Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Fragrant Offering and Sacrifice

Sermon for 5th Sunday of Lent, Yr C, 3/21/10
Isaiah 43:16 – 21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b – 14, John 12:1 – 8

My name is Josiah. I am not particularly important. But I have seen important things. I want to tell you a story about an amazing dinner party I attended years ago when I was young. It was at the home of my friend, Lazarus.

You have probably heard of Lazarus. A couple of weeks before, he had died of a fever. Dead and buried. Then, the Rabbi Jesus had come and restored him to life after he’d been four days dead. Many of us had been listening to Jesus whenever we could and had begun to hope that he might be the messiah. This pretty much sealed the deal for me.

We celebrated for days. Our mourning had been turned to dancing. Psalm 126 was in our hearts and on our lips –

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion
Then we were like those who dream
Then was our mouth filled with laughter
And our tongue with shouts of joy.
The LORD has done great things for us and we are glad indeed!

We had gone from tears to songs of joy.

Then one day, Lazarus told me to come to a dinner party at his home. When I arrived, Jesus was there along with his twelve disciples. Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, were there. And one or two other close friends and Jesus followers. After raising Lazarus, Jesus had been laying low in a small town somewhere. This was the first time he had come back to Bethany.

As usual, the food was wonderful. Martha is a fine cook and hostess. She understood Jesus when he had said he came to serve and not be served and she did the same.

There was much laughter. Someone asked Lazarus, “What was the first thought that came into your mind when you came back to life?

“What’s that smell?,” was his response.

We all laughed. I was one of those who had helped to roll away the stone from the mouth of his tomb and I can attest to the stench of death that it contained.

Amidst all the laughter, I began to notice something. We were celebrating Lazarus’ coming back to life and honoring the one who had done it. But, more and more, it began to have the feel of a funeral dinner. There was laughter. There was joking. There was remembering. But there was a somber air to it all. Especially among some of Jesus’ disciples. A couple of them kept glancing at the door or out the windows as if they suspected someone unwelcome might crash the party at any time. Others looked somehow sad – sad or determined, or both – even when they laughed. Then I noticed the wistful look on Jesus' face. He looked like someone who was enjoying a last dinner with family and friends before leaving on a long and treacherous journey.

Then, something most shocking happened. Mary, who had been looking intently at Jesus the whole time, came to where Jesus was reclining and knelt at his feet. From somewhere, she pulled out a large jar of expensive perfume – pure nard! She began slathering it on Jesus’ feet – a lot of it. The place was stunned to silence. From where I was, it looked like she was weeping. The whole house was full of the beautiful fragrance of the stuff.

Then, ever the impetuous one, Mary uncovered and undid her hair. Several in the room gasped. You, living in a different time and place, might not realize how scandalous this was. A woman’s hair was considered quite erotic. Only her husband would ever see it down and the first undoing of her hair in his presence was a significant part of their wedding night. And Mary had such hair! Dark and rich and luxurious. Hair that could tempt the angels.

There was another gasp as she began to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Martha shrugging her shoulders and shaking her head with a bemused look on her face as if to say, “There she goes again.”

One of Jesus disciples, Judas, broke the silence with a protest about the extravagant waste. The money that purchased that perfume could have been given to the poor. I learned later that some of the disciples suspected that Judas’ motives were more selfish and that he had been embezzling some of the funds from the common purse.

Whether he had been embezzling or had been sincerely concerned for the poor, I have come to think Judas was missing the point either way. One way or another all of us were. We all had our own idea of what Jesus should be about and where he should go and what he should do. For most of us that meant Jesus should fit into our ready-made ideas of what the Messiah should be. Or that he should do what we would do if we were the Messiah. We had our idols and were determined to have Jesus on our terms. We were never quite ready to take him as he was or follow him all the way.

Except for Mary. Mary got it. And she taught us all a lesson that evening. She poured out her love and devotion to Jesus with all the extravagance of rich and costly perfume and without reservation. She anointed his feet, signifying that she was prepared to go wherever those feet went and she would keep her focus on him to lead her. She anointed his feet with perfume and wiped then with her hair. And, now, her hair was soaked with the same fragrance as Jesus.

Far from being scandalized or offended, Jesus welcomed the gesture and said she was preparing him for his death. In about a week we would understand just how true that was. Jesus was killed by the powers that be.

