Year C, Lent 5
April 7, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
We’re almost there. Holy Week. The Passion. Easter. The Resurrection. Almost there… And I’m glad. I don’t know about you, but it’s been a weird Lent for me. It has been hard to relax into the season, to get my devotional, penitential center fixed. There is a lot going on. Windy going to work at Egan, the snow storm, the basement flood, conflict with insurance companies (fruitful conflict, more on that at announcements), yurts and gates and fences and signs and Tina, Lucy and I having to figure out how to put Holy Week together after 18 years of doing it one way, Brigid has a cast on her leg… A lot of life happening, and that can be very distracting to a religious life.
Lent is an opportunity, an invitation, or request, direction, command (I guess that depends on your religious bent), a reason, Lent gives you a reason to put your religious devotion first, an occasion to prioritize the observance of your faith. And that’s been hard for me to do this year. It started with the snow storm keeping me from my pre-Lenten retreat and I never took the time to get my head and heart right with the rest of the season. It’s totally on me. But ahhh… Holy Week is nearly here. I am glad I won’t have a choice about putting all of this first. Around here, Holy Week is an all in sort of occasion.
Are you all in? That is a really good question to ponder this time of year. Are you all in? Because there is something completely new going on here. Each year our journey from the Epiphany, through the Transfiguration, through Lent unto the promises of Christ fulfilled in Easter, reveals to us that again there is something completely new happening, something new is happening again. Our readings today are about that. They remind us that there is something completely new going on, there always has been, and we need to be all in.
The obvious example is Mary and the perfume. A denariuswas a Roman coin, the base denomination for a couple of hundred years. At the writing of St. John’s gospel a denariuswas basically the daily wage of a laborer, think 8 hours at minimum wage. Not a lot (probably not enough) to live on, but nearly a year’s worth of even a poor salary is an extraordinary amount to spend on perfume, and then to use it all at once?!? And then wiping His feet with her hair!?! The taboos being broken! Anointing a body for burial was nothing new, but this was, Jesus wasn’t dead (yet). And that kind of money, Mary was all in.
Jesus then responded to Judas’ critique of this extravagance, saying, “Leave her alone… You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” A way to understand this often misunderstood (and misused) line has nothing to do with the justice of our political economy… it is not saying don’t worry about solving the poverty problem, they’ll always be there, look Jesus says so! No. Jesus is saying that we will always have the poor to serve in His stead; there will always be an opportunity to serve Christ in serving our neighbor; there will always be the opportunity to worship God in serving the least of these – honoring Jesus in the flesh as Mary did was a once in the history of the world kind of thing. That’s a different take on that teaching. We always have the chance to serve God in serving those who suffer. That’s new. And obviously Mary was all in.
And St. Paul, in one of his humble boasting moments, is answering concerns in Phillipi about adherence to the law. He was an Israelite’s Israelite; blameless in every way, and yet… here’s something new, losing those things, giving up those good things, because they were good, but losing them was essential. “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” He’s not trying to be perfected by his own efforts in following the Law, but to become perfect through his faith in Jesus. And by faith, that’s not just belief like I believe that 2+2=4, but it is like trust. Having faith in, believing in… like I believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; like I believe in the work of this Church; like I believe in you. What he is saying is that when we trust God perfectly, we are perfect. That’s something new. Our life’s fulfillment can be found (is found) in living and being and suffering like Christ for Christ. And Paul was all in.
And then there is Isaiah. Today’s passage is from Second Isaiah, chapters 40 – 55, the portion written during the Babylonian captivity. In the 9thcentury or so, Babylon conquered Israel and carted the religious, political and economic elite away into exile. A great way to control a conquered land. In this passage, he is reminding Israel of how God led them out of bondage in Egypt. That is the central story of Israel – the exodus. (Isaiah’s hearers were looking for an exodus from Babylon). But Isaiah says something completely new, shockingly new (or simply shocking), “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” The Hebrew word here for remember implies not just recalling something, it is implying acting upon that which one remembers. I heard it illustrated by someone saying that when his wife asks him if he remembered the trash, she is not concerned whether he recalled the trash’s existence that day, but whether he acted on his memory and put the trach on the curb. Isaiah is saying don’t act based on the memory of how God acted before, don’t act expecting to be led out of bondage in the same way God did before, but rather “I am about to do a new thing.; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Isaiah is cautioning the people not to look to the past, to how it happened before, but to act on a future hope because God is going to do a new thing. We can’t keep doing the same old thing with the expectation that God, that things will work out in the same old way. We need to be prepared for the new things God will do AND we need to be prepared to do new things in response. New things… like, say, the definitive entrance of God into this world in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. That’s new. And all in. God is all in, with us. That’s the Christian understanding of things… Are you all in?
I poke a little gentle fun at the gentility of our faith, that being over-zealous in our religious devotion or religious giving is not a primary sin of ours. Fundamentalist fervor isn’t the answer either, but the message of Jesus Christ is an all in sort of message. Mary’s $20,000 worth of perfume was a commitment. Jesus gave His life. So did Paul. So did the generation born into slavery in Egypt that wandered the desert, never to set foot in the promised land themselves; that was for their children and their children’s children.
