It has been a long week since last Sunday when we entered into Jerusalem with Jesus waving palm branches and shouting Hosanna. Learning from him about the role of discipleship in the washing of feet, we went to the garden and waited with him. We were witnesses to his trial and torture, and we walked with him to the cross. And now, the tomb is empty.
I try to imagine those women walking in the cool morning to the tomb to care for Jesus’ body. Do they talk amongst themselves about the events of the preceding days, or do they walk in silence carrying baskets of oils and herbs? The gospel of Luke tells us that the women going to the tomb were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the other unnamed women--these were the women who had followed and supported Jesus’ ministry from the beginning--Luke first named them in chapter 8, and then in chapter 23 they are among those who witness his crucifixion. These women, who are never named as disciples, are the first to experience the empty tomb. These women had come out in the early morning and discovered the unexpected. They are the first messengers, the first evangelists, the first bearers of the Good News of the Resurrection. They are the first to tell of new life.
One of the most interesting icons I have on my office wall is a copy of a traditional Orthodox Resurrection icon. At the center is Jesus, robed in white, with beams projecting from all sides of him, and he is lifting up a man and a woman from their tombs. It has been explained to me that these figures represent Adam and Eve, and that through this action of raising Adam and Eve, Jesus is restoring all of humanity--that our sins have been overcome. That this is the essence of what is meant in the Apostle’s Creed when the early church fathers said that Jesus descended into hell prior to his resurrection--to bring up all those who had gone before into new life.
The whole idea of the Resurrection is pretty puzzling and amazing. While this story is not new to us, it does beg the question--did it really happen? Even the disciples weren’t so sure; when the women returned to tell them that the tomb was empty, the disciples thought they were telling an idle tale. Even Peter had to check it out with his own eyes before he believed! And now, well over 2000 years later, we still have theologians and scholars and commentators trying to prove (or disprove) the story of the resurrection.
For me, it isn’t so much a question of did it really happen, as what does it mean? Does it matter in my life as a Christian that Jesus was raised from the dead? I have to say it does.
The good news is that the unexpected is possible:
--that the stones which block our hearts can be moved
--that we can be messengers of God’s abundant love and healing to others
--that we can be amazed by the holiness that is all around us
--that we can help others roll away their own stones
Sometimes, showing up is the most important thing. Those women in the early morning, carrying their baskets of oils and herbs showed up. They showed up to care for the body of their beloved friend and teacher, and instead had their own hearts transformed. Jesus broke the bonds of death--the stones which close our hearts--in order that there could be new life.
I invite you to pray with me:
On the first day of the week, as the sun rises, may we come seeking You, bringing all that we have prepared. May we experience the blessing of the stone rolled away, that we may enter in, and discover it empty. When we do not encounter what we expect, may we recognize your messengers among us and be dazzled. So often we look for the living among the dead and fail to notice holiness. May fear and trembling bring us to holy ground reminding us who You are. May we remember all that You have told us. Human sin, death, and violence are not the end. Divine Love rises again and again and again. Let us hear these sacred promises once more and leave behind emptiness as we share love with all the rest. Our lives are to be testimonies to You. We are to embody Love enough to call others to life.
(“Easter then and now” adapted from Rachel Keefe’s blog Write Out of Left Field)
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
I love the Easter Vigil. Finally, “the strife is o’er”, the Alleulia has returned, Christ is risen. In this service we quite literally, touch, taste, see and smell the resurrection. We see the face of Jesus in the person next to us, we touch the hands of Jesus when we greet each other in peace, his sweet fragrance is all around in the incense and flowers, and we taste him in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Resurrection is a full-body experience...not just an intellectual exercise or a matter of faith.
And yet...in the gospel of Matthew, before we read of joy, we read of fear. In these 10 verses, the word “fear” or “afraid” is used in almost every other verse. We are told that the appearance of the angel is so frightening that the guards faint. We are told that the angel tells the two Marys not to be afraid, but it is with fear that they run to tell the disciples what has happened. And when Jesus appears to the women, he also tells them not to be afraid.
It would be easy for us to criticize the fear that is found in this joyous passage, but for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, this was a fearful time. They had lost their friend, their teacher, their spiritual companion to a horrific death by others who were guided by fear. Perhaps they were fearful that they would also be arrested, tortured and executed. Perhaps the movement of the friends of Jesus would die with him, and the long-awaited kingdom would never come to fruition. Perhaps life would just go back to “normal” instead of being filled with the extraordinary love, healing and forgiveness that they had experienced while with Jesus. That dawn there was a lot of fear...fear of the unknown.
