Saturday, March 27, 2010

Palm Sunday Yr C

The King has come, but not quite as expected. He has gone to find a young donkey to ride rather than the proud war horse any coming king ought to ride. Jesus is all too aware of the dangers of being recognized as king when the city is under the control of the Roman emperor. The most difficult and painful part of our journey still lies ahead as we journey together through the dark and fearful places. Yet Jesus’ curious choice of riding on a lowly donkey warns us that this story may not follow quite the usual pattern of the conquering hero. We must stay close and walk with Jesus, listen and watch, for ‘something wonderful’ is about to happen this week.

Something wonderful is about to happen this week, but something wonderful happens only after the pain, sorrow, suffering, alienation and isolation that is being human. That something wonderful can’t be gotten to too quickly, and that something wonderful is a promise. The paradox here for us is that we know the end of the story. You and I know about the resurrection, and often we wish to jump over all of the pain and alienation that is represented by Holy Week to get there. But we just can’t. We need to live in this Holy Week. We need to be on this road with Jesus, who at one moment seems the conquering hero, and the next seems the lowly outcast, we need to stay with Holy Week to really understand and experience Easter Joy.

We cannot jump to the quick fix, we cannot jump over the passion, the torture, the death to get to the resurrection. We must journey with Jesus through it, it is in fact the journey together that brings us to the Easter joy. I don’t think we really can begin to live as Easter people until we have made this journey with Jesus is Holy Week. Without this Holy Week, without the journey with Jesus to the cross, Easter is much more like the plastic eggs that can be crushed underfoot, than it is new life, and Kingdom come.

You all have some at experience at this. I only remind you of the reality of your lives. Many of you have lived this same story. Your story is part of the story of God’s activity in Jesus.

You have experienced the pain and sorrow of losing someone you love. You have accompanied your loved ones through the ravages of chemo and of radiation. You have spent hours at your parent’s bedside, watching and praying while they die, the only thing you are able to do is hold their hand. You have watched loved ones drink themselves to death, or smoke themselves to death, all you could do was pray that they’d quit. You have lost children to estrangement, accident, or suicide.

Some of you have experienced the alienation and isolation of being different; of being the only one whose parents expect you to keep them informed of where you are and who you’re with. Some of you have had the embarrassment of your parents insisting on meeting the parents of the kid whose house the party is at, or the embarrassment of your parents insisting on meeting the parents of the boy or girl you’re going out with. Some of you have been the brunt of jokes and teasing. Some of you may even have been the bully at times, because you just couldn’t figure out how to be with people who are different than you.

Pain, and suffering, isolation and alienation, loneliness.... This is what Jesus experienced during that time from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the time he was nailed on that cross. His friends abandoned him, betrayed him, and denied that they knew him, they also raised swords to protect him. Soldiers beat him, officials mocked him, and none understood him.

He was nailed to a cross and left to die.

The power of Jesus’ story is that it is our story as well. And the Good News is that in the midst of this Mess, a mess sometimes of our making, often not of our making, is that God is with us, and God will create new life out of it.

You know this because you are able to look back on the pain and suffering of the death of a loved one and are able to talk about God being with you, in the people that cared for you, maybe in the reconciliation of a relationship. You know this because as you look on the alienation and isolation of your middle school or high school years, you are able to talk about the teacher, or the coach, or the friend, who reached out to you to pull you out of that isolation. You know this because as you look back on your own recovery from addiction you are able to talk about the people who helped you through it.

This is God in our midst, Jesus Christ in the face of the other. The resurrection that comes after pain, suffering and death.

Oh, we’re not there yet, but we keep getting glimpses.

Our lives are neither neat nor easy. The path is never straight nor evident. In the midst of the struggle, in the midst of the pain, the suffering, the alienation, the isolation, we can hardly see our way clear, we can hardly see our own belly button. But that’s the point. When we stop gazing at our own belly button, and lift our head up to look the other in the eye, we begin to be the person in whom another may see Jesus. We begin to live as Easter people.

But I get ahead of myself again. I have a habit of doing that. Because in the midst of the Mess, comes something wonderful, and I can hardly wait.