But, like Lazarus, only much more so, he did not stay dead. He rose again. Again, Psalm 126 was in our hearts and on our lips:

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion
Then we were like those who dream
Then was our mouth filled with laughter
And our tongue with shouts of joy.
The LORD has done great things for us and we are glad indeed!

Mary’s extravagant sacrifice of 300 denarri’s worth of nard was a prophetic act foreshadowing the extravagant sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Jesus, who overcame the stench of sin and death and filled our lives with the rich fragrance of his extravagant life and love. Mary had anticipated it all.

I have spent the rest of my life trying to catch up to Mary’s faithfulness. I have tried to sit attentively at the feet of Jesus. I have wanted to worship him in the beauty of holiness. I have tried to love him back with the same fragrant and extravagant love with which he loved me. I have tried to love others with that same costly love. I have tried to follow in his footsteps wherever they led. More often than not, they have led me to the poor who are indeed still with us – or at least they are with us if we choose to be with and for them as Jesus himself was with and for the poor.

I want to be as soaked like Mary’s hair with the love and joy of Jesus. It is the fragrance of mercy. It is the aroma of heaven. I want to be that aroma in the world around me. As another follower of Jesus, Paul, wrote in one of his letters, “I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Like Mary, I seek to love, even as Jesus first loved us and gave himself for us a fragrant offering an sacrifice to God.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Video from my friend (and hero) Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul

Daniel Deng Bul, Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan is one of my heroes. I first got to know him when he was bishop of the Diocese of Renk with which the Diocese of Chicago has a companion relationship. Bishop Daniel has long been a leader of the Church in Sudan and a tireless advocate for peace and reconciliation. While he was still Bishop of Renk, I had the honor of traveling to the Diocese of Renk in February of 2005 as part of a delegation from our diocese.

While there, we visited the town of Melut, south of Renk. We were told that due to the civil war (which had only just formally ended a month before we went), it would not have been safe for us to go there a year before. As recently as 2002, 80 villages just south of Melut were burned to the ground by the government in Khartoum in an act of ethnic cleansing. The area is rich in oil and the northern government is determined to claim it before there is any division between the north and Southern Sudan. The people were rounded up and put in a sort of concentration camp. They were without food. When Bishop Daniel found out about this, he arranged to take a truck of grain to the people. He was stopped at a military check-point near the camp and told they could go no farther. Bishop Daniel insisted that he must go because the people were hungry. He was told that if he continued, he would be shot. This was no idle threat given the armies history. The bishop replied, “Then, you will have to shoot me. I will not let my people starve.” The unrelenting moral force of the bishop eventually won out. One of the soldiers relented and talked the others into letting the bishop go on and the much-needed grain was delivered to the people. One reads about folk like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, and Mother Teresa. For the first time, with Bishop Daniel, I felt as though I was in the presence of such a one as these.

The Nancy he mentions in the video is Nancy Wang, the girlfriend of a member of St. Barnabas, Jonathan Lehe. Jonathan is in Africa working for the Clinton Foundation. Nancy has been working in Southern Sudan supplying the Ministry of Health, Government of Southern Sudan with essential drugs and hospital supplies. Through this connection, we at St. Barnabas are seeking to increase the aid we are able to provide to our sisters and brothers in Sudan.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Spirituality and Politics from the Angle of Eternity

I've just finished one of the my Lenten books, The Spiritual Life, by the great Anglican mystic and spiritual writer, Evelyn Underhill. It is a wonderful little book full of insights. I was particularly struck (in light of recent comments made by a certain radio/tv opionator) by the link she makes between the spiritual life and politics.

With regard to saying the Lord's Prayer, Underhill affirms, "It is useless to utter fervent petitions for that Kingdom to be established and that Will done, unless we are willing to do something about it ourselves."