There are a lot of unknowns in our lives too. As Pema Chodron once said, “Fear is a universal experience” because we, like the women at the tomb, are faced with loneliness, death, and not having anything to hold on to when life falls apart around us. But we also have a choice. When faced with fear, we can be like the guards and faint, or we can choose to be courageous. The women at the tomb were courageous. Even though there was much to be afraid of and worried about, with great joy they told the disciples of the resurrection; when they could have been cowardly, the two Marys went ahead and shared the good news.
So on this good night, let us move from a place of fear to a place of joy. The Resurrection is all about joy of unexpected new life and hope. No longer do we need to be afraid. No longer do we need to be in darkness…we can rejoice in the breaking open of the Kingdom of God. When the two Marys encounter Christ on the way to tell the disciples, the word that he speaks is “Chairete”…a form of greeting that literally means “Rejoice”. This word “rejoice” is repeated three times in the exsultet (the chant from the beginning of the service):
Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels…
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth…
Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church…
All of heaven and earth, and the people of God are invited to rejoice.…so let us rejoice together!
On Sunday we entered with Jesus into the city of Jerusalem with shouts of Hosanna and the waving of palm branches. And tonight we join him and his disciples in the upper room for a meal. In one of my favorite Eucharistic prayers, the last supper is described in this way:
...on the night that he was betrayed, gathered with faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom...As on that night, so here and now he offers himself in touch and taste beyond what words can hold. Great is the mystery of faith. (Prayers for an Inclusive Church).
Jesus was gathered with his faltering friends. And among them, he gave them his blessing and commission:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
Sometimes it’s easy for us to stand back and wonder how it is that the disciples seemed to get it wrong, that they would be described as “faltering friends”. But the truth of the matter is, we all get it wrong. I get it wrong. You get it wrong. None of us are perfect. And yet, we are still disciples, we are still learning to heal, pray, comfort, and love one another. That’s part of what this night is about.
In preparing for tonight, I came across this reflection that I wanted to share with you from Jay Cooper Rochelle:
Often we grasp after our own lives, clinging to them, holding them in place where they are. To this clinging comes Jesus, urging us to unlock our fingers, our minds , our hearts, and learn a new way. In the breaking of the bread, in the drinking of the wine, we see this truth: in the losing of life, we find our true lives in Christ. We are called to a life of service, in which we discover who we really are...In following Jesus, we hold onto this promise: as we are emptied, we will be filled; as we die, we will live. (What Wondrous Love, 38).
So tonight, let’s gather together with Jesus and the other faltering friends, let’s surrender and go of our own lives---our egos, desires, goals and objectives--and be filled with the mystery of faith in the washing of feet and a meal that tastes of freedom.
Our eyes have turned toward Jerusalem. Jesus is only 6 days away from the Passover; he will enter the city on the back of a donkey to shouts of Hosanna and blessings, he will be tried and crucified, he will be buried. The stress, anxiety and tension are palpable for the disciples and others who have been on the journey with Jesus. And on the way to Jerusalem, the group stops at the home of friends--Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany.
Sometimes, we forget these friends. We haven’t heard much about them this lectionary cycle because we’ve been in Luke this Lent. So we haven’t read the story of Mary & Martha welcoming Jesus into their home, and Mary being scolded for sitting at his feet instead of helping her sister in the kitchen. We haven’t read the story of Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb and restoring him to life. These are pivotal moments in the gospel of John in helping us to understand the narrative of discipleship. This little group of siblings in Bethany, friends of Jesus and the disciples, welcome him once again as he is preparing for his entry into Jerusalem.
Can you imagine for a moment, the scene in the house? It’s evening, Jesus and the disciples are weary from having walked all day in the hot sun. Cushions are spread around a low table, and on it are figs, cheese, olive, bread, wine, and maybe a roasted lamb. Conversation and the light from oil lamps fill the warm room. Jesus and the disciples are pleased to see Lazarus and Martha is bustling about. As the meal is cleared away, Mary comes back in with a bottle of perfume. Her hair is loose, not hidden under the head-covering she would normally wear in the presence of men. She kneels at the feet of Jesus and pours the perfume on his feet, massaging the oil into the calluses and rough places on his heels. And as she does this, her hair falls down in front of her face and brushes the feet of Jesus. In love and humility, with tears in her eyes, she uses her hair as a towel as her brother, sister and the disciples watch in awe.
And that incredibly intimate, sacred moment is shattered by the angry voice of Judas--criticizing Mary for this extravagance. Why wasn’t the perfume sold and the money given to the poor? Why was it wasted in this way?
And Jesus rebukes him--did he know at this point what was in Judas’ heart? Did he know that Judas wasn’t really concerned about the poor, but rather saw this as money to go into the common purse, which Judas stole from? We don’t know for sure. But Jesus rebukes him and says “Leave her alone. She understands something you don’t.”
