Sunday, March 31, 2013

This is the Day that the Lord has Made

Psalm 118:14-24; John 20:1-18

        “The Bible is held together by a single plot; God creates the world, the world gets lost, God seeks to restore the world to the glory for which God created it.”  (Frederick Buechner)
Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene, rose from her bed, but she had hardly rested. Her Sabbath had been disturbed by things both done and undone. One does not walk away from an execution of a loved one easily. She stayed, through the trial, through the mocking, and until death. She stayed until the end, hoping, praying that God would intervene. She remembered so many times, with one word, Jesus had saved a life. But no word was spoken. She sat at the foot of the cross until her beloved was lowered and then begged for his body. For three years there had been no rest. Now he deserved eternal respite. She pleaded with officials that Jesus had been mocked enough. There was nothing more they could do to humiliate him and mercifully, they agreed.
        The sun was beginning to set as she, Joseph and others carried his body to the tomb. The Sabbath was upon them and it was too late to complete the ritual of burial. It would have to be done the day following Sabbath. They placed Jesus in the tomb. Each kissed his lips and caressed his broken hands. Then they placed the stone over the hole to protect their beloved from anything that might disturb his sleep.
        Mary arose early on the Sabbath and made her way to the synagogue to pray. She hoped to arrive before the Rabbi. All she desired was to say a prayer, sit in silence and then slip away before others arrived. She wanted answers but desired no earthly conversation. This moment, this hell, would remain between her and God.
Mary entered the synagogue and walked to the table which held the Torah. It was opened to the Psalm for the day. She slowly read, “O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever.” She stepped away from the text and cried out loud, “God if you are so good where were you yesterday? I needed a show of strength. I prayed for your salvation but none was forth coming. He was a good man, a Godly man and you sat silent. Does Rome control even you?”
The harshness of her words shocked even Mary. She stepped back from the table, wondering if God, disturbed by her blasphemy, might strike her dead. But nothing happened. Only her heart beat disturbed the stillness of the moment. Almost as if drawn by habit, Mary returned to the Torah. Her eyes focused on the last words of the Psalm, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
She turned and left the holy structure swearing she would never return. What is holy about suffering? What is holy about death? If God has made this day then why can’t God do a better job of preserving this day. She looked to heaven and thought, “God, this might be the Sabbath, but this is no time to rest. Your world is slipping away from you. The good are dying young and the old are living only through compliance with those killing the young. If this is your day, I want nothing to do with it.”
Mary longed to go back to the tomb, to finish the job she had started the night before, but without the help of the others, she dared not go. And so she wept for the one she loved. She wept for herself. She wept for God in whom she was quickly losing faith. She wept because she could no longer rejoice.
The night was an eternity. Darkness covered her soul as anger and grief blended together causing toxin thoughts to enter her heart. Why was Jesus so reckless? What was he doing in Jerusalem? Why didn’t God……. It always came back to God. This day, this day that God made, is devoid of rejoicing and gladness. How can God be my salvation? How can God be the one I trust? I placed my hope in God’s anointed, no more than that, I loved the one God appointed and now he is gone. May night forever remain. May darkness completely cover the earth. Do not mock me O God. Do not let your light shine on another of “your days”. Do not expect me to rejoice with the dawn. 
But the sun did come. Unrepentant, yet determined to finish what had been started, Mary made her way to the grave. No one else had arrived. She quietly walked to the spot where Joseph had left him. She would sit, compose her heart, and not burden others with her complicated thoughts.
Even this was taken from her. The sacred was trumped by the appalling as Mary saw the stone had been removed. They had promised to leave him in peace. What kind of cruelty was this? He was dead, how could they torment him any further. “God, is this another indication of what your day has become?”
Mary left the desecrated scene and headed back to Jerusalem. Along the way she met Peter and John. Through tears of grief and anger she shared what she had found. The disciples left Mary and ran to the tomb. Mary followed not far behind. The two disciples stepped into the tomb to confirm what Mary had told them. Mary stepped aside and wept.
Was it a vision, was it real was, or was it imagined? Each thought went through Mary’s head as two majestic figures stood before her.   “Woman, why are you weeping?”
“They have taken my Lord and I don’t where they have laid him?” Now her head was swirling. Was this a dream, a nightmare or worse? She sensed a presence behind her and turned to see a man she presumed to be the gardener.
Again she was confronted with the reoccurring question. “Woman, why are you weeping?” Don’t they know? Haven’t they heard? Was she the first person to weep among the dead?
The gardener looked into her eyes and into her soul and spoke a single word, “Mary”.
Time and creation itself stopped. Grief which had turned a heart to stone was transformed and reborn with one word. Resurrection, that absurd comedy of which Jesus had spoken was now standing before her.  Death was no more. Easter trumped humanity’s attempt to limit the imagination of God.
After Mary encountered the risen Lord she quickly ran after the disciples. I would like to think along the way she sang, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”                             

