Archive for March, 2007

Talk About Aroma Therapy

Sunday, March 25th, 2007

It was a rather unusual dinner party. There was Jesus who had just come in from the cold. Ever since he had raised Lazarus from the dead there had been a price on his head. So he had been hiding out in the wilderness with his disciples.

And speaking of Lazarus. He was there, too. It was actually his house. He was as alive as ever, and nobody could quite figure it out. They had not only seen him dead, but smelled him dead. But here he was now, and he was no ghost.

These were not dinner parties as we think of them. There wasn’t a whole lot going on in places like Bethany, so when someone threw a dinner party, uninvited people came. Not to eat. But to watch. They would either crowd in the courtyard or the dining room and watch people eat and try to catch their conversations. Doesn’t sound like great entertainment, but what were the alternatives? And besides, it was free.

So there was Jesus, the wanted man and Lazarus, the dead guy who was alive again. If that wasn’t enough to keep people talking for days and weeks to come, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, starts to do something quite unexpected. She has this jar of super expensive lotion and starts massaging Jesus’ feet with it. And then like some common tart, she lets down her hair and uses it to dry the feet of Jesus. The people who were watching, who got in free remember, must have had their jaws dropping. None of them would probably see anything like this dinner party ever again.

Then Jesus and one of his posse, Judas, get in this argument. Nobody could quite figure out how Jesus and Judas ended up hanging out together anyway. And why had Jesus made him the Treasurer when everyone knew he was a crook? Nobody was surprised when they found out if was Judas who ratted Jesus out.

They were arguing about what Mary was doing. Judas thought is was scandalous, but not in the way most of the people there thought it was scandalous. In a culture where there was strict separation between men and women like there still is any many Middle Eastern countries, this was beyond imagining. And he called himself a Rabbi! This is exactly why you get them married off as soon as you can.

That’s not what concerned Judas, though. He was thinking about the money. “Do you know how many hungry people we could have fed with what this woman spent on that ointment she just dumped on your feet?” As if Judas was really looking to feed hungry people. Most likely he was looking for anyway to build up the purse, and not for his personal gain. He was supporting the armed rebellion against Rome, and was more than a little frustrated that Jesus hadn’t joined. But Judas was maybe looking for ways to fund the rebellion.

Who knows? Jesus may have well agreed with him, about the money for the poor anyway. But what’s he going to say? “Mary, you shouldn’t have done that.” It’s not like he could have scooped up the ointment and put it back in the bottle, and gotten three hundred pieces of silver for it, anyway. Instead, he honored Mary for what was doing. And what was she doing?

Mary was simply trying to find a way to respond to Jesus and what he meant in her life. She was grateful to this man who had shown her a path to God she had never seen before, and the man who had raised her brother from the dead. And she didn’t care what anybody in the room thought about what she was doing. What she was doing, she was doing for Jesus. Let them think and say what they want. Who cares if it’s the main topic in Bethany for the next year?

Did Mary really know she was anointing Jesus for his burial? There are, at least, two ways you can look at that. The first is that she had no idea that Jesus was about to die. She just needed to do something to show her devotion to him. Jesus, in his response to Judas, may have been elevating Mary’s intent beyond what she came into that room with. It could have been as much of a surprise to her as anyone else in that room that she was preparing him for his death, which is just a few days off.

Or she may have known exactly what she was doing. You get the sense, from the little we read in the gospels, that she paid attention. This was the Mary that sat at the feet of Jesus listening to what he was saying, while her sister Martha did all the work in the kitchen. And don’t confuse her with Mary Magdalen, which many do. This is Mary, the sister Martha and her formally dead Lazarus.

She paid attention to what Jesus said and what was going on around him. She must have known that his talk and actions would get him in trouble with the religious and political authorities. And neither were willing to put up with any challenge to the status quo. Rome crucified Jews by the hundreds.

