Taken but Never Forgotten – July 7, 2019

Namaan’s wife slave girl

Scripture: 2 Kings 5:1-3

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 

Reflection: Today’s lectionary reading from 2 King 5:1-14 is primarily about the healing of Namaan, a powerful and prideful military leader from Aram.

The story begins when a young slave girl from Israel serving Naaman’s wife, hears of Naaman’s leprosy – a fungal infection, leukoderma, impetigo, psoriasis, and eczema are all possibilities.

The unnamed slave girl mercifully bore her captor’s burden (Gal. 6:2). She suggests to Namaan’s wife that a prophet from her homeland would cure him. Naaman believes the slave girl’s recommendation passed on through his wife. He travels to Israel with an entourage of servants, silver, gold, and garments to reward the prophet for healing him. Namaan reluctantly obeys the prophet Elisha’s directives and participates in his healing by immersing himself seven times in the Jordan river. His healing led him away from sacrificing to other gods and to worship the Lord God of Israel. He asks Elisha for two-mule loads of dirt from Israel so that he can worship God in his homeland of Aram on Israelite soil.    

While we know to some extent what happened to Namaan, we do not know what happened to the young slave girl. Although nameless, she is a leading figure in the story. It was her recommendation that led Namaan to Israel, Elisha the prophet, his healing, and eventually to Namaan’s faith in the God of Israel.

Like so many nameless young girls, boys, and adults in the world today, the nameless servant girl was taken against her will by force and violence. She was separated and broken away from her family, her friends, her known way of life, and her homeland. Her fate rested in the hands of others who did not have her particular best interest in mind.

I wonder if the young slave girl was treated as a person or a possession? Did she inconsolably cry herself to sleep at nights? Did she wake up in the middle of the night because of nightmares? Did she ever see or speak to her mother or father again?

I can imagine her mother, father, siblings, and friends in Israel – like millions throughout the world today – could only wonder with anguish and uncertainty about her whereabouts and fate, praying that she was still alive and not in danger. The precious moments of watching their daughter grow, laugh and play stolen from them. They are in continual emotional distress, always grieving because to stop grieving is to give up hope of ever seeing their daughter again.

The slave girl in today’s text reminds us of all the children and adults in our world today who are taken, abducted against their will, trafficked, and exploited because of human violence and greed. It also reminds us that God is with them.

Human trafficking is happening all around us. Victims are often hidden away. It’s essential to know how to ‘spot the signs’ of trafficking that could save lives.

For more information on how you can spot the signs of trafficking, respond, and advocate to bring modern slavery to an end, visit the website: http://hopeforjustice.org

A Prayer for the End of Human Trafficking as shared by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth, Convent Station, N.J.

God of freedom, beauty and truth
we believe that your deepest desire,
your most powerful energy, 
is that all creation might know abundant life.

We raise our voices in anguished prayer
for our sisters and brothers,
women and girls, men and boys,
who are modern day slaves;
They are your beloved daughters and sons,
exploited sexually or forced to work
because of human violence and greed.

Fill us with your holy anger and your sacred passion
that those who are trafficked might know healing and justice;
that traffickers will come to repentance and conversion;
that all of us might live in such a way
that others are not made to pay the price
for our comfort and convenience.

Hasten the coming of the day when all people
and our precious Earth itself
will be treated, not as a commodity,
but as radiant images of your freedom, beauty and truth.
Amen. May it be so.

Co-Workers with the Master – Trinity Sunday, June 16, 2019

Like a Master Builder

Proverbs 8:30-31: Then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

Reflection: Maye and I bought our first home in 1984. The home was built on a triangle lot. Two neighborhood streets hugged the boundary lines of our home, one the front yard, the other the backyard. We had a playground in the backyard of our home that Aaron and Christina played in.  We were concerned that they would wander off onto a busy street while playing in the backyard, so we decided to build a fence to keep them safe from traffic.

Aaron was old three years old at that time and he helped me build a cedar fence around the backyard. It was fun to build the fence with Aaron. I enjoyed watching him carry the cedar planks, nail the planks, and help me with the spacing measurements. My brother built his home behind mine and still lives there. Every time I visit my brother, I see the 35-year-old fence Aaron and I built still standing and I remember the times we worked on it together, side by side, building it.

