Sunday, March 31, 2013

Not Any More (Luke 24:1-2)

Note: This message is similar to one preached on a previous Easter using a passage from Isaiah. The text has been altered to correct the scene from A Shot in the Dark and to reflect the different scripture text. The original sermon may be found here.

One set of movies that will get my family parked in front of the television is the old Pink Panther series with Peter Sellers.

Sellers plays Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the French Sûreté, or national police. He is a bumbling idiot, and the slapstick stunts of the movies made us kids laugh while our parents chuckled over the more adult-level humor of some of the situations and dialogue. In a climactic scene in one of the movies, Clouseau has gathered all of the suspects in the "mer-der," as he calls it, in a room in the house while he spins his theory of the crime, just like in an Agatha Christie book.

At some point, he manages to get his hand stuck in the gauntlet of a suit of armor. He can't get it off, so he continues to lay out how the "mer-der" was committed, while it's still on his hand. A fly buzzes around the room, and lands on a piano. Clouseau forgets he has the gauntlet on and slams his hand down on the fly, destroying the piano.

"My God, man," the house's owner says. "That's a priceless Steinway!"

Clouseau looks at the ruined piano briefly, then turns to the owner. "Not any merre," he says.

How does this connect to Easter? What does it say for us, who call ourselves "Easter people?" After all, we celebrate a risen Lord and we say that the event which changed everything has already happened!

Sometimes that celebration can make people think we don't concern ourselves with what goes on in the world around us. And we can all probably think of well-meaning Christian folks who are "too heavenly-minded to be any earthly good." But in reality, Jesus Christ is God's way of dealing with the real world. God created the world and called it good, but he knows better than any of us how much the way the world we see is not how things are supposed to be. Rather than wipe it out and start over, he enters it in the form of Jesus -- the Word made flesh. And then he calls us, his followers, to reach out to help him re-make the world and to push back against the things in it that are wrong.

We do, but we find out reach limited. We're just individuals, after all. So we combine, and we find our reach extends -- even more than we might have imagined. As the gathered body of Christ, we find our impact is real and can actually bring about major change in the world.

The abolitionist movement in the 19th century was led by Christian, especially in England. In our nation, the problem of slavery was tied into several other issues and that brought us to war. But the English Parliament simply outlawed it. William Wilberforce, one of the leaders of that movement, was influenced by his faith.

In our own nation, the original leaders of the civil rights movment of the 1950s and early 1960s were church people. Martin Luther King, Jr., was first of all the pastor of the Ebenezer Street Baptist Church, and he came to prominence as the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Many of the people who went to the South to help the movment came from the churches and synagogues of northern cities. No one could say that our nation has healed all of its racial issues, but anybody who tried to install separate water fountains for different races today would find himself a heap of trouble, and not just from law enforcement.

And even Jesus, when he came into this world, managed to change only a very small number of things. Yes, he healed people, and yes he taught them how to live in ways that would help them and benefit the weakest among them. Yes, he offered a new way of looking at people that focused on love of God and of others instead of love of only self. Among the people who followed him, there probably were some changed lives for the better.

But it was such a short time and he reached so few people in his little corner of the Roman Empire. Pilate had no idea who he was and it's a sure bet Cæsar never heard of him. Plus, whatever he managed, there was one thing he couldn't conquer: Death. No matter how much else he might have accomplished, he could be and was stilled by the force at the disposal of those who opposed him.

And we, Easter people, face the same reality. Even if we follow to the letter every teaching of Jesus and even if we were to somehow convince all people to do the same, we would still have to deal with the reality of death. Of the end of life and of the separation it brings.

We can push death back some. Modern medicine gives us the possibility of a length of days reached by only a tiny few in earlier times. We could give up french fries and live longer -- of course, who'd want to, but we could do it. But we can't eliminate it. Death comes to us all.

If you want to put faces on the forces of oppression, and sickness, and misery and sadness and hate and anger and all of the things Jesus came here to oppose, you might imagine them gathered round on that Saturday, mocking the people who gave their lives over to following the Galilean preacher.

"Yeah, you guys did real good. Healed people and taught them to love one another and help each other out. Pushed us way back, away from your lives so that you might even forget we were around. For awhile, anyway.

"Because we were just hanging back, playing with you. We had the big gun waiting, old death himself. Couldn't push him away, could you? Kick oppression to the curb, show sorrow the door, give anger and hate their walking papers, sure. But you still dance with Mr. D. And that takes care of all your good work. Death's on our side, and death has the final say."

And then Easter morning dawns and says, "Not any more."

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Palm Sunday (Luke 19:28-40)

For once the Pharisees have a legitimate concern. If the Romans take notice of these kinds of goings-on, then things could get ugly.

In general, Romans had a couple of ways to deal with insurrections or potential insurections: Kill everyone before trouble started, or kill everyone after trouble started. Since the Judeans had been problems since nearly day one, what with their crazy idea of just one god and refusal to accept the divinity of the Roman Emperor, then the chances were pretty good that they would go for plan A. Which is what the Pharisees were worried about (as it turns out, they actually went for plan B during the uprising in AD 70, destroying Jerusalem and wiping out their problem once and for all).