In the passage just before this the religious establishment gets together to figure out what to do about Jesus. They are all in an uproar. “If we let him go on, pretty soon everyone will be believing in him and the Romans will come and remove what little power we have left.” The High Priest, Caiaphas, had a simple solution. “Don’t you know anything? Can’t you see its to our advantage that one man dies for the people rather that the whole nation be destroyed?”

I doubt such talk would have surprised Mary. She knew how things worked and she may have well realized that Jesus wasn’t going to survive much longer. So maybe now was the time for her to show her devotion rather than saving the ointment to rub on his dead body.

While we are remembering which Mary is was who anointed Jesus with that expensive ointment, let’s also make sure we understand what Jesus was really saying about the poor always being with us. This is a passage that has been readily ripped out of context to suggest that Jesus was saying we really ought not to concern ourselves about the poor since we won’t really be able to do anything about poverty, anyway.

If there was anyone who demonstrated care and concern for the poor it was Jesus. He very much believed that there was something we could and should for the poor. We can feed the poor, we can advocate for the poor, we can remind the poor and everyone else that God seems to have a special concern for the poor.

Jesus doesn’t at all suggest we abandon the poor. In fact, Jesus made it clear that following him was about turning toward the poor and the powerless and away from the rich and powerful.

Mary would have plenty of opportunity in the future to spend her money on the poor. But her days with Jesus were short.

So what does this story mean for us? Is it on the level of entertainment for us as well? It’s kind of an interesting story with all its details about Jesus and Lazarus and Mary. But how does this word from God change us? What are we willing to risk to show our devotion to Jesus? Mary wasn’t just risking her bank account on Jesus. She put her reputation on the line. She didn’t care about that expensive perfume. She didn’t care what all the folk were going to say about her after that dinner party.

Mary, abandoning all sense of propriety washed Jesus feet with her hair. A few days later Jesus, abandoning all sense of propriety stooped to wash his disciples feet. Who learned from whom?

We know that Jesus sustains and nurtures us. But in this story Mary sustains and nurtures Jesus. What is it that we are willing to anoint Jesus with? What can we offer to sustain him?

I think what keeps Jesus going is lives that are devoted to him and his ways. He went to a cross and trusted God to raise him from the dead, all for the sake of a movement. It’s a movement toward God and to what God wants for this world. Jesus didn’t mean that all to start and end with him. He’s looking to us to take this thing and run with it. All that stuff about loving God and loving our neighbors. All that stuff about making peace, trusting God, welcoming the outcast, learning how to forgive, tearing down the walls that divide us from God and each other; he wants us to spend our lives on it like he did. That’s what sustains him.

That was some crazy dinner party. And things were about to get crazier. Are we going to be the ones watching what’s happening, or the ones everybody is talking about after the party is over? And what are they going to say?

Wasn’t it John Denver who sang that song about coming home to a place you’ve never been before?

Sunday, March 18th, 2007

When I learned late Thursday night that I would be preaching today, as well as finishing up the service Mary started for the anniversary of the Iraq war, my first thought was, of course, what am I going to preach about?

Mary gave me some quick guidance by saying the hymns were set up for Luke 15, so I might want to try to make something out of that. So I read it. But after reading it I had a whole lot of other things I had to accomplish on Thursday night like finding a flight for Mary, a place for her to stay, and a way for her to get there. We also needed to get in touch with our daughters.

So by the time I went to bed, and got back up because I realized I hadn’t actually made the shuttle service reservation for Mary, I was real tired, but not anywhere near going to sleep. So as I lay in bed I suddenly remembered Luke 15. “Oh yeah,” I said to myself, “what is that about?”

It’s not like I’ve never come across the story of the prodigal son, the lost coin, and the lost sheep before. As I thought about it, it occurred to me that’s not the story of the prodigal son, the son who decided to spend all his money on the joys of the flesh, but the story of the lost son. Lost son, lost coin, lost sheep. There are lots of ways to get lost, separated from God, from our families and friends, from ourselves and what we want for ourselves. And some of them are described in this chapter.

