Sunday, March 17, 2013

"Differing Disciples"


Sermon Text: John 12: 1-8

I often joke that I must have been especially hard to train for ministry because I had to go to seminary twice. The first time, I was right out of college and at the ripe old age of 21, had a difficult time imagining myself as the pastor of a church. Part of it was my age, but part of it was also my gender. Even though I was born after many of you took to the streets and the courts and the boardrooms in the 60s and 70s to give your daughters and granddaughters choices you never had, the church has always been a little slow to change, and when I went to seminary as a 21-year-old, I saw a woman preach for the first time in my life. Fast forward five years and when I went to seminary the second time around I had been a part of two congregations that were served by female clergy.

There was something about seeing women up front, leading worship week-after-week that helped me believe I could do it. There was something about seeing someone who looked like me in the pulpit that led me to imagine myself in the role.

Some would say it is a gift to have diversity in leadership. I would say it is absolutely essential.

Diversity is something our Holy Scriptures provide abundantly. Story after story in our gospels are of Jesus interacting with almost every type of person imaginable….rich men and poor men; women who were propertied professionals and women who were unnamed; his closest friends and his toughest critics; young children and people in the prime of their lives; religious officials and those who never graced the Temple door. For a man who was in ministry such a short period of time, this Jesus certainly encountered the multitudes.

And this is to say nothing of the diversity of our Gospels themselves. Each Gospel has its own flavor. Many of the basic facts are similar, but Jesus comes off differently in Mark than he does in John, certainly. And there are stories that only exist in one gospel or that are obviously changed from one to another.

Today’s passage from John 12 is one of those rare gems that exists in all four gospels. Over the years, attempts to harmonize the difference in the four versions has led to mass confusion about one of the characters – more on that later. John’s version is what we have today and the scene takes place at the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in Bethany, just six days before the Passover feast. I am about to get pretty in-depth on the passage, so if you are a visual learner, I encourage you to get out a Bible and follow along.

We are at the very end of Jesus’s life, folks, and his nearest and dearest are starting to feel the pressure mounting. Jesus has just performed his greatest sign yet in John’s gospel – the resurrection of Lazarus. Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, had been dead and buried for four days and Jesus brought him back to life. Jesus’s power and authority are growing and he is a wanted man.

It is in this time of desperation and darkness that our story takes place. People in the big city of Jerusalem were speculating on whether or not they would see Jesus at the Passover Festival. Some said he wouldn’t dare to come because if he showed, he would certainly be arrested. But Jesus is headed to Jerusalem, come what may, and he spends the evening at his friends’ home in Bethany, just a mile outside of the city.

I don’t know about you, but there’s something I just need to deal with up front. Jesus says something pretty shocking in this passage, “The poor you will have with you, but you won’t always have me.” One of my favorite commentators, D. Mark Davis, translated this passage this week and in his notes said, “Anyone who quotes this verse to dissuade against giving to the poor should be slapped. There, I said it.”[i]

I’m not one to advocate for slapping people, but I do agree with Davis that it would be a gross misrepresentation of everything that is happening here to ever use this text to discourage anyone who is fighting poverty. For starters, Jesus is almost directly quoting a well-known passage from Deuteronomy 15, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” This commandment comes at the end of a long passage that is all about sharing with those who are in need – both in individualized ways and in larger, systemic ways such as the Jubilee.

So when Jesus says, “Remember…the poor you will always have with you…” it’s like there’s a little dot-dot-dot after it. And everyone there would have known he really meant, “You will always have the poor with you, dot-dot-dot AND you should always help them.” Kind of like when I say to someone, “A bird in the hand…” and they all know I mean, “A bird in the hand…” (is like two in the bush)

Also, there is one other problem with trying to use this little quip to justify selfishness. There is only one person in this story being selfish and he has a name. It’s Judas. This is Judas’s first real scene in the Gospel of John and the author wants to make sure we know what he’s up to. We get two little parenthetical references about his behavior. First, Judas is introduced as one of Jesus’s disciples – parentheses (“the one who was about to betray him”). Next we hear Judas’s impassioned speech about how the money would have been better used on the poor – parentheses (“He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it”). Methinks St. Francis and his namesake Pope Francis would not approve. Jesus certainly didn’t.