While the Roman governor generally looked the other way on most things as long as tax collections kept up, a mob proclaiming someone as king was not on that list. So the Pharisees' warning was probably sincere and represented a real danger. "Rabbi!" they called. "Ix-nay on the osanna-hay! Omans-ray!" This was ineffective, not the least because speaking pig Latin is probably not a way to keep Romans from understanding you.

But the real reason was what Jesus told them. If the crowd quieted, the stones themselves would cry out. See, this was not just a crowd acclaiming a leader or proclaiming some kind of earthly ruler. The people were responding to the very presence of God in the person of Jesus. The only possible response was praise. The hosannas and palms and cheering all came about as a kind of spontaneous combustion, and Jesus tells the Pharisees that if the people don't respond then the stones of the road will.

Now, should that have happened and the stones began singing the praise of the Lord of creation, then what would have happened after Jesus had ridden past? What would the stones have done then? Probably stayed stones; Jesus doesn't seem to be suggesting that they would become his followers. The ideal way creation responds to its creator is through the praise from that part of creation made in the creator's image. If that part doesn't do its job, well, then other parts can pick up some of the slack but not all of it.

I see this as instructive for us as the church today. We have any number of complaints with various social structures and the way they handle some of their tasks, and we have them regardless of which side of the political divide we fall. We may say that social workers, many of whom are dedicated people trying to help folks in need, aren't getting everything done that they should be doing. Those same social workers, staring at overwhelming case loads and problems their system was never designed to handle, might agree.

Well, what should we expect? Governmental agencies are stones shouting praise -- they can do it when the ones who are supposed to be helping don't measure up, but they'll never do it from the same place Jesus' followers could. Agencies and bureaus and departments help people in need because they're in need. Christians help people in need because they're people, children of God just like us.

Jesus offered himself on the cross for you and for me, for everyone, so that we might have the relationship with God we were designed to have and desire. But having reconciled us, he then called us to service with him. Helping the poor and hungry, aiding the sick -- all of this -- it's our job, church. 

And it's time we stopped leaving it to the rocks.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Common Scents (John 12:1-8)

As I've mentioned elsewhere, when I was a kid I had no idea what "nard" was, but since it rhymed with "lard" I always pictured it as having a Crisco-like texture. Of course, it doesn't. Like perfume today, it was probably a kind of oil. Even though we might see perfume by the pound as not so much of a bargain, we need to remember that any kind of scent other than sweat was probably kind of welcome in these times. So even cheap perfume was better than whatever else we might be smelling.

Sometimes people have wondered if Mary understood her action as an anointing for burial. Jesus saw it that way, but did she? Did she know he was going to die soon?

Well, perhaps. We know that the disciples themselves knew that the religious leaders were ready to kill Jesus if they could manage it quietly, so I'm sure others would know the danger he faced. And Mary may have seen that Jesus did not deviate from his path, which was leading him to a direct confrontation with those leaders. So she might have been very concerned and feared that he might be killed. If so, her gesture shows her loyalty. She will follow and serve Jesus, even in the face of danger. Even if he dies, she will serve him by anointing his body for burial.

This event is truly fascinating, especially given its context in the gospel of John. After all, John is the gospel that describes how Jesus washes the feet of the disciples, even though as their teacher and lord he should have been the one being served instead of serving. When we read that story, we may miss that no one washes Jesus' feet, even after he explains to the disciples the importance of what we now call servant leadership.

Or you could say that Jesus' feet had been washed a few days earlier in Bethany.

Mary pours enough perfume on Jesus' feet to send the scent throughout the house, and the apparent waste seems to perturb Judas. He asks why it wasn't sold so the money could be given to the poor, and although we know that he was really interested in increasing his profit-skimming, nobody else does. Given Jesus' concern for the poor, the question seems reasonable. Is not the use of a whole pound of perfume a profound waste?

No, Jesus says. Mary has done a marvelous thing, anointing my body for burial. You'll always have the poor, but you won't always have me. We can (and have) read that wrong. Jesus does not ask us to ignore the poor, because his words are actually a quote from Deuteronomy 15:11 that tell us since we always have the poor around us, we are always to help them. But after we give to the ones in need in order to help them out, have we given all we should? If we follow Mary's action here, I would guess not. Once we help the poor, we may yet have more to give, even our best.

In that time ordinary courtesy meant washing the feet of a guest or assigning a servant to do so. But for Jesus, no ordinary courtesy could be enough.

He had restored life to her brother Lazarus. What gesture could possibly be adequate thanks? None, but she would make sure that any thanks she showed at least hinted at the depths of her gratitude. The Teacher's feet would be washed, yes, but not with water and a towel. She would bathe them with rich perfume and dry them with her own hair. Nothing common for the Lord.

So what do we do in thanksgiving, we who know that not only the lives of our loved ones but even our very own lives have been redeemed and restored by our Savior? Will we make common gestures of thanks or will we too be extravagant? No gesture can be adequate, but will ours hint at our gratitude? Or hide it?