I didn’t have the chance to write what I wish I could have yesterday, but as I was thinking and pondering the reality of Good Friday and the silence of Holy Saturday, of all that was lost and all that was suffered by Christ, I came across the following quote that I wanted to share.
In the March 16th article of Christian Century, scholar Stephanie Paulsell writes, “On Good Friday we ponder the mystery of incarnation, the mystery of God’s vulnerability to everything that can happen to a human being…it’s also a day to ponder that the trajectory of Jesus’ life, from the arms of his mother to the arms of the cross, is a path upon which mothers and children are often still forced to travel. Because it’s even more dangerous for them to remain at home, mothers send their children on journeys across Central America, across the Aegean Sea, and on the many perilous refugee routes that crisscross the globe. And the cross on which Jesus died is crowded with mothers and their children this Good Friday.”
As we stand at the foot of the cross, we are challenged to remember the people who continue to suffer as Christ today. Refugees who risk their lives. Innocent people who undergo torture (because Jesus’ story teaches us that sometimes, the innocent are persecuted, tortured, and even killed by the state). Children who drown in the waters and are trafficked in the deserts. All of them are Christ’s body, broken before us.
For me, it is a challenge to really think about what Christ meant when he said, “When you welcome one of these, you welcome me.” It sounds very peaceful and sweet, but what he is actually saying is something far more difficult for us to live out. “Hey you!” Christ cries from the cross. “See this body? Broken? Bruised? Afflicted? Whenever you see another suffering, that is ME.” Imagine how the world might be different if we viewed all suffering bodies in this way?
Perhaps that is what we are called to reflect on in the silence of Holy Saturday. We who watch and wait and despair of the darkness may also find ourselves asking questions: who else is hanging on the cross with Christ? Whom does the power of this world seek to silence? And how are we who remain called to bear witness to a suffering world? Do we stand with the women, who refused to leave Christ’s side? Or will we run and hide for fear of the powers of this world?
It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”
While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way?For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
Possibly the worst feeling in the world is getting bad news. When we hear that someone is sick, or suffering, or struggling with employment, housing, or more, it can be tempting to minimize the revelation, to rush past reflection and move on to a future joy or hope. Certainly, when someone is ill, or worse, someone dies, it is almost guaranteed that the mourning will be inundated with platitudes reminding them that “it will all be okay” or that “God wanted another angel.” We may hate hearing these words, but many of us will admit that we have been tempted to say the same, or similar.
Turns out that, on the road to the cross, the disciples want to rush right past Jesus’ reminders that he will suffer and be killed. They would rather focus on his glory. And so, instead of reflecting on what it would mean for their Teacher to die, they fight over who will be the first when his Kingdom comes. Instead of preparing their hearts and minds for the trials of the Triduum (the three holy days leading up to Easter), they debate which disciples Jesus will choose to sit on his right and his left.
Only this unnamed woman seems to get it. While the disciples are scuffling over future glory and titles, she bends before Jesus and pours nard on his feet. Because while the rest of the disciples grasped for the future, she was reflecting on the present, where Jesus told his disciples again and again, if you want to follow me, you must take up your cross. If you want to become great, you must become a servant. If you wish to be my disciple, you must be willing to die.
No wonder Jesus rebukes the disciples who would scold her. She is the only one who seems truly to have “heard” Jesus. And no wonder we remember her; on the cusp of Maundy Thursday, as Judas would betray Christ and the forces that would kill him gather their strength, she alone pauses to reflect upon what this means.
We who journey towards the Cross with Jesus this week are invited to bow with the woman. We are called to set aside our striving, and instead pick up our cross. To resist the temptation to run to Easter, and instead prepare for Christ’s death. There is much to be done before the tomb is empty, and we who would follow Jesus cannot simply skip over the parts that make us uncomfortable. If we are to embrace Christ, we must take all of him, and we cannot have the cross without everything that comes before it.
A Prayer for Wednesday: Servant God, We who would follow you, We who would serve you, We who would worship you– Today we pause and remember the woman who alone acknowledged your Sacrifice. For on the way to Jerusalem, Your disciples ignored Your warnings, and instead focused on your future glory. She alone bent down, and, pouring ointment on your feet, prepared your body for death. She alone listened, heard your call to servant-leadership and served You. She paused and worshipped while Judas ran and betrayed. She showed us what it means to be your Disciple when your disciples could not, would not, hear You. Help us, O God, to kneel with the woman, to pause and acknowledge your sacrifice, and to serve one another as you have served us, so that we too might be called disciples of our Lord. Amen.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
When the great crowd of the 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. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
I suppose that it should come as no surprise that we find Jesus at a dinner party in the days leading up to his death. Even as, in the words of John’s Gospel, the powers that be conspire against him, Jesus takes time to gather with friends (and with enemies, too) for a meal, for fellowship, and, ultimately, for communion.
