(9 March 2014)
by Rev. Elder Darlene Garner
God placed the human in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
And God commanded, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden;
but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,
for when you eat from it you will certainly die.
Genesis 2:15 (NIV, Inclusified)
Many Christian churches follow the lectionary, which provides the scripture texts around which each weekly service of worship can be designed. The lectionary usually follows a three-year cycle. The theological focus for the First Sunday in Lent this year is “original sin.”
According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, original sin is a doctrine that can be taken to mean the sin that Adam committed and the consequences of this first sin — the hereditary stain with which we are born on account of our origin or descent from Adam. (http://www.newadvent.org/
The Baptist church of my youth taught me that because Adam sinned by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, every human being born after him is also a “sinner” who is “bad from birth” and doomed to spend eternity in hell. The only way to avoid the consequence of original sin would be by exercising one’s “free will” and choosing to deny oneself the privilege of having an independent thought in order to live only by the strict “do’s and don’ts” of the church. Then, and only then, could one have any hope of being saved from eternal damnation.
Other things came into even clearer focus when I read the book Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality by Matthew Fox (1983, published by Bear & Co., Inc.). It opened my eyes to see the vastly improved quality of life that is possible when one lives with a psychology that says, “The soul loves the body” (as in creation spirituality) rather than “The soul makes war with the body” (as in the fall/redemption theology of my youth). To this day, I choose love over war.
Then I heard this song:
Just for an hour, how sweet it would be
Not to be struggling, not to be striving,
But just sleep securely in our slavery.
My heart would say “Yes,” and my feet would say “Go!”
That somehow my sisters and I will be one day
The free people we were created to be.
(Words and Music by Carol Etzler (now Eagleheart), 1974 published by Sisters Unlimited, RR 1 Box 1420, Bridgeport, Vermont 05734 USA)
Sometimes I Wish is a folk song written 40 years ago. The lyrics are just as challenging today as they were when they were written. Carol was writing then about the specific awareness of her lesbian sisters, yet the lyrics also reveal a different meaning to the consequences of what happened when Adam ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As I see it now, human naiveté and complacency died that day. Suddenly, Adam saw that his living was not to be about “me” but about “we.” As he chewed on that bitter fruit, he just knew that he would be accountable to God for the impact that his actions would have on others.
His (and our) eyes were opened to the truth that our attitudes and actions are almost always the sole cause of human pain, suffering, oppression, and exclusion. We have to accept responsibility for this; we have to care. We can no longer close our eyes to what we can now see. We can no longer close our hearts to one another nor deny that the so-called “other” is really just the other part of “we.”
Throughout the Lenten Season this year, let us see one another with eyes wide open and show that we care more about “we” than about “me.”
(5 March 2014)
by Rev. Elder Dr. Mona West
Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 51:1-17;
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
“The Pace and Place of the Journey”
Well, here we are again. It is Lent. Ash Wednesday begins a forty-day journey (plus Sundays) to Easter. This season in the life of the Church is fashioned after Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, where he fasted and prayed and struggled with temptation in an effort to discern his true relationship to God. Each year, Christians are called to slow the pace of their hectic lives and enter into forty days of introspection marked by spiritual disciplines such as prayer, almsgiving, and fasting in order to discern our true relationship to God.
The pace and place of transformation and healing, says Jesus, are in secret. Our quiet center is the place of transformation. It is that quiet space, that secret space, that empty centering point in the hearts of all believers where we wait upon God to speak to us, to see us in the silence, and to name us in a deeply intimate way.
In the history of the Christian Church, the way people have made this Lenten journey is to ‘give up’ or ‘take on’ certain things. This giving up or taking on is what is known as spiritual practices or disciplines. Fasting, the giving up of food, or a bad habit, or too much television or internet; prayer, the taking on of a specific time and way to talk to God; and almsgiving, the giving of ourselves to others through acts of kindness or presence, are spiritual practices that prepare the soil of our souls for God’s work of transformation in us.
