Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sermon for April 24, 2011 - -Easter Sunday

I Have Seen the Lord
Listen HERE

Early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. She ran and found Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. She said, “They have taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Peter and the other disciple started out for the tomb. They were both running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He stooped and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he didn’t go in. Then Simon Peter arrived and went inside. He also noticed the linen wrappings lying there, while the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was folded up and lying apart from the other wrappings. Then the disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in, and he saw and believed—for until then they still hadn’t understood the Scriptures that said Jesus must rise from the dead. Then they went home.

Mary was standing outside the tomb crying, and as she wept, she stooped and looked in. She saw two white-robed angels, one sitting at the head and the other at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had been lying. “Dear woman, why are you crying?” the angels asked her. Because they have taken away my Lord,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him. “Dear woman, why are you crying?” Jesus asked her. “Who are you looking for?” She thought he was the gardener. “Sir,” she said, “if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.”

“Mary!” Jesus said. She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher”). “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene found the disciples and told them, “I have seen the Lord!” Then she gave them his message. John 20:1-18

If god died tomorrow, would anyone notice? Would anything change? Would there be round-the-clock news coverage like there is with the death of a Pope? Would you just wonder why god hadn't shown up for work? Would you look around in church and think, “There’s something different here.” Would Christian Science Monitor newspapers and copies of the The Christian Century begin to pile up somewhere? Would we notice after a season that tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes oddly didn't happen this year? Or would they increase? I recently read about a woman who was healed by Jesus in her church last November. She can now walk after 22 years of immobilization. If god died tomorrow, would reports of miracle healings come to an end? If god died tomorrow, would Christian fundamentalists stop burning the Qur’an to honor their god? And who would pious religious leaders like Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps blame when they say indefensibly unintelligent and wicked things? If god died tomorrow would people keep sneezing relentlessly even after we said, “God bless you”? Would food taste funny after we said grace? Would lightning bolts stop flashing and thunder be silenced when some non-believer takes the lord's name in vain? If god died tomorrow, would you find that you're bitterly missing something in your life, or would it go on the same as usual? If god died, would human beings stop turning their eyes toward a supernatural realm and begin to acknowledge the value of this beautiful, fading world?

What happens when God dies? Imagine two men carrying a dead body to a tomb. Not just any dead body. It is the body of their Lord. A man named Joseph wipes the wounded face of the body and with a soft towel he cleans the blood that came from lashings and a crown of thorns. Then he closes the corpse’s eyes. Another man named Nicodemus unrolls some linen, and together these two men lift the body of Jesus and set him on the aloe covered cloths. They prepare the body in a hurry as the sun sets and the Sabbath begins. Across the city, ten men sit in a darkening room. The door is locked tightly. Each man feels embarrassed and guilty and scared. These are Jesus’ closest friends. Each is too overwhelmed to go home and too confused to go on. Each has an anxious hope that it’s all been a bad dream. Each has betrayed the one whom they promised to follow with their lives. Now all seems lost and senseless, for the man who claimed to be one with God now lies dead and buried in a garden tomb.

What happens when God dies? Have you ever had a time when your expectations of God begin to crumble and you are left with nothing but fear and faithlessness? Have you ever faced a crisis of hope; a feeling that all was lost because God is not around to make the future any better?

In the modern era, it was generally agreed that life was a steadily upward moving process. Education and science seemed to guarantee the moral progress and enlightenment of the human race. However, as time went on, we were confronted with world wars and military occupations. We faced holocausts and genocides, the development of nuclear weapons, ecological disasters in our own backyards, and wars throughout the world. These events shattered the dreams of moral growth, as we saw the consequences of our inhumanity. All the naive ideas about progress were eclipsed by the very real possibility that humans would wipe each other out of existence.

Many of the people of my generation, the so called “Generation X-ers” grew up wondering, “Why hope in the future, if there’s no future to live for? What is there to hope in if nuclear Armageddon destroys us all? What kind of future do we have if the environment won’t sustain us?” We achingly asked, “Where is God?” These aren’t just the questions of the X-ers. Like the disciples in the upper room, it feels as if hope has been buried in a garden tomb. We dare to think, “If God were alive, there would be no holocaust. There would be no Hitler, or Stalin, no Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic; no Darfur, no crises like we see in Haiti and Japan. If God were alive, we wouldn’t have to live in fear of what the future holds.”

I once read about a town that was to be flooded as part of a large lake for which a dam was being built. In the months before it was to be flooded, all improvements and repairs in the town were stopped. What was the use of painting a house if it were to be covered with water in six months? Why repair anything when the whole village was to be wiped out? Week by week, the whole town became more decrepit and more miserable. As one citizen of the town said, “Where there is no faith in the future, there is no power in the present.”

