Sunday, March 31, 2013

Meditation: Isaiah 65: 17-25

Isaiah 65:17-25
For I am about to create new heavens
         and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
         or come to mind.
18But be glad and rejoice forever
         in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
         and its people as a delight.
19I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
         and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
         or the cry of distress.
20No more shall there be in it
         an infant that lives but a few days,
         or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
         and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21They shall build houses and inhabit them;
         they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22They shall not build and another inhabit;
         they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
         and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23They shall not labor in vain,
         or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD--
         and their descendants as well.
24Before they call I will answer,
         while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
         the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
         but the serpent-- its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
         on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.

On her latest album, Dar Williams wrote a song called “I Am the One Who Will Remember Everything,” which tells the story of a refugee boy who faces the constant possibility of being pressed into service as a child soldier, a “child born for calamity” as Isaiah speaks about:

“Oh what have we here, he must be three or four,
Shaken out of a boot on its way back to war
And he’s not looking for a father or a mother,
Just a seven year old brother,
On this smudged line border camp of refugees,
I am the one who will remember everything.
I am the one who will remember everything.
So where are we now, he must be five or six,
Just running around, hungry kids, sharpened sticks.
And he will grow with pain and fear and jealousy,
Taken in by schools of zealotry,
Who train orphans to make orphans evermore.”

It is this kind of thing that will be swept away in the new Jerusalem that Isaiah predicts.

The promise in Isaiah that God is setting creation aright should sound familiar—we heard it two weeks ago during 5 Lent in Isaiah 43:18-19: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” The promise of creation, of the kingdom of God, is finally going to be fulfilled. This will be a time of peace, justice, and plenty. Jerusalem will be God’s city; in other words, the new Eden. The memories of war, violence, pain, and death will be wiped completely away. The laborers will enjoy the fruits of their labor, and blessings and mercy will be freely given to the people who inhabit on God’s holy mountain.

Three major shifts will take place: God will take joy in this new work; justice, contentment, and peace will take the place of weeping, vulnerability, and injustice; and relationships and the order of nature will be transformed so that none must suffer or be deprived so that another may prosper. If we all understood that we are members of one community—the kingdom of God—we might not just be satisfied with a human calculus that divides our fellow human beings and children of God into circles of ”them” and “us”—which is unfortunately another way to say  “losers” and “winners.” God is eternal. Love is eternal. How will we act in light of this knowledge?

Resurrection is new life-- not just the old life given back, but a life transformed. A life based on mercy, a life that empties itself out for love. Easter is the day that the universe is changed forever. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Steps of Faith

   Steps of Faith
Lent 5, Year C-- John 12:1-8
March 17, 2013
Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion

I kind of like feet.

Not in a weird way, not obsessively, but I think in the way of a girl who had size 10 and a half feet from the time she was fourteen years old and got razzed about it. Nope, from a practical matter, there was nothing I could do about how long my feet were, and besides, in the extensive list of things about my body I could be unhappy about, either at age 14 or now, they certainly weren’t the worst thing.

But beyond that, I think feet can tell you a lot about a person. Structurally, they hold up our weight as we balance on a latticework of tiny, delicate bones. They anchor us to this good earth and keep us grounded, and on a warm summer’s morning we can feel the pulse and hum of the earth vibrate  through our feet as we stand in the cool, sweet grass.

And then there’s the fact that my feet make me think of my dad. When he was feeling really content,
he would sit on the floor watching football with me and he would reach out and just hold one of my feet. It was weird, and quirky, and it’s one of the things I miss most about my dad. I mean, any father can hold your hand, but it takes a special dad to hold your foot. It’s not exactly the stuff that Beatles songs are made of— I mean, “I Wanna Hold Your Foot” isn’t that catchy— but it means love to me.

You know, I never get to wash anyone’s feet any more. There have been little, sweet, kicking pairs of feet I have washed and kissed, but they have all grown up now and have run away from me. If I were to even try to touch them now, there would be horror and revulsion from the too-cool owners of those feet.

Once we leave infancy, we don’t really touch our own feet very often, much less other people’s feet,
because while they are humble, feet also can make us self-conscious. Our lives are reflected in our feet,
so they can get callused, they can get bumpy, they can get grimy,  
and they certainly can get smelly and dirty, whether you wear shoes or not.
This is why the incidents of foot washing in the Bible are so memorable to us. You have to really love someone to want to wash their feet, much less caress those feet and pour expensive perfume all over them.