Sometimes we confuse the practice with the transformation. The practices in and of themselves do not transform us; they clear out a space in our lives for God to act. Our passage from Matthew 6 makes this point. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, ‘if you pray’ or ‘if you give alms’ or ‘if you fast.’ He says ‘when’ you do these things; spiritual practices in the life of a Christian are not optional. I believe we are called to spiritual practices throughout the year. Lent helps us to understand this by giving us a jump start.
Jesus warns us that we need to be clear about our motivation for these spiritual practices. Some people engage in the giving up and taking on of spiritual disciplines to flaunt their willpower, or to appear holy, or to prove to God or themselves they can earn grace and forgiveness. Their practice will not result in transformation. Their practice will result in the source of the motivation: praise and admiration from others or failed self-reliance.
But when our motivation is to come before God in the secret places of our hearts, to clear a space for God to act through the practice of spiritual disciplines, then the reward is transformation in the secret places of our hearts.
For this forty-day period, all of us are invited to enter into covenant with God and one another, to be intentional about the journey we will make together. We covenant with God and one another because God is a God of covenant. God’s covenant with us is redemption and transformation. God accomplishes in us what we cannot do for ourselves.
That is the essence of the message of Psalm 51. The psalmist cries out to God: “Create in me a clean heart and put a right spirit within me. You desire truth in my inward being, so teach me wisdom in the secret places of my heart.” God does not require us to ‘work on ourselves’ until we are worthy. God doesn’t look at how holy and pure we think we are because we pray and fast and tithe. The only thing God asks of us is a willing spirit and contrite heart.
Lent opens those secret heart places in each of us. It is an intentional journey with Jesus into the wilderness. What other geography is there that invites this kind of transformation? Terry Tempest Williams says it this way
It’s strange how deserts turn us into believers. I believe in walking in a landscape of mirages, because you learn humility. I believe in living in a land of little water because life is drawn together. And I believe in the gathering of bones as a testament to spirits that have moved on.
Rev. Elder Darlene Garner
A great deal of importance was placed on burial in the Jewish religion in ancient times. Ordinary citizens, military personnel, and even criminals had to be properly buried, according to religious law. It was an old Jewish custom to place the dead in the sepulcher, which would remain unsealed for the space of three days, during which period the body was frequently visited by members of the family in the hope that signs of a return to life would be found.
Many men and women had traveled with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. Never did any of them imagine when they set out from home to follow the one who embodied their hopes and dreams that their journey would take them to Calvary instead, reluctant witnesses to Jesus’ death.
Matthew tells us that, of all the disciples who had made the trip, Mary of Magdala and the other Mary were the ones who were still around when evening came. Only they were present to watch as Joseph of Arimathea, in accordance with Jewish tradition, prepared Jesus’ body for burial, laid him in a tomb, rolled a big stone across the entry, and then went away. They were the sole ones to witness that Jesus’ body had been properly respected, the last ones to mourn publicly for him, and the only ones to keep watch for any signs of life.
The very next day, in spite of the fact that Jesus already had been crucified and died, some of the religious authorities must have been afraid that burial might not be enough to keep him down. They went to Pilate, pleading that he order the tomb to be sealed and the grave secured until the end of the third day. It is interesting that Pilate did not actually issue such an order. Instead, he told the authorities that if they wanted such an unusual thing (actually sealing the tomb) to be done, they would have to do it; and so they did. The religious authorities themselves went to the tomb, sealed it, and posted a guard on loan to them from Pilate to keep watch. And so it was in this way that everything that could be done was done to ensure that the one the authorities had killed would stay dead.
Until preparing this reflection, I confess that I had probably paid too little attention to that which took place on the day after Jesus was crucified and buried. Perhaps because of the deep sadness I always feel on Good Friday and the absolute joy that courses through me on Easter, the fact that a whole day came in between had just never before carried any significance for me. That has now changed.
I think of the times in my own life when someone intentionally put an obstacle in my way that they believed I would never overcome. I think of the occasions when others did everything they could to make sure that my dreams died, never to rise again, and when people just gave up on me. I even think of the moments when I was the one with the power and sealed another’s fate. I also think of when I’ve been in what I call the “in-between times.” This is what I call the period between the time when one door closes and another one opens or the time after “what was” and before “what’s next.” Regardless of the surrounding circumstances or anyone’s intention, the impact of all these kinds of situations is often an emotional, psychological, and/or spiritual death experienced as struggle, suffering, and conflict.
