805,000,000 results: Googling Jesus

Sermon for Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013 on Luke 24:1-12

Luke 24:1-12


But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but

when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

As of Good Friday, if you did a Google search for “Jesus” you would get 817 million results in less than half a second.  Who knew that searching for Jesus could be so easy?

As it turns out, if you search for “happiness,” “joy,” or “meaning in life,” you get, in order, 244 million, 696 million, and 1 billion, 140 million results from Google.


So, it’s a cinch nowadays to find everything you need, from “Jesus” to “meaning in life;” Google can help you find it, in half the time it takes to say “one, one thousand.”

Reasons for Doubt

But can you believe what you find in these search results?  Anybody can post anything on the internet for Google to find.   In fact, if someone wrote in their blog that they did not believe in Jesus, at least not in his resurrection from the dead, nor in happiness, joy or meaning in life, then his blog post would be one of Google’s search results for each of the terms: jesus, happiness, joy and meaning in life.   Searching for “Jesus” on Google may therefore lead you to find blogs by people who have stopped searching for Jesus.

Some people have indeed stopped searching for Jesus.  Who could blame them?  After all the things that have been said and done in Jesus’ name, by people who claim him as their reason or their excuse, it’s a wonder that anyone believes they can find the real thing.

For everyone who came here today with real doubts; with problems believing that this Easter story we tell is true, hear this: I completely understand.  In fact you are in very good company.

This story has never been easy to believe – it certainly wasn’t easy at first for the original characters in the story, and it has been made harder to believe by thing s that have happened


since: from church-sponsored Crusades in the Middle Ages, to clergy sex-abuse scandals in our generation.  The church has some repenting to do; it has been, in the past, anti-science, anti-women, anti-gay, and way too cozy with power politics.

I almost can’t believe I’m here.  I grew up in an uber-Christian, bible-believing, evangelical, Protestant local church that had everything from clergy sex abuse of minors (heterosexual, in this case) to extra-marital affairs by two successive pastors.  My parents subsequently took us to a different church where I was baptized by a pastor whose extra-marital escapades only came to light only years later.

Original Doubt

I have had plenty of times of doubt.  But I take great comfort in the fact that doubt is baked in to the cake. It’s part of the original story.

Think about those women in Luke’s story, who came to the tomb on the first day of the week with Mary Magdalene; they came with spices in their hands.  Yes, they had heard Jesus’ words about resurrection, but they expected to find a dead body to anoint.

As we read, they found only an empty tomb – which seems like Luke is giving us reasonable “clue number one” that there was more to the story than the those women had been able to believe. Will Luke present us with a detective-crime-story with physical evidence and logical deduction?  Not really.

Just then, when the story of the women with low expectations at an empty tomb seems believable, two angels appear.  I have never had an angel appear to me, let alone hear one speak, and frankly, their appearance at this moment in the story makes it harder, not easier to believe that Luke is giving us literal description.

As the story continues, the women go back to the eleven remaining disciples and report all this.  They find them hiding out, for fear that there are more crosses being readied by the Romans with their names on them.  What was the reaction the women received?  Luke tells us,

But these words seemed to them an idle tale”

The words “idle tale” are a church-friendly way of saying something quite strong, like “you are out of your mind” or “no way!” or “B…” – well there are a number of ways   people can tell you they think what you just said was not true, that are not fit to be repeated in church.  Anyway, the point is that all of them doubted both Jesus’ prior words about resurrection and they doubted the first eye-witnesses to the empty tomb (after all, they were from women! right?).

So, Luke tells us that Peter runs to the tomb, looks in, sees the shroud of Turin –  (maybe, maybe not) – anyway, a linen shroud, without a body in it.  Another crime-story physical clue.   But what then?  Luke says he went home “amazed.”  Going home “amazed” is not the same thing as going home “believing.”  There was room for doubt from the beginning, even at the tomb itself, even by Peter himself.

Why?  Because you don’t have to be a modern person to know that dead people stay dead.  Even if you believe in angels and ghosts and all sorts of things, everybody knows what death is.  Death is death; once you go there, you don’t come back.  This is not a modern discovery.  This is an unlikely story.

Moons and Music

'First Full Moon' photo (c) 2012, halfrain - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

I was just coming back from Mobile Thursday evening.  Driving across the bay on I-10 the sky was black, but cloudless, and right there in the middle, like you  could drive right up to it, was this huge round full moon.  It was beautiful.  And it stirs something in me to see beauty and vastness like that.  It’s as though the moon whose gravity pulls the tides, has another kind of pull as well, on the heart.  You feel like this car and this road and this world are not the only reality; not the only world we were made to inhabit.

Music often does the same thing to me; it has the power to send me to a place – beyond words.   It feels like I was born for a world other than this one.  A world that this one offers a glimpse of, hints at, guesses, but no more.  A world that is transcendent; beautiful – to the point of being painful.  A world I only grasp in longings, unfulfilled.  Tastes, not full meals.

