Easter Vigil (C): The Mysterious Night

Easter Vigil (C): The Mysterious Night

John 20:1-18

By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The challenge of preaching during Holy Week and on Easter is that once again, only a year after we’ve told this story, it’s time to tell this story again.

Don’t get me wrong: as far as stories go, it’s a good one. It’s actually the main one for Christians. Christ died, buried, and risen again.

But when you’re a preacher tasked with inviting people into the story year after year anew, almost as if they’ve never heard it before, it’s easy to be intimidated.

It’s in these moments that having multiple versions of the story comes in handy. The lectionary rotates the stories around each year, changing up when we read one passage for Easter Vigil and when we read a different passage for Easter Day. We keep it rotating, and though the changes may seem small, they always provide us with particular lenses through which we can tell the new, old story.

This time around, the Johannine version of the story is reserved for Easter Vigil, which is delightful since the passage begins, “while it was still dark.” Because there is an aura of mystery in the night, there is rich imagery to explore in the mystery of the night, the mystery of the Easter story, and the mystery of faith in the resurrection.

There is mystery in the night simply because we cannot see as clearly in the dark as we can see when the sun is out. This sense of mystery and healthy fear would be embedded in us as animals from generations, dating way before we had electricity and ways to light up entire rooms efficiently. We honor this mystery in a couple different evening services in the life of the church: Easter Vigil and Christmas Eve are two most common, and both of those are connected to the mysterious incarnation of Christ.

There is mystery embedded in the story. Mary Magdalene arrives to the tomb first, and she is shocked and confused to find the stone rolled away. She thinks the body has been stolen, which is a sentiment that seems mysterious to current readers of the text. There is a mystery about who she goes to—Simon Peter and “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.” And they do not know more than she does, in fact, the story tells us that they did not understand the scripture.

It is only when Mary Magdalene speaks with the angels and Jesus in the tomb that she realizes that Jesus is not dead, but alive. At first Mary Magdalene did not recognize him—though it is unclear whether that’s because she was so upset and unexpectant or because his post-resurrection self was hard to recognize. Either way, there is mystery surrounding the whole encounter, from the presence of angels to the recognition of Jesus.

Just as Mary Magdalene could not figure out where they took her Lord and just as the disciples “did not understand the scripture,” so it might be with the people of God gathered for Easter Vigil. People come to our churches on Easter for a variety of reasons: tradition, obligation, devotion, or any mix of the three. There are many who will be with us for Easter Vigil and Easter Day that are not sure how to make sense of the Easter story. It is full of mystery, not just for the followers of Jesus who found an empty tomb, but for those of us who read the story today.

Perhaps it is of great comfort for those who have a harder time making sense of the Easter story and the resurrection to hear that they are not alone in the mystery. Just as making one’s way through the dark is scarier alone than with other people, feeling like the only one in the room who can’t make sense of the mysteries of faith is scarier than knowing that there is room in the church for uncertainty. There was room for Mary Magdalene, there was room for Simon Peter and “the other one,” and there is room for all who are ready to embrace the mystery of our Christian faith.

And if we’re lucky, when we embrace the mystery of our Christian faith in the darkened setting of Easter Vigil, we can say that “We have seen the Lord.”

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The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram serves as the Director of Religious Life and Chaplain of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. She grew up in non-denominational evangelical land and is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She earned a BA from Anderson University, a Master of Theological Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and a PhD in Religion and Psychological Studies from the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. Her areas of interest include education, practical theology, and escaping overthinking by baking, crafting, and watching TV.

Maundy Thursday (C): A Daring Love

Maundy Thursday (C): A Daring Love

John 13:1-17; 31b-35

By: The Rev. Andrew Hege

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

John’s Gospel text, appointed for this evening in Holy Week, invites us into the dining room of a home somewhere in the city of Jerusalem. It is not a familiar setting, for us or for Jesus and congregation his friends sitting around the table. From the other Gospel writers, we know that this is a borrowed table in the home of an unnamed resident.