Some of us get lost because we just kind of gradually wander away, not realizing what’s happening. There is grass to chew and sleep in. Rocks and streams to play on and in. There is the meadow to enjoy, the places to explore. And suddenly you look up and realize you are all alone and very vulnerable and afraid. You didn’t mean to cut yourself off from the support and protection of God and the flock, but you have. And all you can do is shiver in what now is not grassy meadow, but wilderness, and cry because you have no idea where to go.

There are, also, those people who have been made lost, like that coin. Circumstances and situations have shattered their lives. There is pain. There might be abuse, or poverty, or heart break. There are tragedies of our own and others’ making that leave us lost, groping to find something familiar and comforting, but it’s not something we can find. So we wander sometimes more dazed than afraid at what has happened in our lives and wondering if we will ever find our way back.

Then there are those who want to get lost, people who are tired of what has been, and go off looking for something else, heedless of God or anyone else. But what they find is loneliness and fear, sometimes even disgust with themselves. When they come to their senses, like the lost son, they realize they may have squandered something they can never regain, and they’ve got nothing to show for it.

It doesn’t matter how we get lost, being lost, being apart from God, Jesus says, is all the same. There is no comfort for the scared one who wandered away that, at least, she wasn’t like that lost son. Being lost is scary no matter how you got there.

There are plenty of other images for being lost we could think up. But there are other images in this story that are about being found. We know some images of God, like Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But what about Worried Shepherd, Crazed Housewife, Heart-Broken Parent?

Jesus was always helping people think about God in different ways. Think about a God who combs the country side for a lost, vulnerable lamb when he still has 99 who are okay. In the wilderness sheep are going to get lost.

Think about a God who rummages through all the piles, sweeps up the dust and dog hair in all the corners, goes though the trash, looks under all the cushions for one coin. Maybe that’s a God who knows something about how a coin or two can determine if a family is going to make it a while longer or not.

Think about a God who stands at the screen door for hours every day looking up and down the road for that wayward son to come home. This is not the stern, unbending, disciplinarian, that we are to often convinced God is. This is another God.

And what happens when that God sees the son coming down the road, when that God finds the lost coin, when that God rescues the lost sheep? God throws a party.

It’s really interesting that the lost son doesn’t even get the chance to apologize and explain himself. His father is too busy thinking about the party he is going to throw.

When the shepherd finds that sheep, he doesn’t sling it down from his soldiers in disgust and give it a good kick in the rear end on it’s way back to the flock. He gets the other shepherds together for a party. I found the sheep before the wolves did! She’s okay. She’s back with the rest of the flock.

When that woman found the coin she had to have a party herself. She had faced the vulnerability, but things were going to be okay.

God’s love finds us, Jesus says. There is a way back home no matter how long we have been lost, or how we got that way. Or as the Apostle Paul says it, ‘there is nothing in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

We often work with this little formula in the Church, repent and receive God’s grace. But we have it backwards, receive God’s grace and repent. It’s that grace of God, that incredible love that changes us. We don’t have to change to receive that love, but that love surely changes us.

The older son in the story about the lost son, the one who had never really been lost himself, needed to also learn this lesson of God’s love. His father didn’t love him because he had been the good son, his father loved him because he was his son.

If it had been him, the older son, who had taken off to spend half of his father’s life savings on slow gin and fast women, the father would have stood at the same door, and stared down the same road. God just loves us because God does. That’s what grace means. And it leads us home. In his own way, this older son also had to find his way home, but to the party.

These stories are prefaced by that accusation from the religious types that Jesus is spending too much of his time with the wrong kind of people. They couldn’t understand why Jesus wanted to party so much, let alone the people he chose to party with.

All that Jesus was saying to them was come to the party yourselves. Let God love you a little bit. Is this the way you want to spend the rest of your lives? Do you always want to be the orthodoxy police? Or wouldn’t you rather just experience God, let that love drench you, and have a good time doing it?

And it’s not like it was all party for Jesus. He knew where this whole thing was headed. It wasn’t out of ignorance that he set his face for Jerusalem. But even when things get hard, and they can get hard following Jesus and his ways, the joy of finding your way home surpasses it all.