Something in me believes there is a world in which there is beauty, completely without cynicism.  It is the world where there is such a thing as justice.  A world of goodness, of love, of faithfulness, of peace.

There is no hard proof that this other world exists just because we long for it, any more than there is hard proof that love itself is real.  Nobody can claim any certainty, and yet there are “hints and guesses” that seem important.

Seeking a Source

I don’t know where our sense of justice comes from, or of goodness, or fairness or love.  But it seems to me unlikely that they come from some source that is lesser than they.  A stream does not rise higher than its source.  The Source could be more than these things that I can imagine, but certainly not less.  The Source may be more than personal in ways that we understand personhood, but certainly not less.

And so it well may be that the Source of Beauty, of Justice, of pure Goodness and of Love exists, and, as our ultimate Source,  has our best interests at heart.  It is not preposterous to believe that this Source entered our world.

This is the Christian story.  Told by frail, doubting humans.  Told, like the way humans tell stories, with details that are hard to line up and elements that make you scratch your head.  A story of a person who did not stay dead.

Was it true?  Most if not all of those cowering, doubting disciples came to believe the story, and were willing to die for it.  That’s surely something to consider.  Even under threat of immediate arrest and crucifixion, they went out and started proclaiming this very unlikely story to everyone, in public.  Something convinced them.  Nevertheless, they leave us with a story; not with proof.

The Choice

So here is the choice we have.  We each have one life.  It’s like being down in Biloxi at the casinos with one, one-million dollar chip in your hand.  You have to decide how you are going to play it.  Since there is only one chip, it’s all or nothing.  You either set it on the table on the bet that there is another world, the one our longings point to, that there really is such a thing as beauty, justice, goodness and love.  Or you bet with your single life-chip that there is not.

The Easter story is a redemption story.  It is the story of an intervention from beyond.  It is the story of a person who bet everything on the reality of Goodness, Beauty, Justice, and Love.  He was willing to die for that bet.  The Easter story says that he was proven correct.  His bet was vindicated.  He didn’t stay dead.

This story becomes our story when we do what Jesus did: place our uncertain, but hopeful bet on the side he chose.  It is a bet on hope; the hope that this world is not all there is; that we were made for more.

The very serious and practical consequence of that choice is that we are betting that Jesus was right about what he taught.   Resurrection from the dead not only vindicates Jesus’ bet on God, it validates Jesus’ whole ministry.

Going All In'307. Lucky winner' photo (c) 2011, Tobias Myrstrand Leander - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

So we find ourselves called to go all in.  Betting on the reality of Goodness, we work for the good.  Betting on the reality of Justice, we work for justice.  Betting on the reality of Love, we work to bring God’s love, God’s care, God’s compassion to people in need.  Betting on the hope that we were made for a purpose, we see ourselves as people with a mission, people with a purpose that goes way beyond ourselves.  Betting on a future life, we open our hearts and our hands to help people in this life, just as Jesus did.

Betting that Jesus was right, we search for him, not on Google, but where he said we would find him: in the unlikely disguise of “the least of these” who are hungry, or sick, or undocumented strangers, or victims of unjust systems.  That’s where we find the risen Christ.  That is what this Easter story calls us to; not to certainty without doubt, but to love, without holding back.


Gun deaths post-Newtown – 2,244 and counting

This from Huffington Post which is tracking them:

“In the first week after the Newtown, Conn., massacre on Dec. 14, more than 100 people in the U.S. were killed by guns. In the first seven weeks, that number had risen to at least 1,285 gunshot killings and accidental deaths. A little more than three months after Newtown, there have been 2,244. The Huffington Post has recorded every gun-involved murder and accidental shooting death reported in U.S. news media since Newtown, revealing an epidemic that shows no signs of abating. The horrors cannot be contained behind yellow police tape or find resolution in a courtroom. For the victim’s families, the grief deforms all it touches. There’s the fear that the radio will play her favorite ballad. An airplane overhead, like the kind he flew, will strike panic. Home is not safe. One month, two months, two years, nine years since those fatal shots — the grief never leaves.”

Do you have any personal experience with gun violence?

The Purpose Worth the Parade; Palm Sunday

Sermon for  Palm Sunday C, March 24, 2013, on  Zech 9; Luke 19:28-40

Zech 9:9-10; 14:3-4, 9, 21

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!


Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you,
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.

Then the LORD will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle.   On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley; so that one half of the Mount shall withdraw northward, and the other half southward.

And the LORD will become king over all the earth; on that day the LORD will be one and his name one.

And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day.

Luke 19:28-40

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'”So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

The Purpose Worth the Parade


Probably my first childhood trauma was when, at six years old, our family moved from Kansas to Ohio.  We had been living in the country.  My father had grown up in Kansas where he returned after college.  He was a part time pastor and part time Youth Ministry Director, but we lived in a rented farm house complete with barn, corral and everything wonderful.

My father knew how to saddle-break horses, so we had several around a good part of the time that he was breaking for neighbors.  I was six when he taught me how to ride a full grown quarter horse.  Life was good.  With all of this at hand, I knew what I wanted from life: I was to be a cowboy when I grew up.