She goes futher:

That means trying to see things, persons and choices from the angle of eternity; and dealing with them as part of the material in which the Spirit works. This will be decisive for the way we behave as to our personal, social, and national obligations. It will decide the papers we read, the movements we support, the kind of administrators we vote for, our attitude to social and international justice. For though we may renounce the world for ourselves, refuse the attempt to get anything out of it, we have to accept it as the sphere in which we are to co-operate with the Spirit, and try to do the Will. Therefore the prevalent notion that spirituality and politics have nothing to do with one another is the exact opposite of the truth. Once it is accepted in a realistic sense, the Spiritual Life has everything to do with politics. It means that certain convictions about God and the world become the moral and spiritual imperatives of our life; and this must be decisive for the way we choose to behave about that bit of the world over which we have been given a limited control.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

MLK, Jr., Dorothy Day & Glenn Beck

I'm visiting one of my daughters, Becca, in Atlanta. Today we visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Center. It was an inspiring reminder of King's life and teaching. It was also a disturbing reminder of just how recently the most blatant social injustices of racism were common in many parts of the USA. It was also an uncomfortable reminder that racism and other injustices and inequalities persist.

From the King Center, Becca took me to the Open Door, a Catholic Worker community where she and another medical student volunteer once a week to manage a clinic for the homeless. Of course I was moved deeply with paternal pride at seeing this aspect of my daughter's life. I was also reminded of the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day, whose life and teaching are as inspirational as are King's. And, again, I remembered that the peace and justice to which she bore witness remain counter-cultural and elusive.

I appreciate both of these faithful witnesses to the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are those, most recently and notoriously, Glenn Beck, who want to segregate the call to personal conversion and righteousness from the call to social conversion and justice. But that segregation is a distortion of the gospel that Jesus actually proclaimed. And it is not a segregation that has been recognized by the great teachers and saints of the Church. It is also beyond doubt that without the proclamation of this "social" aspect of the gospel by folk like King, the injustices of Jim Crow would have endured. I wonder what Glenn Beck would have been saying about that if he had been broadcasting his nonsense in the late 1950's and early 60's?

Faithful Christians can and do disagree on particulars of Church and public policy when it comes to bearing witness to, and seeking to achieve, greater justice in the world. But, there is no escaping the necessity of measuring our personal and social lives and policies against the needs of "the least of these." Jesus himself said that our salvation just might depend upon it.

While neither King nor Day are official saints (the latter famously declaring she did not want to be dismissed so easily), they both rank among the great Christian teachers and exemplars of the last century. Thankfully, neither of them misunderstood the gospel the way Glenn Beck misunderstands and misrepresnts it. I am grateful to have been reminded today of their witness.

Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

What we would like to do is change the world--make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute--the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words--we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend. — Dorothy Day

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

We need not be the 'dying boy'

This is the sermon I preached this past Sunday (March 7, 2010). The texts are: Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9.

The school system in a large city had a program to help children keep up with their school work during stays in the city's hospitals. One day a teacher who was assigned to the program received a routine call asking her to visit a particular child. She took the child's name and room number and talked briefly with the child's regular class teacher. "We're studying nouns and adverbs in his class now," the regular teacher said, "and I'd be grateful if you could help him understand them so he doesn't fall too far behind."

The hospital program teacher went to see the boy that afternoon. No one had mentioned to her that the boy had been badly burned and was in great pain. Upset at the sight of the boy, she stammered as she told him, "I've been sent by your school to help you with nouns and adverbs." When she left she felt she hadn't accomplished much.

But the next day, a nurse asked her, "What did you do to that boy?" The teacher felt she must have done something wrong and began to apologize. "No, no," said the nurse. "You don't know what I mean. We've been worried about that little boy, but ever since yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He's fighting back, responding to treatment. It's as though he's decided to live."

Two weeks later the boy explained that he had completely given up hope until the teacher arrived. Everything changed when he came to a simple realization. He expressed it this way: "They wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?"
Bits & Pieces, July 1991

The world is a dying boy, disfigured by sin and suffering, injustice and death. One need only read the front page of the papers or access the internet one way or another to be confronted by this hard reality of the world in which we live – in which we are dying. Most recently we have seen it in the devastation in Haiti and Chile. But it is everywhere and always with us however much we might try to ignore or avoid it. In this morning’s gospel lesson from Luke 13, we hear Jesus responding to the hot-off-the-press news of the outrageous violence and blasphemy of Pilate mingling the blood of Jews with their sacrifice and the tragic accident of a collapsing tower that killed 18 people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Human history and the daily news are full of acts of violence and random accidents, of tyranny and torture. One might easily conclude that our situation is hopeless.

