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Monday, April 8, 2019

At the Feet of Jesus

John 12:1-8

In the 1970’s Rock Opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Mary Magdalene sings, “I don’t know how to love him; what to do, how to move him. I’ve been changed, yes really changed, in these past few days when I’ve seen myself, it seems like someone else.”
It’s a different Mary whose actions take central stage in the Gospel story we read this morning, another Mary who has been changed, really changed; but this Mary could also sing that song about life being transformed by Jesus, for who could be more changed than one whose own brother has been raised from the dead?
It strikes me that this Mary’s response to the change and transformation Jesus has created in her life could easily be turned into a great stewardship message this morning. Because in this gospel passage Mary shows us what it is like to be so filled with gratitude to Jesus for the grace and mercy she has experienced through him, that out of sheer gratitude and devotion she is willing to give ridiculously, generously, and extravagantly to thank Jesus for all that he has done for her life.
 Mary is so changed through the mercy of Jesus that she shows what it is like to give to Jesus first from her resources, but then to give more - she gives her whole self, her worship, her love, her body, her heart, and demonstrates that she is willing to give all that is hers without reservation to the one she calls “Lord”. Might we learn from Mary how to give so passionately and completely in gratitude for all that God gives us?
The Gospel today takes place at a dinner party. We might remember a similar dinner party that we heard about last week in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a feast actually, where, when the prodigal son returns from virtual death, in gratitude and joy, his father kills the fatted calf and throws a great feast to celebrate the miraculous return to life and restoration of the son he had given up for lost.
The dinner in our Gospel today is also a celebration of life over death. The guest of honor is Jesus, who has raised Lazarus not from virtual death, but from real, bonafide death – Lazarus had been in the tomb for days before Jesus raised him.
In great joy Martha and Mary invite their friends and the other disciples, to share a thanksgiving meal that celebrates the miraculous deed of Jesus, who brought back to life the brother they had given up for dead.
As the details emerge of this dinner party, we are faced with the wholly unexpected and surprising details that make this story so intriguing.

Look! There is Lazarus, sitting at the table, playing the part of host, something no one thought possible when they sealed him up in his tomb not so long ago.
As we read this story we take notice of its sensual nature, for every one of our senses are engaged with the details that emerge:
There is the aroma and the taste of delicious food and the finest wine;
There is the sound of conversation shared, dinnerware passed, laughter;
There is the sight of Mary pouring out her love and devotion through an intimate and solemn act as she anoints Jesus’ feet –
There is the sense of touch engaged as Mary smooths the oil over the skin of the feet of Jesus – a ritual she will be denied when she goes to the tomb on Easter morning and discovers there is no body to anoint.        
As we picture this scene, we take in the emotion of it – the reverence of it.
Mary anointing the feet of Jesus with this costly perfume provides an  undeniable interruption and surprise in this scene. We’re not sure how to react – what to think. Should we be offended on the part of the rest of the dinner guests for the intimate scene they have just witnessed; or should we feel chastised because next to Mary’s extravagance our own offerings of gratitude to God just seem – woefully inadequate?
Mary reacts with love and devotion to the mercy and grace that God has spread lavishly on her through Jesus. After he raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will ever die.”
Perhaps Mary remembered these words. Along with her remembrance, perhaps Mary understood, as well, what the other disciples simply could not understand:
That he was King but not just a king;
That he was Priest but not just a priest;
That he was prophet but not just a prophet;
That he would die but not just die.
That he was the Messiah, Lord of All, and that was worthy of all thanks and praise.
That he was God, enfleshed before her.             
Mary seemed to understand and believe so much more about who Jesus was and what he was teaching them than the rest of the disciples seemed to comprehend, and given this opportunity, she did the only thing that she could imagine doing to demonstrate the full extent of her love, belief, and gratitude: she worshiped Jesus by pouring our herself in full devotion to him.
Jesus has three times predicted his upcoming arrest, passion, death, and resurrection. Perhaps Mary alone, among all these friends and disciples, understands that time is short and that all we truly have is today in which to show our Lord our gratitude and love.
Of course there is the dissenting voice – Judas – the one who will betray Jesus points out (whatever his motivations) that with the money this oil could have brought them they could certainly have fed the poor. What a noble act that would have been, rather than pouring it all out on someone’s – anyone’s feet!
But here, Jesus speaks – “you will always have the poor to feed and care for. You will not always have me. Therefore, let her be. Leave her alone with her extravagance, leave it to her to show her love and devotion to me while I am with you”. We could all add, “it may seem reckless – but it is a worthy sacrifice to make, to serve the Lord of Lords”.
There is a song that we’ve been learning in the second service called “Reckless Love.” It speaks of the reckless love of God that interrupts our complacency and pours itself out for us through the grace of Jesus Christ, a love that lifts us up and changes us forever.
Mary’s reckless devotion, poured out in response to the reckless love of God, shows that she gets it. She gets what Jesus is saying, and she gets that there is nothing more or better or wiser that she can do than to worship and love Jesus in return, and she does so, with all she has to give.
Mary, Martha and the other disciples experienced God in the flesh, God in the room, God at the table with them. I wonder for us, today, what does it mean to experience God in the same way – or can we? What does it mean for us to experience God’s reckless love that pours itself out on us through the cross of Jesus Christ?
As we approach the single most important and pivotal week of our faith, what moves you today, what brings to you to the kind of gratitude that Mary demonstrated with smelly oil and a reckless pouring out of herself?
Is it that God interrupted the powers of evil in the world through the incarnation of Jesus Christ? Is it that God interrupts our tendencies toward self-destruction by showing us what forgiveness and mercy look like?
Is it that God interrupts the power of fear and death by sending Jesus and teaching us how to love our neighbors – whoever they might be – and  then commands us to do the same?
When Judas offers his trumped-up objection to Mary’s over-the-top devotion and Jesus pleads on her behalf, the Great Interrupter intercedes again. “Leave her be,” he says. “She’s got it right.”
The thing is, my friends, we do indeed still have the poor among us, and every time we feed the poor in his name, we are in fact anointing the feet of Jesus.
Every time we reach out to the vulnerable without judging their poverty or despair, but simply loving them because Jesus has loved us, we are in fact wiping Jesus’ feet with our hair.
Every time we refuse to fall for the “wisdom” of the world’s sense of economic justice and instead cling to Jesus’ never-failing compassion and care, we make an offering of gratitude for all that God has given us.
Every time we risk having the Judas’ of the world judging our good works or our advocacy of those who suffer injustice, or our love of the poor, hungry, lonely and rejected ones we are loving Jesus with our whole being.
As the aroma of the perfume wafted through the room, it interrupted the dinner. It interrupted the flow of conversation. Mary’s show of worship and devotion to Jesus interrupted the status quo. In a sense, it interrupted time.
There is so much story packed into what really amounts to just a few verses in this Gospel story. As Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and we with him, will we be like Mary of the Rock Opera, unsure of how to show our love to Jesus? Will we be like Judas who is more concerned about self-preservation than about serving the God before him?
Will we choose measured risk to be with Jesus, or will we extravagantly offer the best we have to give to thank Jesus for transforming our hearts and our lives?
Pastor Debi Thomas phrases the questions this way: “In the presence of an overflowing heart, will we honor ‘useless gestures’ as sacred to God, or hold back in contempt and suspicion? What will guide us as we contemplate the cross? That very fragrant and important jar we’re hanging onto at all costs – when and for whom will we break it?
“The time is short.  The cross awaits.  Here is Jesus, asking the hard question one more time: What are you going to do, while you still have me?”