Then we moved to Ohio – to an apartment(!) in a city.  I had to get a new life plan.   Very traumatic.

It’s often cute when kids tell us that they want to be when they grow up.  According to a survey I read about in Forbes magazine online:

“Seven out of 33 5-year-olds say they want to be superheros when they grow up, making it the single most popular career choice for kindergarteners (For the record, Spider-Man was No. 1). Three kids want to be princesses, and one hopes to grow up to be SpongeBob SquarePants.”

Wanting what is best?


Does that mean when we grow up, we adults want what is best for us?  Maybe not.  Ask a child what they would do with $10,000 and you may hear that half should go to chocolate and half to video games.   Ask an adult what she wants for dinner and it may not be the meal her cardiologist would approve.

We have evolved to love sugar, salt and fat, but we no longer live the physically demanding lives that could handle them – especially in the quantities we have access to.   Our appetites now crave exactly the kinds of foods that will shorten our lives.  To put it bluntly, even as mature, educated, intelligent adults, we want what is killing us.  And it goes far deeper than diet.

What they wanted that day


I bring up all these issues of wants and desires because this is the subject of Palm Sunday.  There was a stark contrast between what the people on the parade route wanted and what they really needed.  What they wanted was killing them.  And my fear is that we find ourselves in a very similar situation today.  Often, exactly what we want the most is the thing that produces our worst nightmare outcomes.

So, we all know the Palm Sunday story.  We read it from different gospels each year.  This year we read from Luke, which alone, leaves out the palm branches from his telling of the story – but the other gospels have it, so it’s still called “Palm Sunday” this year anyway.  Luke includes the detail about the crowd spreading the coats on the parade route, as the other gospels do – so we could call it “Coat Spreading Sunday” but that doesn’t have the same ring as “Palm Sunday.”

Anyway, the important point is that spreading coats on the path for someone means that you think he is ascending to the throne as king.  Waving the branches is the way you show support for the new regime.  The setting of the scene opens on the Mount of Olives – the hill just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem.  Jesus is on a donkey colt – every detail here has echoes of the prophecies of the coming king we just read from Zechariah.

None of this was by chance.  The bit about Jesus knowing in advance where to direct the disciples to find the colt and what to say is Luke’s way of indicating to his readers that Jesus was constructing this scene in careful, intentional reference to Zechariah’s prophecy of a coming king.  It worked.

Wanting something small

What did the people want?  They wanted a king!  And Jesus was prepared to offer them a kingdom – but this is where the paths diverge.

The people wanted a small, ethnic, national kingdom, and if that meant that there had to be a bloodshed and war, so be it!  They made no secret about their wishes; they shouted:

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Presumably, the “peace” they were looking for was the peace only after the victorious battle. That cry was their version of the “Song of Angry Men” we heard in Les Miserables.  They were ready to go to the barricades and start shooting.

But here is the problem.  Their vision for the future; their quest; the thing they wanted was far too small, and it was killing them.  Literally, it did.  By 70 AD Roman armies had destroyed their temple, along with many of their sons, and in another 70 years their whole nation was annihilated.  What they wanted most, killed them.

Jesus’ Large Alternative vision

Jesus had an alternative vision that was far greater than one ethnic people or one political nation.  His vision was of the kingdom of God that was going to include “sheep from other folds.”

Jesus asked them to embrace a vision of Shalom, or well-being, or today we would say “human flourishing” that included “all the families of the earth.”  The Peace he was offering, was the same “peace on earth good will towards people” that Luke’s gospels told about, that the angels’ sang at Jesus’ birth.  This vision is huge and inclusive and global.

But it is a demanding vision.  Just like the diet that your cardiologist demands after the wake-up call is difficult, so too, embracing the Jesus-vision of the kingdom of God is difficult.  But dying is not so easy either.

What is difficult about it?  Let us be very practical.  In the same way that we all crave exactly what is killing us in the form of sugar, fat and salt in our diets, so we have values, perspectives, goals and desires that send us waves of immediate gratification, but which are literally killing us.

When Freedom becomes a rival god

The first is freedom. Of course we, and every human ever born longs to be free.  And we thank God for our freedom.  We do not live under a king or a Czar.  We are proud to have a constitutional democracy.  We are free.  And in the name of that freedom, we, as a nation are willing to sacrifice the lives of children in schools, young people in the movie theaters, innocent bystanders in shopping malls – all in the name of the second amendment freedoms.


We have blood on our hands like those parents who sacrificed their children to the god Moloch in the Old Testament.  How many more priceless, innocent lives need to be snuffed out?

But right now, with the blood at Sandy Hook barely dry on the floor, even the attempt to limit military style assault weapons is failing in congress.  We as a nation would rather have piles of dead bodies than common sense limitations to our freedoms.