If there is no hope for the future, then there is nothing else to do but live for the moment. Our society trains itself to live for immediate good feelings and thrills. After all, God is dead. And if God is alive, He (and I use the word intentionally here), He has been very irresponsible. Or maybe God’s not powerful enough to stop bad things from happening. God can’t be trusted to heal. God can’t be counted on the bring justice and stop evil. If God isn’t there for us, then we only have one reasonable means of survival -- we will take care of everything ourselves. If the future is not sure, we will make here and now as pleasurable as possible. If we can’t hope in God, if there is no one greater then ourselves to believe in, then we will put our trust in our own abilities to make ourselves happy for the time being.

As this behavior continues, we will observe its destructive power. We scramble for status. We seek the next rush of immediate pleasure. We dream of money and power. But our striving doesn’t seem to fill the places inside of us that want to believe that there is something greater than our own attempts at happiness -- that there is a God who cares, and loves, and promises a future for us.

So far, I’ve presented the grimmest view of our natures, yet a view that’s embraced almost daily by world news. Rebecca West in her book Black Lamb, Grey Falcon makes a statement in her observation of the Balkans. I think it applies to us all. She writes:
Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live in our nineties and die in peace, in a house we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set life back to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.
We’re afraid of economic hardship, we’re afraid of debt, we’re afraid of diminishing resources and environmental destruction. We’re afraid of racial tensions and the growing gulf between the rich and the poor. We are afraid of religion-endorsed hatred. We’re afraid of the hurt between between people of different nations. We’re afraid of a drift toward endless war. We fear for ourselves and our loved ones. It’s easy to fall into heartsickness when we have to rely on our own striving to make the future.

Out of this turbulent swirl of hopelessness comes a message spoken at a garden tomb in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. This is no time for sadness. This is no time to mourn. This is not the time to be afraid. God is not dead. Jesus is no longer in the grave! Jesus is alive!

Today, we celebrate the living Christ who stands before us. Today we proclaim that God overcomes death and gives birth to a new hope. Jesus rose so we would know that there’s something more beyond the painful and inhumane offerings of the world. Those without hope ask, “Where is your God?” The answer is this: look in the place where you would never expect God to be...like a cross. Look again in the places of pain and agony, and there God is in the flesh. God isn’t stumped by the evil in the world. God doesn’t gasp in amazement at the death of our faith or the depth of our failure. We can’t surprise God with our cruelties. God knows the condition of the world, and God still loves it. God loves it enough to become one with us, to suffer the greatest kind of punishment imaginable, to die . . . and then rise above it. God doesn’t use the world’s ways against the world. Through the resurrection, God declares that worldly powers really have no power at all. We have a living God who knows our pain and offers us new hope in the midst of it.

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 hospital program teacher went to visit a boy. 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. “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 said it this way: "They wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?"

There is hope beyond our suffering. God raises Jesus and remind us that we have a future. We see the fallout of fear and the theaters of hate all around us. God reaches beyond that and says, “Do not mourn a dead God. This is no time for sadness. I’m alive! And because I live, you also will live.”

That’s real comfort. That’s real hope. This Easter, my prayer for all of is that, with the women leaving the tomb, we can affirm a word of hope: “I have seen the Lord.”
I have seen the Lord and I refuse to be controlled by fear.
I have seen the Lord, and I refuse to dehumanize another.
I have seen the Lord and I will tear down the walls of gender, race, class, and sexual identity.
I have seen the Lord and will I love my enemies.
I have seen the Lord and I will stand with the poor.
I have seen the Lord and I will forgive those who've wronged me.
I have seen the Lord so I will resist the violence of the nations by acting for peace.
I have seen the Lord and so I will demonstrate the power of resurrection in our world!

Yes, after seeing the risen Lord, let's dedicate the rest of our lives to claiming and acting upon our good hope in Christ . . .

That when all our work seems useless, new hope blooms.
That in the midst of brokenness, healing stirs.
That in the midst of darkness, a light shines.
That in the midst of death, new life abounds.

Sources:
• http://www.examiner.com/biblical-truths-in-national/jesus-is-still-healing-the-sick-miracle-mobile-three-month-follow-up
• http://articles.exchristian.net/2009/07/if-god-died-tomorrow-how-would-you-know.htmlhttp://articles.exchristian.net/2009/07/if-god-died-tomorrow-how-would-you-know.html
• Rebecca West. Black Lamb, Grey Falcon. New York: Penguin, 1994, p. 1102.
• http://www.haleteamministry.org/sermonssherrysaadvent2.htm

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Easter Greeting

Dear Friends,

In Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” he writes these words:
So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. Ask the questions that have no answers. Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest...Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts . . . Practice resurrection.
We all know too well the practice of crucifixion. We see it daily in the news, in the tears of friends, and in our own faces, sleepless and worn. But what do we know of resurrection? What do we know about struggling with the issues of the day; reaching out to those who are hungry, poor, and oppressed; healing the sick and broken and breathing life into every moment?