Wisdom, in this morning’s lectionary reading, is personified as a child of God created as one of his first acts at the beginning of creation, long ago, before the beginning of the earth, before the water was brought forth, the hills shaped, or the heavens established. The presence of wisdom working alongside God to bring about the created order is delightful to God, her father.  

God delights in us, as I delighted in Aaron, when we come beside him as his children to work alongside God to help build a new world together, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit that is filled with hope, joy, and peace.

Prayer: Fill us with a holy desire to work alongside of you – God, Son, and Holy Spirit – to help create a world filled with hope, joy, and peace for your glory. Amen.

Love: A Disciple’s Gang Sign. 5th Sunday of Easter May 19, 2019

Scripture: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:34-35

Reflection: My two years as associate pastor at Oak Cliff United Methodist Church, south of Dallas, gave me an opportunity to minister in a mission field with several rival gangs. I met several gang members when I tutored at-risk students at Adamson High School and I accompanied several parents of gang members to Juvenile court hearings.  

Gang members and gang activities are often easy to spot. Most gang members are proud of their association with the gang and they want everyone to know it, even if it makes them easily identifiable targets to rival gang members. We can suspect someone belongs to a gang by the clothing they wear such as: baggy pants, baseball caps turned at an angle, a brand of shoes, shirts, bandanas, jewelry, hand signs, colors, and team jackets. Some gangs wear unique tattoos. They also use graffiti to identify themselves and mark their “turf” or territory, signaling to other gang members to stay away or else.  

Jesus tells his disciples that their identifying sign to everyone that they were his disciples – gang members if you will – would be the way they loved one another.

“Love one another.” Sounds simple, right? Its easy to love and stay in communion with those that think like us, look like us, and want the same things we do. But I’m sure that what Jesus said, made at least a couple of his disciples in the Upper Room that night, cringe with hesitancy.

Two of the disciples – Matthew and Judas Iscariot – Jesus commanded to love each other represented differing points of view. Matthew was a tax collector working for the Romans and by that work supporting their rule over Palestine. Simon the Zealot, as his name makes clear, was a member of the Zealots, a political party committed to the overthrow of the Romans and all who collaborated with them; that is, the Matthew’s of the world. These two men were as far apart politically as you could be in first-century Palestine, yet Jesus called both to follow him and to love each other. A hopeful sign that would turn the attention of a conflicted world to Christ would be for these two, through the power of love, would transcend their differences and see each other as fellow disciples of Christ, brothers to each other, instead of enemies.

The love Jesus commanded his disciples to practice was not a sentimental love, but a love that was a decision. A decided love means I’m going to love you no matter what. It is a fierce love that never gives up on the other and shows everyone the unfailing love of Christ that never gives up on us.

Now, go on disciple, show everyone you are a member of Christ’s gang committed to his unfailing way of love. Show everyone love that is patient and kind. Show a love that does not envy, does not boast, and is not proud.  Show a love that honors others. Show your love unselfishly. Show a love that brings peace. Show a love that keeps no record of wrongs and is able to forgive.  Show a love that does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  Show love that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Show everyone Christ’s love, a love that never fails, and everyone will know you are his disciple.

Prayer: Help us to be your disciples walking in your way of unfailing love, seeing others as you see them. Forgive us when we failed to show grace and love to our fellow disciple and our neighbor.

Unlocked – Second Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2019

Scripture

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” John 20:19-23

Reflection

The disciples were hiding behind locked doors on the evening of Christ’s resurrection. We can only imagine what they were thinking, feeling, and talking about. The arrest, trial, mocking, painful torture, humiliation, and cruel public crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ certainly devastated their hopes, utterly dissappointed their expectations, and deeply frightened them.

Even though they had heard a report from Mary Magdalene that the body was missing and Peter and John had verified that the tomb was empty (Jn. 20:1-18), the disciples were still in the lock of bitter despair and dissapointment.

