20 April 2014

Don't Get Distracted - An Easter Sermon

I have always been enamored with empty spaces.
A stretch of prairie that opens up
so that you can see a rolling thunderhead
many leagues away across the grass
and wonder if the storm will come to threaten you.
A subterranean cave that only yields its secrets
when the hopelessly small beacon on your hard hat
shines across a cavernous room.
That last stretch of marsh behind a barrier island
through which you paddle silently
while breakers roar just above the spartina
and great blue herons take to wing
like ancient beasts of the prehistoric skies.
I do love empty spaces.

My roommates
when I was in college
always suspected that I would end up in a cabin
in some mountain hollow
where I could spend my evenings in a rocker on the front porch
occasionally pulling Yoo Hoo sodas out of a rusty frig beside me.
They thought I’d shuffle off to some out-of-the-way place
where the horizon is not a fanciful thing to imagine
but something you see every day.
Guess I showed them.

But it takes good eyes to see the beauty of the empty.

Which is why,
when Matthew shares with us his gospel tale of Easter,
he’s really giving us a test.
Because Easter,
though it is for everybody,
is only seen by some bodies.
Peter shared the news with Cornelius and his household,
his report of impossible doings on the third day,
and what he said was that God raised him up
God lifted Jesus from the dead
on the third day he brought him up out of that tomb
and allowed him to be seen
but then he adds
“allowed him to be seen,
not by everybody
but by us.”

So here’s the test:
There will be marvels
There will be wonders
There will be intrigue, fear, and death
to rival any thing you’d see at the Multiplex.
In a world
where everything is falling apart
one man comes to redeem God’s people
can you see him?

It was early on a Sunday morning
dawn, they say
on the first day of the week, they say
A flock of soldiers sits idly by the tomb
Not often they are asked to guard the dead
“What a pointless task!” they must be saying.
“Hasn’t Jesus caused enough trouble?
even three days dead
he’s got us assigned to the graveyard shift!”
But they were taking no chances
The reports were thick that Jesus had claimed
an after-death surprise
A stolen body might be more trouble
than a living prophet
Best to seal the deal
and seal the stone
Post a guard and let him rot.

Two women come to take a look
Mary and Mary
to take a look
to observe the tomb
No more to the plan than that
Might as well watch paint dry
as expect a show from that rock

So what will kill the tedium of a Sunday by the graves?
What will get this place shaking?
Who will liven things up?

Right on cue, there is the trembling of a tremor
a thrill runs through the garden
the crowd goes wild
From up above an angel comes
with face like lightning
and robe like snow
And rolls that rock away from Jesus’ grave
as if it weren’t nothing but a thing
And saucily he sits
on top that stone

It’s too much for the rent-a-cops
hired to watch for grave robbers
and certainly not for lightning-faced angels
They shake and flail and fall and faint
dying, it seems, of fright
So now the only guards of the dead
have fallen dead themselves

“Don’t be afraid,” the angel says from his perch
It’s how you know that angels are legit -
they tell you not to be fear.
“Never fear
I know the reason why you’re here.
To look at the tomb - ha!
You came to see Jesus.
You came because even though his promises didn’t make a lick of sense
and you suspected that he was kind of off his rocker
with his resurrection talk
you thought
‘Just maybe’
It’s the reason people will go to church for centuries more
They’ll put on bonnets and ties and pastel blouses
and make the trek they made with Grandma
for O! so many years
And they’ll not expect to be converted by the choir
or moved by the fantastical story
Because what modern person could believe?
And yet -
just maybe -

I may be adding a little bit to what the angel said.
But it’s surely what he meant.

Now we have the test.
Have you noticed?
Have you seen?
It’s all well and good to have the fireworks
but where’s the substance of the show?
At what point do we get to see the broken body restored?
At what point does the music swell?
When will it be that a figure appears
in the shadows of the tomb's entrance
the darkness just barely concealing his face
but we know who it is
we know what it’s about
this is the extra special special effect
the climax of the whole crazy pageant

Did you get distracted?
Did you fail to see what couldn’t be seen?
It wasn’t the rock that kept Jesus in the ground
it certainly wasn’t the guard grumbling by the grave
When that stone rolled back
what was done was already done
“Take a gander,” the saucy angel says.
“He’s long gone.
What’s left here now is empty space.”

We missed it!
So what was the point of all that sound and fury
if it signifieth nothing?
And just when I was beginning to hope
that earthquakes and angels
might actually put the fear of God back in the world!
But now all that grave is
is empty space

And the one in whom we placed our hopes
has slipped away

So let me call upon the wind
the breath that Ezekiel preached to
to conjure life in dry, dry bones
Let me call upon the wind that blows
in prairies and back bays

The poet Kimberly Johnson asks:
And what is wind
       but a dialect of longing? —: the high
       pressure rushing to fill the low, the sky

       trying to slake its heats against the earth’s
       asymptotic cool, its somersaulting cools
       against the earth’s radiance.  All weather

       springs from currents of failed desire.  No wonder
       the wind, when it says anything at all,

Let me call on the winds, the breath, the Spirit
that hovered over waters
which parted to reveal the empty space
in which God worked before ever having a witness

Let me call on the wind because it echoes my deep desire
that springs from the empty space
I feel so often in my deepest heart
the space that longs and howls from failed desire

Or maybe the space is not empty at all

Is it only a lack that the angel points to?
Is the only thing to say about the tomb is that a body has gone missing?
Or is it not empty

Openness is not an absence
but a presence of the possible
If the tomb is open we have a choice
Ignore it.
Walk away.
Will it really make much nevermind if we simply let it be?
The world will keep on turning
with its brokenness and pain
The wind will keep on blowing from there to who knows where

But come into this open space
and what could happen then?
Just like at the dawning of creation
God has opened up space
In the very place where the world marks death
God opens up space
in which our lives can be redefined and reoriented
and angels can tell us to go where have never been before.