So we know that Judas was not being real when he brought up this point about the expense of the ointment Mary was using. He had an ulterior motive. And I am inclined to agree with UCC pastor Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey when she says, “Perhaps the only thing worse than not caring about the poor is pretending to care about them.”[ii] And Davis notices something very interesting in this passage about the dichotomy between “extravagant worship and acts of charity”:[iii] Judas is the one who sets up that contrast. Judas is the one who tries to divert attention from what is really happening in this sweet scene by creating a false dichotomy between loving worship and caring for the poor. There is really no reason to assume the two are in competition at all.

What motivates Judas here? Is he truly just angling for the money? I don’t know that he is. I mean, the ointment is already used up. It’s not going to get sold now. He’s not going to pocket any money at this point. I think, instead, his mouth is trying to process his discomfort at what is happening in front of him. Judas is witnessing something that makes him queasy: this woman, this wealthy, powerful, property-owning woman, is sitting at a table with men (her brother and her teacher), and she is doing some really outrageous things – all because of her love for this man Judas is about to turn in as a criminal. This makes Judas uncomfortable, perhaps even enraged, and he jumps up to try and argue against it with the first thing that comes to mind.

Mary’s act of anointing is outrageous, but perhaps not for the reasons that might immediately spring to your mind. Mary is the one who has suffered at the hands of those who have attempted to harmonize the four versions of this story in our gospels. In two versions, she is unnamed. In John, she is Mary of Bethany. In Luke, she is “a sinner.” Over the years, in an attempt to make these into one coherent story, Mary of Bethany somehow got conflated with Mary Magdalene, who was turned into “a sinner” and, for some reason – maybe just because we have always loved a good sex scandal? – a prostitute. So we get art like Rubens’ painting of the anointing where Mary does have her hair down, but what is more noticeable is that her dress is mostly falling off, too.[iv] Hmm.

But John, who certainly knew who Mary Magdalene was, is clear that this is Mary of Bethany: a woman of means who lived with her brother and sister in a home that is referred to as belonging to the three of them. Mary has acquired some precious oil that costs what would have been a day-laborer’s annual salary. Jesus tells us that she has purchased it for the day of his burial, which is presumably beginning now.

Mary takes this container of ridiculously expensive oil and begins to anoint her teacher with it. She takes her hair down, which is something women at the time only did when alone with their husbands or when they were in mourning. Since there is nothing to lead us to believe that Mary of Bethany was in a sexual relationship with Jesus, I tend to believe she did this to show that she was entering a period of mourning for her friend and teacher.

Anointing is something that was done for status elevation – such as anointing a king’s head with oil upon their coronation. And it was also done during a time of status transformation – such as anointing the body after death. Mary of Bethany does not anoint Jesus’s head as the nameless women do in the other gospels. Instead, she anoints his feet. This comes as no surprise because Mary of Bethany is a woman who spent a lot of time at Jesus’s feet. The feet were considered to be the instruments of action in the Jewish body. Feet symbolized activity and Mary is preparing his feet for the road ahead. [v]

Mary often gets remembered as “the quiet one,” but boy howdy did this woman have a lot to say with her actions. She is the one who falls at Jesus’s feet weeping when he comes to see her brother after he has been dead for many days. Perhaps she is compelling him to action by falling at his feet? If so, it works. He is moved to compassion and action by her presence. And here, once again, she calls us to look ahead with Jesus to the activities that await him in Jerusalem. She prepares his body for its elevation and transformation. And Jesus pays attention. At the “last supper” in John there is no “Holy Communion.” Instead, there is a foot washing as Jesus echoes Mary’s actions and urges his disciples to wash each others’ feet – caring for each other in the midst of all the action which lies ahead.

Judas, God bless him, is right about one thing: Mary’s act is outrageous. It is over-the-top, uncomfortably-intimate, unbearably-depressing, and brutally honest. Mary, more than any of the others, is the one who gets it. She understands that they are following a criminal. She understands that Jesus, in raising her brother, has essentially traded his life for Lazarus’s.[vi] She understands that the day of his burial has arrived. She is being a disciple in the best way she knows how. She is answering that unasked question, “Who do you say that I am?” She is tying herself to her teacher and friend for all eternity as she tries her best to care for him in his hour of need. She is a disciple.

