Broken Justice to Becoming At-One

The Sermons for Good Friday and The Easter Vigil is a two-part series. I am presenting them as one document with two sections.

Atonement: From Good Friday to Easter

Learn in the Darkness

A sermon for Good Friday: Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Hebrews 10:16-25, or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9, John 18:1-19:42, Psalm 22

How did we get here? In years past, I’ve explored all sorts of ways we got here: from specious crowd behavior to corrupt Jewish and Roman officials acting from fear. But I am inviting us to be a bit more personal and to understand the question “How did we get here?” as “What did I contribute?” And that is going to take us to the cross, more specifically the crucifix, the cross with Jesus dying on it; and that is going to take us into the murky world of atonement.

There are multiple thoughts about atonement. Atonement is thought of: Jesus succeeding where Adam fails, or Jesus dying to defeat death, or Jesus dying to bring positive moral change, or Jesus paying the price that had to be paid to release humanity from captivity by Satan; who discovers that God pranked him~ because Jesus lives! Atonement can also mean Jesus victory over death, or Jesus paying the debt to God on behalf of our sins, or the idea that sin must be punished, which Jesus takes upon himself, to keep moral order, or that Jesus’ dying is the penalty substitute to satisfy God’s sense of justice; which is the dominate understanding today (wesleybros.com).

Generally, the beginning assumption is that God and humanity are one, and should be in a harmonious relationship; that God and we should be “at-one”. The need for atonement is because we breached the created unity between God and humanity (Genesis 3). The question becomes how to heal the breach.

The Hebrew words associated with atonement are: to cover, to offer, to effect reconciliation; and the Greek words are: to be, cause to be friendly, to render, and to leave (Carver). There are no good English translations.

The Old Testament emphasis is the sacrificial system; that eventually is centered in the Temple in Jerusalem. It is the system God sets up so that the Jews could make an offering to restore fellowship with God. There are lots of details on how to offer a sacrifice, but almost nothing about what is at work to heal the breach (Carver). By the way, one such sacrifice is for the High Priest to lay his hand on a goat, then set it free into the wilderness, taking with it the peoples’ sins; this is the source of the term ‘scapegoat.’

The New Testament emphasis is on the cross and metaphors for Jesus’ work: lamb, take away sin, ransom, give his life, blood which is shed us (Dominy). The New Testament is clear about reconciliation, but not the means by which it actually happens (Easton).

There is no question that Jesus dies on the cross. There is no question that his death is related to our salvation. our relationship with each other, enemies included (Sakenfeld, Carver). All this considered, today, Jesus as the substitute penalty is the denominate belief about atonement. The Temple sacrificial system could never be perfect; Jesus, the perfect human, is the sacrifice for our sins, and for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).

The trouble is we’ve not been very good at being precise in what this means. David Lose writes:

… because God is just, God has to punish sin, and because God is loving, God beats up on Jesus instead of us. But I have a hunch that this understanding of the cross says more about our inadequate understanding of justice than it says about God.

 

Benjamin Corey put it this way

 a rather poor realization of this notion of atonement has evolved and contributes to a broken justice system (Corey).

Edward Wimberley notes that “abuse is the attempt to gain meaning and value at the expense of another.” In oppressive and abusive situations, the object can internalize the abuse, taking responsibility for the abuse and oppression. An unhealthy connection between this process and atonement theology of Jesus as the substitute for us gives abusers an ideological powerful justification for their actions. A rejection of substitute or surrogate sacrifice is emerging, and we will explore those options in a day or so. For now, I want to us explore other ways skewed atonement theology furthers the breach between God and us being at one.

One consequence is a glorification of suffering. Jesus suffered for our sins; therefore, suffering is good for us. Such thinking can allow those with the responsibility to act for the common welfare justification for not acting because the suffering of the oppressed will lead to their greater glory in time to come. Another consequence is the presumption of moral or spiritual defect of those people whose life circumstances are penury. Their suffering is a sort of punishment; that will lead to their greater glory in time.

One of the background factors in Ferguson MO. was a police and court system collaboration that ticketed poor, disenfranchised people trapping them in a very expensive cycle of ever increasing court fines. It is an abusive relationship, with the police and the courts in the role of the abuser and the marginalized people internalizing their circumstances, assuming the emotional-spiritual responsibility for their inequitable treatment. The overly complex system, of social safety net services, behaves in a similar way and again the least of these suffer.

I don’t believe these decisions are actively made we just instinctually make these decisions. However, the harm is very real.

