Jesus and the Price of Peace

Jesus and the Price of Peace

Sermon for April 28, 2019, Easter 2C. Audio will be here for several weeks.

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Probably the hardest learning we ever have to do is unlearning.  When we have “learned” something that later we discover is untrue, or so insufficiently accurate that we need to think differently about it, it’s hard.  It’s like learning to speak a new language.  

But unlearning is necessary. It is entailed in growing up, becoming adult, “putting away childish things” as Corinthians says.  

We are going to be challenged to unlearn a couple of things by this text today.  Or maybe I should say by these texts (plural)?  There are two scenes here in which Jesus makes appearances to his gathered disciples in their locked room and their fearful condition.  

Because nothing is said about Thomas being missing in the first, and because the second is all about Thomas’ reaction, some scholars conclude that these two appearance stories were originally separate and distinct.  

But now they have been brought together.  Why?  It turns out that the author of John’s gospel has done this intentionally, to make a point — to help us unlearn things, which we will look at today.

Faith and Belief

The first thing we must unlearn is what faith or belief means.  For most of us, through no fault of our own, we have understood faith as the opposite of knowledge, and belief as accepting something as true — assenting to its veracity.  

This is what faith and belief came to mean, but not what they meant in the bible.  Faith is the noun, believe is the verb.  Originally they meant trust.  

To trust in God, to have faith originally was not to have a list of statements about God or Jesus or any other line from a creed to which you assented.  It became that, but that is a distortion that we need to unlearn.  

What does trust mean?  Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used the metaphor of floating on the surface of deep water.  As long as you relax, you are buoyant; if you start to struggle, you sink.  

That’s what the gospel scene of Peter walking on the water is all about.  As long as he looked at Jesus, with trust, he stayed up.  When he looked away, toward the wind and the waves, he sank.  To trust is to relax and to know that we are being upheld at every moment of our lives by God. 

If you have ever taught a child to swim, you know that the hardest part is helping them to learn to relax and trust that the water will hold them.  As long as they fight it, they keep sinking.


So what about doubt?   Doubt is baked into the cake of faith.   According to theologian Paul Tillich, faith is something everyone has.  Not that everyone has faith in God, necessarily, but in something.   

Everyone has a sense that their lives have some kind of purpose, which is significant enough that they would be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for it — they would be willing to die for it.  Tillich calls this our “ultimate concern.”   

For some people, their family is their ultimate concern.  For others, it’s their career, or their social status or political power.  For some, it is their nation.  

But how do you know in advance that the thing you have identified as your ultimate concern, the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning, the thing you would make the ultimate sacrifice of your life for, is worthy of your one precious life on earth?  How do you know?  You cannot know for sure.  

Many people die for their nation. Even for really bad nations, by our judgment today.  Think of all those who lost their lives for the Third Reich in the Second World War: had they chosen correctly?  We would say, no.  

So, because we cannot know in advance what is worthy of our ultimate concern, what is worthy of our faith, then there always must be some measure of doubt.  To have faith in anything is also to have doubt.  They exist together like two sides of a coin.  

So when Jesus is depicted in this very mystical and ethereal story, in which he appears through the walls of a locked room, and confronts Thomas about believing and not doubting, he is telling him to trust, and not stiffen up and resist, like the child who hasn’t learned to swim.  

In other words, Jesus is not asking Thomas not to doubt the lines of a creed, like the virgin birth, for example.  He is asking Thomas to trust.

But here is where the story gets profound.  Think of that metaphor of trusting as floating.  What would “fighting it” look like?  What would cause someone to stiffen up and sink?  The key is found by the way the author has joined these two originally separate stories together, so that now they become mutually interpreting.   

Peace; Forgiveness

Here is how it works.  In story one, Jesus, who has just three days earlier been tortured to death in the most excruciating way appears.  Why did that happen to him? Because the Romans captured him.  Were there no people to defend him?  No, they had abandoned him and fled.  

Consider that.  Jesus is appearing in front of his betrayers.  He has a lot to hold against them.  His hands and feet had been nailed to a cross.  Someone speared him in the side.  The wounds are still there, visible for all to see.  

Vengeance, wrath, recrimination, accusation, condemnation, could all be expected.  All would have been perfectly justified.  They were guilty, and they knew it.   But that is exactly what did not happen.  The very first words Jesus says, in both appearance stories, are,

“Peace be with you.”

In other words, “I forgive you.”  