We practice resurrection whenever we notice beauty and are truly grateful. We practice resurrection whenever we swallow our anger and our pride and start over again with living. We practice resurrection when we ask for forgiveness or forgive someone else; when we find some love that has been buried inside of us; when we say NO to the forces of death in our world and say YES to that which enhances life. We practice resurrection by growing a soul and living a larger life.

Happy Easter to you all. May resurrection abound in our church, and in our lives.
From the Staff of Christ Congregational Church

The Rev. Dr. Matthew Braddock, Senior Minister
Rev. Amy L. Lewis. Minister for Adults
Nae Pearson, Director of Music
Sue Wilson, Children’s C.E. Coordinator
Leonor Rivera, Executive Assistant
Dianne Abraham, Church Administrator

Sermon for April 17, 2010 -- Palm Sunday

Lent: Letting go of Death
Listen HERE

As Jesus and the disciples approached Jerusalem, they came to the town of Bethphage on the Mount of Olives. Jesus sent two of them on ahead. “Go into the village over there,” he said. “As soon as you enter it, you will see a donkey tied there, with its colt beside it. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone asks what you are doing, just say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will immediately let you take them.” This took place to fulfill the prophecy that said,
“Tell the people of Israel,
‘Look, your King is coming to you.
He is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.’”
The two disciples did as Jesus commanded. They brought the donkey and the colt to him and threw their garments over the colt, and he sat on it. Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road ahead of him, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Jesus was in the center of the procession, and the people all around him were shouting,
“Praise God for the Son of David!
Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Praise God in highest heaven!”
The entire city of Jerusalem was in an uproar as he entered. “Who is this?” they asked.
And the crowds replied, “It’s Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” -- Matthew. 21:1-11

In case you did not get the save the date card in the mail, Jesus is returning on May 21, 2011. At least according to Harold Camping. Harold is the president of Family Radio, a company that owns 150 Christian radio outlets across the country, including our area. He claims that he’s mathematically uncovered the date May 21, 2011 as the time of Jesus’ return. Here’s how it works: May 21 is exactly 7000 years since Noah's flood. Why is that important? Well, because Jesus said that his coming would be like in the days of Noah, and since the flood came in 4990 B.C. (according to Camping’s calculations), and since Noah was on the ark for 7 days before the flood came, and since one day with the Lord is as 1,000 years to God, 7 days God’s time or 7,000 years human time, is the waiting period before judgment. Subtracting one year because there was no year “0″ brings us to May 21, 2011. Oh what a tangled web.

I read a story about one convert who is so convinced that Harold Camping is correct, she moved to North Carolina to spread the word. Allison Warden says her family is so sure of this date they're putting up billboards announcing the return of the Messiah on May 21, 2011. Why North Carolina? Of all places, don’t you think Christian in North Carolina would have heard about this by now? As it turns out, Camping’s radio show broadcasts in 38 states -- but not North Carolina. So Allison Warden moved her family there to spread the word. She even set up a website to warn people.

Oh . . . Did I forget to tell you that Harold Camping previously predicted that Jesus would return in 1994? Of course, Jesus did not come. Don’t get mad at Camping though. He just did the math wrong. This has not stopped people from converting to his message.

If you can’t tell, I think people like Harold Camping are nuts. I also think they are dangerous. They use fear to make religious converts. When faced with the prospect of eternity in Hell, people like Harold want to scare converts into following his punishing, judging Jesus.

In response, we liberals grow uncomfortable with all this conversion talk. And rightly so. We have seen people manipulated, marginalized and mind-controlled through religion. Some of us have been on the receiving end of it all. But I wonder if we gave it up the concept of conversion too quickly. After all, conversion is about change, not of who you are, but of how you experience life. Conversion doesn’t mean that you’ve turned into another form of protoplasm. You’re still human, but you’re not quite the same, either. You experience life differently. You understand God’s spirit in a new way. The presence of God feels more real. Can we have these experiences without becoming dangerous?

I wonder if you’ve ever experienced such a change – a time when Christ called you to a new place in your life – a time when you sensed God leading you to turn your life around and to do a new thing. In other words, have you ever experienced a moment of conversion? Some people think conversion is something that happens at a religious revival or as a response to a call to get saved and come to Jesus. In the world of Evangelical Christianity, people speak of being born again. They are usually referring to the moment when they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior . . . when they were, in effect, converted from old life to new birth. There is a definite process involved in this conversion: stop sinning, express genuine faith, accept Christ, be filled with the Spirit, get baptized and join a church. A person who is a wastrel repents, gives his life to Christ, and becomes a street corner preacher. An insolent teen druggie gets saved and becomes a Christian rock star. A chain-smoking, poker-playing grannie accepts Christ and begins a Christian Praise Aerobics class in the town. People get converted and begin signing their letters “yours in Christ.” In a decision of faith, people hear the call of God, they leave behind their old life, and they became born again in Christ. Many people think about conversion in this manner. It is instant and identifiable.

