Home! EASTER 2017

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Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.  So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.  The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  He 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. He 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 the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

And there she is — Mary Magdalene, witness to the RESURRECTION! A woman, of all people. An unreliable witness, according to the laws of the day, a person on the outside of every inner circle you can think of . . . except the only one that truly matters: the center of God’s love. It was love that opened her eyes and her heart, it was love that propelled her down the path to tell the others. It was love that spread the Great Good News that JESUS CHRIST LIVES!!

HALLELUJAH, HALLELUJAH! Thank you, thank you.

Heading Home: Walking with Jesus to the Cross — Holy Saturday

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Matthew 27:57-66

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus.  He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

It is Mary I think about today. Mary, the mother of our Lord. The mosaic picture above depicts her response to the sad words of Simeon on the day of Jesus’ dedication in the temple. “A sword pierced her heart, ” remember? She had no idea what awaited her. None. I wonder, would she have changed her mind if she knew?

We can never know that, of course, but I choose to believe that she would still have been the Lord’s obedient servant, willing to carry whatever burden became hers to bear. Imagine this day for her, this dark Saturday: she watched her son be brutally murdered by the state, acting in cahoots with the religious leaders; she has been ‘given’ to the charge of another ‘son.’ Everything about her life has been turned topsy-turvy; grief overwhelms every other emotion. I wonder, was there any hope left? Did she believe his words about the third day? Did she have insight beyond any of the others in Jesus’ life?

Somehow, I doubt it.

A dark day, indeed.

Lord, we neglect Holy Saturday in most of our Protestant traditions. We forget that there was a day of death in between the dying and the rising. Help us to walk with you, even here. Right into the darkness of that tomb.

The Seven Sorrows

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I snuck in through the back gate, carefully closing it so that the family of deer grazing nearby could not enter the enclosed garden. Miraculous rain had fallen during the night and the air was crisp and cool, with a slight breeze from the west. The small labyrinth on the grounds of Mater Dolorosa Retreat Center was my first target that morning — I love to walk and pray, and if there is a dedicated pathway for such walking and praying, I head straight toward it. These deer were just to the east as I slowly wound my way to the center of that stone-marked pathway and back out again. They were lovely – young, strong, alert.

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The garden site took me to an entirely different place, one of tears and remembering, of death and dying, though there was beauty to be seen on all sides. The wisteria arbor pictured above was the first thing I saw as I clanged the gate behind me. Stretching out on both sides to form a circle, the entire 15-feet wide pathway fully enclosed a special, set-aside space: The Garden of the Seven Sorrows. This is a space marked for contemplation on the sorrows that Mary carried throughout her life as a mother, an idea new to me, and a surprisingly welcome one.

We Protestants don’t often think about Mary, do we? We tend to forget the depth of her spiritual maturity, her shocking availability to God. Would you be so open? Would I?

There are six niches around the circle, each with an exquisite and colorful mosaic depicting the sorrows that are mentioned in the gospel narrative. There are benches, a variety of both green and blooming plants, a fountain in the center, and a striking bronze statue duet, life-sized and haunting in its detailed depiction of mother and son locking eyes as Jesus drops the cross on his way to Calvary. That statue represents the seventh sorrow, and I saw it first from the back.

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I walked around, under the arbor, to begin my pilgrimage at the beginning, stepping into each niche in turn and then returning to the center magnificence to further contemplate that bronze tableau, this time from the front and from the side. I invite you to come along with me as I walk, enjoying a more distant view and then a closeup of each sorrow in turn. Take a moment to savor the detail, to reflect on the moment captured by the artwork. See what rises in you.

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It began in the earliest days of her motherhood experience, didn’t it? Taking her new little boy to the temple for blessing and dedication, Simeon had a hard word for her
“. . . and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

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Joseph holds the infant Jesus and the heart of Mary beats almost out of her chest at Simeon’s heavy words. Eight days old and her heart is filled with foreboding.

The Second Sorrow focuses on the flight into Egypt. With a toddler in tow, Mary and her husband were forced to flee their homeland, not knowing exactly when they might return. This is, to me, a poignant picture of the plight of so many refugees in our world today — forced out, running away to a foreign place, uncertain about the future, wanting protection and safety for their family.

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Sorrow Three comes twelve years later, when Jesus remains in the temple, worrying his parents by his absence, and then by his response: “Didn’t you know, Mother? Didn’t you know where I would be?” 

Do we know where our children are? Can we?

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img_0634The artist has managed to capture Mary’s pain and confusion, using just small pieces of colored ceramic. Jesus is rapt, his hand raised and open. Always, his hands were open.