Tonight as we stand at the foot of the cross, Jesus’ broken, bloody body bears witness to the grossly out of control perverted justice systems of both the Temple and Rome. Jesus’ broken, bloody body bears witness to:

  • the perversion of justice as tens of thousands of refugees are wintering in the open,
  • as billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies quit producing effective, inexpensive drugs in favor of ruinously expense medications, sometimes of questionable improved efficacy
  • as corporations move off-shore to avoid paying their share of the cost to sustain a safe and just society at home.

You get the idea. And perhaps you are uncomfortably aware, that with a little self-examination, you will discover similar instinctive behaviors of your own.

I know that you know, that the story is not over. However, the growing edge for us tonight is to resist the temptation to jump to the next chapter. Our growing edge is to stay here in the midst of the uncomfortable truths, of our actions, as a community and individuals, instinctive as they may be. Our growing edge is to learn in the darkness.

 

A Surprise To Live By

A Sermon for the Easter Vigil: Genesis 1:1-31; 2:1-4a, Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21, Isaiah 55:1-11, Ezekiel 37:1-14, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Romans 6:3-11, Luke 24:1-12

Good Friday’s homiletic reflection was a rejection of today’s dominate understanding of The Atonement. It was:

  • a rejection of the idea that Jesus is a substitute or surrogate sacrifice for our sins
  • a rejection of thinking that suffering is good for us
  • a rejection of allowing those, with the responsibility, to act for the good of the people, the justification for not acting, because the suffering of the oppressed will lead to their greater glory in time
  • a rejection of the idea that those people whose life circumstances are penury have some sort of moral or spiritual defect
  • a rejection of the notion that suffering is a sort of punishment;that will lead us to greater glory in time.

Friday night we left sulking in the darkness born in the midst of the uncomfortable truths about our actions, as a community and as individuals, instinctive as they may be. Having spent the last day pondering our stance in the shadow of the cross this evening is a reminder that the cross is a symbol of grossly out of control perverted justice systems.

Tonight we have journeyed through several reminders of life in the presence of God.

We:

  • have traveled from creation; from the first light to our creation in God’s likeness and our stewardship of cosmos
  • have traveled through Israel’s being guarded by a pillar of fire by night and pillar of cloud by day, and being saved from destruction at the Red Sea
  • have traveled to gleaning that God thoughts are not our thoughts, so, as stiffed necked as we have been, everyone who thirsts, comes to the waters; and those who have no money, are to come, to buy and to eat; they are to buy wine and milk without money and without price
  •  have traveled to dry desert valley and witnessed that even though our lives are as desiccated as dry bones God’s spirit breath will be breathed into us, and we will live
  • have traveled to the point where we have grasped that all judgment has been removed from us, that disasters have been turned aside, that our oppressors have been dealt with, that the shame of the lame and the outcast will be changed to praise and renown
  • have traveled to where we have seen, this very night, light bursting forth from a new fire as the Light of Christ.

We have not only renewed the story, but we have also renewed our baptism, in which we are bound to the story of life in Christ including the requirements, the vows we make governing how we will live in this world. We have heard Paul’s summary of this surprising morning; that Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father so that we might also walk in newness of life.

The summary is surprising because the story is surprising. And the story is surprising because it is completely unexpected for Jesus’ tomb to be empty. It may have been reasonable for the disciples to think that the authorities would steal Jesus’ body; but not likely. But it is in no way reasonable for anyone to anticipate that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the other women, would see God’s messenger and be asked: “Why are you seeking the living among the dead!” Yes – I know Jesus told everyone he would rise on the third day, but no one really believed him. We have a hard enough time believing it now, and we have generations of generations of witnesses to the power of the hope that arises from this morning’s joyfully disturbing surprise.

From Friday night’s experience, we can now confess: Jesus died not for our sins but because of our sins. However, at this moment, we can also confess that by God’s almighty grace the Divine Word did not return empty, but is accomplishing God’s purpose (Isaiah 55:11) in that by The Resurrection Jesus is restoring us to right relationship with God and each other (Sakenfeld). We can now confess, that with Jesus returning to God, at his Ascension, and with the sending of the Spirit, a complete holistic understanding of atonement: including Jesus’ Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension (Wimberly (112-117).

This morning’s joyfully disturbing surprise is a surprise because no one expects it. It is disturbing because tombs should not be empty. It is joyful because now we know God’s grace is more powerful than our all sins; now we know that we and all creation are becoming at one with God and each other.

