Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Wednesday in Holy Week

Each day in Holy Week I am offering these meditations on the Gospel lesson assigned for that day. They will appear in my forthcoming Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus, to be published in November by Upper Room Books.

Scandalous Devotion

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 70
Hebrews 12:1-3
John 13:21-32 (12:1-11)

Lazarus had been dead, but was alive and eating dinner once again in Bethany where his sisters were giving a party in honor of Jesus. Martha served, as she always seems to do. And Mary was at Jesus’ feet—again—where she always seemed to be. This time, though, she was not his student but his embalmer.

Jesus was alive, still, of course, but not for much longer, if only he and maybe Mary seemed to know or sense it. Or perhaps it was with her gift that night the way it sometimes is with ours: we give what we give and we think it means one thing, but when the gift is received it signifies something else again. It is hard to know, sometimes, about things.

It is hard to know about people, too, and Judas, not least. He was the treasurer, John says, and also a thief. Maybe it was all just as simple as that: that Judas cared only about money, was as cold and heartless as we have been catechized. But here and there are hints, whispers, that maybe there was another side to him.

The Last Supper, for instance: the disciples wondered if, in honor of the feast, Jesus has told him to go and give something to poor. Which is to say, maybe even the disciples knew of his sympathy for the less-fortunate, knew that Jesus would trust him with such a task, that this was not the first time Judas had done such a thing or made such provision.

There is also this moment in Bethany, when with Lazarus eating and Martha serving, Mary embarrassed herself for love of the man who had raised her brother from the dead. Judas was scandalized, of course. But is that a sign of his hypocrisy, or of devotion?

No one spoke when Mary took her place at his feet, in company. But no self- or tradition-respecting woman would do such a thing. In front of her sister, maybe. Maybe. But in full view of the neighbors? Never.

Taking her hair down in public? No one speaks again, though the air is getting thick. A woman took her hair down only in private, and then only as a sign of deep intimacy—a sign that she “found her man.” Which is to say, for Mary to anoint Jesus’ feet in this way was as scandalous an act as Jesus’ washing his disciples feet a couple of nights later—and perhaps she gave him the idea.

The perfume? Pure nard. Expensive. Used for embalming. In a costly jar which Mary broke as regretlessly as she offered the rest of her scandalous devotion, her heart full to breaking with love and thanks and, also, I suspect, fear—the sense, if not the knowledge exactly, of what was coming.

And Judas could no longer hold his tongue. “This perfume should have been sold,” he said, “and the proceeds given to the poor.” The Evangelist cries foul, of course, and maybe Judas’ statement is simply disingenuous. But what if he had overheard, and taken to heart, the word of Jesus to the rich young man? What if Judas considered those words to be the Rabbi’s plain command: that if you have a treasure, you sell it and give it to the poor (Luke 18:22). That is the way to be perfect, Jesus had said.

And so Judas may indeed have seen Mary’s act not only as waste, but also as disobedient disrespect of their honored guest’s teaching.

More patiently than he might have, he told Judas to hold his peace, to be still. “There is a time for devotion,” he said, just as there is a time for sacrifice. There is a time for scandalous devotion, even, which is a different kind of selfless gift.

If anything, Jesus’ heart was fuller than Mary’s. His heart, too, would soon be broken for love of his friends, as Mary had broken the alabaster jar for love of him, his grace pouring out onto those he loved. The sweet aroma of his sacrifice still fills the world.

A broken jar; a broken heart; a broken body—each in their own ways scandalous acts of unaccountable love and devotion.

But what of Judas? There is the disquieting comfort in the story from a couple of nights later, at another supper, just Jesus and his closest followers. When he says, “One of you will betray me,” none of them seem to know who he means, at least not at first. They do not immediately think of Judas but rather ask in turn, “Lord, am I the one?”

It is easy to blame Judas, of course. And maybe he was just as cold and heartless as we have been taught to believe. What is harder is to ask whether we, each of us, might be the one. Hard to make that confession.


Have you ever demonstrated “scandalous devotion”? Have you ever prayed, “Lord, am I the one?” How have such experiences changed your spiritual journey?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tuesday in Holy Week

Each day in Holy Week I am offering these meditations on the Gospel lesson assigned for that day. They will appear in my forthcoming Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus, to be published in November by Upper Room Books.


Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 71:1-14
I Corinthians 1:18-31
John 12:20-36

There were essentially “three crowds” casting their shadows around Jesus during Holy Week. The first crowd were the users, those who just wanted something from Jesus, whether a personal miracle or political transformation—consider theirs the shadow of selfishness. These hailed him outside the city on Palm Sunday, wanted him to seize power and, when he achieved it, spread the wealth. Even some of Jesus’ own disciples were in this crowd at one time or the other: James and John had said, "Lord, grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at the left, when you come into your kingdom."

It could be that the Greeks in today’s gospel reading, Gentile God-fearers, perhaps, were themselves seeking audience for that very same reason: to ask something of Jesus, some sign or service. Whatever it was they were asking, Philip’s reporting of it told Jesus that the time had come.

Just as the arrival of the Gentile Magi signals that the one born King of the Jews was also Savior of the world, these Greeks’ request reveals that the one to be crucified as a threat to peace is actually its Prince.

A second crowd around Jesus comprised the abusers. Theirs is the shadow of malevolence. They hated Jesus and his message, wanted him gone and good riddance. Some of them—and perhaps Judas is to be accounted here—may have been believers at the first, following Jesus and welcoming his teaching. By Holy Week, though, they have rejected him, whether for his peaceful, turn-the-other cheek kind of gospel they considered too docile in the face of Roman occupation, or for his uncompromising God-first platform that seemed too radical a message for the current climate and a danger to the political d├ętente. In either case, as the cheers of the Palm Sunday crowd faded, these malevolent voices amped-up and won the day.

The third and by far largest of the crowds were those who were…unaware. Dwelling in the shadow of oblivion they did not attend the parade on Sunday. They were not at the Temple for the “cleansing” or the debates. They were just too busy with life, with children, with work, with stuff, with whatever it was they were busy with to take much notice at all of anything going on.

A friend concluded his Holy Week sermon by citing the last line of O Sacred Head Now Wounded: “O let me never, never outlive my love for Thee." He confessed that the phrase had haunted him his "conscious spiritual life," wondering what the hymn-writer might have meant, exactly, by that phrase. Was he thinking about death, praying that God would not let him live so long as to grow cold in his religious affections? Or was he acknowledging his place in that third shadow, in that third crowd where most of us find ourselves—so busy with life and its stuff that we are in danger of "outliving" our love to Jesus?


In which crowd do you find yourself? In what way does that shadow darken your spiritual path?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Monday in Holy Week

Each day in Holy Week I am offering these meditations on the Gospel lesson assigned for that day. They will appear in my forthcoming Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus, to be published in November by Upper Room Books.

Spring Cleaning

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 36:5-11
Hebrews 9:11-15
John 2:13-22 (John 12:1-11)

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the navel of the universe, said some, while others said it was just as turned-in on itself, a little hole full of filth and intrigue, graft and grime.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who murders the prophets—and the one hailed as the prophet from Nazareth will be only the latest.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who knows not the things that make for peace. Who does not realize the time of her visitation when Jesus comes to her, humbly and riding on a donkey or two.

When Jesus arrived in the Holy City, full as it was of unholy alliances, to Matthew’s memory it was the first time, and also the last, that Jesus had or would visit the Jerusalem. Luke recounts two visits: when Jesus was circumcised, and when he amazed the teachers at age twelve. John’s recollection, however, is that, like most observant Jews, Jesus had been a more or less regular visitor to the city and also to the Temple. Jesus had taught there, healed there, too, and more than once. He was familiar with the place and its particulars.

In Jesus’ time, the Temple represented both God’s bountiful provision and the also the Romans’ stifling occupation. The archetypal symbol of Jewish freedom, the Temple had gradually become emblematic of the parasitic complicity between the Romans and the Temple authorities. The Romans demanded tribute—protection money. Taxes collected at the Temple were a chief source of the revenue.

The complicity was compounded with idolatry: the money intended for YHWH, King of the Universe, blessed be He, wound-up in the coffers of Tiberius, self-proclaimed god of all the world. Meanwhile, the religious leaders, concerned above all else to protect the Temple itself, acceded as the increasingly oppressive purpose of the Temple was monetized.

