Friday, March 26, 2010

Cornerstone (Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29)

That phrase in Psalm 118, "The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone," was probably applied to Jesus pretty early on in Christian thought. As the first Christians began to search what we call the Old Testament to learn about Jesus, they saw many things that resonated with their experience and understanding of him.

There were the "suffering servant" passages of Isaiah. There were the lament Psalms, some lines of which Jesus himself said when he was on the cross. And there was this image of the cornerstone, rejected by the religious leadership and establishment, but used by God to build the community of faith. Jesus uses the image himself, and Peter will say it again when he confronts the Sanhedrin in Acts 4.

We know that a cornerstone is an important part of a building. Modern buildings may have one that is inscribed with the date they were built, as well as people involved in the construction or planning. In the ancient world, a cornerstone served as one of the guides in making a solid, safe structure. It needed to have properly angled faces so that the walls that were built off of it would also be at the correct angles. If the building was large, even a small deviation from a squared corner would become a serious problem as the construction extended. If it wasn't level, then the corner supports of the building wouldn't hold as much weight and would be more at risk during storms.

Measuring and preparing these kinds of stones was obviously a lot more work than it would be today. No powered grinders or saws-alls. No laser levels or precise measuring tools. All of it would be done by hand and sighted with the human eye. So many times potential cornerstones were rejected before construction began. Had they been used, some kind of building might have been built, but it wouldn't be the one the builder had in mind or the owner had paid for. It wouldn't be a safe, sturdy home, for example, but an improperly angled and potentially dangerous one.

This is the thought behind saying that the leaders of the time rejected Jesus the way a builder rejected a flawed cornerstone. Jesus, with his teachings, healings and such, would definitely have created a messianic movement among the people. But it wouldn't have been the kind of messianic movement that they wanted. He spoke of loving your enemies and praying for people who persecuted you. He talked about forgiveness and seemed to be more interested in welcoming outcasts than in casting out the unwelcome, like those stinkin' Romans.

The shouts that greeted him when he entered Jerusalem had been given before -- they had welcomed a man named Judah Maccabee when he overthrew Judea's Seleucid rulers not quite 200 years earlier. The Seleucids were the leftovers of Alexander the Great's empire who ruled at the time, and Judah was the first main leader of a revolt that would eventually throw them out of Jerusalem, Jericho and several surrounding cities. In Hebrew, his name was Yehudah HaMakabi, or "Judah the Hammer," which is a pretty darn cool name if you're a revolutionary leader. He started out as a guerilla leader, moving against people who collaborated with the Seleucids until he could win popular support for the revolt. In 164 BC, he booted the Greeks out of Jerusalem and restored Temple sacrifices.

See? That's the kind of Messiah we need, the people believed. We need someone who'll walk up to Pilate and say, "Hey! Toga Boy! I'm here to kick some tail and chew some bubble gum, and I'm all out of bubble gum, so why don't you and the rest of your miniskirt mob make like a laurel and leave!" We need someone who can get us our country back!

Perhaps that's what they thought they'd get when they welcomed Jesus with shouts of "Hosanna!" Perhaps that's the kind of Son of David they believed was among them. But when the days went by and he did nothing -- he took up no arms, he called for no revolts, he summoned no hidden armies -- their support drained away, until on Friday they would become the mob calling for his death.

But God had in mind a different kind of salvation, one that didn't depend on political leaders or fallible human abilities. God saw a much deeper human need, one that was shared not only by his chosen people, but by the Romans who ruled them and the Gentiles who lived alongside them. The earthly power the people wanted to see wielded for defense and for vengeance could not do what God knew really needed doing. Only the obedience of Christ, only his willingness to offer himself out of love for us, could address the real problem: The human weakness and human sin that separated us from the God who created us.

When we wave our palms today, we do so knowing that the king we hail is exactly that: The king of all kings and lord of lords. We see what they overlooked when they welcomed Jesus that day in Jerusalem, because his sacrifice and resurrection showed it to us. We see that with this cornerstone, rejected by others but preferred by God, a new heaven and a new earth will be made, true to the design of their Maker, and those who dwell there will know that they are truly home, and can remain there for all eternity.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Holy Economics! (John 12:1-8) [Repost]

Another trip through the lectionary has brought us where we have been before, and this week's sermon works with essentially the same issues as did this version, from 2007.

When I was younger and I heard this story, I always heard the perfume described as “a pound of pure nard.” Well, I had no idea what nard was, but it rhymed with “lard,” so I had a vision of Mary spreading a pound of lard on Jesus’ feet. After which, all the dogs in Bethany followed him around for the next several days.

Makes a lot more sense to talk about a pint of perfume, anyway. We might wonder how good a perfume could smell if it comes in pints, but remember that in these times, there weren’t many perfumes. Even the kind of eau d’cheapo that comes in pint bottles would have smelled good to them.

Except, it seems, to Judas. He asks why this extravagant gift wasn’t made to the poor, instead of only to Jesus. John tells us he was probably asking because he figured to take a cut of the sale before distributing the money to the poor. Charity begins at home, of course. But we know that because John tells us – none of the other people present besides Jesus would have known the reason behind Judas’ question, and some of them might have thought it was pretty reasonable.

So Jesus responds to the question. Lay off Mary; she’s done a very wonderful thing. She kept this gift to give to me to symbolize something about me, to anoint me for my burial.

Many Christians throughout history have mistaken some of Jesus’ meaning here. Judas’ question seems to suggest that there’s some kind of conflict between a gift like Mary’s and giving to the poor. And according to his question, the conflict should be resolved in favor of the poor.