It is a surprise here and now because the Atonement is no longer a millenniums ago moment in which Jesus’ followers became at one with God and themselves. Now The Atonement is the continuing transformation in which each of us, and all of us, with all of the cosmos, are becoming at one with God and each other just as Jesus and God are one (John 17:1-2, 11, 20-23). It’s a surprise we can live with. Better yet, it is a surprise we can live by.

 


 

References

Carver, William Owen. “Atonement.” INTERNATIONAL STANDARD BIBLE ENCYCLOPEDIA. Ed. James Orr. WORDSearch, 2014.

Corey, Benjamin. “How A Poor Theology Of The Cross Created America’s Broken.” Sojo.net. 04 02 2014. <sojo.net/blogs>.

Dominy, Bert. “Atonement.” Holman Bible Dictionary. Ed. Trent C. Butler. Prod. Holman Bible Publishers. n.d.

Easton, Matthew George. “Atonement.” Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. WORDsearch Corp. n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

wesleybros.com. 21 July 2015.

Wimberly, Edward. Counseling African American Marriages and Families. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 1977.

 

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Jesus’ Hosting, Serving and Cleansing Presence.

A sermon for Maundy Thursday: Exodus 12:14, (5-10), 11-14, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35, Psalm 116:1, 10-17

 

We are a people who generally like traditions; really old traditions. Like 4th-century traditions. Well most of the time, tonight I’m glad we have the traditions we have. In the 4th century, we would have begun at two this afternoon, with Eucharist in a church at the site of the true cross. At 4 pm we would move to the courtyard, the site of the crucifixion for a second celebration, and then prayers at Jesus’ tomb. Then we scoot home for a quick dinner before heading off to a meeting on the Mount of Olives, for hymn singing, reading, prayers and Gospel readings until 11 pm; then we would listen to Gospel passages of what Jesus said to his disciples in the very cave we were in. At midnight we would go to Imbomon, the site of the Ascension, for another service until cock-crow; then process down the mountain to Gethsemane for prayers, hymns, lections at the various stations. At daybreak, we would return to the site of the crucifixion to hear the Gospel account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. Then we would go home until it is time to go to the first Good Friday service  (Hatchett 228).

I’m glad we’ve less to do; maybe we will have some energy to direct toward gleaning what the readings have to share with us this evening. By the time I actually got to writing, I’d come to think that the gleanings are not so such from the words, as they are from the context. The reading from Exodus is the detailed instructions about the Passover sacrifice before the angel of death passes through Egypt taking the life of all the first born. The homes whose door post is properly marked will be spared. The final verse tells us this will be a remembrance for Israel, forever. This story may be about the first ritual established for Israel. It emphasizes God’s desire for Israel to remember what happened, indicating the divine desire for an eternal relationship.

The first verse Psalm 116 refers to one or more times that God has done something for the Psalmist. The Psalmist wants to repay God’s devotion and comes to the decision the way to go is to live the way God is calling the Psalmist to live. The decision honors and respects their relationship. The division is effecting how they gather for The Lord’s Supper. It may be helpful to understand that the word Paul uses for ‘Eucharist’ means thanksgiving. Its cultural context comes for a patronage social system in which you gave thanks to your benefactor. There was also a religious tradition of giving thanks to your local god. (Sakenfeld). At least some of the Corinthians are not remembering the relationship Jesus calls all followers to have with each other. Some, mostly wealthy families arrive early, eat their dinner meaning the late arrivals, seemingly the poorer, without sufficient food, go hungry. This dining habit is adding to the division in the community. Paul will not stand for this behavior. In describing the origins of the Lord’s Supper, he quotes Jesus “do this in remembrance of me.” He also notes Jesus’ gift is for “you” ~ all Jesus’ followers. Again we can see Paul’s and Jesus’ concern for relationships, between Jesus and the Corinthian Church, but also between the members of the church. If their relationship with each other is corrupt, so is their divine relationship (Gaventa and Petersen).

John’s account of the last supper is about foot washing, which has a long history. It is an act of hospitality for a host to provide water and a servant for guests to wash their feet (Gaventa and Petersen). We see it in Genesis. There is a cultic sacrificial discipline for priests to wash their feet before approaching the altar as an act of spiritual purification, that implies the importance of the relationship between God and the priest making the sacrifice, and I suspect between God and the person offering the sacrifice (Sakenfeld).

