Sunday, April 28, 2019

Easter 2C: Recognize and connect with God

Lectionary: Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

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En el nombre del Dios: Creador, Redentor, y Sactificador. Amen.

You’ve probably heard me say before that I hold the concept of the quest for individual salvation to be the besetting sin of current Christian culture, and it may be that it’s been the besetting sin throughout Christian history, or even before that.

But our Scriptures tell us that the plan of God’s salvation was, is, and has always been for the whole world, in fact, for all creation – the earth, the heavens, the whole cosmos. This plan also includes a personal, transformative relationship with God, based on the unique character and personality of each person, as evidenced throughout the stories in our Testaments, Old and New.

Focusing on “my own personal salvation” is a demonstration of unbelief. If Christ died once for all and made us a priesthood of believers who are commissioned, that is sent by God in Christ, to serve, to carry this message of God’s redeeming love to the world, then worrying about our own or anyone else’s personal salvation means we don’t believe Christ already obtained it for us.

Do we believe he did? That is the very basis of our Good News, isn’t it? And as Peter and those first disciples said to the council: we are witnessing to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who hear and respond.

Today’s lectionary demonstrates for us that the plan of God’s redemption (reclaiming) moves from the individual to the community who, through their individual relationships with Christ, are working together to make an expansive, inclusive “net” with which to “catch” people (as Jesus promised they would do).

This early community hiding out together in that upper room included women and men, faithful-ish Jews and tax collectors, mystics and the empirically-minded. The Spirit of Christ approaches each of them differently, as it does for us now, helping us all move from unbelief to belief.

Our Scripture shows us that there’s a moment that happens when we recognize and connect with the resurrected Christ on a deeply interior level. When that happens, it is our response to an invitation by God to draw close, in the way we are able to do that and connect.

In the midst of the beauty and glory of this personal connection, we experience a physical sensation, the first sign of the process of transformation happening within us. This is what we are hearing in our gospel story from John, over and over again.

For example, at the tomb that first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene encountered the resurrected Christ, but didn’t recognize him at first. Pre-occupied and probably weighed down with the devastating disappointment that her beloved rabbi, to whom she was so devoted and who had given her so much hope through his inclusion of her while he lived, was now dead.

Did her hopes die with him? I imagine she was processing this very thing as she went to the tomb to anoint and prepare his body for proper burial. By now, a couple of days after being placed in the tomb, the body of her rabbi would be decaying and the smell would be strong.

Having worked as an oncology chaplain, I can tell you that when you know there will be a smell you have to steel yourself to carry out your ministry. I imagine Mary was doing that.

Then she encountered the risen Christ, but it wasn’t until he spoke her name, tapping into their personal relationship, and that she sighed her recognition of and connection to him: Rabbouni! At that moment, Mary moved from unbelief to belief.

She ran back to tell the others “I have seen the Lord!” but they didn’t believe her. So Jesus appears to them, at least ten of them: Judas was gone and for reasons not stated, Thomas wasn’t there.

Jesus spoke peace to them twice and breathed on them calling to mind God breathing life into Adam in Genesis; but in that case, God breathed life into one. In the gospel of John, God in Christ breathes life into the whole community.

Receive Holy Spirit, he says. The choice is still theirs, but it appears all accepted the invitation and they were all changed from unbelief to belief.

In today’s gospel, which takes place a week later, the disciples are again gathered in the upper room which is locked for their safety, and this time Thomas, the Twin, is with them. The disciples had proclaimed to Thomas that they had seen the Lord using the same words Mary Magdalene had used to proclaim it to them that first time. In keeping with the pattern, Thomas doesn’t believe, even though a whole community has proclaimed it to him.

He thinks he needs proof, so Thomas declares that unless he sees and can touch the wounds of Jesus, he won’t believe. Thomas doesn’t actually need proof. What he needs is that recognition of and personal connection with Jesus.

So Jesus gives it to him without scolding him or judging him. Jesus simply invites him to draw near and touch his wounds if that will lead him to believe. But, as I mentioned, that wasn’t what Thomas needed. In the presence of the love of God in the risen Christ, Thomas sighed his recognition saying: "My Lord and my God."

