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Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Stones Would Shout

Luke 19:28-40

In 1968, the London Sunday Times announced their sponsorship of a solo, non-stop, round the world sailing race, for which there would be two prizes: The Golden Globe trophy for the first to finish, and a £ 5000 prize for the fastest finisher. Nine sailors began the race; only one, Robin Knox-Johnson, finished. One boat sank, one sailor committed suicide, and five retired without finishing. Of those five, the most interesting was the French sailor Bernard Moitessier, whose book about the race, The Long Way, is a classic tale of both seamanship and mystical spirituality. Moitessier was probably leading the race when, after crossing his path off the coast of Africa, instead of turning north to finish the race where it began in England, he kept on sailing half-way around the world again to finally end in Tahiti.

During his first lap around the world, Moitessier was off the southern coast of New Zealand shortly after Christmas. He had set his self-steering gear, which kept the boat at a constant angle to the prevailing westerly wind. He needed to keep clear of Stewart Island, which is the southernmost island of New Zealand. As night was falling, Moitessier was below in the cabin when he heard the squeals of porpoises alongside the boat. Going topside, Moitessier was surrounded by perhaps a hundred porposies. To his astonishment, twenty-five or so porpoises would swim on the right side of the boat, surfacing three times to breathe, and then would all make a right-angle turn at the same time and swim away from the boat. They would be replaced by another group of porpoises, who would do exactly the same thing. Again, and again. Moitessier, in all his years of sailing, had never seen such a thing. Something began to gnaw at Moitessier’s mind, so he checked his compass heading. While he had been below, the wind had shifted to the south, and his boat was headed, in the dark, straight for Stewart Island. He would have wrecked his boat, in the middle of the night, on the shoals.

Moitessier immediately corrected his course and headed away from the island. As he did so, the porpoises resumed swimming alongside the boat, now without their turns to the right. As he watched, one large black and white porpoise leaped ten or more feet into the air and turned a double somersault before landing back in the water. Moistessier wrote: Three times he does his double roll, bursting with a tremendous joy, as if he were shouting to me and all the other porpoises: ‘The man understood that we were trying to tell him to sail to the right. . . you understood . . . you understood. . . keep on like that, it’s all clear ahead!’ The porpoises continued to swim with the boat for hours, until Moitessier was well past the reefs of Stewart Island and there were no obstacles ahead for thousands of miles. Only then did the porpoises leave.

We silly human beings, increasingly trapped inside our prisons of habitat, work, internet, and self-importance, imagine that the destiny of the world depends entirely upon ourselves. I’ve long been bothered by the story of a village in Germany, France, England, or elsewhere, depending on the teller, whose statute of Jesus had been damaged during the Second World War. The hands of Jesus, according to the story, had been lost, so the villagers put the statue back in place with the words below it: Jesus has no hands but our hands. It’s a nice story, often repeated, but it’s not true. Not only is there no such statue, but, as Moitessier’s story suggests, God has plenty of ways to operate in the world other than through us. Yes, we are accountable to God. Yes, we will be judged, Jesus says in the 25th chapter of Matthew, on how we have cared for the last, the least, and the lost. But that’s not the same thing as saying that God only works in the world through us, or even only through human beings. As the great humorist James Thurber wrote, If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons.

All Jesus’ life he has been aware that God is relentlessly at work to bring justice and mercy to a broken Creation. For thousands of years God tried, through patriarchs and judges, kings, prophets, and priests, to reconcile a rebellious humanity to himself. A flood didn’t work. Neither did an Exodus, nor two tablets of commandments. The gift of a Promised Land failed to bind the people in covenant. Judges were followed by kings, to no avail. Prophets warned of the consequences of disobedience, nations fell and people suffered, slavery was conquered by a Persian deliverer, the Temple was rebuilt, and still people rebelled against God. If one thing didn’t work, God tried another. If one leader, one people didn’t bring the salvation God intended, God went back to the drawing board, over and over.

What Jesus knew was that God was going to fulfill God’s will one way or another, so Jesus decided, early on, that it might as well be through him. That, after all, is why Jesus had been conceived – to be the incarnation of God’s redeeming, self-giving love in the world. And Jesus knew early on what that meant and where it would lead. No one, especially the Son of God, can swim in the face of the world’s self-importance for long before that world puts you out of its misery. There were forces at work far beyond human consciousness that would lead to the cross. A cosmic drama was being played out, and only Jesus was aware of the script.