So there’s a lot here in these 8 verses and probably no way to cover it all on one Sunday, but I’m going to share a few reflections that I think are key to this passage as we prepare to enter into Jerusalem with Jesus next week.
First is the question of what it means to be a disciple. In this text we have two main characters in addition to Jesus--Mary and Judas.
Judas has been traveling with the group since it originated and has been witness to the healings, teachings and miracles that Jesus has provided. We don’t know much about Judas other than he is part of the plot to kill Jesus--and it makes me wonder what changed for him during his time with Jesus; what made him participate in the conspiracy to have Jesus arrested, tried and crucified. Given that the gospel writer tells us that Judas was in charge of the common purse, and that he stole from it, and given that Judas accepts payment for betraying Jesus, I can’t help but wonder if money is what matters to him...is he a disciple not of Jesus, but money?
Mary, on the other hand, is a friend of Jesus who, while not officially a disciple, has sat at his feet during his teachings, witnessed the miracle of her brother being resurrected, and somehow KNOWS who Jesus is and what he is about--she recognizes that he is the Messiah, even when others do not. Now Mary of Bethany has been conflated with other Marys in the New Testament. For years, the Mary who washes the feet of Jesus has been confused with Mary Magdalene. And in Matthew and Mark, the woman who washes Jesus’ head with perfumed oil, is an unnamed woman who is a repentant sinner, again, confused with Mary Magdalene. So let’s be clear--these are two different Mary’s. And why this is important to understand is because Mary of Bethany (and even Mary Magdalene) isn’t the prostitute or adulterer that for centuries the church has portrayed her to be...she is a friend, a believer, and one who knows--she is loyal to the end when the other disciples desert Jesus at the cross.
This story also sets the stage for the Passover (or what we call “the last supper). Here we have Mary modeling service in her actions--she washes the feet of Jesus. This is what Jesus will do for his disciples--he will wash their feet. And as we know, or will find out on Maundy Thursday, this washing of feet is symbolic of the life of discipleship. It is a way of showing care for another. It is a symbolic way of saying “we’re in this together as friends”. It is a way of showing that the disciples will carry on the ministry of Jesus after he departs.
So this story reminds us about discipleship. That being a disciple of Jesus is about faithfulness to the ministry, a willingness to take risks for the Kingdom of God, and the courage to stand in solidarity with the persecuted. It also reminds us that even in the midst of treachery and betrayal, extravagant love is extended.
The other thing I believe that is important to consider in this text is verse 8...the final verse for today’s lesson. After telling Judas to leave Mary alone, he follows it up with this statement: You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. On the one hand, he may be speaking directly to Judas, the keeper of the common purse, indicating that he knows of Judas’ deception of stealing from the purse instead of giving it to the poor as he was instructed to do so. 300 denarii in those days would have been a year’s wages. On the other hand, perhaps we are supposed to hear an instruction in this rebuke...for far too long, the church has used this verse as a justification to ignore the poor among us, which is contradictory to the message and ministry of Jesus. So I did a little digging, and contemporary liberation theologians and scholars believe that what is really happening here is Jesus is referring back to Deuteronomy 15:11, which reads “For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand...to the need and to the poor in the land.” Therefore in putting this text next to Jesus’ prediction of his death and burial, the writer is reminding the disciples and us to be prepared to be of service and care for the poor--for that’s where Jesus will be--among the poor. Perhaps this is also part of what Mary understands that the others do not; that in his extravagant love for everyone, Jesus is found not just among the disciples, or a family in Bethany, but also among the stranger, the widowed, the orphaned, the ill, and the poor. And as those who have been called to continue in the mission and ministry of Jesus, there too we should be.
Let us pray:
Extravagant God, lavishing your love on our poverty of heart: inspire us to give without stint, to lose life that we might find it again, so the world will be filled with the fragrance of your love; through Jesus Christ, who offers himself for us. Amen. (Prayers for an Inclusive Church)
Since the start of the year, the Monday morning Bible Study group has been reading one of my all time favorite books: Good news of Jesus. Now to be honest, the book could really be summed up in the first chapter--God loves you and forgives you NO MATTER WHAT. And for the most part, , we could sit back and live in that abundance of love and forgiveness and really never have to be concerned with the things of the world for the rest of our lives. But the fact is we’re human, and we mess it up, so we have to be reminded repeatedly.
The chapter the group is currently working on uses the parable of the Prodigal Son as an example. Bill’s point is that if we expect God to be FAIR, then we’re going to be disappointed. The fact is: God isn’t “FAIR”--God gives us love and forgiveness unconditionally, abundantly, NO MATTER WHAT. It isn’t about what we deserve, about our success, or about how “good” we are. God just gives because God loves us...and sometimes that’s really, really hard to accept.
