measure.

Though all charges were eventually dropped and the cellphones returned, what both the volunteer and the organizer can never get back is the twelve hours they spent in jail."

Now there are certainly issues of constitutional law involved here. But even if there weren't, even if the police had the legal right to do these things, what could give these people the courage to extend radical hospitality to the least welcome, even at risk of their own imprisonment? Only the sacrifice of the cross.

Jesus lived radical hospitality, which made him a threat to the established order of the Roman Empire. The mighty Roman Empire used its full force to try to end the Jesus movement of selfless love. The enforcement apparatus of the empire publicly tortured and killed Jesus to say to all his followers and potential followers that this is the end that comes of those whose welcome of the outcast challenges empire. This is the end that comes of those who live as though God and not Caesar is king.

The salvation of God comes in the sacrifice of the Cross: the empires of this world threw all the evil they had at Jesus. They mocked him and tortured him and killed him. Jesus stood before the evil of the world, and somehow, through amazing grace, he didn’t use his infinite power to drive it off. He willingly accepted the worst torture and death they could give him.

He let evil do its worst, and it did not prevail.

And thus, we are free. We are free to live. We are free to love. We are free to share that radical table fellowship without fear, because of whom shall we be afraid? Love is stronger than death, and the cross does not have the last word.

And so, this piece of furniture, located beneath the cross, is both the ALTAR on which our Lord's sacrifice is made present yet again for us, to give us grace and strength, and the HOLY TABLE at which we join in God's radical feast of love and inclusion.

And yet there is a third image given by the Eastern Orthodox Church: what we call the altar or the holy table, they call the throne. It is where our Lord Jesus Christ is seated. Look at the decorated wall behind the altar, also known as a reredos, and the combined effect of table and backing does indeed look like a majestic seat. This tradition motivates such devotions as bowing to the altar, and facing it when we pray and recite our creed: we look to it as the place where God is seated in our midst, a locus to which we direct our prayers and a center to help us listen and meditate on God's word in our lives.

Now in many churches, especially ones of more formal design, the table is quite near the reredos, producing a combined effect that indeed looks much like a majestic throne. A small table in the midst of the assembly might look more like a bench than a throne befitting the Lord of Heaven and Earth. A throne suggests the transcendence and might of God; a small table in our midst not so much. And yet this is Nativity. Our title feast involves God becoming truly human and dwelling among us. The Lord of the Hosts of Heaven was born in a stable. And indeed, a charism of the ministry that God's people have done here since its founding has been to witness to the world that our transcendent God is also very imminent. Our table in our midst can indeed be the seat, the resting place of Emanuel: God with us. Gathered around the table, gathered around the altar, gathered around the throne, we know that God calls us to love and serve, that God is stronger than any evil that might threaten us, and above all, that God is with us.

We can conclude, in the words of the letter to the Hebrews, "Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."


Sunday, March 17, 2013

The transactional calculus of scarcity vs. abundant selfless extravagance

In 1982 and 1983, Nativity Episcopal Church commissioned local artist Margaret Cavanaugh to create six stained glass windows to represent the six days of creation. Nativity has had, over the years, a number of ministries advocating on behalf of God’s creation. These works of art shared a theme with the ministry to which this Church was called at the time.

But why did we give up a substantial chunk of money commissioning stained glass windows? Could the money not have been better used more directly in pursuit of education or advocacy about the issues the congregation cared about? Why does the church squander precious funds on vestments and artwork and beautiful buildings when there are so many people in so much need?

If money is scarce, what’s even more scarce is our time. There’s so much we could be doing in the world to make it better. Volunteering, writing letters, demonstrating, working tireless on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed of every stripe. God knows they need advocates! And there’s so much work to be done. So why are we squandering our time here right now, sitting in this space hearing lessons that frankly we’ve heard before, hearing a sermon that we can probably do without, and eating some token bread and wine? Liturgy doesn’t do anything, does it? Why wait until the end of the service to go forth into the world being the face of God to those we meet? Don’t people need us right now?

If God’s people are in need, isn’t all this church stuff a holy waste of time and money?

We encounter God when we love our neighbors as our selves, even and especially our most vulnerable neighbors, of whom God promised that whatever we do for the least of the hungry, the thirsty, the outcast, the sick, the prisoner, we do for God.

Or is that we encounter God in our sacred stories of God’s saving acts of old when we read scripture? Or do we encounter God through worship, especially in the sacraments of the church?

Maybe all of these are true. Within our Anglican tradition, of which Nativity Episcopal Church is a part, we don’t all emphasize all of them equally. Encountering God through love of neighbor might resonate more to many of us. Encountering the divine through service to, advocacy with, and love of our fellow humans seems to be an important part of our our congregation’s story. But it’s not the only way God can be found.

The more low church, or evangelical branch of Anglicanism stresses encountering God in scripture. And the Episcopal Church is a place where we do read a lot of scripture. Just this morning, we’ve heard four different passages from scripture read directly, and now you’re listening to a sermon that will (eventually) get around to talking about what that scripture means in our lives. The text of the rest of the liturgy is drawn heavily from words or images from scripture. So even if many of us wouldn’t say the first place we look for or find God is in the Bible, we do steep ourselves in the Bible quite a bit.

And we encounter God through worship, prayer, and the sacraments of the church. As a part of my formation process through the diocese, I’m taking a class that meets at a very high church, with a strong orientation toward the sacraments as THE central acts of Christian life. Do we primarily encounter God through receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ each Sunday and feast day?