There are others of you here today who were baptized as infants and raised in the church and you don’t have a conversion story that sounds anything like what I just described. You have never experienced a moment when decided to accept Christ and were “born again.” For many of you, there’s a sense of having always believed in God. The life of faith has not been defined by a moment in time, but rather by an ongoing process. An uneasy tension always arises between those who have had a life-defining conversion moment with Christ and those who have enjoyed a slow and gradual relationship with God. The born-agains are seen by the traditionalists as pushy hurricanes who hammer religion down everyone’s throat. The traditionalists are seen by the born-agains as stagnant water in need of some serious stirring. Both sides say “My way is God’s way.” Both points of view refuse to believe that God will do anything other than what one’s personal experience dictates. Caught in the middle are those who want to turn, and change, and grow in Christ -- to be neither hurricane nor puddle, but filled with the life-giving water of Christ. Maybe we all need a conversion -- a turning – a change of perspective.

Here is the reality of my life. Even though I can pinpoint various conversion moments in my own experience, I don’t live a life of 24-hour peace, joy, and victory. I guess I committed my life to Christ with the expectation that Christianity would be like living in a new Eden. But, many times, my life feels like a dried up river bed. Sometimes I still get anxious. I still struggle with some bad habits and defeating attitudes. Much of my faith journey feels like wilderness time– struggling with temptation and trying to fathom the meaning of what life is throwing at me at any moment. I bet that for many of you people of faith, no matter how you got here, life may be the same. Life is lived in the neutral zone.

Our culture knows little of how to prepare us for the waiting involved in the neutral zone. We are eager to use medications and entertainment, distractions and remedies, to help us avoid the pain and helplessness that the neutral zone imposes. But, maybe our conversion comes from waiting, and reflecting, and even dying in this neutral zone. Suffering is, I am sorry to say, the most efficient means of transformation. Grief especially has unparalleled power to open our eyes and open our heart, but only over the long haul. After all, new beginnings come only after an ending. New life only comes after death. True conversion has to turn from something in order to turn to the life to which God is calling. If this is all true, then maybe conversion is a single moment AND a process, but never just an end. Conversion is a beginning point, and a daily re-orientation to the things of God. Maybe God is continually renewing us and calling us to turn from death to life, and from old to new.

Maybe conversion happens when we admit that God can work in us however, whenever, and through whatever means God chooses. Maybe conversion is not a one-size-fits-all garment. Maybe Christian conversion is worked out by each individual within the community of faith.

Palm Sunday symbolizes the kind of conversion I’m talking about. Gentle Jesus, riding on a donkey to the cheering of crowds, is about to enter the neutral zone. Jesus may have been uneasy with the cheering crowds. The word “Hosanna” does not mean “Hip hip hooray.” It means “Help us! Save us!” Some of the onlookers call out for Jesus to rescue them from Roman domination. Others coax Jesus on, hoping that he will overstep the law. As soon as Jesus enters the city, he immediately attacks the Temple. Some people in the city see him as a trigger for their revolution against Rome. Others see Jesus as a threat to the order of the Jerusalem. Others may be city dwellers who don’t understand why a nobody from Nazareth is entering the City of God as a war hero on the back of a donkey. In the midst of it all, Jesus rides on to death, going where God leads him, facing the neutral zone of Holy Week. He will be tempted to turn away. He will be falsely accused. His friends will leave him. He will die as Rome’s public example of what happens to those who defy the Empire. And on a cross, his arms will stretch to embrace the world. Jesus will die, and he will lie in the neutral zone of a tomb for three days. New life will come, but not right away. Easter doesn’t come without some waiting, and some suffering, and some reflection on conversion from death to life.

On this final Sunday of Lent, what might happen to us if we let go of our fear of death and allow God to form us in the neutral zone? Sometimes, God visits us with a light so dazzling that we cannot help but be changed. But often, God's light shines more dimly, in ways and places we will not see unless we're keeping our eyes open for them. Just don’t rush it. Allow God to work. Sometimes it takes a while to move from death to life. It takes time to go from seedlings that are being hardened off to the winds of the world to fruit-bearing people. We cannot create conversion in ourselves or in others. But we can keep our lives open for the daily ways God invites us to be born anew.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sermon for April 10, 2011, Consecration Sunday

Lent: Extravagant Offerings

Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the home of Lazarus—the man he had raised from the dead. A dinner was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate with him. Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance. But Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon betray him, said, “That perfume was worth a year’s wages. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor.” Not that he cared for the poor—he was a thief, and since he was in charge of the disciples’ money, he often stole some for himself. Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”When all the people heard of Jesus’ arrival, they flocked to see him and also to see Lazarus, the man Jesus had raised from the dead. Then the leading priests decided to kill Lazarus, too, for it was because of him that many of the people had deserted them and believed in Jesus. John 12:1-11

Recent archaeological research has turned up an amazing find. It is a lost letter of the Bible, which has come into my possession. Written by a man who calls himself Eleazaros, it soon became apparent that this letter was dictated by the man we know as Lazarus. I painstakingly translated it from the original language, only changing some archaic phrases so as to make sense to the modern ear. With the most spectacular story to tell, Lazarus took time to write to a previously unknown group of Jesus followers in a suburban imperial province. Today, I present to you the Epistle of Lazarus to the Church in Fons Argenteus.

