We're (and by that I mean I am) preaching for Palm Sunday this year -- not usually our pattern at ECLC.
I wish I could just get up and preach the message of my former landlord, David Cunningham, in his wonderful piece in Christian Century this month about the fate of "the other" thief. Definitely worth a read.
For those of you who don't know Cunningham's work, his lovely book Friday, Saturday Sunday is worthy Holy Week reading too.
group of us met recently and looked at John 12, we had to stop for a moment
and figure out where we were (or when), because one of the guests at the table is
Lazarus. So, we wanted to know, is this the pre-resurrected Lazarus, or the
raised from the dead one? Does he still stink from the tomb? Or does he not
know yet, as we do, that he’s a marked man?
out that it was the post-resurrection Lazarus, which makes it all the more
interesting that Mary is pouring out her life savings on Jesus’ feet. Yes,
she’s probably that much more grateful, since Jesus raised her brother from the
dead. But if Jesus is right that she’s anointing him for burial, she sure
picked a strange occasion to remind everyone that Jesus is headed for the grave
saved this for my burial,” Jesus says.
But why is
she doing it NOW?
question that comes up more than once in John. With a different Mary, his
mother, Jesus has an argument in Cana, at the very beginning of the gospel. She suggests
that he could help make the wedding feast last a bit longer. He responds that
it is not yet his "hour." But then moments later, as everyone is enjoying this
remarkable vintage that’s suddenly coming from the water jars, people say to
the host, why did you save up all this good wine for the end?? “Why now?”
Martha weren’t too happy with Jesus’ timing just a few days ago, when helollygagged on his way to Bethany, arriving only after Lazarus had
died. We tend to think that Martha is just a grieving sister she says, “Jesus,
if only you had been here!” But of course, she’s right. His timing sucked.
always messing with people’s sense of the appropriate time for things. In fact, many people say that’s what made him
so offensive to his peers. He was getting ahead of himself, you could say. Or
getting ahead of reality, anyway.
Pharisees said, yes the Kingdom of God is coming, but it’s not here yet, and
it won’t come until we all start obeying Moses’ law better. First
righteousness, then celebration.Others,
like the zealots, wanted justice NOW, and they were willing to take up arms to
do it. First we plot the revolution and rid ourselves of these Roman pagans, then we establish God’s kingdom here as
it was meant to be.
But Jesus shows up and says the kingdom of God is at hand. He turns water into wine, forgives people who have
sinned but haven’t evidently changed their ways yet. He feasts with tax
collectors and zealots and Pharisees together and acts as if God has already
accomplished the great reconciliation that the prophets promise. He’s getting way
ahead of himself. Way ahead, of GOD, people argue.
So maybe it’s no wonder that he
responds to Mary the way he does. She’s supposed to have this stuff saved for
his burial and she can’t even wait a week. Everyone else is upset that she’s
making a resurrection party smell a bit like a tomb! Not to mention the fact that any logical person would
say first we have to feed the poor,
then we worry about – well really what is Mary doing here?
I think Mary has been listening. She’s noticed that he turns weeping into dancing. She’s noticed that
he has been talking about Jerusalem
as the place he would be “lifted up” and “glorified,” and maybe she’s starting
to realize that what those things mean to everyone else is not what Jesus has
Why break open the nard now? Maybe because
she knows that Jesus never schedules extravagant love as if it has to be on a
calendar. And he never checks his accounting books before he starts feeding
people. And maybe, just maybe, she knows that if she waits untilthe "appropriate" time to cover his broken body
in burial ointment, she’ll never get her chance at all.
Yes, he will die at the “appropriate”
time—Passover. But already Mary knows that Jesus can turn even a burial into a
My son is
enamored of the Thomas the Tank Engine stories, which center around a mythical
yet very British island where various steam engines and a few newfangled
diesels each work out their place in the railyard. The highest praise for any
train is that they are “really useful” – which might help explain why Thomas
has a tremendous following this side of the Pond.
like to be useful, wouldn’t we?
Now, I am
not one of those pastors who will wax poetic about how wonderful it is that the
clergy are paid to have coffee. Personally, I like doing things. I like projects, I like goals, I like having some
sense of where my ministry begins and when I can just be a Mom for the day. And in a time when so many people are
unemployed and others work at jobs which seem devoid of meaning to them, I
relish what Gail Godwin calls the “grace of daily obligation” that being a
woman of the cloth provides. I know where I belong – on Sunday mornings, in a
crisis, and most dayswhen the needs of
the community stretch out before me. It's good work, if you can get it.
But the need to be useful can really trip a person up.
After all, as clergy, we are the ones who urge people to show up on Sunday mornings
for worship but cannot claim that God is basing the heavenly rewards on our
attendance records. We are the people
most of the population calls only after the doctor says there is nothing else
he can do.
There is an extravagance to this
whole affair of Christ's incarnation – evident in John’s gospel from the opening wedding feast to the
surreal breakfast on the beach. The accounting books just can’t make sense of
it. God’s very son doesn’t just show up and set people straight about The Truth, maintain
his dignity and return home. He pours himself into mortal life, and pours it
all out in the most undignified way possible.
This story is positioned in Lent
just as we might be too eager to account for how much good our Lenten disciplines
are doing us. In the daily lectionary, it appears on Holy Monday, that day of
best intentions and long to-do lists, as if to warn us that what is about to
come won’t fit on a balance sheet, even a really righteous one about feeding
the poor (or even writing a really good sermon).
doing some math, we’re invited to take a deep whiff of nard, the smell of
death, beauty, and love.