The phsycology of dissapointment is a growing field of study. Psychologists have found that there is a definite psysiological aspect to what happens to the brain when we experience the emotion known as dissappointment. Dissappointment happens when the outcomes we expected are not met. When expectations are not met, our tendency is to express blame, regret, anger, rage, and fear born out of uncertainty and perceived threats. We get locked into imagining what might have been in contrast to the current unwanted reality we find ourselves in. Dissappointment becomes exacerbated when we put forth our best efforts and resources toward a cause only to realize that what we worked for or desired did not happen or may never come to pass. At that point, we protest with anger toward ourselves, another person or group, or sometimes towards the whole world because anger allows us to continue locked into idealizing what could have been.

As the disciples, locked behind closed doors, wallow in the throes of dissappointment, despair, and fear, Jesus unexectedly and surprisingly appears and stands in the middle of them. He initiates three resurrection actions that console them, strengthen their broken spirits, and gives them direction to proclaim new life in his name. His actions unlock and free them from their despair, dissappointments, and fears.

  • First, he double greets them with peace (Jn. 20:19, 21)
  • Second, he shows them the marks of his crucifixion (Jn. 20:20). In doing so, he lets the disciples know that he shares in and understands what it means to experience pain, fear, rejection, and violence.
  • And third, he breathes on them the Holy Spirit (Jn. 20:22-23) and sends them into the world to continue his mission of forgiveness and reconciliation with God through faith in him (Jesus) as the Son of God, the living water, the healer, the bread of life, the light of the world, the way and the truth, the good shepherd, and the resurrection and the life.

These three powerful resurrection and liberating acts of Jesus apply to us today.

Peace: All are in seach of the inward personal peace and the outward peace in the world Christ offers. This is a peace that is present not only when things go right or in ways that best suit us, but when life becomes dissappointing. Christ’s double portion of peace counters the marketing of fear, fault-finding, self-interest, and despair that overwhelm people in our communities.

Christ, the Center: All are in search of an authentic community constituted by the crucified and risen Christ who stands in the middle of it and holds it together by grace and peace when so many things seem to be falling apart. Although in the world we will have trouble, with Christ’s presence in our midst and his aliveness among us and in us, we take heart because through him and with him, we can seek goodness and beauty in the world and persevere through dissappointments with courage and hope.

Forgiveness: All are in need of the forgiveness Christ offers through the means of grace the church provides that redeems, restores, and transforms people and communities.

Dissappointment over unmet expectations are a part of life. If we’re not careful, we can get locked in by crushing despair and dissappointment that can manifest itself in unhealthy behaviors and attitudes such as resentment, blaming, apathy, and anger. The good news is that the Risen Christ unexpectedly and surprisingly comes and becomes present to us, freeing us through acts of worship, prayer, reading and study of scripture, singing hymns and songs of faith, partaking of the sacraments, Christian fellowship, meditation, and solitude. His peace is always seeking to make an abiding residence deep within our souls. He understands our struggles and hopes and does not leave us locked into despair and dissappointment. His abiding presence and Spirit renews us, restores our hopes, strengthens our broken hearts, invites, and sends us as his ambassadors of peace, faith, and forgiveness into the world with the good news of new resurrected life.

Christ our Lord is Risen! Indeed, He is Risen!

Prayer

Resurrected Lord, we thank you that you understand all that we face, that you see and you care. We lay before you all that locks us into despair and dissapointment – the pain, the past, the struggles. Thank you for the consolation, abiding presence, and power of the Holy Spirit. Enable to trust that all things work out for the good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose. Amen.

“Unfinished Mission:” Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019

Folded face cloth on empty tomb slab

Scripture:Then Peter and John set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but John outran Peter and reached the tomb first. John bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. Peter saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then John, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.  John 20:3-8

Reflection:

Our resounding and joyous Easter acclamation this morning is:

The Lord is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

The Easter Sunday story in the Gospel of John tells us that Peter and John race to the tomb early Sunday morning after Good Friday to verify Mary Magdalene’s distressing report stating that the body of Jesus was missing from the tomb.