And as Jesus sits at table with his not-dead friend Lazarus, we are treated to a surprise (then again, it seems as though there was always a Monty-Python-worthy “something completely different” moment about dinners with the Messiah). Here, suddenly, is Mary. The same Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha labored in the kitchen now arrives with a jar of costly perfume, and pours it on her Master’s feet.
Let’s just take a moment and consider this moment: here you are, sitting with your friends and waiting for dinner, when along comes another friend, who proceeds to dump a bottle of Chanel No. 5 on your feet and wipe your feet with her hair.
What are we to make of this moment?
Judas, whom we were not aware of until this moment, interprets this action as a waste. He makes a mental calculation and concludes that Mary has wasted the perfume. He’s like the over-achieving kid in the front of the class (for the record, that was me as a kid) who knows what the answer is supposed to be and almost seems to delight in pointing out the mistaken logic of her classmate. “But Jesus,” he cries. “Shouldn’t we have sold that perfume and given the money to the poor?” Isn’t it always better to give than to receive? Haven’t you taught us that the poor are the center of your Kingdom, and therefore the most important concern?
And he isn’t wrong. Certainly, Jesus spends his brief and remarkable preaching career railing against injustice, particularly when it is directed at the poor. According to the Gospel of Mark, it is on this day that he enters the temple and overturns the tables, effectively shutting down the Temple’s activities as he rails against the collusion between the religious authorities and the political powers of Rome. His life is a constant witness to remember the orphan and the widow, to care for the sick, and to befriend the stranger. His ministry is a witness to the power and the challenge of God’s call to live in communion with all of God’s created people.
But in this moment, at this table, surrounded by friends, Jesus cuts Judas short. “Leave her alone,” he commands, and we can almost feel Judas recoil in surprise. And then Jesus reminds us that life, for him, is not an unending dinner party–he is headed somewhere. To Jerusalem. To judgement, condemnation, suffering and death. On a cross. Even at this table, in this moment, he will not let his disciples–his deepest and closest spiritual friends–forget that his journey leads to death, and that his days are numbered.
For what it is worth, I do not think that Jesus is discounting the poor at this moment in John–instead, he almost seems to be saying to Judas and Mary that they are both right. That the poor will always be there, and that we will always be called to serve and minister to the poor. But we must also take the time to worship the God who gave us hearts with the capacity for compassion for our vulnerable brothers and sisters. Worship becomes an opportunity, a portal through which we can walk and remember our call to serve the poor, the vulnerable, and the outcast. Worship opens our hearts and our eyes and our ears to hear and see and taste again the Good News we have discovered in Christ, so that we may be encouraged for our ministry with the poor, who are with us.
We need moments of worship. Because there will always be those whose forced are aligned against us. Those who tell us that the poor are lazy, that the hungry had it coming, that “it just isn’t our job” to help those who struggle. There will always be those who deny the Kingdom and everything that it represents, perhaps because they worship other Gods–money, power, fame–or perhaps because they are frightened by what Christ represents–justice, righteousness, freedom for all of God’s good creation.
So on this Monday of Holy Week, let us pause and reflect with Jesus. Let us kneel down and worship with Mary. And let us remember that our ministry of service in the world finds its heart and its soul and its sustenance when we bow our heads at the foot of the cross.
Prayer for the day:
Holy God, Friend, Teacher, and Savior- we praise you. For like Lazarus you have drawn us out of the snare of death, and have set our feet on the rock. You have sat with us at table, have gathered us into community, and have called us your friends. You have taught us that it is good and righteous and pleasing to God to serve the hungry and the thirsty, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the sick, tend to those in prison. And you have sustained us by the presence of your Holy Spirit as we gather in prayer and praise. During this Holy Week, sustain our worship. Strengthen our hearts, that we might draw near to you, falling down before you like Mary and offering the gift of our very selves. Help us to bow our heads and bend our knees, so that we may have the strength to stand and walk the way of the cross with you, confident of of the hope of Resurrection. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.
When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Around this time of year, when throngs of people are packing into churches (or not) and marking themselves with ashes (or not), there is this commentary that seems to creep up over and over again—and it goes something like this:
“Does your church do ashes?” Yes, we do.
“Isn’t that…well…a little ritualistic?” Not really. It’s a practice that helps us draw closer to God.
“Seems awfully religious to me. I mean, I like God and all, but it seems like the church likes rules more. Seems like y’all are going through the motions and not actually doing anything.” Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr……………*sigh*
All this gets back to a conversation we started together on Ash Wednesday with our friends at Warminster UCC. Pastor Josh preached and he proposed that the biggest problem that the church faces is authenticity. He pointed out that those who are suspicious of religion and Christianity often are pretty knowledgeable about what we believe, and are often spiritual people themselves. But they look at the church and see lives that do not reflect the claims of Jesus.
It’s an authenticity problem.