In the gospel from Luke, we encounter the Pharisees and scribes who are grumbling because Jesus is welcoming and eating with sinners. They are grumbling because they’ve lost sight of their relationship to these folks. They are grumbling because instead of seeing children of God, they see what’s wrong with the person—“the sinner”. They are grumbling because they are driven by pride, jealousy, anger and self-righteousness. But Jesus is a man of grace and compassion, and so instead of scolding the Pharisees and scribes for their grumbling, he tells everyone a story.
Most of us are familiar with the parable of the Prodigal Son. At some point in our lives, for better or worse, we’ve probably identified as each of the three characters—the young son who left home and comes back begging forgiveness, the older son who has stayed home and is resentful about the welcome his younger brother was extended, and the generous and loving father who welcomes his son home.
We don’t like to admit it when we’ve behaved like the older son, but the truth is, we’ve all done it at some point. So why is it that the older son can’t be happy for his brother’s return and his father’s welcome?
Perhaps it’s because he assumed the worst about his brother and he was driven by his anger, pride, jealousy and self-righteousness. And these are all expressions of fear. He is afraid that if his brother is welcomed home, there won’t be enough room for him, he won’t have a place in the house, that he won’t be loved anymore. Like the Pharisees and scribes, he is afraid that if Jesus welcomes the “other” then there won’t be room for them in God’s kingdom.
How often have we felt that same kind of fear in our lives? The fear that if we welcome the “other”—the homeless man, the immigrant woman, the gay couple—that we will somehow lose our place?
But God’s love and grace don’t work like that. Every time God’s love and healing reaches out to welcome the “other”, we are not diminished; there isn’t less for us, but more! So wait, how does that work? Maybe you’re saying to yourself, “Anna, the math doesn’t add up”.
Here’s how it works…
God’s love and grace are based in God’s reconciliation with humanity and all creation. Because God is reconciled with us through Christ, we become, as 2nd Corinthians tells us, “ambassadors for Christ”…in other words, we become instruments of reconciliation. So as we have been reconciled with God, as we reconcile with others, as we act as an extension of God’s love and reconciliation, we only multiply God’s healing in the world…not take away from it. .
The only way this is not a “winning” situation for us is if we chose NOT to receive or extend God’s love and reconciliation. When we aren’t actively working towards reconciliation, actively working towards re-membering the body of Christ in the world, then we are diminishing the Kingdom of God in our midst. Or as Bill writes: “if we say ‘no’ to God’s forgiveness, we are saying that we want some other kind of relationship with God and the world--probably a relation based on what we deserve rather than what God freely gives.” (p59)
Charlene Spretnak wrote, “all forms of life are composed of relationships and function in dynamic relationship with everything else…Nothing exists in isolation” (Kindle location, 377-380).
This idea that “nothing exists in isolation” is not really a new idea. I think we’ve all known that for a long time…even if we didn’t “know” it. When we were created, God intended us to be in loving relationship and communion with God, each other and creation. And yet, we sometimes forget that and end up being angry, unhealthy and detached. We become more focused on ourselves than on our community.
So this is a great parable for Lent, and an invitation into the final weeks of Lent to prayerfully examine which relationships need to be reconciled in our lives. As a matter of fact, reconciliation is what Lent is all about, and why confession is so important…it can help us move into a place of healing and well-being, so that we can be a new creation, so that we can be resurrected in Christ.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu is, I believe, a saint. His work on reconciliation has been life-altering for so many wounded and broken people in the world. On the topic of forgiveness and reconciliation he said, “without forgiveness there can be no future for a relationship between individuals…” Without forgiveness we exist in isolation. Without forgiveness, we are not as God had intended us to be.
Let us pray:
Holy God, Word Shaper: you are not our accountant, but our lover; you are not angry at us, but you forgive us; you are not our enemy, but the One who runs towards us with wide open arms,throwing steaks on the grill to celebrate our newness!
Jesus Christ, Shaper of our story: you travel to that distant country called our sin to bring us home once again; you share your inheritance with us so we might be blessed; you know the famine of our spirits and fill it with your hope.
Holy Spirit, Life Shaper: surrounded by your grace, we offer glad cries of salvation; encircled by your constant love, we shout for joy; enclosed in your comforting arms, nothing can overwhelm us.
God in Community, Holy in One, from now on we will remember our life in you: Broken, we are made whole; lost, we are brought home; empty, we are filled with songs of gladness.
We rejoice and give thanks to God who has graced us with mercy. Amen.
(adapted from Thom M. Shuman’s blog Lectionary Liturgies http://lectionaryliturgies.blogspot.ca/2013/03/fourth-sunday-in-lent-c.html)
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.