To the believers in Fons Argenteus. Grace and peace to you from a dead man. Yeah, you heard me right. I’m a dead man. At least I was. Certified, and mummified. Buried in the family tomb. I wish I could explain to you what it feels like to be dead. I just don’t have colorful enough words in my vocabulary to paint it for you. I can tell you this: There was nothing romantic or beautiful about it. Death is an offense to beauty. No matter how hard you try, a corpse is never attractive. No embalmer’s art can change that.[1] So, maybe you’re wondering how a dead man gets to write to you. Let me tell you what happened. This is going to blow your mind. There I lay - lifeless in a dark crypt for four days (Not that I had any concept of time passing). It was just dark...until I heard that voice – familiar, anguished, and inviting. It was like I heard a whisper in the back of my head saying, “Lazarus, come out,” and I just couldn’t help it. I got up and walked out of the crypt right to Jesus. And let me tell you, did that freak people out! I can just imagine what it must have looked like to others – this linen-wrapped mummy-man lumbering out of a dark tomb into the hot Mediterranean sun. I remember seeing my sisters, Mary and Martha, gape-mouthed and weeping for joy. Most of all, I remember Jesus’ tear-soaked, enraptured face.

Well, as you can imagine, we had a BIG party. When the power of God raises you from the dead and gives you a new lease on life, you don’t just shake hands, go out for a drink, and say, “Thanks man, I owe you one.” Especially when it all happened to someone like me. I mean, I’m not a well-known person in this town. I’m not a politician or a religious leader. Just a regular, hard-working sort of guy. But, Jesus, my friend, came to me and gave me my life back. No, you don’t let that go without having a big celebration.

All kinds of people were there. I’m kind of a people watcher myself. So I just took everything in: Jesus and the disciples, some friends and neighbors. Others were gathering outside, trying to get a peak at me and Jesus through the windows. And my sister Martha was bustling around as usual. Martha is a practical woman. She’s one of those women who shows love by keeping busy. Always cooking and cleaning. She gets extra frantic about details when we have parties, especially when Jesus is here. Everything has to be just right. Usually, she’s bossing me around. “Lazarus, go get some more water. Don’t forget to start up the barbeque. Make sure everyone has enough to eat,” and things like that. Everything has to be perfect. She wasn’t bossing me around at this party, though. I was the guest of honor. I sat at the head table with Jesus and his crew, just watching everything happen.

My other sister Mary is just the opposite of Martha. She’s not really a detail person. I’ve never known Mary to have emotional outbursts. She’s a level-headed woman. But you should have seen her at my party. She came out of the back room with a clay pot, about the size of a pint jar. She broke the cap off it, and the luxuriant fragrance of perfume filled the air. This was not cheap Syrian toilette water, either. It was her bottle of spikenard. The stuff cost $10,000, imported directly from India. It was the most precious thing Mary owned.

I was taking a drink from my cup when she broke the jar and poured the perfume over Jesus’ feet. I was so shocked I practically showered everyone with the water in my mouth as I choked on it (which, by the way, wouldn’t have made Martha happy. I can hear her now, “Lazarus, I swear you live in a barn. Use some manners. We have company.”) Anyways, Mary could have splashed a couple of drops of perfume in Jesus’ direction as a token of thanks. I have to say, though, my sister Mary doesn’t do things halfway. She went and poured the whole bottle over the Lord’s feet. Not his head, like I expected, but his feet. The odd thing was, she wouldn’t even look Jesus in the eyes. It’s almost as if she didn’t want to be recognized. She just poured out the perfume and then began to meekly rub it in with the hair on her head.

Now you have to understand, in my world, women don’t go around in mixed company with their hair loose. When a girl is married her hair is bound up, and it’s never seen flowing loose in public again. Only immoral women appear in public with unbound hair. So, here is my sister, acting like a cheap floozy with the guy who saved my life.

Now that some time has gone by, I realize that Mary didn’t really care what the rest of us thought. It reminds me of when two people fall in love–they are in a world of their own. Remember, I’m a people watcher. I see how people act when they are enamored with each other. They steal quick hand touches and eye glances. They rejoice that the world sees their love.[2] Or have you ever seen a child who is free and uninhibited? She just loves what she’s doing at the moment, no matter who is watching. On the other hand, there are always people who are so worried about what others think that they never let loose. Not Mary. You could tell that she loved Jesus so much that it was nothing to her what others thought. At that moment it was only her and her Lord.