The night that brings them around that table is the night that is different from every other night—the night that, for first-century Jews, the night of remembering the story we will also read from the Exodus. This night is a moment to pause and to recall with thanksgiving the great faithfulness of God who acted in mercy toward the people of Israel, bound for generations in slavery in the land of Egypt. It is a night to remember an identity.

And yet, all over again, this night is about to become different from every other night. Even as the twelve are around the table, Jesus is setting in motion a new remembrance; a new act of God’s mercy.

The sacred ritual that will mark this new, old remembrance is an act of humility; a chore reserved not for the leader of the movement but for the servant of the household. By removing his outer robe and wrapping the towel around his waist, the night became new and different all over again.

As the simple sound of pouring water strikes the bottom of the basin, one can almost sense the tension that must be present in the room.

What is he doing? Has he forgotten?

No, in fact, he is remembering who he truly is, as he attentively washes and tenderly dries the first pair of feet, then the next, and the next.

Simon Peter, for those in the room and, truly, for all of us, names the tension. To Jesus he wonders aloud, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus, in reply, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

And, in response, “You will never wash my feet.” Just like that, so many of us find, in this old Gospel lesson, a person with whom we can relate. Not me. Not my feet, Lord.

You will never wash my feet that haven’t had time to receive a pedicure.

You will never wash my feet that have walked around in these shoes all day long.

You will never wash my feet that went to the gym during the lunch hour.

Lord, you will never wash my feet.

To this, Jesus issues the most difficult of his responses: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Tough words, for the disciples around the table and for us who hear this text some two millennia later.

Their Lord and Teacher reminds them of his place among them; an example that they have seen and should go forth to imitate themselves—servants are not greater than their masters and messengers are not greater than their senders. But the teaching, the message, he tells them, is in this mandatum, this new commandment:

That you love one another.

Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

All that Jesus has showed them, all that he has taught them, all that he has sought to share with them in their journey has been summed up in this single and simple way: Love one another.

It is a daring love.

But let’s be honest about what the disciples either did not or could not say in that sweet, solemn moment: Loving one another like this sounds well and good; but when put into practice, it is not as simple as Jesus makes it sound.

Love one another.

Love one another and bear each other’s burdens.

Love one another and feel one another’s pains.

Love one another and allow the possibility of being hurt.

Love one another and open yourself to being understood in your depths.

Love one another and make amends where you have wronged the other.

Love one another and put your arm around the one who cries, who hungers.

Love one another and be willing to love even to the point of washing one another’s feet, as Jesus has knelt to wash those of his closest friends, his tender hands touching their dusty, calloused feet.

It is daring because this kind of love bids the invitation to open up to be seen for who one really is; to experience the type of intimacy that everything around warns us to guard ourselves from; to be vulnerable enough to look into another person’s eyes as they wash with water the calloused skin of a bare foot.

Love such as this is not easy because it is the type of genuine love that does not come cheaply.  This love comes at a cost; at a great expense. But in and through and by such love, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Do we dare love so deeply?

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The Rev. Andrew Hege

The Rev. Andrew J. Hege serves as the Assistant to the Rector at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Andrew is an ardent golfer, occasional runner, and an avid reader of historical fiction. Ordained a priest in January 2015, Andrew is married to Amanda Schroeder Hege.

 

 

 

 

 

Palm Sunday: No Hope Here

Palm Sunday: No Hope Here

Luke 23:1-49

By: Kristen Leigh Mitchell

If you’re looking for ways to spin the narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion and death as the story of salvation, read no further, because that’s not what I’m going to offer here. In fact, I’d like to suggest that the crucifixion itself is not a story of hope and salvation, that it was never meant to be, and that trying to pretend like it is will always do more damage than good, leading us inevitably into moral and theological error.

And yes, I do still consider myself a theologically orthodox Christian.

