Lent 5C, an Invitation to the Way

Lent 5C, 2016, St. Clement’s

As always, the readings can be found here

About 1/3 of this is from Lent 5C, 2013, revisited. Or rather, it was from Lent 3C re-visited, but then child asked an important question...and reminded all of us that preaching is a lived art and you can read a sermon but it won't be THE sermon.  Because, the Holy Spirit moved in big ways this Sunday and mid-sermon a child in the congregation asked, audibly, "why did Jesus die?" So, I stopped and answered him, "they were afraid of him. People were afraid that his love was for everyone. And, when people are afraid, they don't make the right choices." (I'm paraphrasing). Sometimes what needs said was never written down.  I will note below when this interlude occurred

Today, we draw closer to Jerusalem. With Mary of Bethany, Lazarus, Judas, and Jesus, we gather in a single room.

Lazarus, resurrected. Mary oh, so, grateful for another chance. Judas, hoarding the wealth. Jesus, knowing.

They were oh so close to Jerusalem. Their little shelter, insufficient in the face of the empire.

What could they do?

What can we do?

They gathered in the shadow of the cross.

And so do we, in this breaking and broken world, gather in that self-same shadow.

On September 26th, of 2001 the House of Bishops, of the Episcopal Church in the United States, issued a pastoral letter.

“We come together also in the shadow of the cross: that unequivocal sign that suffering and death are never the end but the way along which we pass into a future in which all things will be healed and reconciled. Through Christ "God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross." (Col. 1:20) This radical act of peace-making is nothing less than the right ordering of all things according to God's passionate desire for justness, for the full flourishing of humankind and all creation…”*

We have a choice. We can see the shadow as our oppression, or it can be our liberation!

Because, it is beneath that shadow, that we are called to healing. It is beneath the shadow that we are called to reconciliation. It is beneath the shadow that we are called to transformation.

It is beneath the shadow, that we find fellowship.

It is beneath the shadow that we find our hope.

Fellowship, hope and our calling as Christians in the world…

Our calling to self-examination and repentance. Our calling to open our hearts and give room to God’s compassion. Our calling to bind up, to heal and to make all things new and whole.

In this Lenten season, when the shadow of the cross seems most palpable. We are called.

This is the joy of Lent.

If we are broken, we can be made whole. If we are wounded, we can be healed. This is the promise, and this is our hope. That who we are now, is not who we will be. And that we are active participants in our own salvation.   

We are given a road to walk, and as active participants it becomes up to us to set foot on that road.

The shadow, the road, the cross…these become an invitation. Take up your cross and follow me. Follow me to that hill. Follow me to that place. Follow me…

The story continues, and then, and then, and then.  And, then to the desert and then to exile and then to return.

The prophet Isaiah proclaims, “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea…”

A way is made, and it is up to us to take it.

The prophet Isaiah’s words were meant to remind the oppressed and marginalized community of Israelites exiled in Babylonia of the trajectory of their own story as a people. They were finding it difficult to see and follow the God of their people and they are reminded that God has always offered a way. Through the sea. Through the wilderness. Through the desert. There has always been a way and there is a way now.

And, in that way, you will find God, a God who is calling us, and transforming us.  And in that relationship with the God of salvation we (and indeed, the Israelites) are a people who are reconciled and forgiven.  They and we move through the desert, one foot in front of the other...knowing that there is no way out but through. 

As we move through the wilderness, whatever that wilderness looks like for us both as individuals and as a community--I wonder, how we will be transformed by the way we take?  Who will we be when we step out of the desert? What hopes and dreams will be made manifest? 

At times it seems improbable, that our suffering and wilderness wanderings will bear fruit.  But, as the psalm says, "when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream"

Does a happy ending seem like a mere dream?  Does reconciliation and rejoicing seem beyond our reach?  What does it take to be confident in God's love--to trust that this Lent will end, that this hard time will pass? 

At one point a few years ago, during a particularly challenging and painful time in our family, I joked that Jesus must have been on vacation in Belize, because if Jesus had been there surely life would be better.  Jesus with his uncanny ability to perform miracles that seemingly fixed “everything”, a veritable Superman there to scoop us up, just in the nick of time.

Robert Capon in his book "Hunting the Divine Fox" writes, “The true paradigm of the ordinary American view of Jesus is Superman.”  He continues, “Jesus- gentle, meek and mild, but with secret, souped-up, more-than-human insides- bumbles around for thirty-three years, nearly gets himself done in for good by the Kryptonite Kross, but at the last minute struggles into the phone booth of the Empty Tomb, changes into his Easter suit and with a single bound, leaps back up to the planet Heaven.  It’s got it all...”  

If we keep waiting for a superman, for someone else to save us from each other and from ourselves, from our pain and from our suffering.  If we are looking for someone to scoop us out of the desert, out of the wilderness, without any work on our part...well, if that’s the case, we are in serious trouble. 

Because, if we hold up Christ as an “other” as somehow possessing skills and abilities that are so beyond our own “weak and insufficient” powers than it becomes too easy for “here I am send me” to become “where is Jesus, send him!”  How can we mere mortals, without any superhuman powers, seek to do what Jesus did?

(This is the point at which the child asked that question, Why did Jesus die? And I responded. The remainder of the sermon is struck through because it became an outline and adapted to meet the in-the-moment teaching  that was needed. I give thanks for a child who spoke what needed speaking and the gift of a response that spoke to that moment.)

Which begs the question “what did Jesus do?”.  And for that, I turn once again to today’s Gospel and that small room...a time in the narrative of his earthly life in which Jesus doesn’t seem to be doing very much at all.  A Gospel narrative that many find troubling for Jesus’ words

“The poor you will have with you always, but you won't always have me.”

The perfume that Mary anoints him with is equivalent in value to the wages a day laborer would have earned in a year.  And, in my concern for social justice and ministry in the world, I can feel the ire rise in me and I nod my head in response to Judas’ words, “why wasn’t the money given to the poor?” 

Why wasn’t it?  Can Mary’s actions only be interpreted as the squandering of a precious resource or is there something more there? 

Simply, devotion to Christ is not in opposition to our concern for the poor.  When Mary gives herself over to love for her friend and grief over his impending death, she is fully present in the moment--not the past, not the future, but right now.  She gives all of us the opportunity to see the fully human man who led and loved a movement into being.  She’s giving us the chance to mourn with her at the loss of a friend.  And, Jesus reminds us that part of what we learn at the feet of our dying friend is empathy for the victims of the world.  Through our love and care for the suffering servant we are asked to care for those very folk who will suffer and die as he did in the world.

By showing us how to care for a friend, Mary is showing us how to care for each other, those fellow wanderers in the desert, the thirsty and the weary.  Everyone here has been in the desert at one time or another or you may even be there now--and it may be that the person beside you will be as Christ to you in showing you the way.   There is no Superman to come and save you, save yourself and save each other...be Christ and look for Christ, know that you are not alone and there is no way out but through.

We have been given a way. It is now up to us to follow it.  Amen.


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