Jesus combines all three. He is the host, by washing the disciples’ feet he acts as the servant, and in his role as the priest, he is tending to the disciples’ spiritual life (Harrelson). Jesus’ use of the term ‘hour’ indicates his imminent return to The Father. The next sentence tells of Jesus love for his disciples, which his motivation for all his actions. Jesus has modeled how the disciples are to treat each other, and how they are to treat everyone else. He has also cleared the way for them to be at one with him and God, as he and God are one (Gaventa and Petersen). Jesus’ desire is for all disciples, including us, to be in the fullest relationship with God.

In tonight’s gathering, I invite us to listen to Paul’s cry for a community that lives in divine relationship with each other. I invite us to open ourselves to Jesus’ hospitality by allowing him to serve us and to cleanse the way to the fullest relationship with our creator God. Finally, I hope we see how it’s all about relationships. There are only a few days left in this Lenten season of penitential fasting. May we delve into how Jesus accepts us as we are and offers us a way to be who we are called to be. May we delve into our own duplicity in the tomorrow’s tragedy so that it may be cleansed. May we delve into our own behaviors towards people in, around and beyond the church. How do we relate to them? How do we offer them hospitality? How do we serve them? How do we invite them into Jesus’ hosting, serving, and cleansing presence?

 


 

References

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hatchett, Marion J. Commentary on the American Prayerbook. HarperSanFrancisco, 1980.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

Rekindled Hope

A sermon for Easter Morning: Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:12, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12

It is a glorious day. We all have our Easter finest on. There are expectations for all sorts of joy-filled, exciting, happy moments throughout the day. But remember, this is not how the day begins for the Mary Magdalene and the other women. This morning does not feel mystical; this morning did not feel sacred, as mornings usually do. The customary morning prayers don’t help. Still, there is work to do; there is a burial to tend to (Johnson). The women lament as they walk the lonely dusty road to Jesus’ tomb.

Holy Week’s, Daily Office, Old Testament readings come from Lamentation. Chapter 2 verse 6 generally reads “festivals and Sabbath have been abolished.” Festivals are the community’s celebration of God’s presence, and their efforts to restore divine-human relationships. Sabbath is an individual’s and/or a family’s rites of celebration and reconciliation. They are gone. The people are cut off. As this morning begins, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women going to bury Jesus must feel cut off; their hope is gone.

Ti’kva, who is a cashier at Wal-Mart, is having a terrible day: she has relatives in Brussels and doesn’t know their fate. This is a 5-week shopping month and stretching 4 weeks of money to 5 weeks of groceries is always a challenge Her daughter lost her glasses, and even with a store in the store, with her working two jobs there is no time to get her an appointment, and it wouldn’t matter because there is no money for the glasses anyway. Ti’kva feels cut off; her hope is gone.

The women arrive at the tomb. The stone is rolled away. Jesus’ body is gone. They are perplexed. Why would the authorities do this? What could this possibly mean? What trouble is lurking? It’s one more blow to their hopes; they ca not even properly bury their friend (Johnson). Suddenly the tomb is full of sizzling light from two angels who simply just appear. They ask the women

Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.
Remember how he told you…

They do remember! They remember Jesus’ macabre stories of how he will be betrayed, be given over to the authorities, crucified, and on the third day ~ rise again. They remember! It is the third day! The tomb is empty, so Jesus has risen! They run back to the rest of the disciples; full of surprise, excitement and growing hope they shout out

It’s the third day
remember what he told us
the tomb is empty; it’s empty,
It’s the third day!
It’s the third day!

The other disciples cannot believe them; they do not believe them. There never has been, and even now there is no reason to believe the dead rise to life (Craddock).

I don’t think the women are overly concerned. Their newly kindled hope empowers them to put themselves in a precarious situation by proclaiming the clearly preposterous story of Jesus’ resurrection. But that doesn’t matter, their new hope overwhelms the mystery and uncertainty of Jesus’ resurrection, empowering them to share their experience (Brown).

At this point, Luke has introduced the experiences of encountering the empty tomb. He has shared the women’s surprise. He has told us about the others’ doubt, and, however, impetuous Peter goes to see for himself, and that he is amazed and surprised. Luke has not yet spoken to belief. At the moment, all we know about is the women’s and Peter’s experience, their surprise and relighted hope.

