June 9, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Lots of folks maintain Pentecost is God’s response to Babel. That Pentecost, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, gathers the people through language, reversing the “punishment” (if that’s what it is?), the scattering, of the still forming community at Babel. At Pentecost the God who has scattered and confused instead gathers and makes comprehensible. But is that really a reversal? Just what’s going on?
Folks gather at Babel with the intent of becoming a unity, a community, with their common language, creating a common culture, and we so get it. People sent out with the command to go fill the earth after the flood. They find a good spot, they decide to send down roots. It seems only logical. Let’s face it, isn’t life easier when we all have a lot in common? Isn’t that why our neighborhoods are becoming more alike, and why churches are becoming red or blue, when purple churches seem to take a little more effort to survive? If everyone speaks the same language, if our culture is the same, aren’t things easier, can’t we avoid conflicts and rifts that destroy relationships and drag us all down? We’d think the Creator God would be glad to see the folks at Babel so inspired, using their hands, making bricks and constructing buildings, using their imagination, coming up with architectural drawings that would support a tower that’s supposed to go all the way to heaven, like some ancient Jack and the Beanstalk. They are a motivated people; they don’t want to scatter, they want an identity, a tribe they can belong to rather than waiting for God to make them a people through the covenant with Abraham. They don’t want to scatter, they’d rather live with a level of conformity that is part of being a member of society, a member of an empire, so that they can make a name for themselves. They don’t want to scatter, they prefer not to depend on God for their future if they can secure it themselves. They don’t want to scatter, they’d rather isolate without any need to be the caretakers of that world that God created them to be. They’ll live for their own purposes. No need to check in with the God who gave them life and saved their people from the flood, as if God has no personal involvement, as if God cares as little for them as they seem to care for God. But our story says God intervenes. Just how, who knows? For sure, when people try to take control in order to be on top it usually leads to confusion—babel. Just look at the political processes in our own time. Dictatorship or democracy, common interest soon loses out to partisanship. We may claim we’re all after the same goal, may use the same words, but when the day is over and some folks seem more equal than others, we suddenly realize maybe we’ve been talking about different things all along. Funny, how when everyone walks in lockstep, it’s easy to begin to think from one perspective, and folks not part of the program are somehow left to scatter—just think of the “isms” that eliminate the voices of folks like racism and sexism. We really don’t need God to deliberately enter the fray and set folks against each other—we do it plenty well ourselves—but there’s nothing like framing God to be the fall guy. Yet, one way or another, leaving it up to our own inclinations or by direct intervention, God causes the people who feared being scattered to scatter and fill the earth. The expectation of unity, lost.
God’s intervention on the plains of Shinar, at Babel, creates a diversity that is often read as a bad thing, as if our multiple languages and cultures are a curse, rather than God’s desire. When God confuses the language of the people, God accomplishes what God had asked, had commanded humankind to do in the first place: to fill the earth. A correction to our moral GPS, rather than a punishment. It seems as if God willingly sacrifices unity—whenever it takes the form of self-preservation, uniformity, or isolation—as God works to get us back on track. Not so differently at Pentecost, God, once again, demonstrates God’s deep engagement with God’s hope for the people God loves as they gather to celebrate the Jewish Day of Pentecost. The Festival of Shavu’ot, a time of thanks for the giving of the Torah, a time of thanks for the giving of the harvest by returning to God the first fruits, as Jews gather from all over the world, unaware that another gift is about to come from God. The writer of Acts tells of the Holy Spirit descending on 120 believers with the sound of the rushing wind as what appears to be tongues of fire rest on them, empowering them to tell of God’s great deeds in languages not their own, as Jews from all over the known world hear their testimony in their native tongue. More than just a reversal of Babel, when the Holy Spirit comes she doesn’t restore humanity to a common language, but instead seems to declare that all languages are holy, equally worthy of God’s story. All languages are necessary, because no single language, just like no single culture or single people, can capture and express the deeds of God in all their wonder. The real miracle of Pentecost is that as diverse as the people are, everyone understands, as if God bends down and whispers in the intimacy of their mother tongue with words and expressions harkening back to their birthplace. “This new community is yours. You’re not an outsider. We speak your language”1. Words crossing barriers, changing not only the immigrants to Jerusalem, and soon, Gentiles, but the believers as well as folks widen their circle, welcoming strangers with odd accents into their midst and making room for relationships previously impossible. Of course, not everyone could bear to have their old understandings, their old pecking orders of good and bad, in and out, explode, as they retreat into the suspicions and cynicisms of their ancestors on the plain of Shinar, sneering, “These fools are drunk.” But Peter faces the naysayers, quoting the prophet Joel with a picture of salvation that turns us towards each other. Perfecting the intervention at Babel, giving honor to their differences, the Spirit breathes new life into a diverse people to fulfill God’s grace-filled purpose as once again, God scatters God’s people, this time with words of gospel—good news—across the face of the earth.
From the beginning of time God weaves diversity and unity into the fabric of creation, even as God from the inception of the community that calls itself Christ’s body weaves the church in the same diversity and unity. Not opposites, not reversals, but both threads in the cloth. The Holy Spirit doesn’t erase our differences but embraces the fact that God has made each of us wonderfully unique. Because of our diversity, we stand with the believers at the first Pentecost, feeling the presence of God’s Spirit and becoming on fire as we open the windows and doors of our beings to the Spirit of God who crosses the barriers between heaven and earth to meet us where we are today. Because of our diversity, we understand that silence is no longer possible across barriers of race, ethnicity gender, religion, culture, and politics, and strive to communicate, to hear the language of the other. Something happens when we engage in each other’s languages. We learn the limits of our own language, our own perspective, and realize that no matter how passionately we may disagree with another’s views or beliefs, we cannot disagree with their experience. As followers of the same God, once we’ve truly heard, truly taken in another’s story, it becomes awfully difficult to thrive at their expense, awfully difficult to isolate ourselves from them, or them from us, but instead, find ourselves reaching to and for each other as the Spirit gives us ability. Only through such a diversity that appreciates the other, that refuses to assign values of superiority and inferiority, but manifests itself in our ability to live together without conflict or oppression, can the unity that God calls us to occur. A world not fragmented, but whole; not in isolation, but in community; not in uniformity, but in harmony; as diversity and unity together bring about God’s gracious purpose for the world God loves.
At Pentecost God, through the Spirit, comes to us, not speaking in a single language, but many, with all the diversity a people scattered from Babel can speak, in a cacophony of different accents that recognizes that our differences may be our critical asset, our most important strength, and the source of our greatest creativity, as we who claim the Spirit dwells with us go out into the streets and speak words of God’s great deeds and good news.
1Debi Thomas, Journey with Jesus, “The One and the Many,” online blog, June 9, 2019.
Do You Want to be Made Well?
May 26, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Today’s reading is probably the oddest “healing” story in all the Gospels, not following a normal pattern of cure and faith, or even the desire of a relationship with the healer. But instead, a tale that could be, maybe is, replicated all over Ashtabula, Trumbull, and Mahoning counties on any given day, or any other county in any other state of our nation.
