Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Perfume and the Poor - a Sermon

A friend and I have been trading jokes on Facebook lately. Here’s his: A Viking goes away to discover the new world. After years he returns, only to discover that there is no record of his ever having existed. He can’t even vote in Viking elections. Indignant, his wife goes to the Viking in charge of records. He searches through everything and finally, embarrassed, says, “I’m sorry. I don’t know how I did this. I must have taken Leif off my census.”

My response. A Mystic at the monastery goes to his spiritual director one days and says he’s leaving the monastery to get a job at a garage. The spiritual director is stunned and says, “But why? You’re a mystic!” He replies, “I know. I want to have an auto body experience.”

Now, I’m not telling you this because I enjoy bad jokes, only because jokes are in the air this week.

Back in1980 on Palm Sunday, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut preached a sermon – as far as I know his only time in the pulpit – at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in New York. But he didn’t like that day’s passage, so he preached on today’s.

Know what he said? He said it was a joke. He said Jesus was joking when he told Judas, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

What kind of joke is that? Well, typical Vonnegut humor, gallows humor. The kind of joke you tell just before facing the executioner. It’s a joke because they have had all their lives to care for the poor, so why start now? But if he’s so interested in the poor, he can always start caring for them after Jesus is dead because there will be a rich supply of them.

Kurt Vonnegut was no theologian, but he was onto something here because humor tends to highlight the distinctions between opposites. Between logic and the absurd, beauty and ugliness, good and evil. And John’s gospel loves opposites. Just look at what he’s put into this little passage.

You’ve got the remarkable smell of this perfume versus the stench of death (both from her now resurrected brother Lazarus and in anticipation of Jesus’ death). You’ve got the extravagance of the perfume – if you judged by today’s minimum wage, it would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $12,000 – versus both the poor and Judas’ stinginess. You’ve got Mary’s disturbingly intimate but true expression of love versus Judas’ seemingly appropriate but false love.

John loves those opposites because in the end, he’s going to lead us to a bigger one: an instrument of hate and death will become a sign of love and eternal life.

But I get ahead of myself.

This is happening shortly after Lazarus is raised from the dead and before Jesus makes his final entry into Jerusalem. He’s maybe a week from being crucified. And in this quiet house, Jesus finds rest before the agony.

It is apparently a rather lavish meal – Passover hasn’t started yet, so there’s no austerity in their meals, and you can imagine Mary, Martha and Lazarus might want to put on a nice spread, given what Lazarus has just experience. By the way, Judas does not seem to be complaining about the food.

But then Mary does something unusual and unseemly. She breaks the jar of perfume over Jesus’ feet and anoints his feet with it before drying his feet with her hair. Talk about engaging the senses! The aroma had to fill the house. The sight of her kneeling there had to evoke emotions. The soft touch of her hair against Jesus feet – how did that feel to him? This is extravagance in every sense, and I can imagine everyone there felt uncomfortable.

Which probably encouraged Judas with his pious outrage. After all, righteous indignation is easy, and it has the side benefit of riling up the crowd. There’s nothing like righteous anger to get people going – and that makes the agitators feel very powerful.

So he says, “How dare she do that?” Perhaps he felt uncomfortable mentioning the intimacy of her act, so he focuses on the only thing he can grasp (or think about?), the money. Either way, he intends to sound righteous and ends up sounding – to us at least – like a jerk. Even if John didn’t go overboard by saying he was really a thief, we would get it. Judas appears as someone who knows the right words but not the heart.

Even if he is being honest, he still mistakes discipline with discipleship. Because Jesus makes it clear that following him does not mean we stop being human. We have senses to use, to enjoy.

More importantly, when something big, something life-changing happens, we employ our extravagance to honor the moment. Could you imagine someone stopping a wedding and saying, “We could have spent this money on the poor!” Yes, there are lots of wedding jokes out there, but the point is, it’s a moment that celebrates life-changing love. So, it’s okay to go a bit overboard.

And if a wedding is an expression of love to celebrate, how much more is Jesus’ love for us, a love that will be put to the biggest test, a love that we are on the verge of seeing at its most powerful. This moment deserves lavish attention.

