Monday, March 14, 2016

Lessons In Love From Mary, Martha, and O. Henry

"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, said, 'Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?'...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.'"
--John 12:  3-5, 7-8

When I was a kid one of my favorite writers was O. Henry.  I enjoyed him because  1) his stories were always short, and I have a very narrow attention span, and 2) his stories always had a twist ending, the best kind.  So at the beginning of each year in school I would flip through our Literature book and would always get excited when I would see that an O Henry tale was on the schedule.

One of his stories of which I am especially fond is The Gift of the Magi.  You may remember it from your youth.  A young American couple, Della and Jim, were very poor but very much in love.  Each had one unique possession--Dellas' hair was her glory, when she let it down it almost served as a robe, and Jim had a solid gold watch that had been passed on to him by his father.  On Christmas Eve Della had exactly $1.87 to buy Jim a present.  So she chopped off all of her hair, took to the wig shop, sold it, with the proceeds bought a platinum chain for Jim to use to attach his watch to his waistband pocket.  When Jim came home that night and saw Della's crew cut, he stopped, as if stupefied. With a solemn look he reached in his pocket and handed her his gift--a set of expensive tortoise-shell combs with jeweled edges for her hair, which he obtained by selling his gold watch.  Each had given the other all there was to give.  

An artist's depiction of the final scene from The Gift of the Magi.

Thats an amazing show of love.  It's sacrificial love.  It is the same kind of love that is shown in our Gospel reading from John.  Here we see Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead just one chapter before, offer Jesus all that they have.  Martha, a very practical woman, gives Jesus all that she can, which is the work of her hands.  She honors Jesus with her abundant hospitality and her ministry of serving him and his friends at the table.  It is the kind of ministry we offer when we set the holy table and gather around it to share in the Holy Eucharist, and the kind of ministry that you show when you invite someone into your home and share a meal and conversation with them. Mary, meanwhile, offers all that she can to Jesus. She takes her most precious possession, a pound of costly perfume made from pure nard.  If Judas' statement is correct, and this perfume is valued at 300 denarii, then that means it is worth about a year's worth of wages, as one denarius was a day's pay.  Mary takes this prized possession and uses it to anoint Jesus' feet, the same way one would anoint a body with perfumes before a burial.  The text says that the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  But so many of the statements found in the Fourth Gospel have two meanings; and so while it's true that the house was filled with the perfume's aroma, it is also true that the house was filled with the love that both Mary and Martha poured out for Jesus.

Mary anoints Jesus' feet while Martha serves the guests at the table.

Like the characters in O. Henrys story, Mary and Martha give all that they can to Jesus:  Martha gives her time and talent, and Mary gives her most treasured possession.  This is the kind of love that we are expected to have in our own heartsthe kind of love that gives nothing less than everything.  This love is a sacrificial love, one that compels us to give of our very selves for the sake of someone else. Thats not just a clergy thing, and not just a laity thing, but an everybody thing.  Were all called to embody that same sacrificial love.  That is the Gospel Truth shown to us by the abundant love poured forth by Mary and Martha.

There is another Truth to be learned from this text, however, and that is that we must not put off an opportunity to show an act of love, or we may very well miss the chance to do it again.  As I often stay in my funeral blessings:  "Life is short, and we do not have time to gladden the hearts of all those we meet; so be swift to love and make haste to be kind."  Life is an uncertain thing; we think to utter some word of thanks or perform an act of love, but we put it off, and often the word is never spoken and the action is never taken. Jim and Della did not miss their chance to do something special for each other, even if the outcome was not exactly what they hand in mind. Mary and Martha did not miss their chance.  They saw the opportunity to do something for Jesus, something only they could do.  Mary especially did thisanointing Jesus' body before his death.  She seized that opportunity when it presented itself.  

We might ask, well, what about Judas complaint regarding giving the money to the poor?  After all, a jar of nard worth a years wages could do a lot of good.  Jesus did, indeed, tell Judas rather infamously, "You will always have the poor with you."  This rebuttal, though, has nothing to do with the poor themselves, but it has to do with the circumstances of the moment.  

