Sunday, September 21, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Being Prayerful"

John 12:1-11

Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. 3 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. 4 Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, 5 “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (6 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.) 

7 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. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.” 9 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. 10 The chief priests decided that they would kill Lazarus too. 11 It was because of Lazarus that many of the Jews had deserted them and come to believe in Jesus.(Common English Bible)

“Three Years in Three Weeks: Christ’s Ministry, Our Calling,” Week Three

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre rises up out of the stones and sand of the Old City in Jerusalem, with its twin domes making it instantly recognizable from the outside.  Inside, it holds a shrine that tradition says stands over the very spot where the hill we call Calvary or Golgotha once stood: the hill where Scripture tells us Jesus was crucified, and further down into the church building is the site where some hold that Jesus’s tomb had been as well.  It really is an amazing place to be a pilgrim at.

Controlling access to this holy site are, primarily, three different religious denominations: the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the Roman Catholic Church.  And you would think, considering the venerable and historical nature of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they would be enthusiastic stewards of such a titanic piece of Christendom.  You would be wrong.

For centuries, the three factions have squabbled over power, caretaking duties, and stewardship of the church to the point that as recently as in 2008, fisticuffs broke out between Greek and Armenian monks on the feast day of the Holy Cross.  Israeli police officers had to be called in.  To one of the holiest churches in the world.

And when you consider that one of the primary job duties of being a monk is to, well, pray, it makes you wonder just how much easier we have made it for ourselves to disagree with each other over Jesus rather than to pray to Him.  And the answer is that, well, we have been doing it ever since He was here, as far back as this story from John’s Gospel as another Passover rolls around.

It feels a little bit weird, doesn’t it?  We just wrapped up an 11-week sermon series three weeks ago, and here we are, wrapping up another “new” sermon series today!  But this three week series was always meant to be just three weeks, because it coincides with the start of year four of all y’all putting up with me, and I have to say, looking back on our first three years together, there is a lot for us to be proud of and to hang our proverbial hats on: we’ve seen the marriages of half a dozen couples involved in the church, we’ve had 9 (10 next week!) baptisms, and the amount of mission work that we’ve done in the community, measuring in the tens of thousands of dollars in value, which, when you consider our still small size, speaks volumes to this congregation’s commitment to fulfilling Christ’s fundamental command to care for the marginalized among us.

But there is still so much for us to do, and I haven’t done an explicitly vision casting sermon series for our community since the “Time to be Church” series way, way back in the beginning of 2013, and a lot has changed for us since then.  So, this series is meant to represent, in three installments, what I am envisioning for our next three years together, and the series’ structure comes from how John’s Gospel describes the beginning of each of the three years of Jesus’ own ministry, and we began two weeks ago in Year One with a famous story that the other three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, place towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, but one that John curiously puts at the very beginning: the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem.  Last week, we get to Year Two, which is marked by another well-known story that is in all four Gospels: the feeding of the five thousand.  This week, we arrive at Year Three, the final Passover, the one what we call the Passion.  Only we aren’t quite there yet…in fact, we aren’t even in Jerusalem, we’re in Bethany with Mary and Martha and Lazarus (yep, the very same dude whom Jesus resurrects from the dead just a chapter earlier).

But unlike John 11, the beginning of John 12 focuses not on Lazarus, but on one of his sisters, Mary.  She finds Jesus just as He is taking a detour from His final journey towards Jerusalem to visit them in their hometown of Bethany.  She seeks him out, kneels at his feet, and anoints Him as Judas Iscariot looks on and scorns her.  Despite this scorn, there is a word for what Mary is exhibiting here: reverence.  She has sought Jesus out in order to be reverent and prayerful before Him.

And especially from John’s perspective, it is right that she should do so, because John has such a high view of Jesus’s divinity: Jesus as the divine Word, the Logos, that came to earth and lived among us, Jesus as the Resurrection and the Life, Jesus as the Bread of Life, and so on.  But in this passage, Jesus really is able to be human for a change—He is finally able to allow someone else to minister to Him rather than the other way around—and what an impact that singular reality has on Him, as He reminds Judas in verse eight, “You do not always have me.”

This is a lesson easily applicable to each of us as well: we do not always have one another.  As easy as it is to fall into the rut of taking one another for granted (and, similarly, taking God for granted), it is vital that we do not do so.