Are there viable solutions?  There are multiple steps we could take tomorrow if  there was the will to do so.  For example, besides the obviously rational need for  background checks, when it comes to handguns, the technology already exists to manufacture “smart guns” that can only be fired by their authorized owners.  Imagine how, over the course of a decade, if these were the only guns sold, how many fewer would be in the hands of criminals and deranged people.

According to the founder of the  Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research “smart guns could reduce youth suicides, accidental shootings and deaths from stolen weapons… He said, “We have a technology that will prove to be a lifesaving technology.  We need to get it into guns. There’s politics that have prevented that from happening, but we’ve got to get beyond those politics.”

Politics?  That means voters like us.  This is about what we believe we want.  Listen: the statement “Nobody’s going to tell me what not to do!” is exactly what you expect from a person who says, “I want to be a cowboy when I grow up.”  This is called moral level 1.

Believing the Myth of Redemptive Violence

But the issue here goes even deeper than guns.  It goes all the way down to our belief in the myth that we will be saved by violence itself.  At a gut level, many if not most of us believe that the winner will be the one who is able to be the most violent.


So, we justify un-manned drone attacks that kill innocent civilians, including children, in Pakistan, in Yemen, in Somalia, in Afghanistan, and who knows where else? And now, even a top military leader is saying it has gone too far.

Recently Gen. James E. Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hardly a peace-nick, said he believed that our drone policy was producing what he called “blowback” on the ground.  He said,

If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted.”

(many thanks to Tony Jones’ Theobolgy for alerting us to this).

If the generals do not believe that you can “kill your way to a solution,” have they gotten out in front of the Christian civilians?  We Christians say we follow the “prince of peace” – how can we believe that we can kill our way to a peaceful, safe, and just world?

Or maybe what we want is just simply way too small.  Maybe we don’t want a peaceful, safe, just world.  Maybe we just want a nation that no one can challenge.

But I believe that is like wanting to be a cowboy or a princess when you grow up – not that it’s cute, but that it’s so, so, small a vision.

Body counts or reconciliation?

Jesus has on offer an alternative: it is the vision of a world of people who know how to achieve reconciliation between Jews and Greeks, males and females, slave and free.  According to the vision Jesus was willing to die for, turning the other cheek, forgiving enemies, seeking distributive justice instead of retributive justice is the path that leads to life.

It is not the brawn of the violent that is blessed, according to Jesus, but the brains of the peacemakers who are blessed because they know that you cannot “kill your way to a solution.”  The myth of redemptive violence is just that: a myth.

The Alternative


There is an alternative to the small violent and ultimately pathetic and hopeless world of the Palm Sunday king-makers who put their coats down on the road in front of Jesus and his little donkey that day.  It is to take up the cry as written, in full and complete sincerity, meaning both of its phrases from the start:

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

It begins in the heart of everyone of us who practices reconciliation, forgiveness and peacemaking on an individual and family level.  It comes from hearts that have practiced the regular Christian disciplines of prayer and worship drawing them closer to the source of peace, the Prince of Peace.

It comes from growing in Christian virtues of compassion and care for all of the people who are being harmed and all the unfairness in the world.  But the personal quickly becomes the political, as we take up the broad, authentic agenda of the Zechariah king king on a colt, and proclaim his huge vision of worldwide blessing and peace.




Love’s Fragrance: the floor scene

Sermon for 5th Lent C, March 17, 2013 on John 12:1-8


John 12:1-8

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.”

Love’s Fragrance: the floor scene


Scientists tell us that in our brains, the region in which memories are stored is closely related to our olfactory capacity: our sense of smell.  Perhaps the reason this story was remembered and retold was the powerful memories evoked by the fragrance in the room – but perhaps there were other remembered smells as well.  Even the prettiest bouquet can remind us of a funeral.  There is a mixing of memories, of odors, of motives and of outcomes in this story.

Let us begin by picturing the setting.  It’s evening, sun is setting; it’s very dim inside a small room.  Lighting is by oil lamp so it’s dim; shadows are plenty.

There isn’t much furniture at all.  On the floor in the middle of the room is a thing that looks like a Japanese tea-ceremony table.  It sits low to the ground.  If  you recline on the reed floor-mat with your head close to the table, leaning on your left elbow, your right hand would be free to reach the table and take from it your food and drink.

The Scene

This is the scene.  The home belongs to two sisters and a brother; Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  Who is at that table?  John does not pan the camera around; there are gaps in our knowledge.   Martha is serving.  Her sister Mary is busy with something else – she has not made her appearance yet.

Lazarus is at the table – and this is the amazing thing, because Lazarus got sick and died.  He spent four stinking days in a rock tomb before Jesus finally came and spoke those words that brought life back into his wrapped-up, rotting body: “Lazarus, come out!”


He did come out, and now, some days later, he is well.  This is a celebration dinner!   A quiet celebration.  I picture it like Anne Frank’s family celebrating Chanukah in hiding; joy and foreboding sit together at that table.  Lazarus’ life has been snatched back from the grave; Jesus’ life edges closer and closer, just as he said it would.