Ti’kva’s day is furthered harried because it is unusually busy. There is no reason; it just is. James, a frequent customer, notices the unusually high number of customers. As most do, he generally ignores the crowd and goes about his shopping. He doesn’t know Ti’kva, which, by the way, means hope (Aish). He does know some cashiers by sight, not this one. It is his habit to leave all cashiers, in every store, with a blessing the simple one-word ‘blessings.’ This time, he tweaks it. He notices a Star of David hanging from Ti’kva’s neck and, making friendly eye contact, simply says shalom as he leaves. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees that Ti’kva beams; someone noticed, someone cares; there is hope. It’s a smile, that catches James by surprise, and changes not only his shopping experience but also his day.

A minute ago I said Luke has not yet written about belief. At this point, the story is about rekindled hope for the disciples. I’ve introduced Ti’kva’s rekindled hope. In the weeks to come, we will hear bible story’s that are all about growing belief. But for this moment, I invite you just to live in the rekindled hope. Allow yourself to be still, don’t worry about what all this means, don’t worry about what Jesus’ resurrection implies, don’t worry about explaining it all. I’d go so far as to say do not even worry about sharing

 It’s the third day
remember what he told us
the tomb is empty; it’s empty,
It’s the third day!

 with everyone you meet.

You might consider James’ story. You might consider offering everyone a simple ‘blessings’ or another divinely inspired, spirit fired word of tenderness. We might be surprised how a mutual exchange of hope changes the world. Hope arising from a surprisingly empty tomb has enthralled the world ever since. His tomb is empty; it is a blessing so be blessed.

And oh yes, Alleluia!

 


 

References

Brown, Michael Joseph. Commentary on Mark 7:24-37. 22 3 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Craddock, Fred B. Interpretation, LUKE A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING. Louisville KY, 1990.

Culpper, R. Alan. The Gospel of Luke, Introduction, Commentary and Reflections. n.d.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 6 9 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

JOHNSON, DEON K. “Practice Resurrection, Easter (C) – 2016.” 22 3 2016. Sermons that Work.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

 

 

 

Blind As We Are, We Can See

A sermon for the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday: Luke 19:28-40; 41-44

There are all these people surrounding Jesus. They are shouting, waving palm branches, throwing cloaks and branches on the ground in front of him. Jesus is riding a donkey; it has never been ridden before. We don’t know if the crowd knows. Luke’s audience knows, and they catch the sacred implications; the quiet reference to the Temple sacrificial cult rites.  (Fretheim). Luke’s audience knows Israel’s history. They know Solomon rode a donkey before he was crowned King. The know the story of Elisha sending a member of the company of prophets to anoint Jehu King.  That the army’s commanders spread their cloaks for him on the bare steps as they proclaim their acceptance of Jehu being anointed King (2 Kings 9:1, 13). Luke’s audience knows how foreign warriors and royals have entered occupied or conquered cities. They have seen, the Romans ride in majesty. (Brueggmann). The people catch the reference to Zechariah’s prophecy that Israel’s “… king comes to you; triumphant and victorious … humble and riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9) (Harrelson).

The crowd’s shouting

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

is eerily similar to the Angel choir singing at Jesus birth (Luke 2:14) (Gaventa and Petersen). This return of the King is joyous and hope-filled; it is real; it is happening now.

Who cares if the Pharisees object! What else would you expect? That is all they ever do. King Jesus knows God is present; he knows the earth herself knows who he is, and supports his coming. The crowd knows Jesus’ entry recalls the ancient foreboding prophetic oracles of judgment; they know, he knows righteousness.  (Hab. 2:9) (Olive tree). Everything is great; everything is exactly what the people, who have for so long been looking for someone to fight their battles for them, would expect (1 Sam 8:20).

And then Jesus begins to cry, he weeps.  His lament is for Jerusalem, implicitly for all Israel, implicitly for them, the people in the crowd, possibly Luke’s audience.  And us? What is it that Jerusalem is missing? What is it that we are missing? Other memories begin to arise. Jesus’s lament sounds way too familiar to Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem all those years ago (Harrelson). And since Luke is writing after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 7o AD, this story sounds much too close to this calamity (Fretheim).  We should know, we heard it just a few weeks ago; Luke’s readers know, they would have just heard it; it wasn’t all that long ago that Jesus said something similar, how he wished to save Jerusalem, but they weren’t willing (Luke 13:31) (Brueggmann). How can a vision of Jerusalem’s destruction fit with her new king’s victorious entry?

Looking back, Luke knows and shares, how the city, Jerusalem, Israel, the people were blind to Jesus’ true identity, to God’s true presence (Fretheim). Although they could see their world, they were blind to the truth that confronted them. They could see, yet were blind.