And John hits us over the head with that message throughout this story: he is telling us with as many blatantly obvious clues as possible whose perspective and actions we are meant to value and emulate here.  John doesn’t just mention Judas by name; he also adds that this is the guy who was to betray Jesus, that he was a thief, and that he stole from the common purse of his fellow disciples.  One practically expects John to just keep going in this vein and say that Judas is also the Sith Lord who destroyed the Republic in Star Wars and who is, on Sundays, a 49ers fan.

It is meant to be as clear as day to us that Judas is the antagonist here, and that we are meant to contrast his bad guy example to the protagonist example of being good, which Mary (who, as a woman, would have been of far less social significance and importance than Judas in ancient Israel) exemplifies and personifies.  If Judas is the bosom buddy of Sith Lords and Colin Kaepernick, well, Mary is simply the person who each of us strives to be: someone who is not necessarily wealthy, or a major somebody, but who is still capable of great goodness simply by taking the time to do so, something that we don’t always take the time to do, no matter how simple it may seem to us.

Because in our lives, we are always trying to move closer to whatever our next goal or accomplishment is…a new car, or a promotion, or moving into a new home.  There’s always something on the horizon, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing: it’s what keeps us moving forward, and I talked a lot last week about us being grateful for the future rather than fearful of it.  But that also shouldn’t come at the expense of the present.  And I definitely include myself in this, in terms of always moving on to the next big thing before finishing what it is that I have already started.

Now, I realize that there will be times when that is just not possible, where we just cannot be as present and in tune with those around us in that moment as we would like to be.  We’re human.  We’re inherently imperfect.  Stuff happens, and we have to react to it.  And I say this because I believe that sometimes, maybe not all the time, but definitely sometimes, it takes all of the awfulness happening to us in all of those moments to make us realize how little were paying attention to the fact that our attention is, in fact, a very valuable commodity.

I’ll repeat that: sometimes, it takes getting overwhelmed by all the insanity and pain around us to recognize just how valuable a gift our attention and our reverence can be, for both God and for each other.  Because in that moment, mere days before the Passion, her attention was the greatest gift that Mary could have given Jesus.  In that moment, her ministry was the greatest possible thing Jesus could have received from her.  And He recognizes it as such.  It means that sometimes, the greatest gift we can give is our attention, our care, or ability to be good to one another, because it is such a profound and sacred way of saying, “I revere you.”  And in this way, it is absolutely a type of prayer.

Which means we need to be busy building up our own prayer practices and disciplines and exercises to be enough to include all of the people we know who do need our prayer and our attentions.  It means building up our own spirituality so that we can then in turn build up one another.

If that sounds complicated, or a like a lot of work, that’s because it is both of those things.  Which is why we so often turn to the simpler course of tearing one another down, or of digging into each other like Judas does to Mary, and fighting each other like the monks of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre do, or outright annihilating each other, which we have done, well, throughout history.

Jesus, though, in rebuking Judas likewise rebukes that tendency for us to break each other rather than to strengthen each other.  Contrary to popular belief, His rebuke about the poor always being with us has nothing to do with a disregard for the poor: read through Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and you’ll see just how heavily an emphasis Jesus puts on standing with and aiding the poor.  No, Jesus is in fact quoting an Old Testament verse, at least in part: Deuteronomy 15:11 says there will always be the poor and needy in the land, and thus God commands us to be generous with them.

But as we’ve seen, Judas isn’t generous with the poor, because the Apostles themselves are poor and itinerant, and Judas steals from them.  Jesus is telling Judas that he will always have the poor with him because when you steal from the poor, they will generally remain poor.

And likewise, just as if you take from someone who is materially poor, they tend to stay materially poor, so too if you harm a person who is already spiritually poor, they will often remain spiritually poor.  It is a vicious cycle that we put one another in, even though we have already been given the tools to break out of that cycle by this itinerant carpenter from Galilee whom we call the Christ.

I have heard from many of you—too many of you—of your own stories of having been torn down by people claiming to believe in that same Christ.  And I am so very, very sorry that you have experienced such treatment from people who, despite their faith, have ended up acting more like Judas in this passage than like Mary.

Being prayerful means considering not only our own prayers to God, but the prayers of those around us.  It means praying in a community.  It means praying in the world as it has been presented to us, not necessarily the world that we might hold out indefinitely for.  It means praying for people we might never thought we’d pray for.  It means praying with more than just words.  It means praying with your whole selves.  It means praying before the feet of Jesus as Mary once did.

What an amazing charge to be entrusted with as a church.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 21, 2014

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