Sermon – Sunday, March 27. 2016

Easter Sunday

Preacher: John Michael Hayes

Trauma is a part of life – experiences that overwhelm ordinary means of coping and making sense of things –  shatters all security of ordinary  expectation and destroys reliable categories of experience. Trauma rips away all illusion and thrusts us into new depths of reality. Trauma is said to be an initiation into the real.

As Isaiah says ‘I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or brought to mind.’

There are bad traumas and good traumas – both are difficult. Jesus’ crucifixion was a very bad trauma, horrific and terrible in every conceivable way.

We have followed Jesus’ fateful end. This past week we have seen Jesus led to the cross, set up by the religious authorities, betrayed by his friends, taunted by the mob, and seemingly abandoned by the God he called father. Stripped naked, nailed to crossbeams, hoisted up and left to die on a garbage heap outside the city walls, executed between two thugs. Atop his cross Pilate’s cruel irony announces: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” This is what happens to would-be messiahs.

We cannot know if Pilate slept easy that night, but we can surmise the chief priests and pals did, knowing that trouble maker was done and gone, and business as usual can proceed without troubling interruptions and inconvenient questions.

Jesus’ men were scarce during all this. Their illusions shattered they hid in fear of the same fate. Only the women were with Jesus in the end and by John’s account the enigmatic ‘beloved disciple’. And early in the morning in the dark before light, only Mary Magdalene ventures out unseen in the hushed shadowed lanes before the still sleeping city awakens. It is Sunday – the day after the Sabbath – the first day of the week. This is a new day – the beginning of new creation. Light is beginning to overcome darkness, the new light that is the new life of humanity.

Mary’s grief overcomes fear. In the trauma of her loss, perhaps she goes just to touch the tomb of Jesus, perhaps still struggling with disbelief. What she sees defies all expectation. An empty tomb!

All her expectations of Jesus have been shattered and now this new affront. Someone has stolen the body, ripping away her sole consolation. What else could it be?

She runs and tells the others. Peter and the ‘beloved disciple’ break out of their paralysis of their fear and run ahead of her to the empty tomb to see for themselves. The realization begins to dawn and the memory of Jesus’ promise, the age-old promise of the scripture resounds in their minds and hearts. They saw an empty tomb, they dimly understood, pieces are starting to come together – could it really be true? – and they barely understand but they believed, the shattered faith and trust welled back up inside them. Something of the personal connection with Jesus is beginning to be not just restored, but put on a whole new basis.

Mary again arrives at the tomb. Alone and weeping, she finds the courage to look inside the empty tomb and sees – as the two disciples did – the linens wrapped up and neatly rolled up but also two angels at both ends of the place where they lay Jesus’ body late that dreadful Friday afternoon.

Two angels flank an empty space just as in the mercy seat in the holy of holies in the temple. We are to understand that she stands at the new dwelling place of God on earth. The God who is beyond all human knowing, beyond all categories of human understanding, the God who will not be scripted and who gives his name only as “I am who I am, who I will be, will be for you” The indeterminate, holy one refuses every grid of human category and will not be made into an idol of predictable action, has done something traumatically radically new in the resurrection of Jesus.

Mary doesn’t get that, not yet. Two thousand years later we still have not assimilated that traumatizing event.  Mary is still confused and disoriented. She still insists someone took the body of Jesus. Even as Jesus speaks to her she does not recognize him. Jesus says ‘Why are you weeping? Whom are looking for?’ Mary still does not get what new reality is breaking in. How could she?

Not until Jesus calls her by her name “Mary!” does she recognize the new reality that God’s reckless and extravagant love has thrust humanity into. Jesus has been risen.

Mary goes to embrace him. Jesus says, “do not hold onto me”. Jesus is saying this is not restoration of old reality. This is not reversal of history and now I have my old Jesus back again. Reliable expectation and secure categories are not being put back in place. Rather, God’s unimagined future has broken into the present moment. And everything must change.

Many times in John’s gospel, Jesus refers to “my father”. Now Jesus speaks of “my Father and your Father, my God and your God.” A new relational reality has broken into ordinary reality. We are now to relate to God not as hoary thunderer tobe feared and appeased, not as cosmic fate that we must submit to in blind obedience, not as vapidly abstract unmoved prime mover, but as Father. The one who generates all creation out of nothingness, knows us by name, knows us more profoundly than we can ever know ourselves, and calls us by name through Jesus to new life, life forever in God’s love.

The resurrection of Jesus is just the beginning of the realization of God’s dream and promise to humanity. St. Paul tells us “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died…as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

The resurrection is our new reality. Most of us, much of the time, would prefer to live with more modest expectations, the much smaller reality of “life sucks and then youdie” stoicism. We cynically prefer to call that “getting real”. The greater reality imploding in the resurrection is traumatizing indeed.

We are always so much more comfortable in reducing God to our own terms. Indeed from many pulpits this morning a reassuring watered down rational explanation for Christ’s resurrection will be proffered. It is really a platitudinous metaphor for the eternal triumph of life, or beauty, or truth. It is really a reassuring symbolic myth that tells of man’s dream of eternal life. That sort of thing disturbs no-one and makes no difference whatsoever in how we live our lives. That sort of reassuring thing does not challenge our categories and does not disturb our egocentric view of things.

As the novelist Flannery O’Connor famously commented “if the Resurrection is just a symbol, than the hell with it.”

Of course we cannot understand how the resurrection occurred or what God really means by the promise of our resurrection in a restored humanity.

We cannot know the ways of our God, but we can trust and know God in his son Jesus Christ risen this day because the very same Holy Spirit who moved the disciples to grasp something of this traumatizing new reality and who sparked recognition in Mary’s heart when she heard the Lord call her name, this very morning also moves our minds and hearts also to uncomprehendingly trust God’s extravagant promise and to recognize our Lord.

Nowhere is the promise of our new life in Jesus’ resurrected embodied life more manifest than in the Eucharist we share. “This is my body, this is my blood – live in me and I will live in you”. We together in this new reality breaking through our old settled small minded selfish ways and making us one people of the resurrection.

Our father in faith John Chrysostom preached these words one Easter many centuries ago:

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

 First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry.

Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.

O death, where is thy sting?
 O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!

Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Sermon – Thursday, March 24, 2016

Maundy Thursday

Rev. Jane Mayrer

This week, I have been meditating on the story in John’s Gospel about the last meal Jesus eats with his disciples before he is arrested, tried, and executed.  And I have tried to imagine what it would be like if Jesus were here with us, tonight.  What might our conversation be like.  So with some trepidation, I invite you to imagine with me.

Jesus!  You’re here!  With us!  Look, we are having a meal, to remember your last meal with your disciples.  And, we’re going to wash feet – just like you told us to do.

Ah yes.  Of course.  Today is what the church has come to call “Maundy Thursday.”  And my followers, for years, for centuries, have been gathering on Maundy Thursday to read the story and to wash each other’s feet.  My washing feet at the meal seems to have made a deep impression on the church.  There are a lot of pictures imagining what that was like.  I see you have a few.  This icon minimally represents the scene and what I did.  This picture is full of detail, the artist imagining what we all looked like as I washed feet.  Pictures like this are the most common.  Here is a picture that shows the tension between Peter and me. But something is missing in these pictures.  Now here’s a picture of one hand holding a foot over a basin of water, while the other hand is raised in blessing over the foot.  This one is closer to what I intended.

You know, my first disciples always seemed to have a hard time understanding what I was trying to tell them.  There was the time I told them a story about a farmer who planted seed where it would not grow, or at least would not grow well – in rocky soil, among weeds, along the path were birds could eat it – and some in good soil where the seed produced good grain.  While I thought it was obvious that I was talking about my teaching and the word of God, I had to explain the story to them.

There was the time when we were all in a boat going back to Capernaum.  This was after a lot of people had been fed with a couple of loaves of bread.  I was concerned about the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, and how their teaching about My Father was so misleading, sometimes just outright wrong.  So I said, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  Well, the disciples had forgotten to bring bread along with us, so they thought I was talking about having no bread.  After they had seen how people with no bread had been fed.  I had to explain that I wasn’t talking about yeast, or about bread, but about teaching, about what the Pharisees were teaching.

And then there was the time when I was trying to prepare those first disciples for what it would be like for them after I was gone – physically, that is – from them.  Here’s what I said.  ‘When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?’  ‘No,” they said.  Well, now it will be different.  ‘Now the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag.  And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.’  And do you know what they said?  ‘Look Lord, here are two swords.’  I wasn’t talking about bags and purses and swords.  I was telling them that would have to be prepared in a different way.   They would have to have resources to support themselves, and they would have to be prepared to encounter hostility.

So, like I said, my disciples would sometimes miss the point by taking what I said literally.  And some of my subsequent followers have been similarly challenged.  Yes, I did say “you ought to wash one another’s feet, like I have washed your feet.  I have set you an example, and you should follow it.”  But you see, that evening was a particular, unique occasion.  While we were on the way into Jerusalem, my disciples had been arguing among themselves about which of them was to be the greatest.  They didn’t think I had heard them.  But I knew they still did not understand, after all I had said, and done, and showed them, what greatness is in God’s eyes, in God’s way of being.  They still needed to be shown.

And also, as it happened, that evening no one had made arrangements for our feet to be washed.  Back then, life was a lot different from the way you live now.  The shoes we had, if we had any, were sandals.  Our feet got dirty every day from walking around, and needed to be washed when we came in for the evening meal.  The head of each family would have someone, usually a servant, wash everyone’s feet.  But we had borrowed a room in someone’s house.  And no one, not the owner of the house, and not anyone of us, had thought about having a servant ready to wash our feet when we arrived.  So there we were, sitting around the table with dirty feet.

I took that opportunity to teach about greatness in God’s eyes.  I was their rabbi, their teacher – but I took on the role of a servant, and washed their feet – to show them that those who would be great are those who serve others.  When I said, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you,” I wasn’t talking about washing feet.  I was talking about how my followers are to treat each other – and not only each other but everyone they encounter.  I was saying that my followers are to serve each other.

Jesus, what does it mean to serve another person?

It’s very simple, really.  You ask.  “Do you need anything?”  “What can I do for you?”  “How can I serve you?”  “How can I love you?”  Sometimes you can see what another person needs, although it is wise not to presume that you know.  Sometimes, you need to ask.

PrayingOverHomelessManInstead of those pictures of me washing feet the disciples’ feet, I have another picture for you that shows what I meant about serving each other.  You may have already seen it.  It was in your newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, a couple of weeks ago.  It shows a teenager, Steven Watkins, praying for a homeless man.  Steven was riding the bus home, when he saw a man lying motionless on the sidewalk.  He heard My Father speak to him about that man.  Steven got off the bus, went over to the man, and prayed, “Father and Son and Holy Spirit, Lord, I pray for this man today.  This man is in need.”  A police officer saw Steven praying and took the picture.  Steven got on his next bus and left.  The homeless man got up, with the help of others nearby.  The police officer said of Steven, “He didn’t do it for any accolades or any praise.  I wanted to say something to him.  But it was just as if he did what he had to do and left.”

And so now, tonight, tell again the story of the last meal my first disciples and I shared.  Tell how I washed their feet, and told them to do likewise.  Then wash each other’s feet.  But remember – it’s not about washing feet.  All of you wear socks and shoes, and – unlike our dirty feet that evening – your feet are clean.  As I said to Peter, there is no need to wash what has already been bathed.  Remember, it is about serving the person in front of you.  The ritual of foot-washing is about taking on and nurturing a servant heart.  In the act of washing another’s feet, and in the act of allowing another to wash your feet, you learn how to serve others.

And after you have heard the story, and washed feet – when you leave this place and return to your homes, your workplaces, your neighborhoods – take a servant heart with you.  Remember to ask yourself with each person you encounter:  “What does this person need?”  “What can I do?”  “How can I serve?”  “How can I love?”

And remember also, when you serve another, I am beside you, guiding you, blessing you.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, March 13. 2016

Fifth Sunday in Lent

John Kiess

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4-14; John 12:1-8

It’s called splurging, and we have all felt the urge.  It comes upon us unannounced and when it does, we find ourselves helpless in its grip.  Think of that time when you were in your favorite restaurant, unassumingly perusing the menu as you had dozens of times before; unexpectedly, your rogue eyes dart from their usual place among the hamburgers and casseroles and veer into the danger zone marked “House Specialties.” There you find yourself swept up in a romance novel involving a beautiful, slow-roasted, mint-crusted rack of lamb and a delicate bed of broccolini.  In place of the price, the menu simply says, “Market,” and before your mind can catch up and imagine the cost, you gaze up into the waiter’s eyes and defiantly proclaim, “I’ll have the lamb.”

Or think of that time when you were in the furniture store, where you dutifully came to collect the living room set that you and your partner found online; it met the budget and seemed sufficient to the task of movie-watching and entertaining.  Then, on the walk to the checkout counter, the clerk informs you that a new model arrived just that week; instead of a standard couch and armchair, it is a sectional, with a stain-resistant, double-woven fabric and, according to the tag, a “thread count softer than Cupid’s wings.”  You sink into it and say to your wide-eyed, now knife-wielding spouse, Honey, it’s for the family. 

Let’s not even get into weddings.  You’ve been to a thousand of them, and you’ve enjoyed snickering at the hopelessly profligate parents who spare no expense on their sons and daughters.  But when it’s your beloved Jenny’s turn to get married, and the floral expert whisks you into the greenhouse to show you the aquamarine hydrangeas arranged in lavender and honeysuckle, suddenly you just can’t imagine a wedding without them.

Whenever the urge to splurge hits, we hear that nagging voice inside telling us that the money would be better spent on more noble things: on the nonprofit that reaches out to the homeless, on the fundraising appeal from Doctors Without Borders, or on that worthy church in West Baltimore that could use a few extra dollars, but alas, we just can’t help ourselves.  The beautiful overwhelms us and for a moment we surrender our moral handwringing for its sumptuous pleasures.

It is a comfort, then, to see Mary doing the same in this morning’s Gospel reading.  At a dinner in Bethany, we are told she anoints Jesus with a perfume that cost three hundred denarii, the equivalent of a full year’s wages—an extraordinary splurge, the mother of all splurges.  Judas, speaking in that familiar voice of righteous condemnation, rebukes her, saying the money should have been given to the poor.  Yet to our delight, Jesus tells Judas to leave her alone and commends her for her extravagant display.  There is the added satisfaction of learning that had Mary actually given her money to the poor, the corrupt Judas would have stolen it and used the money to enrich himself.  Sadly, this rings all too true with the practice of many outfits today, outwardly devoted to the poor yet in practice committed to their predation and exploitation.  In John’s Gospel, the choice is not between doing a beautiful thing and doing a good thing; rather, the beautiful thing is the only real option on the table, and John seems to be saying that we should feel at ease to pursue it, and leave our guilty consciences at home.

Of course, this isn’t the only version of the anointing at Bethany.  There is another version, in the Gospel of Mark, where the tension between doing the good thing and doing the beautiful thing is more pronounced.  There the same objection is made, that the money would be better spent on the poor, but there is no mention of Judas or corruption.  Here we seem to have a genuine moral dilemma: between filling the room with perfume, on the one hand, and serving the poor on the other.  It is the presumption of the disciples that the latter always wins out over the former.  Yet whether we are reading Mark or John, Jesus’ response is the same: “Why do you trouble her?  She has done a beautiful thing.  You always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.  She has done what she could…” (Mk. 14:6-8)

Jesus tends not to like being faced with stark choices.  He seems to enjoy defusing them.  When the Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery and ask him to choose between justice and mercy, he kneels down and writes in the dust, saying, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (Jn. 8:7).  When another group of Pharisees ask Jesus whether one should pay taxes to the emperor, Jesus again questions the question, saying, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Mt. 22:21).  Jesus’ response to Judas suggests that the choice between the good and the beautiful might be falsely posed as well.

He begins by situating the anointing in its proper context.  Mary is not just dumping oil on his body for the fun of it.  He says, “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (Jn. 12:7).  Mary is looking ahead to Jesus’ eventual death, and knows that he will likely die an ostracized criminal, executed on a tree.  The Jewish historian Josephus informs us that those executed under Roman law would have been denied customary rites of burial.[1]  This is because the Romans knew that it is in mourning that we confirm the value of what we have lost, and that nothing is so haunting or feared as a life that goes unmourned.  The most effective and permanent way to remove a person from human fellowship is to deny their loved ones the chance to mourn them.  But Jesus preaches, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Mt. 5:4), and surely part of this means, “Blessed are those who know how to mourn what the rest of the society has ignored or marginalized.”  Blessed are those who remain disturbed when things in the world have gone wrong, blessed are those who know the worth of things when society has devalued them.  At the height of Nazi power in Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “By ‘mourning’ Jesus means… refusing to be in tune with the world or to accommodate oneself to its standards.  [The disciples] mourn for the world, for its fate and its fortune.  While the world keeps holiday they stand aside… [and] mourn… [I]n this way they show how close are the bonds which bind them to the rest of humanity.”[2]  In mourning the approaching death of Jesus, Mary shows how close are the bonds between Jesus and humanity.  Her wondrous extravagance shows us how much his life is really worth.

And how much is that?  Much more than a year’s wages.  In Luke’s version of the anointing (7:36-50), we’re not given the identity of the woman who anoints Jesus; we’re simply told she was “a sinner” (7:37).  But the scene is no less stunning.  The woman bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair (7:38); she then kisses his feet and applies the ointment.  Yet again there is a Pharisee who doesn’t get it.  He asks Jesus why he allows a sinful woman to touch him.  Jesus proceeds to tell a parable about a creditor who has two debtors, one who owed five hundred denarii, the other fifty.  The creditor cancels the debt of both, and Jesus asks the Pharisee, “which of them will love him more?” (7:42). The Pharisee responds, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt,” and Jesus tells him he has judged rightly (7:43).  Jesus invites us to see the woman in the place of the man whose debt of 500 denarii has been forgiven, an amount, incidentally, not far from the amount that Mary spends on the perfume in the Gospel of John.  Jesus commends her, saying she “has shown great love” (7:47); her tears and ointment are an extravagant expression of gratitude for the extravagant love Jesus has shown to her.  We are past the point of counting the cost or weighing the balances.  God’s forgiveness for us is unmerited; it exceeds anything that is warranted.  It is not simply good.  It is beautiful.  And there is nothing we can do to repay it, except resort to extravagant displays of our gratitude that communicate the worth of what we have received and the extravagance of the love with which it was given.  God has splurged on us.  Is it any wonder that Mary wants to splurge on him?  And what response could be more fitting, more attuned to the nature of God’s love and its infinite worth, than to spend everything we have in return?

Just as the beauty of God’s love flattens the difference between 50 and 500 denarii, Mary’s anointing transforms a year’s worth of wages into something worth infinitely more.  “Truly I tell you,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark, “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (14:9).  That is what the beautiful does.  It transfigures our world of dollars and cents, of balance sheets and quid pro quo, into a timeless work of art.  It introduces a different standard of worth.  With God, we are trading in goods of infinite measure.  In this morning’s reading from Isaiah, we are reminded of the extravagance of what God has done for us: he has made a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters (43:16); he has given drink to his chosen people (43:20).  Isaiah’s only question is, “[D]o you not perceive it?” (43:19).  It’s a question that has to do with seeing, and this seems to be the disciples’ constant failing: not that they fail to do, but that they fail to see. Judas and the other disciples are stuck in the world of zero-sum calculations.  A beautiful deed for them means less money for the poor.  But this not only fails to see the beauty of Mary’s act, but also its goodness.  It is the right thing to do, and it is the right thing to do because it is the beautiful thing to do. The seeming waste of the act reflects an accurate perception of the worth of the gift God has given, and not to see it is not to know how things really stand.  In objecting to her act, Judas is not being good.  He is being ugly.  And that is what the good becomes when it is divorced from the beautiful.

Jesus is the light through which we see the true worth of things.  Listen to Paul in his letter to the Philippians: “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.  More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Phil. 3:7-9).  Paul’s words read like a commentary on Mary’s anointing, helping us to see that she has thrown away everything she has for Christ, and in doing so, communicated his worth to us.  Paul’s words also provide the key to understanding those final, enigmatic words of today’s gospel: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (Jn. 12:8).  How many times have we heard these words taken to mean that there will always be poor people, and therefore we should stop trying to alleviate the poor?  That an end to poverty is a futile and worthless ideal?  But surely Jesus’ point is that the disciples will always be with the poor.[3]  They will always make themselves available to the poor, walking with them and serving as their companions.  The real question is whether they will do so in the company of Christ as well.  Will they serve the poor according to the world’s standards, with an eye for the bottom line, or will they serve the poor in the manner of Mary, turning hospitality and relief into works of art befitting the dignity of those they serve?  Service to the poor without Christ’s extravagant gift risks becoming righteous severity, that fiscal austerity that turns everything warm cold, every gift into an obligation, every work of art into a commodity. Goodness without beauty is ugly, and the good news of the gospel is this: Jesus calls us not simply to a life of goodness, but to a life of beauty, a life of joy.  That is what today’s Psalm announces to us.  “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream.  Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue shouts of joy… The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed… Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy” (Ps. 126:1-2, 4, 6).  Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her tears, and out of her pain, comes her song of joy, sung to the tune of perfume, which feels the room and makes fragrant the very cross upon which Jesus hangs.  She like Paul wants one thing: to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.  For in becoming like him in death, we participate in God’s unmerited splurging on us, which enables us to spend that splurging love on others.

It’s hard to reflect on such themes and not think of Babette’s Feast, a film that will no doubt be familiar to many in this room.[4]  Babette Hersant is a chef who used to work at the Café Anglais in Paris, but who was forced to flee as a refugee from counter-revolutionary violence.  She eventually arrives in a village in Norway defined by simple living.  Two sisters have given up everything to follow in their father’s austere footsteps, and the village lives a similarly frugal lifestyle.  Babette has left instructions for a friend back in Paris to continue to play her lottery ticket, and one day her ticket comes up a winner.  The prize is 10,000 francs, and she decides to spend the entirety of her earnings on a single meal.  With some hesitation, the townspeople agree to come, but pledge not to enjoy the meal.  But one of the sisters’ old suitors, a cavalry officer named Lorens Lôwenhielm, comes to the dinner.  This man has actually dined in the Café Anglais and knows the names of all the various delicacies that Babette brings to the table.  His audible satisfaction, combined with his play-by-play commentary, rouse the room, and slowly the chill over the village begins to thaw.  Old scores are settled, conflicts are resolved, and one old lady even ventures to take a sip of the wine.  The movie ends with the townspeople joined in a circle in a song of festivity and joy, recipients of an extravagant love, bestowing now the same love upon each other.  The sisters tell Babette they cannot help but feel a little sorry for her – she has spent everything she had on the meal and is now left with nothing.  But Babette reassures them with words that would fittingly be applied to Mary, and, we pray, all of us here: “An artist is never poor.”  Such words capture the high calling of the Christian life, which is to become artists of a goodness that manifests itself in beauty.  Amen.

 


[1] Josephus, The Jewish War 4.5.2.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995 [1937]), 108-9.

[3] See Samuel Wells, Power and Passion (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 169.

[4] Babette’s Feast. Dir. Gabriel Axel. Panorama, 1987. Film. Based on the short story by Isak Dinesen.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Preacher: Jeremy Funk

Luke 15:1–3, 11–32

Nearly everyone knows today’s Gospel lesson. It’s often called the parable of the Prodigal—or wasteful—Son. That title refers, of course, to the father’s youngest son, who wastes the value of his share of family property in a distant land and returns, ruined, to find his father’s arms nevertheless open wide, ready to take him in once more.  Even though the common title centers on the little brother, I find myself drawn this morning to the reflect on the two other major characters in the story: big brother, who feels taken for granted, and his foolish father, who nearly loses everything. They meet in the last scene.

Big brother had started sweating hours ago, as he did every day, working in the fields. Now trudging home he catches strains of music. As he nears the house the sounds grow louder—music and motion and laughter. He doesn’t remember that any plans had been made for the evening, so he asks a servant what’s up.

“Your brother’s back, and your dad is serving up the fattened calf to celebrate that he’s here safe and sound.”

Only after being let into the loop does big brother lose his cool. After such a long workday, he experiences this news as his last straw. Our lesson says, “Then he became angry and refused to go in.” When his father comes out, big brother doesn’t even greet him. Big brother’s first word is “Listen!” When had his father last listened to him—really listened to him? What comes next is righteous protest:

“I have followed all your instructions, minded all my p’s and q’s. But you haven’t given me permission to have my friends over, even for a small barbecue. Yet when this son of yours”—he can’t even bear to acknowledge his relationship with his brother—“when this son of yours returns, who’s called you as good as dead, who’s spent half the value of your property with riffraff, and who’s ruined our standing in this village, you pull out all the stops for him!”

What’s clear from big brother’s tirade is that he’s lost respect for and connection with his father. He feels taken for granted. He is the less favored son. Yet he may be seething below the surface too, measuring other angles of his father’s behavior as pathetic. Commentators Richard Rohrbaugh and Bruce Malina discuss the cultural context of this parable and call out foolishness in the father’s deeds: First, flouting accepted norms, the father agrees to divide his property while he is still alive. “In village life,” the commentators point out, “nonconformity is always seen as a threat to community stability.”[1] Second, besides upsetting life as usual by giving out his inheritance early, the father allows little brother to leave, to become a free agent, to separate himself from the interpersonal village economy, and so to become the object of derision and ostracism.

Little brother, in fact, sells off his half of the family property to non-Israelites. By selling to Gentiles, he doesn’t allow for the possibility (described in Leviticus and perhaps applied in actual practice) that the family might get its land back at the time of Jubilee every fifty years. As Rohrbaugh and Malina put it, “since land . . . is the welfare of any village family, the younger son has hurt far more than just himself. His entire extended family will forever live with diminished prospects.”[2]

To return to our story’s final scene, then, on one side of a closed door stands big brother: someone whom his father has likely too often taken for granted and who’s frustrated by that. Opening the door and stepping out into the anger is the foolish father who nearly lost everything. From his first son’s perspective, the father’s foolish because he capitulated to the whims of his youngest son; he’s foolish because he did this despite probably having a good idea of little brother’s character and of how that half would end up—and if he didn’t, he should have. After all, because of little brother, the entire family has been alienated from the village. Finally, from big brother’s perspective, the father is foolish for running down the road (something that should not be done) to protect a pariah, and for celebrating him.

Scholars of Jesus’s parables have reached little consensus about how to interpret them. Some students of the parables caution us against automatically assigning the role of God to a particular character, even if tradition has done so.[3] Still, in the parable before us today, the foolish father who nearly lost everything does remind me of God.

The father who’s nearly lost everything has nothing more to lose. One can only guess that he cut his property in half out of love for his restless son. Now he’s beyond grateful to have that youngest one back from a distant country, so he’s willing to open a closed door in his own house to try to restore connection with his oldest. Notice in what the father says the links he tries to make between himself and his firstborn son—with you and me, with yours and mine, with we: “His father came out and began to plead with him . . . ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate . . .’”

The father who’s nearly lost everything won’t stop until he’s done all he can to unite his family and to strengthen human connection. He throws a party, quite possibly for the entire village, to celebrate his son’s return and to repair relationships. “We had to celebrate and rejoice,” he tells his oldest son, “because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Doesn’t that sound a lot like our vulnerable, foolish God? We Christians claim that God became human in Jesus Christ. We trust that God came to us in Jesus because God wants to be deeply known, wants to be with us. Jesus came teaching us what the world can be like if we choose to live under God’s love. He showed us signs of its presence in his healings. Our barrier to God may be our recklessness, our own brittle vision of righteousness, or something else. Well, Jesus himself partied with all kinds—with prodigals as well as prudes. And for all that, he ended up dead on a cross. Was his life only a fool’s errand?

No. As the cross looms larger before us each week, let et us proclaim with Paul that in Christ’s cross God has made foolish the wisdom of the wise, that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, that God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. In Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself. In the weakness, powerlessness, foolishness of the Christ’s cross, God identifies most closely with what it is to be vulnerable—to suffer, to come to the end with no way out, to be taken for a fool.

The good news goes on. Foolery is not the end. It’s only the beginning. In this season of Lent, let us marvel that—foolish as it sounds—the spent life of Jesus has become the divine life. God changed the cross of Jesus Christ, the instrument of his torture and execution, into an instrument of saving love for us. As we marvel, let us be changed.

How has Saint Luke’s worked out, lived out, this foolish love of God? Saint Luke’s stayed open when the folks who knew said we should close. Our congregation continues to meet, even if it’s in the church basement. Saint Luke’s reaches out to a neighborhood that some might call forgotten. We’re working to make Saturdays safe for children and working to form relationships here in Franklin Square. And now our missioner for community engagement, Trivia, has joined us in that work. The work is slow, and given the potential lack of results, some might consider it foolish. But what some take as foolish is not the end. The reckless, expansive, foolish love of God is only the beginning.

Maybe because I’m an eldest child I identify with big brother in our parable today. Though I don’t feel underappreciated, I do care about working hard, about pleasing my parents and family. So far as I know, my life has never gone wayward or been riotous! Over the last couple weeks I’ve realized that big brother may not like change. I hazard he’s gotten used to his kid brother, the party animal, being away. He spends his days in the field and likes coming home to a quiet house.

These guesses come as I’ve been looking over our lesson in view of what’s going on in my own life. Levi, my service dog, is living with us now. For the next two weeks of service-dog training, I’m in what’s called the bonding period: Levi is not to leave the house except to go to the yard or to training classes. My dog is remarkably well trained, but he is still a two-year-old lab with loads of energy. A couple days before Levi came to live with us, I began missing our quiet evenings and weekends at home. Home won’t be the same anymore—not with Levi and with Helen’s golden retriever, Emma, both on the premises. This change is exciting and hard at the same time.

So when big brother realizes that a party has broken out for little brother, and when Jesus says of big brother “He became angry and refused to go in,” I can understand big brother’s reaction. Home won’t be the same anymore—not with the kid back rowdy as ever, not with crazy old Dad taking him in again without ever admitting that the brat has ruined us. Sometimes we in the church feel the same way about change: if new folks come, if dear friends move away, if the priest retires and a new priest arrives, things will change and church won’t be the same anymore.

As we walk into and through the shadow of the cross, let us marvel and be changed. Our lesson ends with big brother and with his father, who nearly lost everything, still standing outside together. The father cannot plead forever. Big brother cannot stand forever before a closed door. Either he will refuse to go in, or he will go in. Either he will turn away from home and become like little brother, or he will go on in and find what is to be found.

I was having trouble focusing enough to write this sermon on Friday because Levi was pacing in my office and occasionally picking out paper scraps or old envelopes from my recycle bin. After I got over being annoyed for being bothered, I began to notice Levi’s curiosity and joy at discovering so many interesting things. As he started emptying my recycle bin, I tried to imagine him saying, “Look at this!” or asking, “What is that?” I pray that we as individuals and as a congregation are able to know such joy in finding what is to be found. Foolery is not the end. It’s only the beginning. As we walk into and through the shadow of the cross, let us marvel and be changed. Amen.

[1] Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (2nd ed., Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 290.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See, for example, Richard Ford, The Parables of Jesus and the Problems of the World (forthcoming).