Indeed, many have in fact reached just that conclusion. In his novel, Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut has an important book come to light. It is titled "What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?" The chief character is anxious to read it. But when he does, he finds that it doesn't take long. The whole book consists of one word: "Nothing."

Even our collect this morning reminds us that in ourselves we have no power to help ourselves. We are dying boys and girls. But the God we know is not a God of the dead but the God of Life and, though we are helpless, he has not left us hopeless. God comes to our help.

God came to the help of the Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt. God reveals his name to Moses – I AM or I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE. And who is this I AM, this God complete and consistent unto himself? This is the God who observes misery, who hears the cry of the people, who knows our suffering. And not just observing, hearing, and knowing in some abstract and detached sublimity. Observing, hearing, and knowing our distress; God comes to deliver. God came to the deliverance of the Hebrew people from their bondage. God led them through the desert – and in spite of their own obstinacies – to the Promised Land. The God we know in the history of Israel is a God who sees, hears, and knows suffering and comes to deliver.

This same God comes most particularly in Jesus who is the way the truth and the LIFE. Jesus calls us to turn, to change the way we think and live, to reorient ourselves toward the way of God, the way of truth the way of life. That is repentance.

Jesus does not give us any neat and tidy answer to the questions we ask about suffering. But, he does rule out two common attempts to deal with death and suffering. One is to blame the victim. Jesus, in no uncertain terms rejects the notion that particular incidents of suffering are God’s punishment for particular sins. But, Jesus also avoids a simple acceptance of suffering and death. There is no sentimental idea that death is to be welcomed as a release from this dying world of suffering and death. Rather, he states the obvious that we all live in a world in which death still has a sort of dominion. He warns us to turn while we can and live into the way of his life and commit to unlearning the ways of death and collaborating with the way of death.

Like the tutor sent to the dying boy, Jesus comes to teach us a new grammar. To repent is to unlearn the grammar of violence and death and learn the grammar of peace and life, to unlearn the language of greed and accumulation and learn the language of generosity, to unlearn the grammar of division and learn the grammar of reconciliation, to unlearn the language of defensive selfishness and learn the language of hospitality and love. To repent is to renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God and the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. To repent is to turn to Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace and Lord of Life and accept him as Savior.

St. Paul warns us in this morning’s epistle that this is not a once-off thing. While we rejoice in the gift of faith, trust in the efficacy of our baptism, and give thanks for ongoing nourishment of the heavenly food of the Eucharist; we are still subject to temptation. Our ancestors in the faith who succumbed to temptation in the desert serve as a warning to us. We are still subject to the allure of evil and of idolatry. The Russian philosopher and poet, Vladimir Soloviev wrote, “Death and time have dominion on earth but you must refrain from calling them lords” and one way or another, idolatry is just that. Do not be complacent, Paul warns. Do not presume that you stand, lest you fall.

But, along with his warning, Paul offers assurance. Though it might at times feel like you are being tested beyond your endurance, know that you are not alone. God remains faithful. And this is what Jesus is saying in the parable of the unfruitful olive tree. The olive tree is way past the time of bearing fruit. The landlord wants to cut his losses by cutting down the offending tree. But the gardener encourages patience. Let us be clear here. What we have here is not an angry and impatient landlord-God who is coaxed out of destroying the tree by the gentle gardener. Many of us were taught, at one time or another, this image of a fundamentally angry God who gentle Jesus seeks to appease. But God is not opposed to himself. The “landlord” might rather be the religious leaders who were quick to judge and condemn. Or Satan, who is always ready to accuse. But the God we know – the God who is I AM – is the same God who has come in Jesus to deliver. And so, as a gardener he comes to help us – we who are unable in ourselves to help ourselves. He offers to dig around our roots to prepare for the radical change we need and desire. He offers to put manure around those roots. And this is a good thing. This is not manure as in “manure happens.” It is life giving, nourishing fertilizer. It is, ultimately, his own life given for the life of the world. The call to repent is a call to let the Gardener have his way with us that we might live his way and bear the fruit of his Spirit. It is a promise that we are not left helpless and hopeless. We need not be the dying boy. We need not be the dying girl. Sin and death need not have the final word. We can be changed.