The whole Palm Sunday story is about God working beyond the willing participation of human beings. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called this prevenient grace: God’s movement far ahead of our awareness or willingness. Go into the village, Jesus tells two disciples, and fetch the young donkey that’s tied there. When the owner asks what you’re doing, tell him ‘The Lord needs it.’ And the story unfolds exactly as Jesus has predicted: there are forces at work here beyond human understanding.

During the ensuing parade into the city, some of the Pharisees are upset at the riot the disciples have initiated. These are Methodists, after all, and the disciples are acting like Pentecostals. Like the joke about the newly converted man shouting out in worship, the disciples may have the Holy Spirit, but they didn’t get it here. Order your disciples to stop, the Pharisees tell Jesus. Jesus’ response is one of the strangest sentences in the gospels: I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.

Something bigger is happening here, Jesus is saying, than our intentions, emotions, or understanding. You and I are actors on a cosmic stage, participants in a divine drama being played out over millions of years. We imagine that we are the playwrights, the directors, the orchestra, the stagehands. If we don’t make it happen, it doesn’t happen. If it happens, it’s because of us.

All through Holy Week, the players think they are writing the drama. Judas thinks he has seized the initiative. The Temple priests, and Herod, and Pilate all believe they are masters of the moment. Peter and the disciples are convinced they can protect Jesus. The crowds elect Jesus on Sunday and condemn him on Friday. But there are far, far larger forces at work this week, and Jesus is the only one who can read the script. And, because he is the only one who understands what God is doing, he is the one person – the only person – throughout all of Holy Week, who can give himself willingly to God’s redemptive work. Everyone else is a victim of their own or someone else’s foolish and clueless self-importance.

The only way any of us can be conscious and willing participants in God’s holy work to save the world is, like Jesus, to surrender the lie that the world depends on us. God is going to do what God is going to do, with us or without us. But, when we surrender ourselves, as Jesus did, to God’s will to heal the world in God’s way – not ours – then we become the agents of that redemption. Then, and only then, do we become God’s hands. Then, and only then, does the world depend on us, precisely because we have surrendered any claim that it might. That’s the foolishness of the cross. That’s the scandal of the gospel: that we only save life by losing it, and lose life by keeping it. You might as well shout, because if you don’t, the rocks will.

Historian Stephen Oates says that the peak of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life was not on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when he gave the I Have a Dream speech, as great as that was and is. It was, Oates said, when King led hundreds of marchers from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in defiance of Governor George Wallace’s edict to prevent them. John Lewis, now a congressman, had his head fractured by police batons. Marchers had been beaten, cursed, spat upon, and threatened with death. Standing on the steps of the state capitol, with George Wallace watching in fury through a window, Dr. King spoke of the day not of the white man or of the black man, but the day of man as man: I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you will reap what you sow. How long? Not long, because the arm of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.[1]

King knew what Moitessier knew what Jesus knew what Hamlet knew: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.[2] God is at work far beyond us, in stars and porpoises, plays and protests, poets and peasants, to redeem the world. Only when we surrender to God’s work do we become God’s hands and voices. If we don’t shout, the stones will.

[1] Oates, Stephen, Let the Trumpet Sound, Harper Perennial, 1982, p. 364

[2] Hamlet, Act. 1 Scene 5

Saturday, March 20, 2010

True Gospel Scandals: Perfume and the Poor

John 12:1-8

At our church Finance Committee meeting this week, a new member of the committee asked a perfectly reasonable question about an item in our church budget: why do we have a line for flowers for worship? “Don’t people donate the flowers?” he asked. “Yes,” came the reply, “but that’s for Sundays when people don’t donate flowers, and for other special occasions.” “Why don’t we just not have flowers on those Sundays when people don’t provide them?” he responded. After a long silence, someone said, “Because that’s not how we do it here.”

It’s a very good question: why do we have flowers in the sanctuary? Why did we spend thousands of dollars last year to refurbish the stained glass windows? Why did a group of us meet here yesterday morning to spruce up the grounds to make our church look better for our Easter visitors? Why doesn’t the choir just wear blue jeans and tee shirts? Why do you dress up on Sunday mornings? Think of all the money we could save by not doing those things. We could – give the money to the poor, couldn’t we?