Jesus asks the man a strange question, “Do you want to be made well?” He cuts to the chase. There’s no introduction of who he is, there’s no small talk, such as “How long have you been coming here?” There’s no lecture or sermon that starts out, “If you’ll believe.” There’s just the question. Granted, Jesus has a habit of asking in-your-face kinds of questions that seem a little obvious, like, “Why are you afraid?” in the midst of a major storm as the boat is being swamped with waves1 or, as we read a couple of weeks ago, his query to Peter, “Do you love me?”2 after Peter swims to the shore to meet him. To ask someone, “Do you want to be made well?” after being ill for 38 years seems like a no brainer, makes us wonder just what Jesus is really asking. Tone, some folks say, means everything. Is he suggesting the man has some kind of choice, as if “Do you want?” gives him options over his illness? Still, it’s not Jesus’ style to blame the victim. He doesn’t confront the folks he heals with challenge or contempt, but with compassion and care. Jesus is in the business of healing and making new. Yes, he does occasionally say, as he did to the paralytic whose friends drop him through a roof, “Your sins are forgiven3,” lending to the play in the Greek that uses the same word for healing as salvation. But for the most part, Jesus tries to correct the conflation of disease and sin that was so prominent in his culture. Just remember when his disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” concerning the man born blind, Jesus answers “Neither”4. To be sure, at the pool, Jesus doesn’t say a word about sin, or belief, or faith. Instead, when faced with someone ill for 38 years, someone who has pinned his hopes on a superstition but is still as ill as the day he came, Jesus seizes the opportunity, inviting the man to live into the impossible. Not speaking of illness, but healing, Jesus goes to the heart of the matter, as if pointing to the reality that once we recognize what we really want, then, healing can begin, and he asks, “Do you want to be made well?”
Perhaps what’s even stranger is the man’s lack of an answer to the question. We’d think it would be easy after 38 years to give a resounding, “Yes, I want to be made well!” But he doesn’t. Maybe that’s what happens when day after day we feel walked over, passed over, doomed, as we sit by the edge of healing but never attain it. Instead of answering the question Jesus asks, the man goes around it. Inviting our pity, he hems and haws, avoiding Jesus’ real question—which has nothing to do with his circumstances and everything to do with his desire—only to answer with a defensive whine, “I don’t have anyone to help me, somebody always cuts in front of me,” as he conveys 38 years of isolation and frustrated hope. Perhaps, we know him, all too well. We see him every day: he’s our neighbor, our kids, sometimes he might even be us. There’s plenty of sickness pervading (just look at the papers), often aggravated by some kind of addiction—drugs, drink, depression, even food, too much or too little—making shortcuts to the same hopelessness that took 38 years to generate in the man by the pool. It’s a situation that breeds acquiescence. A cure means making a living, accepting responsibilities, rather than someone else doing the work and worry. For the man by the pool, for 38 years his mat has carried him; if cured, he will have to carry his mat. Or maybe there’s just no hope left in folks who are ill, so resigned that regardless of their situation—whether inner city, rich suburb, or out here in the country—somehow they just fall into the cracks of a system that for whatever reason can’t, or won’t, hold them up in their time and situation, just can’t meet their needs. Once in that hole, it’s hard to see much but stagnation and defeat. Let’s face it, change is hard, and cure requires a change in values and behaviors. No wonder the man hesitates when Jesus shows up asking what he wants, as Jesus then proceeds not to heal the man on his terms, not helping the man to the pool when the angel stirs the waters, but instead providing the energy that forces him, forces us, to stand up, start moving into the future, whether we really asked for the healing or not, as we try to avoid the question Jesus asks.
The story doesn’t follow the usual tale of miraculous cures: healing accomplished, praise rendered, disciple or, at the very least, believer conversion. It doesn’t follow the usual story of faith. Where’s the resurrection, the transformation, the hope, unless it lies not in ourselves, but in Christ. Sometimes, it’s in being down, at our lowest, that we discover that we can be brought back up by a power greater than our own. Other times, maybe gratitude or faith is too much to ask of a person so near to despair, as the man by the pool leaves without a thank you for the intervention and will shortly rat Jesus out. Yet, regardless of belief or betrayal, God is at work in all our ups and even in our downs, our regular routines and extraordinary events. Jesus wants us to be made well, wants us to walk again, flourish again, live again; wants to deliver us from our past baggage, our hopelessness; wants us to say yes, “I want to be well,” as he becomes the living water we need that brings healing. It’s easy to find ourselves wondering why Jesus would want to heal someone who doesn’t even bother to learn his name, someone who when confronted by authorities about carrying his mat, blames Jesus to save himself. Yet, the compassion and healing power we see in Jesus isn’t only reserved for the deserving, whose faith is great and who always respond, but for the rest of us “while we were yet sinners.” Jesus doesn’t heal to benefit himself, gain followers, or increase his “wow” factor, but because healing is the work of God, and that’s whose work he’s doing. Time and time again, Christ comes among us through the voice of friends, through music, nature—whatever might challenge the mind and convict the soul—ready to seize the moment, ready to make us whole, ready to give us hope, ready for us to answer, “Yes, I want to be made well.”
The tale of the man beside the pool is perhaps the strangest of any of the Gospel tales, but maybe it’s the most true to real life. We are curious and perplexing creatures, but God moves among us providing energy to heal us that we might move into the future as we wrestle with the question he will never stop asking, “Do you want to be made well?”
1Mark 4: 40
Belonging to the Lamb
May 12, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
The Easter season continues. Resurrection power is still on the loose as the writer of John shares his vision of what heaven, or better, what eternal life looks like as he sees a divine multitude of God’s children gathered at the foot of the Throne where hunger and thirst, tears and death, poverty and war are no more—gone in the presence of everlasting joy as the great cloud of witnesses stand before God and the Lamb.
It’s quite a diverse group at the heavenly throne, a great multitude, not just a few, but a huge crowd, as they gather to worship the One who gave them life and then took them from death into more life, life everlasting. People from every nation, every tribe and language, young and old, the space filled with different colors, customs, and cultures in an array we can hardly imagine. Whenever I read this particular passage, my mind always, always, goes back to a wedding Dave and I attended in the early 80’s. The bride’s family was attached to First Pres in Youngstown. The mom was a custodian whom we dearly loved, the bride had been in our youth group, her older brother led the group with us. They lived in Smokey Hollow, below the church and university, an ethnic part of town where English was a second language for most folks. Need I say more? The wedding was at St. Columba’s, the cathedral, big and long. And let me tell you, when we got there fifteen minutes or so before the event, that place was already filling up. There were rows and rows of folks of every hue and color, from blackest black to lily white and everything in between. Older ladies from First Pres with gloves and rodents tail-in-mouth around their shoulders, young guys with suits straight out of Saturday Night Fever, wearing more jewelry than I owned, and babies, not hidden away as if the wedding would be ruined by a baby’s cry, but going up and down the pews, laughing as arms reached out for them. Who could tell if the folks passing them were relatives or just friends, because the little ones didn’t seem to know a stranger as they delighted everyone who reached out for them. And the languages whispering around us, a strange cacophony of Portuguese and Spanish, some Slovak, and English. Later, at the reception, different customs became evident as the typical wedding fare of chicken and pasta was enlarged to include rice and bean dishes. And the minute the congas started, while most of the older men from the WASP group looked down contemplating their navels, the Hispanic men, from 90 to three, jumped up, grabbed whomever was in their path to the dance floor and started moving in dances that were nothing if not pure joy. Maybe it’s surprising, with such a great party for the reception, that the wedding itself had filled the church. So often folks plan for the party and bypass the religious service as just the means to the end. But not at this wedding. People did not forego the worship to go straight to the reception, and while I can’t tell you a word that the priest said, I can tell you the place was full of people who came from diverse cultures, customs, and colors to worship, to celebrate, and to share their love with joy. It was heaven on earth.