The tomb in Jerusalem,
wherever it really lies,
hardly gives you space to change your mind
Pilgrims wait for hours to duck into the dark
and feel the stone
and imagine themselves as Mary or Peter or John
and to offer up prayers for that that they can see
The miracle is not that that small cell
contains a universe of possibility and hope
The miracle now
is that we do.

I do love open spaces.
And so
(it must be so)
does God.

*"[       ]." Kimberly Johnson, a metaphorical god, [Persea Books: New York, 2008], p. 58.

24 November 2013

shepherd, king, future

Perhaps you've heard the story of the preacher who was a golf fanatic.  One Sunday morning, he woke up and the weather outside was just beautiful - just the sort of day that he would have loved to spend out on the greens.  So he made a rash decision.  He decided that he was going to skip church.

The preacher called up his lay leader and said, "I'm so sorry but I'm very sick.  Can you cover for me today?"  Then he put on his golf duds and headed out to the golf course in the next town.

Of course, God is watching all of this from the heavenly precincts and says to the angels gathered around, "I'm going to let him have a hole-in-one."  The angels object.  The man is skipping church to play golf.

But sure enough, on the next green, a 400-yard hole with a wicked dogleg, the pastor tees it up and hits the ball right into the hole.  Hole in one.  First one in his life.  And he starts to celebrate and jump up and down, making a fool of himself.

The angels are still indignant.  "God, how could you allow that to happen?  You're only feeding his addiction."

God responds, "And who's he going to tell?"

Let me tell you a little about the secret life of pastors.  And I'm giving away one of our biggest secrets here.  Part of what it means to be a pastor is to feel that everything is your fault.  When things go wrong, (and there are always plenty of things going wrong in a church, it's a human place), it's very easy to go looking for flaws in yourself.  Of course, there are usually other people around who will help you to do that, too.  But we go look for a cause in us.  Attendance is down this week.  What did I say last week?  That program flopped.  What didn't I do to make it work?

Part of the reason for this is the high standards for leaders that the Bible sets.  You remember that the scriptures say, "Not many of you should be teachers for we will be judged more harshly."  Jesus warns the disciples that if they lead anyone astray it would be better for them if there were a millstone around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.

So when I get to this passage from Jeremiah, I take it personally.  "Watch out, you shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture...You are the ones who have scattered my flock and driven them away.  You haven't attended to their needs, so I will take revenge on you for the terrible things you have done to them, declares the Lord."  Ouch.

Now I know that Jeremiah was speaking to the kings of Judah.  I know that what he is castigating them for is their failure to live up to the duties of the king, which include making sure that justice is carried out on behalf of all the people, especially the poor and the widow.  They had not been caring for them.  Just as Samuel had warned years before when the people were clamoring for a king, the kings were deaf to the suffering of the people and the whole nation was suffering as a result.

So Jeremiah makes a promise.  The promise is that God will raise up a new king - a righteous descendent from David's line who will rule as a wise king.  And this king will restore the nation.

It will be such a momentous event when this new king comes to reign that even God will get a new name.  If you read on to verse 7 in this passage it says that the time is coming when people will no longer call God the One who brought up Israel from the land of Egypt.  Instead God will be known as the one who brought the scattered people back from the lands of exile to live once more in their own land.

John Holbert, who is a retired professor at that great school of learning, Perkins School of Theology, says that "what is important...is that God is the God of the new and the now. God is not stuck in the past, living off past deeds, no matter how wondrous. Jeremiah, who witnessed the demise of his people, his land, his kings, his temple, his priests, still found in his God one who cared for and loved the people, one who acted the part of shepherd for the scattered and wayward sheep. It is hardly an accident that when later Christian believers tried to name the actions of the one they called Christ, they often chose the image of the shepherd."*

A shepherd.  That's what they call us.  Pastor is a word that means shepherd.  It's even clearer in Spanish and other languages where it literally is the same word - pastor.  Christ is the Great Shepherd, the Great Pastor, yes, and thank God for that.  And we are supposed to take that name as well.  You can see how it's hard not to hear the challenge in these words about the bad shepherds.

This week perhaps you heard about a church trial that we had within our United Methodist connection.  About six years ago a pastor in Pennsylvania, Frank Schaefer, was asked by his son to preside at his wedding.  Nothing unusual in that.  What an honor.  But what was difficult was that his son is gay and the ceremony was a same-sex marriage to be performed in Massachusetts where it is legal.

Frank Schaefer was left with a difficult choice.  The teaching of the United Methodist Church in its official statements is that all people are people of sacred worth.  We are called to welcome and be in ministry with all people regardless of their sexual orientation.  We support the civil rights of all people in the society at large.  Jesus calls us to love all people and all means all.

But in the long history of the Church and in the history of the Bible's interpretation, the majority position has been that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.  That's our official language on the subject in the United Methodist Church.

But it's an area of teaching that we have been divided about.  At our last General Conference we saw how conflicted we are as we debated whether or not to introduce language that simply acknowledges that we are divided, that faithful Christians are looking at the same Bible and seeing different imperatives, some to maintaining old mores and others to hearing a new witness.  In the meantime, we have retained our old language and we have added new language forbidding our clergy from presiding at same sex unions or marriages.

What's a pastor to do?  What's a father to do?  Frank Schaefer chose to preside at the wedding.  Not in his church.  Not in his state.  And eventually a complaint was brought against him, which led to a church trial, which led to his suspension from ministry for 30 days with the expectation that within those 30 days he will either pledge not to conduct any more same sex weddings or that he will turn in his orders.