So I am wondering, how we see, but don’t? I am wondering, how are we seeking someone to fight our battles, war-like and otherwise, for us? I’m wondering, what else Jesus’ lament, which now includes Shiloh, Flanders Field, Guadalcanal, Selma, Little Rock, Memphis, the Tet Offensive, Oklahoma City, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ferguson MO., Paris, and Flint Michigan, includes? I’m wondering, when I, when we ~ failed to see God’s presence.

The final verses of Blind to the Truth read:

Now there’s laws that we must live by
and they’re not the laws of man
Can’t you see the shadow
Can’t you see the shadow
that moves across this land
The future is upon us
and there’s so much we must do
And you know I can’t ignore it
and my friend neither can you

Unless you’re blind to the truth,
blind to the truth
And you can’t see nothing
You’re so blind to the truth,
blind to the truth
But the judgment day is coming   (Fogelberg).

 

However, we should not be despondent.  Luke’s image is complex, despondent, and hopeful, all at the same time. Times are frightening; but, all is not lost.  Yes, Jesus’ lament expresses grief over past losses and acceptance of losses to come. At the same time, there is also the expression of love for what could have been, and for what can be; what is to be. There is the revelation of divine energy to carry on.  Jesus’ lament includes love that is available to inspire us and energy that is available empower us, for the week to come and all time thereafter. Judgment is always just over the horizon, but the love of God is right here, right now, look and see. And, remember ~ Jesus heals all sorts of blindness (Mark 8:22-26, Mark 10:46-52, Matt. 9:27-31;20:29-34, Luke 18:34-53) (Sakenfeld).  So blind as we are, we can see (John 9:25).

 

References

Bruggemann, Walter. New Interpreters’ Bible Exodus. Vol. 1. n.d. 12 vols.

Fretheim, Terence E. INTERPRETATION Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Olivetree. Olivetree Cross Reference. n.d.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

 

 

Anointing, Love and the Poor

 

A sermon for 5th Sunday in Lent; Isaiah 43:16-21, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8, Psalm 126

You know the story of Jesus’ feet being anointed. In one form or another, it is in all four Gospels. In John, the background is Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Grateful, Martha and Mary have Jesus over for dinner. Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with a full jar of expensive spikenard, a fragrant lard, and wipes them with her hair. ‘Wipes’ is the same verb John uses to describe Jesus wiping off his disciples’ feet at the foot washing (Harrelson). Mary acts from the same true love; that Jesus will act from (Hoezee). Her anointing Jesus is her version of Martha’s confession “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27, Gaventa and Petersen). Judas objects, he wonders out loud why the money spent to buy the spikenard wasn’t used to feed the poor. If we can hear that, without prejudice, because we’ve heard the story before, we might think his has a point; it is a realistic, practical, sensible question (Rice). Bruce Epperly writes that he was struck by

how simply unexpected most of the actions of this scene were. It was unexpected that someone would use such a costly amount of perfume to clean someone’s feet (Epperly).

 So, I wondered what else in this story is unexpected.

On Monday, a colleague of mine blogged how his parish had acquired some spikenard essential oil so that we could smell what that dining room smelled like the evening that Mary anointed Jesus.

[They]bought a small bottle of nard oil, and poured it into a small dish, and I swear to you, I can still smell that … awful stink to this day (Pankey).

I was surprised by the difference between their experience and the biblical account. So I texted my colleague who chalked it up to a cultural difference; possibly connected with the once a month bathing routine. Then I looked up ‘fragrance.’ Webster’s simple definition is: “having a pleasant and usually sweet smell.” However, lengthy the synonym discussion uses terms like aromatic, odorous, has a strong, distinctive smell whether pleasant or unpleasant (Webster’s). Well, that explains that, but something was still nagging at me, so I read the story one more time.

On this reading the last verse jumped off the page: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8).

After Judas’ criticism of Mary’s action, John tells us Juda’s character is shady, that he is a thief. Judas is feigning concern for the poor. Jesus’ response commends Mary’s act, and seems to speak directly to Judas, quoting Deuteronomy “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (Deut. 15:11).

All the cross-reference verses refer to the advantages of giving to the poor. Isaiah wrote:

Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? …. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house (Isaiah 58:5).