Taking Risks in Bethany

They are taking a risk there in Bethany; it’s just over the hill from Jerusalem where “the powers that be” are feeling so threatened by Jesus that they have already tried and failed to kill him once.  If he gives them another chance, they will most likely succeed.  In fact it seems so likely to the people in that little house, that at least one of them considers it a done deal.  She has started making final arrangements.

Who else is there?  We only hear from one.  If Judas is there we assume that the other disciples are there too, but like many things in this story, we cannot see them, so deep are those shadows.

Many mysterious shadows

There are other things we don’t see; things that don’t seem to make sense.  Mary comes into the room – but not to help Martha serve dinner; she comes in with another purpose.  She has an entire pound of perfume valued at one whole annual salary in her hands!  Why does she have it?

They just had a death in the family; should she not have used that perfume to anoint her dead brother? Why didn’t she? Was she expecting him not to die because Jesus was certainly going to come to heal him – wasn’t he?

Was she expecting, even in the hours after his death, that Jesus would show up and revive him?  Did she keep hoping until it was finally past the time when it was possible to enter the tomb?

Is that why, when Jesus finally did show up, Martha told him that Lazarus’ corpse  smelled so bad, after only 4 days in the tomb – because he had not been anointed for a burial that was not supposed to happen?  We do not see into those shadows; we only see Mary there, with the unopened perfume in her hands, and the vivid memory of that day and its odors in her heart.

Feet: a corpse anointing

There are more shadows of mystery.  Mary comes over to where Jesus is reclining, kneels down, and pours the anointing perfume on him, as if he were a corpse. She does not anoint his head, as one would the head of a living king to honor him; she anoints his feet.  Jesus gets the message; to Mary, he is as good as a corpse already.


When Judas watches this and makes his snide remark, Jesus tells him, “Leaver her alone.  She did this so that she might keep it for my burial.”  Jesus understands her action’s meaning.

Mary is probably thinking, “I may as well get him ready while I have the chance, because if the boots of those who are coming to get him kick in the door tonight, who knows; this may be the last we will ever see of him.

The Anointing scene

She loosens her hair, as women only did for their husbands, or in mourning.  She leans down, opens the container, and pours it out on Jesus’ feet.   She works that perfume into his bare skin using her hair in place of a cloth.  Now she too smells like a freshly anointed corpse.  Is she expecting to share his fate?  Is she casting her lot “until death do us part” with a man who, she believes, may not live to see morning?  This goes way beyond extravagance!

Are there words for what she is feeling?  John leaves them off the page; in the shadows.  We can only watch, amazed, if somewhat baffled.   And yet it was this man’s words that had brought Lazarus back to life, the sole male in that family; if we were Mary, what would we have withheld under those circumstances?

The Odor of Cynicism

The scene of extravagant love and devotion is broken by the stink of cynicism that comes, dripping from the lips of Judas.  He does not speak the language of love because he has not learned it.  So he speaks the language of economics: this was a waste.  “The money could have been spent on the poor” – and this from the man who had his hand in the jar.

John is brutally plain about Judas’ motivation.  It is as disgusting as it is obvious to hear people with no concern for the poor pretending to care.  It’s like hearing about the evils of debt from people who put a $2 Trillion dollar war on the national credit card.  Other motivations are apparent.

Like all con-men who know the soft-spots of their victims, the place where they are most likely to let down their guard, the place closest to their hearts, Judas knows where to stick his jab; he brings up Jesus’ famous concern for the poor.   You can almost see the curl in his upper lip as he spits out the quickly cost-accounted calculation.

“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  (verse 5)

Opposites: choices


No greater opposite pair could be in the same room; Mary, who has filled the room with fragrance, sitting disheveled on the floor at Jesus’ feet where nothing remains to her that she has not given; and Judas, filling the room with the stink of his contemptuous self-interest, miserable that he hasn’t got more of what we wants – that which no one takes with them past the grave.

In between is Jesus, who alone has the words of life.

We have entered that room today.  We are among those other disciples witnessing this contrasting display from the shadows, just out of sight.  We have a choice before us.

With whom do we identify?

We all have been where Judas is – we have to admit that.  We have all been there, believing that just “a little bit more” will solve our problems.  We have all felt the impressive, comforting weight of those coins in the money bag and were afraid of the vulnerable lightness of letting them go, even when faced with needs we could have met.

But haven’t we all also recoiled in horror at the thought of becoming Judas, the betrayer?  We want to make a different choice.

But can we be Mary?  Is it possible?  Can we see ourselves so utterly abandoned to Jesus and his cause that we relinquish every alternative source of security?  Could we ever see ourselves taking on that kind of risk – of respectability, of reputation, of livelihood?

What could make that choice possible for us? Only by coming to one settled conclusion: that Jesus’ words do bring hope and life into situations that otherwise are hopelessly dead.

Look at Lazarus sitting there at table and remember that day when his name was called and he came out of that dark tomb.  Let us look at ourselves sitting here, and remember our baptisms, on which day our name was called, and we were brought to life as a child of God!