Funny, isn’t it, if that’s what heaven’s supposed to look like, why don’t folks of a religious persuasion take more opportunities to be with others of the faith not like us, whoever the “us” is? Wouldn’t you think as a country that likes to tout itself as a Christian nation we would be a nation of people falling all over ourselves in search of others whose customs, colors, and cultures are different than our own, inviting folks who are unlike us into our neighborhoods, into our churches? Yet, as Martin Luther King, Jr said in 1960, “Eleven o’clock is the most segregated hour of the week in Christian America”1. That was 50 years ago; today, it’s not only color, customs, and cultures that are dividing us. Now, we find folks, even in “purple churches” like our own, are having a harder time sitting, worshiping, sharing communion, and loving each other. We’re becoming a people intolerant, convinced our way, our understanding is the only right way as we, in the church, reflect the culture around us that is increasingly cut off from one another. What an odd coincidence that May has been designated as Mental Health Month, as we as a nation, maybe as a world, witness a dangerous type of illness spreading. An illness that breaks and confuses the human spirit as loud, demanding, and persuading voices seek to control our hearts and minds as they schizophrenically pull apart the sanity of our centered souls2. We are a noisy culture; words clutter our airwaves, the internet, and the printed page with rudeness and accusations as some expert or official pontificates about nothing while ignoring what’s important, twists and turns any truth until it’s created in their image. What has been accomplished is that we’ve become increasing suspicious of anything and everything said, increasing suspicious of each other and possible ill intent, increasing suspicious of anyone not “just like us” to an extreme, and might I add, a dangerous extreme. In the midst of all the voices, how will we recognize which one is the voice of God, the voice the Good Shepherd we say we follow? In the midst of all the voices, how will we sift through them to listen to the Lamb who brings wholeness from the splintering tongues? In the midst of all the voices, how do we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd who leads us beside still waters and green pastures to restore our souls? The test, dear folks, is always the same. Does the One we follow lead us to life or death? And does the vision offered bring us to heaven on earth, or an isolated hell? By the grace of God, there’s only one voice, only one vision filled with richness and nuances worth listening to.
If we belong to the flock of the Good Shepherd, the very one who told us, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,”3 then we are part of a diverse group which is counter to the isolation and polarization present in our world. If we belong to the Good Shepherd’s flock, out of necessity we will find ourselves refraining from putting down our neighbors who might belong to another fold, renouncing stereotypes by seeing the individuals within them, ceasing to insist that our way is the only way, but instead finding ourselves open to other perspectives as we daily, hourly, walk in the footsteps of the Shepherd and live in the company of the rest of the flock. And even when we stray, as we inevitably will do from time to time, we will find ourselves somehow running into the arms of the Lamb of God, who does take away the sin of the world as he brings us home. Yet, if that’s how we choose to live, if that’s the flock we’re running with and the Shepherd we’re following, then we run the very real risk of being rejected by family and friends. We might lose a little social status, we might be scolded with remembering who we are and whose side we’d better take. That’s how our world works. But then again, the vision of the saints at the end of time that the writer of Revelation offers is a gaggle of folks who have been through an ordeal, a tribulation (read: their choices weren’t popular). God’s vision, God’s dream, God’s revelation for us isn’t about some future payoff in a heavenly place; it’s a vision for God’s people whenever and wherever we gather. The folks who first heard the vision were at odds with both the Greco-Roman world and the Jewish authorities because of their beliefs concerning Jesus. Like them, we who see and hear God’s vision now may find ourselves at odds with others. But, let’s face it, we need not play games for their approval. We can call out the sin-stained belief that the love Jesus has for us is ours alone and speak for God’s intense concern for all God’s children. And any tears we shed will be wiped by the tenderness of God whose living water will sustain us in our time and place as we live in community with a diverse flock—many perspectives and ways reflecting God’s vision.
The writer of Revelation has a vision that the Good Shepherd will gather all who belong to the Lamb from every nation and tribe, people and language, as songs of joy echo from heaven throughout the ends of the earth, in worship, in celebration, in love. It’s a vision for now, as God’s resurrection power sweeps through.
1Interview on “Meet the Press,” April 17, 1960.
2Andrews, Susan, The Tears of God: Jesus as Passion and Promise, “Recognizing the Voices.”
Resurrection Power on the Loose
May 5, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
A few weeks past Easter, past seeing Jesus not just once, but twice, in Jerusalem, life should be finding some kind of regular routine for the disciples. Yet, Peter and company seem to be back not in Jerusalem, but in Galilee, at the lake where it all began, where Jesus first commandeered Peter’s boat while teaching the crowds, and then sent him out for some fishing, assuring him that one day he’d be catching people1. Now at the end of John’s story, the disciples are back.
It’s been a long night for Peter and the other six. Jesus has recently changed their job titles from disciples to “apostles,” from simply following him to people who are sent out in his name, his envoys. Yet, here they are, acting as if, perhaps, returning to their old way of life may not be a bad idea. It’s one thing to have a job change and take a little R & R, but all night, nets empty, sounds a little more intense than relaxation. Makes us wonder, even though Jesus shared with them the peace that’s supposed to surpass all understanding, if maybe they took off for Galilee because they were, still, just a little ashamed about how really badly they botched things when it mattered most. Makes us wonder if maybe they felt like they didn’t deserve the trust he was placing in them. Or maybe they were overwhelmed, lost their nerve, unsure where or how to even begin. Perhaps, after Jesus blew the Holy Spirit on them he figured they didn’t need a forwarding address, that they’d listen to that quiet voice inside, discuss it in community, and make some decisions; but that doesn’t seem to be the case. So the disciples, like the rest of us, when they’re not sure what to do, do what they know, and what they know is fishing on the Sea of Galilee. But whatever brings them to the lake that night, they sure aren’t convincing fishermen, with empty nets, not a nibble, from a long night’s work. When somebody from the shore starts calling out advice, it’s like, really, what have they got to lose? It’s such a little change the stranger suggests, cast the net off the other side, off the starboard instead of the port, a little different angle, a changed perspective. And what a difference, what a haul, fish overflowing like wine at a wedding where once there was none. Like grace upon grace, as it hits at least one of them just whose advice they’re following, while Peter, ever impulsive, takes his directions from the one who recognizes, throws on a little modesty, and heads for the shore, leaving the rest of his friends in a boat spilling over with abundance, at the end of a long night.