Monday, April 1, 2019

Many Stories, One Voice

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
            As we read the gospel this morning, you voiced the parts of the two brothers – the younger son, who went away for a time and then returned to the homestead, perhaps only seeking survival, but receiving grace far beyond his imagining;  and the elder son had stuck around and unfailingly persisted in trying to do the right thing, consistently receiving all that he needed all along, but never really appreciating that fact.
I wonder how reading both parts felt to you? Which voice felt most authentic to you – most like your own experience, most like the character you can relate to?
Most of us have probably heard this parable many times. Therefore, the word, “prodigal,” has become part of our lexicon, and it has come to mean something rather specific to us. So, when we hear someone referred to as a prodigal, or even refer to themselves as such, what do we think of? What assumptions do we make about a person who is a “prodigal”?
Very often, the prodigal is one who has turned away from and rejected familial relationships. The prodigal is one who seems to have moved the family system to a place of irrevocable brokenness. (You know the saying, “A mother is only as happy as her least happy child? It goes for the entire system.) We’ve each probably known someone like that at some time in our lives. Perhaps we’ve been that person.
The story of the Prodigal Son may strike some of us uncomfortably close to home, because there is some aspect of the story that we are living out today.  Someone is lost; someone is missing; someone, while still living, is as good as dead.
Sadly, for some who are locked into situations like this, hurts suffered have never healed and now feel beyond healing – a life has ended, and with it opportunity for reconciliation may be passed. Instead, a scar resides deep within.
Prodigals are created  when someone has “fallen from grace” through decisions made, alternative alliances forged, (like falling in with the wrong people), suffering failures of our own making, or abandoning the relationships and norms that surround them.
If you have ever been a part of a prodigal story, regardless of which character you have been, know that it is with sincere empathy for each of the characters here, that we approach this story today.
While it may be easy to place ourselves somewhere in the story, this parable does not stand alone, but is part of a larger narrative in which Jesus responds to those challenging him by telling three stories that center on the experiences of loss and grace.
The situation is this: the Pharisees and scribes were Kvetching about the social activities of Jesus. He has been spending time with, and even eating with tax collectors and sinners. (Imagine that!) He has been hanging out with outcasts and undesirables. (Oh, my!)
It might be really satisfying for us right now if Jesus just set the record straight and put them in their places.
Instead, (this being Jesus) he tells these three parables – stories in which it is unquestionably clear that God loves and behaves differently than we do, and that God values sinners more than we could ever imagine, (which is good news for all of us!).
As Jesus moves from parable to parable, story to story, he barely takes a breath. He begins with a woman who finds a lost coin – just one coin among many she may own – because of its importance to her, and when she finds it celebrates with great joy and wild abandon.
Then he tells about a celebration that goes on when one measly sheep out of an entire flock is found after wandering away and becoming lost.
And finally, he tells about this huge bash given in honor of the most unlikely of recipients: a kid that was not simply lost, hadn’t just wandered away, but has behaved in the most egregious and outrageous manner, demanding an early pay-out on his inheritance, and then abandoning his father and all that connects him to this place.
What makes this story so interesting and how over-the-top all of the characters behave.