One of the very few stories about Jesus that appears in all four gospels is this morning’s reading about a woman who anoints Jesus with oil. The gospels differ in where it takes place and when, where he is anointed – head or feet, and who anoints him. What’s absolutely consistent in the stories is the horror by the onlookers at this act. In Luke, the woman is described as “a sinner.” Pharisees – the word literally means “separate” – were shocked that Jesus would contaminate himself by associating with such a person. In the other three gospels, including John, it is the disciples who are aghast. In John it’s Judas, who was the treasurer, which means he was the most trusted and responsible of the group. “That Chanel perfume could have been sold for three hundred dollars, and the money given to the poor!” John interjects that Judas was embezzling from the communion fund. In Matthew and Mark, it’s the disciples, plural. It makes no difference whether it’s Pharisees, Judas, or the whole group of disciples. It’s a scandalous act, this sensuous outpouring of perfume and affection on a minister who should know better, and who should have insisted that something useful be done with this gift.

Now, the official commentary on this passage, handed down through two millennia of prayerful and scholarly commentary, goes like this: Jesus is the Messiah, which means the anointed. Anointing in the Bible happens to kings. One explanation of anointing with oil comes from shepherds, who would anoint the heads of their sheep to keep the flies from gnawing on the ears and eyes of the sheep. When we lived on the Eastern Shore, we had to use oil on our dogs’ ears to keep green flies from doing the same thing. It’s Skin So Soft, or bug repellent. So when kings are anointed, or we anoint the sick as I did to Fran Garnett last week before she died, or when in some Christian baptisms babies are anointed at baptism, it’s to keep the enemies away. The Messiah would be the one anointed by God to save Israel from its enemies, and to restore the nation to its glory. And in the gospels, the only person to ever anoint Jesus for any reason is this woman, to the horror of the onlookers. She’s the one follower of Jesus who gets it right, whether she knows the deeper significance of what she is doing or not.

Now, all that’s absolutely true. It’s typical of the delicious irony of the gospels, and of the Bible as a whole, that the only person who gets it right is someone who’s either not expected or not trying to get it right, when the people who should be getting it right are getting it all wrong instead. Those stories always remind me that we official followers of Jesus had better be pretty humble about anything we do and pretty open to what may be going on outside the official channels.

What strikes me today about this story, though, is that, practically speaking, the disciples are right: the money could have been sold to help the poor. This act of extravagance by this woman is, for all intent and purposes, useless. It’s an act of beauty, and an act of love, but it’s utterly impractical. It’s like sending flowers to someone who’s died. Or even sending flowers to someone living whom we love. Yes, it’s pretty, but why not buy them some socks? The socks will last a lot longer than the flowers.

Or these expensive stained glass windows that we have to fix every twenty-five years or sooner. Let’s just replace them with some nice double glazed double hung windows that we could open on a day like today, so you could better hear and see the Harley riders when they come thundering through, or know whether it’s raining or not. Let’s replace the upholstered furniture in the parlor and lobby with folding metal chairs, so we won’t have to worry about muddy shoes or spilled coffee. Nat, you cost too much: we can play all the music from CDs. Bryan and choir: we’ll just watch a music video, thank you very much. For that matter, you’d get much better sermons and Sunday School lessons if we do streaming video: from now on, we’ll organize groups according to who you want to watch: The Joel Osteen group will meet in the gym, the Adam Hamilton group in the sanctuary, and the Pat Robertson group can meet somewhere far, far away. And, of course, we’ll give the money we save . . . to the poor. Of course we will. Won’t we? We always do.

In Keith Miller’s dramatic retelling of Jesus’ anointing, as part of his Easter sermon in the Rose Bowl, Jesus says to the disciples: “Leave her alone. She’s done a beautiful thing for me. And years from now people will be telling each other about this.”

It is a beautiful thing. But beauty’s not very useful. Beauty doesn’t feed people. Beauty doesn’t cure disease, or give people homes. And, after all, we want our lives to count for something. And the only things that count are things that are useful. There’s even a poem about why men shouldn’t marry beautiful women:

Beauty’s just a passing thing

Ugly’s to the bone

Beauty, she’ll just fade away

But ugly will hold her own.

And yet . . . we put flowers in the sanctuary. We dress up. We put art on our walls. We watch a sunset. We listen to music that we don’t understand. We rake up the leaves and pick up the sticks. We go to the ballet. We upholster our furniture in patterns, and drape our windows. We paint our walls bright or soothing colors. We read novels and watch movies. We plant flowers. We watch the waves and the clouds. And we all marry beautiful people. None of it is . . . useful.