A great deal has been written over the past century on the subject of atonement theology, and far more qualified theologians than I have already done the work of deconstructing the heresies associated with the idea of “substitutionary atonement” –the idea that Jesus “had to die” on the cross in order to pay the price for human sin by satisfying God’s wrath against all humanity for disobeying him in the Garden of Eden. It’s unnecessary for me to repeat all the criticisms of this theology here, but I highly commend Elizabeth Johnson’s excellent new book Creation and the Cross, along with Brock & Parker’s lengthy but thorough historical analysis in Saving Paradise.

 Suffice to say, while many people in the U.S.—Christians and non-Christians alike –still believe substitutionary atonement to be a core tenet of the Christian faith, most people with even the slightest bit of theological education or awareness of Western history know that the idea was not part of the Christian faith until Anselm of Canterbury proposed the doctrine in the 11th century, which was right around the same time that we find the earliest images of the crucifixion showing up in Christian art.

In other words, for the first 1,000 years of Christianity, there were no images of Jesus dying on the cross, and no references to Jesus’ death or the crucifixion event itself as being constitutive of salvation. Apparently, crucifixion is not necessarily the core of Christian faith.

Many mainline clergy and theologians have long since rejected Anselm’s child-like notions of the need to appease the abusive wrath of a parental deity with a blood sacrifice. But most still attempt to re-frame the crucifixion in “positive” terms, spiritualizing it as a metaphor for “kenosis,” self-sacrifice, or non-violent resistance. They attempt to reject Anselm’s doctrine while still retaining a framework that places Jesus’ death at the center of the faith. And yet, we still end up with a theology that is built around—and dependent upon—violence. This is a theology that teaches that the ends can justify the means—a theology which can only perpetuate and enable cycles of abuse and oppression by glorifying suffering and victimhood in such a way that encourages people to stay in abusive and oppressive relationships.

While Christians of the first millennium seemed to reframe everything in the context of life—incarnation, resurrection, and the redemption of the world—the crucifixion-based theologies of the second millennium dealt only in death, shifting the focus to the next world while giving up on this one. At the end of the day, this is a theology of despair, and has accordingly encouraged and contributed to the despair and death of far too many women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others who have found themselves defenseless on the wrong side of a power dynamic. Rather than experiencing God as one who calls us out of patterns of human violence and into new and redeemed life in Christ, many victims of violence believe that God is pleased by their suffering, demanding the erasure of selfhood for the sake of redeeming oppressors.

This is not the Gospel. It is nothing more than codependency writ large, and then reframed as a religion. This does not point the way to salvation. It is simply a defense mechanism that makes suffering more bearable by spiritualizing it and reframing it as altruistic.

I am convinced that no matter how you spin it, there is no way to frame the crucifixion narrative as positive or necessary without falling into this morally and theologically debased trap. I am also convinced that we do not need to frame the crucifixion as positive or necessary in order to be grounded in the Gospel Truth.

The story of the incarnation constitutes our hope and salvation. The story of the resurrection constitutes our hope and salvation. But the story of the crucifixion is a tragedy nothing more. It is the tragic story of a pattern that plays out in our world every single day, over and over again—in workplaces, in courtrooms, in classrooms, in churches, in living rooms, in bedrooms –a pattern in which the people most responsible for harm are the ones most shielded from having to take responsibility for it. A pattern in which oppressors look like victims, and innocents are framed as villains. A pattern in which those with power can wash their hands of blame, while the masses find easy scapegoats that can satisfy the desire for “justice” in ways that avoid addressing underlying power dynamics and allow us to return to the safety of the status quo. It is a pattern in which victims are left with no recourse but to accept whatever blame is foisted upon them, knowing that if they try to defend themselves, they will only invite more blame, and more suffering.

This is what makes the story of the crucifixion matter. And this is why it is important to tell it in all its vivid, excruciating detail. Not because it is a story that constitutes our redemption, but because it provides us with the recognizable context that makes resurrection matter. This is the hell that we are saved from – a hell that the poor and the oppressed know well, and will immediately recognize. It is a hell that must be named, because so many people are in the midst of it right now. We see crucifixion in abusive relationships. We see crucifixion in the structural racism that is built into our criminal justice system. We see crucifixion in the religiously-motivated dehumanization of LGBTQ people. We see crucifixion in bizarre stories like the one recently reported by the NY Times in which an innocent kid with codependency issues became the scapegoat for the tragic death of his friends, while the landlords and the city officials responsible for ensuring the building’s safety washed their hands of it.

