Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Unexpected

St. George’s Episcopal Church, Maplewood NJ
March 25, 2007
Year C: The Fifth Sunday of Lent (RCL)

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

The Unexpected

These past few months I’ve been writing a thesis on Ignatius of Loyola, who’s probably best known as the founder of the Jesuits. Before entering seminary I taught at a Jesuit high school – the same school that I had attended. It’s been wonderful getting reacquainted with Ignatius. (Let’s get the shameless plug out of the way: this Saturday morning I’ll be leading a mini-retreat on Ignatian Spirituality – I hope you’ll be able to join us.) Anyway, as I have read about Ignatius and reflected on his life, I have been deeply moved by how over and over things did not work out quite the way that Ignatius expected.

Growing up in the Basque region of Spain at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th Centuries, Ignatius - like many young men of his time - dreamed of the glories of battle. That romantic dream came to an abrupt end when both of his legs were shattered by a cannonball. During his long, painful – and never really complete - recovery he came to the conclusion that God was calling him to a different kind of glory – he was to go to the Holy Land and convert the Muslims. He actually got to Jerusalem but was quickly sent back home. Back to the drawing board! Then he decided that God was calling him to get more education. To begin he had to learn Latin – so this once proud and vain man sat in the same class with little boys and struggled to master the ancient language. And finally, Ignatius, who had dreamed of adventure, ended up his last years sitting behind a desk writing letters - managing his worldwide religious order, the Society of Jesus.

Ignatius came to realize in profound ways that God does the unexpected. And really his whole spirituality was focused on paying close attention to the unexpected things God is doing in our lives – the unexpected ways that God is at work in our lives.

Now I suspect that all of us have learned one way or another that God does the unexpected. Over the past few weeks I have been moved to hear some of your stories – how you found this warm and dynamic community of St. George’s – sometimes just when you were ready to give up on God or to give up on the Church. Your stories have reminded me of my own story – I was a Roman Catholic teaching in a Roman Catholic high school who one Sunday went to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Jersey City, mostly out of curiosity to see what the inside of the church looked like. And for one of the few times in my life, I knew that this was exactly right. And, talk about unexpected, somehow I’m here standing in your pulpit today!

So God does the unexpected, and yet I think we often forget that fact. Or maybe we’d like to forget it. God doing the unexpected makes us uneasy. Most of us are usually not too crazy about change or about surprises. We like to think that we’ve got God all figured out. This usually, of course, means that we think God is pretty much just like us.

It seems appropriate that during Lent we take some time for humility. We can use these days of sacrifice to remind ourselves that we do not control God. We can remind ourselves that our ways are not God’s ways. We can pay extra attention and be open to God working in our lives – especially to be open to God doing the unexpected. So it’s helpful that in each of today’s readings we are reminded that our ways are not God’s ways. We are reminded that God acts in unexpected ways.

The prophet Isaiah is writing to an Israelite community that has suffered through the Babylonian exile. They suffered the shock of seeing the Temple desecrated, Jerusalem destroyed, and spending decades exiled in Babylon – desperately trying to hold on to their faith and their identity in the midst of so much pain and suffering. It seemed like all was lost. But now Isaiah describes God as doing the unexpected. God says through Isaiah, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” What is this new thing? Something unexpected - God anoints Cyrus, a Persian – not a Jew - to free the Jews from their bondage and allow them to return to their homeland. By choosing Cyrus as the “anointed one” God once again does the unexpected.

In the passage from the letter to the Philippians, we find Paul again defending his credentials. This must have gotten very frustrating after a while! We can assume Paul is defending himself because there were others preaching a different gospel to the Philippians – a gospel probably based on rituals such as circumcision. Paul defends himself by saying in Christ God has done the unexpected. Oh sure, Paul has all the traditional qualifications – circumcised on the eighth day, a son of Israel, a Pharisee, a scrupulous follower of the Law.

But Paul has come to realize that God has done the unexpected. The purity codes gave people so much comfort and certainty – I’m in with God because of my rituals and my heritage. Yet, in Christ, God reveals that purity and birthright are not the things that really matter. Over and over, Jesus crosses boundaries, eating with sinners and teaching both Jews and non-Jews – and even women! In Christ, God has done the unexpected – opening salvation to all people – to people in Philippi and to people in Maplewood.

Finally we come to today’s reading from the Gospel of John – the anointing at Bethany. It’s a strange and mysterious scene isn’t it? Lazarus – recently raised from the dead - is there, as are his sisters Mary and Martha. The sisters are true to their characters – Martha is working away and Mary is at Jesus’ feet. Judas is there as well. The strangest part of the story, of course, is when Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with very expensive perfume. And then she wipes his feet with her hair. Talk about crossing boundaries! Talk about the unexpected! Judas has seen enough and erupts – pointing out that the money they could have gotten for the perfume would have helped a lot of poor people.