Friends, this is one of the most radical and fundamental teachings of Jesus.  God forgives us.  We must forgive others.  Even those who, like the disciples, have run away, and let the Romans get you.  In the only prayer Jesus ever taught us to pray we say, 

“forgive us our debts (Matthew) or sins (= missing the target) Luke) as we forgive…”

What are those debts — the things people owe us, or those sins — the cases in which someone has missed the target and we were the ones caught in their line of fire?  They are the wounds we have received at their hands.  And we all have been wounded by others.  

No one gets through life without being wounded by others in a multitude of ways.  And wounds leave scars, memories, sometimes even traumas.   We will come back to this, but let us continue with the story.

So Jesus appears in the room where they are all locked up, fearful, and says, “Peace.”

Then, in that first scene, the author describes Jesus as saying a few phrases which seem unrelated and jarringly haphazard.  He says, 

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

So what is going on here?  Is this a commissioning scene: “I’m sending you?”  Or is it a Pentecost scene: “receive the Spirit”?  Or is it on some kind of conferring of cosmic authority to either forgive or retain sins, as if we were able to do God’s job?    

It all makes sense if we see that it is still about what those men had done to Jesus three days earlier.  It is still about those wounds, those scars Jesus wears.  

The easiest way, I think, to understand this is to turn our attention to the little early Christian community, who would be hearing this text read in their house church on Sunday morning.  They would hear Jesus saying to them, first, “Peace: you are forgiven.  Whatever you have done, I forgive you.”

Second, he says, you should consider yourselves not only forgiven, but sent out on a mission.  

How will you have the wisdom, the energy, and the strength for the mission?  You have the Spirit in you — you know that.  Every time you have felt that tug, that lure towards goodness, towards the next right thing, that is the Spirit in you, helping you to accomplish the mission.

The Mission

What is the mission?  It is huge; it is profound; it is to stop the cycle that poisons our relationships, our communities, our nations, and our world.   It is the cycle of retribution.  It is the cycle of violence.  It is the cycle of quid pro quo.  

The fact (not the magical power, but simply the fact) is, that if you forgive the sins of any, then they are forgiven; period.  If you stop the cycle, the cycle stops.  

If you don’t, then it turns around again, claiming new victims with each rotation.  Forgiveness stops the cycle.  The mission we are on is the mission of stopping the cycle.  How? By forgiveness.  

It starts on the personal level in which we forgive the very people who have wounded us, the people who have put the scars we wear on our skin, our hearts, our psyches, and our memories.  


So what is forgiveness?  It is not saying “It’s OK that you did that to me.”  Not at all!  Forgiveness does not trivialize evil.  Forgiveness does not pretend evil is not evil, nor deny, or minimize the damage done.  Look at Jesus — he was tortured and killed, and still had the scars to prove it.  There is nothing trivial about it.  

Rather, forgiveness means I will not seek retribution.  I will say “Peace to you.”  I will not make you suffer because you made me suffer.  I will not even wish for, or fantasize your suffering.  I will wish instead, for your redemption, for your restoration, for your healing. 

This does not mean that justice does not have to be done, when, for example, crimes have been committed.  But it means that my motivation is not revenge, but restorative justice, meaning that the world should be one in which actions do have consequences, and the guilty do not walk away to freely continue to victimize people at will.  But there is no pleasure in punishment for me.  You have been forgiven.  The cycle can stop here and now.

Thomas and Us

So now, back to Thomas.  The question to Thomas is: Can you trust that the world can be one in which you can be a cycle-stopper?  Or does that feel too risky?  

Those are questions to us as well. In other words, can we trust God enough, as Jesus did, to support us in our forgiveness mission?  Or are we going to stiffen up and demand proof in advance?  Will we float, or sink?  Thomas has to decide.  

So Jesus says, in effect: Look at the wounds and scars, Thomas; your cowardice on the night of my arrest helped put them there.  But here I am saying “Peace” instead of “punishment.”  Can you trust my way?  

That is the question this text leaves with us.  Can we deny the demands of our egos for self-justification, for getting even, for vindication, and for vengeance?  Can we be cycle-stoppers?  Can we forgive?  

Because the amazing truth here, is that if you forgive the sins of any, then they are forgiven; period.  If you do not, then they are not, and the cycle turns again.

But you have been forgiven.  You have heard the words, “Peace to you.”  You have been given the Spirit.  You have been sent.   This is our mission!