For a certain kind of unity of the church, that makes sense.  The Book of Discipline is very clear.  We clergy are asked to uphold the Discipline.  But Frank Schaefer is not the first and he won't be the last.  We are facing a wave of church trials and we will meet each other over this issue in front of how many juries as we struggle with this question.

In a sermon about this passage from Jeremiah, John Wesley says:
"How dreadful and how innumerable are the contests which have arisen about religion! And not only among the children of this world, among those who knew not what true religion was, but even among the children of God; those who had experienced "the kingdom of God within them;" who had tasted of "righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost." How many of these, in all ages, instead of joining together against the common enemy, have turned their weapons against each other, and so not only wasted their precious time, but hurt one another's spirits, weakened each other's hands, and so hindered the great work of their common Master! How many of the weak have hereby been offended! -- How many of the lame turned out of the way! How many sinners confirmed in their disregard of all religion, and their contempt of those that profess it! And how many of "the excellent ones upon earth" have been constrained to "weep in secret places!"**

Here's where I feel convicted this morning as your pastor.  Not that I have not "upheld the Discipline."  But that I have not led you to listen for those who weep in secret places.  The problem Wesley saw was not that church people weren't being vigilant enough in maintaining a standard.  The problem was that the way they were vigilant meant that wounded people weren't finding their way to Jesus.  Lost people were not hearing a call to come home.  How many people will look at a church trial and say, "Now that's the way to run a church"?

The problem Wesley saw was not that church people weren't being vigilant enough in maintaining a standard.  The problem was that the way they were vigilant meant that wounded people weren't finding their way to Jesus.

I know that there are those who will say - but there must be order in the church.  People can't just pick and choose what to believe.  There are means for changing our order and it's not to just flout what's there.  Frank Schaefer told the court last week, "I thought about the severity of what I had done...but I couldn't pass on the other side of the road like a Levite to preserve a rule.  All I saw was love for my son."***  But it affected his church as well.  These are no small issues for the church as a whole.  In the absence of agreement among us there must be a means to determine what's right, and I suppose a trial gives us that clarity.  But why does it not feel settled?

When I was in seminary, lo, these many years ago, I had a classmate named Bill.  Bill was a tremendously gifted person.  Vibrant, smart, charismatic, a great preacher and singer.  When we did the seminary talent show at the end of the year it was Bill who wrote several of the skits.  My favorite was his send-up of the Board of Ordained Ministry that we were all going to have to face for interviews.  He had a kickline of seminarians dressed as the board in white robes singing, "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Stole."  Bill was the kind of colleague I would love to have had.

We both lived on campus and one night he asked if he we could take a walk.  So we walked to the top of the hill at the SMU campus and as we were walking around the fountain there he told me the least surprising thing he could have told me.  He was gay.  It was really not news to me but he took a risk to share that with me.  He had grown up in the United Methodist Church and at the time was pursuing ministry in our denomination.  Appearing before that Board of Ordained Ministry was going to be much different for him than it was for me.

So what did I do?  I assured him I still considered him a friend, that I sympathized with his plight, that it really didn't change anything between us. Except that he and I were never going to be colleagues.  Except that, even though both of us had grown up in Methodist churches and both had memories of sitting with our families in the light of the same kind of stained-glass windows and getting an inkling that God might be calling us to pastor churches, for me it was an entirely different process than for him.

What I'm saying is that Bill was inviting me to walk with him on a different kind of journey when he asked me to walk with him that night and I don't think I took him on it.  He was inviting me to be part of his family.  And the ways that families make decisions is different.  Families, good families, are not held together by political processes and position statements.  They are held together by love.

This family is held together by Christ the King -- The Lord our Righteousness, as Jeremiah would have it. Because it is God's righteousness, and not our own, we are all equal before the cross.  As Wesley put it in that same sermon, we are all of us "humbled as repenting criminals at Christ's feet, and rely as devoted pensioners on his merits."****  So when we come to this table we say, "Welcome.  You've earned it."  We say, "He ate with sinners, so you are welcome here."

That's our hope.  And it's what we all share.  I pray that we can find some way beyond church trials -- other than church trials -- to serve our King together.  Because we have too much work to do for a hurting world that needs Jesus.  And we dare not do that work at the expense of the excellent ones of the earth who weep in secret places.

I know this is a difficult question and I hope that you hear that I am committed to being the pastor to this whole church, even though I'm going to fail you at times.  I will keep us mindful of our call to be faithful to the witness of the Bible and the church.  And I will remind us of the call to be open to all.  And I will struggle with where we are on this issue.  And we'll do this together.

One last story.  Last December I was in Israel and I went to a village that is literally in no-man's land between Israel proper and the West Bank.  Neve Shalom, or Wahat-al-Salam, is a village where Israeli Arabs and Jews have committed to living together.  It's on the grounds of an old Christian monastery and there are about 300 people living there.

This may not sound unusual but it is very unusual in Israel.  I was talking to a man named Howard Shippin, who lives in the community and he talked about how important it was that they had decided, not to join a political program, but to actually live together.  "You put down roots in a place and even if things come up which can be divisive between Arabs and Jews," he said, "there's an undercurrent of community feeling which overcomes those differences and there's kind of a maturing process...In the beginning maybe you come in with your own ideas, radical ideas or whatever, but then there's a test of living with the other people.  So you may find yourself changing.  There are things which can be surprising.  Most people who come to such a society think of themselves as liberal, as not racist or whatever.  But then that's on the level of declaration.  You haven't tested it.  So you discover things about yourself.  You discover where your fears are.  So there's a kind of acclimatization."

When you live together, you leave yourself open to the possibility of surprise.  Like maybe the way forward is not in your best proclamations or refined judgements.  Maybe the way forward is to discover where your fears are and keep living together anyway.  At the end of this road is not the best position statement ever.  At the end of this road is the King.  Thanks be to God.