The crucifixion is a story that needs to be told so that the people who find themselves living in this hell can understand that even though this is what happens, this is not God’s will, and they are not alone, and no matter what happens or how they are made to suffer, this is not the end. The crucifixion only has meaning through the lens of resurrection, and that this is the only way in which we can frame it through a lens of hope.

On Palm Sunday (and Good Friday) we must resist the urge to skip ahead to Easter by giving the crucifixion narrative a happy spin, or trying to frame it within a theology where violence is part of God’s plan, and realize that we tell the story of crucifixion so that we can name the truth about who we are as human beings, and the kinds of insanity that we are saved from, through a faith that would never call us into this kind of death, but always calls us into new life beyond death.

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Kristen Leigh Mitchell

Kristen Leigh Mitchell, M.Div. is a freelance writer, theologian, and indie-folk singer-songwriter based in Asheboro, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, the Rev. Joe Mitchell, and their dog Casey. Kristen graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2014, where she focused on theology and the arts. Kristen leads classes, retreats, and workshops, and regularly performs music at venues across central North Carolina.

 

 

Easter Sunday (C): The “Crazy” Mysticism of Easter

Easter Sunday (C): The “Crazy” Mysticism of Easter

Luke 24:1–12

By: The Rev. Dr. Daniel London

 

The word that resonates most deeply with me in Luke 24:1–12 is the word which the NRSV translates as “idle talk.” In the original Greek, the word is layros, which means “nonsense” or “folly” or “crazy talk.” The idea of male apostles dismissing the women and their testimony as “crazy” reminds me of the Nike commercial in which Serena Williams exposes the sexism within professional sports that derides female athletes as “crazy” for demonstrating human emotion and ambition. In the ad, Serena makes clear that the women who have initially been dismissed as crazy ultimately prove themselves to be truly courageous and awe-inspiring. Similarly, the women in Luke 24 inspire amazement in the one person who chose to take them seriously. Personally, I have had my fair share of skepticism in response to people’s mystical experiences of the Risen Christ. However, whenever I choose to remain open and look more deeply into such testimonies, I often become amazed and even transformed by that which I initially dismissed.

I teach a class on English Spirituality and Mysticism in which we study medieval English mystics such as Julian of Norwich, the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, Walter Hilton, and Richard Rolle, who each describe mystical encounters with the Risen Christ in their own unique way. Perhaps the most eccentric of them all is Margery Kempe, who was derided by many in her lifetime and who remains unsettling to readers today. In The Book of Margery Kempe, which is the earliest extant autobiography written in English, Margery describes her experiences with the Risen Christ and the colorful ways in which she expressed her devotion in the 15th century.[i] She would weep, howl, shriek, moan, and roar excessively in the middle of worship services and homilies. She would wear white clothing, a sign of virginity, even though she had fourteen children. On her many pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Spain, Rome, Germany, and beyond, she would zealously tell others about her devout piety, whether they wanted to hear or not. Many of her contemporaries discredited her as hysterical or heretical or simply rejected her words as “idle talk” (layros). In fact, some scholars today question the veracity of her account altogether, arguing that her Book is really a fiction.[ii]

I see Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, and the other women of Luke 24 as the spiritual mothers of female Christian mystics like Margery Kempe who have been dismissed as crazy but who inspire astonishment in those who choose to take them seriously. These women were the first people to encounter the Risen Christ, the apostles to the apostles, and, like many of their spiritual descendants, their words were considered nonsense according to the men in authority at the time. God chose these women as the first people to witness the resurrection of Christ, perhaps because God knew that they alone would have the courage and strength to be true and faithful to their own experience. Even when their words were discarded by the apostles, they did not seem to waver at all or question their experience of the angels and the empty tomb. They seemed to persist in their message in spite of the apostle’s doubts, thus proving that their faith was, in many ways, superior. Like Peter, who decided to look more deeply into these women’s testimony, I have personally been amazed by the Christian female mystics whose experiences of the Risen Christ have enriched and informed my own. When I probe more deeply into the testimony of Margery Kempe, I become encouraged and amazed by the compassion of the Risen Christ as manifested in her life.