Sunday, March 24, 2013

After the Parade

Luke 19:28-42

        As a child, I loved parades. The Christmas parade in Greensboro was probably my favorite. My sisters were too small to brave the cold winds sweeping down Summit Avenue so usually it was just dad and I, watching the floats, listening to the bands and waiting for Santa Claus. I was small enough to sit on dad’s shoulders where I had as good a view as anyone. After the parade we would head over to the new restaurant in town, a place called MacDonald’s, for a hamburger, coke and fries. Those are my  most pleasant memories concerning parades.    
        As I got older, and learned to play the trumpet, parades actually became something I dreaded. Being a parade participant meant arriving hours before hand, standing in the cold without a coat, and then marching for miles playing the same song over and over again. It was always good to memorize the music. That way you could watch where you stepped.
        I still remember my last official parade. It was September 4th, 1975, at 10:30, in Gordonsville. I participated as a member of Fort Lee’s 492nd Marching Band. The following day I began graduate school.  I purposefully saved three weeks leave so my tenure from the Army did not conflict with the continuation of my academic endeavors. While everyone else in the band was playing a rousing version of Sousa’s El Capitan, I was softly accompanying with a counter melody, the Mickey Mouse Theme Song, played of course in the same key. By the end of the parade all of the band members had joined me, in three part harmony, much to disdain of our First Sergeant. But the song put smiles on the faces of all the children. After the parade, I checked my shoes, hoped in my car and never looked back.
        It is one thing to observe a parade.  It is something all together different to participate in one. This morning we celebrate one of the great enigmas of Christian calendar. On Palm Sunday children wave palm branches. On Palm Sunday, the choir pulls out its own version of El Capitan. And on Palm Sunday Jesus, the man of the hour seemed to be part of the band yet he was definitely whistling a different tune.  Am I the only one confused by Palm Sunday?  Why stop there? I am the only one confused by all the parades leading to Easter Sunday? 
        The parade began innocently enough, at least in the eyes of the casual bystander. Jesus finally entered Jerusalem. All of his warnings concerning the consequences of this action seem to have been ignored or forgotten. Jesus just didn’t slip into Jerusalem by the back gate. People lined the streets, spreading their cloaks along the road. A cheer went up at each corner, “Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.” It was a day of triumph, celebration, and joy, for everyone, except Jesus. Sitting quietly on the donkey, he participates, because he must. But his heart is elsewhere. When it is over Jesus slips from the back of the animal, retreats from the crowd, finds a quiet place and weeps. He knows what we often misunderstand. To fully live one must die, and death seldom seems a viable alternative to life.
        The parade continued into Jerusalem. Jesus spoke openly about resurrection and the destruction of the Temple. These were dangerous conversations that were best presented under the cover of darkness. But the parade was winding to an end and it was too late to be careful. With each new song, the opposition grew larger. With each new storm, those faithful to Jesus began to seek shelter. With each new revelation, even the disciples began to wonder what possessed their dear friend.   
        Eventually all parades head toward the reviewing stand. The judges and special guests sit, waiting to be impressed as participants save their best for that one special moment when all eyes were focused on them. Legs are lifted a little higher; backs are held a little straighter; and most importantly, the selected piece is played as if it was a gift offered to the gods.
The reviewing stand on Holy Week was not a set of decorated bleachers, but a designated table, adorned with each peculiar dish that celebrated Feast of the Passover. The prayers had been spoken, the food eaten, when Jesus picked up a piece of discarded bread, tore it in two and declared, “My friends, this is my body, broken for you.” The disciples, worn out by the day and drowsy from the wine consumed, realized something extraordinary was happening.  Jesus was taking an recognizable tune and playing it in a new key. One minute they were celebrating the Passover and the next they were confronted with a reworking an old theme. “This is my blood, shed for you. This is a new covenant for the remission of sin.” Now the disciples were wide awake. A meal designated to celebrate the passing of the angel of death had become an appetizer announcing the presence of death in their midst. It had been a long week. It was more than they and perhaps we are capable of comprehending. Exhausted and confused the disciples stumbled past the reviewing stand, toward the garden where they slept and Jesus prayed the parade would end. Only Jesus knew the parade had only just begun.  Friday the parade continued. It featured its only participant; it entertained the same observers. But now the chant was different.
Why would the same folks who praised Jesus on Sunday call for his death on Friday? Why do many folks who celebrate Palm Sunday have such a difficult time with Good Friday?  That is both a fair question and an accurate observation. According to those who calculate such things this is what we know. On April 7th, 30 A.D., Joshua ben Joseph, a teacher from Nazareth was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem between two other men. Each of the Gospels as well as the Apostle Paul gives us an interpretation of those three hours. Each tells the story a bit differently.  To further complicate matters the crucifixion was a baffling, even embarrassing event for early Christians. Until the time of Constantine, the cross was never depicted in the early art of the new faith. Friday was met with silence, both from God on the day of the event and by the followers in the days, and years and centuries that followed. Questions haunted the early church. “How can one explain such event?” “What was God’s role in this event?” Those questions still haunt and baffle many of us, yet for two thousand years Christians have stared at the cross, a cross often misunderstood, and believed nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Where is the logic in that? How can love come from death? Who was responsible for the death? Was it the Jews? The Romans? Us? God? If it was God, why would God use death to bring about life? I can’t give you a satisfactory answer. But I will suggest if you shout, “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday and exclaim, “Christ has Risen” on Easter Sunday without experiencing the silence and pain of God on Friday, you may find your faith to be little more than wishful thinking.  
Palm Sunday was fool’s gold and Jesus knew it. It was a parade leading to death.  What does Palm Sunday tells us about anything?  Like most parades it takes take place in the daylight because we want to see where we are going.
Jesus’ parade takes us into the darkness. Jesus’ parade walks us through the chaos. Jesus’ parade can be painful because Jesus’ parade is real. His parade is where we encounter death in hopes of discovering something new.  
I can’t explain Palm Sunday any better than I can explain Good Friday or Easter. To explain those events would mean that I can completely prove what happened each of those days. If faith can be proven it becomes something else. Faith is about  belief, not proof. So I can only tell you what I believe happened. I believe during the Holy Week parade the band started playing a song, a beautiful song, a well known song while Jesus was quietly playing another tune.  The more he played, the louder he got. The other band members, one by one, starting dropping out until finally Jesus was playing all by himself.
And then he stopped;
        Until a few days later;
                When the band got back together,
                        And played the new song,
                                As all God’s children smiled.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Extravagant Gift