Scaling Up

We have been speaking so far about the personal level. Does this work on a larger scale?  Well, it has worked.  

There has been healing and reconciliation in Rwanda, even after genocide.  There has been political calm instead of a blood bath in South Africa, even after all the suffering of apartheid.  

The Jesus way of forgiveness is not a fantasy.  If there is enough of a consensus that retribution only spins the cycle around again, that the odds against getting even are the longest odds ever, that the cycle can be stopped; peace is possible.  

That is our mission; we have been sent.  We have been given the Spirit.  Let us not doubt, but trust, not struggle, but float on grace and mercy, and so experience peace.

Death(s) and Resurrections(s)

Death(s) and Resurrections(s)

Sermon for Easter Sunday, Year C, April 21, 2019. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

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.

My brother and I have these amazing conversations about everything from consciousness, to ancient literature, to modern ethics. He is a lot smarter than me, so when we disagree I usually lose.

But there is one subject we disagree about on which he has not persuaded me to change my mind. It goes like this: according to him, when you look at the world we live in, and how we got here, what do you see? It looks like prey and predation are the way it always works. Organisms prey on other organisms to survive. “Eat or be eaten” is the simple way to say it. We are all in competition for scarce resources.

Generally, that is undeniable. But is that all that we can say about how our world operates? Look around: it is spring now. Everything is budding and blooming; my allergies are in full bloom too. The Azaleas are showing off, the leaves have returned, the grass has greened again, and the new eggs are about to hatch open with new life.

It is not simply that all of this is happening, what is even more astounding is that we are here to be aware of it, and to love it. We are here to love the sunrises and the colors of spring, to rejoice in beauty and the wonder of nature, in a way that no other animal has any idea about. The dogs I have owned over the years have been like members of the family; nearly human. But they have never marveled over flowers.

What I am trying to argue is that there is a significant word that must be said, in my opinion, after saying “prey and predation.” I want to say “but”. Predation happens, yes, but tooth, and claw, and blood on the ground are not the last words.

I believe that the very force of evolution itself, even though it does include predatory nature, also has a direction that is amazing and wonderful. We have evolved to be animals with rational minds, we have the gift of speech, and we are conscious: conscious of ourselves and of other selves, and of beauty, in so many forms. Teeth and claws do not have the last word. Yes, nature has designed many deaths into the system, but also many births, and, I believe, many new births, after death.

Jesus’ Context

If you were alive in Jesus’ world, you might conclude that life was only “nasty, brutish and short,” as Thomas Hobbes concluded, many years later. Jews had lost their independence in 63 BCE to the Roman Empire. They had a local king over them who was not even Jewish, whose delusions of grander were costing them dearly, as they were taxed to pay for his opulent building projects. The local aristocratic elites controlled most of the land. Most people were illiterate, landless peasants, without even the benefits of aspirin for their pain.

All of this may be why the emotional tone of Luke’s version of this story is amazement and disbelief.

Sidebar: I don’t know how you read this story. You are free to take it literally, if that works for you. For me, any story with an angel or two in it, is a story that, I think, the author is signaling, should be read like a parable. It is trying to say something true, using all the symbols that the author has in his or her took kit.

I think what Luke is trying to say, with all that amazement and disbelief, is that the story everyone else is telling, about how bad life is, is not the only story, and certainly not the last word. And, I believe, that the central Christian story, that we celebrate on Easter, our highest holy day, is that resurrections happen!

Scholars of the historical Jesus and early Christian movement do not dispute the fact that Jesus’ followers had experiences, powerful experiences, that led them to believe that Jesus was a living presence. Paul had one of those experiences as well, several years later. They concluded that you could look for, and find Jesus, “not among the dead, but among the living.

How? Luke, for his part, believed that the way to see Jesus was to gather around a table and break bread in memory of him — as the two disciples on the Emmaus road discovered.

Matthew said you found Jesus in the faces of the poor and oppressed, the “least of these.

In other words, the passionate vision of Jesus had lived on, and lives on. Jesus’ passion for the poor lives on. Jesus’ opposition to systems of domination and oppression live on.

Jesus’ orientation to God as Abba, or we might say, “Papa,” as good and as “for us” instead of harsh, judgmental and against us, lives on, and continues to be transformative.

And, most importantly, Jesus conviction that death was not the worst thing that could happen to you, but that living inauthentically, or unjustly, or apathetically, and certainly arrogantly may very well be.