And here’s the thing: I think that one of God’s many gracious gifts to us is the invitation to be disciples in our own way. We are not all called to let down our hair, pour out a year’s wages on Jesus’s feet, and call it like we see it. But some of us are. We are not all called to sit quietly at the table with Jesus and ponder the reality that he has saved us from death just as surely as Lazarus was called forth from that tomb. But some of us are. We are not all called to busy ourselves in the kitchen, preparing the meal for our teacher, anxiously setting it before him, hoping it will feed his body and soul in some substantial way. But some of us are.

Being a disciple is a lot like being a good parent. There are probably a couple of ways to do it wrong (Judas, anyone?). But there are about a million and one ways to do it right. The gift of diversity in our scriptures means that we are invited to insert ourselves into all of these stories – try them on – see what works and take it with us for inspiration – leave behind the things that don’t resonate with us.

We are moving ever closer to Holy Week, when we will be asked to walk alongside Jesus and his disciples – the good, the bad, and the ugly – into a world of terror, confusion, cruelty, and – ultimately – new life. We are to use this time of Lenten preparation to find our own voices as disciples. What does it mean to be a follower of Christ? It doesn’t mean the same thing for me as it does for you, or you, or you. We are all differing disciples, struggling mightily to figure out how to best follow the one we call Christ. And that’s a beautiful thing.




[v] Information about anointing and feet from The Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John by Malina and Rohrbach. One of my favorite resources.
[vi] A thank you to colleague Rev. Alexis Fuller-Wright for sharing this observation with me this week.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

"Exile and Return"


Sermon Text: Isaiah 55: 1-13

I think it may have been my first day of seminary when this horribly embarrassing thing happened to me. I was sitting in my Introduction to the Old Testament Class and our professor was going on and on about some kind of exile. Now, I knew what the word exile meant, but it sounded to me like he was referring to The Exile – you know, with a capital T and a capital E. It became clear that I really needed to know what he was talking about, so I raised my hand and asked, “What exile you’re talking about?” I honestly didn’t even know it was an embarrassing question until I saw the expressions on my peers’ faces.

Somehow, in all my years sitting in the pew and Sunday School at my childhood church, I had missed this key part of Biblical history. I didn’t know that the people of Israel had been exiled from Judah for about 60 years in the 6th century BCE. I had no idea that they were deported from their homeland and sent to live in Babylonia. I did not know that prophet upon prophet surmised about the reasons for their exile. I did not know that great works of beauty were written celebrating their return to their homeland. I just didn’t know.

Marcus Borg writes about the different needs that we have as humans and how there is no one-size-fits-all answer for what ails us. We Christians have historically tried to offer “salvation” as some kind of blanket potion, but we’ve had a nasty habit of narrowing salvation to a specific vision of the afterlife. But throughout the Church’s history, there have always been those who see salvation as a multifaceted gift. Salvation is about what saves us, sure, but it doesn’t always look the same from person to person. I know that, in my own life, salvation has been different at different points, depending on what ailed me.

As Borg says, if you are held captive, salvation looks like freedom. If you are sick, salvation comes through healing. If you are blind, salvation is the gift of sight. And if you are in exile, salvation is found through return.

The Exile (and, yes, I am now speaking of it with a capital T and a capital E) was such a formative faith event for our ancestors. Just as the people of Israel learned to trust God through hearing the stories of Moses and Passover and the Red Sea, they also experienced God through this story of Exile and Return.

The prophets believed that the people had been sent into exile because of their disobedience. They put other things before God and God failed to protect them when the big bag wolves of Assyria and Babylonia came knocking. They found their way back to their homeland in 538 BCE due to the words of Cyrus of Persia who issued a decree allowing them back in. Their thanksgiving for this act was so great that Cyrus is the only Gentile to be named the Anointed One – the Messiah – in our scriptures. Cyrus was seen as an instrument of God – one who offered the deepest desire of their hearts: a return to their homes.

Now I am guessing here that most of us in the Sanctuary today have not lived in exile from our homelands. And yet, you don’t have to go any further than the news of the day to see pictures of people living in exile. I spent some time earlier this week weeping over photos I found online of children living in refugee camps near Jordan, fleeing their homes in Syria. The article I read said that it is estimated that almost one million Syrians have been displaced due to the conflict in their homeland.