Memories to deal with

It has not been easy; we have gone through valleys of  shadows.  We are like Mary holding that perfume jar; each one of us has in our hearts a remembrance of times of deep disappointment with God’s plans for us.

We had the perfume to anoint the dead but we didn’t imagine we would have to use it.  We never expected to have had to go through that illness, that crisis, that divorce, that pain, that grief;  in fact we prayed to be rescued, but rescue didn’t come in time, and the rock rolled over the occupied tomb.  The perfume jar in our hands is there to remind us.

The Last Word

But that was not the last word, was it?  The Lord of Life has a sense of timing that we do not understand; there are shadows of mystery that remain.  But words of life from Jesus do follow the crisis; and here we are today as living proof.

And so, we want to be like Mary – joyfully giving back life for life.  We are people who have committed ourselves, “until death do us part” to Jesus and his life-giving words.

This is why his soft spot is our soft spot that Judas identified.  We are passionate about the poor, as was Jesus.  We are passionate about social justice as Jesus was, even if the politicos mock us for it.

It is a cynical lie to say that we want socialism or are socialists, just because we have been called to love the “least of these” poor, as Jesus taught us.  We are passionate about the weak, the vulnerable, the outcasts, the suffering, because the Lord of Life on whom we have staked our hope was and is passionate about them.

The dishes are cleared, the oil lamps dimmed, the company rests. In the morning, at first light, the door will open, fresh cool air will flow in, and they will depart the house.  Mary will go one direction; Judas the other.  Which will we take?


The Prodigal God

Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32,  4th Lent, Year C , March 3, 2013

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going


on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”

The Prodigal God

My middle-school friends and I used to love to tell scary stories late at night.  From the very introduction, you could get goose-bumps.  They would start with scenes like this: “Late at night, a young couple is in a car that has broken down on a lonely road in the middle of a dense woods.  It’s very quiet.  He says to her, “Stay in the car no matter what: I’ve got to go out and look under the hood…”.

Jesus does the same thing as he introduces this parable with these words:

“There was a man who had two sons.”

“Oh, no.  Something awful is going to happen”  is exactly what his first audience would be thinking.  They knew too many stories of a man who had two sons.  Adam had two sons, Cain and Able – and that story had a bad ending.  Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac.  Bad news for Ishmael.  Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau.  Esau, the elder brother, despised his inheritance and the younger Jacob ended up with it.


In fact the story of a man with two sons also sounds like the story of Israel itself: God had called Israel his son – but the nation had split into two.  Only one, the younger, Judah, survived the exile – although most everyone believed that they were still enduring exile, with the pagan Romans ruling their land.

Three feasts in a row?

So, right away, a story about a man with two sons sounds ominous – probably a bad ending is coming.  Now this story is the final one, in a set of three.  All three are stories of lostness – first Jesus told of a lost sheep, then a lost coin.  They both had happy endings: the shepherd found the sheep, the lady found the coin – and so both stories end with a party of celebration: feasting.  So how will this third story end?

Well, we know: this story also ends with a joyous celebration; a feast.  But a shadow falls over the party lights.  The camera has to follow the joyful father out of the banquet hall into the darkness of the evening outside.  There is the older son, he his angry, and miserable.  This story does not look like it’s going to have a happy ending.

How does it go from the joy of a lost son being found by his father, to a story of a son at odds with his father?  How does it go from joyful feast to stone-cold silence – for we never do hear how this story ends, do we?

The Bizarre Keeps Happening

This story not only begins in a way that gets everyone’s attention, all through the story bizarre things keep happening that must have left the first audience with their heads spinning.03

In a community of people for whom a family’s inheritance of land was a sacred trust, to be treasured and protected with one’s life, this story is about a reckless son who despises his inheritance, just as their ancestor Esau had done.

In a community of people with strict laws about morality, and strict codes of honor and shame, this is a story of a son who violates all the moral rules, and so shames himself, his entire family, especially his father, his culture, his country and his religion.

In a world in which honoring parents was a supreme value, he has requested his inheritance, which could only come from his father’s death.  He has cashed-in what is irreplaceable for no more than a bowl of porridge.   In a world of kosher purity, he has gone off  into the pig-pen of a pagan foreign land. And found himself at the mercy of a gentile.

But what makes this story the most bizarre is what the father does and does not do.  At the start, he would have been expected to beat a son who made such an insulting, dishonoring request, not grant it!  The father would have defended his ancestral land, not let the son sell it.

And then, having been so despised and shamed, that father would not have been  looking down the road for his son to return.  The very thought that a father would wait and watch and long for his return, and then run – run! with no Middle Eastern male dignity at all, and embrace him in all of his pig-pen impurity!

No confession-speech, however well rehearsed, could ever be expected to undo the permanent damage that son had done.  And then, to restore him to full family status, robe, ring, sandals and all!  This is utter recklessness.  This is the story of the prodigal father!04

Act II; the Older Son

But this is the story of a man with two sons.  If the younger son’s initial request was an act which brought shame on his father, so the older son’s refusal to join the party is no less insulting.