Besides, if we put ourselves in Judas’ place, we would realize that we probably spend lots of money on ourselves without anything monumental to recognize – just because we want something. A fancy new car, new phones with all the services and apps, a bigger house than necessary, dinner and a show. Not to make anyone feel guilty about it, just to help us see that we spend a lot without a big occasion, so why not let Mary do for Jesus such a beautiful thing?

After all, spending that money on the poor would not have stopped poverty. But it did signal this most crucial moment in humanity where life overcame death – and did so with the cruelest instrument of death.

John loves to contrast those opposites – which makes Jesus’ defense of Mary very serious, but also a pretty good joke. Amen.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

God, Life and Everything - Break In

I write a column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take. Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

This has been an interesting winter for the church. We had a break in last month. All the intruder got was some communion wine, but they broke an expensive window and damaged a wall in the process.

The worst part isn’t the physical damage; we have insurance to cover those sorts of things.

The worst part is the fear that such an attack instills, the feeling of violation. It’s hard not to fall prey to feelings of vulnerability and anger when someone damages you like that.

One of the immediate (and temporary, I hope) results is that we began locking the church all the time now. And the police patrol the area more often. And altar guild members are thinking twice about arriving early to set up the altar for worship. In other words, the damage is far greater than just a broken window and some missing wine.

But let us consider how else we might respond. As the church, we are intended to be an example of what it means to live in Christ. Living like Christ often doesn’t seem to make sense to the rest of the world. Jesus is the person, after all, who said love and pray for your enemies, turn the other cheek, give your shirt to the person who steals your coat. Not what your insurance company wants to hear.

What’s worse, one of Jesus’ favorite commands to us is, “Don’t be afraid.” For him, not being afraid doesn’t mean getting a bigger gun than your enemy, nor does it mean building an impenetrable fortress. Losing the fear means trusting that nothing that anyone does to us can ever separated from the Love of God.

It’s a crazy way to live, na├»ve in the eyes of many because it’s never based on getting even or even giving anyone what they deserve. It’s based on opening our hearts to God and each other – and not coincidentally, opening our arms to the same. This necessarily means sticking your neck out – but then, consider the turtle that never goes anywhere without sticking its neck out.

My point is, we are the church, commissioned to live fearlessly in a world where bad things happen. Churches have been targets of theft, vandalism and worse since the earliest days. The first church I served at in Peekskill recorded its first break-in before the American Revolution. To be the church means to make ourselves vulnerable if that serves the purposes of the Gospel.

So what do we do? Well, the first thing we did as a congregation (aside from calling the police) was to pray for the burglar. Our primary prayer was that he find a healthier way to get what he needs. Perhaps for a re-evaluation in his life of what he really needs, too.

Now we have to consider whether or not we will remain locked up all the time, or whether we will find a way to fulfill one part of our mission: to be a place of prayer and rest to those who come to us.

There are no easy answers and angles to consider. For everyone who experiences this sort of violation, they know it forces you to re-consider so many aspects of who you are. We will work on this for some time – and in the meantime, we will remember that nothing, not even a break-in, can separate us from the Love of God.


No Attaboys? - A Sermon

I learned a new word last week. It’s “Boastamonial.”

A Boastamonial is a the story that a speaker tells to an auditorium full of teenagers about how their life was so messed up that nobody could imagine. Sex, drugs, alcohol… They were on a one-way ticket to hell until – you guessed it – they found Jesus.

These stories used to be called testimonials, but my friend – a protestant pastor who’s been to quite a few of these – said that over time they all either sounded the same or sounded like they were trying to one-up each other. “Nobody was worse than me – No, I was the worse sinner, totally lost…” The farther down they went, the more excited the crowd gets, you see.

Boastamonials have been around for a long time. Remember the apostle Paul? “I am the chief among sinners.” They have power because you don’t know if a life can always be saved, so it’s good to hear that they can be.

Then my friend said something else. He said, “I’m really glad for these folks because they turned their lives around and seem happy, but then I look at my youth group kids and I think, I don’t want these kids to have to go through this stuff. I just want them to grow up with a strong faith and a quiet life. Even if it means never getting to stand up in front of an adoring audience.”