I am moved when I learn that Margery’s copious tears were shed for all people, especially those who were suffering and those whom the church had considered damned. Like Julian of Norwich, Margery’s hopes bended towards universal salvation. I am encouraged by Margery’s experience of Christ’s presence in her day-to-day life, in her travels, trials, and tears. She heard Jesus say to her, “When you go to church, I go with you; when you sit at your meal, I sit with you; when you go to bed, I go with you; and when you go out of town, I go with you.”[iii] Towards the end of her life, Margery experienced Christ’s presence most powerfully in menial and mundane tasks and especially in caring for the sick and needy, including her severely injured and disabled husband. Because she lost one of her sons to a fatal sickness, she felt a deep kinship to Jesus’s mother Mary. In one of her visions, she comforts Mary after Christ’s death by serving her a “good hot drink of gruel and spiced wine.”[iv] In this same vision, she visits with Mary Magdalene, with whom she also felt a kinship, as the Risen Christ appeared to them both. Perhaps the greatest gift I discover in reading Margery’s Book is the invitation to encounter the Risen Christ in my own day-to-day life, in my own travels, trials, and tears. This gift helps me realize that the invitation of Easter is, after all, an invitation to mystical experience with the Risen Christ.

Sometimes the term “mystical” can turn people off because it sounds too obscure and esoteric and a bit like “crazy talk” (layros). However, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner insisted, “The Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic’ or will cease to be anything at all.”[v] According to Rahner, the future of Christianity depends on our willingness to take seriously the invitation of the Christian female mystics, which is the same invitation of Easter: to encounter the Risen Christ in our lives here and now, no matter how crazy that might seem. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, Margery Kempe, and countless other female mystics urge us to let our imaginations be stirred and inspired by the resurrection. To those whose thinking is dominated by death, the resurrection-stirred imagination will seem like nonsense (1 Corinthians 1:18), but not to those who look deeply and peer curiously into the empty tomb. For those who refuse to dismiss the women’s testimony as layros, the Risen Christ is waiting to be discovered and experienced here and now in the “crazy” mysticism of Easter.

[i] The Book of Margery Kempe, trans. and ed. B. A. Windeatt (Harmondsworth: Penguin), 1985. A helpful introduction to Margery Kempe and the medieval English mystics is Joan M. Nuth, God’s Lovers in an Age of Anxiety: The Medieval English Mystics (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2001), 121-140. Also recommended is Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism 1350 – 1550 (New York: Herder and Herder, 2012), 331-490.

[ii] Lynn Staley, Margery Kempe’s Dissenting Fictions (University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).

[iii] The Book of Margery Kempe 1:14, 66.

[iv] The Book of Margery Kempe 1:81, 236.

[v] Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations VII, trans. David Bourke (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), 15.

Fr. Daniel at Christ Church
The Rev. Dr. Daniel London

The Rev. Dr. Daniel London is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka California. He earned his PhD in Christian Spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley California and teaches English Spirituality and Mysticism at the Center for Anglican Learning and Leadership (CALL). An abbreviated version of this course is available at ChurchNext. When he’s not reading the English Mystics, he is sauntering through the redwoods, playing acoustic guitar and ukulele, or listening to music from his modest vinyl record collection, with his wife Dr. Ashley London Bacchi.