And if the father  abandoned his dignity by running to greet the younger son,  so he looses it again as he gets up from the party, in full view of all the guests, and goes outside, as if summoned by a superior.

In this most bizarre tale, the father allows himself to be humiliated not just once, but twice.  If anything, the second is worse than the first because as father meets son, there is no humble repentance and reconciliation, but rather accusation and smug self-righteousness.

The elder son is like Jonah, angry at God that has forgiven the repentant people of Nineveh.  He has heard the often repeated self-description of God as:

“a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Ex. 34:6; Jonah 4:2 and many other places)

But he has not internalized it.  Compassion is something God has; not something he has any desire to show.05

Which Son Are We?

There is a trick in this parable.  Who do we sympathize with?  Well, as the third in a set of three parables of lostness and being found, we naturally want to see ourselves as those lost sheep who have been scooped up by a good shepherd before the wolf got to us.  We want to be the coin that is liberated from the dark corner of the room and celebrated by all the neighbors.  We can imagine ourselves as a son who has been bad, but who has come to his senses and returned.  We were lost, but now we have been found.  Now God is OK with us.

But that son disappears from the story, as the elder brother demands his hearing.  Now we are left to ask ourselves – am I like him?  Are there people I would not welcome to the party?  Are there any, about whom I feel morally superior?  Is there anyone whose presence at the table would make me want to stay outside?

Who gets the banquet and who gets shut out, in this story?  The only reason for anyone being outside the circle of joy around that table is their exclusion of others.   The only one who ends without joy is the one who cannot embrace compassion.06

A Good Start, But then…

In the early days of the church, this parable of the prodigal God of reckless compassion made an impression.   The church that began among the children of Abraham was willing to welcome to its table gentiles, and learned to call them brother and sister; members of one family.

In those early days, slaves and free people shared from a common loaf of bread.  Men and women together, rich and poor, people met together in homes, sharing a common cup in a radical departure from anything before.

But, when the Roman emperor Constantine converted and Christianity became associated with power and privilege, things changed.  Eventually the church got the idea that she was somehow the gatekeeper of God’s banquet.

The church that  had once conceived of itself as the festival of lost souls who had been found  became the supper of the superior who had the right to judge.  And judging has been what we have been best known for, for centuries.

So how does the story end?  The story that Jesus told is open-ended.  We never hear how  the older brother responded to his father’s pleas.  This gives us hope.  Our story is not over.  We have a past, it is true, but we also have a future that has not been foreclosed.

A New Day, A Summons to Heed07

I believe that in many circles, there is a new day dawning for the church.  We have finally discovered that we are not a white person’s club.  We are not a rich person’s club.  We are not an able-bodied-only club or a smart people’s club.  We are not a straight persons’ club nor a  clean person’s club.  We are people like everybody – people with a past, people with scars, people with a dark side that is still dark and with habits we have not been able yet to break.

But many of us have come to the conclusion that the reason we are here, around the table at all, is not even our well rehearsed repentance speech – which the father wasn’t interested in anyway.  No, the reason we are here at all is because our God is prodigally:

“a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

So if that is the basis for our presence at the table, what basis could there ever be for excluding anyone else?  This story is a summons to us: a call to do unto others what has been done for us.  We are called by a bizarrely compassionate Father to bear the family’s genetic traits into our generation.  We are called to be compassionately open and welcoming to all lost souls, just as we have been welcomed.

There was a man who had two sons.  One was feasting at his table with joy because he was lost but had been found.   He was dead but now lives.  The other had the key in his had to banquet hall with a lavish table, set and ready, in Gulf Shores.  What did he do with it?


That Specific Thirst

Sermon for 3rd Lent, Year C, Lectionary texts

Isaiah 55:1-9


Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money
for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which
does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord,
that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God,
for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

That Specific Thirst

Rat and Mole
Rat and Mole

Rat and Mole are in a boat on a river.  They have been out in the middle of the night.  It’s now dawn, in Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s book, The Wind in the Willows (chapter 7, http://www.online-literature.com/grahame/windwillows/7/.)

We pick up the story just at the moment in which first Rat, then soon also Mole, hear a strangely compelling flute piping mysteriously, from somewhere unseen and distant.

“A bird sang suddenly, and was still; and a light breeze sprang up and set the bulrushes rustling. Rat, who was in the stern of the boat, while Mole sculled, sat up suddenly and listened with a passionate intentness. Mole, who with gentle strokes was just keeping the boat moving…, look at him with curiosity.

“It’s gone!” Said the Rat, sinking back in his seat again. “So beautiful and strange and new!  Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it.  For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worthwhile but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it forever.  No!  There it is again!” He cried, alert once more. Entranced, he was silent for a long space, spellbound.

“Now it passes and and I begin to lose it,” he said presently. “Oh, Mole! The beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.”