Feet are a conduit of love in today’s gospel. Now, it’s clear that the same action can be interpreted in different ways by different people. In this case, the meaning at the time was obviously different for Mary, for Jesus, and for Judas. And as we look at this action ourselves across the centuries and cultures, it also means different things for us. That’s the thing about scripture: there are so many layers of meaning in each story.

This silent act does three things in particular that strike me: First, it proclaims Mary’s love for Jesus as her Messiah and Lord. Second, it also anoints and proclaims that Mary recognizes that Jesus is set apart, and she is conferring a blessing and consecration upon him in the midst of her family, much like an ordination of a deacon, priest, or bishop comes from within the community. Third, as Jesus receives this act and is challenged over allowing it, he explains that she is preparing his body for burial by anointing his feet.

It is right that his feet be anointed:
they have important business to complete.

These same feet are going to carry Jesus to the outskirts of Jerusalem and on to his passion. At this moment, Jesus’ feet straddle the line between earth and heaven, between his ministry and his death upon a cross, and Mary is making those feet ready. Before he is betrayed and handed over to the authorities, Jesus himself is going to show his love for his disciples by washing all of their feet, as a sign that great love also demands great humility and a sense of servanthood.

So what caused Mary to do this strange thing? At the center of this story is a family- adult siblings who love each other and depend upon each other. This family wanted to throw a party, and they had probably the best reason to throw a party ever in the history of the world. The sisters had seen their brother die, and they had seen their brother live again, and it was all thanks to Jesus. In the Mediterranean world they lived in, this was the difference between Martha and Mary being on the brink of destitution and remaining secure and protected. Besides the fact that Martha and Mary loved their brother, there is the fact that as unmarried women, they had to have a male protector— either a father, a husband, or a brother— to be able to live an independent life.

This is a special family, and they are described in quite a remarkable way. It is said in chapter 11
that Jesus loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus. We often hear of people loving Jesus, and Jesus is depicted as loving those around him in a general way. But Lazarus, Martha, and Mary are the only people specifically named as being people Jesus loved and considered friends. Further, they lived in Bethany, which was just two miles from Jerusalem, and we all know what is going to happen in Jerusalem, and most of us know the liturgical calendar. Lent is drawing close to Easter. Jesus is going to go from raising his friend, and making this family whole again, to being condemned and executed in a most brutal way.

When Jesus finally arrived in Bethany, he literally was going into the lion’s den. In fact, when he told his disciples that he was going to Bethany to see about this family, one of them sighed and groaned something to the effect of, “Well we might as well go along, so we can die alongside him.” It is here on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on the rim of imperial power, at the very doorstep of those who consider him a potential rebel and almost-certain blasphemer, that Jesus performs the final of the seven signs in the gospel of John by calling out to Lazarus from the grave. It is from here, in Bethany, that Jesus is going to enter Jerusalem to palms and hosannas from the people, which we will commemorate next Sunday. And it is one short step from that adulation to that same crowd demanding Jesus’s death.

Make no mistake.
Jesus’s gift of love and mercy for this family is going to lead directly to the cross. And the party in the gospel today is the brief intake of breath and steadying of nerves before we take a plunge over a precipice into a deep abyss.

But that despair will not hold.

God has done a new thing for us, as Isaiah proclaims, new every morning when we decide to take those steps not just as disciples but as friends alongside Jesus.

So who are the people who fill out the scene before us? There are three siblings: Lazarus, and Martha, and Mary. None of them speak in our little story, but they all witness to the power of love in their own way. There are also some disciples, but the only one who speaks here is Judas Iscariot, and John makes sure that he gives us foreknowledge so that we have no sympathy for anything Judas does or says.

Lazarus is the reason for the celebration. Lazarus is Jesus’ friend, someone Jesus actually weeps over,
and he has just been given the greatest gift anyone can receive. Jesus has done this by calling out to Lazarus, and orders him out of that tomb and into life as if he was ordering him to walk across the room. This reminds us of John 10, where Jesus describes himself as a shepherd, and states that he will call his sheep by name and lead them out. In just this way, Jesus called Lazarus by name and called him out of death and into a new life. And Jesus is most certainly leading us with him to Calvary,
not just this week or this month but every day.  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” And so it is with us. We can listen to the voice of Jesus and allow ourselves to be led as well and be unafraid to seize the hope of life.

What are we being led from? It is also a death— being dead to the love of God
as it is expressed through our savior, Jesus Christ. 
Jesus speaks, calling to us out of overpowering love from the cross and, like Lazarus, our hearts begin to beat sure and true, and we rise as if from a dream. Lazarus never speaks—he does not need to. He just has to respond to the call of one who knows him by name. 