 

 

Good Friday(C): A Long Look in the Mirror

Good Friday(C): A Long Look in the Mirror

John 18:1-19:42

By: The Rev. Lori Walke

Preacher Fred Craddock advised lectionary preachers to “distinguish between lengthy readings that are single narratives and those which consist of collected teachings. The key is to be sensitive to the integrity of the text – that is, its inner most unity, whether it is one verse or fifty.”[1]

So what is a preacher to do about the Gospel selection for Good Friday? The pericope is over 80 verses long! On one hand, it is easily broken down into smaller narratives. There’s Jesus’ arrest in the garden and then the questioning and trials (first in front of Caiaphas, then Pilate). We overhear Peter’s three denials of being a disciple. Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and burial could each be a specialized attention. It would be reasonable to give a nod to the entire reading, but then focus on just one of those scenes. There is enough material in each of them for a sermon.

But in the context of Good Friday, slicing-and-dicing the text into smaller chunks isn’t particularly effective. To hear all eighty verses is to walk the entire road with Jesus. We should sit with the gravity of it, if nothing more than to note that even just reading it elicits tension and grief, even anxiousness to get it over with. Sunday’s coming, right?! Some of us might also admit beginning to count all the opportunities there were to stop the madness or at least join Jesus in the fray. Take your pick of the people who interacted with Jesus in the passage: the disciples, Caiaphas, Pilate, Peter, or anyone in the crowd. Where was their compassion, and, for the disciples, where was their conviction? Even though we know how the story ends, there is something about reading the entire narrative that elicits frustration over the abandonment and suffering of Jesus, maybe even a little judgment.

Why didn’t Peter admit to being a follower of Jesus? Why didn’t Caiaphas use his position as high priest to apply divine wisdom to the situation? Why didn’t Pilate listen to his better angels? Why didn’t anyone in the crowd do some fact checking? All of which low-key implies that we might have responded differently. Most of us are too humble to admit it out loud, of course. Just as we are sure we would have been marching with Dr. King during the Civil Rights Movement, we are certain we would have been right there beside Jesus through it all. There is, of course, an easy way to find out what we would have done in their shoes: take a long look in the mirror.

If we wonder what we would have done in the garden, whether or not we would have been peacemakers in the face of violence, we might reflect on our current behavior. What we are doing now gives us the answer. Are we offering a theological response to war? What about gun violence in our own neighborhoods? How about peace between our own relatives?

If we wonder how we would have answered the question of loyalty posed three times to Peter, we should consider to what extent we are willing to be inconvenienced in order to follow Jesus. What we are doing now gives us the answer. We are usually happy to be generous, as long as it doesn’t impact whether or not we can afford another cable station. We are typically willing to help a stranger out with gas or a meal, as long as it doesn’t interfere with our morning Starbucks run.

If we wonder what we would have done during Jesus’ trial, we might evaluate our connections to our neighbors and neighborhood. What we are doing now gives us the answer. How much do we know about the single mom living across the street? Have we exchanged more than a superficial hello with the family next door? If they were in trouble, would we know enough to step in and offer help? We might be interested in what’s happening to them, but that’s different than being invested in them.

As we sit with such a heavy text, let us use it as a mirror. Whatever we might have done in the garden, at the trial, or at the foot of the cross, we are already doing. Or not.

[1] Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990) 91.

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The Rev. Lori Walke

The Rev. Lori Walke, J.D., is the associate minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC, a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, Oklahoma State University, and is currently working on her Doctor of Ministry at Emory University. Raised by faithful Baptists, she found in a home in the United Church of Christ, where she is part of the Next Generation Leadership Initiative, a program focused on energizing and sustaining younger, emerging UCC local church pastors. She is married to Collin Walke, an attorney and State Representative for House District 87, and together the “Rev & the Rep” try to make as much trouble in the name of Jesus and justice as they can.

Lent 5(B): An Uncomfortable Meal

Lent 5(B): An Uncomfortable Meal

John 12:1-8

By: The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

I hate it when my thoughts are given voice by the villains in stories. It’s just the worst.

Every time I read this passage about Mary’s extravagant and symbolic display of affection and devotion, I get uncomfortable. It makes me feel like I’ve awkwardly stumbled into a very romantic and intimate moment between Mary and Jesus. Just imagine, you’ve been invited to a dinner at Lazarus’ house, which is already kind of strange because Lazarus died. But now, Lazarus is alive again somehow and willing to host a meal at his home with his sisters Martha and Mary. Lazarus is listed as the host of the party, but Martha serves all the food. Then Mary pulls out some incredibly expensive perfume and rubs three-quarters of a pound of it into Jesus’ feet, lets down her hair, and rubs his feet again with her hair. This is so intimate.