That’s the catch, isn’t it? The ones who live self-damaging lives get the attention, especially if they turn things around. And everyone else? We’re the audience.

It’s like that shepherd with his sheep: One sheep wanders off, gets itself lost, possibly injured, open game for the wolves – and the shepherd leaves everyone else alone to go search for it. Now the other sheep get to watch the shepherd rejoice when that dumb sheep is found. I’m not sure what emotions sheep feel, but I can’t imagine they’re all that excited by the slacker.

But if you go to the story of the son who left home – we call it the prodigal son – we see something going on that might strike close to home. We see the prodigal son – the younger son who is rude, he takes all his inheritance and wastes it on illicit living, then comes to his senses and comes home. It’s a boastamonial. He gets to tell his adoring father how bad he was, then the father gets to rejoice over his being saved.

So, why is the older son so ticked off? Why isn’t he part of that adoring crowd?

Perhaps because he’s asking that very legitimate question: Why does someone who does everything wrong get all the attention, and those of us who always do everything right don’t even get an “attaboy.” You know what attaboys are, don’t you. That pat on the back people get at the office for coming up with a new idea or a cost-saving plan. When you do something good.

What the older son is asking is, “Why doesn’t good behavior get rewarded?”

Why indeed?

Of course, you might also ask, why does it matter? Why do we live a “good” life? Why do most of us labor away in the fields like the older brother? Is it for attention? Is it for the reward of the party and adoration? Is it so everyone around us will say, “Oh, he’s so great!”?

Maybe a little. And to be fair, it’s nice to receive a little acknowledgement of doing a good job once in awhile. But if you want the angels to stand up and rejoice, well, living a quietly faithful life isn’t the way to do it.

When the father goes to the older son and implores him to join the party, he says, “Listen, your reward is that you’ve been with me all along.

“Attaboys” aren’t necessary because you know I love you. You’ve always known it. This younger brother of yours – he didn’t. He went through much of his life not knowing what it was like to be loved – not because the love wasn’t there but because he couldn’t see it. Now he can. And for this little moment in time, we’ll rejoice.

Celebration means marking a change in life – usually to something better. We don’t celebrate when it remains the same. We just live. And to be honest, just living is plenty.

Most of us may at most get the occasional “Attaboy,” but we’re not going to get adoring crowds praising how we brought ourselves back from the brink. How we were “saved.” That’s okay. Because to live quietly in the house of God knowing God’s love for us is joy and peace all by itself. All we have to do is open our eyes and see what we’ve got. Amen.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Chocolateness - God, Life, and Everything

I write a column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take. Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

It’s day 21 of my chocolate withdrawal. So far, I’ve held strong, but I feel trapped. The wolves of Hershey and Mars are circling, circling, tempting me to come out for just a nibble. Their powers are strong, and if I venture toward them even a step, they will have me in their jaws.

So, I resist and wait throughout these cold, hard days and nights called Lent. Someday, relief will come. Either I the pangs of chocolate withdrawal will subside, or this season of chocolatelessness will pass. The only question is, will I survive until then?

Of course I will. Giving up chocolate for Lent is no big deal, when you think about it. It’s just something I tend to consume rather thoughtlessly far too much of the time, and I wanted to use this period of self-examination and self-denial to become a bit more intentional about what I consume.

I’ll bet there’s someone asking right now, “Do people still give things up for Lent? I thought that went out with Disco.” In fact, throughout much of my youth, it was fashionable to say, “Don’t give something up, take something on for Lent. It’s much more meaningful.”

While I won’t deny that taking on a spiritual discipline like bible reading, or extra prayer time, or service to others is valid and valuable, that is something that’s appropriate any time of year. Why wait for Lent to do that? Scripture reading, prayer, service, among a whole host of other positive actions are things we are even called upon to do all of the time. That’s the bulk of our lives as people of faith.

But to give something up? That’s Lent.

If it seems like I’ve spent the last few columns musing on the nature of Lent, it’s because I have. There’s a part of me that resists the speed with which we live our lives. Like Advent, this is a time to slow down despite the frantic pace of the world. Yet, here we are in Lent, packing on extra meetings, classes, retreats, planning for the summer. If there’s anything we need to do in Lent, it’s step back a bit and look at our lives.