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy: Come let us adore him.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

5 Lent Yr C

Recall if you will, fragrances, odors, smells and aromas that transport you into particular places and particular memories. Like the aroma of freshly baking bread puts me into my mother’s kitchen when I arrive home after school. Deep fried anything puts me right into the middle of the heat and the bustle of the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. The smell of a newborn baby fills me with nostalgia at holding my own and the wonder of the life that grows. The fragrance of spring rains envelopes me with the hope of new life, but those spring rains also release the odor of all that which has been rotting under the snow all winter, not nearly so pleasant.

Today’s gospel recalls the stench of fear and death mingling with the fragrance of resurrection and new life. This gospel is powerfully pungent. We, as Mary and Martha and Jesus may be, are assaulted with the odor of fear and death. Lazarus has recently been raised from the dead, he was in the tomb for four days, the powerful stench of death lingers. And that is combined with the extravagant fragrance of abundance, the abundance that this dinner party represents, and the abundance that Mary is, fully alive, fully present to the reality that is placed before her. The reality that her brother Lazarus has new life, he has been restored to them, and the reality that Jesus, their friend is at their home for dinner, and that he will soon, very soon be taken from them to be put to death in Jerusalem.

Martha is serving this dinner party with her close friends and family. She has made all her best dishes, it all smells delicious, she anticipates this meal, this meal that will be the second to last, last supper. Martha knew Jesus was coming to her home for dinner, she had known Jesus for a long time, he was a family friend, she wanted dinner to be nice. She worked all day roasting a lamb, preparing potatoes, baking bread, and picking out a suitable wine. By the time dinner was served, she was exhausted and wondering where her sister Mary had been all this time.

Mary had gotten a hold of some very expensive oils, who knows how, surely the family wasn’t rich, and Mary was giving Jesus a foot massage with the oil! She recognizes who Jesus is, and what lies ahead for him, and she acts on it. She does things not acceptable in polite company in that culture and time: she unbinds her hair, loosens it as women did only for their husbands or when they were in mourning; she pours expensive balm on the feet of Jesus, his feet, as one would anoint a corpse, not a king – a king would be anointed on the head, and Mary touches Jesus even though she's a single woman – not appropriate, and then she wipes his feet with her hair. No inhibition indeed! Just as Jesus began his ministry with an extravagance of excellent wine at a wedding feast, just as Jesus like the mother hen gives his life for the chicks, just as the God of second chances, and the prodigal father who is exuberant and lavish, excessive and extravagant, Jesus’ ministry comes to a close here in an extravagance of expensive ointment, a passionate display of love and caring that even the woman who offers it does not fully understand. The fragrance of that oil must have been overwhelming, and the expense, thousands of people could have been fed for what that oil cost. What was Mary up to? What was Jesus up to?

Such extravagance when people were going hungry, such extravagance when people were being oppressed, such extravagance. Mary is the one who is the prodigal in this story, exuberant and lavish, excessive and extravagant. Mary, whose heart broke when her brother Lazarus died. Whose heart soared when Jesus raised him to new life. Mary, whose heart must be breaking again as it dawns on her that her friend Jesus will die. This is extravagant sharing, extravagant giving, from the heart. Judas may have it wrong here, it’s never a waste to give from the heart and not count the cost. When we love someone, really love someone, it just comes from our heart, doesn't it – we want to give them not just our stuff – whatever it is and however expensive it is – but we want them to know how we feel, and it doesn't matter if it's the last jar of expensive oil on our shelf. We want to crack it open, break it open, pour it out, our hearts full to the brim and overflowing.

You see, what Mary is doing here with Jesus, this extravagance, this abundance, with her heart breaking, is exactly what Jesus does with us. Jesus pours the abundance of his love out on us, with his heart breaking, and does not count the cost. Jesus shows us what this exuberant love looks like.
Mary shows us what this exuberant love smells like. Mary also gives us a glimpse of what is to come. The washing of the feet, the serving and the eating of a meal, parallel what is to come. Mary anticipates and enacts what Jesus is to command a few nights later. On the night when he was betrayed Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." And Jesus also said if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.