Powerful words.

In the Roman Catholic tradition in which I grew up, I was taught to repeat Thomas’ words at the elevation of the cup during the Eucharistic prayer. I still do that to this day. I breathe my recognition of and connection to Jesus, who is God in Christ in me and in the community with whom I share a Holy Communion.

It’s a necessary and great comfort to me to be part of a community of believers. After Jesus had given the disciples his peace (yet again), he told them something outright that they needed to hear: what you do in heaven will be done on earth (sound familiar?). If you forgive what separates and divide, it will be reconciled. If you don’t, it won’t.

Those few words contain a powerful teaching: remember how the world responded to the unfathomable love and mercy of God who seeks to reconcile the whole world to herself. They killed it. They killed the embodiment of divine love, yet from his cross he forgave them, reconciling even them into the community of love. You, my disciples, are now the embodiment of divine love on the earth. Love as I have loved. Forgive even from your crosses.

The early disciples understood this, as we can hear in their reply to the high priest: WE must obey God… WE are witnesses to these things, and they lived out their belief in their lives, and even in their deaths.

This is the new covenant of reconciliation established by Jesus. We have been reborn as a community – the fellowship of Christ’s body - and our commission is to show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith.

In order to do that, we must recognize and connect with God in Christ in a deep, interior, transforming way. God will invite us to this in whatever way will work for us as individuals and as a community, because it is Christ’s spirit in us that witnesses to the world, that forgives and reconciles what divides and separates, that drenches us in love at every shared Holy Communion.

I share with you this poem from the book “Episcopal Haiku” (p. 42):

A little girl drops
her wafer in the wine. She’s
soaking up God’s grace.

Soak it up – soak up the love and grace of God waiting to drench you, waiting to drench us – for WE have been commissioned to show forth in our lives what we believe. Amen.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter 2019: Hope is subversive

Lectionary: Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

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En el nombre del Dios: Creador, Redentor, y Sanctificador. Amen.

Happy Easter!

I want to share with you the closing statements of Martin Luther King, Jr’s prophetic “I have been to the mountaintop” speech, which he gave in Memphis TN the night before he was assassinated. Dr. King said: “Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter to with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Source

Like most prophets, Dr. King was a subversive. He challenged the established system and its practices which held African Americans in the bondage of racism. Dr. King’s message was subversive because it was a message of hope, and as theologian Walter Bruggeman says, “Hope is subversive.”

As a prophet, Dr. King gave hope not only to African Americans but to all Americans. He assured us that despite all appearances and the entrenched practices of the established system, we could live together as one people, in freedom and in unity. He knew this because he had “seen the Promised Land.”

As we continue on this journey of our life together, it is up to us to continually discover where the established system is divisive and oppressive and work to set those captives free. Freedom takes sacrifice; and if it is to be achieved, both the oppressor and the oppressed must work together to break those bonds that deny freedom.

Each age has a Promised Land to reach. Moses led the oppressed people of God out of bondage in Egypt to freedom in Canaan. In the 1960s Dr. King led us onto the path toward racial freedom. Today, God has made us aware of a variety of oppressed communities we can align with and work for their freedom and dignity too: gay and trans people, migrants of many nationalities, people of color, Native people, the poor – to name a few.

It’s a pattern that’s part of our spiritual DNA and one our Savior made eternally true for us. On the day Jesus stood up in the grave, shook loose his burial linens, and left that tomb empty, he made marching to the Promised Land a continual journey for us until his coming again.

It’s been this way from the beginning of our Christian narrative. As the women stood in Jesus’ tomb,
trying to understand how it could be empty, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes are standing with them, and they are terrified. But the two men simply ask the women a question, “Why are you here looking for the living among the dead?”

That might be an awfully strange question in almost every other circumstance, but not this time, and this is why: “Remember what Jesus told you…” the men said. The women did remember and returned to tell the others – who, of course, didn’t believe them.

They had all heard Jesus say these things, and yet, they still couldn’t comprehend it. So Peter runs off to see for himself. Finding it just as the women described it, Peter returned home amazed.