Jesus already has breakfast going as the disciples draw in. He will feed them, both literally and figuratively. The disciples may have pulled in a load of fish, but the grill’s already going, bread and fish cooking, as the rest of the group begin to recognize Jesus, not by his looks, but by his actions. Jesus offers up a meal reminiscent of the one he once provided for 50002, as his love for them takes tangible form. But if we’re honest, there’s nothing like someone being nice, acting with love, to make us feel worse when we’re already having trouble confronting our own guilt and fears. Coming face-to-face with our past mistakes and shortcomings makes a lot of us tuck tail, wanting to avoid the whole thing. But how can we tell Jesus to go away because we’re just not up to all the disciple stuff? What to say when he blows off our denials and failures and tells us instead to “feed my sheep,” “go and care for the folks I love, go feed the flock of the Good Shepherd, feed them in my place with whatever gift I’ve given you”? Truth be told, most of us are only too aware of our inadequacies. We suspect we are unqualified for whatever Jesus may come up with and are much more comfortable hiding the gifts we have under the proverbial bushel basket. But Jesus will have none of that. He refuses to let disciples on the beach, or in the pew, forget who we are. According to the writer of John, the question Peter denies three times isn’t “Do you know him?” but “are you one of the man’s disciples?”3. It’s a question of our identity. Jesus isn’t there to blame or shame Peter or the rest of the group, he’s not into drawing out humiliation, he’s not testing Peter or doing some kind of ethereal math as if three declarations of love cancels out three denials. Instead, he’s affirming who Peter already is, and who he needs to be. Peter needs to be a disciple, and he needs to be the shepherd Jesus has called him to be, not only for Jesus, but also for himself, and that goes for the rest of us, as well. Of course, we will stumble and fall and make mistakes, but that doesn’t disqualify us from being used by God. If that means some folks are disappointed, might judge us, not like us, or even reject us unless we play it safe and hide our gifts, then maybe they need to get to know Jesus better. Jesus calls us to use what he gives us to “feed his sheep,” to make abundance happen, to be his presence. So he draws us to him, sits us down, and feeds us with what we need.
Funny, how resurrection power works. When Jesus says, “Follow me,” he invites everyone, even folks we’d least expect. “Saul, why do you persecute?” “Simon, Son of John, do you love me more than these?” Nora, Dave, Kay, Arlene and on and on, including each and every one of us. God’s resurrection power has been turned loose on the world, convincing and convicting us, whether we’re on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, or the road to Damascus, or on Rt. 7, or 5, or 87, as we find ourselves called to play our part in the dawning era of abundant grace. The kind of grace that turns our world upside down, or maybe turns a world that’s upside down right side up. The kind of grace that causes dumbfounded disciples on a seashore to travel to the ends of the world, feeding the folks God entrusted to them. The kind of grace that transforms Saul, the most anti-Christian, who wanted only to silence, jail, and kill off disciples, to tirelessly minster to outsiders, foreigners, and skeptics. And the kind of grace that causes us who are perfectly comfortable to look around and see what needs to be done, roll up our sleeves, and set about making our part of the world better. On Monday night, I had the privilege of joining our AA group for their anniversary. I am aware of the history, how while there were lots of inquires sent to local churches, there weren’t many takers willing to entertain the possibility of having meetings in their space—in God’s space—but how this church, not without lots of discussion, opened the door, took a step into an unknown, and has participated in the witness of folks whose lives are being transformed by the grace of God’s resurrection power, even as we, too, are transformed by that same power. The same can be said for so many of the other “opportunities” God has placed before us. The God who transforms something as terrible as a Roman cross into the “Tree of Life”4 asks us to offer the gospel to any who are searching for meaning, for hope, for the courage to be all that God has made us to be; and in doing so, we find that we, too, are being redeemed. That is the life we are made for, not located in our pasts, but being part of a future through the resurrection power that has been turned loose on the world.
During Eastertide, the risen Christ shows up all over the place: Damascus, Galilee, Kinsman, very much at work and asking us to follow him. Yet, he seems to know there’ll be times when we’re ready to quit, when we’re tired, when we’re hungry, so he provides a meal like he did on that Galilean shore, that we might be nourished while he draws us into the future as we live into the resurrection power with abundant grace.
4The language of transformation of Roman cross to Tree of Life comes from the commentary SALT, Easter III, Year C.
The Word... Again...Becomes Flesh
April 28, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
The Sunday after Easter. The Sunday after all the excitement, all the “Christ has risen, He is risen, indeed!” all the family or friends in and out. The second Sunday of Easter often leaves us with a kind of “now what?” But our “now what?” is a lot less terrifying than the “now what?” of the first disciples.
The disciples are scared. No wonder they’re hiding out. That first Easter evening (they didn’t have to wait a week for the “now what” feeling) the doors are locked for fear of the religious authorities. Granted, the disciples all heard Mary Magdalene’s message that “Christ is risen,” heard the couple who went home to Emmaus only to come rushing back, swearing it was Jesus who broke the bread. But while witnesses of Christ’s appearances are interesting, if unbelievable, in the daytime, they aren’t at all that comforting at night when the disciples are expecting to be the next arrested. They saw what happened to Jesus, and it sure wasn’t pretty; nail studded straps do a number on the body of a man. And dead is dead. Any notion of an eternal soul is a foreign Greek concept. It certainly isn’t found in the Hebrew Bible. The disciples, like Jesus, understand that body and soul are in unity. When one stops, so does the other; no detachable soul flutters free. Since, in the words of Isaiah, “all flesh is grass”1 (read: impermanent), that impermanence carries over to the soul, as well. There’s none of the 21st century confusion or arrogance of the soul’s indestructibility, that part of our humanity, our soul, is instead as eternal as the divine. There’s no misunderstanding between immortality and resurrection. About the best the disciples can hope for is the possibility of Sheol, a shadowy place to hang out until the final resurrection at the end of time, and none of them wants to make the trip tonight. They’re scared to death they’re next on the list to die. But if they’re scared of the living, it’s nothing when they realize Jesus stands among them. How can they believe what’s before their eyes? What’s believable is repeatable, and nobody’s ever seen anything like this before. Even Lazarus, when Jesus raised him, was pretty much the same old, same old. Yet, Jesus is with them now, no longer weighed down by his body, no longer limited by walls or locks, but is somehow redeemed, transformed, not through some human power within him, but through the grace of God, alone. He’s not some disembodied spirit making an appearance. He comes to them the risen Lord. Their fear of the living is nothing compared with their fear of the dead, now alive. The security of the room cloistered from the outside is gone. And the disciples are scared.
But Jesus stands there and offers peace and then gives his disciples the Holy Spirit. He always has, and he continues to do so. The risen Christ returns to the very disciples who have denied and deserted with greetings of “Peace be with you,” not once, but twice. And yes, of course, that is the customary greeting, and certainly when Jesus sends out disciples before his death he instructs them to enter homes with such a greeting2. Still, his offer of peace recalls his words of farewell, when Jesus promises, “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you” and then later adds, “in me you may have peace”3. What reassurance to folks dealing not only with grief but also guilt when they see his wounds. Fears over what might happen next are laid to rest when the “Shame on you” that’s expected is instead, mercifully, “Peace be with you.” The reality is disciples throughout the ages, all of us, have in one way or another denied or deserted. The wounded Savior who bears the wounds of the world, including ours, heals us with his words and then breathes the Holy Spirit on us. Funny how, in the Hebrew the word for “breathe” and “spirit” is the same. “Ruach.” Just like God breathes over the chaotic void, bringing possibilities to our emerging universe, just like God blows life into the first earth creatures at the beginning of time, the Risen Jesus blows new life into trembling disciples who are still being fashioned into the “being-saved” community, the Body of Christ. By his breath we are given the power, creativity, and authority to become the church. Jesus gathers and constitutes the community of believers through the ages with his gift of peace and the Holy Spirit.