Nevertheless, in this act of useless, fragrant beauty, Jesus is declared the Messiah. Could it be that useless fragrant acts of beauty worship God as much – or perhaps more – than all our strident usefulness?

The night after the morning that Port au Prince, Haiti was destroyed last month by the earthquake, rescue workers were shocked to find Haitians dancing and singing hymns in the streets. Surrounded by death and destruction, the people of Port au Prince were dancing. They were alive, even though so many of their loved ones lay crushed beneath the rubble. In the midst of the horror, the people of Haiti engaged in acts of senseless and useless beauty. They were claiming life. And in the beauty of that moment, they were praising God.

Yes, we should feed, and clothe, and house the poor. Yes, we should be good stewards of our resources. Yes, like Jesus, we should lay down our lives for the salvation of the world.

But sometimes the most “useful” thing is what seems to be the most useless: an act of love, beauty, or wasted time. And if God clothes the grass and the lilies, more so than Solomon in all his glory, might not Jesus be anointed Messiah more by our embrace of all things bright and beautiful, than by all our desperate usefulness?

It’s a beautiful thing this woman has done. And Jesus was right: we’re still telling her story.

Go, and do something beautiful for God.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

True Gospel Scandals: Wasted Love

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

While many people know the name Captain William Bligh from two movie versions of Nordoff and Hall’s book, Mutiny on the Bounty, fewer people know of the extraordinary feat of survival and seamanship carried out by Bligh after he and eighteen crew members were set adrift by the mutineers. Given food and water for only a few days, a sextant and pocket watch, but no charts or compass, Bligh steered the twenty-three foot open boat 3,600 miles west over 47 days to Timor in Indonesia, losing only one man, and that to an attack by cannibals on the island of Tofua. It is generally regarded as the most astounding example of navigation and seamanship in history. Carefully rationing food and water, maintaining discipline in the boat, Bligh’s feat is astounding to this day.

Bligh’s resources were extremely limited, to say the least. They caught fish and a few birds; they captured rain water from storms; Bligh used his memory of the area from his turn as navigator for Captain Cook a few years earlier. A stern but, contrary to the legend, fair disciplinarian, Bligh marshaled his scarce resources brilliantly.

Over the last year or so, many of us have had to adjust from a lifestyle of abundance to a lifestyle of scarcity. The silver lining, it seems to me, about the national and even global economic downturn is that people like you and me have been forced to realize that financial and physical and natural resources are not unlimited. I grew up with the notion that we should have more and more and more forever. Bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger boats, bigger stomachs, without consequence and without end. That always was a lie, but we believed it and worshiped at its altar. That god has been revealed as the hollow idol it has always been. Life turns out to have limits. Imagine that!

In contrast to our limited, mortal lives, the whole Gospel of Luke is about the abundance of God: blessed are the poor, the meek, and the sorrowing; Jesus is called a glutton and a drunkard for the way he lives; a woman anoints Jesus with expensive perfume; a farmer scatters seed even on hard paths, rocky soil, and among weeds; a demon-possessed man is healed; five thousand people are fed with twelve baskets of food left over; children are invited to sit with Jesus; even the Samaritan heretics are examples of grace; strangers and the poor are invited to banquets; shepherds leave ninety-nine sheep to find one. Human life may be limited and resources may be scarce, but God is prodigiously abundant with grace and love and blessing, according to Jesus.

So, one day, the Administrative Council of First Church, Jerusalem, was discussing the poor stewardship and questionable example set by the Reverend Jesus Davidson from Shady Grove Church, Nazareth. “Instead of helping the United Jewish Men stir the Brunswick stew the other day, Rev. Jesus was having breakfast with prostitutes and IRS agents and Democrats, not that we could tell the difference.”

Overhearing their stage whispered critique, Rev. Jesus, like any good rabbi, told a story. A farmer had two sons, the younger of whom decided he wanted to enjoy the good life. Of course, you can’t enjoy the good life anywhere near your parents and family: that’s what college is for, don’t you know. So he asked his father to cash in his half of the Virginia Education Fund money that had been set aside for him, and then asked Dad to take out a home equity loan on half the value of the farm. After all, the last thing he was going to do was be a farmer. With tears in his eyes for multiple reasons, the old man gave the boy a cashier’s check for a pile of money, and watched him head off to become famous in The Big City.