Taking care of the poor was something that all folks in Jesus' time understood.  Deuteronomy 15: 11 gave the mandate to take, saying  You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.  This was a given.  Caring for the poor was essential to following God.  To do this work was something that should be done at any point, and Judas knew that when he gave his ill-natured complaint.   What he is suggesting is something that they would have been doing all the time!  Jesus was letting him and the others know that that was not what this moment was about. This was a moment for Mary to open her heart and to show her devotion to Jesus; and this was the kind of moment that had to be done right then and there, before the Cross took him into its cruel arms.  So Mary did what she could, gave all that she had, and didnt waste her opportunity to show her profound love for her Lord. 

Paul says in the letter to the church in Philippi, "I want to know Christ." What a statement?! Who doesn't want to know Christ?!  Well this is how we know Christ, by giving in love, by giving no less than all that we can, and by seizing the opportunities that we have to do that kind of giving.  This is the kind of giving O. Henry shows us in The Gift of the Magi , the giving Mary and Martha show to Jesus.  The giving of the whole self for the sake of love. It happens in our places of worship, but more importantly, it happens out in the world among our brothers and sisters who need it most.  We dare not miss our opportunity!

Do you want to know Christ?  You CAN know him, when you love like that.  It doesn’t take much.  It can be as simple as buying lunch for a person on the street, or inviting someone to come to church with you, or telling someone who has been hurt or mistreated that Jesus loves them.  There are opportunities to give in that way and to show that kind of love all around us.  Every single day.  So long as we have eyes to see them.  So long as we seize upon them and do not let them pass us by. There may always be more that we wish we can give, certainly Mary wished she could have done more for Jesus, but God's love asks us to simply be faithful, to give and do what we can, to seize upon the opportunities that are before us. For if we seize those opportunities and show that kind of love for one of our brothers and sisters, we will know Christ.  And there is no greater gift than that!

Monday, March 7, 2016

For All Prodigals, Older Siblings, and Parents

Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son

This past Sunday we heard the Parable of the Prodigal, arguably Jesus' most well-known parable.  It is exclusive to Luke's Gospel (Luke 15: 11b-32) and tells the story of a young man who demands to get his inheritance early, and after doing so goes to a faraway country, squanders his money, lives in a state of constant sin, and eventually winds up eating with pigs before finally deciding to come home.  When he comes home, hoping his father will have just enough mercy on him to treat him like a hired servant, he's greeted by his father's open arms, a fancy robe and ring, and a luscious feast. When the young man's older brother takes notice, he's furious because, while he has lived his whole life by the rules and done everything right, his brother appears to be rewarded for his sinful living. Yet the father tells the older son that he must let go of his resentment and that they must rejoice; after all, this younger brother was lost and now is found.  

William Barclay, an English biblical scholar most famous for his exhaustive commentaries on Scripture, calls the Parable of the Prodigal, the greatest short story in the world. I cant say I disagree with that claim.  The parables of Jesus are allegories meant to teach us a lesson, to explain to Jesus' listeners how they are to live their lives in relation to God and each other.  This parable does that.  But in most of Jesus' parables it is pretty clear who is being represented by those allegorical characters:  Jesus'  followers are represented by a character, so are the scribes and Pharisees, and God is represented by a character.  This is the norm for the parables of Jesus.  

On the surface, this parable seems pretty straight-forward. The younger son, whom we call the prodigal (meaning "one who spends recklessly or lavishly") seems to be a follower of Jesus, a sinner who strays and longs to return to God. Meanwhile, the older son, who has been faithfulat least in action, possibly not so much in spiritresents the younger son.  The Pharisees, scribes, and all those that Jesus referred to as religious hypocrites are represented by the older son and his resentment that the father would so joyfully welcome home such a notorious sinner; the parable, after all, is given after those same Pharisees chastised Jesus for daring to eat and carouse with tax collectors and other notorious sinners.  The father, meanwhile, would seem to represent God, who welcomes the sinful son home with open arms.  