Jesus’ quote comes from the definition of Sabbath. Deuteronomy connects keeping Sabbath to the celebration of Israel’s God, who frees slaves, and a wide range of circumstances, including economic debt, which could drive someone into slavery. It notes the release from debit every seven years. It pays special attention to the lenders’

cold calculation and hard-hearted stinginess [that] are the polar opposites of the joy and freedom celebrated in the Sabbath. The proper Israelite response … emulates God’s response. …. any others risk becoming an oppressor, … against whom the oppressed … “cry out” as the Israelites … did against the Egyptians (Gaventa and Petersen).

 Judas is not speaking from his concern for poor; he is using the poor to level criticism at Mary with disingenuousness moral indignation (Rice).

This is one of the places where we should be very clear what Jesus is saying to whom. Jesus is not justifying poverty. Poverty is not God’s will. Jesus is on the side of the impoverished and oppressed. Jesus is not validating poverty Jesus is eradicating poverty (PérezÁlvarez).  A collage of verses around Jesus’ quote that goes:

Do not entertain a mean thought. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so. Open your hand to the poor and needy. Remember that you were a slave.

 reveals what it means to think of your community as “brothers and sisters” (Harrelson).

I want to touch on the valid point, Judas disingenuously makes, about using the money that bought the spikenard to feed the poor. It gets presented as an either or duality. Actually, we need both the practical, feeding the hungry and the extravagant, anointing Jesus; we need the sensible and the mystic (Epperly). As Paul argues, we need all the vast variety of gifts we have been given (1 Corinthians 12). They enable us to complement each other in our singular work in continuing Christ’s ministry. We never need faux righteousness and justice derived from a sham concern for the poor; or the propagation of a contrived sense of fear of immigrants, or another faith tradition, or trade treaties, or the impoverished, or whoever the sinister ‘they’ may be.

As this prescribed time of introspection moves into its last weeks, as we continue our self-examination, reading and meditating on God’s word may we find the will to reject the temptation to act with meagre care born out of false pretenses and find the grace to give what simple gifts we have from love that reflects the love between Jesus and God.


 

References

n.d. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/&gt;.

Ellingsen, Mark. 13 3 2016+. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary – The Fifth Sunday in Lent –. 13 3 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 12:1-8. 13 3 2016.

Lewis, Karoline. Simultaneous Smells. 13 3 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Lent 5 C: The Unexpected God. 13 3 2016.

Pankey, Steve. The power of nard. 7 3 2016.

PérezÁlvarez, Eliseo. Commentary on John 12:1-8. 13 3 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Rice, Whitney. “Gestures Made of Love, Lent 5(C) – 2016.” 13 3 2016. Sermons that Work.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

 

Our Prodigal Selves

A sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent: Joshua 5:9-12, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3,11b-32, Psalm 32

 

He was simply known as Bill. The Air Force Academy Cadets did not notice him much; there was only an occasional nod of the head or “good morning.” as they rushed off to whatever. Bill was the janitor, the housekeeper, who picked up behind them, kept their squad room spotless, from floors to showers. Bill was just another fixture, all but invisible, blending into squad’s dorm.

One afternoon James Moschgat was reading about the US Army battle for Italy when the story of Altavilla caught his attention.

On September 13, 1943, a Private William Crawford of the 36th Infantry Division, had been involved in some bloody fighting on Hill 424 “in the face of intense and overwhelming hostile fire… with no regard for personal safety… on his own initiative, Private Crawford single-handedly attacked fortified enemy positions.” It continued, “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, the President of the United States …

James couldn’t believe it; his squad’s janitor held the Medal of Honor. He asked Bill about it the next day. “Yep – that is me,” he said. When asked why he didn’t say anything he answered: “That was one day in my life, and it happened a long time ago.”

Things changed. The cadets greeted Bill with respect. They began to pick up after themselves. Bill was invited to some formal squad affairs. Bill also changed. He moved with more ease, wasn’t quite so stooped. He answered the cadet’s greetings eye to eye and a hearty “good morning.” He learned many of the cadets’ first names. As James left the dorm for the last time, Bill shook his hand and wished him “Good luck young man.” (Moschgat).