Looking back on things, maybe Mary was the only follower who had clear focus that night. I remember how irritated Judas was. Judas was always a little critical of others. Hey, that reminds of a joke I heard:

A Hindu, a Rabbi, and a Critic were caught in a terrific thunderstorm while traveling separately through the countryside. They sought shelter at a nearby farmhouse. “That storm will be raging for hours.” The farmer told them. “You ought to spend the night. The problem is there is only room for two in the house. One of you must sleep in the stable.” “I’ll be the one said the Hindu, a little hardship is nothing to me.” And he went to the stable. A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. It was the Hindu. “I’m sorry he said to the others, but there is a cow in the barn. Cows are sacred creatures and I cannot impose.” “Don’t worry said the Rabbi, make yourself comfortable. I will go sleep in the stable” A few minutes later there was another knock at the door. It was the Rabbi. “I hate to be a bother,” he said, “but there is a pig in the stable. In my religion pigs are unclean, I wouldn’t feel comfortable sleeping near a pig.” “Oh, all right said the Critic, “I’ll go sleep in the stable.” A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. It was the pig and the cow.

The point is, nobody likes a critic. So we all rolled our eyes when Judas opened his mouth. “What a colossal waste!” he cried out. “Lady, you could have sold that perfume and given the profits to us so we can help the poor. Instead you just dumped it out.” There was nothing but silence in the room. Mary paused only for a moment before she went back to wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair.

Most people assumed Judas was a crook. We didn’t know why Jesus let him hold the money. I guess Jesus saw something in that guy that the rest of us didn’t. Well, Judas was seeing dollar signs. In a sense, I guess I was too. I thought to myself, “Laz, Judas has a point. There are better things to do with valuable perfume than pour it on someone’s road-weary feet. It’s really not rational. How are we going to live if Mary is going to do this with our treasures? It’s not responsible to our family. Why not sell it, and give a small percentage of the proceeds to charity? We could feed a few poor people. We could buy a few things we want around the house. We would have a nice little nest egg for the future.” Mary kept wiping the Master’s feet with her hair, almost hypnotically. As I watched her my thoughts were filled with a list of ten more things we could do with $10,000. Then Jesus spoke. “Leave her alone,” he said. Jesus bent down, and lifted Mary’s head up to meet her eyes. Jesus looked right at her with a discerning gaze and a knowing smile, but he was talking to the rest of us. “She was saving this perfume for this moment. She’s getting me ready for my death. There will always be poor people to give to. Let’s worry about them another time. You don’t always have me here.”

We had no idea what the man was talking about. We said things like, “Jesus, you’re not going to die soon. Knock it off. You’re going to bust up the party.” It turns out that as we were overprotecting Jesus, some people were plotting how to kill him. I heard they even put a hit out on me. I guess they were a little jealous over the competition. At any rate, Jesus knew he was going to die. Kind of ironic, huh? He raised me to new life, and the price for it was his own life.

Here I am, a man who has the chance to start everything new. Jesus gave me an opportunity to set a new life in motion. Nothing has to be the same. A new world of possibilities is unfolding before me. You know, there are some things we can do almost any time; and there are some things that we will never do unless we take hold of the moment when it comes. I have so often been captured with the desire to do something big-hearted and generous. I think I should use my time, talent and treasure to make a difference in the lives of others. And then I put it off until tomorrow. When tomorrow comes the impulse is gone; the passion, burned out; the opportunity, lost. If I’ve learned one thing from being a dead man, it’s life is uncertain. We are moved to give our money to causes that support justice, wholeness, and spiritual growth for all people, but we doubt our contributions will make a difference as we watch people struggle. We are moved to offer some words of thanks, or praise, or love, but we put it off. Who knows if that person will be around tomorrow to hear it? We want to give extravagantly to do God’s work but we get nervous and postpone our increase for another year. Sometimes we forget that our giving shows our love for God. The night of my party, Jesus gave us the opportunity to love him while he was still with us. Mary knew it.[3]

Mary’s generous act of devotion gave me a new perspective on this whole new life of mine. As much as I thought Mary’s actions were irresponsible, I was also confronted with the beauty of the faith it takes to make such a costly sacrifice.

I guess it’s really not about the money. It’s not the amount of the gift, but it’s what we give. Mary gave more to Jesus than a pint of remarkably expensive perfume. The most costly, the most extravagant thing she offered was her devotion to Jesus. Her love and awe of Jesus made the costly perfume seem cheap in comparison. When I realized how I was holding back, I felt cheap in comparison, too.

So, here I am. I owe my life to Jesus. And what do I have to offer him? What’s my most extravagant offering? My money? My time? My expensive gifts? Mary taught me that those don’t mean a thing if I can’t also express my gratitude through love. The offering Jesus wants is the gift of ME. Jesus raised me to life so that I could spend myself on him.