What amazed Peter? That Jesus hadn’t lied to them? That the women hadn’t lied to them? After all, this is the disciple who had been to the mountaintop with Jesus.

So what amazed Peter? Everything was just as Jesus said it was going to be.

I think what amazed Peter is that death was no longer what Peter thought it was – neither was life, for that matter. I think what amazed Peter was the power of the love he had witnessed in Jesus, the Messiah, now risen from the dead.

The resurrection ushered in a new thing, a new age, a new life - just as Jesus said it would, and it took some time for his followers to let go of what was and live fully into this new thing.

Luke tells us in the first chapter of Acts that the disciples were “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” in that upper room. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection isn’t something we can understand without devoting ourselves to continual prayer as a community.

The reason is, resurrection isn’t about bodies or breathing. It’s about presence. As we heard in Isaiah, God says, “Before they call I will answer.” God is present before, during, and after our understanding of anything. That is the hope we proclaim – living in the eternal presence of God - and it is, as Bruggeman said, subversive.

God, whose mercy endures forever, who is our strength and salvation, is always with us, dwelling in us, redeeming all things before we even recognize the need for it. In fact, that’s how we recognize the need for it. That’s how we know God is sending us on another march to another Promised Land.

As we go, it helps to remember that God shows no partiality. God didn’t pick Peter because he was so astute. Right? God chose Peter, gifted him, and sent him to live out his purpose. And Peter did just that – in all his imperfection.

God chooses each of us too. We were created and gifted for a purpose and that purpose is simple: to do God’s will.

And what is God’s will? According to our catechism, Episcopalians believe that it is the will of God that the whole world be reconciled to God in Christ. Reconciled people live in harmony and unity with one another and with God. The final destination of every march to every Promised Land is always reconciliation.

Sin is what separates us from God and one another. Sin builds walls between us and God, between us and one another.

Living the resurrected life Jesus gave us restores us to right relationship with God and one another, and all we have to do is remember. A way to understand this kind of re-membering is to think about how a surgeon re-attaches a body part that has been cut off. All the tissue, all the nerves, all the blood vessels have to be re-connected so that the blood of life can flow into that re-attached part.

Our purpose as Christians is to ‘re-member’ anyone who has been cut off from the body of Christ: the oppressed, exiled, or lost, and reattach them, reminding them and everyone who would exclude them that God shows no partiality - which means, neither can we.

My daughter told me of an online discussion she was having with a Christian friend who kept condemning a group of persons (in this case homosexuals) using the usual verses from the Bible to support their position.

Here was my daughter’s response (and I can’t make a better point on Easter Eve than this). She said, “All those words [in the Bible] are different ways of illustrating one message: lovelovelovelovelove. God is love. Period. You don't have to understand it. You don't have to agree with it. You can try to collect all the rules you want, and I'm sure that's a comfort. It's just not the point. I will say it until I die: God is love.”

We, the members of the body of Christ here at St. David’s, have been chosen and gifted to be a local embodiment of the Promised Land; a place where people gather to live in harmony; to confront and discuss the difficult issues of our time – the ones that tend to divide us – and find our way forward together in reconciliation and peace.

It’s a good day to be a Christian; the kind of Christian who will say until the day we die: God is love.

Happy Easter!


Friday, April 19, 2019

Good Friday, 2019-C: Keeping it real

Lectionary:Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1-19:42

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While I was working on my doctorate from Sewanee, I took one course at Notre Dame and it was on rap and hip hop culture. In it we studied a book entitled: “Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop.”

I took it because listening to rap assaulted me and I hated it. The popularity of rap eluded me: it seemed so violent, misogynistic, immature, and focused on all the wrong goals – money, sex, fame…

I took this class because, while rap wasn’t my cup of tea, it was reaching young people in a big way and I wanted to know why. It felt like an important thing to know. And I was right.

This class taught me that rap worked for this generation like the Psalms worked for our Jewish forbears…like they work for us now. The poetry of rap, like the psalms, is a means of honestly expressing the human experience. No wonder it connected so well!