And so he was willing to proclaim the kingdom of God, knowing, and accepting, that it might cost him his earthly life, which it did. The Christian story is that death is not the last word.

As the Christian community grew, it frequently used the symbols of death and resurrection to try to communicate this amazing, and nearly unbelievable message: that deaths are necessary but that resurrections follow.

So, for example, the letter to the Colossians, advises:

“put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature.”

Col. 3

Why? Because, it says,

“you have been raised with Christ.”

Col. 3

That is it, right there. There are deaths you have experienced, and can, and should experience, because you have already experienced resurrections.

What Spring Teaches

So, all of that made me reflect, this Easter season, on my argument with my brother over wether prey and predation was at the heart of the structure of the universe — which is where that conversation goes.

I want to say, “no;” I believe in Springtime; I believe in beauty; I believe that the world-as-it-is, is not the world-as-it-has-to-be. I believe in justice, and I believe in equality, and I believe in human dignity — as true of all humans, without any exceptions. I don’t believe anyone is “trash”!

It sounds trite to say it, but, I’m sorry, it must be said, in my opinion: I believe in love. In fact I believe that love is at the heart of the structure of the universe.

I believe that the very Ground of our Being is an emerging process that is ever-renewing and ever-presenting us with new possibilities for better future states, for goodness, and truth, and for beauty. It is spring; look around!

Two Levels of Resurrection

There are two levels on which the good news that resurrections follow death can be explored. I will just briefly mention the first one, that deserves so much more time, and focus on the second this morning.

The first is that there is new life, and a good life possible, after every death that we experience. All of us face deaths. We lose people we love, relationships die, careers crash and burn, we lose our health and our abilities; there are many ways we experience the awful, soul-chilling horror of deaths.

But death is never the last word. Resurrections from each of those is possible. God, I believe, is present to us, and for us, in every experience of suffering and dying.

We are not alone. We have not been abandoned. God is there, even suffering with us, and giving us the strength — which Christians call grace — to rise up and live again. That’s one level.

Necessary Deaths

The other level is the one Colossians was talking about. There are, indeed, things we need to “put to death” intentionally, in order for something new to be born. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said we should “take up our cross daily and follow him.” There are things that we need to die to.

To be succinct, the primary one is the ego. The ego is that voice in our heads that says, “I must be recognized, I must be in charge, I must be taken care of, I must have my way.”

The ego says the world is a place of scarcity, in which “me and my people” need to be looked out for. So, other people need to move to the back of the line, stay across the border, stay in the closet, and stay out of my neighborhood.

That ego-orientation creates and maintains the world-as-it-is; a world of discrimination, of injustice, of haves and have-nots, of enormous and obscene disparities between rich and poor, and conditions like mass incarceration, for-profit prisons, and the blasé acceptance of mass shootings.

That ego-driven life needs to be “put to death,” so that a life-for-others can rise up. For humans, the ego-driven life creates the very world of prey and predation that undermines the enormous advantages we have evolved to possess: empathy, compassion, cooperation, and yes, even reconciliation and restitution. In other words, resurrections.

This may be a story of nearly unbelievable amazement, which is how Luke tells it. That’s the story I want to tell. That’s why I want to win the argument with my brother.

We humans are no longer wearing animal skins and running around with bones in our noses. We do not have to live lives of ego exclusivity and xenophobia. We can die to that world, and be raised to celebrate the kingdom of God.

We can be, like Jesus, welcoming-kinds of people who are willing to put down our privilege and grow out of our fragility, to embrace the full, richly diverse world God has made, which announces itself in the invitation to resurrection we call spring.

I used to think it was rather scandalous that the timing of Easter was determined by the moon, to coincide with the arrival of spring. Now, I understand better. I think it’s perfect. If the earth can practice resurrections, why couldn’t we also? We can be the people who do not “look for the living among the dead.” We believe in the paschal mystery of resurrection.

Revolutionary Comedy

Revolutionary Comedy

Sermon for April 14, 2019, Palm Sunday. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

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.

My goal for today is to try to put us into this story, as Luke tells it.  But what kind of story is it?  Is it history or some form of historical fiction?  

That is not to discredit it in any way.  Most New Testament scholars agree that the gospels, as we have them, contain both history remembered, and history interpreted.  

Here is why it is hard to unscramble: there are so many quotations from, and allusions to the Hebrew Bible that you could almost conclude that this story was arranged to correspond to them.  