To do that, I’ve given up chocolate, which is always around – at the grocery store, the convenience store, the hospital gift shop – as a little reminder of what I need and what I don’t. I thought about giving up meetings, but I realized that wouldn’t be a sacrifice at all. I thought about giving up my cell phone, too, but I’m not that strong.

The wolves of chocolate still circle but with help and a renewed sense of priorities, I’m sure I can hold out till that blessed day in April when the thing we’ll be reminding ourselves of isn’t self-denial but joyous life that knows no bounds.

Pesky Plants - A Sermon

Well, Spring is coming. I could tell not only by the melting snow but by the buds on the branches. Unfortunately, most of those branches were broken off their trees from the snow a couple of weeks ago. Even the forsythia was flattened and hasn’t bounced back.

All those plants are so much trouble. Well, they had pesky plants in the bible, too, but judging from today’s readings, it would seem there are two types of plants.

The first plant we encounter is a burning bush. Not something you see every day – and certainly not something Moses had ever seen before. Of course, if I had been him, I would have turned and run the other direction. If he had known what was coming, he probably would have, too.

What came was demands. This burning bush, awesome as it appeared, turned out to be the most demanding, powerful, persistent – and yet empowering thing he had ever seen. It told him to go back to Egypt – remember, that’s the place he ran away from because he had killed someone and was now wanted for murder – and not only that but go to Pharaoh and tell him to release hundreds, thousands, of his slaves. The bush has heard the cry of the people and has compassion.

Thanks, bush.

Moses, of course, said, “No, I can’t do that! I stutter! I’m weak. I’m just a shepherd. I’m wanted. I don’t even know who you are.” Every objection was met with an answer – this plant was not going to take No for an answer.

God said, “Yes you can – and I will empower you for this ministry.” And he did.

The second plant type we encounter in the Gospel. Jesus tells the parable of the fig that would not or could not produce fruit. The landowner wants to just get rid of the thing, but the gardener pleads to give it one last chance. He’ll prune, water and fertilize the tree for a year, and if after that time it still hasn’t produced fruit, then the master can chop it up.

Where the burning bush is fiery and powerful as well as compassionate, the fig tree is weak, prone to giving up, clueless how to survive – seemingly hopeless.

You might think the burning bush is an obvious symbol for God but might wonder about the fig. Are we really that bad?

Well, remember that just Jesus has dealt with two stories of people trying to find reasons to condemn others – victims of horrific tragedies. It would be like blaming innocent victims of an earthquake or hurricane.

Their motivation for this? Largely, it’s so they will feel superior to others. If someone else is really bad, then nobody will notice my faults. And in a world like first century Israel where bad things only happened to bad people, victims of horrific crimes were easy targets.

That’s what Jesus was dealing with, and he responded by saying: You are in the same boat. You all are.

Then to emphasize the point, he tells the parable of the tree. They may be no good, as good as dead, hopeless and worthy of impatience, but with Jesus as gardener, there’s always “one more time.” Always another chance.

That’s a pretty harsh picture of God – that is the land owner. And let’s face it, it’s not a very flattering picture of us, either. But the gardener gives us hope. With him, not only do we get a chance to live another year, but we get the best care that can nurture us to full health.

Actually, we get better than that. The gardener feeds this fig, feeds us, with his lifeblood so that we become part of him – and therefore part of the burning bush. In short, we are one with God.

Maybe we’ll never quite become a burning bush (but who knows?) – yet certainly a healthy, fruitful, empowered, compassionate and persistent plant that will make any farmer glad.

That is what is within us, potential that Jesus sees even if we don’t. All it takes is a heart filled with love – an infusion of God. Then we’ll see how much of the world we can feed, clothe, comfort, etc.

There are two types of plants, but there’s nothing that says we can’t graft one onto the other. It’s better than just manure anyway. Amen.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Fox and the Hen -- A Sermon

You know, the Pharisees get a bad rap, always yelling at Jesus and complaining about him. But look how nice they are today. They go to him as he’s head to Jerusalem and say, “Stay away! Herod’s out to get you!”