Mary is our teacher here. Mary’s heart is breaking, and yet, with excessive exuberance, Mary spills the fragrance that points us to the remainder of the journey to the cross. The stench of death will visit us again. But on this day, Mary shows us that even when our heart breaks, or maybe because our hearts break, love and generosity transform a situation. This is where the truth lies. When love and generosity seep into brokenness, brokenness is made whole, brokenness is healed. What Mary teaches us is that we, like her, are agents of the transformation, agents of the healing that God offers in Jesus Christ. Healing that Jesus makes possible through the abundance of his life, his death, and his resurrection.

Mary pours out the fragrant oil of healing, anoints and washes Jesus feet. Wholeness seeps into our brokenness, and there is transformation. We must follow Mary’s lead, where can you pour the fragrant oil of healing, where can you be an agent of transformation? Where can you recognize Jesus?

On to Jerusalem, onward to the last, last supper, onward to the inevitable cross. Today, do as Mary did, wash one another’s feet; spill the fragrant oil of love and abundance into one another’s brokenness, be agents of healing and wholeness.

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy: Come let us adore him.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

4 Lent Yr C

A man had two sons.... was a common way to begin a parable. There are other parables in the Hebrew tradition that begin this way, not just the one we have in front of us today. When the gospel writers began in this way, you and I who are hearers of the story are clued in right away to the type of prose we will hear. A parable is a particular form of prose. Although it is like narrative, it is not exactly narrative, it doesn’t tell a story in a straightforward sort of way. The purpose of a parable is to surprise you, even to shock you. Jesus often says something outrageous, or tells about something that doesn’t seem on the surface to make much sense. We also know a parable when we hear one because it tells us something about Kingdom living.

This particular parable is quite familiar. Often we jump straight to the place of deciding that this is about the younger son who has squandered all of his inheritance and has been bad, or maybe we even identify with the younger son. And we are quick to label people in our lives as prodigal son. But if we make that jump too quickly, we will miss so much that is surprising in this parable. First of all, we miss what prodigal means. Prodigal means exuberant and lavish, excessive and extravagant. Prodigal describes the son because he has been extravagant in spending his inheritance. Prodigal also describes the father because he is extravagant in his love toward both his sons. The younger son spent all he had and ended up in the worst possible position of shame and brought shame on his family as well.

Or, we jump too quickly to identifying with the older son. The one who followed all the rules, the one who understood duty to family and responsibility. The one who worked hard all his life only to have the little brother get the big party after having squandered everything and living hard and fast. The one who really wished that rewards should go to only those who earn them. The one who at his very worst moments envies his younger brother for all the fun and excitement he had and that the older brother missed out on. The one who is mad at his father for even acknowledging the younger son was still alive, after all that he had done. The one who fails to recognize that the father is always on his side and he need not earn his father’s approval.

Maybe we even jump too quickly to identifying with the father. The father who raised his kids as best he could and who now has to put up with an older one who doesn’t know how good he’s got it, and a younger one who takes advantage of everyone and everything. This father’s behavior is shocking. First, he runs out to meet the son who left and squandered everything, giving up all semblance of honor that he may have had left by this time. Then, when the elder son chews out his father in the totally immediate and full view of all gathered to celebrate, the father once more responds graciously, saying even in front of the whole village that the kind of father he is must celebrate and rejoice when the lost are found. The father of the parable celebrates every measure of resurrection, of life from death, without pausing to judge whether the one given life deserved it, or what the consequences are for village or cosmic justice, or even how the loyal will respond. He just hopes that those who profess loyalty to him will follow his example.

So today I want to focus on this father who had two sons and read this parable as an answer to the questions that the Corinthians may have asked Paul. The question you may remember as we heard it read: What does it mean to be an ambassador for Christ? What does it mean to be Christ’s representative, Christ’s promoter, a champion for Christ, a co-conspirator in Kingdom building? And a second question, how does God make an appeal to someone, through us, to be reconciled to God? What it boils down to is: will we follow the father’s gracious example of reconciliation? Read this way, the parable models grace-filled responses in a world of excess, a world of all about me, a world of one way or the highway, a world of exclusion. Read this way, this is a parable about who are we, and how are we to be in the world. Read this way, this is a parable about the church’s mission in the world, to reconcile all people to God.