  • The father, rather than setting his son straight to begin with, gives in to his demands, and hands over the goods.
  • The son then squanders everything and finds himself not just in a bad situation, but destitute – literally in a life-threatening condition.
  • The place where he now resides goes through a famine and not one person will offer him assistance.
  • He finally takes a thoroughly demeaning job but even then isn’t even given so much as the carob pods which he has to feed to the pigs to eat himself. No one there cares anything about him or his welfare.
  • Finally he decides to return to his father and appeal to his compassion and hope for at least the same as the very least of his father’s hired hands would receive, which is more than he has now.
  • Then, the most ridiculous thing of all happens: before he can even say a word, while he still just a speck on the horizon, his father runs to him, overjoyed, with arms outstretched.

It’s all quite scandalous, really, but only the elder son in the story seems to know that. Of course, he has his own gripe, because not only has the father behaved shamefully weak and gullible, in his overzealous rush to welcome home his boy, the elder son has felt totally disrespected.
Here this brother of his so cruelly and uncaringly cut himself out of the family, yet is given the hero’s welcome, while here he stands, the polar opposite – faithful, dutiful, hard-working, loyal son – the son who has slaved and tried so hard to always do the right thing. He is flabbergasted to see his brother receive what it is he himself has always wanted – recognition, favor, the party!
This, my friends, is a story of extremes. The father’s over-the-top forgiveness and love for his sons is book-ended by their outrageous behavior.
The thing is, in our reading of this story, while the words and actions of one son may have resonated more than the words and actions of the other son today, many of us may have found ourselves in the shoes of both sons at one time or another in our lives.
The point that this parable makes is poignant for whatever your story might be. There is genius in that, because the truth is that God’s grace is every bit as scandalous and ridiculous as the picture we get of the father in our story. And it doesn’t matter which brother’s actions reflect our own, God’s love is big enough and God’s grace sufficient enough for us all.
The story speaks as much to our lives as it did to the lives of both Gentile and Jew, Pharisee and outcast, sinner and rule-follower, prodigal and elder-brother of Jesus’ day. And the point Jesus makes is just as timely for us today as it was for those for whom these stories were originally written.

It boils down to this: in God’s economy, there is plenty of grace to go around, and God spreads it over each of us as we have need. It is God’s desire that none of the sheep who go astray be lost forever; that the coin that found its way into a corner somewhere is just as precious and necessary to God’s kingdom as any other coin in the purse; and that the gospel is for everybody – rule follower and prodigal alike.
That is indeed good news for all of us. For those of us who seemingly hit rock bottom before we realized that we were invited to the great feast, and sometimes still feel like we’re dangerously close to the bottom of the pit, God especially reaches out to you in love and forgiveness. God wants you to know that you are welcome and cherished, and you are, through the mercy of Jesus Christ, forgiven.
For those of us who have been around here for years, and for those who just started attending church or coming to the table yesterday, God’s grace embraces you equally; you belong here and are equally members of the Body of Christ. For those of us who struggle to get through each day and for those who really have ourselves all pulled together, God love and grace are poured out on you in sufficient quantities to for exactly the need you have. For those who can quote scripture chapter and verse and those who have difficulty distinguishing the Old Testament from the New, God knows your hearts in equal measure and has already surrounded you with God’s compassionate love. You belong to him.  
The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that it is for everyone. All are invited to the table and in God’s perfect grace it is large enough for us all.
God’s love does not discriminate, it transforms. It doesn’t matter where you have come from or where you are today – in Jesus Christ, God’s grace covers you. The good news of God’s scandalous, ridiculous grace is for those who have always been the straight arrows and for those who have followed the crooked path. And since God’s love enfolds every cherished person, how can our welcome do any less?
God rejoices in the person God has created you to be. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin, the language you speak, or the country from which you or your ancestors derived, your gender, your age, or your sexuality. God’s love enfolds you.
As we read this parable, we acknowledge that we need to die daily to sin and rise to new life in Christ, which is the gift of our baptism. But, only when we are able to let go of our resentment, judgment of the other, bitterness and hatred may we learn what new life and new creation truly mean; it is the radical, scandalous, and ridiculous love of God and God’s eternal and unending grace that we receive through Jesus that will finally, when all is said and done, free us from our own lost paths and need for justification.  
My brothers and sisters in Christ, prodigals all are we. May we live in gratitude that even in his final act from the cross, when he forgave another prodigal, the criminal beside him, Jesus showed us how unfathomably scandalous and huge is the grace of God. Praise be to God! Amen.