The good news of this Gospel is that even when it seems as though the circumstances are killing us, we do not have to die. I am reminded of a line from one of my favorite movies, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The hotel owner Sonny says to his disappointed British guests: “In India, we have a saying: ‘Everything will be alright in the end.’ So if it’s not alright, it is not yet the end.” Outward appearances are often deceiving. Sometimes it does get worse before it gets better. Do not give up too soon.
One of my favorite life coaches is Iyanla Vanzant. When writing about where God is when someone has seemingly sealed our fate or when we are in those in-between times, she offers these words of wisdom:
I once read that struggle, suffering, and conflict are like magnets that draw us closer to God. It is not until we feel totally helpless, confused, sometimes desperate, that we become willing or able to turn to the awesome power of life and living our Creator offers us. We may know God exists. We may understand our connection to God. Yet it seems that it is not until we are down or on the way down that we invite God’s presence and power into our life. It doesn’t have to be this way. God not only offers emergency care, S/He is a source of preventive care.
Your Creator always wants the best for you. Your Creator has a mission, plan, and purpose designed just for you. Sometimes when things are going our way, when they are comfortable or easy, we forget about God. We get off track, out of line; we move away from the plan, mission, and purpose. Difficulties in life are not meant to break us or break us down. Our greatest challenge may be a simple reminder, the only way we will remember that there is a Higher Authority to whom we are accountable. The real challenge we face is to keep God, God’s word, and God’s way in the forefront of our mind — in good times as well as bad.
From Faith in the Valley: Lessons for Women on the Journey to Peace
by Iyanla Vanzant
Our challenge this day is to enter into a state of acceptance — to know that all is well, even when we do not see or understand how it will turn out. God’s compassions never fail and are new every morning. Even when we are behind sealed tombs, we can trust that God is up to something good.
John 18:1 – 19:42
Rev. Elder Ken Martin
Tenebrae is possibly the oldest continuously observed liturgy in Christianity. Dating from the third century, it is a solemn commemoration of communion traditionally observed on Good Friday. In this service, eight candles are gradually extinguished, taking the worship space slowly from light to darkness. Tenebrae means darkness, and the candles symbolize the denial and flight of Jesus’ disciples and friends during his arrest, trial and crucifixion.
Recently, I passed a wreck on a country road near our home. I could see the flashing lights far ahead, but there were so many cars backed up, it was hard to see what had happened. Traffic was backed up not because the road was closed but because everyone wanted to see. People slowed down to stare at the crushed metal, the broken glass. They looked around for victims or survivors. We’ve probably all done that.
Today, the wreck is right here. We have all pulled over to see what has happened. It is horrible, but we can’t look away. We want to know what has happened, but in the end, it will defy our understanding.
There will always be someone ready to give a simple, easy answer. Some will say things like, “The only way to appease God was with innocent blood. So Jesus had to die because he was innocent.” They will say that without ever stopping to think what that says about God. Others will say, “We are all born guilty, so unworthy and stained by Adam’s sin that the only way God could save us was by sacrificing Jesus.” They will say that without ever stopping to think what that says about us.
I admit it. Every year when we get to this part of our faith story, I want to skip it. The wreckage of the cross breaks our hearts because we know that, of all people, Jesus does not deserve to be there. Why can’t we just go from the cheering crowds of Palm Sunday to the glory and hope of Easter? It is because God insists that we cannot understand and experience Easter until we have entered fully into what has gone before.
When we are faithful and tell the whole story of the life of Jesus during this week, it makes almost impossible emotional demands of us. These events evoke the most fearful and abhorrent feelings we can ever imagine. And then literally over night, we celebrate a hope and joy we could never have imagined. This is a story of the most extreme and dramatic tragedies and joys that life can hold. Jesus lived these extremes so that we would never doubt that he is capable of understanding anything that we might experience. Because of Good Friday, we never have to doubt the presence of God as he did. The one who was abandoned promises us that we never have to be alone. What could we ever say or do that would shock him? How could we ever question God more deeply than he did?