When Jesus answers him, it seems like he’s coming down on the other side. The poor you will always have with you, he says, but you won’t always have me. Many Christians use this verse to justify massive spending on elaborate church facilities or lavish lifestyles for their pastors. They’re giving their best to God, by giving to make his house or his representative flashier than other buildings or other people.

This seems like a weird idea in the mouth of Jesus. We wonder why he would say it, when most everything else he says talks about the need to help the poor.

The conflict resolves when we understand that the sentence about the poor always being with us is actually a quote from Deuteronomy 15:11. The poor will always be with you, God tells the Israelites, so I command you to help them in their need. Offering gifts to God doesn’t conflict with helping the poor, Jesus says to his listeners. They complement each other.

Now that makes sense to me, especially in our modern world. Although many of us may not be rich according to our standards, by the standards of most of the rest of the world, most of us are very, very well off. Something as simple as clean drinking water puts as ahead of many, many people.

And it’s not hard to give enough to help people in need when you have an abundance. Remember the rich folks showering money into the temple treasury when the poor widow gave her last two small coins. Despite their questionable motives, their lavish giving fed more people than the widow did.

But if we think we’ve given enough when we’ve given to help the poor, Jesus wants us to remember Mary. She gave her best, not just enough to help someone get by. We remember the widow, who gave everything, not just a little bit.

When I think about this, it makes more sense to me than it does at first. When we give to those in need, we’re obeying one of the greatest commandments. We’re showing love to our neighbors in need, which we know we’re supposed to do. Of course, there are two commandments to look at, though. The other one – the first one – is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

If we simply give only to show our love of our neighbors, we forget why we, as Christians, care about those people to begin with. They’re God’s children, like we are, and God cares for them just as much as he cares for us.

But if we give only to show our love of God, we neglect his children entirely. We have to be ready to give to folks in need, and we have to be ready to give our best to God. Doing both helps us honor God as well as show what we call Christian compassion towards those in need.

Doing anything else leaves us one commandment short.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Prodigiously Prodigal (Like 15:1-3; 11-32)

(A repeat of a sermon preached at about this time three years ago, so here's the repost)

Everybody knows why this guy is the prodigal son, right? Because he ran away, of course, since that’s what “prodigal” means.

But did you know that “prodigal” was originally a word that described his spending habits, rather than his travel habits? It’s related to the word “prodigious,” which means large or big. Originally, if I were giving something away lavishly, in large amounts or without any thought of running out, then I would be labeled “prodigal.” Sometimes we still use the word that way today.

When we look at our story with that meaning in our minds, something interesting happens to it. Junior is no longer our only prodigal – now his father becomes one as well.

Junior, of course, spends his money on “riotous living.” I imagine you have to spend both prodigally and prodigiously in order to qualify your standard of living as “riotous,” and I can’t imagine it pays well. Which is why he runs out of money. But look at the father now.

He gives his son a pretty substantial gift – if he only has two sons, then accord-ing to the inheritance laws of the time, the younger one is entitled to one-third of the estate on his death. A third is a pretty good chunk of the family business, especially if it’s all converted into cash, which is what Junior wants done.

Seems pretty wasteful to me, as well. Junior doesn’t want the money to start his own business, or buy land or travel to Rome or Athens to study with the great philosophers. Nope, he takes his check and heads for Vegas to get the party started. That might be a good idea if you’ve got six months to live, but here not so much.

It’s hard to believe that Dad didn’t know what kind of son he’d raised, and didn’t know what he’d do with a lot of money on his hands. And considering that Junior has just told him that he’d rather have the money than a father, the message is pretty clear: Giving this boy money is a Bad Idea. Wasteful, you might say, or “prodigal.”

I had an interesting conversation once with a man who insisted the father in the story wasn’t prodigal, because the father was supposed to represent God. Since God is flawless and prodigality is a flaw, the father couldn’t be prodigal! Actually, he had a series of long monologues which were broken up by someone trying to get a word in edgewise. So I’ll give my ideas here and win the argument, 12 years later.

Like I mentioned, I’m pretty much sold on the idea that the father is prodigal with his money. He gives extravagantly, and in light of what happens, he gives wastefully.

Does that mean he can’t represent God? Yes, if you insist that being prodigal is a flaw.

Most times, of course, it is. If I spend prodigally, like Junior does, then I run out of money. Using any resource without thinking about the future can cause shortages. Farmers ration their irrigation water, marathon runners ration their pace, etc., in order to make sure they have enough to finish what they started. But how about those resources we don't worry about running out of?

We don’t caution each other, “Don’t breathe so much. You’re wasting air.” Except maybe in Los Angeles, where good air sometimes is harder to find. Generally, when we’re not worried about running out of something, we don’t mind using a whole lot of it.

See the father’s prodigality now? He gives to his son like there’s no tomorrow. Not money – if he cared about that, he would have sent Junior packing and told him, “Wait till I’m really dead instead of just wishing I was.” No, he gives his love like he has some kind of endless supply of it, like he’s got so much he doesn’t even consider whether or not Junior’s really reformed or if he just got tired of being poor.

Does that sound like God? Yeah, I think it does. Among God’s infinities is surely his endless love, and he has shown us over and over again that he will give everything in order to win us with that love. Jesus first sacrificed to enter this world as one of us and then sacrificed even that in order to heal our broken relationship with God. If no one had listened to Mary Magdalene on Easter morning and she was the only one who believed, he would have given himself. If everyone turns away from God but you, he would have given himself.

And if you were to then turn away, but somehow come to yourself and realize you wanted to come back, you’d find him running towards you, wanting to welcome you home and shouting the good news of your return to any who would listen.