And that is such a leap from where most of us are. From where I am. Some weather threw me off the most solemn season of our year. That’s not being all in. But it is the path I seek. The path I am trying, with mediocre success, to be on. Baby steps to the kingdom. Baby steps to the promised land. Baby steps for us to be converted and re-converted into the image of God we are. “But O! How far have we to go to find Him in whom we have already arrived!”
The gospel of Jesus Christ is a breath of God-fresh air into a stale old world. Whatever is coming next, will be something completely new, and we, as a collective, and you as individual motes in relationship to God Almighty, we need to respond, to be prepared to respond in a new way. But how do we get there from here?
Well that’ the spiritual life. That’s the religious life, how we live in a way that we can respond to God. And there are a billion ways to live the religious life. Some are better than others, though the sincerity of the adherent is the most important factor. But I do have a surprisingly concrete suggestion for you all, a suggestion of a practice of being all in, a practice of preparing for something completely new… Holy Week.
Holy Week changes my life. Every year. Change it. Submitting to the flow of the observance gives me a glimpse of something wholly new. It gives me an inkling of what keeping God in the front of my mind all the time might be like. It is a whiff of all in. You are invited.
Ask the choir. Ask Helen or Sue from the altar guild. Being here from Palm Sunday through Easter Morning, participating in the entire Holy Week can change you. Maybe just for an instant. Maybe just for those three days, or that week, but the glimpse of the new way you might get can last a life time. Come!
We have a Taize service on Friday, not part of Holy Week, but it is like the massage before chiropractic. Come. Sit. Chant. Pray. Breathe.
On Palm Sunday we remember and reenact Jesus’ boisterous and subversive procession into Jerusalem. It was a lampoon of the march of reinforcements to the Imperial garrison that happened annually in anticipation of unrest at the Passover. They came to stop just the sort of thing Jesus did. The Yippies’ version of this was trying to levitate the Pentagon.
Then we have the Triduum. I urge you to consider the Three Days as a single liturgy, as a cohesive drama that we enact. I encourage you to treat it as a retreat. Go all in. Take Friday off. Put everything aside. Practice being all in for this three day cycle, Thursday night – Sunday morning. It begins with Maundy Thursday, our commemoration of the Last Supper. A simple meal together. Mass. Foot washing. That’s powerful, washing someone’s feet. And the vulnerability of having your own feet washed. Powerful.
Then as the altar guild strips the altar to the words of the 22ndPsalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we transition into Nightwatch, our vigil before our altar of repose. Good Friday looks very different after being up all night. Don’t get me wrong, I really don’t enjoy being up all night. I get cranky when my sleep is disrupted, and I really look forward to it each year, it is the hardest fast I do and it works. Relgious practice is supposed to change our perspective. The Nightwatch does that.
Good Friday is haunting. Dark. Quiet. We venerate the cross with candles, kneel and stand, kneel and stand for the Solemn Collects, the choir is at its very best.
Holy Saturday is the darkest day of the year. Jesus is dead. Mass is not allowed to be celebrated on this day. Sandra and the contemplative group will lead a retreat. Come for silence, come to learn to be in silence, to pray in a new way.
And as the sun sets on the most somber day of the year, a new light is kindled, quite literally. First at our brand new 5:30 children’s vigil, and then again at sundown, 8:33, we will ignite the Light of Christ and celebrate the first Eucharist of Easter. We recall our salvation History. We hear the Exsultet, the great prayer of the church, and we say that beautiful word that we do not say in Lent over and over and over again. This is new dawn of Easter.
And then Easter Sunday. The Feast of the Resurrection. Through the horror of the Passion come the greatest of joys: the resurrection of our Lord and the salvation of the world. Celebrate with hats. Gloves. Ham. Well, not fancy ham like usual. The potluck is off – the logistics are too complicated – but we’ll have a wicked good coffee hour and Easter eggs for the children, maybe I can convince the Hospitality committee to get something bubbly for the grownups.
Then go home, have a pizza delivered and fall asleep. That’s a priestly observance of Easter evening.
There is a wholly new thing happening. Christ died once for all, and is resurrected over and over and over again in the hearts and lives of the faithful. It will be new again this year. And even if the extent of your Easter observance is a Cadbury Egg, the grace upon grace of Jesus Christ is right there for you. You won’t see much of it. But it is offered. If you come to church occasionally, have a bit of a relationship with a Christian community… it will be a bit more clear. Relationships, regular practice opens us to Christ’s presence. Or participate regularly. Sing in the choir. Serve at the altar. Help out with coffee hour or Sunday School, and clearer still you will know that He is Risen. With practice, you’ll know that in a different way, more fully, more consequentially. Practice, practice, practice. Now imagine what all in looks like. All in the is Word made flesh in your flesh. Union with God is possible. Your true self will meet the true God and every manner of thing will be well. All in.
I can’t give you all in, and it won’t happen in a week even if you wanted it to, but the observance of Holy Week can be a practice of it, of being all in. And that could be something new indeed. AMEN