I remember living through my twenties, or as I call them, my “hell years” when I was being stalked (before there were stalking laws), threatened, followed by hired hit men, slandered on TV, in newspapers and magazines. I was innocent and in shock as my abusive first husband (may he rest in peace) the perpetrator of some of the worst crimes I could think of, was coming off looking like a golden boy as I remained silent, keeping steady on a path that would bring justice to my baby daughter. We got there finally, after nine years.

During that very dark time in my life, I found hope in the poetry of the Psalms. They spoke of a miserable reality I could connect with and they always led me to a place of hope, to the arms of God where I found love, safety, courage, and the will to go on, trusting in God’s love and desire to redeem even the hell I was living.

It seems that Jesus found the same kind of solace in the psalms. As he was dying a slow, miserable, unjust death on the cross, Jesus quoted from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?

Two things were happening here: 1) as a rabbi, Jesus was pointing his followers to the entirety of the psalm by stating just the first verse; and 2) Jesus was reminding himself of the truth of God’s redeeming, powerful love in his darkest moment on earth.

I offer you tonight this first-person meditation on Psalm 22 from one who has known what misery is.

Where are you, God? I feel so alone. Why have you abandoned me? Do you even hear me?

My people have trusted you for generations. Scripture tells me of your redeeming love for others. Where are you, God, for me?

It’s me, isn’t it? I’m not worthy. They scorn me, despise me, laugh at me, and lie about me. They obviously know that I’m not worthy of love, of friendship, of justice.

But then again, God, you brought me to this life and you’ve kept me safe upon your breast. Stay close to me! I’m afraid.

They’re like snarling beasts trying to tear me apart. They’re drooling for my death.

I’m twisted up; melting into a puddle of nothingness.

I’ve cried so much by now that I’m all dried up. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. I’m dying and I feel like you’ve left me at my dusty grave.

But I’m innocent! They’re the evil ones and they surround me like packs of dogs. They taunt me and gamble my value away like it’s some game. They torture me; I’m fading into nothing.

Where are you, God?! Come and help me. Save me. Save my tired, wretched body. Save my weary soul.

Do I matter at all to you? … because you matter to me. You are the only strength I have left; the only hope there is.

Therefore, I will praise you, God, because I know you. I praise you in the presence of your people gathered for worship.

Praise God, you people! Because God does not hate or despise. And God hears our wretched cries. We shall be satisfied, justified, and we will live in eternal love, because God is servant of ALL.

Everyone, everywhere, and for all time will hear my words and know that God is God - and I choose to serve Her.

Hear me when I say it is to God alone the whole earth bows in worship, remembering and respecting our Creator who formed us in the power of Her love.

I know this absolutely, and my children and their children will know it too, because I will make this known to them and they will make it known to people yet unborn.

That is my purpose. That is my promise.

On Good Friday we, as a congregation and as individual members of it, live fully into the reality of the dusty, miserable, hopelessness of death, and choose life anyway, trusting in the redeeming power of God’s love to move us from whatever death we face to new life.

That is God’s promise and we are witnessing, experiencing, and embodying its fulfillment again as we move through Holy Week to Easter together.

I close with this prayer from the Hip Hop Prayer Book:

We pray to God, and we also pray to the church
For understanding our message, and helping us do our work
For giving us a place, where we can get down
And shout our voice, spread the message all around
For watchin out for us, and stayin aware
Inside your crib we can never be scared
Keepin it real for us and keeping it hot
Cause God don’t quit and God don’t stop.

We give it up to y’all for deliverin’ the truth
The words that you flow show us the proof
So we send out a blessin’ for bringin’ us the message
For keeping it real and showin’ us the lessons. Amen! WORD!

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Maundy Thursday 2019: The power of servanthood today

Lectionary: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Note: If this recording doesn't play on your device, click HERE for an alternative audio format.

Our reading tonight from Exodus always feels a little alien to me: animal sacrifice just isn’t part of my life experience. And the details about how exactly to do the sacrifice… well, it all seems a bit excessive. Until we consider our Holy Eucharist and the rubrics we keep as we offer our sacrifice of thanksgiving. In ritual practice, the details matter.