The one who suffered most becomes the comforter to those who suffer now. In the darkness of Good Friday, we are asked to look at the things we dread and fear the most: denial and betrayal, fear and suffering, rejection and abandonment…and finally death. These things are real in our lives and in the lives of those we love. And yet, through it all, we are asked to be faithful. For those few closest to Jesus 2,000 years ago, the question of faithfulness and loyalty versus betrayal and abandonment was to him personally. Would they stand with him in his suffering? Would they remain true to what they were beginning to believe about him? Or would they run out of fear and indecision?
We were not there then. But the question still remains. Will we be faithful to the promises we make? Will we flee when we are called into Christian community that holds us accountable for our lives and actions? Will we run when we are asked through prayer and service to be with those through whom Christ is suffering today? Where are the crosses standing in our world today; who is being crucified today? Who is suffering at the hands of the same injustice, greed and power that crucified Jesus? Who is being despised and rejected and oppressed? Will we be faithful to create a church in the name of Jesus Christ where they are not forgotten?
There are almost as many question marks as periods in this meditation. I suppose that is an admission that Good Friday still defies my understanding. Except for this…at the end of the Tenebrae service, when darkness appears to have overcome the Light, there is a ninth candle. It stands alone, its tiny flame struggling to hold back a world of darkness. Its little light holds the only promise that can make any sense of Good Friday. It is this…with God, the worst thing that happens is never the last thing that happens.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Rev. Elder Hector Gutierrez
In the religious experience of the Latin American people, Holy Week has a privileged place, yet has increasingly lost more ground to people taking days of rest or vacation, opting to reserve these days to enjoy themselves on the beach with the family. On the other hand, Holy Week still retains all of the experiences of suffering and accompaniment of Jesus on his way to the central mystery of our faith: “Passion, Death and Resurrection.” There is that intangible something about the approach of the suffering and the cross, which combines almost seamlessly with how our Latin American continent suffered life.
My theological training has been greatly impacted by the work and reflections of Edward Schillebeeckx, a Belgian theologian, who was requested to travel to Rome to explain one of his major works “Jesus, An Experiment In Christology.” The Vatican wanted him to answer only one question, “Was your idea to write a new Gospel?” Schillebeeckx replied, “Quidquid recipitur ad modo recipientis recipitur.” (What is received, is received to the mode of the container). He explained that it was his intention to communicate his experience, his Christology and its way of relating to and with Jesus. One of the main themes of Schillebeeckx’s theological thought was that while the first followers of Jesus left us stories of their experience, their experience with the Messiah, these same stories are still used to create the current followers of Jesus. I believe that we are called to write, precisely what he proposed, our Gospel, our vision and spirituality in accordance with the Jesus whom we follow.
Holy Thursday reminds us of the memorial of the last supper, which we celebrate and remember each week when we gather and worship in each of our local communities. We proclaim that it is central to our being UFMCC. The celebration of the memory of this day, with our eyes steadfast on Easter Sunday, is the crucified and risen Christ, to whom we remember in our act of holding the table open, so that all are welcome to participate. We recall that the Gospel offers us the healthy practice of Jesus sharing meals with his friends and disciples. At MCC, we recover this privileged sign of common-Union, which on the one hand reminds us of the sacrament that Jesus performed, as it also commits us to remain responsive and always ready to welcome all, especially those who want to participate in the approach to the Altar of Jesus Christ.
We, the men and women of MCC, are stories of God. We have to write in our lives and communities, our experience and contemporary spirituality. We must commit ourselves to continue to carry forward the liberating message, the mandate of the fully inclusive love. We are called to transform ourselves as we transform the world with the message of the new gospel that we are called to write with our lives, our testimonials, our efforts, our projects and our faith.
This Maundy Thursday, we have the opportunity to renew our response to the call that God has for us, to be fearless in participating in your table. Let’s be daring to accept the invitation, but above all, let us move forward courageously with the invitation of Jesus to have him in our lives, to present the good news in our interactions with others, to be the presence of the Christ in the world today.