Isaiah 43:18-19; John 12:1-8

        “Do not remember the former things of old, I am about to do a new thing.”  Some of the most inspirational poetry in the Bible is discovered between the 40th and 55th chapters of Isaiah.  Rich with metaphor, these passages bring hope to a people coming home after decades of enslavement.  This was an astonishing promise. The God who brought the Jews out of Babylon would lend a holy hand in the reconstruction of Jerusalem.  But with the promise came a warning.  Things were not going to return to the way they had always been.  Their new life would need to be accompanied witha new attitude.  What worked in the past would no longer be acceptable.  A new day had dawned. 
        I believe Jesus loved 2nd Isaiah.  His approach to life often crossed a line that challenged his contemporaries and continues to confuse us.  Jesus envisioned possibilities where the disciples saw only dead-ins.  Jesus was always in the process of doing something new, something unheard of, and something revolutionary. Jesus completely redefined the meaning of the word, “Holy”.  And he did so in a way that baffled his contemporaries as well as those who continue to follow him 2,000 years later.
        John 12 explores one of those inexplicable moments.  What does it mean to selflessly yet almost carelessly give a gift to God?    The story before us is filled with complexities that challenge the best theologians.  And yet it is a story even a child can understand.  Mary comes into a room, and without a word, breaks open a jar of extravagant perfume.  She pours it into her hand and begins to massage the feet of Jesus.  As the fragrance fills the room, Mary wipes his feet with her hair.  Realizing that everything in the book of John is symbolic, where do we begin?  Perhaps Mary is presenting a holy example of the new role for the disciples.  In other words, as a servant she is washing the feet of the one she will serve.  Maybe it is more than that.  Perhaps she is signally the imminent death of Jesus.  Her actions declare she is aware of what the disciples refuse to understand.  Jesus must die in order that the world be saved.  Perhaps it was just an extravagant gift to an extravagant man.  Or perhaps it was something greater than that. Perhaps Mary somehow understood that the feet she washed belonged to God Incarnate.  I suspect any of the following are adequate.  What is important for us to understand is Mary was forgetting the old and doing a new thing.  Mary was sacrificing something extravagant for something on which no price could be placed.
        This act did not go unnoticed.  Judas, the treasurer of the group, saw the act of love as a bit irresponsible. There were mouths to be fed, bodies to be clothed.  Why spend money on worship when the mission of the church is always so poorly funded?  We still struggle with that today don’t we?  This passage seems to lead us to an impossible impasse.  When do we worship, when do we serve and how do we tell the two apart?
        A thin reading of this text does not help us out.  Jesus proclaimed, “The poor will always be with us.”  That pours gasoline on any blazing fire.  That one sentence has served to excuse involvement in any arenas of social witness.  But a richer, thicker, reading might be even more dangerous.
        I share a story I stumbled across that will send shivers up the spine of anyone who has ever served on a stewardship committee.  It took place at a gathering of pastors who had come with the explicit desire to discuss how they might increase the generosity of their congregations.  One presenter spoke about offering a gift directly to God.  He captured the attention of his audience by pulling a $100 bill from his wallet, setting it on fire and praying, “Lord, I offer this gift to you, and to you alone.”