Upon arriving, John looks inside the tomb and sees the linen grave clothes are lying there but does not go in. Peter does enter the tomb and sees the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head folded up in its own place, away from the other linens. Then John also enters the tomb, sees the evidence and believes. 

We are not told what evidence in the empty tomb brought John to faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Could it have been the folded face cloth sitting apart from the crumpled linen cloths that birthed belief in John?

In Hebrew culture, a servant would set the table for the master. The servant made sure that it was exactly the way the master wanted, then the servant would wait, just out of sight while the master ate.

The servant would dare not touch the table until the master was finished eating. If the master wadded the napkin and tossed it onto the table, the servant would then know to clear the table. In those days, the wadded napkin meant, “I’m finished.”

But if the master got up from the table, folded his napkin and laid it beside his plate, the servant would dare not touch the table, because the folded napkin meant, “I’m not finished. I’m coming back.”

The folded face cloth set apart from the grave clothes in the empty tomb reminds us that the mission of our risen Lord is not yet finished.

Christ’s mission continues through his church as we stay focused on the big picture, which is to deepen the discipleship of our existing members while at the same time make new disciples devoted to following and serving him for the transformation of our broken world.

We are a people with a 160-year history of Christian nurture, outreach, and service in the Midwest as United Methodists.

Our United Methodist people make positive contributions for the common good in our communities every day in the fields of agriculture, ranching, health care, education, business, government, science, technology, and community service.  

Regardless of what is happening in our rapidly changing and broken world, our core values and mission as United Methodists are uncompromisable.

  • We will continue to help people grow in the love of God and their discipleship by nurturing them in the life of the church.
  • We will continue to proclaim new life in Jesus Christ by sharing our faith with others through fresh expressions of church.
  • We will continue to serve others in the name of Jesus Christ near and far; especially the poor, by uplifting and empowering them for self-sufficiency, by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and caring for the stranger.
  • We will continue to join heart and hand linking our love of God with love of neighbor, and a passion for justice and renewal in the life of the world that frees the oppressed, and works for social structures that are consistent with the Gospel.
  • Our churches will continue to be safe spaces that create connection, community and belonging as we move forward for the sake of our greater mission.
  • We will be restorative communities of faith that move from focusing on problems to imagining new possibilities. We will focus our energies not on stoking fears and finding fault, but on faithfully sharing our gifts, generosity, and abundance with each other and others in our communities and the world for the common good.

The folded napkin in the empty tomb signaled to John that Christ’s mission was not finished. It signals the same to us this Easter.

Our mission is unfinished because God is not yet finished with the United Methodist Church.

We will take both a short view and the long view of the kingdom work that is at hand and is at the same time beyond our vision.

In the present we will take an infinite number of small faithful steps toward God, each other, and toward our neighbor, each one important and vital for our unity, our life together, and our unfinished mission for Christ in the world.

As we take an infinite number of small steps in the present, we will also take steps toward God’s redeeming vision for the world that is far beyond the limits of our human capacities and existence.

Father John Dearden of Detroit concluded a 1979 sermon with the prayer,

We know that we will accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s unfinished work. We remember that we are workers, not master builders, ministers not messiahs. We proclaim a future not our own. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot and will not do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

Friends, today, tomorrow, and in the years to come, we will attend to Christ’s unfinished mission in the world through the witness of our lives and the grace-filled work of our congregations …

… So that relationships will be healed, social structures transformed, scriptural holiness spread, thereby changing the world and the lives of those who suffer.

… So that we will be made alive in Christ us as we embrace his mandate to love God and to love our neighbor and to make disciples of all peoples.

… So that others may also come to confess Jesus Christ as their Savior, put their whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as their Lord, living in the power of his resurrection.

The Lord is Risen! Truly, He is Risen!

“Out of the Shadows” Good Friday, April 19, 2019


Nicodemus helping to take down Jesus’ body from the cross (Pietà, by Michelangelo)

Scripture: After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. John 19:38-42

Reflection: The gospel of John is marked by two unique characteristics. The first is a focus on Jesus’ encounters with individuals. And secondly, the Gospel includes several long discourses where Jesus shows how he embodies the full meaning of Israel’s Scriptures and feasts and meets all of humanity’s deepest needs for God’s forgiveness, life, truth, and love.

