Grant, O G*d, that our hearts may be fixed where true joys are to be found, through I X our Lord. AMEN.
Top o’ the morning to you, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day. It may seem odd to be deep in Lent and hear upbeat lessons. In today’s Gospel, Jesus does predict his death, saying Mary’s extravagant gift is for his burial, but this forewarning doesn’t bear the gloom of other predictions. Instead, in Mary and Martha’s dinner, we hear the promise of something new, fragrant, and remarkable. That’s the theme and tone of today’s readings: that promised change is both new and eternally wonderful. Not the Celtic northern sin and gloom outlook of Lent traditionally presented to us, leading to an almost morbid obsession with preparing for Good Friday, instead we hear genuine preparation for Easter.
“The Lord has done great things for them. The Lord has done great things for us and we are glad indeed. Those who go out weeping…will come again with joy…” We hear in a variety of ways, that we are in good hands through change and difficulties. “Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.” Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.” We hear this and overlook the transition from carrying seeds to shouldering sheaves. The astonishing successful growing, rare in a land of little rain, is the hallmark of the Creator’s achievement: the promise of fruition over weakness. As we begin to prepare for Holy Week then, we know the coming triumph. The psalmist understands and paints the Lord’s actions and promise to make something new and better.
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Isaiah continues, “The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” Isaiah is optimistic and confident.
Jesus is matter of fact about his coming death. He understands Judas’s complaining about Mary’s lavish gift of nard, and that Judas wanted to hock the nard and keep the payment. Jesus understood that Judas was not being pious, but was simply shoving himself into the spotlight to seem that way, and to gain access to anything stealable. Jesus understood Mary’s gift to him. He knew he was heading into Jerusalem and to his own probable death. He knew her gift was part of his group’s preparation for knowing what was to come, and for how to manage an expensive part of the death. He knew that they’d want to honor him, treat him with care, and her gift would allow that. He accepted her contact, affection, and genuine caring love. He demonstrated his trust in what was coming and that he’d be held close with enfolding lavished attention, safe in good hands.
For Jesus the prospect of walking into almost sure death could have set up anger, fear, and discomfort with those around him. He stayed realistic and gracious. He expressed thanks and appreciation for Mary’s gesture. He backed Judas off, and made a comment that resounds into the present and future. Judas criticized Jesus for accepting the nard, saying its value should go to the poor. Imagine Jesus looking Judas in the eye, seeing what was in his mind, and not calling Judas on his real intention. Instead he seems to shrug and say, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” He’s neither complaining nor campaigning. It’s just true; the poor will always be with us. While Jesus has worked and focused the group to alleviate the woes of the poor, hungry, sad, in prison, and in need, individually and socially, he knew that preparing himself for what was coming was important too. He demonstrates that caring for an individual in dire straits is as necessary as more communal work and values.
I hear a distant allusion to G*d counting each hair on our heads and this from Matthew too, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing—and not one of them shall fall on the ground without your Father.” Even in the middle of large societal trends, occurrences, and strife, G*d’s concern is for the individual person above all. We sing, “G*d sees a little birdie fall, I know he loves me too; if G*d so loved the little bird, I know he loves me too. It’s this loving care that Jesus know surrounds him, so that he “can walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil.”
Paul has learned and relearned this reality as his ground of being. He understood he had lived a life blameless according to his law. When he’d come to know Jesus, he’d come to a new faith, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”…I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own…but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of G*d in Christ Jesus.”
Again we hear his trust in his secure future in God’s hands. There’s almost an undertone in these readings of, “Something’s coming, something good,” an undercurrent of thrilling expectation, safely guarded by a constant and loving watchful Creator. We know what’s coming both biblically and liturgically: Palm Sunday—the procession into Jerusalem, Maundy Thursday—the institution of the Eucharist and the Last Supper, Good Friday—the crucifixion, and the Vigil and Sunday morning celebrations of the resurrection, and yet it’s hard for us to keep up that hum, “Something‘s coming, something good, something’s coming.” We’re more apt to feel impending gloom.
We here at St. John’s are living right now in this pattern. We know something’s coming—or we hope so, and we’re grieving for the changes and ends that will mean. What of our history will we throw out? It’s to be hoped, none of it. Lynn Smith the archivist of the Diocese assures me that she wants to hold all the paper trail of this parish and the stuff that goes with it. (Did you know there’s an official category in libraries called “Stuff in a Box”? It is a real challenge for acquisition librarians to make the list of what is in each box, especially since they often make such lists long after receiving the boxes—not simple categorizable paper. We worry about what we’ll lose. We haven’t focused on what the people at St. Paul’s will lose. Many of their people are thoroughly ready for this merger. Some of them, though, haven’t considered that after they’re here and return to St. Paul’s, it will no longer be their same home. The space will be changed, renovated. The light will be different. The focus, the seating, and the simplicity, sparseness of that almost Greek revival building will be changed. Whatever their favorite thing, space, sight, light, angle, whatever forms for them their worship experience, will be gone too, and we’ll be with them not necessarily empathizing then with their surprise at finding St. Paul’s not home. It’ll be new for us, and we’ll expect it to be home for them, but it’ll be new for them too.
Throughout all of this, here’s what I long for us to be able to do: “forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” We’ll be able both to regain our commitment to mission, and also have enough people to participate in it and keep it going. Our primary mission to offer Sunday worship that’s beautiful, faithful, and welcoming to all is at some risk, because there are so few of us, it’s hard to provide a person in each role, and still allow each person to enjoy some refreshing worship from the pew. We proclaim mission to feed people in other ways and again, there are so few of us even to provide Coffee Hour easily, let alone an Easter Feast, or to join in any other regular feeding mission whether Saturday/Sunday’s Bread, the Cathedral’s Monday meal, or one here like Neighborhood Action. It’s “hard not to consider the things of old.”
Jesus was calm and matter of fact in today’s narrative of getting ready for the change he was walking into, real death, frightening and brutal. He knew he was held in G*d’s hand, as “the apple of G*d’s eye.” We’re beginning to grasp how much we’ll be sowing with tears, and we have not yet much trust in what we’ll be reaping with songs of joy. We’re pretty clear about what many of the seeds we’re carrying are, but we haven’t begun to see the full sheaves we’ll be shouldering. Now on Lent 5 we’re preparing to walk with Jesus and his followers to Calvary and join with them in resurrection joy. Now in this time of considering the complex merger, we’re preparing to walk with each other and those from St. Paul’s and with Jesus through decisions, loss, and change, with seeds to carry. Is it too much to hope for resurrection? Some disciples didn’t recognize Jesus in the resurrection, but they came to know he had risen. This is the very process we’re living in. We’re preparing for new growth, ample sheaves, Easter, resurrection, and the secure promise of Jesus with us now and always. Good News. AMEN.
© Katharine C. Black 17 March 2013 St. John’s, Boston