Sermon: Actions Speak (Palm Sunday C)

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.’

Sisters and brothers, my siblings in Christ; grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

We don’t know that it happened every year, but if he followed the usual Roman traditions we can assume that at some point during his time as governor Pontius Pilate rode into Jerusalem in a victory parade, likely more than just once. These would have been ostentatious occasions. Such a parade was intended to be a statement of Rome’s power and might. Pilate would likely have been seated atop a warhorse, in beautiful clothing or armor, and accompanied by a small army of soldiers. He may have been joined by the puppet kings of Israel, but perhaps not if he wanted them to know their place too. Crowds would have likely gathered to see the unusual sight on their own, but if not soldiers would have ensured that the people of Jerusalem were in attendance. The whole parade was intended to send a message to the rebellious Israelites: do NOT mess with Rome. Some in the crowds may have cheered, but I imagine most would have rather jeered (if they dared).

And if Pilate had chosen to conduct such a parade, what better time than at Passover? Jerusalem would have been chock full of pilgrims from all over Palestine and beyond; what a great big audience! Plus, there’s the bonus of the history of Passover. It was, essentially, the celebration of when God rescued Israel from the mighty Egyptian Empire. What a perfect moment for Pilate to arrive and impress upon Israel that Rome is not Egypt, and as a matter of fact, Rome ruled Egypt by this point in history. So go ahead and celebrate escaping the Egyptian Empire, but just in case you’re thinking of trying to escape the Roman Empire, here is a reminder of what you would be up against.

The huge spectacle of such a parade is all about sending a message. Jesus, in his entry into Jerusalem, was also sending a message. He was sending a message to the people of Israel, to the people of Rome, to all people. True kingship and power are not exercised in the way that humans love to exercise them. Military might and power amount to a hill of beans in the face of Christ’s message. The message, the Gospel, was one of pure Truth.

And the truth is this, Jesus. Jesus who took on human flesh and limitation to show us what a sham our world is. Jesus who died on the cross, not to satisfy God’s desire to punish humanity; but rather to open our eyes to the delusions we live under. Like the delusion that power is useless unless exercised over others. The delusion that there are arbiters of access to God’s love and grace. Or, perhaps the greatest delusion, that we are in control.

The message of this Truth is embedded everywhere in Christ’s entry into Jerusalem: he enters on a colt instead of a warhorse, he sits on a dirty, ragged cloak instead of an expensive saddle, he’s wearing everyday clothes instead of finery, and he’s accompanied by ragtag crowds full of unimportant pilgrims instead of soldiers and the wealthy. This message will continue as we make our way through Christ’s Passion. His throne will be a cross. His crown, a wreath of thorns. And the scarlet he will wear will be the red of his spilled blood instead of a scarlet, ermine robe.

What a disappointment this message must have been to the people gathered there. Sure, they start off on board with what Christ is saying; but it doesn’t last. And out of their disappointment their cries of “Hosanna” will turn into cries of “Crucify him!” in just a matter of days. We don’t like our delusions being unmasked! We cannot stand that God will not conform to our expectations!

I shared with you a few weeks ago my frustration with substitutionary atonement theory. As a quick reminder, that’s the idea that Jesus came to earth in order to take humanity’s place in the face of God’s wrath. Or divine “child abuse” if you recall my complaint about that atonement theory. I believe this message of Truth is the real reason Christ took on human flesh and form. It didn’t have anything to do with God’s wrath or punishing humanity or any of that stuff. When you really examine those reasons and theories, they are exactly in line with the human delusion that Christ is rejecting, aren’t they?

All of those atonement theories have to do with human preoccupations and not the self-identified preoccupations of Jesus Christ. God’s wrath, divine punishment, retribution, all of that stuff is exactly what humanity would do with God’s power. Who wouldn’t love to divinely smite their enemies? I’d wager those Israelites in Jerusalem would be quite happy to smite down Pilate and the Roman Emperor and all the rest. Power is meant to be exercised over others after all!

Except, that’s not the Way of Christ. The Way of Christ lies in giving up power and control. The Way of Christ is oriented towards humility, not power; towards meekness, not pride; and towards trust in God, not trust in might or wealth. The Way of Christ holds up a mirror to humanity so we can see ourselves more clearly. A mirror that lets us part the veil of our shared delusions and see the extreme damage we do to one another (and ourselves!!) because of them.