Rev. Elder Dr. Mona West
For many years during the month of October, my spouse Deb and I would make a pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayo. It is a little church nestled in the village of Chimayo, New Mexico, USA, about 30 miles North of Santa Fe. According to legend, a man by the name of Bernardo Abeyto was in the nearby hills doing penance during Holy Week in 1810 when he suddenly noticed a strange light several hills away. He went to see the light and saw that it came from the ground, so he started to dig and found a wooden cross with the carved image of the Black Christ of Guatemala.
Twice, Don Bernardo, along with a priest and other pilgrims, formed a procession and took the cross to a nearby village in Santa Cruz. Each time, the cross mysteriously returned to the hills, and after its third return, they decided the cross wanted to stay at the place of its origin, which is Chimayo. So, Don Bernardo Abeyto built the santuario in 1813 to house the miracle.
To this day, people make pilgrimage during Holy Week, walking barefoot for miles to El Santuario’s doors to ask for healing. The original cross is still in the main church, and there is a prayer room off to the side of the chapel with the sacred pit where Don Bernardo first found the crucifix. The pit is a low-ceiling room with a hole in the stone floor. In the hole is holy dirt known for its healing powers. People kneel and pray there and are allowed to take some of the dirt. There is a sign that reads, ‘Limit, one bag of holy dirt per family.’ The prayer room is filled with crutches and braces left behind by the healed, and there are hand-written notes of testimony to the power of this holy place.
On Palm Sunday, we wave our palms in order to remember Jesus’ pilgrimage to Jerusalem the last days of his life. Some of the Palms of this day will be dried and burned to create ‘Holy Dirt’ — the Ashes for next year’s Lent — and some of the Palms will be fashioned into little crosses to remind us how quickly our cries of “hosanna” turn into “crucify him.”
Originally this day was called The Sunday of the Passion, and it began with a procession and palms, which were only a dramatic prelude to the day. The real focus was on the reading of the passion of Jesus, which would then be read again on Good Friday. Over the years, the palms have been separated from the passion. We find ourselves, as one writer has said, ‘seduced by the palms.’ I wonder why? I think it has to do with our ‘passion threshold.’ We know Good Friday is right around the corner, so we hold off as long as we can, because it is an unpleasant experience. We don’t want to go there!
This Sunday is an invitation to enter into the passion of Jesus. It is a threshold experience that offers opportunity for transformation — ours and the world’s. The way we enter into the passion is to enter into the mystery of pain and brokenness — Jesus’, our own, and the world’s — to discover we are not alone. Entering into the passion does not mean stoically bearing the burdens of life. It does mean identifying so completely with others in their pain and struggle that your presence, your solidarity, your being-with, is redemptive. This is a mystery which claims God is not the author of suffering but is with us in our suffering as we are present to one another.
Thomas Merton has said that while Christ’s physical body was crucified by Pilate and the Pharisees, Christ’s mystical body is drawn and quartered from age to age by the disunion of our souls through selfishness and sin. Merton states, “As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a body of Broken Bones.”
I have never had a broken bone, but I understand that in order for the break to heal, for the bone to become one piece again, it has to be reset, and that is a painful process. When we are with each other in our suffering out of love, we reset the broken body of Christ. This Holy Week, I invite us to cross over our passion threshold.
Rev. Elder Lillie Brock
Have you ever seen a movie preview that was so compelling it made you want to rush out and see the movie right away?
Have you ever rushed out to see that movie, only to find that everything compelling about the movie was in the trailer?
Sometimes the trailers aren’t what they seem, are they? Anything that is only a snapshot can often be misleading.
So, however we experience the preview of a story, there is almost always more to it than the trailer can ever convey.
At this point in the Lenten season, we enter what the Christian Church has regarded for centuries as Holy Week. It begins with Palm Sunday, and this beginning makes for a very compelling preview to the experience of Holy Week. This story is a good trailer. It’s not filled with fluff or misleading scenes but rather with all the preparations for what is ahead. If you and I are willing to be in the story of Palm Sunday, then we will be infinitely more prepared for the journey toward Easter.
The world on that day wasn’t unlike ours. On one side of Jerusalem, the Roman army marched with its chariots and horses as a warning to the Jews who were there to celebrate the Passover. Intimidation by force and suspicion led the parade on that side of town.