Alternatively, you could make a case that Jesus and his followers intentionally used images and quotations from the Hebrew Bible very consciously.  Or perhaps a combination of the two.  

Let’s briefly look at them.  In Zechariah, there is a passage in which the prophet imagines a coming day with hope, in which, people will get a new king — a better king — who will lead them to a time of peace.  The king, Zechariah said, will come, not on a war horse, but on a donkey colt.  So, in this story, Jesus comes to Jerusalem on a donkey colt.  

Zechariah said the coming king would stand on Mt. Zion, so in this story, Jesus comes from the East, down Mt. Zion, across the Kidron valley, and up to Jerusalem.  

The Psalms say that people will celebrate God’s goodness by going to Jerusalem’s gates saying “save us” or “Hosanna” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” which is what Jesus’ supportive crowd says. 

The Hebrew  Bible tells the story of when Jehu was anointed king.  In celebration, the people spread their cloaks on the ground and proclaimed him king.  So, in this story, people spread their cloaks on the ground singing, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!

When the Pharisees object to all of this Jesus quotes from the prophet Habakkuk who said, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out

The waving of palm branches may be another echo.  They waved them to celebrate the time when the Maccabean heroes won independence from the Greek Seleucids.  

So, almost every element in the story is told with Hebrew Bible quotations and allusions to Israel’s history.  

Why?  Because Luke wants us to understand Jesus as the fulfillment of what God had wanted for his people all along.  So let us put ourselves in this story and try to see what this means for us today, whether it is literal history, or history interpreted theologically.

Putting Ourselves There

First, when you picture the streets of Jerusalem, picture narrow streets, like those in old European cities, too narrow for automobile traffic.   

Next, picture them packed with people, shoulder to shoulder.  This was Passover time.  Passover was one of the pilgrimage festivals that brought people to Jerusalem by the tens of thousands.  

Now, picture lots of armed men, Roman soldiers, in their helmets, shields, and swords, keeping a stern watch in intimidating numbers.  They were on high alert.  Passover was the celebration of Jewish independence; freedom from the Egyptian Empire, the great story of Exodus.  So, a huge mob of tens of thousands of people who all wanted independence from the Roman Empire was a potential flashpoint for revolution.

There was a garrison of Roman troops permanently posted to Jerusalem, but it was Rome’s habit, every Passover, to reinforce them with additional troops.  Pilate would come each year, on his great white war horse, with his shiny, clanking and stomping soldiers up from their Mediterranean headquarters to the West.

Could it be that Jesus’ entry from the East was timed to match Pilate’s entry from the West?  New Testament scholars Borg and Crossan suggest just that possibility.  All the attention Luke pays to the arrangements about the donkey suggest that this was all pre-arranged; like a password, “the Lord needs it”.

Now try to imagine what Jesus’ entry looked like.  Remember, desperately crowded streets.  His people chanting slogans from the Psalms, proclaiming him king, and putting their cloaks on the ground as they did for king Jehu.  

What does Jesus look like on that donkey?  There is an important detail to notice.  The donkey, according to Luke had never been ridden.  I lived my first six years in Kansas, and for a time we lived out in the country where I got to watch my father saddle break horses as a hobby.  I watch how first he would throw a blanket onto the back of the horse repeatedly, putting it on and taking it off, to get the animal used to having something on its back.  They do not like that at first. 

The saddle comes later, after they have grown accustomed to the blanket.  But they do not like that either.  Only after several days of this is it possible to attempt to get on the horse, and they really do not like that.  Some resist quite vigorously.  

So I imagine Jesus trying to keep himself seated on a young donkey that is not used to anything on its back, resisting as donkeys do; lots of braying and showing teeth.  The colt was probably being pulled by someone — certainly, it had not been taught to neck rein.  

In other words, it probably looked comical.  It must have looked carnivalesque.  The contrast between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem from the East and Pilate’s powerful imperial parade from the West was complete.  In fact, it would not be a mistake to think that Jesus’ entry was an intentional mockery of Pilate’s.  A prearranged counter procession, as Borg and Crossan call it. 

A Contrast of Ideologies

It was not just meant as a visual contrast, it was a contrast of ideology.  The Roman emperor Tiberius, according to Roman propaganda, like his father before him, was called “lord,” “savior” and even “son of God”.  The Romas had brought peace, the famous “Pax Romana” but their method was peace by pacification  —  which is what all those troops were there to maintain.  Crucifixions for suspected treason were quite common.