And actually, it’s a home none of us have ever been to before. It’s a home we get to build with Jesus and each other. It’s no wonder you want to party. We were lost, but we’ve been found. And even the angels, Jesus says, want to come to the party.

Jesus knew there was a cross waiting for him in Jerusalem. But he also knew it was the way home, and that there was going to be a big party come Easter morning.

Did you hear the one about the fox and the hen?

Sunday, March 4th, 2007

A couple of weeks ago, Mary and I watched the new documentary filmed by Rory Kennedy about Abu Grahib, the infamous Iraqi prison where American soldiers tortured and humiliated prisoners. It was what you could call a feel bad movie, because it left me feeling bad about my country. But it also left me with a bad feeling about the fact that very ordinary and good people could so easily be turned into unquestioning torturers.

And what made this a feel worse movie was the fact that the only people who have been held accountable for the atrocities at the prison were the low level guards who claim they were ordered to commit these acts. Despite the protestations from governmental officials that the investigations by the Defense Department of the torture and human rights violations at the prison were solely to blame on a ‘few bad apples’ serving as guards, the film makes it clear that such behavior was initiated throughout the command structure of the Pentagon, including the Secretary of Defense, and may well have been sanctioned by the White House. There never has been an investigation of Abu Grahib other than Defense Department investigations.

It’s a sad and hard commentary on our country that, in the highest levels of its administration torture has been adopted as a normative procedure. This past fall the Congress of the United States, with the support of Ohio’s two current Senators, endorsed the administration’s use of torture, by enacting the Military Commissions Act. That act not only allows torture by U.S. officials, but suspends such basic rights as habeas corpus in Abu Grahib, Guantanamo Bay, and places throughout the world and maybe even in this country. There is no requirement that prisoners be informed of the charges, if any, that have been filed against them, they have no right to an attorney, nor the right to petition a court of law if they believe they have been wrongfully detained.

It’s not a pretty picture. And that is just one situation we are talking about. What is it like to be living in Iraq or Israel these days when at any moment a suicide bomber may walk into a restaurant, school, synagogue, mosque, and kills dozens of people? What it is like to be a Palestinian with a forty foot Israeli built wall cutting you off from your family, your farmland, your place of work?

Can you imagine living in the Sudan when gunmen come riding into your village or living with your family, or what’s left of it, in any of the refugee camps scattered around the world? What’s it like to live in the slums of Jakarta or Cleveland? Have we already passed the point of no return when it comes to global warming? Have we destroyed the earth?

In our own country, as well as most others, the poor are neglected. We would rather spend money on weapons than health care. It takes ten years to get a raise in the minimum wage and there are still precious few jobs to support people and families in this country. What adds to the frustration is that all of these issues of torture, poverty, war, terrorism, global warming, corporate greed, governmental corruption, could be addressed in good ways by the governments of this world. But most, including our own, are more of a problem than a solution.

If that is not enough, there are issues like broken marriages at every turn, people groping for meaning in life and settling for things like fancy cars and houses, MTV, and hooking up. People are lonely, people are hurting and struggling. Everywhere you turn, as in Jesus’ day, life is being devalued by forces political and personal. I could go on and on and on. What is a Christian to do?

The best advise we get from the New Testament is pretty simple. Keep figuring out what it means to follow Jesus. And nobody in the New Testament struggled with that more than the Apostle Paul. At his core, Paul was a theologian. He was driven by a desire to make this whole Jesus thing fit on paper. He was attached firmly to his Jewish roots, but in Jesus he saw something that was Jewish, but not Jewish.

In the best way he knew how he tried to give voice to what it meant for him to be a follower of Jesus. So he wrote, he preached, he debated. He would argue with philosophers and slaves. But in today’s reading from Philippians we get Paul away from the debates and pulpits. What it all comes down to for him was that he had his eyes on Jesus and there was no turning back.