And God desires that we be changed and live. In 2 Peter 3:9, we read, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” In this morning’s New York Times Magazine, there is an interview with one of my heroes, Desmond Tutu who was the Archbishop of the Anglican Church in South Africa during the last years of Apartheid. In the interview, he talks poignantly of his son, Trevor:

He’s a very gifted person, but you see a little bit how God must feel about us because he has really undermined his own life by his abuse of alcohol. When he’s not under the influence, he’s incredibly wonderful, he really is, and it makes you weep to see how he then is almost intent on destroying himself.

God feels about us the way Desmond Tutu feels for his son. We are addicted to the ways of sin and death. We need an intervention. Jesus is that intervention.

Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? Ezekiel 18:23

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On Giving up Murder, Cannibalism and Cursing for Lent (and Beyond)

It's never too late in Lent to take on new disciplines. I suggest we give up murder, cannibalism and blasphemous cursing.

I am more and more convinced that a fundamental aspect of the deeper holiness to which we are called has to do with wordcare. Wordcare has to do with all our use of language. Among other things, it has to do with the language we use about God and with the truthfulness and integrity of our language generally. Those might be topics for another time. What I'd like to write about now is the significance of how we use words to and about others.

The language of sarcasm is my mother tongue and I know I need to check it. I am also increasingly aware of how language that dismisses or disparages the other or refers to the other with disdain has become our common tongue. It is common in entertainment and other media. It is frequently present at work and in families. It is endemic in our polarized political discourse. And it is all too familiar in church debates. But, for Christians, it ought not to be so. We are instructed otherwise in scripture, particularly in the New Testament. From the Desert Fathers and Mothers to the Rule of St. Benedict and beyond, the importance of disciplining our speech is a common theme among the saints.

Our Lord famously warns, "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire" (Matthew 5:21 – 22). When we speak to or about others with words of disdain, words that dismiss, words that disparage the other, we are committing a species of spiritual violence that is of the same genus as murder. And it is subject to frightful judgment. Add to that Jesus’ command to love enemies and refrain from judging and one begins to measure words more carefully.

The Apostle Paul also had much to say about our words as well as our behavior toward one another. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul resorts to the striking imagery of cannibalism, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another" (Galatians 5:14 -15). St. John Chrysostom picks up on this in a Lenten sermon on Fasting:

Let the mouth fast from disgraceful and abusive words, because, what gain is there when, on the one hand we avoid eating chicken and fish and, on the other, we chew-up and consume our brothers? He who condemns and blasphemes is as if he has eaten brotherly meat, as if he has bitten into the flesh of his fellow man. It is because of this that Paul frightened us, saying: "If you chew up and consume one another be careful that you do not annihilate yourselves."

You did not thrust your teeth into the flesh (of your neighbor) but you thrusted bad talk in his soul; you wounded it by spreading disfame, causing unestimatable damage both to yourself, to him, and to many others.

I wonder particularly if we would not do well to be less eager to chew on the latest revelation of some outrageous act or word from those with whom we disagree. We could also get over the taste for the put down, for patronizing and for manipulation. It seems to me that we are often intent on accusing others of biting us even as we are picking the bits of others out from between our own teeth.

In his letter, St. James warns about the tongue, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless” (James 1:26). He goes even further, “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue--a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so. (James 3:7 – 10) I was taught growing up that we shouldn’t curse. But, that meant we should avoid using a short list of four-letter “curse” words. James is onto something deeper and it’s not a simple matter of not saying, “Go to hell" or “Damn you”. All words that destroy, tear down, or dismiss are a form of cursing. And because they disrespect those who are created in the likeness of God, they are a form of blasphemy.

Toward the end of his letter, James summarizes this concern with, “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!” (James 5:7 – 9)

Indeed, as James wrote, it ought not to be so. And yet our public and private discourse seems full of verbal murder, cannibalism and blasphemous cursing. The internet is especially rife with such things across the theo-political spectrum.

Our wordcare both demonstrates whether or not our hearts and minds are oriented toward God and shapes that orientation. If we fear God, if we love the Lord, if we hope for any fellowship with the Holy Spirit we would do well to take care with our words. And if we believe in the day of scrutiny (Wisdom 3:19), we should foreswear murder, cannibalism and cursing for Lent – and beyond. The Judge is standing at the door.

Finally, if we are going to give something up, we would do well to take something up. We might start with this, “But in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame"
(1 Peter 3:15 – 16). And this, “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”
(Romans 12:10)