A commenter asked whether the criticism of Mary Gordon’s Reading Jesus -- that she is either unaware or
unmindful of most biblical scholarship --is justified. I haven’t read enough to form a full opinion, but what I
find helpful is simply her perspective, namely that of a writer who knows "story" inside and out, but is re-discovering these particular stories as an adult.
It’s hard to “re-discover” the parable of the Prodigal Son,
since it is so familiar to us. But it is also one of those stories that simply
doesn’t ever lose its emotional power. Unless you are an only child who has
never had children of your own (and perhaps even then), its hard to imagine
that you wouldn’t resonate with some relational dynamic of this story.Who doesn’t know the shame, at some level, of
“coming to yourself” after wandering away? Who doesn’t know the grief of seeing
a loved one wander off? Who doesn’t know the resentment of the elder brother,
feeling overlooked though he’s strived for so long to keep his nose clean?
In our own house we spend a lot of time thinking about
sibling rivalry, and a lot of energy as parents trying to blunt its power. But
wow, it is a force! The need the children profess to have everything be “fair”
is insatiable, a game you cannot ever really win. Because they are not the
same. To treat everyone “the same” is in fact to treat someone unfairly,
because their needs differ.
One of the “bibles” of parenting through this minefield is Siblings without Rivalry, which provides
parents with tools for stepping out of the tit-for-tat scorekeeping kids so
readily engage in. But its most powerful moment is when the authors recount a
seminar in which they acknowledged that, no matter what we say, most parents secretly do have a child that speaks to their
heart more than the others. Amazingly, when the authors say this aloud among parents who
have begun to trust each other, no one contradicts them. Most of us try mightily to not
let our children know this truth, but in our own hearts we can't deny it. We strive to treat children equally as a sort
of compensation for the reality that they truly are very different people.
In fact, one confidential survey some years ago of adult
children and their parents revealed that all family members identified a
“favorite” among siblings. But here’s the odd thing: the children often
identified a different favorite than the parents did. The beloved child doesn’t
always look that way. (Case in point: Jesus).
This parable is one of the most powerful arguments for the
assertion that “God is not just. God is merciful.” No wonder we prefer to focus on the love shown
to the wayward son as opposed to the elder son’s bitterness. We might know exactly how angry he is, and yet the story cannot truly end as long as he's just sitting out there, outside the party.
God is merciful. Maybe God made "him to be sin who knew no sin" so that we would stop trying to figure out who the favorite is after all. If the beloved child is the wayward one, dying cursed on a tree, then the party thrown as he comes to life again really belongs to all of us.
In the midst of the disasters that are piling up this year,
Speaking of Faith is doing a series on foreign aid and the ethical questions
that surround it. One fascinating guest is Jacqueline Novogratz, head of the Acumen
Novogratz' method of "patient capitalism" is based
on the premise that development works best when the traditional roles of
giver-receiver are broken open. People engaged in ongoing economic transactions,
she argues, are more likely to be in honest relationship about what's working and
what is not. If we simply give gifts to the poor, we set up a relationship in
which they will be reluctant to offer feedback about the gift, and where
currying the favor of the donor ends up taking precedence over effectiveness.
“Slow capitalism" takes a step away from the fast-paced
demand for profit that most free market investment brings, but maintains a
relationship of economic partnership. It's a new model, but she makes a strong
argument that it's one worth trying in a variety of places and ways.
This got me thinking about the ways a theology of grace can
sometimes stand in the way of honest relationship at an institutional level –
even in church situations that aren’t about money or charity. The hierarchy of
the church says, "we're offering you a free gift, the best gift of
all.". . . and then there's a silent follow-up which boils down to
"so don't go critiquing the way it is offered, take it or leave it!"
As a result, tragically, thousands have decided to leave it, because there is
no further conversation about what this gift means, how it might seep further
into our lives, and how we celebrate it together. Meanwhile lots of
profit-driven enterprises very successfully convince people that they want a
"relationship" with their brand, their products, their
The problem, of course, is not with the free gift, but with
the power dynamics in the relationships. Economic partnerships encourage
everyone to contribute as they can. Gifts shared among equals keep
relationships going. Hand-outs given from rich to poor -- or from those in
charge to those with no say -- have the opposite effect. So how do we get clear
about what this relationship is? Yes, God is still God, and we are still
receivers, but within the church, those who lead and those who participate
could use some more conversation.
In the wake of the earthquake in Chile and amidst the tsunami
warnings, USA Today had a headline this weekend asking, "Is
nature out of control?"
Say what? In whose control? And
has it ever been "under control?"
Sunday's Gospel reveals that these questions are as old as the hills. Terrible
stuff happens, like earthquakes and towers falling on people, and we grasp for
a reason. When the world literally shifts under your feet (sailing on land,
anyone?), more than just your footing gets unsteady. Talk to
anyone who has been through a disaster or tragedy-- either natural or manmade -- and it's
clear that part of the suffering they experience is the loss of steady worldview, the sense of control we get from believing that our right actions or right beliefs make us safe.
Jesus is clear, though:
the victims are not at fault.This is not about who deserves to die and who does not. Stuff (or manure. . .) happens. Life can be brutal. It's not our job to control it or come up with the reasons why things happen. Our only work is to be fruitful with whatever patch of ground we're planted in, for as long as we get to be there.