You know the story of the Prodigal Son or Sons¸ or whatever title you apply to Luke 5:11. You know the brash young son asks for his inheritance, essentially telling his father to “drop dead” (Hoezee, Luke). After squandering it all, he returned home intending to ask his father for a job as a hired hand. But he never got the chance, as his father lovingly welcomes him home, throws a lavish party for him, and gives him luxurious gifts. You know the parable is about God’s boundless grace, given to all without merit. You might even have thought about the older brother. He bears the burden of goodness, always doing what he should, as he should when he should (Epperly). He gets angry at his younger brother and his father, complaining that his father has never given him anything. The father replies “All this will be yours.” But we never hear if older brother eventually understands his father’s grace, or is as lost as his younger brother was (Ringe). You might understand how indignant he feels if you’ve ever worked hard all day, given it your best, only to have all your efforts overlooked at best and perhaps considered worthless (Lose). Have you ever noticed that the older brother never got any joy or fulfillment from his work; that, for all intended purposes, he thought of himself as a hired hand, exactly what his younger brother, in shame, sought to be (Hoezee, Luke).

Yes, we know this parable is about grace. However, when we remember that this morning’s Gospel reading begins with the Pharisees and scribes grumbling about Jesus fellowshipping and eating with tax collectors and sinners, the undesirables of the undesirables, we begin to understand how it is also about relationships. Not just our relationship with God, but also with each other, as Paul is defining it to the Corinthians. Jesus, reconciling everything to God, through himself, changes all relationships. Paul says we must see everything and everyone as reconciled with God. Not only are we bearers of God’s image; we also are bearers of God’s saving grace (Hoezee, 2 Corin.). The parable reveals that grace, righteousness, and justice are not about balancing the books. Grace, righteousness and justice are about restored relationships (Ellingsen). It is about seeing God / Jesus in everything and every person (Epperly). Perhaps most difficult for us to glean is that it is about our internal transformation (Sakenfeld). We get that in our relationship with God; we struggle with it in our relationships with others.

There is a Bible study method that invites you to see which character, in, or implicit, or imagined you are in a parable. You are asked to reflect on how you are that character; not as the typical allegory, but as you. You know the father is the allegorical figure of God. This study method asks you to imagine yourself as the father, as you are. We might ask ourselves, “How did we contribute to our older son’s feeling?” We might review our behavior to see if we ever expressed the feelings we have for our dutiful older son. We might wonder how we can express the same joy we have for his diligence that we expressed for our younger son’s return from his indiscretions. Moschgat’s story of his cadet squadron’s changed relationship with Bill is edifying.

At the end of the article, he lists several learnings; two apply this morning. He writes

Everyone Deserves Respect. Because we hung the “janitor” label on Mr. Crawford, we often wrongly treated him with less respect than others. He deserved much more, and not just because he was received the Medal of Honor. Bill deserved respect because he was a janitor, walked among us, and was a part of our team.

He continues – courtesy makes a difference, daily words moving from a perfunctory ‘hello’ to heartfelt greetings matter (Moschgat). I once heard a priest say “How are you?” is the most dangerous question you can ask because you must be prepared for the truthful answer; ready to listen to all of it. It is important to notice that the cadets did not directly change Bill’s behavior. They changed their behavior, and the impact of the change in themselves evoked the change in Bill.

The Book of Common Prayer teaches us that “the ministry of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP). Our mission is to reconcile all relationships. Clearly I cannot reconcile all your relationships, nor can any of you reconcile all of anyone else’s relationships, and none of us can reconcile relationships of those we don’t know. What we can be, is responsible for is our own relationships. We can trust that through Jesus our relationship with God is reconciled. We can understand that it is our behavior towards others, not just what we say; that is the true measure of our Christian relationships, especially involving those we don’t like and/or don’t believe are worthy. And, finally, we can trust that by working on our behavior, by working on changing ourselves, we will, as the cadets demonstrated, evoke changes in the other.

It is my prayer for each of us that some portion of our remaining Lenten discipline, and our daily discipline thereafter, will be to tend to our prodigal selves, known and unknown, joyfully welcoming our repentant self, and likewise jubilantly celebrating our diligent self.

 

References

Ellingsen, Mark. 6 3 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 6 3 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Fredrickson, David E. Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:1621. 6 3 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Helmer, Ben. “Ambassador for Christ, Lent 4 (C) – 2016.” 6 3 2016. Sermons that Work.

Hoezee, Scott. Lent 4 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. 6 3 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

—. Lent 4 Luke. 6 3 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. Perspective Matters. 6 3 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Lent 4 C: The Prodigal God. 6 3 2016.

Moschgat, James. Leadership and the Janitor. Fall 2010. <http://usoonpatrol.org/archives/2010/09/07/leadership-and-the-janitor&gt;.

Ringe, Sharon H. Commentary on Luke 15:13, 6 3 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Episcopal Church. Book of Common Prayer. 1979.