Feet are intimate. Hair being let down is intimate. This is all very intimate. I can only imagine how awkward it would have been to be present for such a moment. Because of that, I know I would have had a million thoughts in my head about how inappropriate it was. The easiest to justify is that the use of three-quarters of a pound of pure nard was wasteful. If you’re going to make the dinner party uncomfortable, at least be thrifty. At least make an attempt at maintaining some holiness and decency.

Then Judas voices my discomfort and I feel a wave of shame wash over me.

The parenthetical verses explaining that Judas was the disciple who betrayed Jesus (12:4) and that his concern for the poor was a lie (12:6) don’t help either. Judas’ concern about the inappropriate use of perfume had nothing to do with any real care for the poor. He was concerned only about his comfort in a weird and intimate moment. Judas was concerned about his own desires for material wealth and the comfort that his position afforded him. Seeing a real and tangible display of affection for Jesus disrupted that sense of comfort and demonstrated a threat to Judas’ way of life.

I don’t really want to be too hard on Judas here. I think Judas represents more of us than we would like to admit. He’s a part of a new movement of religious hopefuls that are eager to overthrow the roman occupation and rebuild the Kingdom of God with power and wealth that had last been seen by Solomon. The only model for a new kingdom that any of have ever known is built with wealth and power, not with submission and love. His motivation is very human.

But, it isn’t the way of Jesus.

And that is the tension we stand in.

On this fifth Sunday in Lent, we are on the edge of the most dramatic and overwhelming weeks of our year. We are about to worship through the very real tension between our expectations of a new King that will overthrow an oppressive empire and the let down at watching him be crucified by his own religious community in the very same week before the drama of resurrection on Easter Sunday. This story about Mary’s intimate love for Jesus and Judas’ discomfort with her wastefulness is a perfect reminder of this tension. Mary is able to worship Jesus sacrificially and wholeheartedly as the Lord of life who can transcend death. And Judas is stuck wanting some benefit for himself.

So, this Sunday, I think it is important to do the important work of just sitting with this tension. For me, I do still kind of wish Jesus would use the power of God to just fix everything. I am disappointed that Jesus’ ministry was cut short after just a few years. I wonder what would have happened if he were willing to play by the rules of society. I imagine our world would look very different.

But, then again, it probably wouldn’t. As it turns out, humanity is already too good at using power and wealth to get more power and wealth. That is a cycle that seems to perpetuate itself. Mary demonstrates a drastically different way of pursuing life. She just loves extravagantly. Jesus shows a new way of life. He becomes a servant to the world in order to disrupt the cycle.

Preaching this scripture is weird. It’s a little too intimate and if you read it wrong, it can sound like Jesus doesn’t care about the poor. But I think that is a good reason to wrestle with this passage. It is a perfect reminder for all of us to reconsider the motives of our faith. Thank God for that.

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The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber currently serves as the pastor to North Decatur United Methodist Church in Decatur Georgia, and as an associate to the Greater Decatur Cooperative Parrish. He and his wife Susannah Bales live with their dogs in Decatur, where they enjoy the wonderful food, fabulous walking trails, and creative spirit of the community.

Lent 4(C): Prodigal Grace

Lent 4(C): Prodigal Grace

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr.

Economics has long been called “the dismal science,” and, for me, the Parable of the Prodigal Son conjures memories of economics class in college. I am not what one would call, “a math person,” but rather someone much more interested in the roots of suffering than the root of an integer. In a nutshell, I’m bad at math, and I’d rather not do it to any great extent.

Imagine my horror on my first day of economics class. Numbers and equations, graphs and charts all spelled “doom” as I calculated that I needed four full semesters of this stuff to graduate college. Yet, somehow, from all these numbers I gleaned that there exists a “supply” of goods to be sold and a “demand” for them to be bought, and a good’s price depends on where this supply and demand meet.