There are likely many reasons for the Incarnation and Passion of Christ. But I think there is no more important a reason for humanity than this one. We need to be confronted with the Truth: we are not in control, none of the things we pursue on our own can fulfill us, and all people are made in God’s image. The Truth forces us to see how broken we are. How broken we have made the world. The Truth confronts us with our complicity in the damage done to ourselves, to others and to creation. The Truth is enough to make us despair!

But the Truth doesn’t end there. While it pierces our delusions and confronts us with our brokenness; it also shows us a different way, the Way of Christ. A Way that leads to God’s realm, a place of abundant love and grace, mercy and forgiveness. A Way that teaches us to accept others and love them as they are, knowing that it is only when encircled by safe and loving arms that change is even possible. A Way that leads us to connection with God, and through that connection, connection with all of creation.

The Truth holds up a mirror to show us our brokenness, but it also shows us that we are made in God’s image. The Truth shows us that we are connected to, even grounded in, the sacred, the holy, the divine. The Truth shows us that we are not whole or well; but it also shows us exactly what we need to be whole and well…connection. Connection to God, and through that connection, connection one another and to all of creation. The Truth shows us God’s love for us and for the cosmos. Amen.

Sermon: Meeting Needs (Lent 5c)

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.’

Sisters and brothers, my siblings in Christ; grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

“You always have the poor with you…” (John 12:8a, NRSV). These words of Christ have been much debated and, at times, ill-used by theologians and the church universal. It almost sounds hopeless, right? There will always be poor people. That’s a pretty pessimistic assessment; I, for one, dream of a world where poverty no longer exists. I dream of a society where every person’s needs are met. And I would hope you would have similar dreams!

So what is going on here? Why does Jesus make this statement? As can often be the case in the words of Jesus, this statement may be a reference to the Torah. We certainly experience how well versed Jesus is in the Law numerous times in John’s Gospel.[1] So let me read you a verse from Deuteronomy 15 that may be what Jesus is referencing. Deuteronomy 15 is laying out the rules regarding a “year of jubilee” every seven years in which debts are cancelled and slaves are freed. After outlining the process for this special year (a process which we have no evidence of ever being followed), Moses relates these words from Yahweh, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land” (Deut. 15:11, NRSV).

Oh! That reference may change how we hear these words of Christ. Rather than hearing them as hopeless, that the plight of the poor will never be remedied. Perhaps this is an invitation to focus on the poor right in front of the disciples’ eyes. Especially since the poor person in front of them, unlike the poor in general, will not be with them always. Yes, I am calling Jesus poor.

Now, I don’t mean that Jesus was poor in terms of material means, though that would not surprise me. We do not hear much about Jesus’ possessions in scripture. There are all of two possible references to Jesus having a home (one in Mark 2 and one in John 1), but that’s about it. When it comes to other material possessions…there’s not much mentioned. As a matter of fact, there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that Jesus was materially poor. Why else would Luke mention this in reference to several of his female disciples: “they provided financial support for Jesus and his disciples” (Luke 8:3c, NRSV)?

That being said, I don’t believe that it is material poverty that is being addressed by Mary in our text for today. After all, there are other kinds of poverty. Which begs the question, what is poverty? That can be a difficult question to answer, but I would argue that, fundamentally, poverty is an experience of lacking some basic necessity.

So, is Jesus poor? Materially? Perhaps. But in this scene from John 12, is Jesus poor? I would argue yes, but his poverty is not material. I believe his poverty is spiritual. What is the basic need that is not being met for Jesus here in John 12? Understanding and compassion.

Think about his situation. It is six days before the Passover, the Passover that Jesus knew would mark his execution. Jesus is staying in Bethany, which is essentially a suburb of Jerusalem, where he will be abandoned and die. He is on the verge of drinking the cup that he would rather not drink. And who is his support network in the midst of all of this distress and anxiety? Clueless disciples who will abandon him when the going gets tough.