One individual whom Jesus encounters in the Gospel of John is Nicodemus (John 3). The encounter with Nicodemus expresses the heart of John’s Gospel – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whosoever believes in him (his person and mission) may not perish but may have new and eternal life” as a child of God (John 3:16). This new life is generated by the Spirit from above as a gift from God, it is beautiful and satisfying, but risky, even costly.

Nicodemus, a “Rabbi” or teacher of Israel, appears three times in the Gospel of John. We first meet Nicodemus when he comes under the cover of night to talk with Jesus one on one, in private (John 3). The use of the term “night” in the gospel of John symbolizes an imperfect or opaque faith that cannot clearly understand or see Jesus in the light of who he is; the Son of God and Savior of the world. Nicodemus, a Rabbi himself, addresses Jesus as “Rabbi” because he sees Jesus as an equal, not the Son of God. Jesus talks to Nicodemus about the necessity of a new birth that leads to a different and abundant life, but Nicodemus does not understand the meaning of a new birth because he cannot comprehend it in his natural mind without “that great inward change by the Holy Spirit” that brings about the new birth John Wesley speaks of (Notes 3:5).

Nicodemus departs from Jesus after the encounter without any mention of a commitment by the writer but reappears in two other places in John’s Gospel.

The second time Nicodemus is mentioned in the Gospel is in John 7:45-52. Briefly, the chief priests and Pharisees sent temple police to arrest Jesus for claiming to be the Messiah sent by God into the world to save it and give eternal life. Jesus also claims that he is the source of the Holy Spirit, the water of life, that satisfies humanity’s spiritual thirst. The temple police did not arrest Jesus because they had never heard anyone speak like him. The religious leaders are infuriated by the police’s insubordination and the crowd’s lack of legal sophistication and for their foolishness to believe in Jesus’ person and mission. Just then, as his colleagues are fevered with frustration and anger, Nicodemus reminds them that the law required a fair hearing to investigate allegations brought against a person; in this case, Jesus. Nicodemus is quickly chastised by his colleagues and mocked for his sympathies toward Jesus’ welfare and right to trial.

The third time we find Nicodemus in the Gospel of John is in John 19:39-42. No longer is he hiding notice from others as he seeks Jesus under the cover of the night shadows. He is no longer indirectly and secretly trying to defend Jesus’ rights or welfare. No, he is now fully out in the open, vulnerable, and public about his faith in Jesus Christ. He risks the loss of his social position as a privileged religious leader of Israel and his personal welfare when he joins with Joseph of Arimathea, also a former secret disciple of Jesus, to bury Jesus’ crucified body. Together they take Jesus’ body down from the cross, prepare it for burial by wrapping it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom, and they lay Jesus in a nearby tomb.

Nicodemus brings a hundred pounds of aloe and myrrh to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. Clearly, the extravagant amount is a tangible symbol of Nicodemus’ new sight or vision of Jesus, not as another teacher, but as as Priest, Prophet, and King, God’s Son, his Lord and Savior.

Sometimes coming to the fulness of faith in Jesus Christ takes time; some call it a process. As Wesleyans, we call it, “moving on to perfection.” Each of us is unique. Some of us will move faster or slower than others with the help of the Holy Spirit from little or partial knowledge of Jesus Christ – “darkness” – to fully trusting in Christ as our Lord and Savior – “light” and salvation. Critical moments in our lives lead us to define who Christ is to us and what it means to be his disciple in the world. Over time, Jesus becomes more real, our faith in him solidifies, and the Holy Spirit leads us deeper into the light, way, truth, and abundant life Jesus offers us.

Nicodemus’ journey of faith informed by a searching conversation with Jesus, his observations of Jesus’ life, teachings, and ministry, his dialogue with others about Jesus, his prayers, worship, searching of the scriptures, the passage of time, and critical moments in his life led him toward the fullness of faith and discipleship in Jesus Christ. His public acts of love and tribute to Jesus, put him at risk of losing everything that was near and dear to him. His hidden story in the Gospel of his journey toward a new birth and public witness encourages all disciples hiding in the shadows of fear to step forward with faith, courage, and extravagant generosity that honors and glorifies Christ as Lord and Savior.