This parable is about responding to whatever comes our way with grace, and that response, that grace is what brings about reconciliation. And being reconcilers is being a champion of Christ, being reconcilers is being Christ’s representative in this world, being reconcilers is being who we are meant to be. The father models grace and reconciliation. The father models being a champion for Christ. The father rejoices that his younger son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now is found. The result of this grace is a celebration and a banquet. Grace breaks in; grace is surprising and sometimes even shocking. The relationship between father and son is reconciled, it is healed.

The father also runs out of the celebration to find the child who cannot yet accept the intimacy of reconciliation, or the abundant love that exists in constancy and faithfulness. The sadness in this relationship is that it is not reconciled, the older son doesn’t give it a chance, and he misses out on the banquet.

We have so much trouble with this grace. If indeed you and I identify with the older or the younger son, we have trouble accepting the grace freely given. Grace is not earned, but freely given. Grace is forgiving and nourishing.

We often have trouble accepting the intimacy of love no matter what from this God who is willing to run out into the field to welcome us home, or to leave the celebration to come and find us because we do not yet believe that we are worthy of that sort of grace, and therefore we are not yet ready to be reconciled to our brothers, our siblings.

But we forget that this is a God who freely chooses us. God continually chooses God’s people even when they have apparently wandered far away.

I began today with one of the markers of a parable, they tell us about the Kingdom of God. Many parables begin with these words; the Kingdom of God is like... You see, the surprise and the shock of this parable is that the Kingdom of is like abundant grace for all God’s creation, freely given, and the Kingdom of God is also like you and me being champions of Christ, and therefore reconcilers for God.

The surprise and shock of this parable is that at the very same time we are recipients of the grace the father lavishes upon us, we are also agents of reconciliation, we are the ones who show the world that this abundant grace is available to each and every person whose paths we cross each and every day. We are the ones who are the guests of honor at the banquet,

This parable invites us, as does all that Jesus says and does, to consider being champions of giving, of giving honor, forgiveness, and giving joy, sacrificially and without regard of our own worthiness or the worthiness of our sisters and brothers. It challenges us to consider what kind of party we throw and who is really welcome at the banquet. This parable challenges us to live every moment in the Kingdom that is here and now, the Kingdom that Paul preaches with urgency. It challenges us to bring reconciliation into every relationship, now. It challenges us to live as Kingdom people, as agents of God’s transformation, and as ambassadors of the Kingdom.
Will you take up the challenge?

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy: Come let us adore him.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

3 Lent Yr C

So here’s Moses, going about his work, keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro. Moses really has a good life, a wife, a father-in-law that lets him keep the flock, not much more you could ask for. It’s been very quiet for him since leaving the palace as a young man, and it seems that Moses liked it that way, and probably could have lived his life quite contentedly. I imagine every once in while the memories would return to him. Memories of those days when he was raised as an adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter. Although an Israelite, he did not suffer along with his people. He was both an Egyptian and an Israelite, and yet he was neither.

But this day was not like the others. The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush, the bush was blazing, but not consumed. Now, how many of you have been about your business, happily humming, and there appears to you a burning bush? Moses was told to remove the sandals from his feet, because the place on which he was standing was holy ground. And God said, “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Moses recalls memories of these stories, but never had God intruded into his life before.

But God went on to rehearse the misery of God’s people in Eygpt, and Moses recalled the misery of the people he left. God gives Moses his assignment of bringing the people out of Egypt, and promises a new life for them. A life free of slavery and oppression. But then Moses says to God, almost like he wants to make sure he doesn’t look crazy when he tells the people about this, now one more time God, who should I tell the people you are? And God answers, tell them I am who I am. Tell them I am their God, the God of creation, the God of their ancestors, the God of their descendants.

Moses accepts God’s call to him. No longer will Moses’ life be a life of herding sheep, a life centered on his own comfort, no longer will he be centered on his own ego. Instead, his concern will be for the purposes of God, what God wishes for the world. No longer will Moses’ life be safe, secure, and devoid of growth. Moses gives himself up to a life of faith, and what does he get?