Money changing was perfectly legal, of course—and a real service, it could always be argued, for those who traveled long distances to worship. But profit had had overtaken prayer as the Temple’s primary enterprise. Business had subsumed the sacred. And on that Monday, Jesus tore up the place. He cleaned, as it were, God’s House.

His actions that day recall other reformers in Jewish history, Kings Hezekiah and Josiah, especially. During each of their reigns the Temple had become cluttered with stuff—booths, people, furniture and behaviors that did not belong in God’s sanctuary. These “things” were signs of syncretism and idolatry. And though God had commanded that the faithful “have no other gods” before God nor make room for any “graven image” to stand in God’s place, gradually the people had cluttered the Temple with unholy things.

We are likewise guilty, of course. The churches we attend, the temple of our hearts, the architecture of our souls–spaces are carved, built or emptied, to provide a proper venue, a meeting place, for us to experience God: a space for God alone to fill. Gradually, though, we begin to fill in the emptiness with stuff. The stuff may or may not have religious or historic value, sacramental or sacred worth. In any case such “things” come between us and God, are “before God,” shielding us from the terrible and wonderful intimacy that engenders true epiphanies.

Church “work” is one of those buffers. Behind the wall of her kitchen in Bethany Martha is busy doing making dinner for Jesus. Her work for him keeps her safely away from him. Similarly, there is a danger that for those who are busiest for God, many times their busyness is "before" God—not just in terms of priority but also proximity. Our works can be an effective shield against religious experiences, places to hide, self-styled protection against the terror and wonder of real prayer and worship.

On that long-ago Monday, Jesus’ actions in the Temple were directed against the priests and the “work” of the Temple, the religious professionals and their helpers, who like contemporary preachers and their people may do their religious work as a kind of self-care. Imagining, perhaps vainly, that we are serving God, we may find that, in truth, we are in seeking only protection, whether to from our creditors or our Creator.


What stands “before” God in your spiritual life, not so much as idol, though it could be, but perhaps as a wall, a buffer, a shield against genuine religious experience?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lent--The Awkward Season

A new book published by Upper Room has a most intriguing title: The Awkward Season.

The book concerns Lent, the period of fasting and prayer that many Christians and congregations observe this time of year. Think of it as a form of spiritual spring cleaning—getting rid of some of the old stuff to make more room for God.

That said, Lent is an awkward season, even for those who observe it. Trying to explain it to those who don’t observe Lent proves just how awkward.

Lent begins on a Wednesday and ends on a Thursday. Its 40 days are spread over parts of seven weeks, but you don’t count Sundays.

Sundays are always reminders of the resurrection (since it was early on “the first day of the week” that the women discovered the tomb was empty). That is the reason we say, the Fourth Sunday in Lent as opposed to the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Awkward.

That is also the reason that, for example, if you have given-up chocolate for Lent, you can eat a Hershey bar on Sunday. Since our Lord is not dead but alive and with us, and since Jesus himself said that his disciples cannot fast when the Bridegroom is with them, we don’t, you know, fast on Sundays. (From personal experience, though, I must tell you that going against the vow on Sunday makes things harder on Monday.)

So Sunday’s are not a part of Lent. Still, we preachers drape our sanctuaries in purple and offer somber sermons. Every Sunday in Lent we pray long prayers full of deep confession and contrition, invite our people to lament and bewail their manifold sins and wickedness. Except on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, when, as we do on the Third Sunday of Advent, we take a little break from our gloom and fasting (assuming we have started to fast), to rejoice in our (costly) redemption. Oh, and this time it was Girl Scout Sunday, too! Really awkward.

But then we are back at the lamentation stuff for a couple of more weeks until, on the last little Easter before Big Easter, we wave palm branches at the first of the service only to shift gears and read the entire crucifixion narrative before leaving the service in silence. Awkward.

The weather doesn’t help, either. Outside there are buds and blossoms, green on the trees, but inside, in our sacred places, we try to keep our attentions onto a barren cross, dead wood, lashed, a reminder not of new life but an old death. Awkward.

There is yet one more awkwardness—most of the rest of the year, preachers expend considerable energy telling their people not to think so much about themselves. In Lent, though, we encourage people to think about themselves—their own sins and shortcomings and no one else’s. That we are mostly unable to do the former means we are mostly ineffective at the latter. That makes Lent very awkward indeed.