On the other side of town, Jesus rode into the city on a donkey while peasants cheered for him and waved palm branches. The Jewish leaders were suspect as this man Jesus spoke of himself as the Messiah. The Romans tried to intimidate the Jews to silence them, and the Jewish leaders tried to intimidate Jesus to silence him. While the Romans marched in on one side of town, Jesus rode on a donkey in peaceful protest to violence, an unfair tax code, and injustice to the poor. Does that sound familiar?
As Jesus rode in on the donkey and down the slopes of the Mount of Olives, the Jewish leaders asked Jesus to silence those who cheered for him. And Jesus said, “even if they were quiet, the stones would cry out.” Since there is a cemetery along this route on the Mount of Olives, it could be that Jesus referenced the stones that were piled high in the cemetery. In Jewish tradition, the stones were not only used to build grave markers, but when people visited the graves, they left a stone as a symbol that the person buried there would not be forgotten and their words and life would continue to speak.
So when Jesus said, “the stones will cry out,” he called on the voices of those who had gone before to testify to this moment of peaceful protest.
She got on the bus one day. She was tired, exhausted really. She was tired of being sent to the back of the bus, so she sat in the front. The people protested and tried through intimidation to silence her. But Rosa Parks, in peaceful protest, kept her seat in the front of the bus. The stones cry out.
He walked for 340 miles across the state of California (USA) in peaceful protest to the treatment of migrant workers. His people were being poisoned by the pesticides being put on the fields while they worked hard, long hours and got paid a pauper’s wage. Caesar Chavez stood up to say that this was unjust and marched into the capital city of Sacramento to speak for those who had no voice. The stones cry out.
He and his wife were awakened to the bombs thrown in their window. Their children were unhurt but horribly frightened. With everything on the line, Dr. Martin Luther King insisted on peaceful protest and led a march from Selma to Montgomery (Alabama, USA) so that justice and equality might be a reality for everyone. The stones cry out.
She stepped from slavery in Africa onto the podium of the convention floor to give voice for slaves and women. She endured the hissing and abuse that came from white men in order to speak words of freedom and truth. Sojourner Truth kept standing in protest against those who tried to silence her. The stones cry out.
We stand at a place in history where we know the end of the story about Jesus. He knew that if he stood with those who were hungry, sick, poor and in need of grace, it might cost him his life. Jesus knew that he was entering the city to cheers from those who needed his voice. He also knew that he would meet the voices of those who wanted to silence him.
Jesus gave us a preview alright. In one morning of peaceful protest on top of a donkey, Jesus introduced us to the contradictions that exist in life when we speak for those who have no voice and we stand for those who cannot find justice.
Yes, this was a preview. It ends with Jesus saying to the Jewish leaders, “even if you silence these, the stones will cry out!” In other words, no matter what you do, the stones will cry out for justice and peace.
I suspect that you, like me, often ignore the stones that cry out. Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez, and Sojourner Truth walked the path of Holy Week.
They understood what it meant to be stones that would cry out through the ages. Their voices live on, and the life of Jesus cries out loudest of all. When we listen to the stones, what do we hear? If we are honest, most of us want to get to Resurrection without having to take the trip through Holy Week. But we live in a world of relativity where joy doesn’t mean much unless you’ve known sadness, and hope doesn’t mean much unless you’ve known despair, and life doesn’t mean much unless you’ve known death. At the very heart of God is the invitation to engage in our humanity, with all its contradictions, so that we might know new life.
My friends, it takes courage and an extra measure of faith to listen to the stones cry out. We live in a culture that encourages us everyday to have more, spend more, seek more comforts, climb more ladders to the top, and get all that we were meant to have. But Holy Week challenges us to dig deeper.
The stones are crying out . . . are you listening?
Rev. Elder Dr. Nancy Wilson
One of the most interesting features of this gospel story is its location: between the death and resurrection of Lazarus, and the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a little interlude of sorts, a family dinner not unlike other family dinners in the past — except, of course, now they were harboring fugitives and enemies of the Empire and the religious establishment.