By this time in John’s Gospel Jesus has told the disciples, three different times, that he will die: John 2:13-22; John 3:13-21; John 10:7-8. And what’s the reaction from the disciples? Complete misunderstanding! In John 2 we read that the disciples will not understand what Jesus meant about rebuilding the Temple (of his body) until after his death and resurrection. Nicodemus will miss the point completely of Jesus’ needing to be lifted up to save others like Moses’ snake on a stick. His prediction in John 10 is met with derision by the crowds, some even calling him a raving lunatic.

There’s not much understanding here, is there? Not much compassion either! We will watch these disciples, Jesus’ supposed support network, as they repeatedly let Jesus down during his arrest, trial, torture, and execution. By their words and actions prior to this point we know that, like Nicodemus, the other disciples are trapped by their expectations of the Messiah which lead them misunderstanding and indifference.

So yes, I believe Jesus was quite poor when Mary entered the room of that house in Bethany and saw something in Jesus that clued her in to his needs. I suspect she ran out of the room to go find something to try to help him as his time of trial began. I imagine her rushing to the marketplace and casting about for something that might express her love and concern for Jesus. She may not fully understand what’s going on, but she clearly sees some need in Jesus.

Who knows how she arrives at nard for a gift. Perhaps it was the movement of the Holy Spirit. But in the scene I’m crafting in my imagination I see her moving through various stalls until the scent of perfume wafts buy. She moves closer to the source of the scent and starts to look through the various jars and vials. Perhaps again guided by the Spirit, she sees the nard and something triggers in her mind. Maybe she remembers one or two of those passion predictions she’s heard from Jesus. Or perhaps she is thinking about the spices she purchased recently for her dear brother, Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead not that long ago. Whatever the reason, she grabs the bottle and approaches the vendor.

300 denarii?? That’s a lot of money! One denarius was considered a day’s wage for the typical laborer. Three hundred denarii then, represents almost a full year’s worth of time and energy expended. I wonder if the price caught Mary off guard, or if she hesitated at all. It’s a lot of money after all! But perhaps Mary’s thoughts turned instead to the teachings of Christ. The repeated messages about the abundance of God’s love and grace. Or maybe she thought back to the time by the Sea of Galilee when Jesus took “five small barley loaves and two small fish” (John 6:9a) and provided more than enough to feed five thousand men, plus the thousands of women and children that were gathered there too. In the face of such generosity it’s hard not to respond in kind!

I picture Mary emptying her purse out into the vendor’s hands and rushing back to where Jesus and the others were gathered. She throws open the door and hurries to the feet of Christ where she uncorks the jar, letting the odor fill the room, and thus identifying the perfume as the pricey burial spice, nard. She pours the costly ointment over her Rabbi’s feet then realizes that in her rush she didn’t grab a towel to work the perfume into his skin. So, without hesitation or even a second thought, she uncovers her hair and draws it down to his feet and in act of intimate love, works the burial oil into his skin.

Mary saw the poverty of compassion and understanding that Jesus was experiencing. She saw something in Jesus that spoke to her of what he needed most, and she responded to it. She met the needs of Jesus; he lacked love and support for what he was about to endure, and she somehow saw that poverty. And, being a better disciple than most, she sought to meet the need of that poverty. She saw need and worked to meet it. There is no quicker summation of discipleship than that.

I believe that is why Jesus references Deuteronomy 15 and adds on that bit about the disciples not always having him. I don’t believe Jesus is trying to teach us to not prioritize the needs of the poor; rather he is teaching the disciples to respond to the needs that are right in front of them. He wants them, and us too, to open our eyes to different sorts of poverty and need that exist right around us. And, seeing the needs of those around us, Christ wants us to follow Mary’s example and serve those needs!

In a world full of brokenness and poverty we can become blind to the needs of those around us. The amount of work ahead of us can feel overwhelming too. But the plain truth of the matter is that Jesus is trying to get us to see that unmet needs are everywhere and we are called to be generous or openhanded, in meeting those needs. We can’t change the world, but we can change our little corner of it. And that change seems to come first through truly seeing the people around us; seeing their needs and trying to meet them. That is the Way of Christ. That is the way of love. May we follow Mary’s example in walking it! Amen.

[1] (cf John 1:1-18; John 8:12-13, 17-18; John 10:34-36; John 13:18; John 15:25)