Moses and Aaron instructed the people to sacrifice a lamb. This is where we Christians get our language about Jesus as the Paschal Lamb, the perfect sacrifice who gave his life for our redemption.

As for me, I struggle against the theology of substitutionary atonement, that is, that Jesus made a choice to be punished - even unto death - for our sins in order to satisfy the demands of justice so that God could forgive us. I don’t buy it, though I don’t judge those who do.

I even struggle being part of a legacy that honors sacrifice. It just doesn’t fit with my experience of God. I am, however, part of that legacy. We all are.

Our forbears in faith sacrificed animals - some to appease an angry or vindictive God; and while that may not have been supported by their religious authorities it was in the hearts of some of the people as evidenced in the language of the stories we inherited in our Scripture.

For our Jewish forebears, these rituals were likely to have been for the purpose of communion - a means to bridge the realms of heaven and earth, to draw people into relationship with one another and into relationship with God. The role of the victim was as mediator between the realms. Source.

I can roll with that.

As we read these stories from our Scripture this Holy Week, we do so from our experience and present context. When Jesus was acting out this gospel lesson for his followers he was using experiences and language that they knew and understood, ritual actions that had deep meaning for them. And he asked us to remember…

When we remember we are doing so much more than recalling events, or even making them real in the present moment. The kind of remembering Jesus asked us to do, as one theologian said, brings “past actions to bear on the present, with new power and insight.” Source.

That is our purpose tonight. We are distant enough in time from ritual animal sacrifice that it: a) seems alien to us and incongruent with our spiritual experience; and b) kind of grosses us out.

So, how can we relate? Well, we look at what this particular evening of sacrifice meant to our forbears, how it impacts the world we live in, and what power and insight it brings us today.

“In ancient Judaism the ḥaṭṭaʾt, or ‘sin offering,’ was … for the expiation of certain, especially unwittingly committed, defilements. The guilty laid their hands upon the head of the sacrificial animal” [a lamb according to the instructions in Exodus]. “In this way they identified themselves with the victim, making it their representative (but not their substitute, for their sins were not transferred to the victim).”

The early Christians took this ritual and brought its power and insight to bear on their present moment delivering to us our ritual of Holy Communion and, specifically, our Maundy Thursday observance of it. We are called to so the same thing now. In the gospel from John we see a past action that bears on our present moment in a very powerful way. Jesus is demonstrating servant leadership – a concept almost as alien today as it was then.

Whether the leadership we know is political, religious, or familial servant leadership runs counter to the understanding of leadership in current culture. As one modern theologian says, the power model of leadership… “is focused on “how to accumulate and wield power, how to make people do things, how to attack and win. It is about clever strategies, applying pressure, and manipulating people to get what you want.” Source: Aug 4, 2015 by Scot McNight

Servant leadership, on the other hand, leads by serving a concept that almost sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s only contradictory on the surface. As theologian and bishop, Bennett J. Sims, said in his seminal book, “Servanthood: Leadership for the Third Millennium,” “From the secular perspective ‘servanthood’ often means ‘servitude,’ a condition either imposed on women and racially different groups by male-dominated cultures, or self-imposed by both men and women out of their fear of power.” …I will argue that servanthood is the way of fulfilling the human longing for peace and the planet’s need of preservation as the theater of all life. …Servant power functions as a two-way exchange, never as subjugating dominance; it not only influences others, but is open to influence. Servanthood acknowledges and respects of the freedom of another and seeks to enhance the other’s capacity to make a difference.” Source, published 1997, Preface, p1.

This way of understanding servant leadership isn’t actually new to the Christian community. In the 4th century, St. Augustine of Hippo said this: “For you I am a bishop, but with you I am a Christian. The first is an office accepted; the second is a gift received. One is danger, the other is safety. If I am happier to be redeemed with you than to be placed over you, then I shall, as the Lord commanded, be your servant.”

In our gospel reading, we hear Jesus say, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” As the redeemed, we must get on our knees and serve humbly. And really, washing feet is washing feet, right? It’s a difficult and humbling experience on both sides of the basin then and now as Peter so aptly illustrates for us.