Unlike a similar story in Luke, the story of a woman anointing Jesus with extravagantly costly oil is not about a stranger with a bad reputation, but it is a family argument, a sister pitted against a disciple of Jesus.
Just as in the other story in Luke about Mary, though, Jesus defends Mary’s choice. In Luke’s story, her choice is to be a disciple, to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn, leaving her sister to do the “women’s work,” being transgressive in her role. Here, she decides to lavish the gift of her affection and service in a physical and materially costly way. . .also transgressive in its own way.
Even though John reads back into this story hints of Judas’ betrayal (in ways that would feed anti-Semitism for millennia), the story is really about Jesus’ extended family of choice having an argument, not unfamiliar to all families, about priorities, generosity, and duty.
If you are poor, have ever been poor, or have ever lived with poor people, you know this argument and all the impulses. The grinding discipline of poverty yields several conflicting impulses — sometimes, just to deny oneself everything for the sake of survival; or counter-intuitively, to spend that little extra cash impulsively on a luxury, just to feel like one is not trapped or constantly deprived. To do something so seemingly irrational is to break out of the prison of feeling like one has no choices.
The other phenomenon, however, is to give extravangantly to another in need, or to a cause, unreasonably, as an expression of one’s dignity and humanness. It is not that poverty makes one more virtuous, but, as Jesus often taught, poverty gives one the opportunity to risk giving beyond “proportionality,” to give deeply with risk, trusting in God. This is the story of the widow’s mite, of the boy offering his meager fish and bread, and so many other gospel stories.
When liberation theologians talk about “the epistemological privilege of the struggling poor,” this is what they mean, what Jesus meant: being poor gives you the opportunity to see God’s provision first hand, to see what your generosity, paired with God’s, can do to help a neighbor or a stranger. Dorothy Day, the famous Catholic anarchist/socialist, became a Catholic because she said, “so many poor are Catholic — they must know something!” She also said that the Church drove her to the communists, but the communists drove her to God!
Mary’s heart was overflowing that day, and she didn’t give a damn how much that oil cost. Jesus risked everything — his own life — to heal and bless others, and to raise her own brother from the dead. All of their lives were threatened now (as you see in the verses following this passage), and what were they holding on to this oil for anyway? He was tired, and for a moment, safe in their home, maybe relaxing just a little bit before the next ordeal. She would offer soothing, anointing oil; she would offer love and tenderness to One whose days were numbered on this earth.
In so doing, she was throwing off, for a moment, the tyranny that poverty can be and exercising her authority as a disciple and friend of the One who had made her heart soar with his teachings, who healed her broken heart of grief.
Jesus does not allow her to be rebuked for this. That his words, “You will always have the poor with you,” have been distorted to mean that crushing, structural poverty is beyond our ability to change is madness! Jesus taught and lived solidarity with the poor, the outcast, those whose hopes had been crushed. He became poor, and in so doing, “let the poor say ‘I am rich!’” For a minute, he allowed himself to receive her gift that empowered her and comforted him. To give and to receive, extravagantly, is what makes us fully human and fully divine.
Rev. Elder Dr. Mona West
Lent is not about our willpower to ‘give up’ or ‘take on’ something for forty days. It is about our own dying and rising into who we are as God’s Beloved. It is about waking up to who we are as children of the living God. And what a wonderful story of transformation we find in our gospel lesson for the fourth Sunday in Lent: the parable of the prodigal son.
Jesus told parables to challenge people and turn their world upside down. He told parables to invite people to find themselves in the story. Those of us who grew up in the church have become so familiar with this story that we have lost some of its power to challenge. Just like the younger son was lost, was a prodigal, this parable has become the prodigal parable. How might we find a fresh hearing by placing ourselves in this story?
This should really be called the parable of the prodigal sons because both sons were lost. I believe ‘lost’ in this parable means “not living in true relationship to your source (symbolized by the father in this parable) and with yourself.” The younger son thought wealth and the good life were the source of his identity. The older son thought duty was the source of his identity.
Each son comes to a crisis, a kind of inner bankruptcy, when there is a point of diminishing returns on their accomplishments. After spending everything, a famine brought the younger son to his knees. We are told in verse 17 that it was precisely at that point that “he came to himself” — he remembered who he was.
