Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Jesus, What Are You Doing?


Leave it to John to relate Jesus’ last communal gathering with his followers as only John can. His very first and second sentence in his very first Gospel starts with In the beginning there was the Word. The Word was with God and the Word was God. Now, as he sets the stage for Jesus’ departure, he reinforces the essence of his ministry and his Divine incarnation in one word: Love…of God and for each other.

Over the months and years, whenever we discussed John we knew we were being asked to listen carefully to his words and phrases; what they revealed often defied literal interpretation. Reading John, not unlike reading poetry required the need to rest with them as the “personification” of the word became flesh in us, as they “circumvented” our intellect and went straight to our heart. In John, the understanding of any key word eventually leads to all the key words. They draw meaning from each other, or more accurately, from their connections to the words and works of Christ.  They resist definition, serving more as “signs” to Christ.

John was never interested in providing an historical account of Jesus’ life; he left that to the others. He was more interested in Jesus’ divinity. Yet and not ironically for him, John uses this gospel, John 13:1-17, 31b-35  to reveal Jesus’ divinity by emphasizing his humanity in some of the most human and visceral of all experiences: the washing of feet and the sharing of a meal.

Thus, Jesus’ command to love, tied to the example of the foot washing, lies at the heart of this day. The passage reveals that Jesus’ actions are intentionally shaped as acts of love meant as examples to be followed. Yet in life, not everyone readily accepts Jesus’ love. John uses Peter, the disciple closest to him to show the difficulties humans may encounter. Peter’s first words seem simply incredulous, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus’ act is socially inappropriate and incomprehensible, and Peter means to dissuade him of such foolishness. Yet why is Peter not bothered that Jesus offers others such a sign of love? What is John telling us? What is Jesus teaching us?   

Sharing in Jesus involves being served by him, even in so lowly and intimate an act as foot washing. Jesus commands us to “love one another” by his actions. As such, he focuses our attention on foot washing as an example of Christian love and captures the essence of “just as I have loved you.” 

Judas’s presence at the supper also serves to remind us that the example Jesus sets is not simply one of service to an elite group of believers. Including Judas in the washing of feet and the sharing of the meal helps us understand that this sharing is not just reserved for those he loved “to the utmost;” the love for “one another” is understood to include even those others we might prefer to forget and disassociate.

John makes sure that we know that the glorification of Son for Father is not just something between Father and Son alone; it does not stop with Christ. The capacity to glorify God extends to Christ's followers and is laid upon believers as we are empowered to do the same works that Christ did. What is true for Jesus is true for us.

What Jesus did on the last night before he died wasn't all that different from what he did throughout his ministry. That's one of the many reasons we say that Jesus was the perfect human being. As the Incarnation of God and living his full humanity, Jesus lived out who he was fully.

John presents Jesus at the end of his earthly experience in all his humanity: Was he afraid? Was he angry? Was he lonely? While we have no way of knowing, we can only assume in his having lived his life fully human, it’s likely these thoughts and emotions were real.

What we do know is that when Jesus had every reason to feel all of those things, he stayed with the community -- including his betrayer -- and cleansed, and cared, and forgave, and broke bread.

What would our lives, our churches, our denominations, our nations, our world be like if we were to embrace and express our humanity in God's image as Jesus did? Do this. Do this and remember.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

So then...why the Cross?

Palm Sunday is festive “holiday” filled with irony.  We enjoy the parade and the children entering waving their palms. We watch and participate but then we seem to quickly rush from this parade to Easter Sunday. Perhaps we should take a closer look at this parade and its inevitable outcome - the cross. We ask, why the cross? In many ways understanding the story of Palm Sunday gives us a glimpse into the nature of God.
Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49.

 Every year the Roman army would come marching into Palestine during Passover. It was Pilate in the time of Jesus, who riding a white stallion, led the parade as a symbol of Rome’s dominance and oppression. It was a reminder to “nobodies” not to cause trouble during the Passover. So what does Jesus do? In a seemingly mocking parody, he rides a donkey, a lowly beast of burden in the opposite direction and enters through the gate from which Pilate exited. While Pilate needed a whole legion to demonstrate his importance and control, Jesus’ “power” was rooted in relationships and the everlasting love of God and in God’s desires for the good of the world and all its creatures.

The gospel writers tell us that this event was not accidental. Jesus planned it ahead of time. He knew what he was doing and he knew he was risking the wrath of Rome by provoking the authorities. And eventually they caught up with him.

God did not plan Jesus’ death. God did not desire it. God did not need it for God’s salvation of the world and all its creatures to work out. So then, why the cross?