Jesus also said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Our task, as the church of today, is to bring Jesus’ words to bear on our present moment with all their power and insight. We start by celebrating this perpetual feast bridging the realms of heaven and earth, in order to draw people into deeper relationship with one another and with God. And we remember…that in whatever way we choose to understand it, Jesus has launched the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption and in doing so, made us all one family.

Then he showed us how to live into our redemption by serving one another humbly. He even gave us a ritual to help us bring the power and insight of our remembering to bear on our present experience: washing one another’s feet.

At this time, then, we proceed with this powerful, humbling experience of servanthood as Jesus taught us.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Palm Sunday, 2019: Contemplate the crucifixion

Lectionary: The Liturgy of the Palms - Luke 19:28-40; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29. The Liturgy of the Word - Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56

Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for alternative audio format.

Today, as we enter Holy Week, the church asks us to contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus. We begin by reading the passion gospel in parts embodying the reality of it processing with palms, and by speaking the words of praise and condemnation.

Was it inevitable – even planned by God ahead? Some of our Scripture says so, but it was not prophesied as such. Isaiah said he was beaten and lashed.

In our Scripture readings today, the triumphal entry to Jerusalem quickly transitions into the mob shouting crucify him. As Niccolò Machiavelli said in his book, The Prince: “The temper of the multitude is fickle”

Was the crucifixion the way God planned for this to play out? Was it God’ intention that Jesus be tortured and killed? Or was it our doing – the people’s doing?

One thing we know from the gospels is that Jesus had been predicting his death for a while. He kept telling his followers that he would die, much as MLK, Jr. said the same just before his assassination. When you are awake and conscious of the political and social pulse of your people, you can make some pretty accurate educated guesses about what will happen next.

So, how do you understand the crucifixion? This is the week to consider that.

I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to tell you how you should approach this or understand it. I only ask that you do. Come to the Good Friday service and spend some time in prayerful contemplation of this gospel.

I will say this about the crucifixion: if there is anything that demonstrates the unfailing mercy and compassion of God, it’s the crucifixion. God’s redeeming love never faltered even as we (the people) murdered God Incarnate. Instead, in God’s steadfast love for us even the crucifixion was redeemed bringing life from death…

Is there anything, then, that God’s love won’t redeem?

I close with this thought from Franciscan friar, Richard Rohr: “Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about us. It did not need changing. Jesus came to change our minds about God - and about ourselves - and about where goodness and evil really lie.” Amen.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Lent 5-C, 2019: Vessels of extravagant love

Lectionary: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

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En el nombre del Dios: Creador, Redentor, y Santificador. Amen.

Thirteenth-century mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg was a prolific writer of poems and hymns that vividly describe the nature of an intimate relationship with God. Mechthild wrote:

“Great is the overflow of Divine Love which is never still but ever ceaselessly and tirelessly pours forth, so that our little vessel is filled to the brim and overflows. If we do not choke the channel with self-will, God’s gifts continue to flow and overflow. Lord! Thou art full, and fillest us also with Thy gifts. Thou art great and we are small, how then shall we become like Thee?”

How shall we? Judging from our readings today, we might imitate Mary of Bethany and St. Paul of Tarsus.

The story of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet is found in three of the four gospels, though it is only in the Gospel of John that the woman is identified as Mary of Bethany. By identifying her in that way, John brings the issue of intimate friendship into the story. Jesus and Mary of Bethany were friends… dear friends.

John also makes an important point about the way Mary anoints Jesus. Anyone who knows anything about Jesus knows that he was not interested in personal glory. And Mary does know Jesus, so she anoints his feet, which is a sign of repentance, not his head, which is how a King is anointed. Mary anointed the Messiah, not the next king of Israel.

The timing of this story is important too. Jesus, his disciples and some friends are gathered at the home of Mary and Martha of Bethany. Their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus has recently raised from the dead,
is also there.

Meanwhile, Caiaphas and the other religious leaders, upon hearing that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, have decided that Jesus must die and they begin to plot how to make that happen. They plan to kill Lazarus too, to ensure that his resurrection story also dies.

For the sake of the many, this one must die, they say. So they proclaim an edict that anyone who knows where Jesus is must tell the authorities so that he can be arrested. If they don’t they can be arrested.