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And this is Sorrow Four — the only one not specifically recorded in scripture, but one that surely could have happened — Mary meeting her son on the road. I do not know who the artists were, for either the mosaics or the sculpture, but I am grateful for them and to them. This is one of the most moving sights I’ve ever experienced. Contemplate the detail on their faces with me, won’t you?

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Deep grief marks a person in every way — physically, emotionally, spiritually. Her tears elicit my own.

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And Jesus turns to look at his mother, his mama. How difficult this entire event must have been for both of them. The gospel writers give us tiny glimpses; artists take those glimpses and give us wider, deeper vistas.

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I think he must have been a strong man — I like the musculature outlined here. But he was also a very weary man at this point in the journey, a heartbroken man. And all of that shows in that face. All of it.

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Though I do not subscribe to the Catholic doctrines about Mary, I completely understand how they developed. The mother-son bond is a strange and wondrous one, and like it or not, we moms are of primary importance to and a strong influence on our children, daughters and sons alike. While I believe the Catholic church has overplayed the importance of that bond, I fear we Protestants have seriously underplayed it. 

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And here is the one we are probably most familiar with — Sorrow Five — Mary watching her beloved son die on that tree. The apostle John appears to the right, turned away from the sight; Mary looks, but weeps. What must that have been like?

img_0642The Sixth Sorrow is the one made famous by Pietas across the ages — Mary holding her son as he is taken down from the cross. “Has there been any sorrow like unto my sorrow?”

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The final sorrow comes at the gravesite. The women are all there and it is hard to know which one is Mary. Who do you think it is?

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The rose bush effectively hid all of their faces, but I snuck my camera around the blooms and thorns and got each of them:

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As I walked this beautiful, yet somewhat strange new circle, I found myself saying, ‘thank you,’ over and over again. Thank you to the Son, yes, of course. Of course. But also — thank you to the mother, the dear mother, the one who said ‘yes’ to the mystery, who opened herself to unspeakable pain, who loved her child with her whole heart. She was not perfect, but she was deeply good and I am grateful.

As I turned to leave this glorious space, I noticed a flash of color just off to my right. Two colors, to be exact — two colors of the church year, in point of fact: red (this one was pinkish) and purple — red for sorrow and purple for royalty. Seemed fitting, somehow. Perfectly fitting.

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We will return to this same retreat center in 18 months. You can be sure that the Garden of the Seven Sorrows will be a part of my own meditative experience in 2018. It will be springtime then. How lovely!

And the Light Went Out . . .

I dressed in black,
ate my dinner earlier than usual
and drove one canyon over to rehearse.

DSC01442The sanctuary was filled
with evening light when I walked in,
heightening the lavenders and blues,
those deeply colored pieces
that fit inside the clerestory windows.
DSC01437 Musicians and readers met in the balcony,
our home as the sun made its way down,
down behind the hills and the sea.
No paper trail this night,
only the dark light of the screens
to guide us from scripture to painting, to silence.
Then to poem, to song,
to the loss of
one more layer of light. DSC01438 There is a sober feel to this night,
a quietness that invades our spirits

and guides our tongues.
Nothing is wasted.
No breath, no sigh, no syllable.
DSC01439 It is crowded and cramped where we sit,
bound by chair legs and mic stands,
script pages and surreptitious, hooded lamps.
DSC01440 The chandeliers,
hand-pounded
by an artist-blacksmith
in the valley,
remind me of crowns tonight.
Crowns fit for a king —
or one falsely accused. DSC01443 We begin with full brightness,
streaming in through the windows,

and shining out
from every light
in the house.  DSC01444 From my perch,
high above the worshippers,
I watch the space darken,
and feel the weight of it
settle into my bones.
My foot is aching this night,
tired from too much joyful standing,
baking and decorating,
standing beside my tall grandgirl,
who loves to try new things.
DSC01445And I’m glad that it hurts.
Not in a strange or masochistic way,

no. Rather, I am grateful to identify,
even in a small way, with
the pain of this day.
With the darkness,
the good and necessary darkness.
The darkness which brought us 
everlasting light;
the darkness in which the Good
was splayed out before us all,
absorbing our fallenness,
our brokenness,
our sinfulness,
our shame. IMG_4098 I am reading poetry tonight,
my partner a retired English prof

from a nearby college,
a wise and kind man,
who answers my queries
about
meaning and inflection,
about rhythm and pace.
DSC01446We hear the story,
the old story,
the true story.
We look at etchings,
beautiful, old etchings.
And we sing.
Sweetly, reverently, we sing. 
IMG_4097Seven times, a candle is snuffed out.
Seven words from John.
Seven songs are sung.

But only six poems.

For, in the end,
at the end,
there are no words.

Only the blessed darkness.