        As you might image, the reaction was electric.  Clergy began to fidget in their chairs, watching the greenback go up in smoke as if it were perfume.  One preacher whispered it was illegal to burn currency.  Another murmured, “If he has money to burn maybe he will give some of it to us.” 
        “Do you not understand?” asked the speaker. “I am offering it to God.  That means it is going to cease to be useful to the rest of us.”    It was a very anxious moment, but a moment that raised a difficult question. “Aren’t some gifts given and then they are gone, never to be captured again?” Perhaps, and that moment, that incredible moment, is both holy and unforgettable.”
        Sometimes this happens to the choir. A piece of music is brought out and the choir reads through it.  There might be a murmur or two suggesting it is not the right piece or it is too difficult to sing. It is rehearsed, and rehearsed and rehearsed, until it can’t be rehearsed anymore. Finally on Sunday it is offered, not as a performance, but as a gift. And as the piece is being sung something happens. It can’t be explained but the piece sounds and feels different. When the choir sings to God, and only to God, what is heard, and felt, seems unexplainable.
And yet we must explain it. I know each of you understands what it means to truly give of yourself to God.  You don’t do it expecting something in return.  You offer your gift because you believe God to be Holy above everything you know or imagine.  You offer your gift as an expression of your love and adoration.  You offer your gift as a response to God’s grace.  You offer your gift out of faith, not expectation. That is when it truly is a gift.
        I am not sure you realize it but collectively, you, the members of this church, are a gift from God.  Our primary purpose for being here is to proclaim the good news of God’s grace through the extravagant gift of Jesus Christ.  We accomplish this through worship, through missions, through educational programs, through prayer, and through your commitment to serve this community. But sometimes we stumble when we only consider what is useful, what is practical and what is cost effective. When this happens we don’t leave room for the marvelous   surprise that arises when we freely and generously wash the feet of Christ. When it comes to the life of faith, we may discover our hearts are greatly diminished if the budget is our first concern. It is the gift of your heart, the gift of your soul, the gift of the extravagant that truly defines you as a gift from God.
        Remember the gift of Mary.  There was nothing useful, or practical or cost effective about what she did.  But the gift tells us everything we need to know about Mary. Are we surprised that she followed Jesus all the way to the cross?  Are we amazed that she is one of the women who went to the tomb?  Are we stunned that she is the one who tells the disciples that Jesus has arisen?  Somehow Mary, as she opened that bottle of perfume, understood the possibilities of tomorrow rest on what we believe today. Her generosity was not a one time gift but rather a continuation of a lifetime of giving.  She worshiped and then she was overwhelmed by the possibilities that God lay before her.
        In all that we are and in all that we do we must first begin by celebrating Jesus as the gift of God.  Jesus was sent into this world, not at our bequest and yet he acted entirely on our behalf.  This gift of grace is the fulfillment of God’s promise to do a new thing.  And now it is our turn.  Open your hearts to Jesus and give him your all.  Become a gift of gratitude.  Live your lives abundantly in the presence of the risen Christ through acts of compassion and generosity.  Worship and love Jesus recklessly, allowing for the possibility that in you, God will do a new thing.