The Word again takes on flesh whenever Jesus comes to disciples locked in houses of fear and sends them out living, breathing men and women to continue his ministry. He commissions us with, “As the Father has sent me so I send you.” In life, Jesus preached, taught, broke bread at the Table, forgave, and formed believers in a common faith. Suddenly, the same activities begin to take place among his earliest followers. What had been the work of Christ among disciples was now taking place within the community, and it still continues today. His word still comes in the often clumsy preaching; his freeing spirit enlarges our own cramped spirits; his love flowing bubbles from our midst; his courage, his unwillingness to compromise taken up by disciples no longer hiding behind locked doors, but men and women willing to face authority and speak the Word of Truth into being. The message the world hoped to stop on a Roman cross, the message the religious authorities hoped to stop by orders and jail, would fill Jerusalem and spill out beyond the borders and boundaries of all places and time, and continues with you, each and every one of you, as together in community that word continues to take on flesh in our lives and the lives touched by this community of faith. No longer will the world see the physical Christ walking on earth, but will continue to see Christ in the ministry, in the mission, of the church and the courage of the people in it. As we tell the story, his story, we are confronted with our own choices, no different than the early disciples. Just as Peter and the apostles wrestled with whether they could be, would be, reliable witnesses to the person and mission of Christ, whose authority would they obey, and how much were they willing to risk for the One they followed, we, too, in the church continue to wrestle with the same questions as we strive to remain loyal to the Christ we serve. Granted, we don’t do it perfectly; at best we are a patched-together group, not always of one mind or opinion. But we can accept that some wounds remain, even after resurrection: our backgrounds are different, our experiences different, our perspectives are different, but the Holy Spirit can make even differences holy. No wonder we continue to need the peace, power, and mercy of the Holy Spirit as we live out our shared life in Christ, practicing resurrection with each new day as the Word again takes on flesh and dwells among us.
So on the second Sunday of Easter, what now? We have been called to be part of Christ’s risen life on earth, so our fragile words of witness, our clumsy actions of ministry continue, as we look for opportunities to serve Christ and the folks around us in such a way that they will say, “We have seen the Lord!” as the Word takes on flesh through the presence of Christ who dwells among us.
2Luke 10: 5
3John 14:27, 16:33
Remember What He Said
April 21, 2019 (Easter)
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Crucified, dead, buried. Jesus warned his followers at least three times, yet, somehow, not by his own power, but by the power of God, he is raised. Easter, the dawn of a new day, a new way of life, where love and justice, shalom and joy, will have the last say when we remember and live out Jesus’ words.
The ladies go to the tomb with few expectations. They know Jesus is dead, real deal, and they know what that means. They are the women who have been with Jesus since the beginning, traveling the countryside of Galilee. The women waiting with him at the cross, watching the whole gory thing, keeping vigil during the day, seeing the spear thrust into him as blood and water spew out, watching Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus take down his body, wrap it in linen, and carry it to the newly hewn tomb. They are the ones entering the tomb as the men lay him down, seeing how his body is laid. Then going home, while everyone else rests during the Sabbath they’re preparing the spices and ointment for a proper burial, the minute the law gives them leave. That’s how they spend their Sabbath, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, the mother of James and the others. They could have just as easily been named Nora, Gayle, and Susan when the details of death need to be cared for by the living. They knew who to call—the ancient equivalents of Mona, for her signature white almond sheet cake, Judy, for any number of specialties, and all the rest of you, women and men, who show up and get in line to do what needs to be done time and time and time again. The women go to the tomb because they know that grief, no matter how great, can’t get in the way of all that death requires. But when they get there, the stone is moved. Jesus’ body is gone, the tomb emphatically empty. Still, in the shadowy light of dawn, when it’s hard to tell the difference between what is and what seems to be, appear two men. The ladies, brave enough to enter an open tomb, even if momentarily terrified by the male presence, neither faint nor flee, but stand their ground as they are asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? Remember how he told you on the third day?” Remember? Remember? It’s only after prompting from the angels at the tomb that the women recall Jesus’ prediction, not just his announcement that the journey to Jerusalem will likely end in death, for even in the face of all their denials and avoidances how could it have ended otherwise? No, not only the prediction of his death, but the hint of something more, something beyond death, beyond the limits of any understood reality. The hint that had been lost as it boggled their minds when first spoken is now remembered as the past bears on the present in a way that surprises them. Only then, do they realize that they do not come to care for a dead Jesus, but that they serve the risen Lord. Doubt and confusion give way to deep seated conviction and they leave the tomb passing by the stone of logical expectation as they see a future filled with promise.
The women bring back good news, but then it stops. It doesn’t take the ladies long to return to the group of Jesus’ closest friends, Jesus’ grieving friends. Over and over they recite their tale. A story of an empty tomb, of angels, and of a new day dawning, but to no avail. The women, having seen a sight to behold, are energized with good news and run right into a brick wall of skepticism. “Idle tales,” say some of the guys. “What nonsense,” say others, as if the women are suffering from some kind of “group hysteria”—as if they are fuzzy-headed children, rather than the formidable women that they are, who have kept the entire group afloat. Still, it’s no wonder, the others are hesitant to believe, their disillusionment huge. Later that day a couple from the group will tell a stranger who walks to Emmaus with them “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” The disciples, men and women, have given up their families, their livelihood, their very lives to follow Jesus, believing him to be the Messiah. Yet, three days earlier he was hung on a tree like the worst of criminals; their hopes have crashed and burned, and for all they know, they may be next. Jesus’ followers, who have had a front row seat to the unanticipated and unexpected as they followed him, have forgotten his words and have little room for resurrected bodies within their realm of reason. Easter faith makes no sense to folks who want their faith to be tangible, practical, and rational. Yet, good old Peter, the tale of the women propels him to investigate for himself, and while he may not return convinced, seeds of amazement begin to take root, and once begun will, in time, grow deeper. If he’s skeptical for now, he’s in good company. The reality is whenever the Easter message is shared, some will be amazed, and faith will slowly begin, while others will find it humbug.