Every throb of his restored pulse sings hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.

We peer into the background of our scene, and that’s where Martha is. In the verses right before today’s gospel reading, even as her brother lies dead in his tomb, even when she could subside into despair, Martha stated exactly what the authorities were afraid of: her belief that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God, the one coming into the world. Martha is the one who declares that. Jesus is the point at which the Godly realm intersects with the created world, for the specific purpose of bringing resurrection and life into the world. Martha is the voice of faith, unshakable faith, even as she is filled with mourning.
Who knows if she understands, but she BELIEVES.

So in OUR story she doesn’t need to speak but serves— the verb that is used is diakoneo,  which can mean both “servant” and “minister” in Greek. Lots of attention always gets focused on Mary— but Martha’s part of the story reminds us that those who love Jesus live in a spirit of humble service to others.

And here’s Mary. She seems like the younger sister. It is obvious that where her brother is silent
and her sister is sober and practical, Mary is enthusiastic and effusive. Mary is not a person who suppresses her feelings. She loves Jesus, and so she uses an incredibly valuable, aromatic ointment to cleanse and anoint Jesus’s feet. The scent of her gift fills the entire house with a scent that meant sacrifice to all who breathed it in, since the same substance was used to make incense in the Temple. Now, this is the second time Jesus has been anointed— he was also anointed for his ministry at his baptism. Thus before each of the two stages in John’s gospel, Jesus is anointed and consecrated and set apart for the coming events.

This is the second time Mary has probably anointed someone for burial in just one week. Last week, she had probably anointed her brother’s body after his death. This time, as John’s gospel makes very clear, Jesus is being anointed for his burial. In addition, there are TWO extravagant gifts
we have to contemplate at this point:
Mary’s excessive display of devotion and worship today and
Jesus’s determination and acceptance of his coming sacrifice on the cross in just a few days’ time.

Lazarus, Martha, and Mary: but Jesus through through friendship is a member of this family too. The only one who chooses to stand outside this circle is Judas. Judas criticizes the love that Mary demonstrates so powerfully here because he does not understand that love. That is a choice he made.
Judas complained about the waste of the perfume that Mary used, but really, wasn’t he complaining about the extravagant, prodigal, profligate love she was showing to her friend, her Lord, her Messiah?

But love is never a waste. I believe that even during Judas’s plotting, Jesus still loves Judas, and that’s a love that certainly can envelop you,
and me,
and every one of us, no matter how unworthy we feel.
That love is not wasted, no,
but its sweet scent slips sideways into the breeze
and penetrates through the cracks of our broken hearts
broken in the struggle to ignore the shepherd’s call.

And there, at the center of it all, is Jesus, OUR Messiah. The Incarnation of God into the world-- yes, but the incarnation of God directly into our own lives, who calls each of us by name. He calls us to come out of death into new life, a real life. A life enlivened by faith responding to Jesus’s love for us. A life that responds to the extravagant gift that Jesus has provided to us.

Jesus IS the resurrection and the life. This is the ultimate gift of love that Jesus through the cross gives to us. A life that many might judge foolish, but is the only life to live if we want to live through God.

When we wash each other’s feet on Maundy Thursday here at church, we sing “Ubi caritas, et amor… ubi caritas, deus ibi est.,” which is Latin for “Where there’s charity, where there’s love, God is there as well.”

God is with Lazarus as he stumbles from the grave into the light of new life, and God is with us as we stumble our way through life— life not as we planned it, but life as it IS, confusing and terrifying and joyful and filled with grace.

God is with Martha when she proclaims with such certainty that Jesus is the Messiah and when she then trusted in that faith to step back and serve God through serving others.

God is with Mary when her love bursts forth through rules of propriety and seizes by the throat all those who see and think her foolish.

God is with us 
as we stumble
on our tiny baby feet of faith
in the light of new life,
our journey walking and working
alongside our Savior as faithful servants
and beloved friends.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Prayer 37

O God, we place our offerings before you this day. We offer you our thanks for the glory of your creation. We offer you our love, to be given to you and to each other. We offer you our song. We offer you our faith. Many of us will come to your table today. We thank you for the blessing of fellowship. Help us to walk away renewed for the path today will bring. Help us to go out into the world, rejoicing in the name of the Lord. We cast before you our cares and concerns and ask for your saving help for those whom You love. Amen.