Prayer: Lord, give the fullness of your peace now to your faithful people. May your peace rule in this life and possess us in eternal life. Grant that our dim sight may come to perceive the brightness of our crucified Lord’s truth, mercy, and life. Amen.

“Let it Go” – Palm Sunday

Scripture: “The Lord needs it.” Luke 19:31

Reflection: The owners of the colt came upon the two disciples who are busy untying it as instructed by Jesus. The owners ask the disciples to justify their actions, “Why are you untying the colt?” they ask. The two disciples respond, “Because the Lord needs him.”

Luke says nothing more about the owners of the colt. The owners were familiar with Jesus, or they recognized him as a king, prophet, or priest and understood themselves to be his loyal subjects able and willing to serve in whatever was asked of them. Whatever the case, they were supportive of the disciples’ actions and allowed them to proceed unabated with their intentions to borrow the colt and take it to Jesus.

In the Greco-Roman world, a general or king had the power to take property on loan or seize it for military or civil purposes. As Lord, Jesus’ request compels the owners to cede their property for his use and needs. The owners do not understand what Jesus is planning, the part they play in the larger scheme of things, or how their colt will serve Jesus’ needs. Nevertheless, they obey the Lord through the word of the disciples and release the colt trusting that their cooperation serves Christ’s greater purposes.

I have met so many people over the years – and countless in Kansas and Nebraska – who are like the owners of the colt. As soon as they hear of a pressing need, they let go and generously give of what they possess. They let go and give of their time. They let go and give their gifts and talents to help. They let go and give or loan what they have. They give out of their abundance. And they give out of their poverty. They provide with faith. They offer what they have with hope. They present their contributions with joy. They let go and trust that their cooperation and giving serves Christ’s greater purposes in the world. And for them, that suffices. They may never know how their giving, loaning, or serving makes a difference in a life or the world, but they know in the depths of their soul that there is no higher honor or privilege than serving the Lord with who they are or what they have already received from him in terms of grace, mercy and goodness.

Prayer for Generosity by St. Ignatius of Loyola

Eternal Word, only begotten Son of God,
Teach me true generosity.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve.
To give without counting the cost,
To fight heedless of wounds,
To labor without seeking rest,
To sacrifice myself without thought of any reward
Save the knowledge that I have done your will. Amen.

The Scent of Lent

Scripture: The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (John 12:3)

Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume then wipes his feet dry with her hair. (John 12:3)

Reflection: Maye wears the same fragrance she began using in 1991 when it first came into the market. The aroma opens with chamomile, apple, lychee, mandarin, rose, plum and peach, balanced by coriander and sandalwood and has a hint of a marine scent. I’ve bought her other perfumes over the years, but she prefers that particular one because it works best with her body chemistry. I have lost count of the number of times strangers stop her to ask what perfume she is wearing.

Fragrances are composed of three key factors: a top note, a middle note, and a base note. The top note is the one first smelled due to its lighter molecular structure. It is also the first of the aromas to evaporate and fade away. These notes usually are citrusy or aromatic.

The middle notes are known as the “heart notes,” they are pleasant, well rounded and combine floral and heavier fruit characteristics. Heart notes use spices like coriander, cinnamon, and cardamom.

The base notes of a fragrance are the ones that intermingle with the middle notes to create the fullest body of the scent. They are pleasant and last long after the top note fades away. Familiar base notes are sandalwood, cedar, vanilla, and amber.