Yet, it’s only by “remembering his words” that the good news takes on life. It’s only in remembering that the Easter message begins to make sense. Unless there’s a frame of reference, unless there’s an experience, how can folks believe? It will take the breaking of bread on the road to Emmaus. It will take Jesus appearing to his disciples, reminding them of his teachings in Galilee, before the disciples can accept a mystery so great as Easter. The story of resurrection only finds its meaning when it’s connected with the life and words of Christ. When the first disciples made the connection, they realized that his life, death, and resurrection was the way God had brought the Kingdom Jesus preached into being. Jesus’ death wasn’t the completion of his ministry, his resurrection was. With it, a new day had dawned. They understood that the Kingdom wasn’t some future in the Sweet By and By, but is “present-tense now.” That’s what gave the first disciples, who had denied and run away, the courage to stand before the crowds, before the authorities, and continue his message, the courage to pool their resources and live in community, the courage to move outside of their tribal norms, outside the “-isms” of culture, race and religion, to accept even Gentiles like Cornelius. The good news of Easter was shaping them even as they were re-shaping their part of the world because they remembered what he said and they started practicing what he preached. Maybe we, too, need to remember, and let Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection re-shape our lives as well. Maybe we who have heard the old, old story need a little re-tweaking that we might live it anew, live out the Kingdom in the “present-tense now,” as well. Like the women who go to the tomb, taking care of all that death requires, so believers take care of all that life lived abundantly requires, as well. So who are the lowly who could use a hand up? Who are the folks who are falling outside of our so called safety nets, and what are we doing to cause the nets to enlarge or shrink? Who do we ignore, allowing their choices, their rights, to evaporate like smoke on a windy day? Surely we don’t have to look too hard. The remembering that disciples do, regardless of whether it’s the first or the 21st century, is more than memories flitting across our collective minds, but a tangible kind of remembering that takes on flesh and makes a difference. And while there always seems to be evidence that evil has the upper hand, that Easter is just an idle tale of nonsense, fear not, God’s grace will ultimately overcome as surely as the tomb is empty and Jesus is resurrected. And we know it when we remember what he said.
The focus of Easter isn’t when Jesus breaths his last, but when he leaves the “linen cloth of death” behind. Today, we are called to be resurrection partners, not passive bystanders. Perhaps, with us, by God’s grace the world begins all over again if we will remember what he said, that a new day has dawned. If we remember what he said, bring in the kingdom.
It is Finished
April 19, 2019 (Good Friday)
Rev. Susan H. Francis
John 19: 16b-30
We gather tonight because Jesus died. The method of execution not something neat and clean, like a lethal injection, but a cross that’s whole purpose was to kill as slowly and painfully as possible. We, Protestants, fill our sanctuaries with empty crosses, taking comfort in our focus of resurrection, making it easy to skip over that someone first was on it. But to do so allows us to visually avoid the whole gory mess of death, as if an occupied cross will cause us to fixate like we do with strangers in a bad accident. Only this is no stranger, but Jesus, God’s own flesh and blood, the One with the power to heal, to cast out demons, to raise others from the dead, and it’s all he can do from his vantage point to mutter, “It is finished.”
How did we get to this place, to Good Friday, to the very end where Jesus says, “It is finished” and dies? It sure doesn’t sound like what the God who brings worlds into being, who breathes life into creation, would have planned. It sure doesn’t seem like what Jesus, the one with the “in” on God’s will and full of God’s power, would have hoped. Such a God doesn’t make a convincing case for “cradle to cross” theology—Jesus born to die, with everyone, including Jesus, playing pre-ordained roles in God’s plan of salvation, like puppets on marionette strings—if God is truly the source of life. That doesn’t seem to be how God works. Just because it happens doesn’t mean it’s God’s will. There are lots of things that happen that fall short of the abundant life God wishes for each of us, including Jesus. If we’re honest, we know there are other powers at work in our world. God’s will isn’t located in a vacuum, and every one of us has a choice whether we will fulfill or frustrate what God desires. Jesus, the one who actually lived out God’s will, wasn’t naive but had to know that when fear, jealousy, and power are on the line, what is fair, just, and right doesn’t have a chance. All along the way he could have changed his outcome, could have stopped operating in the open, gone underground, stayed across the river instead of raising Lazarus. When they came to arrest him, he didn’t have to step into the light of the torches like he had a bull’s eye painted on him. “Are you Jesus of Nazareth?” they ask, and he gives them his alias, “I am.” It’s God’s name from a different perspective, the same name given to Moses at the burning bush, “I am who I am, and I will be who I will be.” It’s not the only answer that could have been given, but maybe it was the only one he was willing to give. It’s no wonder they decided, come hell or high water, he was finished. It’s the world’s “no” to God’s “yes” that brings Jesus to the cross, dripping life’s blood. A life given, rather than taken. Perhaps the defeat of God’s will, but also the perfection of it.
“It is finished,” Jesus says. Just what’s finished? The pain, the suffering? Pain may be the biggest test of faith that any one is called to face. It’s only human to avoid suffering, to run from it. It’s a natural reflex, a physiological response to painful stimuli. It warns us that something’s dangerous. Pain and suffering are things Jesus was all too familiar with, growing up around Nazareth, going to Jerusalem for the high holy days, traveling the countryside. He grows up seeing the various results of rebellion to Rome’s occupancy. And the punishments are never painless, the worst offences Roman crosses that lined the roads. He knew that kind of suffering was meant to deter others, like himself, from making choices that would land them there. He knew of the beatings with a leather strap, nail studded to rip down to the muscle, he knew what the weight of a body held in place by spikes could do to flesh and muscle, he saw what the suffocation that would eventually cause death looks like. Jesus was no stranger to suffering. Maybe, it was such firsthand observations that spurred him to try to eliminate suffering where and when he could, casting out demons, healing bent backs and blind eyes, and raising a few from the dead. Jesus seems to make a point not to turn from suffering, but enter into it fully. It seems like he did the same when it comes to his own, as well. Rather than run from it, he seems to confront it, deciding that whether to suffer isn’t the question, only how, as he is hurt to death on the cross. But as bad as that might be, it probably hurts a whole lot less than the betrayal of his friends, folks who sleep when he needs them the most, who sell him to enemies, who deny ever knowing him, who are no-shows as he waits for three hours to die. Let’s face it, physical suffering is always dimmed by emotional pain, the nails in his hands not nearly as bad as the nails through his heart. There’s some sad irony that the One who did so much to relieve suffering would find himself in the midst of the worst of it. So here he is, his life not taken as much as it’s given, since he always knew it could end this way if he continued with his Kingdom of God message, riding his pain all the way to the end until he says, “It is finished.”
“It is finished,” Jesus says. Just what’s finished? Has he completed what he came to do? Jesus comes preaching God’s kingdom, God’s vision for the world, refusing to back down from the message he was born to bring: that God so loved the world that God has made a major investment in flesh and blood. Jesus comes loving us that we might grow into the fullness of our humanity, a humanity that can sometimes sparkle with the divinity of the One in whose image we’re created. Jesus loves us, not with a sticky enabling love, but with a fierce love that insists that the spirit of the law is at least as important as the letter of the law. A fierce love that will not watch the widow go hungry or the leper shunned. A fierce love that will turn over tables rather than see God turned into a commodity. From start to finish Jesus maintains his course, refusing the temptation to play to the crowds, to curry social favor, or get in good with the in-group. Jesus dies because he won’t be seduced by compromise and ambition. He won’t stop being who he is, even if who he is upsets a lot of folks as he turns the world upside down, eating and drinking with the wrong folks, offending the right ones, or challenging any authority with a different view of God and God’s law. Jesus could have chosen another route, but he felt God calling him to Jerusalem through valleys of conflict and persecution even as he shows the crowds glimpses of holy along the way. Jesus spends the last three years of his life refusing to compromise God’s vision but instead trusting in God’s will, which seem to be the very things that have put him on the cross. As he is held by nails of fear and anger, Jesus completes what he came here to do: proclaim the reign of God, refuse to compromise, hold on to his integrity, and when he gives up his life it is a choice, not a capitulation. What is finished is any separation between Jesus and God. Then Jesus gives up his spirit, his thirst quenched, and dives back into the stream of living water from which he had sprung and swims all the way home.1
“It is finished,” Jesus said. We have done our worst to him. He has breathed his last breath. Perhaps, his work will culminate not with his death, but with his resurrection, but for now Easter is still just a rumor, and Jesus has breathed his last.