*John Holbert, "God of the New and the Now," patheos.com, http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/God-of-the-New-and-the-Now?offset=1&max=1
**John Wesley, Sermon 20 "The Lord our Righteousness," http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/wesley/sermons/20/. Referred to hereafter as Wesley.
***Michelle Boorstein, "For Methodists, a rift close to home," The Washington Post, 19 Nov 2013.

17 March 2013

Scandal at Bethany

I usually leave it to Peter to cover the Catholic beat, but since he's not preaching today, I think I'd like to spend a minute or two at the beginning of the sermon today going over the news from Rome since I'm assuming you probably know what happened there.  We got a new pope.

Now I say, "We got a new pope," but let me be clear.  We don't have popes in the United Methodist Church.  We have bishops, but we don't even have a bishop above all other bishops.  We're pretty egalitarian.  It's part of our Protestant heritage.  One of the reasons there was a Reformation in the 1500s was that many European Christians had come to suspect that something rotten was corrupting the church and part of the corruption was the extravagance of the popes.  Even as St. Peter's, that great cathedral that we saw in the news in the Vatican...even as it was being built there were many ordinary Christians grumbling about how all their tithes were going to fund that kind of opulence, even as so many were suffering.  "Couldn't that money have been given to the poor?" you can just hear them saying with Judas.

But we live in a new day.  Catholics and Protestants don't regard each other with the same sort of suspicion that we used to.  Especially after Vatican 2, that great council in the 1960s, Catholics have been more open to talks with Protestant churches, including Methodists.  We have come to see that the things that divided us in the 16th century no longer need to divide us and, in fact, we share a lot of basic beliefs.  So when we hear that the Catholic Church is suffering, as it has, because of clergy sexual abuse scandals, we grieve with Catholics.  And when they celebrate the installation of a new bishop of Rome, a new Pope, we celebrate with them.

Pope Francis is already proving to be a very different kind of pope.  First, because of who he is.  Of Italian origin, but an Argentinian - the first Latin American to be elected pope.  He represents a region in which there are far more Catholics than there are in Europe.  A shy man who does not like to speak in public.  And he comes from the Jesuit order which is known for its missionary history and disciplined spirituality, but he takes the name of Francis.

You've heard Peter talk about Francis of Assisi many times.  Francis was a medieval reformer in the church who reformed through the example of his life.  He, too, thought that the church had become too comfortable and so he sought to live a life of poverty and charity.  Legend has it that, as a child, he was selling cloth and velvet for his father one day when a beggar came by.  He abandoned his wares and chased the beggar down, giving him all that he had in his pockets, much to the dismay of his friends and his father.

This new Pope Francis has a history of seeking a path of humility, too.  When he became Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he refused to move into the Archbishop's apartment with its luxuries, but instead moved into a plain room with a desk, a bed, a chair, and a radio.  He cooked his own meals, which usually ran to things like skinless chicken and salads.  He rode public buses around the city.  And he stopped to talk to street vendors and beggars.  He washed the feet of AIDS patients and the poor.

We won't make a saint out of him yet.  There's a lot to do in the Catholic Church.  Even he, when he heard that he was elected, said, "I am a sinner, but since this has been given to me, I will accept."  But I talked to so many people this week who felt inspired by this new pope.  Even people who who were not religious felt that there was something Jesus-like about a pope who paid his own hotel bill.

Humility and extravagance.  These are important words for us in today's gospel reading, too.  We often think of extravagance as meaning squandering or wasting, but in creation it is a sign of God's overflowing love.  All you have to do is to look at the daffodils and camellia to know that spring is an extravagant season.  All you have to do is look at the cross to understand how extravagantly God poured out love on creation.

So we have an extravagant Lover in God and God calls us to be children.  How do we respond to that?  Our gospel lesson today gives us a hint in the story of Mary's anointing of Jesus at Bethany and in Jesus' defense of her.

Judas often gets all of the attention in this story.  He is the disciple who asks the question, "Why was this ointment not sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor?"  But Judas is a hidden character in this story.  The narrator, John, must tell us who he really is, and we are told that he is a thief, a hypocrite and a betrayer.  So his question is really a reflection of his own sin and he points ahead in the story to the time when he will show himself by betraying Jesus.

We could also make a lot out of Jesus in this story, particularly in his final statement where he tells Judas, "You will always have the poor with you, but you won't always have me."  Some people have tried to distort that saying to make Jesus say, "You're wasting your time with the poor," but everything in Jesus' life suggests that he calls to be in service with the poor as a way of following him, so he was definitely NOT saying that serving the poor was useless.  He was himself materially poor.

It's Mary who seems really central to this story.  Now you may remember Mary and her sister, Martha, from other stories in the Bible.  Luke tells about a time when Jesus comes to their house and Martha busies herself in the kitchen while Mary sits as Jesus' feet listening to him.  In that story Martha gets bent out of shape because Mary doesn't help her and doesn't do the things she was expected to do and in that case Jesus defends Mary saying she had chosen the better part.  Already in that story you can see the difference between proper and correct Martha and spontaneous and independent Mary.

You might also remember the story that comes one chapter before this story we read today when Jesus meets Martha and Mary on the road just before he raises their brother, Lazarus, from the dead.  Martha went out first and never really believed that Jesus could raise her brother from the dead.  She's the one who said, when Jesus gave the order to roll away the stone from the tomb, "Lord, think of the smell - he's been dead four days!"

Mary, on the other hand, came late to see Jesus, fell at his feet in an act of spontaneous emotion, and wept, moving Jesus so deeply that he shared in her tears.  And so here we are again in this story, in the week before the Passover celebration, and Jesus again comes to Bethany to be with Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

In this story we are told very little about Lazarus.  He sits at the table with Jesus to eat and then he disappears from the scene.  And we're not told much about Martha either, though she appears in a very familiar role - she's serving the dinner.  Proper, rational Martha is playing the perfect hostess as we would expect.