The Cross was used by the Romans to not only destroy the identity of the one who was crucified, but to erase his mission and serve as a warning to any of his followers. Ironically reviled as an image, the cross became and endured as a central symbol for our faith…a symbol of a nobody who is resurrected. No one would expect a nobody to be resurrected.

Contrary to some beliefs, Jesus was not ransomed for us, but rather, he takes our place, not for our sins, but for the trials of our human journey. We know and have known people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, who at the very least put themselves at risk for the sake of others. This exchange is God standing with us as we face our reality and its dangers. God is in the midst of our human experience.

The cross reminds us that our world is still a “risky” place, and that much will be asked of us. Yet it reminds us that death has no power over us because we live in the light of the resurrection of a nobody who was raised up as will we. The cross reminds us to stand up for those who need to be rescued and to stand with those who work for the common good even when it seems to be hopeless or dangerous. We can live in a time of trouble with joy.

Jesus challenged the love of power and lived for the power of love. Jesus was offering a different vision of how things could be, Palm Sunday asks us: which vision of power will rule our lives? To which kingdom will we belong? Which parade will we join? (Adapted from Parades and Crosses, George Hermanson)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

There's Something About Mary

What is going on here with Mary? We know in John12:1-8 that Jesus, Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Judas had gathered together for a meal. We are reminded that Jesus’ delay in arriving before Lazarus’ death and burial resulted in considerable anguish and grief that even caused Jesus himself to weep. There is no other family in any of the Gospels that I am aware of with whom Jesus is so closely connected.

As a household that had connections with the “elites” in Jerusalem, Mary would have been very aware of the plans underway to have Jesus arrested and executed. And she would have known that the form of execution would be crucifixion by the Romans, since that was the method used when the intention was to not just kill a person but to kill what they stood for; to kill basis of their faith, and to kill any possible continuing movement by followers. That form of death did not allow for a proper burial with the proper anointing of the body. Often the bodies of the crucified were left on the cross for scavenging birds and animals to eat the flesh, with the remains later thrown into a pit.

So, Jesus says, "Leave her alone. She bought (the perfume) for the day of my burial" (John 12:7)…and we knew, as did Mary, that there would be no proper burial. So now is the time for the anointing.

Yes, Mary exceeded cultural norms and exhibited incredible extravagance. Aside from the perfume being valued as comparable to a laborer’s yearly wages, the image of Jesus’ imminent death makes Mary’s unusual behavior quite appropriate for the occasion. Maybe there was nothing else for her to do? Perhaps sensing his impending death, all that was left for her to do was to kneel before Jesus and anoint his feet, and wipe them with her hair…. “If that was the case, she was doing then what we all too often wish we had thought to do. She wasn't waiting for him to die to acknowledge the gift he had already been. She was pouring it all out right then.” Rev. Dr. Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Where Can I find the Lost and Found Department

Our Gospel reading scheduled for this week in Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, n Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, The Prodigal Son, is among the best known of all Jesus’ parables. So, we wonder, what can we say about this that hasn’t already been said? Each time I read this I wonder, with whom do I relate in the story?
The parable leaves two themes in tension:
  • A father whose love exceeds the bounds of human understanding, for no typical father or human being, would act as he does
  • The reaction and behavior of the elder brother, who cannot join in the rejoicing over the lost being found. After all ,he was the faithful son who did as he was expected
The two themes stand on their own, independent of one other. But they have in common something at a deeper level. In his preaching Jesus revealed that the love of God surpasses all understanding and typical expressions known to humanity. That love is celebrated in the scene in which the father rushes out to greet the Prodigal without any knowledge of his repentance or motives and orders the celebration for his homecoming. There are no questions asked by the father and no explanations made by the younger. But the elder son, who professes to be and have been worthy of the father’s love and preference evoke resentment; after all wasn’t he the worthy one?
So, with whom do we relate…certainly not the father; perhaps as the elder and maybe sometimes like the Prodigal? But what about the community of followers, listening to the story? Can we relate to them?
According to Nancy Rockwell, Lost is what happened, and it is human, and thank God that Found is also part of being human! Lost is a way of life for all of us from time to time. Then why do we emphasize the lost? Our churches will not be the green pastures, the good havens we fervently want, until Lost and Found becomes the desires of our hearts rather than experiences we want to avoid. (The Bite of the Apple).
So what else can we say about this story? Why is this jubilant parable selected by the lectionary for Lent and begins with…?
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So Jesus told them this parable: