Sexual Identity–Remembering and Holding to the Middle Way

Until this past week I had remained hopeful that that the United Methodist Church might be able to find the “Middle Way”–the way that allows “both/and” to be a part of who we are so that we could love one another as Jesus loved and be “one in the Spirit.”  I am now convinced that this is not possible when it comes to the issue of sexual identity.  Yes, I am now only going to discuss sexual identity to truthfully name and frame the issue before the United Methodist Church.

With God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit within us, let us realize that sexual identity is not a politically laden topic with only one “right” way of thinking.  With God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit within us, might it be possible for us to recognize that our own faith life experiences and religious doctrines along with the ways the media presents this mislabeled issue with visual and stereotypical images have contributed to people on both sides digging in their heels and refusing to budge because we are convinced that we are “the correct ones”–the ones who are holding up the “truth and orthodoxy” of the church?

I have long ago given up that I will ever convince or persuade anyone who does not agree with me on the issue of sexual identity.  God loves all people and God calls all people into ministry to make disciples of Christ to transform the world and sent Jesus the Christ to redeem and reconcile us to God.

If the “right/orthodox” ways of the culture and context of the Bible in the laws of the Old Testament and in some of the writings of Paul (along with those attributed to Paul) are upheld in the context and culture of the 21st century, then I would not be an ordained clergy woman in the United Methodist Church.  Let me also fully confess that I am in a second marriage of 25 years, and that would be an additional strike against my ordination as clergy.  I would also still be clinging to the “right/orthodox” heritage from my great-grandfather, who was the largest slave owner in Carroll County, Georgia, and justifying that once accepted life style as something to continue to replicate.  With God’s help I have managed to leave what many of my Southern Baptist Sunday school teachers and clergy, along with my parents and other relatives taught me about race, sexual identity and my place as a woman in this world and claimed my citizenship in God’s Kingdom.

I am certain that God’s grace in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus means sexual identity is not something that God would have the church of Christ spend so much time arguing and conducting trials of people who are called to ordained ministry.  Peter and Paul had their differences on food and circumcision, and they each continued in their calling and ministry to follow Jesus.  Can we as United Methodists agree that sexual identity is not an issue we can agree on or will we ever be able to give a definitive answer on this issue because it was never an issue that Jesus addressed?  There are a multitude of issues Jesus never addressed, and we manage to act on those and move on–polygamy, slavery and ordaining women–to name only a few issues.  Oh wait, the Methodist Episcopal Church did split over the issue of slavery; and it reunited later.

Where once I had hoped and prayed that this split of the United Methodist Church would never happen over sexual identity, I am now convinced that it will happen if we are ever going to move on and be able to be the church of Christ.  Maybe in the future we will unite again.  The truth is we are now and have been, since we allowed the issue of sexual identity to enter into our Book of Discipline, a divided church of Christ.  Paul knew clearly that a divided body cannot function healthfully, cannot thrive, and cannot be the body of Christ.

The United Methodist Church is a divided body over the issue of sexual identity.  The majority of our bishops are more interested in upholding doctrine and orthodoxy than they are interested in being united in Jesus the Christ.  Lord have mercy on us all.  May the grace of God and the redemption and reconciliation of Jesus the Christ overcome this travesty that we have created.

Image

Photograph I took of the Westerkurk, one the first built Protestant churches (1620-1630)–located close to the Achterhuis (now Anne Frank House) where diarist Anne Frank, her family and others hid from Nazi persecution for two years during World War II. The Westerkerk is mentioned frequently in her diary – its clock tower could be seen from the attic of the Achterhuis and Anne Frank described the chiming of the clock as a source of comfort. Rembrandt is also buried here.  I think it is an appropriate image for this blog post.

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“We never intended to hurt anyone”–Do No Harm

“Conference withdraws clergy age guidelines’ is an article from the United Methodist News Service, August 23, by Heather Hahn.  It was this past Monday when I first read it.  I shared it on my Facebook page, and several UM clergy who meet for a weekly breakfast discussed it this past Wednesday.  I wanted to take some time to compose my response to this article as I shared the original article when the Texas Annual (Regional) Conference first received a wider United Methodist public exposure for this proposal.  I  think it’s bad policy, bad theology, and I agree with Rev. Jeremy Smith,  who wrote in his blog “Hacking Christianity”  about this proposal–that he does not support it and , “That’s their right and purview to steward the church’s human resources. And they have proved that they are (grudgingly) responsive to concerns about ‘stacking the ordination deck’ against those whom God has placed a call on their hearts, regardless of age.”

“He also wrote that he does not envy the board’s task. However, he also noted his fear that the original proposal might prevail in practice even if not on paper.”

Yes, I share the same fear for the North Georgia Annual Conference because I know that it is already in practice.

Survey after survey of UM clergy confirms that trust among clergy is a severe problem–as trust among clergy at all levels is minimal.  Add in the overall poor physical and mental health (mostly brought on from bad if non-existent good health practices and stress) and you have the truth of what is really driving the desire for this policy. Whether it is a written policy or not, it’s being practiced because the reality is that unhealthy clergy (now being labeled as older clergy) cause a financial drag on the UM guaranteed appointed itinerant system.

“We never intended to hurt anyone,” the Rev. Carol Bruse, the chair of the conference’s board of ordained ministry, told United Methodist News Service.”  Rev. Bruse’s comment is where the “Do No Harm” comes from–one of our UM General Rules from John Wesley, and a comment made from one of my clergy brothers at our weekly breakfast.

As a Myers-Briggs certified consultant, I use Myers-Briggs personality type as one of the ways to help me discern people and situations.  In Myers-Briggs personality type language people make decisions as “Feelers” or “Thinkers.”  Feelers prefer to keep harmony, avoid conflict, and ensure that everybody is happy as a base for making decisions.  Thinkers prefer to rely on looking at available resources, and facts as a base for making decisions.  The best decisions in any organization are made when both Feelers and Thinkers work together to balance each other in decision-making so that as many options as possible are considered in making a decision.

Feelers (F’s) are the predominate personality preference who become clergy.  It’s the same reason that many UM congregations are not vital.

Do no harm requires that we face the reality that the “guaranteed appointment itinerant” system is failing because too many decisions are based on the preference of creating harmony and not hurting anyone.  I liken it to moving the chairs around on the deck of the Titanic.  We have a polity and system that is producing exactly what the leadership wants it to produce–and the harm and the hurt come from not being transparent and honest about the reality of ineffective clergy and an itinerant system that is itinerant for some clergy more so than others.  The real polity is underground and unwritten and has produced mistrust and dysfunction.

It will take prophets fueled by the Holy Spirit to reverse this course.  Meanwhile, the chairs keep getting moved around.  Can you say Vital Congregations?

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August 29, 2013 · 12:52 pm

Sinning Like a Christian: Sloth

The sermon series, Sinning Like a Christian, A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins, base on the book by the same title by Bishop Will Willimon continues at Starrsville UMC.  This past Sunday sloth, I so enjoy the sound of that word as I think it sounds like its meaning, was the sin of focus of the seven deadly sins.  I thought the Holy Spirit was at work with me as we crafted this sermon.  Maybe you will think so, too.

 

 

Ecclesiastes 1:1-9, Common English Bible

The words of the Teacher of the Assembly, David’s son, king in Jerusalem:

Perfectly pointless, says the Teacher, perfectly pointless.
    Everything is pointless.

Some things are inevitable

What do people gain from all the hard work
    that they work so hard at under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains as it always has.

The sun rises, the sun sets;
    it returns panting to the place where it dawns.
The wind blows to the south,
    goes around to the north;
    around and around blows the wind;
    the wind returns to its rounds again.
All streams flow to the sea,
    but the sea is never full;
    to the place where the rivers flow,
    there they continue to flow.
All words are tiring;
    no one is able to speak.
    The eye isn’t satisfied with seeing,
    neither is the ear filled up by hearing.
Whatever has happened—that’s what will happen again;
    whatever has occurred—that’s what will occur again.

There’s nothing new under the sun.

 

            We continue to take a new look at the seven deadly sins using Bishop Willimon’s book, Sinning Like a Christian.  Continuing to read this book and to examine my life, I also remain convinced that I am doing well at “sinning like a Christian.”  Pride, Envy, and Anger I clearly see in the ways I think and live.  I thought, that Sloth might finally be the one of the seven that really did not apply to me.

            Willimon and I, maybe some of you, too, are kindred spirits in the way he begins this chapter on Sloth:

Surely Sloth is one sin of which we pragmatic, hard-working, high achieving, Mother-I’d-rather-do-it-myself Americans are not guilty.  We are a purposeful, driven nation that resonated to Ben Franklin and his Poor Richard’s Almanac: ‘Early to bed, early to rise’ and all of that.’ (On the other hand, the phenomenal growth of stare-sponsored gambling suggest that there are many of us who expect to be given a life for nothing, betting on luck, rather than hard work, to get what we want.)…If we think about Sloth, which is probably less thought about than any other of the Seven, it is not considered by us as a sin against God.  Sloth is an offense against time, a sin against our potentiality, a sin against ourselves, a failure to get out there and grab what we deserve—in other words, our failure to become gods unto ourselves.

            God created me with a personality that has more energy and “gotta-get-it-done-now” drive than one person ought to have.  Goal oriented, results oriented and task oriented with ideas, vision and Plan A, B, C, D and on through the alphabet until it gets done—always working to get one more thing done—burning the candle at both ends is what my mother said to me often as she would caution me to slow down and take care of myself.  Multi-tasking? I was born multi-tasking.

            I, and maybe some of you too, find yourself in this category with me which Willimon says is where we may define sloth as:

an offense against time, a sin against our potentiality, a sin against ourselves, a failure to get out there and grab what we deserve—in other words, our failure to become gods unto ourselves.

            Unfortunately, this is not what the sin of sloth is about.  Sloth is not caring enough about God to wrestle mightily with Scripture and spiritual disciplines that would challenge us.  Sloth is the failure to put one’s shoulder to the task, that impatience that comes with following Christ—practicing the spiritual disciplines or the means of grace as John Wesley called the spiritual disciplines:  worship, Holy Communion, prayer, acts of mercy—loving and serving our neighbor—to name just a few of the spiritual practices.

            And this brings us to the only book of the Bible that fully addresses and describes the problem and quandary of the sin of sloth and acedia, Ecclesiastes.  Here we find the words that fully describe an attitude of spiritual apathy, and we heard this passage earlier:

Everything is pointless.

Some things are inevitable

What do people gain from all the hard work
    that they work so hard at under the sun?
and

Whatever has happened—that’s what will happen again;
    whatever has occurred—that’s what will occur again.

There’s nothing new under the sun.

Basically, why bother with practicing the spiritual disciplines, struggling with understanding the Bible, which by the way is contradictory and impossible to understand, praying ceaselessly, having faith in God when life can be so hard and unfair because good people suffer evil people prosper and do well, and people who claim to be Christian are just hypocrites?  These would be the 21st century words of Ecclesiastes. 

            Author Kathleen Norris would caution us to realize that our 21st century Christian ears and minds see the Christian religion define sin as a grocery list of dos and don’ts.  Whereas the desert fathers and monks, as Dominican Simon Tugwell writes, were not at all concerned that people should behave correctly according to the rules, but rather that people should be able to see their situation clearly for what it is, and to become free from the distorting perspective which underlies all our sins.

            The desert fathers believed that reading scripture and praying the psalms every day were inherently powerful—and a source of holiness with the capacity to transform their lives according to author and professor Douglas Burton-Christie in his book, The Word in the Desert.  Often, our 21st century intellect is insulted by the ancient and pagan ways of scripture that portray a culture and society that seems light years away from the current life we live with technology, science, and medicine.  Are we to give up our intellect in order to comprehend scripture?  The desert fathers and mothers and the ones who began the monastic life in monasteries and abbeys would tell us that we cannot only approach scripture or prayer or any of the spiritual disciplines with our intellect, if we desire to experience these spiritual practices as sacred and as a living force within us.

            Norris says:

Sometimes it is necessary to remind myself that I am not self-sufficient and never have been.  When my oldest niece was three years old, my brother would drive her to day care in the morning, and her mother, who worked as a stockbroker and financial planner, would pick her up in the afternoon.  She always brought an orange, peeled so that her daughter could eat it on the way home. One day the child was busying herself by playing, ‘Mommy’s office’ on the front porch of our house in Honolulu, and I asked her what her mother did at work.  Without hesitation, and with a conviction that I relish to this day, she looked up at me and said, ‘She makes oranges.’  My niece could wait without anxiety for this daily ritual, a liturgy of the delicious orange, bright as the sun, sweet with the juice that is the body and blood of this world.  The child thus fed learns to trust in others, and in God.  The fruit we are given is not always what we expect or want; it may even be bitter, but we are secure in knowing that it is given to us out of love.

            This ritual that Norris describes with her niece and her sister-in-law is the same kind of ritual we must develop in our relationship with God through the spiritual disciplines—practicing them every day.  Never growing weary, apathetic, sorrowful or becoming neglectful or slothful in pursuing praying without ceasing, struggling with reading scripture daily not because we can completely understand it or even accept what we read, and clothing, feeding and serving the homeless and the hopeless—the widow and the orphan—in all the ways God presents them to us.  Sloth keeps us from daily practicing the means of grace and spiritual disciplines that keep us in touch and in relationship with God who loves us and in that love gives us life with all its struggles, joys and things we cannot understand.  God presents us with a perfectly peeled orange every day, and we say, “No thank you, God, I don’t like oranges. I would prefer strawberries, apples, grapes, kiwi, grapefruit or whatever it is we think we know is best for us or our preference.”

            I subscribe to Netflix, and recently I have been watching West Wing from season one to season seven, 1999 to 2006 (I only have about five episodes left in season seven) the television series.  Do you remember the series?

            Aaron Sorkin, the series creator and executive producer for the first four seasons, produced an excellent story line and cast of characters that were real and faced with life, political and governing decisions that could cause anyone to run screaming into the night.  The show did not shy away from religious topics either. 

            In fact, in season six near the end of the season, President Jed Bartlett (a practicing Roman Catholic), actor Martin Sheen, now in the final months of his second term as a Democratic party president, is eating a variety of flavored ice creams out of ice cream buckets in the White House kitchen with the newly chosen Republican party presidential candidate, Senator Vinick (a non-practicing Roman Catholic), actor Alan Alda.  The two of them have just struck a deal on working together to get bills passed that will raise the national debt ceiling and increase the minimum wage, and they respect each other and have a working relationship—amazing isn’t it?—and because they reached the agreement quickly, Senator Vinick asked the president if they could spend more time together so it wouldn’t appear that he had “caved in to the president”—thus the trip to the back White House kitchen because the senator asked the president if he had any ice cream.  Senator Vinick tells the president he loves to eat coffee flavored ice cream.

            The media/press has been relentlessly questioning Senator Vinick about his lack of religious practice—mainly not attending church and mainly because his character supports abortion being legal in this country—an anomaly in the Republican party because we all know that all Republicans attend church and are against abortion being legal.  This series is very above board about implying that Democrats are liberal thinking and not religious except for President Bartett who is a practicing Roman Catholic and Republicans are all religious church attenders and against legal abortion except Senator Vinick. 

            These two men start talking about this issue of religion and church and the quandary that Senator Vinick is having with the press while eating ice cream, and Senator Vinick asks, “What happened to the separation of church and state in our government?”  To which President Bartlett replies, “There is no separation of church and state in politics.” 

            Senator Vinick then asks, “Do voters really need to know that I go to church?”  President Bartlett replies, “I think a candidate’s religion or how often he goes to church doesn’t matter.”  And then he presses Senator Vinick on the question about why he doesn’t go to church—as in, there was a time when you went to mass wasn’t there?  Yes, he says, I did.  What changed—what happened, the president asked?

            The senator says, “One Christmas many years ago my wife gave me a 17th century edition of the King James Version of the Bible.  I read it.  I read it literally—the more I read the less I could believe.  My priest friends told me that I should not read the Bible literally, and I did not listen to them.  I could not believe in a God who said the penalty for working on the Sabbath was death and that the penalty for adultery was death and that there was no penalty at all for slavery.  In fact, God was not against slavery.”

            President Bartlett says, smiling, “I’m a New Testament kind of guy myself.”

            The Senator says, “I struggled for a long time with that book.”

And then he asks the president, “You going to try to save my soul?”

            The President says, what happened?

            Senator Vinick says, “I finally just gave up the struggle.”

            President Bartlett then says, “The only thing I have the power to do in this job is to pray for the strength to get through the day.  You can try coffee flavored ice cream, but prayer works better for me.”

            And there you have it—one of the best explanations of sloth. 

The senator, along with many of us, “finally just gave up the struggle” because he could not believe in a God who, as we heard last Sunday when we focused on the sin of anger, would “bash the heads of children against the rocks.”  He gave up the struggle because he wanted to read the Bible literally, and that was too hard and not a believable God to his intellect.  So the senator was over come with acedia—an apathetic spiritual life. 

            God, perhaps through his wife, presented him with a gift of a Bible—ready to read and ready for him to engage in studying it with his priest friends and in the company of a community of faith—and the senator said, no thank you, I don’t like oranges.  God, if you are literally everything in this Bible, then count my intellect gone—I don’t want the orange.  I’m done—this is too hard to understand and my self-sufficient brain says it’s nonsense.  I’m done.

            Sloth?  Oh yes.  Sloth, I think, is alive and well in America and as sin against God it has, in my opinion, thoroughly infiltrated and taken over the religion of Christianity.  Overall, we are slothful when it comes to daily practicing the spiritual disciplines.  When these disciplines, perceived through our intellect only, show us a God that we cannot accept or explain, then we quit going to church, look for a church that gives us another description of God we can intellectually and literally accept, or we blame it on the preacher or the people in the church because they cannot explain God well enough and, if God is like those people—well, yes, I’m done, thank you very much. 

            Bible study and the daily spiritual practices are too much of a struggle.  It’s easier to walk away, give up, and quit the struggle to build a relationship with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  Sloth.  Yes, sloth is the sin that best describes the state of Christianity in America and in American lives today.  May God have mercy on us and teach us again to like oranges.  Amen.

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How old is too old to join the clergy? – UMC.org

United Methodist clergy and laity are reading this article How old is too old to join the clergy? – UMC.org., and they are responding.  The Texas Annual (regional) Conference has proposed changing its minimum standards for clergy to discourage people over 45 from becoming candidates for ordained ministry. 

Being an Emory University Candler School of Theology graduate and an second career ordained elder, I graduated from seminary when I was 45 and was ordained as a full-elder in 2006, I read this article with interest.  I paid attention to Dean Love’s (Dean of Candler School of Theology) comments and to Rev. Lovett Weems, Jr.’s comments about this proposed change to ordaining clergy in the Texas Annual (regional) Conference.  I believe their comments are well thought out and balanced, and I can hear both sides of this discussion and certainly the reasoning for strategically looking at the needs of the United Methodist Church from a tangible, rationale view of planning for the future.

My concern lies in living as Christians that requires us to live in the world and not separated from the world.  Using the power of the Holy Spirit for discernment and prayerful decision making causes us to constantly assess and examine the ways others see Christ in us–Christ alive in the world.  Age discrimination is not legal in the U.S.  Yet, it still happens every day in firing, hiring, laying people off, and offering early retirement options so that organizations can strategically change, grow and meet the needs of the people the organization serves or meet the demands of the organization’s customers who purchase its product or services.  The reality is that the organization or institution of the United Methodist Church operates this way, too.

Yet, the mystery of God’s ways not being our ways, causes me to wonder about the message we also are sending out to the nation and the world when we deliberately work to limit what God is doing in the lives of people God calls to ministry.  Call me uninformed or naive, and I still believe that the church of Jesus Christ–the living breathing body of Christ–the one I happen to participate in as ordained clergy–the United Methodist Church–ought not in any way formally, informally or subtly participate in discrimination of any kind.  The truth is, Lord have mercy, that we do participate in all kinds of wrong doing because we are sinful people.

I believe the truth behind this strategy–the motivation for this strategic planning option–is the issue of guaranteed appointments in the United Methodist Church.  This is just another way of approaching this issue and conundrum without having to label it for what it is really addressing.

The truth is that as an institution and as an organization and system, the UMC fails to adequately and properly assess, evaluate and examine clergy in order to discern that clergy are meeting and continuing to meet the requirements of being full-elders in the United Methodist Church.  Too often the leadership of the UMC, not just in Texas, refuses to confront issues and to transform conflict.

Perhaps I am uninformed and naive, and yet if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck–it’s  a duck.  May God have mercy on us as we continue to struggle to follow Christ in all of its messiness in the United Methodist Church.

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Marriage and Civil Unions: The “church” Needs to Confess and Examine…Christ Have Mercy

Perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court will help us out on this issue that the “church”–lower case “c” to mean the “universal church”–has completely and unequivocally turned into an unholy mess.  Let me explain the way I see it:

The early Christian church–the one we today now refer to as the Roman Catholic Church from which all brands and denominations, including none denominational churches trace their roots back to, once claimed marriage as a sacrament.  It was one of seven.  Theologians/priests/pundits/politicians and various others, I’m certain, decided that scripture mentions only two sacraments–acts that Jesus did and asked us, his followers, to remember and repeat–baptism and Holy Communion/the Lord’s Supper/Mass/the Eucharist just to cover the ground well for names for Communion.  Long ago the church gave over marriage to “the state” or government leaders to control and legislate, and so they have.

Marriage is a legal contract that requires a license and payment to the state/government with the signature of authorized clergy or a notary public, judge, or various other people that the state/government has the power to authorize as able to officiate a marriage.  As a United Methodist ordained full-elder, clergy, I cannot marry anyone without a marriage license to sign at the ceremony.  Without signing this license I am breaking the law, and I can lose my clergy credentials.

Covenant is the word used for marriage in the church–the universal church.  In the church we officiate over a marriage covenant for Christians who are entering that covenant among them and God, Christ and the Holy Spirit.  Here’s the confession and examine time:

How many clergy and congregations have held weddings inside or outside the church facility simply because the bride (usually) or the groom or their parents, grandparents or other influential or “loud” relatives insisted on a wedding in the church.  This insistence is not fueled by the daily practices of the bride and the groom being practicing Christians.  No, most often the wedding is held inside a church or on church simply because in name only, the bride and groom along with the influential or “loud” relatives consider themselves Christians and “spiritual but not religious” so they do not regularly if ever participate in a church/faith community.  Or, because the church building or grounds are a beautiful or nice atmosphere or setting for their wedding.  Please see Lillian Daniel’s latest book, Spiritual But Not Religious, for some of the best and snarkiest stories about this sad and sorry category or SBNR.

Clergy have gone along with this charade, including required pre-marital counseling, knowing full well that this couple along with most of their family will most likely never be seen again in the church once the “I do’s” have been said, the reception is over and the honeymoon has commenced.  Yet, some clergy and faith traditions/churches are so quick to quote scripture about marriage being set aside for a man and a woman.  I have participated in this charade so I’m calling myself out on this one, too.

Seriously?  We, the church, have not held up our end of marrying committed, practicing Christians–notice I am not saying perfect and holy Christians as I am fully acknowledging that we are all sinful people on our way and moving on to perfection with the help and power of the Holy Spirit within us–who have a thorough understanding of what a Godly, Christian marriage covenant includes.  No one learns this in a matter of a few pre-marital counseling sessions.  People learn this from participating actively in Bible study, mission and outreach, worship, prayer and living as a breathing part of a faith community–church.

Could we please beg forgiveness for the ways we have “mucked” this up, and then could we examine ourselves through asking God who knows us to search us with the holy light of divine wisdom to help us to have kind, loving and truthful conversations that address this issue realistically and from an informed viewpoint?

Creator and loving God, forgive us.  Christ have mercy on us for all the ways that we are so quick to quote scripture on so many serious life issues and refuse to have a thorough understanding of the scripture we quote and the holy life we are to live.  Help us, with the power of the Holy Spirt, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

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Palms and Shout Outs

Luke 19:28-40, Common English Bible

 After Jesus said this, he continued on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.  As Jesus came to Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he gave two disciples a task. He said, “Go into the village over there. When you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If someone asks, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say, ‘Its master needs it.’”Those who had been sent found it exactly as he had said.As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They replied, “Its master needs it.” They brought it to Jesus, threw their clothes on the colt, and lifted Jesus onto it. As Jesus rode along, they spread their clothes on the road.As Jesus approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole throng of his disciples began rejoicing. They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. They said, “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!” He answered, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.”

         Is it possible that in the church year it’s only been three months since we heard the announcement of the birth of Jesus by the angels in the heavens to the shepherds?  Remember their message?

“Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

And here we are today remembering the day when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem.  Instead of angels announcing his birth, a multitude of his disciples are now shouting:

“Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”

         Now on this day in Jesus’ life the earth, through God’s people, echo back to the heavens, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”

         It is a contrast, isn’t it?  From angels announcing peace on earth to God’s people announcing peace in heaven.

         Why do we need this contrast?  What’s the point?

         There were two kings arriving in Jerusalem that day.  One was the Roman king, Herod.  Pomp and circumstance and a red carpet with soldiers to ensure that peace would be kept.  If anyone dared to lead a revolt against the Roman Empire, it would be squashed and the rebels would be killed.  Peace in the Roman Empire was a necessity.  The Empire could not allow that peace to be overcome.  This peace is a peace that comes about because of force and power of an earthly king who requires that people, because they are afraid of death and know that this king, his government and his soldiers can take their lives at any moment.  All that’s required is his order.

         Jesus, the other king who is arriving in Jerusalem on this same day, has arrived and given orders to his followers, too.  His orders are also clear, and his followers—those who see him as their king—are going to do what he tells them to do.  There are no soldiers; there is no pomp and circumstance, red carpet for him.  Instead, people take off their clothes on the road to be his red carpet.  For most of these followers, their clothes—their cloaks—their outer garments that protected them from the weather—were the most expensive thing they owned.  They were willing to use their garments so the one they recognized as their king, the Messiah, the one sent from God to save them from the evil Roman Empire had arrived.  Jesus’ followers were celebrating that the one who had healed so many, the one who treated them like they were really God’s people, the one who loved them unconditionally, and the one who taught them as none of the Pharisees and Rabbis had ever taught them was finally arriving in Jerusalem and would set the world right.  There could be an army forming to support him.  Was there?  They were hoping so.

         That’s why the other king was there.  He was there to ensure that if there were an uprising with this man, this Jesus, it would be stopped immediately.  The Pharisees knew this—at least the ones we hear from in this passage.  They are fearful that King Herod is not going to wait to see what happens next.  They are fearful that the soldiers will be turned loose and they, too, could die.

         Peace…peace…peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens?  Maybe so, because it certainly isn’t looking too peaceful on earth right now.

         Which crowd would you be with?  Would you be with those watching King Herod arrive in Jerusalem—being a good and dutiful Roman citizen pretending, because you really are one of God’s people, to worship the Roman king—because you don’t want to lose your life and have your family suffer?

         Or would you be with the crowd watching Jesus arrive hoping that he was going to wage war on Rome with soldiers waiting behind the scenes because you’re ready to see that fight.  You’re ready for God’s peace to reign on earth, and if it takes violence from Jesus and his soldiers—you’re in because it will put an end to the terror and power of Rome. 

         That is the contrast for this day.  Jesus’ disciples, this multitude of disciples welcoming him into Jerusalem, did not believe that he would soon be on a Roman cross dying.

         Which crowd would you be in on this day?  What kind of peace would you be hungry for and desiring so badly?  The peace of the Roman king that allowed you to live and breathe as long as you compromised who you professed to be in the world? Or the peace of Jesus—the peace that you assumed was about to take place because Jesus was going to put an end to all the compromising.  You would now be able to quit pretending to be something you’re not just so you could live and breath and have peace provided by Rome.  Jesus was about to bring in his kingdom—God’s kingdom on earth—the old days of normal would return.  God’s people would again have their own king who would lead them as Moses had led them.  Slavery to this empire would end.  God’s reign was coming.  Jesus was bringing it.

         This is the peace on earth that this crowd was expecting.  Which crowd are you in today as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem?  Which crowd will you be in as Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ life, unfolds?  What is the price of peace on earth?  Let us leave today wondering which crowd, which king would we support.  Let us leave here today knowing that on Palm Sunday, the story was yet to be finished; and peace in heaven seems much more likely than peace on earth. 

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Being Anointed While Being Surrounded by Accusation and Plotting

This is my sermon text from Sunday, March 17:

John 12:1-11, The Common English Bible

Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.) Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.” Many Jews learned that he was there. They came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. The chief priests decided that they would kill Lazarus too. It was because of Lazarus that many of the Jews had deserted them and come to believe in Jesus.

 

         This scripture passage is loaded with so many characters, actions and drama.  It is the perfect portrayal of being a disciple of Christ full of double meanings along with a requirement that we today recall other characters that John’s gospel has introduced to us.

         Recall that last Sunday we heard about the many ways that we are like the elder brother in Jesus’ story about the prodigal or lost son.  In case we didn’t really hear some of what Jesus was teaching with that hard to hear story about celebrating with a party when a lost soul returns home, John’s gospel gives us this reality show scene of Jesus with friends, disciples, neighbors and the threat of the religious police taking in everything that’s happening.

         Jesus is about to have dinner in Bethany with Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary.  Easy enough to understand.  Lazarus—the one he raised from the dead.  That’s our first clue, isn’t it?  This is no ordinary dinner with friends and disciples.  How often have you had dinner with someone who had been pronounced dead, and then, due to the guest of honor at the dinner, came back to life and is there to eat and drink with everyone at the table?  We can’t just breeze through this description of who’s present in the house, can we?  No wonder many Jews were there.  Wouldn’t you show up to see the one who brought Lazarus back to life?  Wouldn’t you wonder what was going to happen next—what would the religious leaders do about someone who was stealing their thunder and making them look really badly?  Reality programing at it’s best is playing out right before our eyes, and it’s about to get better.

         Martha, a disciple/follower of Jesus, Mary’s and Lazarus’ sister is again hard at work serving the meal—slaving away in the kitchen all day so that a meal could be prepared for Jesus, Mary, Lazarus and all the disciples present—including Judas.  I hear echoes of the elder son’s words to his father as I imagine Martha doing what she’s always done so well and here’s her sister Mary at it again.  The last time we saw them at a meal with Jesus, Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet hanging on his every word while Martha again, prepared and served a meal.  Martha’s discipleship is about serving others.

         Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet—that’s what disciples do with their beloved teacher—sit at their feet and listen and learn from them, has now become even more outlandish and stepped out of the prescribed role.  She has brought a ridiculous amount of expensive perfume, poured it over Jesus’ feet, and is now soaking up the excess of the perfume using her hair like a towel.  My father might make the comment, as he had done when I had too much perfume on—it smells like a French whorehouse.  To which Jesus would not even have blinked.  Mary’s discipleship is an act of adoration and gratitude to God’s holy one, and she has complete focus on this reality of who Jesus is and why he is in need of being anointed even in the midst of all that is happening around her.

         It gets even better as the scene unfolds.  Judas, also a disciple, speaks up to complain about the cost of this perfume and is thinking of how much of that money he could have gotten his hands on if rather than making such a wasteful display by pouring money out of bottle on Jesus’ feet, Mary had just given him the perfume and he could have sold it for cash.  Of course, like all good disciples, Judas covers his real motives by complaining loudly and in an accusatory tone, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” Judas’ discipleship is about God’s making righteous or the justifying of those who have rejected and betrayed Jesus.  Nowhere in scripture do we ever see Judas condemned or separated from Jesus’ love—John’s gospel tells us clearly that Jesus loved them, all the disciples, to the end.  We can’t forget that Peter also betrayed Jesus, and he was not rejected either.  Jesus commanded him to “feed his sheep” just as he commanded Judas to do what he had to do—betray him.  Jesus knew his disciples well, just as he knows us well today.

         As an aside here, it’s important to address Jesus’ response to Judas, “…You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.” Jesus knew his scripture, and like all A+ students of Jewish scripture, Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 15:11:

Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.

It’s accurate to say that Jesus and all the disciples present, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Judas and the others not named along with the religious authorities knew this scripture passage, too, from memory.  Jesus just abbreviated it here—most likely to make sure that he was not ignorant of Judas’ stealing and of his true motive for complaining about what Mary had done with the perfume.  Like all excellent teachers, Jesus really was reminding the dinner crowd of God’s command about the poor.  It reminds us today to examine ourselves:  Do we open our hand generously to our fellow Christians, to the needy among us and to the needy non-Christians—strangers we see everyday? And now we are getting to the heart of it.

         Some disciples, like Mary, are able to understand and realize who Jesus is—God’s son, the Messiah, who comes to take away the sin of the world—and her gratitude for this sacrifice of his life for her and for all of us is overwhelming gratitude and to give generously of all that she has.  She spares nothing.  There is no hint of scarcity and no hint of holding back any part of what she has to give to Jesus, her Lord and the giver of grace to all people no matter who they are and no matter their motives.  Just as the perfume is an extravagant gift she offers without counting the cost, Jesus is God’s extravagant gift to all God’s people—even those who betray him.

         It’s a reality show for sure, this setting and scene.  For me it is the perfect portrayal of people who are working to become disciples of Christ.  Disciples include all kinds of people with all kinds of accusations, motives, agendas, power plays, plots, deceptions, and betrayals.  Sinners—imperfect people in an imperfect world—surrounded Jesus, and he loved them to the end.  I believe he expects us to do the same.

         In John’s gospel we don’t see Jesus with the disciples at the Last Supper.  Instead we see Jesus doing exactly what Mary did for him—serving them by washing their feet and drying them with a towel—taking on the role of a servant.  He doesn’t tell them to eat bread and drink from the cup in remembrance of him.  Instead he commands them to become servants of one another and he reminds them that he is choosing to give up his life for them and for us—those disciples yet to come.  Jesus’ last words include telling those he loves that to willingly give up your life for your friends is the ultimate sacrifice.

         I think this entire dinner occasion is a study of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.  It is full of opportunities to see that people who complain about Christian hypocrisy are actually sharing common ground with Jesus.  Jesus recognized the hypocrisy of Judas, and he loved him to the end.  Jesus recognized the extravagance of Mary’s gift of perfume, and yet he understood it as a gift from Mary for his coming death.  He also knew that his death was going to be a result of the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders who could not allow their power and control to be taken away by anyone—especially not someone who broke the religious laws and had people following him and listening to him—sitting at his feet in adoration even.

         Perhaps in addition to the overwhelming aroma of expensive perfume is the aroma of those who will betray Jesus—not only Judas but also Peter along with all the other disciples who will be hiding after Jesus’ death because they are afraid that the Jewish religious authorities will send the Roman soldiers after them next.  Perhaps because of the overwhelming aroma of the expensive perfume Jesus nor anyone else present can barely smell the stench of hypocrisy and betrayal in the room.  And Jesus loves them to the end without any condemnation.

         Yes, remember, Jesus is about to become the extravagant gift of our salvation—to take away the sin of the world—to make us right with God and to fulfill God’s promise and covenant with God’s people—all God’s people.  Jesus is about to become the extravagant aroma of being an offering for God—willingly laying down his life for his friends and for the world.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.  Because of God’s choice to become flesh and live among us, we now, in all of our hypocrisy and betrayal of Jesus are the aroma of Christ to God.  We become this aroma by loving and serving people who may betray us just like Judas and Peter.  We become this aroma by acknowledging that we have received the extravagant gift of Christ’s love for this world.

Jesus makes it clear that his path will lead him to Jerusalem where he will die, and he will be raised from death just like he raised Lazarus.  With the difference being that Jesus will now live eternally—never to die again.  Lazarus will die again, and he, too, will have the gift of eternal life along with his sisters along with us.  It is an extravagant gift in the midst of sin and betrayal and Jesus loved them all to the end.  Jesus loves us to the end—extravagantly—never counting the cost.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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