Then Mary makes a dramatic appearance into the story.  As in every other story we find her at the feet of Jesus and this time she is anointing his feet - as one might anoint a king - or someone about to be buried.

The ointment she uses is a pound of costly perfume of pure nard.  Judas values it at about 300 denarii, or very near the yearly wage of a laborer.  The smell of this wonderful ointment rises and fills the whole house with the fragrance of perfume.  Mary remains at the feet of Jesus, wiping them with her hair - a symbol of the servanthood Jesus came to proclaim and a foreshadowing of what Jesus would later do as he washed the feet of his disciples.

Now think how extravagant this is!  This is a costly, loving gift given in an act of spontaneous emotion, which is just what we've come to expect of Mary.  Mary is not trapped by expectations and social graces.  She's not trying to trap Jesus in her own plans and expectations the way Judas certainly is.  Mary takes the unexpected route, giving extravagantly and humbly to the one who lived his life in fellowship and solidarity with the humble of the world - the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the outcast.

John slows the story down at this point to give us rich detail about the costliness and the preciousness of her gift.  John tells of the way she gave of herself in offering it, holding nothing back.  John talks about the wonderful aroma which touches everyone in the house as a result.

What would it mean for us to give extravagantly to God?  As Jesus lived in community with those on the underside of society - those who are truly humble - what would it mean for us to give our best to those in need?  We're so aware of what we don't have, but what if we gave extravagantly from what what we do have?  What would we look like if we gave ourselves completely to God, holding nothing back as we fall before Christ's feet, and living our lives as he did in solidarity with the humble?

There's so much in a vital life that doesn't make much economic sense.  Looked at from a pragmatic view, what is the value of a Little League baseball game?  What is the value of the hours spent preparing for a performance of a Beethoven concert?  What is the value of an artist's canvas slathered with paint?

Extravagance is the stuff of life.  And there is an exchange of extravagance going on here that Judas, and perhaps the others in the room, fail to understand.  Extravagance is what God is and it is what God asks of us.

The Japanese artist MF connects Jesus' tears to Mary's anointing.  He says, "Jesus’ tears led to Mary’s act of sacrifice, of nard being spread in a closed room in Bethany, where a transgression by a woman opened up a new paradigm of the aroma of Christ, of the reality of the gospel breathing into our broken world, filling the cracks of suffering. When Jesus hung on the cross, the only earthly possession Jesus wore was Mary’s nard."*

It's not an easy thing to abandon ourselves to God with the spontaneity and independence of Mary.  Maybe you think its too much a burden to simply sustain life without thinking extravagantly.  But Mary calls us to a newness of life that doesn't merely sustain us but invites us to live abundantly as Jesus promised, "I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly."  That involves freedom and risk and trust that the best way to understand who God is and who we are is through the one who gave his life in service and solidarity with the sufferer - Jesus Christ.  At the feet of the Christ who lives among us, offering everything we have in service, there is the sweet fragrance of the coming Kingdom.

Most of us are where we are because of someone's extravagant gift.  It began at your birth when a mother gave space within herself for life to begin.  People nurtured us, cared for us, told us who we could be.  And behind it all is the gift Christ offered on the cross.

My favorite part of this story is the detail that John includes that says "the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment."  Mary's gift became a blessing to the whole household.  What do you have to give that will be a blessing?  What do you have to give?  Thanks be to God.

*Makato Fujimura, "The BeautifulTears," Tabletalk magazine, 11 Oct 2010, http://www.makotofujimura.com/writings/the-beautiful-tears/

10 March 2013

Journey to the Far Country...and Back

Preaching about the Prodigal Son doesn't work.  I've tried.  This is about the 5th or 6th time in my ministerial career that I have taken up this story and, on any human scale, this parable that Jesus tells in the gospel of Luke (and only in the gospel of Luke) does not work.

I mean, weren't you convicted by Bishop Cho's sermon last week?  Those of you who were here for either the morning or the evening service heard our new resident bishop challenge us to change our behavior.  He talked about hard things.  He talked about tithing.  He talked about living our lives in the world as people who really believe that Jesus is Lord.  He talked about giving an hour a day to prayer and Bible reading.  He really believes that our behavior makes a difference.  He really believes that there will be no vital congregations until there is a vital spirituality moving through our churches and through us.  I told him last week after his sermon, "You have such a gracious presence but you say really hard things."  It's what I most appreciate about him.

So now we come to this story that most people call the parable of the Prodigal Son but which, if we're being honest with ourselves, most of us would call the parable of Bad Parenting.  I mean, can you imagine:

T: Hello, and welcome to today's class on Biblical Parenting.  I'm glad to see so many people here.  And some of you brought your children with you today.  That's wonderful.  There's plenty of sticky food and noisy toys in the back so feel free to let your kids run wild while we're talking today.

K: (from back) Hey, they've got a saxophone back here!

K2: (from back) And fingerpaints!

T: Today I want to look at a story from Jesus about a man who had two sons.  Now back in the day, when the father died in a situation like this, the oldest son would get the majority of the property and wealth and the younger son would get a smaller share.  So one day, the younger son comes and says to the father, "I can't wait til you die.  I want my share of the inheritance now."  Let's playact this a little bit.  What are some responses that the father might have?

1: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha....you want...ha, ha....you want what?  Ha, ha, ha...that's a good one, son.

T: Alright, anybody else?

2: You know, Old Yehuda wants to be chief priest, too, but it's not happening.  You just get back to work.

T: Um, hm.  One more?