And then there are exiles of other kinds. Earlier this week, I read a blog entry by a friend of a colleague on her blog, From Daddy to Mommy: The Ramblings of a Transexual Parent. The author, Jenn, tells the heartbreaking story of finding her way to the funeral of her beloved grandmother.[i] Jenn’s mom called her out of the blue after a two-year estrangement to tell her that her grandmother had just passed away. Jenn’s mother told her that she could only come to the funeral if she would “dress and act like a man.” Jenn spent days agonizing over whether she could attend the funeral. She knew she could not dress and act like a man. Through a friend’s help, she found her way to the conclusion that it was not her problem that her parents refused to accept her for who she was. With the support of several cousins, she went to the funeral. Upon arriving, her brother promptly told her that if she did not leave immediately they would have the funeral home staff kick her out.

Exiled from her own family. Exiled from the funeral of her own kin. And we know that Jenn’s story is simply one of many – most of which are untold.

To live in exile is to be separated from that which you love. To live in loneliness, fear, uncertainty. It can be a time of confusion. It can also be a time of great growth and creativity. It’s no coincidence that some of the best-loved passages from the Hebrew Bible were written from a place of exile.

Today’s reading from Isaiah 55 is the end of what Biblical scholars refer to as Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah. We believe the book of Isaiah in at least three distinct time periods. Second Isaiah, which begins with those words “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” in Chapter 40, was written during the Babylonian Exile. It contains some of the most profoundly hopeful words in all of Scripture and it ends here, just as the Israelites are about to return to their ancestral home.

Chapter 55 begins simply with these words, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters….”

The only prerequisite for the rich promises that follow is a thirst. And so I would like to invite all of us into a time of getting in touch with our thirst. We are going to have a time of silent reflection and I hope you will ponder when, in your own life, you have been in exile. When have you felt separated or cut off from a sense of home? And I hope that you will ponder, too, what it felt like to return from that exile, if you were fortunate enough to do so. Perhaps you won’t be able to think of a time in your own life where you felt estranged from those people or places or things that you love. That’s okay. I invite you to think about what it might feel like to live in exile and leave your familiar world behind.

I am going to ask that we take a full minute to ponder this. When the two minute is up, I’m going to ask Eric to read today’s passage for a second time so you can hear the promises given to those who live in exile.


There is really so little to add to the simple beauty of this passage. The Good News is so eloquently and powerfully stated.

I am struck by the oddness of a passage urging us to “delight ourselves in rich food” while we are smack in the middle of Lent. Perhaps the Lectionary Committee is just trying to make it harder on those of us who have given up some kind of food for Lent? I doubt that is the case. Instead, I think it’s important to notice that Isaiah is asking us to consider which things in our lives truly give satisfaction. Lenten practices of personal sacrifice help us to that, too. When you give up something that you really thought you couldn’t live without, you usually discover that, although it is difficult, you can live quite fully without caffeine, sweets, meat, or second breakfast. The Lenten journey of sacrifice, like a time of exile, can be quite clarifying for those pilgrims who devote themselves to its path.

The beauty of this passage, though, is that it does not dwell in the world of exile. It pulls us in to the joy and peace that we find when we return from exile. God does not long for us to be hungry, thirsty, and deprived. God sets a feast for us. God showers us with water. God pours wine freely. God desires for us to be full and satisfied. We are invited not only to remember the everlasting covenant with David, but to respond to God’s invitation to live into that covenant by enlarging it and sharing the Good News of our Gracious God with the entire world.

Our God knows no other way but to nourish. Just as certainly as the rain and the snow provide sustenance to the fields, God nourishes us. I like to imagine God as the Grandma who always cooks way too much for the family at Sunday dinner and is constantly sending leftovers home in every container imaginable. She doesn’t know how to cook less. She doesn’t know how to make a reasonably-sized meal. There is too much goodness to go around. The very essence of this Grandma God is to nourish those she loves.

Who are the people living in exile in our midst? What are our own powerful stories of exile and return that need to be shared? The only thing required of us is to come with our thirst. The promise is that we will go out in joy and be led back in peace. The mountains and hills before us will burst into song and the trees of the field will clap their hands.

And so we rest here – Lenten People – we come to the table bringing nothing but our thirst. And we hear those ancient words, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters…” and we drink and we drink and we drink the promises of freedom, healing, clear vision, return from exile. We drink the promises of our Easter God who is known to us through every type of salvation imaginable. And maybe even some we haven’t yet dreamed.