Or are there other ways we encounter God? Do we encounter God through God’s creation? Do we encounter God through community? Do we encounter God through solitude, contemplation, and meditation? Do we encounter God through the arts? Do we encounter God through the use of our bodies? And do we have to choose?
One of my seminary classmates and I were going over our notes about the different traditions within Anglicanism, and how we vary in whether we emphasize finding God in service, scripture, or sacrament, and she asked “what if I find God in all three?” I think that’s part of the beauty of our tradition: there’s room for people whose primary encounter with the divine comes through service, through scripture, AND through sacrament.

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

Talk about a holy waste! A pound of costly perfume? Worth almost a year’s wages? This is extravagant. How? Why? What makes this okay? Surely Jesus is about to scold Mary, right?

But no!

Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Jesus encourages this extravagance! The same Jesus who said we’d be judged on how we treat those in need - Jesus said it was okay to use so much money in pursuit of - of what, exactly? An outpouring of love, to be sure, but how is this practical? How is this a good idea? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we restrained these senseless and impractical outpourings of love and focused our energy into loving and helping those in need?

We should not pass up the opportunity to worship for fear that it will deprive us of the opportunity to serve; far greater is the danger that in passing up one, we will fail to do the other as well, and then we neither worship nor serve.

Judas objected to pouring out the perfume because the money could have been used to help the poor, but had Mary passed on pouring perfume on Jesus, the poor would not have been helped anyway. As the Gospel tells us,

Judas said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.

Had Mary acted out of fear of losing one opportunity to encounter the divine, she would have missed out on both!

We are conditioned by our post-Eden world to think in terms of scarcity. There isn’t enough to go around, so whenever someone or something gains, someone or something else loses.

Thus, prudent stewardship requires us to calculate: what do we give up, and what do we gain. Economists refer to “opportunity cost,” how we quantify what we are not doing whenever we do something. Judas today provides a textbook example of opportunity cost: perfume poured on Jesus’ feet could thus not be sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor.

But Jesus challenges us to escape from that thinking. Life is not a zero-sum game. God’s abundance invites us to think not in terms of “or” but in terms of “and.” The economies of our world are foreign to the abundance of God’s grace.

In Isaiah, God challenges us:

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

The wilderness is wild precisely because there are no “ways,” no roads, no paths there. The desert is characterized by a scarcity of water. But God’s abundant blessings overflow. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

God invites us to leave behind measuring and calculating and go all in. To throw ourselves in faith into the bounty of God’s love.

And when we show this extravagant love, God blesses and empowers us with even more extravagant love. I’m not claiming this is the prosperity gospel here - God’s blessing takes lots of different forms. But we don’t have to choose between worshiping God with our whole heart and our whole soul and our whole mind and our whole strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Indeed, our worship of God empowers us to love and serve our neighbors. Our time in worship, our reflection on these beautiful works of art, our whole-hearted embrace of Christian community - we do these without reservation. And then we are sent out, likewise without reservation, but with renewed gifts to take into the world in service.

These experiences open the door for a conversion of heart.
God calls us to turn away from the transactional calculus of scarcity and embrace the gospel of abundant grace and selfless extravagance.

In the course of my studies, I took a church finance class last semester. The instructor drove home the importance of good accounting practices because even the hint of financial scandal can devastate a church community. And believe me, I’ve lived that. Twenty years ago, I lost my church home because of a community divided by the discovery of misused church funds. My instructor made it seem like transparency and accountability even trumped mission: if charity or service couldn’t be done with proper record keeping, the Church shouldn’t do them. But Jesus does give us a different example in today’s Gospel.

The treasurer he appointed, Judas Iscariot, was a thief who stole from the common purse. Now this is in the Gospel according to John. Of all the Gospels, John has the highest Christology: Jesus in John’s account knows everything. When he prays, he sometimes even says “I know you already know this, God, but I’m saying it so the people around me can hear it.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus is omniscient from day one. And yet he chooses to appoint Judas to keep the money.
What example do we draw from this? If our conclusion is that God encourages fraud, that’s probably not quite the right direction here, but rather that we need to move past the mindset of scarcity. Jesus could give the purse to Judas because it didn’t matter. Freely have you received; freely give.

The new bishop of Rome is a Jesuit, a member of an order with whom I worked when I first attended Nativity, and who taught me a lot. I learned a prayer from my time with them translated from St. Ignatius himself. We started class with this prayer pretty frequently:

Lord, teach me to be generous;

teach me to serve you as you deserve,

to give and not to count the cost,

to fight and not to heed the wounds,

to toil and not to seek for rest,

to labor and not to seek reward,

except that of knowing that I do your will.

Ultimately, that’s what we can take away from last week’s parable of the prodigal son and his even more prodigal, more wastefully extravagant father and from this week’s account of Mary’s selfless extravagance: our God of Grace is inviting us to go all in. Freely have you received; freely give. Commit ourselves to worship, to service, to love without reservation, without measure. This transforms us, and prepares us to be able to receive God’s abundant grace. Judas today, the older brother last week - these people were shocked and horrified by these acts of selfless extravagance. Because in a world of scarcity, to give abundantly means to deny other opportunities. To be able to receive abundant grace requires a conversion of heart to recognize the limitlessness bounty of God’s grace: unmerited, unearned, and yet, miraculously, given to us all the same. Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine! Amen.