3: I'm sorry, son.  I thought you said you wanted your share of the inheritance, but I know I didn't hear that, did I?

T: O.K.  Interesting.  Well, here's what the father actually says: "O.K."  And he divides up the estate.

2: Wait.  What?

T: He divided up the estate.

2: What kind of parenting is that?

3: He gives the kid the money?  He's just going to blow it on extravagant living.

T: Interesting you should say that.  Because the boy goes to a far country and blows it all on extravagant living.

3: Told you.

1: Show off.

T: O.K., so the son is broke.  He's hungry.  He ends up slopping pigs and what the pigs eat starts to look good to him.

3: A good Jewish boy slopping hogs?  That's wrong.

T:  Then he comes to his senses.  He remembers that even his father's servants at least have food to eat.  So he decides to go home.

1: Well, I hope he's ready to do some groveling.

T: He is.  He gets a whole speech together in his head.  He's going to confess to his dad that he had sinned against heaven and against him.  He going to say, "I don't deserve to be called your son."  He's going to beg to get hired on as a servant.

1: Sounds about right.

T:  But when he's on the way home and while he's still way off in the distance, the father sees him and has compassion on him.  He hikes up his robe and the old man runs out to meet his son.  He hugs him and kisses him.

2: Wait.  What?

T: The boy tries to get his speech out.  He confesses that he has sinned.  He says, "I don't deserve to be called your son."  But before he can get it all out, the father stops him and orders up a party.

2: Wait.  What?

1:  A party?  For the younger son?  The one that blew all that money?

3:  That's just wrong.

T: So what kind of lessons for parenting can we see here?


You can't see any lessons for parenting?

1: A party?  Really?

3: That's just wrong.

2: How's this boy going to learn anything if he goes off and blows his dad's money and then gets a party when he comes back?

T:  Well, from the father's perspective, it's all about celebrating that the boy has come home.  The boy was dead...

2: Wait.  What?

T: Well, I don't mean literally dead.  It was like he was dead and now he's alive.  He was lost but now he's found.  So they have a party.

3: [after a pause]  That's just wrong.

1: So how does the older brother feel about all this?

T:  He's not happy.  He comes in from the fields and hears this party going on.

2:  Wait.  What?  They didn't invite him to the party?

T:  Well, they do when he gets back.  But the older brother won't go in.  He's too mad.  The dad comes out to see him, just like he did with the other brother.  He begs the older brother to come in.  But he refuses.  Says, "Look, I've been here working all this time and I never even got a goat for a party."

2: Wait.  What?  He wants a goat for his party?

T: Well, the younger son got a fatted calf.

2: What kind of party is this?

T: A good one.  At least back in the day it was.  Anyway, the son is furious.  He can't understand why the father would throw a party for the son that didn't play by the rules and went off and blew his money on who knows what all.

1: Well, now he sounds like a sensible guy.  The first sensible guy in this whole story.

2: What would you even do with a goat at a party?  Hitch it to a cart and give rides?

3: No, you eat it.

2:  Now that's just wrong.

T: But the father doesn't think it's wrong to have a party.  He knows the older son is close to him.  He is just grateful to have the younger son back.  Because he was dead...not literally...and now he's alive.  He was lost and now he's found.

3: That is the craziest story I have ever heard.

1: [to back] Come on kids, we're leaving.

K: But I just found the sandbox!

People would leave a session on parenting if we took the father in this story as the model.  It doesn't fit any kind of parenting we know about.  But what if this is not a story about human parenting so much as it is a story about God's love and the way THAT love works?

This week I rediscovered Rembrandt's painting of the Prodigal Son.  It was one of his last major works and it is among his best.  In the painting we see the three major figures in this story, the father and the two sons, all in relationship to one another.  The older brother gets our attention because he's looking down on his brother's homecoming with a great deal of judgment.  Who knows what he sees?  Perhaps he sees that the son has come back with a shaved head like a penitent and we wonder, with the older brother, how much the younger son has changed.  It's easy to be remorseful when you've lost everything.

The older brother probably notices, too, that the younger son is still wearing the fine clothes that he left home with, even if they are kind of tattered now.  He probably sees that the younger son still carries a small sword on his belt, a vestige of his old life and who he once was.  We are suspicious of how genuine this repentance is.

But look at the father.  The father is entirely unconcerned with what's going on around him.  He has no look of judgment on his face.  There is no trace of disgust or anger.  He is embracing this child.  He is accepting this child.  He was dead.  Not literally dead.  But dead enough.  And now he is alive.  How can he not celebrate?

The interesting thing is that the scene that Rembrandt depicts never happens in the story itself.  The three characters are never together in the parable.  The message is carried in two major confrontations - one between the younger son and the father, and the other between the older son and the father.  In both cases the father has come out of the house to meet the son.  In both cases he expresses his love for the son.

We can see that love in the one-on-one exchanges.  It's only when we put the brothers side-by-side that we start to get nervous about this story.  That's when we start to worry about whether this story is fair.

But God's love is incredibly personal.  It comes to each of us in our need.  Gerard Manley Hopkins, the priest and poet, said once "Searching nature I taste self but at one tankard, that of my own being."*  When it comes to our particular need before God, we can't look to someone else.  We taste self but at one tankard.  I know the pains and failures that have come to my particular life.  I know what the far country looks like in my particular life.  I know the terrain very, very well.  And what it means for God to meet me on the way back from that particular country is not what it means for you.  I may be the younger brother or I may be the older brother, but I can still be dead.  Not literally dead.  But dead enough.  And need to be made alive again.