The meaning of the parable seems clear, but I wonder if perhaps its meaning is a little deeper.  There are, of course, no Pharisees or scribes nowadays, so which character are we supposed to associated with all these years after Jesus first told the story? Could it be that we are meant to find ourselves in any one of the three characters, depending upon what is going on in our lives right this second? Could it be that our place in the story changes depending upon the circumstances surrounding us?  Perhaps that is why Barclay is right in asserting that this is the greatest short story ever. Take Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son pictured above.  The painting shows the father leaning down and putting his arms around the younger son (one hand slightly larger than the other, which represents the contrast of strength and mercy).  The son kneels at his feet in tattered clothes, his skin filthy, while the older son stands to the right, his hands clasped, his visage clearly frustrated that his spirited brother is being welcomed home while he has played by the rules his whole life and has little to show for it. Whenever I look at this painting I find myself associating with a different character.  My place in the story seems to shift over time. So who are you?

Are you the younger son?  That might be the role that is easiest for us to give ourselves.  He is, after all, the sinner.  During this season of Lent weve been thinking a lot about sin; we were called back on Ash Wednesday to conjure up our sins in our hearts and think and pray on them and ask for Godforgiveness.  Can you see yourself in that role?  Have you wounded someone that you loved, rejected and pushed them away?  Do you feel lost?  Broken?  Filthy? Are you longing to come home but don't know if you will be accepted?  Are you seeking reconciliation, healing, and wholeness?  

Are you the older son?  This, I must admit, is the role I often see myself embodying.  The older son does everything he is told in an attempt to please his father.  He has played by the rules his whole life, but when he sees his younger brothersomeone who has no regard for the familys househis true colors show.  He is jealous, angry, spiteful.  The older son is any of us when we think way too highly of ourselves.  "I know the right way a person should live, and this woman doesn't live this way, and so she isn't deserving of mercy and compassion!"  "I know the right way church is supposed to be done, and who should be permitted to enter our sanctuary!" The older son is any of us who judges the way someone else lives his or her life. Have you ever been that son?  Have you clasped your hands and gritted your teeth at the site of someone being praised that you felt didnt deserve it?  Well, thats a form of being lost too.  This could just as easily be called "the Parable of the Lost Sons" (plural!).  Do you need to let go of that resentment, that self-righteousness?  Do you need to be found, as much as the prodigal does?  

Are you the father?  This may seem presumptuous--isn't the father meant to represent God?  But think about it for a minute.  Have you ever been hurt deeply by someone you love? Are you in a position right now to forgive someone, to welcome them home, put a ring on their finger, wrap them in a robe, and say, Its ok.  I love you.'?  It really strikes me how the father forgives the son in this story.  The son has asked for the inheritance early, which means that he wishes his father would just die already.  That's pretty serious.  Still, the father welcomes him home with no questions asked, no qualifications. Do you find yourself in that position now?  Are you being called to stretch out your hands toward those who suffer, to rest upon their shoulder sand offer Gods blessing of reconciliation? Do you need to find the strength to forgive?  

There is a place where we will all--prodigals, older siblings, and parents--will find that for which we are longing.  It is the altar of God and the Holy Table.  In the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, we prodigals find reconciliation, we older siblings find the grace to let go of our self-righteousness and bitterness, and we parents find the strength to forgive.  For it is here that we meet Jesus Christ in bread and wine, yes, but also in the faces of those around us.  Regular folks who have, at various times in our lives, been any of the characters in this parable.  

I don't know where you find yourself in this story right now.  Odds are that in three years, when we read it again, you'll find yourself in a different place.  That, I believe, is the point of this parable.  No matter where we find ourselves in the story the Good News for us is that forgiveness IS possible.  Reconciliation IS possible.  Letting go of our resentment, our fears, our desires for righteous retribution, IS possible.  It’s all possible because of the God who loves us and because of Jesus Christ, in whom we all have the possibility of not only being forgiven but also doing the forgiving.  So the next time you come to the Table, know that you will find what you are looking for.  Prodigals will find reconciliation, older siblings will be able to lay down their resentment at God's altar, and parents will be strengthened to forgive those you love.  For at this Table you will find Jesus who makes it all possible.  At this Table you will find what it means to be home.