But with the echoes of the Zechariah being shouted, Jesus was proclaiming the kingdom of God as a kingdom of peace.  Zechariah said that the king who would come on the peaceful donkey would 

“cut off the chariot… and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations;”

So Jesus’ entry was a form of nonviolent protest against a repressive regime whose oppression had dominated Israel for the past 90 years.  It was a corrupt and brutal empire, enabled by the local Jewish aristocratic families, at the expense of the vast majority of people, most of whom lived in poverty.  

This is not what God wanted for his people.  The prophets imagined conditions of justice in which all the people

“shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,” on their own land,  “and no one shall make them afraid”  (Mic. 4:4)

So, Jesus entered that crowded city on that ornery donkey for the celebration of Jewish independence, mocking imperial power and imperial theology.

The Second Symbolic Act: The Temple

Jesus’ mockery of Pilate’s agenda was one of two symbolic, public actions he took as he arrived at the capital city.  The next thing he did was to go to the temple.  The temple was in the hands of, and controlled by, those local elites, the aristocratic families who were benefiting from Roman domination, and further adding their own forms of oppression, including temple taxes and land confiscation.  And what is even more deeply disturbing, the temple was providing religious legitimation for that domination.

So, Jesus went to that temple and shut it down.  At least temporarily and perhaps only for several hours, but the message was sent; the symbolism was understood.  As he forced out the money changers and the animals, he said, quoting Isaiah, 

My house shall be a house of prayer’; and adding, “but you have made it a den of robbers.” 

Jesus had confronted the abuses and injustices of both Rome and the Temple.  And that is, no doubt, what got him executed.  

God Wills Liberation

So what is our “take away” from this story?  Luke intends us, with all of those quotations and allusions to the Hebrew Bible, to see this as the fulfillment of what God has always wanted for his people.  God wants justice.  God wants wellbeing, or, in Hebrew, “Shalom.”  God wants his people to be free from systems of domination and oppression.  

It is worth noticing that the big, central story of the Hebrew Bible is the story of the exodus: liberation from oppression.  And here, at the climax of the Jesus story, we find confrontation of oppression, by both Empire and its religious legitimation system at the temple.  

Luke, as he writes his gospel, intentionally uses all of those titles that the Caesars of Rome took for themselves, and gave them to Jesus: Lord, savior, prince of peace and Son of God.  Jesus came proclaiming the presence of the kingdom of God, and calling people to follow him.  So the Palm Sunday question is, whose parade to be in: Pilate’s or Jesus’?  

To be in Jesus’ parade, to proclaim him king, is to adopt his resistance to oppression and domination in all its forms.  

Today, we are finally awakening to a massive form of oppression that is taking place right here in our country, right now.  The term for it is mass incarceration.  It refers to the massive numbers of African American men in prison and under criminal justice control.  

Some have called this the new Jim Crow.  There are now more African Americans in prison, probation or parole than there were slaves in 1850.  

A 100:1 disparity in sentencing, for example, between crack cocaine, popular in the black community, with powder cocaine, preferred by white people, though they are the same drug, has created massive numbers of black men with felony convictions.  

In our country, a felony on your record means you cannot get any decent job, and until you have repaid all your court costs, fines, fees, and restitutions, it means you have lost your right to vote.  They have recently adjusted the disparity in sentencing to a mere 18:1, as if that were justice!  Justice would be 1:1.

Mandatory sentencing, three strikes and you are out, and other policies have created a system which has produced this result: the rate of incarceration for African Americans is now higher than the rate of incarceration in the Soviet Union at the height of the Gulag and in South Africa at the heart of apartheid.   

Are these policies racially biased?  According to the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, at the time of the study, only 15% of drug users were black.  White youth were seven times more likely to use hard drugs than black youth, but African Americans represent the vast majority of those sent to prison.  

This situation is a product of systemic racism that is still embedded in our society.  But thank God, we are waking up to all of the ways it manifests itself, not in personal attitudes of individuals, but in systems and structures, from policing to employment, from housing to educational opportunity.  

Palm Sunday is a perfect time to do what Jesus did: look around at the systems of oppression and say, “No! Enough!”  We are not okay with these results.  

We, the people who have been called to the Jesus parade, must take the lead in calling out oppression based on race in all its forms.  Otherwise, what does it mean to wave palm branches and call Jesus “King”?  We are Jesus followers.  We are in the Jesus parade.  It may sometimes look ridiculous, but we are serious.