Well, I best be signing off. By the way, I still smell that perfume in the house. Every time I walk into the front room, my nostrils are satisfied with a sweet reminder of what Mary did to show her love for Jesus. It always reminds me to do things now, for the chance to do them might never come again, and the failure to do them–especially the failure to express love in action, brings the bitterest remorse of all [4].

I sign this with my own hand. God’s peace be with you. Eleazaros.

Sources:
[1]Jospeh Bayly, The View from Heaven (New York: New family Library, 1972), 15.
[2]William Barclay, The Gospel of John, vol 2, (Edinburgh: St. Andrew, 1955), 129.
[3]Barclay, 131.
[4]Barclay, 131-132.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Sermon for April 3, 2011

Lent: Letting Go of Self-Righteousness
April 3, 2011

Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, "Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?" Jesus said, "You're asking the wrong question. You're looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world's Light." He said this and then spit in the dust, made a clay paste with the saliva, rubbed the paste on the blind man's eyes, and said, "Go, wash at the Pool of Siloam.” The man went and washed—and saw.

Soon the town was buzzing. His relatives and those who year after year had seen him as a blind man begging were saying, "Isn't this man we knew, who sat here and begged?" They marched the man to the Pharisees. This day when Jesus made the paste and healed his blindness was the Sabbath. The Pharisees grilled him on how he had come to see. He said, "A man put a clay paste on my eyes, and I washed, and now I see."

They called the parents of the man now bright-eyed with sight. They asked them, "Is this your son, the one you say was born blind? How is it that he now sees?" His parents said, "We know he is our son, and we know he was born blind. But we don't know how he came to see.. Why don't you ask him? He's a grown man and can speak for himself." (His parents were talking like this because they were intimidated by the religious leaders, who had already decided that anyone who took a stand that this was the Messiah would be kicked out of the meeting place).

They called the man back a second time—the man who had been blind— and told him, "Give credit to God. We know this man is an impostor." He replied, "I know nothing about that one way or the other. But I know one thing for sure: I was blind . . . I now see. The fact is, he opened my eyes! It's well known that God isn't at the beck and call of sinners, but listens carefully to anyone who lives in reverence. That someone opened the eyes of a man born blind has never been heard of—ever. If this man didn't come from God, he wouldn't be able to do anything."

They said, "You're nothing but dirt! How dare you take that tone with us!" Then they threw him out in the street.

Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and went and found him. He asked him, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" The man said, "Point him out to me, sir, so that I can believe in him."

Jesus said, "You're looking right at him. Don't you recognize my voice?" "Master, I believe," the man said, and worshiped him. Jesus then said, "I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind."
Some Pharisees overheard him and said, "Does that mean you're calling us blind?"
Jesus said, "If you were really blind, you would be blameless, but since you claim to see everything so well, you're accountable for every fault and failure."
John 9:1-41, The Message, selected verses
Also read Psalm 23


The year was 1643. A man named George Fox experienced desperate spiritual confusion. He was depressed and suffered frequent attacks of blindness. The advice of the clergy was of no help to him. One told him to take tobacco and sing psalms as a remedy for his state of mind. Another tried to bleed him with leaches, and a third flew into a rage when George accidentally stepped on the reverend’s carefully cultivated flower garden. Ignoring the clergy’s’ advice, George fasted, sought solitude, and mourned his sinfulness. As he prayed, George experienced a flood of light in his inner being and discovered that God was to be found in the human heart. He began to preach his belief in the inner light. He said that it was present in every individual. Instead of assuming that darkness and evil lurked behind everyone’s life, George focused on the light of God. He saw evil as serious and deadly, and he attacked it mercilessly, but it was not more powerful than good. George Fox eventually founded what is known as the Society of Friends, or the Quakers.

If George Fox is right, if all of us carry the light of God in us, then it should make a difference in the way we treat other people. You and I categorize people too easily. We often demand conformity to how we think others should act before we love them. George Fox teaches us an important lesson. He actually got it from Jesus: If God is light, and if we are God’s people, then everyone carries God’s light within. Hope is real for those who feel like the most hopeless of persons.

Think about the blind man who was healed on the Sabbath. He must have felt hopeless at times. He’s looked down upon as a weak street beggar with no future. Everyone, including Jesus’ disciples think his blindness is justified punishment for some terrible sin. No one in his world thinks he has access to the light of God. No one, that is, except Jesus. I think it’s so amazing that Jesus reaches out and touches this man. The man is made whole because Jesus notices something in him that others cannot sense.