Lent is coming to an end. In today’s gospel reading from John 12:1-8, Jesus is in Bethany, six days before the Passover, for dinner in the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. Martha served, Lazarus was at the table with Jesus, and Mary acts unbelievably. Mary anoints the beautiful feet of Jesus that carried the good news to the humiliated, the searching, the outcast, the stuck, the hungry, the thirsty, those in darkness, the blind, the scattered, and the mourning with costly perfume worth a year’s wages. She then wipes his feet with her hair. The fragrance of the expensive nard fills the home. Jesus interprets the gesture and associates it with his death. Jesus knows that his feet that carried the good news of God’s love to outskirt towns and people of Israel will soon bear the weight of the cross on the way of humiliation, suffering, and death.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is an everlasting top, middle, and base note fragrance that continues to open and fill our lives and our world with faith, hope, and love. The first note of Jesus’ fragrance is his incarnation. He emptied himself and took on our humanity to show us how to love God, do the will of God, and how to love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27). The second note, or “heart note,” of Jesus’ fragrance is that he “carried in his own body on the cross the sins we committed. He did this so that we might live in righteousness, having nothing to do with sin. He healed us by his wounds” (1 Peter 2:24). The third and abiding note of Jesus’ fragrance that fills our lives and the world is his promise to be with us in our present and until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).  

A typical bottle of perfume, even when unopened and stored correctly has an average shelf life of three to five years. Perfumes are meant for use, or they become rancid. The fragrance of Christ is not only for Christians, or for the church. The aroma of Christ is to be opened and poured out into the world through prophetic and grace-filled words and deeds of compassion, mercy, and justice, lest the witness and power of a disciple or the church become rancid. It is meant to be opened and poured out, not contained. As we in humility and service to the world God loves pour out Christ’s fragrant love on the troubled, poor, the burdened, the sick, the sorrowing, the trapped, and alone whom God loves, we do so to Christ and for Christ.

People stop Maye all the time to ask what perfume she wears so that they can purchase the fragrance for themselves or a loved one. May people who experience the aroma of Christ through our words and deeds as his disciples and as a Church also stop and ask how they can attain the fullness of the fragrant life of Christ for themselves.  

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within reach of your fragrant saving embrace. So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in your love, may bring those who do not know you to the fragrant knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen

Mercy

The Prodigal Son, Rembrandt, 1669

Scripture: While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion (Luke 15:20).

Reflection:

The Pharisees and scribes grumble and murmer about the company Jesus keeps with sinners and tax collectors (Lk. 15:1-2). They had disqualified and excluded those Jesus welcomed and ate with, accusing them of being “sinners.” Jesus responds to their grumblings with parables of a shepherd and the lost sheep (Lk. 15:3-7), a woman and the lost coin (Lk. 15:8-10), and a father with the two lost sons (Lk 15:11-32). Each parable reveals the love of God that moves with yearning, pity, mercy, and compassion for the “lost.”

When I was in my late 20’s, I engaged in a heated argument with Jerry, a newspaper owner twenty years my elder.  I knew Jerry attended church, but “I” had judged him to be a nominal Christian because “I” suspicioned his life-style. He came into my store one afternoon to sell me some advertising space in his newspaper and “I” saw an opportunity to set him straight with scripture and right doctrine. I knew I had the upper hand, soon after the full-blown debate began, because I knew more scripture than he did. I kept zinging and pounding him with scripture after scripture. Eventually, he became silent. I thought to myself, I won! He stopped talking, bowed his head and turned to walk away in silence. Then, he paused, turned back to me with tears in his eyes and a defeated spirit, and said to me, “All that you said may be right. But I can’t receive it because I see no love in your heart.” We never spoke again even though we worked in the same shopping mall.

I thought I could awaken a call to holy living in Jerry. Instead I recognized that I treated Jerry, a child of God, as a foe instead of a friend, a bother instead of a brother, a sinner instead of a saint in the becoming.  I saw the hollowness of my own sin of self-righteousness and my inclination to be right instead of in relationship. I thought I was going to help reconcile Jerry to God on that day with my iron-clad, biblically-based scriptural arguments. Instead, I used scripture to wound, lay guilt and shame on him, perhaps pushing him further away from God and from the church. I realized that day that it was not Jerry who had wandered away from God’s love and mercy, but me.

Reflection:

The Pharisees and scribes grumble about the company Jesus keeps with sinners and tax collectors (Lk. 15:1-2). They had disqualified and excluded those Jesus welcomed and ate with, accusing them of being “sinners.” Jesus responds to their grumblings with parables of a shepherd and the lost sheep (Lk. 15:3-7), a woman and the lost coin (Lk. 15:8-10), and a father with the two lost sons (Lk 15:11-32). Each parable reveals the love of God that moves with yearning, pity, mercy, and compassion for the “lost.”