It was the return of the younger son that was the crisis point for the older, because it exposed the lie of his dutifulness. He had failed to see the riches that his father said were already his. He did not have to earn them by “working like a servant.”
Where do you find yourself in this parable? Are you like the younger child? Do you fail to realize your own worth as God’s Beloved because you think your worth is measured in things, wealth, success? Or are you like the older child, thinking you can earn God’s love by what you do?
Did you notice that the parent in this parable never condemns either child? The parent gives each child the freedom to make their own choices and reminds each of them how much they are loved.
Have you ever thought about what the word “prodigal” means? Webster’s unabridged online dictionary defines prodigal as: recklessly extravagant, characterized by wasteful expenditure, lavish, yielding abundantly, luxuriant.
Well, isn’t that what the parent does in this story? Maybe we should call this the “parable of the prodigal parent” because of the extravagant welcome and lavish rejoicing upon the return of the younger son. Roman Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen, studied the parable of the prodigal for three years. His guide into the spiritual lessons of this parable was the famous paintingThe Return of the Prodigal Son by the Dutch artist Rembrandt. Rembrandt himself had lived the lives of the younger rebellious son, the resentful older brother, and the aged wise father. At age 30, Rembrandt painted a self-portrait as the lost son in a brothel. At age 60, Rembrandt painted the story of the return of the prodigal son again, this time using his own face for the graceful father.
That is the comfort of this parable. The challenge is that as children who have experienced this kind of extravagant grace, we grow into adulthood to be like this parent.
Rev. Elder Lillie Brock
In many marginalized communities, the notion of “repentance” may have become a dirty word since it has often been used as a spiritual whipping post. After all, there does exist the tendency of any dominant culture to demand repentance from those who they deem have behaved in a way that is not in alignment with their interpretation of “God’s will.” As such, GLB people have been told to repent of their sexual behavior; homeless people have been told that they should repent because their circumstances are their own fault; transgender people have been told to repent of their turn from the gender that God gave them; women who have had abortions have been forced to repent of their killing of a child; and on and on we could go. But as usual, in this parable, Jesus invites us to turn this whole idea on its head.
The vineyard owner in the parable seems pretty annoyed that after three years, a particular fig tree has not produced fruit. As a result, the owner commanded the gardener to cut it down. But the gardener appealed to the owner to allow the fig tree one more year. The gardener seemed to hold out hope that if tended properly and with great care, the fig tree could, indeed, bear fruit.
This story seems to invite us into relationship with the God of second and third and fourth chances. Taken literally, we might be guilty of saying that we are given four chances and no more when something we are doing compromises our ability to “bear fruit” or be all that we are called to be. But if taken through the lens of grace, we might see the God who has limitless capacity to believe in our goodness, talent, and ability to bear fruit. And when we experience the compassion of this God of many chances, we are forever changed in ways that make who we are called to be, blossom.
The season of Lent embraces the idea of repentance in a big way. At every turn, we are invited to say out loud to God and to others that we have behaved in such a way that has compromised our ability to bear fruit. All the traditions of faith in the world have placed some kind of importance on the idea of repentance. Many emotional and physical healing strategies include the idea of repentance and confession. So the invitation of Lent to repent is worthy of our practice, not as a whipping post, but as a sincere exploration of the behaviors that compromise our ability to bear fruit and see our own worthiness.
In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, says: “We need to understand when and why we hustle for worthiness rather than claim it; and we have to understand the things that get in the way.” The gardener in the vineyard says, let me tend to the tree for another year so that nothing is in the way of it bearing fruit. God reaches out to us and invites us to speak of those things that get in our way, acknowledge those things that have wronged others or ourselves, and in so doing, be forever changed.
Repentance, then, is an invitation to claim our worthiness to bear fruit in God’s vineyard through the simple (though not to be confused with easy) practice of speaking out loud about what behaviors get in our way, compromise our ability to produce fruit, and often harm others.
P.S. And as the community of fig trees in the vineyard, may we learn to see each other’s worthiness, even when we have need of repentance.