The Fragrance of “Yes”

The Fragrance of “Yes”

Sermon on John 12:1-8, for April 7, 2019, Lent 5C . Audio will be available here for several weeks.

 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.”

Part of my quest every time I preach is to help us see how the biblical text is relevant and meaningful for us today.  But there is usually another goal I have at the same time, and that is to help us understand the nature of scripture itself.  It is rarely simple.  

The gospels started out as stories of what Jesus said and did, which were passed on, by word of mouth, from person to person.  We call this the oral period.  Then they began to be written down.  Eventually, someone put them together into one coherent narrative, or story, but not until several decades after Jesus.  Mark was first, then Mathew and Luke.  The gospel of John was written even more decades later than the others. With that in mind, we will look at the text from the gospel of John.  

Two in One

There seem to have been two stories that made it into the written gospels, in which Jesus is anointed by a woman.  One is in Mark, which Matthew took up virtually as is, and the other is in Luke.  They are not the same.  

Mark’s story is set in Galilee at the home of Simon the leper.  Luke’s story is in the home of a Pharisee.  The woman is unnamed in both stories. 

In Mark, the woman anoints Jesus’ head; in Luke’s, she anoints his feet.  

In Mark, she anoints his head with costly perfume, but nothing about her is reported.  

In Luke, the woman is called a “sinner” who anoints Jesus feet, not with perfume, but with her tears, and then wipes them off with her hair.  

Some New Testament scholars conclude that in John’s gospel,  these two stories have come together in a new setting, at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  In John, the details get combined.  Jesus’ feet are anointed, but not with tears, rather with the expensive perfume.  Then the perfume is wiped away by Mary’s hair.  Why tell the story this way?

Further, in Mark’s version, multiple unnamed disciples object to the prodigious wastefulness of a perfume, costing a working man’s annual salary, being used this way, instead of being sold to help the poor.  It seems like a sincere concern of theirs.  After all, helping the poor was what Jesus was all about.   

In John, however, only one objects: Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ betrayer.  John alone adds the detail that Judas kept the common purse for the disciples, and that he was a thief.  His concern for the poor was spurious.  Why tell it that way?

John ends the story the way Mark does by Jesus’ explanation that this was an act of pre-death embalming, and then, making a reference to the poor.

So why would John tell this story, and tell it this way?  Let us look at this story and try to imagine how its original readers may have taken it.  As we do, we will see how this story, told this way, is relevant to us.

The Setting and Context

First the setting.  Jesus is having a meal at a table with his disciples in a home.  This is what Jesus was famous for: table fellowship, specifically inclusive table fellowship.  In fact, scandalously (prodigiously) inclusive table fellowship, which included both men and women.  

That is what the young Christian communities continued to do: to meet in homes in a  scandalously inclusive manner, mixing genders, social classes, and ethnicities as if none of those categories mattered anymore.  

How do we picture this setting?  We should not picture a modern dining room with a table and chairs and sufficient lighting.  Their tables were only inches off the ground.  There were no chairs.  They lay on their sides, supporting themselves on their elbows, heads close to the table, feet extended away.  The lighting was by oil lamp, so it was dimly lit; most of the room was in shadows.   

What is going on in Jesus’ life at this point in John’s telling?  Opposition by the Jerusalem elite has been growing.  There are people plotting to kill Jesus.  He is only a small hill and valley away from Jerusalem.  The danger is increasing, and they are all aware of it.   And with death looming, Jesus is moving towards it.  He is heading for Jerusalem.  Why head towards death?

The Characters

The way the Gospel of John tells the story, attention focuses on three characters, Mary and Judas, who are both in relation to Jesus.  It’s as if there are two alternatives with respect to Jesus.  

Both Mary and Judas are notable for what they value.  There is a lot of money at stake here; as I said, a whole year’s wages worth of perfume.  Mary values Jesus, Judas values the money.  Those are the alternatives.  One is the means towards the good life; the other, likely death.

So, Mary moves to Jesus’ feet, anoints them with the perfume and then wipes his feet with her hair.  What would it mean to be a woman in that situation, in that culture, letting down your hair?  Normally, women only did that in front of a husband.  Original hearers of this story would think that Mary was being embarrassingly vulnerable.  