Generally, as the demand for something increases, all other things being equal, its price increases. More people want something, so it becomes more expensive. As supply increases, the price of an object decreases. Because there is more to sell, and the same amount of demand, the object becomes cheaper. For example, if there are a ton of apples rotting in a warehouse, they are likely to be sold at a lower price than if apples were rare, juicy, and in demand. Or something like that.[1]

Early on in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer rails against what he calls cheap grace. “Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares,” he writes.[2] For Bonhoeffer, cheap grace is the disease by which the Christian comes to rest on their laurels. With cheap grace, a Christian is led to believe “the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.”[3] Cheap grace produces no change of life, no discipleship, but rather becomes a throwaway commodity, an abundance of rotten apples.

After despairing at the abundance of cheap grace, Bonhoeffer establishes the concept of costly grace. He does this by metaphorically limiting its supply, saying, “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has.”[4] The pastor writes that, because God’s sacrifice on the cross cost much, therefore grace itself costs the Christian much, even their life. Now, Bonhoeffer is rightly calling for Christians to display some sort of counter-cultural living and oppose the Nazi regime. His argument calls others to live like grace changes something. Costly grace is precious and rare. Costly grace is eight juicy granny smith apples when everyone wants to bake a pie.

Even the great Bonhoeffer cannot escape the laws of supply and demand, and Jesus paints a picture of extremely cheap grace. The supply is literally unlimited, driving its price down to zero. In this week’s parable, the youngest son wastes everything he has, spending himself into poverty. The father lavishes love, forgiveness, and—yes—money on his returned son by throwing an extravagant party. Only the older brother, who lived a life of moderation, wound up angry and corrected. I can hear the older brother yelling, “Cheap grace!” as he argues with his father.

This week, in the midst of our Lenten discipline, I will relish the opportunity to celebrate grace that is prodigal. Prodigal grace is neither cheap nor costly but rather hyper-abundant. From the Magnificat to the breaking of bread in Emmaus, Luke announces that Jesus brings the world into God’s economy. This economy is not bound by the earthly laws of supply and demand, for one could argue that the demand of sin is eternally high. God foolishly and enthusiastically showers us with grace upon grace, believing like the parable’s father that our life is worth celebrating. Yet, in God’s world, that which is abundant remains extremely valuable; a precious gift.

While many may wish for grace to be cheap, many others still prefer it remain too expensive for most to afford. The weekly churchgoer, faithful though they may be, may likely see themselves as the prodigal son, the forgiven one. However, their actions may be more like the older brother, preferring that the price of God’s love remain out of the reach of “those people.” Some may even quote Bonhoeffer down their noses, demanding to see signs of costly grace. This parable, however, reminds us that even (especially) the spendthrift, the disrespectful, the prodigal remain loved and celebrated and welcomed. Perhaps the change that Bonhoeffer wishes grace to cause is the movement from self-righteous brother to extravagant father.

I may not know economics, but I have an understanding of prodigal grace. Prodigal grace changes lives, however freely given it is. Prodigal grace provides homes for those who can’t seem to pay their bills on time. Prodigal grace welcomes refugees even though they overstayed a tourist visa. Prodigal grace prays with a prisoner after their guilty verdict. Prodigal grace puts one’s life on the line for those persecuted in Nazi Germany. Prodigal grace is priceless, lavished on those who can’t afford it. Prodigal grace offends the pious. Prodigal grace even forgives the bad joke at the end of an essay. How do you like dem apples?

[1] For information on this phenomenon from someone who actually understands this, Khan Academy has a little crash course. https://www.khanacademy.org/economics-finance-domain/microeconomics/supply-demand-equilibrium

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Touchstone, 1995), Apple Books.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

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The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr.

The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr., is the pastor of Saint Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough, Massachusetts. He is a native of the Jersey Shore, and he thinks sand in his car is the mark of a summer well spent. Joe is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.