For that to happen I need a God who loves me like this crazy father and not like this older brother.  I need a God who knows that my repentance could never be enough to change my life entire.  I need a God who knows that even when I think I'm being sincere, I have an incredible capacity for fooling myself.  There are places where I still hold on to the sword and still wear the pretentious clothes even though I have no right to them.  There is still a bit of pride in me.  There can never be enough humility.  What I am is unforgivable and yet that is exactly what God gives to me despite myself - forgiveness.  The older brother will always peer at me with judgement, but God will always look at me with love.

This God who sees me while I am still far off.  Who abandons all his dignity to run and meet me on the road.  This God who has been to the far country himself and who knows exactly what he is doing when he welcomes me back and throws a party...this God sees through the judgement because he has taken it on himself.

Have you been heartbroken by love, too?  Has love ever failed you?  Did your parent's love fail you?  Your spouse's love?  Your friend's love?  Every human love has its failures.  Because every human love is tied up in our anxieties about whether we are worthy of the love we receive.  We never know quite how the other person sees us.  Never quite sure what's being asked of us when we receive love.

But there is no anxiety in God's love.  God knows our every weakness and loves us anyway.  God knows our deepest secrets and loves us anyway.  God knows our shame and loves us anyway.  God knows our sins and loves us anyway.  God knows our pride and our sloth and our pretense and our worry and our wayward ways.  God knows that tankard from which we drink.  And loves us anyway - not because God needs to love us, but because God wants to.

And all the other stuff - the new behavior, the prayer, the scripture reading, the missions, the tithing, the church community -- it's all there because God loves us and wants us to love God, too.  And so we give.  And so we are ambassadors for God.  And so we live as agents of God's reconciling love - not because we have to be acceptable to God - but because God met us on the road and called us in.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

*Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), British poet, Jesuit priest. Comments on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. W.H. Gardner (1953).

13 January 2013

Marriage & Modern America

A little while back Rachel and I took a field trip to Custis Tomb.  Have you ever stopped by there?  There’s a sign out on 13 just before you get to Stingray’s and if you follow it out to the end of the road you will wind up at the site of the old Arlington mansion.  Here’s your trivia for the day – did you know that Arlington, for a brief period during Bacon’s Rebellion in the 1670’s – was the capital of Virginia?  It’s true.  This is where the royal governor fled when Nathaniel Bacon and his men were burning down Jamestown.  Another fact to amaze your friends with.

But the family that owned Arlington was the Custises and sure enough there are two tombs there for two of the Custis men.  John Custis the 4th has the larger of the two tombs and on his tomb is inscribed this epitaph:
Liv’d but Seven years
which was the space of time
He Kept a Bachelor’s house
At Arlington.
Now here’s the thing: John Custis IV did not live 7 years, he lived about 70 years.  And he’s not saying that he only lived at Arlington on the Eastern Shore for 7 years and that he loved it so much that he only considers his time on the Eastern Shore as really living.  He lived on the Eastern Shore much longer than that.  But he only lived as a single man on the Eastern Shore for 7 years.

So what he’s saying, on his epitaph, is that his marriage was so bad that only considers his bachelor years to be really living.  It’s kind of like the guy who tells a stranger, “I’ve been married to my wife for 20 wonderful years.”

And she says, “Honey, we’ve been married for 30 years.”

And he says, “I know what I said.”

But let me tell you how bad John & Frances Custis’ marriage was.  As Kirk Mariner tells the story in his Off 13 book, things went south really quickly after the couple got married in 1706.  They soon weren’t talking to each other and their poor butler had to act as the go-between.  “Pompey, would you ask Mr. Custis if he would like tea or coffee.”  “Pompey, would you tell Mrs. Custis that I will take coffee with sugar.”  That kind of thing.  Poor Pompey.

One time, when they were in horse-drawn carriage driven by Mr. Custis, he rode her right into the creek.  Sadly, the marriage ended in a legal separation, Frances Custis went back to live in Williamsburg and died soon after.  John Custis went back to Williamsburg, too, and never remarried.  But they did have a son named Daniel Parke Custis and he married a woman named Martha.  And when he died Martha remarried a man by the name of George Washington.  And now you know…the rest of the story.

So why am I telling you this interesting tidbit of Eastern Shore history?  Because I want to make the point that marriage has never been an easy thing, not even on the Eastern Shore.  And why would I want to make that point?  Because we’re about to get a humdinger of a statement on marriage from Jesus.

Now when we read Mark chapter 10 we might ask why it should make us uncomfortable.  I mean, after all, Jesus does something in this passage that we are always hoping he will do – he makes a clear, direct, unmistakable statement about an issue that is very contemporary.  There is no parable, no cryptic, Zen-like question like when they asked him about paying taxes.  No, is this passage lays it all out in the open – “Marriage is intended to be permanent between two people, divorce is contrary to God’s intentions, and any relationships outside this understanding are adultery.”  That’s pretty clear, right?  No amount of fancy interpretation is going to change that, right?

So, if we’ve finally got Jesus on record saying something like this, why does it make us so uncomfortable?  Well, because we know that the world around us, people we know, we ourselves, stand indicted by Jesus’ words.  I’d venture to say that there isn’t a person in this room whose lives have not been impacted in some way by divorce or adultery.  If they haven’t touched our individual lives, they’ve touched the lives of someone close to us.  And we feel the pain that these broken relationships caused.  We’re feeling the pain.  Jesus says this and we want to say back, “But….but, Jesus, it’s complicated.”

For once Jesus lays it all out cut and dried and that’s when we get nervous.  Jesus doesn’t seem to take into account the pain behind the situations he so easily reels off and categorizes.  Broken marriages don’t happen in the abstract, they happen to real people who have real hurts.

We find ourselves questions.  Would Jesus really condemn those whose marriage is broken by abuse?  Isn’t there grace for people who find their marriage irrevocable wounded by mistrust or neglect.  Can we have a little more than 11 verses to help us out here, Jesus?