As I always like to remind folk, you’ve got to take the good with the bad with the Apostle Paul, like you have to do with most of us. He said some things that I wish had never been scrawled on parchment. And there were some things he should have written down that never occurred to him. But as he said to the folk at Philippi, he wasn’t making any claim to having this thing figured out. But he was trying to do the best he could to grab hold of Jesus because Jesus had grabbed hold of him.

Paul revels in the fact that his citizenship is in God’s realm, not any realm on this earth. And he believed with every thing in him that because he had been raised from the dead Jesus could make us beautiful and whole.

That’s a key for me. What do you imagine being beautiful and whole looks like to Jesus? I’ll bet in Paul’s mind it has nothing to do with Glamour Magazine or so many of the other representations of beauty we find in the media and in our culture. Paul just wanted to be a beautiful and whole person in Jesus’ eyes.

I think one can argue pretty easily that beautiful people to Jesus are those who are living their lives in ways that will make this world better for everyone, people who really want to love God and each other.

Wholeness for Jesus comes from vulnerability. I love that story about Jesus’ response to the warnings that Herod is out to get him. “You tell that fox that I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing. He may have the power of the empire behind him. He can kill and maim and destroy. But until he gets hold of me I’m going to be casting out the demons he and others have unleashed upon this world. I am going to bring healing to this world that he has helped make so sick. And he can come after me like a fox after a mother hen. But I am going to protect the little ones with everything within me. They have made a mess of Jerusalem to where the people can’t even recognize how ugly it all is. But the day is coming when people will see how beautiful Jerusalem, and they, and this world can be. Yes. That’s what you tell that fox.”

Following Jesus is about taking Herod and demons head on. And they are everywhere. But in the midst of it all, healing happens. This is why Paul and the others in the New Testament said our job is simply to be witnesses of Jesus. In this world that is full of death, and death dealers, the only thing we have to bring is the life that we know in Jesus Christ. And people want to live.

When those evangelists were going out and calling others to be followers of Jesus, it wasn’t just so things could be better for his followers. It wasn’t lets wash them off and get them cleaned-up for heaven. They were looking for people who wanted to build a church, that would look Herod in the eye, and say, “Come after us. But until you get us, we are going to to bring healing and life to this world, just like our Savior Jesus did.”

We frame the issue is too narrow of a way. It’s not only that people need to follow Jesus, be a part of the Church, and experience healing in their lives. It’s that Jesus needs them. The Church needs them to come and be beautiful and whole and vulnerable for the sake of this world.

It’s not simply that we all we need is our own personal Jesus. This world needs witnesses to his life and love and desires for this world. This world needs people who are willing to follow Jesus and build a new humanity.

During Communion Lunch we are going to learn a bit about Dred Scott. I don’t want to give too much away. But here’s what I can say now. Dred Scott was a slave whose case before the Supreme Court of the United States of America was a challenge to lower court rulings denying his free status. It was 150 years ago this week that the Supreme Court ruled against Dred Scott.

That decision by the Supreme Court did not go over well in many places in the North, including Oberlin. Our ancestors like many others, understood their Christian responsibility was to disobey any laws that sanctioned slavery, no matter what the Supreme Court or anyone else said.

The people in Oberlin were going to continue to gather escaped slaves under their wings and protect them from the foxes. These were people who were renowned for their Christian piety, but they also knew that following Jesus had something to do with casting out the demon of slavery. It’s what beautiful and whole people did, no matter how vulnerable it made them. It’s what people who loved Jesus did.

Bearing witness to Jesus by living the lives he has called us to live is the best thing we can do in the midst of the torture, the corruption, the war, the corporate greed, the loneliness, and the isolation. It was for the sake of the people who inhabit this planet with us that Paul was so careful to call us to commit our lives to Jesus Christ.

There are demons of torture and greed and injustice and emptiness. Death is everywhere. But what kept the Apostle Paul going was that life is in Jesus Christ, and resurrection trumps death. That fox, Herod, did get Jesus. But Jesus came out the tomb, bringing life and reclaiming this world for the mother hens. People in Oberlin were bearing witness to that in 1857, and the witness is ours today.