When I was in my late 20’s, I engaged in a heated argument with Jerry, a newspaper owner twenty years my elder.  I knew Jerry attended church, but “I” had judged him to be a nominal Christian because “I” suspicioned his life-style. He came into my store one afternoon to sell me some advertising space in his newspaper and “I” saw an opportunity to set him straight with scripture and doctrine. I knew I had the upper hand, soon after the full-blown debate began, because I knew more scripture than he did. I kept zinging and pounding him with scripture after scripture. Eventually, he became silent. I thought to myself, I won! He stopped talking, bowed his head and turned to walk away in silence. Then, he paused, turned back to me with tears in his eyes and a defeated spirit, and said to me, “All that you said may be right. But I can’t receive it because I see no love in your heart.” We never spoke again even though we worked in the same shopping mall.

I thought I could awaken a call to holy living in Jerry with scripture. Instead I realized that I treated Jerry, a child of God, as a foe instead of a friend, a bother instead of a brother, a sinner instead of a saint in the becoming.  I saw my own sin of self-righteousness and my inclination to be right instead of in relationship. I thought I was going to help reconcile Jerry to God on that day. Instead, I used scripture to wound, lay guilt, and shame on him, perhaps pushing him further away from God. I realized that day that it was not Jerry who had wandered away from the knowledge and experience of God’s love and mercy, but me.

Prayer:

God of mercy, help us to enrich this day with deeds of compassion and mercy. Help us to avoid all anger and dissension and let us find joy in your peace and love. Amen.

Just a Little More Time? Third Sunday of Lent March 24, 2019

“Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6)

Scripture

Luke 13:1-9 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them–do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still, I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

Reflection

Jesus often repeated things more than once to get an important point across. In today’s lectionary gospel text, Jesus repeats the warning twice, “But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” He is responding to the unspoken question of whether sin is tied to God’s judgment.

In the first story, Galileans were killed by Pilate. Was it because of their sin? In the second story, eighteen people from Siloam were killed when a tower collapsed and fell on them. Was God judging and exercising retribution on them because they were sinners? Jesus says, “No!” The people in the two stories met their death because suffering, violence, injustice, and death is part of our human condition.

From this point of view, the teaching of Jesus is freeing and uplifting for those who suffer poverty, sickness, injury, violence, injustice, and for anyone else who suffers because it means that illness, accidents, and suffering are not by divine will, nor is it a punishment, nor is it due to the sin of parents or ancestors!

The point Jesus is making is that even though others suffer, and we may not suffer to the same degree, we are universally united with all others because of our collective sinfulness. That is, the sin of others who suffer is not greater than the sin of those that do not hurt. We are united with all people in our need for repentance from sin, our need for God’s unmerited mercy and salvation, and our need to show forth the fruit of our repentance as evidence of a life oriented toward God.

At a deeper level, the knowledge that we will all be cut down by death someday allows us to seek the Lord while he may be found. Awareness of our finitude when we see the suffering and death of others calls us to examine our lives and invites us call upon upon the Lord while he is near.  We still have time to turn to God so that we can be abundantly pardoned and experience the fullness of life in God, today.

By turning to God through faith in Christ, we will experience the fullness of God’s steadfast love that is better than life. Our thirsty, searching, and restless souls will be quenched, find rest, know peace, and be satisfied with the riches of faith, hope, and love. We will find that God is our help and the one who upholds us in life. We will experience the strength of God beyond our strength in times of trial. And, we will behold how God will provide a way out when we think there is no way out.

This Lent, Jesus Christ continues to invite all to seek and find him, to call upon him today because he is near, and to turn to him for mercy and pardon so that all may live in newness of life, today, tomorrow, and forever in his everlasting love.

Prayer

Blessed be God who is worthy to be praised. Blessed be Jesus Christ who invites us to new life. Blessed be the Holy Spirit who sustains our spirit in faith, hope, and love. Amen.