In The Big City, the boy lived the abundant life. The drinks were always on him at every bar, and he made friends quickly. He threw the best parties in town, networking in his penthouse condo. But when the money ran out, so did all the friends, and, having been evicted from his condo, his Porsche repossessed, and his credit card confiscated, he was reduced to feeding pigs in the stockyard at the edge of town.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, the elder brother was living the flip side of the younger’s coin. Also convinced that The Good Life did not include his father, big brother hoarded his pennies waiting for the old man to die, so he could have the whole farm to himself. Resenting baby brother’s good life in the City – how little he knew – big brother simmered and stewed, growing angrier by the day not just at his sibling’s good life, but at the foolish old man who had enabled it.

They really were brothers, you know. As my mother used to say, “Heredity is a curse.” It must have come from their mother, who is curiously absent from the story. My hunch is that Momma was a penny-pinching character always complaining about the slightest sign of excess. Maybe that’s why Daddy went down to the gate every day looking for little brother, in case he came home. Dad just wanted to get out of the house.

Baby brother’s prodigality – the word means wasteful, after all – isn’t because he believes in abundance: he actually believes in scarcity. There’s not enough love, not enough fun, not enough joy in the world to be able to share it with his family – with those who love and know him best. He has to ration his joy and spend it somewhere else. And, truth be told, most people who are reckless and wasteful with their resources in fact believe they’re on the Titanic, and they might as well go first class. “Let us eat and drink,” Isaiah 22 quotes Jerusalem saying as the Babylonian army stood outside the gates, “for tomorrow we die.” Watch a starving animal eat: they gulp down the food as if there were no tomorrow. A secure animal, knowing there will always be more, savors the feast.

Big brother also believes there’s not enough to go around, so he hoards his life and his resources as Gollum hoards the Ring. There’s not enough love, not enough grace, not enough mercy to share with his father and his brother. So, when baby brother comes home and the prize calf gets carved up for dinner, big brother comes unglued. “How DARE you,” he screams at the old man. “That’s MINE. There’s not enough to go around. You’re wasting everything on this idiot who wasted everything you have him: you’re just like him, you old fool.”

But, you see, they’re all wasteful fools. The younger son wastes his life by running from those who love him best. But so does the elder brother. He wastes his life on resentment and hate, which may last longer than a party, but which are even more fatal to the community and to the soul. Of course, religious people reward arrogance and hatefulness more than they reward partying. The older I get, the better I like those who err on the side of the party. They’re more likely to end up in heaven, Jesus said, than the elders who guard the gates.

The father is the most wasteful of all. The real prodigal isn’t the younger son, or even his foolish big brother. The holy fool in the story is the old man who mortgages his farm so his son can blow the money; who lets his older son stay on the farm even though he grows more hateful every day, and who goes down and waits every day at the farm gate for his family to be whole again. And, when the chip off the old block of a younger son comes home in disgrace, Dad even wastes his son’s carefully concocted liturgy of confession and repentance, ordering the hired help to get the party rolling before the boy can grovel in the dirt as he ought. This is probably exactly the same silly farmer who sows seed on the road and in the rocks and in the weeds, hoping something will take root. This is probably the same teacher who sits with small children in the conviction that they might understand the mysteries of the universe better than their parents. This is the same Lord who loves the heretics and the sinners and the dying and the deformed. This is the same shepherd who leaves 99% of his flock to find the 1% that the wolves should have eliminated, thereby improving the breeding stock by natural selection.

Let me tell you a great secret: we’re all going to waste our resources. We’re going to give food to someone who doesn’t really need it. We’re going to provide health care to someone who doesn’t deserve it. We’re going to forgive someone who hasn’t repented. We’re going to give someone a diploma, or a job, or a handout, or a compliment, who hasn’t earned it. We’re going to let someone into our church, or our family, or our heart, who is going to break it. We’re going to waste love. Get used to it.

But if you’re going to love poorly, would you rather love too little, or love too much? Would you rather love someone who doesn’t deserve it, or not love someone who did? Would you rather see someone get more than they needed or deserved, or would you rather see them get less than they needed?

God loves us infinitely more than we deserve, and eternally more than we need. Some of us here have wasted our lives feeding the pigs, but it’s much more often the case that religious people are the Puritans who, in the words of H.L. Mencken, are haunted by the “fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Are you going to live as though love were pouring down from heaven like Niagara Falls, or are you going to ration it by the teaspoon? You’re going to waste your love. The question is: too much, or too little?