1 I know I have read this somewhere, I believe it is from one of Barbara Brown Taylor’s writings.
*This sermon has been shaped by the writings of David Buttrick and Barbara Brown Taylor and any “stealing” has been accidental
April 14, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29
Palm Sunday celebrates, in reality, the genesis of the Christian Resistance Movement, a movement that continues even in our here and now. If we’re honest, the questions of what or how to resist a lawfully constituted authority are as difficult today as they were in its beginning, for when people of faith rise up, while the world may change, it is always opposed. To deny that is to deny the history of the church. Certainly, the civil rights movement came out of Christian resistance, as did the church’s stand against South Africa’s Apartheid and the Nazi regime. Even the American Revolution was, to a large extent, a religious rebellion, known as the “Presbyterian Revolt” in British circles. Before that the Reformation was viewed as a massive resistance movement, as was the Magna Carta of 1215, the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), the arrest of Peter and the apostles1, and all the way back to, you guessed it, the event we name as Palm Sunday. Makes us pause, doesn’t it? All the palms we waved as kids and then turned into palm crosses, the shouts of Hosanna, all part of our inheritance of a resistance movement that operated in broad daylight.
Jesus going to Jerusalem the final time sounds like some kind of espionage work, something concocted by an underground, or some kind of ancient Mission Impossible show, “Should you decide to accept this mission.” Let’s face it, when it comes to Jesus’ ride for the parade, either he’s remarkably clairvoyant or he’s made plans ahead of time, pre-arranging the password, “The Lord needs it,” so that the colt would be ready, just waiting for pickup and delivery. He sends out two disciples, like advance agents, full of secrecy, sign and countersign exchanged, as Jesus moves from orchestrating things to literally going for a ride. And it doesn’t seem to be an accident, according to the author of Luke, that a whole multitude of disciples, maybe from independent cells unknown to each other2, gather as the folks from Galilee (with whom Jesus tripped around the countryside for three years), and a second cell from Judea (around Jerusalem, a group to whom the colt belonged, perhaps familiar with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus), at the same particular time swell the streets already busy with Passover pilgrims. Throwing down their cloaks like an ancient red carpet, his followers shift the usual Passover blessing from “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” to “Blessed is the king who comes” as they shout Hosannas, meaning nothing like: “God, You really rock” or even “Praise to You,” but “Save us”; that’s what Hosanna means. The very request a people under foreign occupation would ask of a king, they ask of Jesus, as God’s agent picks up the mantle of Messiahship. All timed with the thoroughness of an underground movement, meaning to make a difference in the world they know.
Who’s at the center of the intrigue but Jesus, there in the midst of what is arguably the most volatile and political of any of the Jewish festivals? The very word, Passover, a kind of shorthand for the entire Exodus experience: leaving Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, becoming God’s own at Mt. Sinai, the commandments, the wilderness, and the Promised Land all drawn together at the Passover meal. It is a holiday meant to invoke the memory of rescue, of liberation, by the God of the Jews from the greatest superpower of their ancestors’ time, ever so much like their present time Roman conquerors. It’s the reason Pontius Pilate leaves the comfort of his coastal home in Caesarea Maritima for parochial Jerusalem, along with his regiments of soldiers. When Jesus decides to go to Jerusalem, he knows he’s placing himself in a cauldron of political danger. Pilate’s known to have no love for the Jews he oversees. His cruelty, legendary. He’s already mingled the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices3, and Jesus has no reason to think Pilate would treat him any differently. But it’s not only the Romans; Jesus has to know that entering Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives will lead the folks who surround him to expect he brings God’s promised new era4, a kingdom they expect to be forged from military conquest and endowed with amazing prosperity. The trouble is, it won’t take long for the parade to decide he is a disappointing imposture when the Romans grab him . And when the cries of “save us” are met with silence, when the king is seen as less efficient, less aggressive, than the standard the crowd insists upon, then disillusioned parades will become angry mobs fast. What is Jesus thinking as he places himself in the crosshairs of both the Romans and the Jews, unless his carefully made plan simply reflects his commitment to live out the Kingdom of God rather than the kingdom the people expect, even if that means going to the city that will reject and crucify him—not because he wants to die, but that he wants the good in him, the good in us, the good in everyone, to live. He’s been warning disciples of his possible death all along the long trek to Jerusalem. The cross that has been in the distance now looms directly before him. To face it takes a certain kind of bravery, not the bravery that’s instinctual (that pushes someone to throw themselves over a child in front of an oncoming car, although that is courageous), but the kind of courage that sees danger coming from a long way off, has the time to process and come up with alternative paths, yet chooses to remain faithful, enduring growing fears as he stays the course. Jesus becomes a model for folks who would follow him by resisting forces immoral and unethical in the name of the God to whom he answers, putting himself at the center of intrigue to bring us to new expectations for our lives.
Of course, a cloak of silence can be a good camouflage. Sometimes it may be wise to bide our time, while at other times it’s just a cop out. Caution, some of the Pharisees advise. Not all Pharisees oppose Jesus; remember, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea are part of the Sanhedrin and it was some Pharisees who warned him earlier of Herod’s displeasure5. Addressing him as teacher, perhaps they offer words of caution for good reason, understanding that such a display of royalty might bring retaliation from the folks in power? Can’t he just tone it down a little and see where his actions are leading? Doesn’t he get the cost, and they’re not just talking money? Their concern is a mixture for the people, themselves, and even for Jesus. Maybe a part of us agrees with the Pharisees. We are a people obsessed with efficiency, prosperity, and certainly, safety. Just what compromises are made to our faith when we consider the costs and risks of his claim on our lives? And just how well do we think Jesus’ message would sit with today’s centers of power if they would actually listen to him? Yet, Jesus’ words challenge us to focus not so much on what lies ahead, but on the One astride the colt. Jesus takes part in an act of resistance that the good in us might live, and asks the same of us. But it’s up to us to decide whether we’ll embrace integrity and hope or hide behind security and smallness. Some of our choices might be painful: we can deny and turn away or reach out and touch them. That’s the crux of Palm Sunday, that’s the crux of Passover. The rabbis tell us that the miracle of the Red Sea wasn’t the parting of waters, but that with a wall of water on either side, the first Jew walked through. It took trust in God to do what should be done, just as it takes trust for Jesus to go into Jerusalem and do what is needed, just as it takes courage for us to follow him now. As in Jesus’ time, we are surrounded by situations that have solutions. Most of them aren’t so different now than in Jesus’ time: care of the widow, the orphan, the alien, figuring out who is our neighbor and how shall we treat them? Funny, how the more things change, the more they stay the same. But the good news is the Scriptures have much to say about all such matters, all the while challenging us to be honest and ask ourselves if we speak of morality while acting immoral, if we complain about violence while we practice it, if we act religiously and forget the Gospel. Like Rome we can suppress opposition and deny questions, like Jerusalem we can stone prophets, or we can follow Jesus and stand up for the good, the right, and the true, participating in Kingdom work, no matter the cost. God knows, Palm Sunday praises without the passion make a hollow and dangerous religion. It’s up to us to decide who and what will guide our voices and our actions. It’s up to us to decide if we’ll turn our backs or join the parade, as the stones prepare to sing out.