And you might say, well, we really do have more than 11 verses to help us out.  There are other stories where Jesus leads with compassion.  Do you remember the story of the woman caught in adultery who is about to be stoned.  She’s condemned by the men of the community, but specifically NOT by Jesus.  In that situation Jesus is far more compassionate than judgmental and he challenges the clear, direct statements of law with the counter-act of grace.

Here, however, he isn’t dealing with hurting people; he’s dealing with his favorite foils in the gospel of Mark – the Pharisees, those religious leaders who are always presented as scheming to catch Jesus in his own words.  They are the ones who try to trick him with the tax question.  And here they are again, trying to test him with a question on marriage.  That’s what it says in the first verse of the chapter.  They are trying to test him.

So the Pharisees ask him whether it is permissible for a man to divorce his wife.  (Notice that the Jewish law of the day was pretty one-sided – women could not divorce their husbands.)  Jesus knows this is not a pastoral question.  He knows they’re not asking this out of concern for the people.  They want to catch him and kill him.  John the Baptist, you might remember, lost his head because he ventured to challenge King Herod on this very issue of the permissibility of remarriage after divorce.

Jesus first turns them back on their authority.  “What did Moses say?”  Well, Moses permitted a man to sign a legal document to dissolve his relationship with his wife.  That’s what they tell Jesus.

That’s when Jesus begins his riff.  He challenges the old tradition…says that Moses had to give this command because they were such a recalcitrant people.  What Jesus says instead is, on the one hand more liberal, and on the other, much more strict.  He abolishes the double standard that would allow a man to end a marriage but not a woman.  But he also reaches back to Genesis and quotes it.  “A man leaves behind his father and mother and clings to his wife, and two become one flesh, so no longer are they two but one flesh.”  Then he adds the emphasis that it is God who does this joining together and “therefore, what God has joined together let no one put asunder.”  Sound familiar?

What Jesus does here is to take the legal framework that the Pharisees are operating out of and to place that in a theological framework.  They refer to Moses as the authority and to a document that is only a legal formality.  Jesus points to God as the one who makes the marriage and he makes the marriage into a relationship that is far from a legal contract that can be whisked away at the stroke of a pen and the turn of a whim.  Jesus points to a covenant that is not meant to be broken.

That’s the setting for this saying – not in a pastoral setting where Jesus is counseling real couples with real issues – but in a debate with political, life-threatening overtones.  That’s not to say that we can ignore what Jesus says when it comes to dealing with our own relationships.  But it does make a difference.

Now here’s the reality.  Marriage is in trouble in modern America.  I did some research this week and there is no shortage of studies dealing with the challenges.  For one thing, people are just not getting married like they used to.  Divorce rates are down from what they were in the 1970s, but cohabiting couples are up.  A new study by the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project (yes, UVA does have a National Marriage Project) says that “children are now more likely to be exposed to a cohabiting union than to a parental divorce.”  24% of kids born to married parents will see their parents divorce or separate by the time they are 12.  42% of kids will experience their parents cohabiting without getting married.  That doesn’t mean these relationships are any more stable, though.  The breakup rate for children born to cohabiting couples is 170% higher than for married couples up to age 12.

So people are not getting married like they used to, but they still have some very romantic notions about marriage.  A recent survey by the Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults “found that 86 percent of people—single and married—aged 18 to 29 expect their marriages to last a lifetime.”  One of the research professors on the project, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, says that 90% of emerging adults expect to find their soul mate as their marriage partner.  And these are people who have seen so many marriages end in divorce.  Arnett doesn’t feel that most people are very realistic about what marriage will involve.

On the other hand, many of the people in that same age group are saying that they think marriage is becoming obsolete.  A 2010 Pew Survey found that 44 percent of young adults said marriage was becoming an obsolete institution.  Maybe that’s part of the reason that almost half of the adults in our country are unmarried.

I found out other interesting things in my research.  For instance I found out about a new study that showed that women tend to drink more heavily when they get married.  Not sure what that’s all about.  But what I did get clear about is that, at the very time same sex couples are asking for marriage, many people are abandoning it.

So here’s the place where it would be easy for the preacher to go on a rant.  “Look what’s happening to marriage.  Like every other institution it’s suffering.  Government is suffering from confusion and lack of commitment to it.  Community groups are closing up shop.  Schools are struggling.  And so is marriage.”

But I don’t want to rant.  I want to say, with Jesus, that marriage is something we should hold up and support and treasure even if we are not married ourselves or even if the marriage that you are in is in trouble.  Jesus refused to think of marriage in merely legal terms.  For him it was a way of experiencing God.  Marriage, every marriage, has the potential to show us something of how God operates in the world.

We have some champion marriage partners in this congregation, people who have lived in marriage for many years and who still inspire us.  And I know it hasn’t been easy.  I know there are trials and I know you don’t feel like you’re on your honeymoon every day.  But I give thanks to God for these couples who show us through their lives what God can do.

And I know we have some deep pains from broken relationships in this congregation.  When marriages end, when there is divorce, it is a painful thing.  But whether you have had a marriage end or you have not been married, or you never intend to get married, you are not a stranger to God’s grace.

We also have some people in this congregation who have gone through that experience of divorce and found grace and hope on the other side and they have a story to tell as well - a story of how God gave them what they needed.  We have hope on the other side of broken marriages because there is the possibility of experiencing the reconciling, healing work of Jesus.  It doesn’t come easily and it certainly doesn’t come without consequences.  But it does happen.

So squirm a little when you hear these words from Mark because they are hard words, but they are not meant to condemn hurting people but to ground marriage in something more than a contract.  But as we squirm, recognize that Jesus’ hard sayings come with a promise – that in God’s love, all things will be made new – even broken people with broken hearts.

Thanks be to God.