Awfully nice behavior for people who hate Jesus, don’t you think? And they have made it abundantly clear that they hate him throughout Luke’s gospel. On the other hand, Herod is a baddy, so their warning is logical.

But is it sincere? More likely, this is an attempt on the Pharisee’s part to drive Jesus away NOT with arguments, which is their usual method, but with fear. “Run away!” they say. “You’ll get hurt!”

Jesus’ response? “Tell that fox I have work to do first.”

Jesus knows what awaits him in Jerusalem. Prophets die in Jerusalem. Of all the gospels, Luke makes it clearest that Jesus marches inexorably on to Jerusalem and death, because that is how he will accomplish his task.

Moreover, by calling Herod a fox, he has named their supposed concern for what it really is: fear mongering. He will not fall prey to their fear.

Then Jesus breaks into what I can only describe as a lament. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing, but you were not willing.”

The Pharisees probably understood: Jesus has already made their attempt at fear into a FOX. Now he is calling himself the protective hen and the children of Jerusalem the hapless chicks.
Before we go on, I just want to make sure we all know how well foxes and hens get along. We all know what foxes can do, especially to panicked chicks who run loose unprotected? Good.

So now we have the Fox which is Herod but which is even more powerfully that big F-Word, Fear. The Fox equals Fear.

The Hen is Jesus, and by extension, God. The chicks are the Jerusalemites, and by extension the Israelites, and by further extension, us.

In Jesus’ lament, he is not afraid, as the Pharisees had hoped. He is sad. Sad because he knows that the fear which could NOT entrap him WILL catch many of his children.
It is fear of Herod, fear of shame, fear of the Romans, and maybe especially fear of God which will cause them to turn their backs on Jesus despite their initial excitement about him. He’s foreshadowing that day which we call Palm Sunday when he will enter Jerusalem to shouts of joy, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” only to have them shout for his death a few days later. He knows they will act out of fear more than anything else.
Fear is the Fox that kills. And the hen cannot protect her children from fear if they do not come to her protective wings.

Actually, that’s a pretty simple message, and one that rings true for us today. We live in an age where fear is more easily disseminated than ever before. We have television, radio, newspapers (for the moment), magazines and most powerfully of all, the internet.

Everywhere you turn, there are stories of robbery, murder, kidnapping, and so on – way out of proportion with reality. Whether they are true or not is irrelevant. How many of you have received forwarded e-mails warning about some dire virus that will instantly destroy your computer? Most of them are hoaxes or urban legends with just a bit of truth – and most of them are not there to provide useful information but to make you afraid.

This fear has two major effects. It paralyzes and it panics. Like little chicks, we simply freeze when we get frightened of life. Like with the internet, some people will simply never touch a computer, they’re so afraid. Or they go to the other extreme and buy every anti-virus program known to man. This is most harmful when that fear is of God himself. How many of us were told by earnest sounding Christians that God is to be feared, and sinning will get us condemned?

That’s the fox speaking. And our response? We freeze. We’re overwhelmed. We stay at home so we don’t have to hear it. We do nothing or maybe become obsessed with our own comfort.
Or we panic. Like chicks who run every which way except toward the hen’s wings, we scatter into endless activities that momentarily divert our attention but provide no help. Maybe we run from belief to belief or become fastidious about having the right sacraments, the right actions – always trying to achieve safety from an angry God. All the while, Jesus is calling out, “Come to me and I will help you live without fear.”

There is a third option. Fear can cause us to sink into great evil, to turn into foxes so that we have the illusion of power. Most of us stick to the first two., but it’s better to live without fear altogether, as Christ desires for us.

But here’s the catch. Living without fear does not mean living without pain or sadness or death. Those are part of life, things Jesus expresses so poignantly in this one little passage. The hen, in fact, often dies in her effort to protect her chicks from the fox. And we all know what happens to Jesus when he reaches Jerusalem.

But pain, sadness, death – they are not to be feared so much as to be approached with a deeper knowledge. They do not have the power to kill us. Jesus has seen to that. Only fear will kill us eternally because it will drive us away from God’s loving embrace.

In a world where fear is so readily available, so attractively presented, Jesus still reaches out to us and says “Come to me.” The question is, are we willing?