It is in this context that Martha, Mary, and Lazarus Jesus and the others have gathered for dinner. The gathering itself is subversive and risky.

After dinner, Mary loosens her hair, which in that culture is the symbol of her feminine sexuality, hence feminine power, takes out a jar of expensive perfumed nard, which would be worth about $15,000 per pound today, and anoints Jesus' feet.

Mary loved Jesus deeply and she was unafraid to demonstrate that love and devotion, even when it meant violating the cultural conventions of her time and risking public disapproval.

Mary’s love of and devotion to Jesus somehow led her to know that Jesus needed this anointing now. She may not have even understood why, but she heeded that inner prompting, and Jesus thanked her for it later.

Imagine the faith and courage it took for Mary anoint Jesus in this way. How did she know Jesus wouldn’t respond like a typical Jewish man and rebuff for her touching him? How did she know that Jesus wouldn’t agree with Judas and be disappointed by her extravagance? How did she know that Jesus needed to be prepared for his burial the day before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem?

She knew. She knew because she knew Jesus… having sat at his feet and received the better part. Mary had integrated Jesus’ message of the extravagance of God’s redeeming love for the world and so she was empowered to reflect that extravagance in her own life.

It is this kind of knowing that St. Paul is talking about when he writes, “I want to know Christ. I want to know the power of his resurrection.” Here’s the backstory: having already established Christian churches throughout Asia Minor, Greece, and Macedonia, Paul was now in prison and he knew his death was imminent. Writing to the church in Philippi (though it sounds more like to himself), Paul lists his credentials: a faithful Jew… a Pharisee, blameless under the law.

Yet, despite all his spiritual bling, Paul confesses: “I want to know Christ.” Paul is talking about a deeply integrated, transforming way of knowing – the way Mary of Bethany knew him.

The lives of Mary and Paul make clear that living the reality of new life in Christ takes courage. As the world continues to be transformed by the power of Jesus’ resurrection, some people, some groups will cling to long-held customs out of fear of change, fear of losing power, fortune, or importance,
fear of being wrong or cast out from the group that matters to them.

Like Mary and Paul, we are called to listen then act as the Spirit leads us being unafraid to demonstrate our love and devotion to God, even when that is subversive and risky. To know the Christ in this way is to be empowered by his message of the extravagance of God’s redeeming love for the world; to participate with him, to become like him, and to reflect that extravagance by our lives and our service.

As the Episcopal presence in this college community, our message will be out of step with other churches, friends, and business associates in our area because we are unafraid to include everyone just as God made them. That may be a bit uncomfortable at times, but it is comforting to those who are being judged, excluded, and dismissed.

By our life together as a community of faith in the Episcopal tradition, we will demonstrate to them that they matter to us and to God, that they are beloved of God and welcome to be members of our family. There’s a symbol of that love on the door to our church. That’s what our worship, our website, our Stewardship of the Entirety of our Lives community events, and all of our other ministries communicate to the world.

Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with a perfumed nard as a sign of repentance and dependence on her Redeemer. The gospel writer said the fragrance of it filled the room. I hope it will do the same for us today.

Those little covered cups you were given as you entered our sanctuary today contain organic coconut oil infused with essential oil of myrhh – the scent Mary likely used in her ointment.

I invite everyone to scrape some of this ointment into their hands and rub it in. The coconut oil will liquefy when it meets the warmth of your hands and you will smell the myrrh.

This fragrance that’s on our hands will be an outward sign to remind us of our inner call. It will follow us from this worship into the world, where we will carry the extravagant love of God in Christ to all we meet.

Let us pray…

Fill us, O Lord, until your love overflows from us and nourishes the souls of all you draw near to us. Help us to recognize them as treasures of your kingdom, that we may give to them as extravagantly as you give to us. Grant us the courage to know you as Mary of Bethany did, to participate in you as St. Paul did, and to serve you, doing your will as you reveal it to us each day. Bless us as we discern the gifts you have given us, individually and as your community of love. Show us how to nurture those gifts, and motivate us to use them for your glory and the welfare of your people. Amen.