And then we get one more dose of the unexpected, when Jesus responds with the famous sentence, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Doesn’t really sound very much like Jesus, does it?

So, what to make of this strange passage? One of the techniques that Ignatius used is what is known as the fantasy meditation. Essentially, one reads or hears a passage of Scripture and then imagines being there – actually seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling what’s going on.

It’s a powerful way of approaching Scripture and prayer. But in the case of the anointing at Bethany I have a little problem. You can probably guess where I am going with this. Here I am two months shy of ordination and I find myself strongly identifying with Judas Iscariot – that can’t be good! Now John clearly stacks the deck against Judas claiming that he didn’t really care about the poor. He was angry about the waste because he was stealing from the common purse. Maybe so. But doesn’t Judas have a point? I mean, what’s going on here? We have this very valuable perfume and Mary is pouring it on Jesus’ feet – what a waste in dusty Palestine. Meanwhile we know about the grinding poverty that people faced – that people face – every day.

I would expect Jesus to stand up for the poor – wouldn’t you? Didn’t Jesus tell us to give up all our possessions and follow him? Didn’t Jesus tell us that we must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned? Sure he did – Judas knows this and we know it too. So now we’re just going to literally pour this wealth away? And to add insult to injury we have Jesus saying “You always have the poor with you.”

You know how that line has been interpreted, right? For centuries Christians have agreed, sure we should do everything we can to help the poor, but we shouldn’t think that we can ever create a society without poverty. After all, you know what Jesus said, right?

I have even heard people criticize the Episcopal Church’s commitment to the Millennium Development Goals – which have the ultimate goal of actually eradicating poverty. Some people criticize the church for giving these material goals so much emphasis, because … you know what Jesus said, “You always have the poor with you.”

Can you see why I’m with Judas on this? Here’s a concrete example of sympathizing with Judas: My seminary class has sold scarves to raise money for our senior class gift. We raised over $20,000! That’s a lot of scarves and a lot of cash. On our senior retreat we began to discuss what kind of gift we might give to the seminary. One suggestion was to spend the money on outreach. The seminary has been having trouble with the neighbors and one of the frequent accusations has been that the seminary is disconnected from the surrounding community. So some people thought that was a good idea – maybe we could support an after-school program, or a homeless shelter, or the like.

Then someone pointed out that the green vestments in the chapel were getting a little frayed and so maybe we should consider buying new vestments. And you can be sure that these wouldn’t be some machine-washable polyester vestments, but the best – ideally imported from England, of course. So I had my Judas moment – I thought of the parable of the talents. I could imagine God asking, so what did you do with the $20,000? And our answer: we bought new green vestments for the chapel. I felt righteous indignation building up in my chest.

And yet, Jesus approves of Mary anointing his feet with the costly perfume. Our ways are not God’s ways. God does the unexpected.

A few months ago I read the book God’s Politics by Jim Wallis, who’s the editor of Sojourners magazine. Have any of you read it? It’s a powerful book with the basic premise that the Church has to be involved in politics – but that God is not a Democrat or a Republican. Wallis insists that Christ’s Church must be committed to social justice and to the poor. But Wallis admits that, unfortunately, Jesus’ best-known words about poverty are, “You always have the poor with you.”

Wallis claims that when we hear fatalism or apathy we are misinterpreting Jesus’ words. Wallis says Jesus is really saying – you’ve been with me, you’ve seen who I eat with, who I spend time with. You know my teaching. So if you are going to follow me then you – the church - will always be close to the poor. And if you’re close to the poor, then it is OK to be like Mary, it’s OK to be extravagant with worship and celebration. If we’re close to the poor, then it’s OK to buy the new green vestments!

In my short time here, it seems to me that St. George’s really gets that. I’ve been really impressed by your outreach efforts and your abundant generosity to those in need close by and far away. And of course the worship here is beautiful. But Lent is a good time for all of us to pause and reflect and to make sure that our spiritual life – our life of service and praise - is balanced and healthy.

So maybe sometime later today we can do a little Ignatian meditation. Let’s imagine we’re in a corner of the room watching as Mary anoints Jesus. It’s a strange and mysterious scene. We hear and see Judas get angry. We hear Jesus’ say something unexpected, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” We get it. We understand what Jesus means. And so from our corner we speak up and promise Jesus that we will open our hearts to God’s unexpected ways. And we also promise to both keep the poor close to us and to worship God with joy and extravagance.

Now let us prepare for the feast.