Just when it would be great to enjoy the parade and think of chocolate bunnies waiting to be eaten, we find ourselves on a crowded, noisy road on the way to Jerusalem, caught between the Romans, the Pharisees and Jesus, caught between keepers of the systems and the Word of God, caught between the status quo and a resistance movement, and the choice is ours as to which we will join.
2A theory a very credible colleague of mine had years ago... It seems to work in this passage.
Gestures of Love
April 7, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Jesus comes to Bethany six days before Passover. Bethany is a mere two miles to the east of Jerusalem, on the east side of Mount of Olives, from which glad “hosannas” will ring out. No wonder he comes to his home away from home, a place where he knows he’s loved. The religious leaders are hot on his trail. Healing a bent woman, returning sight to a blind man on the Sabbath is one thing, but raising the dead is something altogether different. Coming from the safety of the far side of the Jordan to raise Lazarus, practicing what he preaches, means he trades his life for the life of a friend. It’s put Jesus on the most-wanted list. He knows it. His friends know it, as well.
It seems Mary’s in her usual place when Jesus comes to dinner, attentive to him, at his feet. Maybe that’s no surprise since Martha’s busy commandeering the kitchen and the serving of the guests, and Lazarus is hanging with the guys, each in their usual spots as well. What is surprising is when Mary breaks open the jar of spikenard. Its heady, sharp fragrance, somewhere between mint and ginseng, fills the entire room, the entire house. They all know things are dicey, that death is near, but Mary also knows that in times of trouble, peril, or pain the thing that carries us through, what creates the most comfort, is found through the holy sacrament of skin and tears1. She’s aware that shortly after he leaves he will enter the city of Jerusalem, and he’ll need the comfort, the security, of knowing that he is loved if he’s to show the extravagant love of washing his disciples’ feet, as Mary washes his, of handing himself over to be arrested, of withstanding the beating he takes, of carrying his cross to Golgotha. Mary’s actions, her refusal to hold anything back, is an echo of the God who holds nothing back from us. And if there’s any doubt, the world will see, very shortly, God’s love spilling out on a cross in abundant love. Mary recognizes the rarity of the moment and she seizes the opportunity to show her commitment to the One she believes in, as every detail points to her faithfulness. Her gift, exceeds all expectation, like the wine at the wedding in Cana, as she anticipates what his future will be. But even her extravagance can’t erase the smell of death that wafts in the air like the stench from Lazarus’ tomb. Death can’t be erased or even overcome in its inevitability. That’s the truth of living, of incarnation. To live means to die, and even the promise of resurrection can’t take that reality away. Mary can’t erase the smell of death, but she can match it with a fragrance that will drive it back for a time as she cares for him, as his need presents itself at her doorstep and around her table.
Then along comes Judas—there’s always one in the crowd. Somebody’s always got to complain, as if no good deed can go unpunished. We live in a world with such a tendency to whitewash bad choices that it’s easy to be suspicious, critical even, of good intentions. As the fragrance of the nard fills the room, Judas takes it upon himself to call attention to, to scold, what he deems as Mary’s misguided generosity, claiming concern for the poor. It’s a criticism that gives us pause; maybe he’s got a point? Aren’t we supposed to do all things in moderation, use restraint, avoid any shows of ostentation, be prudent, and tuck something away for a rainy day? Isn’t our Presbyterian byword to be decent and in order? Mary’s gift is lavish to any practical minded economy. Yet, Jesus blesses it, instead, warning Judas to leave her alone. It’s not like Jesus is suddenly pulling rank on the poor, it’s not like he hasn’t spent the last three years making a regular practice of putting others’ needs before his own or healing them so they could work and feed themselves, or teaching them to care for and help each other out. Jesus has lived his life reflecting God’s overarching call to care for the neighbor and pushing society towards a goal of “no one in need.” But if Judas was honest, the poor aren’t really the point, but a cover for his tight-fisted greed that Moses, as Jerry read, instructs against. Judas entirely misses that along the way, there are milestones when special acts of generosity, of extravagance–in-love, are fitting2. Mary gets that it’s no ordinary dinner. She knows the end is near, so she honors Jesus in the shadow of death. But Judas doesn’t have the kind of relationship with Jesus to understand the love or care that goes into a relationship. He doesn’t know that a relationship with Jesus is more important than thirty pieces of silver, or anything else. Instead, he uses Moses’ commandment as a tool to criticize Mary.
Perhaps, that’s the difference between folks who believe, who viscerally take into themselves the meaning of faith, and folks who are one step removed, observant, but not invested, not living into their call. It’s easy to forget that it’s really Jesus we serve when we honor, when we love whomever God places before us. What won’t always be with us is the opportunity to care, to make a difference in that person’s life. The Kingdom of God is here; the choice is how shall we live into its promise? Do we choose measured risk and miss out on what could be? Or do we offer extravagant care and live into God’s vision? Will we honor gestures of love as sacred to God or hold back with suspicion or apathy? We all hold a jar filled with time and energy; for whom will we spill it? Today we will be recognizing a group of folks who have offered such care. Who have, on their way to Jerusalem, found themselves at milestones where specific acts of generosity, of extravagant love, were called for. And they have poured themselves out, showing up most Wednesday nights to cook, or to sit patiently and work with one student or two, going over homework, drilling flash cards, reading a book, and listening to a young person in need of an ear. Folks who have poured themselves out, loving kids into a future they may not have had, in quite the same way, without the impact of such folks, making a difference in lives by being in relationship and living into their call by living into the Kingdom. But let’s face it, tutoring is only one way, one opportunity, in a myriad of ways, to make a difference in the world. So look around, see what or who God has placed before you. There’s always the choice to live with indifference, or to love like Mary; to complain about the waste of it all, or break open the jar and breathe in the fragrance; to watch from the side, or be a person moved by your faith.
Mary’s anointing of Jesus is a rich story full of treasures we can carry with us as we travel towards Jerusalem with Jesus. As people of the incarnation, we are called to break bread, share the fruit of the grape, shed tears, sit with uncertain students, and a multitude of other acts that are sacred gestures of love given to the world around us, given to the Lord we serve.
1Journey with Jesus
2SALT, Lectionary Commentary for Lent 5, April 2, 2019.