The healed blind man basically gets put on trial three times: once by his neighbors, and twice by the prosecution, otherwise known as the Pharisees. They are the religious and spiritual followers of Moses who know everything about everything there is to know about Jewish law. They protect the rules and regulations that exist to reform Jewish social order. During their interrogation, the Pharisees have to show this man who is really in control of spiritual matters. Presenting their charges they say, "Number one: nobody does anything or goes anywhere on the Sabbath unless WE say so. Number two: this Jesus is the object of grave concern because he has teachings about God that defy our tradition. This is outside of our control! This is too dangerous!” And for his willingness to defend Jesus, the healed man gets the religious leaders even angrier. The Pharisees throw him out of the synagogue and back onto the streets. As far as he knows, his connection to community and the last hope of heaven has been taken away from him by his spiritual leaders.

Thank God, because the healing isn’t over yet. The man’s eyes see, but he has not yet seen the Light. Jesus finds the man and helps him out a second time. Sometimes we think of God as the distant consultant. God comes in, does the job, and disappears. Sometimes we think about God the modern-day distance healers I found on the Internet. Did you know, for only $125.00 one famed distance healer will intuitively determine which of over 160 flower or Universal essences would be helpful to your healing process? She will provide timed-release energetic essence bouquets, helping you or your animals clear yourselves of emotional, mental and spiritual issues. She will also provide past life-time healing for $125.00, all this by only giving her your money and your first name over the phone.

Then there is pseudo-science psychic healer, Catherine Wilkins, who will provide “Electromagnetic Radiation Protection” for you and your home for only $325.00. For $90 you can send Ms. Wilkins a photo, and she will send you a four page report detailing your energetic fractal patterning from the picture. She offers what she calls, “the most advanced hands-on-healing available today,” and she does all this hands-on healing through the mail or over the phone. Amazing!

Jesus doesn’t deal with us that way. Jesus heals our pains by finding us, touching us, speaking to our needs, and putting us in a right relationship with God and with one another. Just try to picture Jesus’ tender compassion to the man born blind after his run-in with the Pharisees. Jesus doesn’t go off to the next town and let the man deal with it his problems. He doesn’t heal him and say, “Good luck. Call me later.” Jesus seeks the man out. Up to this point, the man born blind was ignored his whole life. He was seen as a sinner and forced to beg for his existence. And now, perhaps for the first time in his life, the man realizes that he is loved for who he is, and for the first time in his life the blind man really sees. He sees that he’s been touched by the light of God, and he falls on his face in worship. Then Jesus says something that is devastatingly amazing:
“I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind.”
Notice how Jesus doesn’t just come right out and call the Pharisees blind. If he did they would have one more reason to threaten him. But Jesus does point out the problem. These leaders claim to know where to find the light. They claim elite, special knowledge of God’s will. They think the blind man is a sinner. They think Jesus is a sinner. But their arrogance reveals the real sightlessness in the story. While hindsight is 20/20, it is dangerous to claim to have insight, or foresight. Sometimes, those whom we call blind to the truth are the ones who see well.

The people Jesus accused of being “blind leaders of the blind” knew their Scriptures by heart. They were very prayerful, very religious, very good people. So it is possible to know the Bible cover-to-cover, to know all the theory, to study all the doctrine, and still not really 'see'!

My point is this: This Lenten season, we would do ourselves a favor to give up our self-righteous ways. Because the truth is, sometimes we are less like the victim and more like the hypocrites in the story then we want to admit. If we want spiritual health, we need to realize that the ways in which we have conditioned our eyes to see need some work. What might happen if we eliminate judementalism and arrogance from our lives? What might happen if we open ourselves up to the reality of God’s light shining in everyone?

The reading from Psalm 23 reminds us that even in the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil. People are often stuck in the valley of the shadow and can’t find their way out. Speaking about Psalm 23, Rabbi Harold Kushner reminds us that the role of God is not to explain or justify, but to comfort. God finds people living in darkness, takes them by the hand, and shows them how to find their way into the sunlight again. I think our job is to partner with God is this urgent and holy work. And it begins by taking stock of our own attitudes about pain, suffering, and compassion.

Instead of focusing on others’ inadequacies and shortcomings, instead of blaming victims for their problems, let’s just own up to the times when we don’t always practice what we preach. The self-assured, self-righteous people who claim exclusive rights and privilege to God’s grace, those who keep their wonderful knowledge to themselves while looking down on the poor slobs who don’t have it, those who claim sight and then manipulate others, they lack real sight.

But those who can truly recognize God’s grace at work, those who speak and share the full love of Christ freely, those who are humbled that God would show such amazing grace to a wretch like me, people such as these are on the road to spiritual health. The light of Christ is the light for all people. In response, we humbly let our light shine so others who live in darkness and blindness can know that the light of God shines in them too. Thanks be to God.

Sources:
  • C. Douglas Weaver, A Cloud of Witnesses (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 1993), 84-85.
  • “With Jesus into the Light or, 20/20 BLINDNESS” (March 17, 1996), www.sermoncentral.com.
  • www.distancehealer.net
  • http://www.fractology.org
  • “Physical and Spiritual Blindness”, http://www.pastornet.net.au/jmm/abss/abss0147
  • "Psalm 23" at Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week813/feature.html.

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