Moses must bear the people’s grumbling, their addiction to slavery, their readiness at every turn to flee from freedom. All this makes him feel stress and strain, and it turns his hair white before his time, and, Moses doesn’t even make it to the land that is promised, he dies just short of the goal.

Where are the burning bushes in your life? A bush blazes when some person or place or moment reaches out to you, calling you insistently by name. A burning bush is that yearning, that insistence in your life to reach deeper, to embrace fully, to be part of and connected to the story of creation, to dance in freedom with the God who says, I am.

A bush blazes for you this Lent; the blazing bush insists that you embark upon the journey that God wishes for you, the journey that you yearn for. The thing about this Lenten journey is that we know we must travel through the darkness to get to the Light. We must journey with Moses through the wilderness. The hard part of the journey is that there is no easy way out of the wilderness. There is no gospel of prosperity or happiness or ease. There is no road map that avoids the dark and dangerous places. Death is part of the wilderness. Sorrow and pain are part and parcel of life. There is no growth; there is no depth without this journey. There is no encountering God merely on the top of the mountain; God is encountered in the depths of the valleys as well.

And then in the gospel of Luke, Jesus is interpreting the signs of the times. The first part of the gospel is about the things that Pilate did which upset and irritated the local Jewish population. Sometimes it even seemed that Pilate was deliberately trying to make them angry. He trampled on their religious sensibilities; he tried to bring Roman military emblems into Jerusalem, with their pagan images. And in this part of Luke, we hear the results of an attempt by Pilate to slaughter the Jews. Additionally, it is important to remember that Jerusalem is under Roman occupation. Last week you’ll remember I spoke some about tragedy, and I said that tragedy just is, it is part of life on this planet. This bit of Luke illustrates that further. Sin does not make atrocities come. They just come.

This reality is what the next portion of this passage is about. Life's fragility gives it urgency. Jesus turns attention away from disasters, victims, and "why?" questions to address those of us who thus far have survived the hazards of the universe and human society. We should not mistake our good fortune as evidence of God's special blessing. We should count our good fortune as an opportunity for repentance and growth.

In our reading we have an apple tree, you may be familiar with it as the fig tree. This tree, which should be bearing fruit, is not. With another season, and some good manure, the tree has another chance to grow and produce. The expectation for the result of manure and time and care is bearing fruit. Although there is another chance at growth, growth continues to be an urgent matter. The time frame is clear and it is not infinite, there is another year, another season. In the midst of the reality of human life, the fragility of living, and the tragedy that just is, growth is urgent.

And according to Jesus, growth gives rise to repentance, the kind of repentance that is conversion of the heart. This repentance does not mean being filled and tormented by guilt. Instead, it means being ready to admit our responsibility for our actions and our need for forgiveness, and having a firm desire to change our life: to turn away from ourselves, in prayer and in love. Repentance means, above all, a constant, patient, growing in love. It means our willingness to open ourselves to the work of the Spirit in us and to embrace fully the gift of our salvation (Irma Zaleski The Way of Repentance 1999). The Christian outlook on repentance arcs toward joy.

In the midst of human existence and tragedy, God loves us abundantly and absolutely, and expects us to grow and to do it now rather than later. Growth begets repentance; repentance is being ready to admit our responsibility for our action, our need for forgiveness, and having a firm desire to change our life. We turn away from ourselves in prayer and in love, and we open ourselves to the work of the Spirit. This outlook on repentance arcs toward joy, it results in hope.

Both of these stories are about Love that begets growth, Growth that begets repentance, and Repentance that begets joy. Oh how very different from the way we expect it to be. It may very well cause our hair to whiten prematurely like Moses.

Pay attention to the blazing bush, take off your shoes, walk with one another on this Holy Ground, hold one another’s hand, wander and discover the abundant life God has for you. Pay attention when a bush blazes and something demands that you take off your mask and live from the center deep inside you. You bear fruit when you take what action you can for others, when you act on your impulse to help, when you act on your impulse to pray, when you act on your impulse to accompany one another on this journey in the wilderness.

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy: Come let us adore him.