Anointing is normally done to the head, as in Mark’s version, so what would it mean that Mary used the perfume on Jesus’ feet?  That was something you would do to a corpse.  It was, then, a foreshadowing of what she expected would happen soon: death.

So, what would it mean then, to wipe the perfume with your hair?  Again, it is embarrassingly vulnerable and intimate.  Mary would end up wearing it too.  Was that her way of signaling that she was all in; that she would be willing to embrace the same fate of death, along with Jesus?  

The Money Issue

The cost of the perfume is enormous.  Would any single village woman have a bottle of perfume worth a year’s wages, just sitting around?  And remember, in the story, the way the Gospel of John tells it, she had recently buried her brother Lazarus.  Certainly, they would have used perfume to embalm his body before burial.  And after that, she still has this much expensive perfume available?  

Realism has given way to symbolism.  The act of wiping perfume with her hair shows again and in another way that she is all in.  There is no cost she would not bear.  Jesus, after all, had given her her bother back from death.  Jesus had let her sit at his feet like a male disciple, as he taught.  Jesus has given her a whole new way to imagine God as “for her” instead of “against her.”  

Mary represents one alternative way to relate to Jesus that has included the acceptance of death.  In fact, Jesus has taught this early Christian community the central truth that the path of descent is the way to life.  One author put it this way:  

“To accept death is to live with a profound sense of freedom. The freedom, first, from attachment to the things of this life that don’t really matter: fame, material possessions, and even, finally, our own bodies. Acceptance brings the freedom to live fully in the present. The freedom, finally, to act according to our highest nature. . . .”

Philip Simmons, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life

Judas represents the other way.  He feigns commitment to the cause — he complains about the waste of money, as if he would have used it to help the poor.  But he would not have helped the poor.  He had his hand in the till, and was disappointed that the till wasn’t deeper.  He was not all-in, at all, and money is one of the reasons why not.  He was not interested in the path of descent.  

In the end, Judas gets a rebuke.  Mary has done the right thing.  Mary has come to the understanding that death is necessary before new life.  She learned that with Lazarus.  Now she accepts it for herself.  

The Point

There is a famous prayer that says, “For everything that has been, thanks.  For everything that will be, yes.”  Mary has said “yes” to what will be.  

(Prayer source: Dag Hammarskjöld)

The first hearers of this story see the two alternatives.  You can seek to save your life, like Judas.  Keep it protected — money seems like a good way to do that.  But you will end up losing it.  Or you can lose your life for Jesus’s sake, and, like Mary, you will find it.  

Mary has come to the second half of life, having done the spiritual work.  She knows what to value and what to let go of.   She is not attached to whatever money could do for her.  She is at a place in her life that Angeles Arrien calls the “Gold Gate.”

The Gold Gate, … is where we awaken to the deepest core of who we are, and are asked to let go and trust. . . . It is the gate of surrender, faith, and acceptance, where we learn to release and detach… At the Gold Gate … we learn to befriend death and prepare for its arrival…We practice the art of dying while we live… Non-attachment, surrender, and acceptance foster our deliverance, while courage and faith strengthen our capacity to face our own suffering, pain, or sadness. . . .

Angeles Arrien, The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom (Sounds True: 2007, 2005), Richard Rohr’s email Wednesday,  April 3, 2019.

Early Christians, in their little Christian communities, at their house churches, where they broke bread around a common table of inclusion, in the shadowy dimness of oil lamps, would be asking themselves if they had come to Mary’s Gold Gate yet?  Jesus’ way, is the path of death, before resurrection. 

Jesus let dangle that last comment that you always have the poor to help.  He was actually half-quoting a verse from the Law of Moses 

Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I, therefore, command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

(Deut. 15:11)

Helping the poor is what you naturally do when you have come to the conclusion that life is not all about yourself.  You have died to the idea that “life consists in the abundance of possessions.”  You have come alive, in the second half of life, to love; and yes, to love is to give.  To die to ego is to live.  

I am glad that the Gospel of John told this story, this way, to set out, so clearly, the two alternative ways of being.  If you have been following Richard Rohr’s daily email reflections, you have been reading about this theme recently.  Thursday he quoted from Philip Simmons’ book, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, which sums up the message here beautifully: 

When we learn to fall, we learn that only by letting go our grip on all that we ordinarily find most precious—our achievements, our plans, our loved ones, our very selves—can we find, ultimately, the most profound freedom. In the act of letting go of our lives, we return more fully to them.

Mary learned to fall; Judas never did.

“The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”