“…Rapt transported, trembling, he was possessed in all his senses by this new divine thing that caught up his helpless soul… a powerless but happy infant in the strong sustaining grasp…

“Breathless and transfixed the Mole stopped rowing as the liquid run of that glad piping broke on him like a wave, caught him up, and possessed him utterly. He saw the tears on his comrade’s cheeks, and bowed his head and understood. For a space they hung there… then the clear imperious summons that marched hand-in-hand with the intoxicating melody imposed its will on Mole, and mechanically he bent his oars again.  And the lights grew steadily stronger, but no birds sang as they were wont to do at the approach of the dawn; and but for the heavenly music all was marvelously still.”

The Essential Longing

Grahame has captured in words what words can hardly describe; a longing, intense and sweet, almost painful, for something that we grasp only in fleeting glimpses.  Rat hears the piping, but then it goes away, leaving him longing for more.

And so it is with God.  In all of us is a thirst that no substitute can quench.  Only the pure water of the Spirit will do.  And like the thirst for water, no amount of substitutes: coffee, Coke, or Pepsi comes close.  Alcohol doesn’t work.  If substitutes do anything at all, they only make us long for the genuine source of satiation even more acutely.  We long for God whom we grasp only fleetingly and in glimpses, yet profoundly, compellingly.

The Longing at the Center


What do you want most of all?  What is a the center of your heart?  We can work from the outside ring of the bull’s eye towards the center.  On the outer perimeter are our surface desires – for food, fashion, entertainment, distractions.  Nearer to the center are more substantial desires: safety, security, the well-being of those we care about.  Closer still is our quest for love, respect, purpose, meaning, and significance.  And at the center we find our longing for God.

We can echo the words of Augustine:

You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in You.” (Confessions 1.1, ca. 397 CE)

Seeking and Finding

As we move from the outer rings of surface desires towards the center, we find that money and personal control are decreasingly effective.  We cannot buy love or respect, we cannot coerce meaning into existence.  So it turns out that all of our spending and coercion are vainly wasted.  This is what Isaiah observed among his people long ago.  He sounds the call to attention, then asks probing questions:

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! … Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”


The answer to the thirst, the satisfaction of the heart’s deepest longing simply isn’t there, in the marketplace, in the mall, on the internet, to be booked or purchased at any price.  Isaiah says:

“Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

What could be purchased without money?  What is it that has no price?

“Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near”

The Summons

This is an invitation – not an invitation to relinquish joy for the sake of morbid religious introspection.  No, the opposite.  This is an invitation to delight; an offer of quenching the thirst at the center; to experience life in its essential goodness.  Isaiah says,

Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.”

So that you may live” – that is the offer, the summons; the calling.  With that opportunity on the table, why would anyone spend money for that which is not bread, or labor for that which does not satisfy?  And yet the tragic truth is that many spend their entire lives that way.

When is it, in the course of an average human life,  that the call of the music so beautiful that it hurts, stops beckoning?  What is it that seduces so many to give up the quest to find the piper at the gates of the dawn whose melody makes us tremble and weep, in favor of the pathetic saccharine sweetness of substitutes?

I cannot speak for everyone, but my experience is that even when I have attempted to displace the essential yearning of my heart, the specific thirst that only God can satisfy, with something else, I may indeed distract myself, but the longing continues.  It is a mercy that nothing is able to finally replace that specific thirst.

Substitutes Abound

The frustrated people of Jesus’ day attempted to displace that essential, specific thirst with the substitute thirst for national, political freedom.  The Galileans resisted Pilate’s Roman rule and died at the altar for it.  Others were crushed when the towers they were storming collapsed.  But they were seeking a solution that lay at the perimeter, not at the center of their thirst.

Observing this, Jesus offers the parable of the unfruitful fig tree.  There is yet time, but not much.  God graciously gives us time to re-evaluate; to do a self-assessment; to ask ourselves, “How is this working out for me?”

Like a fruitless fig tree which has been given one more year, this is our time to take stock.  Is there any edible fruit?  What have our lives been producing?   Can others say that they have found on our branches a source of sustenance?  Have we borne the fruit of justice, mercy, healing, reconciliation, forgiveness and redemption in our generation?

The Table at the Center


Today is our invitation to pay attention to the thirst in our souls.  It is not general; it is specific.  There is only one Source that can satisfy that longing.  It is found at the very center of our hunger; in God alone, who has come down like the piper at the gates of the dawn, in the form of a human; Jesus, who has played the melody we long to hear.

We will come to his table, where he offers himself again to us.  This is where our hearts long to be filled, our hunger satisfied, our thirsts quenched.  In the words of the hymn, we sing:

We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread, And long to feast upon Thee still;
We drink of Thee, the Fountain-head, And thirst our souls from Thee to fill!
(“Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts”)

Rat and Mole have followed the song to its source.  The moor their boat and go ashore.


“This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,’ whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. `Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’

“Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror–indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy–but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.

“Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible color, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; …All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

`Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. `Are you afraid?’

`Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. `Afraid! Of HIM? O, never, never! And yet–and yet– O, Mole, I am afraid!’

“Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.”