Now there is some good news and some not so good news, and that is that when we look back on the story of God’s people in the Bible, we quickly realize that the people of God have always struggled with authenticity. Long before Jesus, the prophets were pointing out that our ritual is empty unless it is for something (see Isaiah 58:1-12). And that something is the righteousness of God.
So when Jesus stands before the crowds of people and preaches about empty ritual in the sermon on the mount, he isn’t breaking from tradition. He isn’t saying something that the people haven’t heard. No, like any good preacher, he is standing within his own faith tradition and proclaiming a truth that we humans just can’t seem to hear enough: that faith is only meaningful when it is AUTHENTIC.
But how are we supposed to be authentic, you may ask? In the time of hipsters and artisanal pickles, isn’t everyone striving to be the most authentic they possibly can be? Isn’t it awfully easy for “authenticity” just to become another badge we proclaim pridefully—“we are more authentic than YOU are!”
The answer is pretty simple. And it is found in our Scripture this morning.
Consider Deuteronomy 26. Now this text is on the tail end of the covenantal law, which, I will be the first to admit, is probably one of the driest parts of the Torah. Move over Leviticus! Deuteronomy, with its detailed dimensions for tents and poles and copper bowls HAS YOU BEAT.
But there is also a lot of important information in Deuteronomy about how we are to live.
If you can make it through the lists of families and the dimensions of the tent of meeting, you get some pretty neat advice on how we are to live together. And all of it is in the context of faith and fidelity to God. In other words, living authentically.
The passage in question this morning deals specifically with rules regarding something called the First Fruits offering. Now, there are lots of offerings that can be made to God in the ancient Hebrew religion—there are sin offerings and guilt offerings, tithe offerings and peace offerings. I could go on. The First Fruits offering is given at the beginning of the harvest and given with gratitude to God for the gifts that we receive.
But Moses isn’t satisfied just with the giving. Moses (and God too!) wants us to remember why we give. And so, in Deuteronomy, we are told that those who give a first fruits offering should approach the priest with these words:
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.”
Sounds like an awful lot of ritual, right? Imagine having to memorize those lines– it’s a lot longer than the Lord’s Prayer, to be sure! But let us also consider what the ritual is for. Throughout this proclamation, the people are asked to refer to themselves in the following ways:
-a wandering aramean: in ancient times these were a nomadic, landless people.
-an alien: again, outside of any nation or community of belonging
-a foreigner: have we gotten the point yet that the people of Israel have no place to call home?
-few in number: did I mention they were a small group of people?
-treated harshly and afflicted: oh yes, and they get trampled on by other people on a regular basis.
I assume we have picked up on the intended point: that the people of God aren’t much to look at on their own. They have no nation, they aren’t terribly large, and they are functionally powerless as other nations abuse and misuse them.
As they prepare to offer their gifts, the people of God are reminded first and foremost not of their own awesomeness, or power, or might—instead, they are called to reflect on their vulnerability and weakness. They are reminded of just how little we have on our own.
But that is not the end of the story.
For these powerless people depend on a God who:
-hears us: we are not alone!
-sees us: we do not suffer without witness!
-brings us out of our affliction with terrifying displays of power, with signs and wonders: Our God is invested in our well-being, and will do anything to protect us.
-gives us landless people a home and citizenship in a new land: God will bring us out of our poverty and our homelessness and give us a place to call our own!
Have we figured it out yet?
Alone, we are weak and exposed; with God, we are safe and secure.
Here is the kicker: this ritual isn’t for the benefit of other people. It isn’t religious theatre, not for the benefit of the crowds who gather or for the priests who receive the offering. Rather, this ritual is the for the benefit of the giver. This ritual is meant to put us squarely where we need to be: in a posture of humility.
Jesus will later expound on this further—he will remind us that when we give alms, or pray, or fast, we must remind ourselves whom these practices are for—they aren’t for the benefit of others seeing what good Christians we are. They are for the benefit of our relationship with God, and for the righteousness and justice of the world. When we are doing them correctly, they will have their source in humility.
Humility is a difficult concept to fully embrace, I know. It sounds an awful lot like subservience or weakness. And yet humility is the life that Jesus calls us to. Again and again, Jesus tells us that the last will be first, to take the less desirable seat at the dinner, to be meek, to be a servant, to pick up a cross, too pray for our enemies—and that through these humble actions, we will be lifted up.
Josh shared with us on Ash Wednesday about something he called the generosity paradox, that often it is in letting go of things that we gain something more. And I think that the same can be said of humility. Humility is a moral imperative of the Word of God, not because we are supposed to feel bad about ourselves, but because it makes room for others—the poor, the outcast, the stranger, the sick, even the enemy. When we operate from a posture of humility, we can let go of the need to always be right, always be first, always be stronger/wiser/richer/more powerful. Instead, we can free our hands to be generous: with our time, with each other, with our gifts and talents. Humility frees us to serve Jesus, who revealed to us the paradox that there is strength in weakness, and life in death.
Will you join me in a fast of humility? Will you follow Jesus? The way is long, but it is worth it.