And then,
the Christ candle begins to move,

lifted high, cradled,
down the steps,

into the night.

And this time,
this time as I watch it go by
into the darkest space of all,
the one directly below my chair,

I weep.

This is a space where I cannot  be,
where I cannot see

the gleaming of His light.

And it hits me,
as if for the first time,
that this light went out.

The Light of the world willingly
went out,

was laid deep in the earth,
and did not shine.

How did any of us survive that darkness?

And yet . . . that very darkness
birthed
RESURRECTION.

Perhaps, I need to rethink
the meaning of the word,
the reality,
the gift
of darkness.

My deep thanks to Jon Lemmond for his wonderful script, to him and to Don Johnson for their masterful reading of the scripture, to Bob Gross, Jon Martin and Janet Spencer for such lovely musical leadership, to Tanner Gross for managing powerpoint and light level, and to my reading partner, John Sider. And special thanks for and to the poets – Richard Crashaw, John Byrom, Gerald Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, Christina Rosetti and Tania Runyon whose words graced this event with power, and with invitation.

A Muscular Savior

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So. It’s been quite the weekend. Beautiful weather on Saturday, with a little fog wiggling its way along the shoreline, clearing to bright blue skies above city and mountains. A drive by the Old Mission reminded me that spring has indeed sprung, with the Mission rose garden sending glory sparks all round. Brilliant blooms, redolent and heavy with sun and scent.

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And Sunday morning began, as it usually does with pre-worship on the bluffs. This week, there were dolphins. Dolphins! Creatures who speak to me of God with their beauty, grace and sense of fun. I loved catching this glimpse of a shiny tail, splashing the surface.

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Turns out, there was an entire pod making its way south, rolling and skimming along. As I watched them frolic, I had quite a lengthy conversation with God (courtesy of my iPhone notes app) about my own struggles right now. And for the second time during this Lenten season, I was reminded that sometimes resurrection requires death, healing needs a kind of dying first. Not exactly the answer I wanted to hear, but I tried to take it in with a semblance of grace and acceptance.

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Just before I left to drive up the hill for worship, an acorn woodpecker dropped onto a low-hanging branch and tapped away. His cheerful topknot doesn’t show against the intense morning sun, but I caught glimpses of it a few times. Woodpeckers don’t usually come so low, so close to the ground and us human creatures. They’re notoriously shy, despite their noisy presentation, so I was glad to see this guy at eye level.

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The sanctuary had been transformed for our Palm Sunday celebration. The dry branches of Lent gave way to deep green palms, potted plants, lighted lanterns, setting the garden scene beautifully as we walked into the sanctuary. 

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We’ve been creating our own lectionary this year, moving through the gospel of John since last September. John doesn’t tell the story of the triumphal entry; he enjoys playing with the timeline, shifting the emphasis, creating a beautiful, literary, deeply theological gospel. He puts the table-turning — an event which follows right after the palm procession in the other gospels — way back in chapter two, establishing early the picture of a muscular savior, moving steadily towards his final glory, on that hill outside the city gate.

This week, this beginning of Holy Week, we were at chapter 18 and standing with Jesus in the garden. That garden of prayer and betrayal and arrest, a scene painted in strokes of agony and grief and failure by the other story-tellers in our New Testament. But John? He gives us such a different picture! Jesus has prayed for all of us in the preceding chapter, a prayer for his friends and for us. So there is no praying in this garden scene. Instead of sweating-drops-of-blood, we meet a take-charge Jesus, a man who knows his destiny and strides toward it with commitment and energy. 

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It’s a seminal moment, this meet-up between Jesus and the soldiers. The soldiers who were led there by one of Jesus’s own. And Jesus meets them head-on, asking a clear question: 

“Who are you looking for?”

Two times he asks. And two times, they answer, “Jesus, the Nazarene.” Each time, he says clearly, “I am he.” The second time, he even adds these words: “If it’s me you’re after, let these others go. . .” releasing his disciples. In John’s version, they do not flee, they are set free.

They are set free!

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Peter — of course,  it would be Peter! — whips out his trusty sword and cuts of the ear of the servant of the Chief Priest. And Jesus will have none of it. NONE. He turns and says ferociously, “Do you think I will not drink this cup? This cup given by my Father?”

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This is one strong dude here. A man who sees his future clearly and embraces it, suffering and all. Not because he is a glutton for punishment; not because the Father is a sadist of some sort; not because the forces of Rome and religion are victorious and he is a loser. NO. 

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Those who arrest him, even he who betrays him — these are not the enemies in John’s rendition. They are the necessary implements who put God’s redemptive work into action, the players who take Jesus down that road to the cross and eventually, to another garden. The EASTER garden. The one where we learn the powerful truth that we are indeed free. Free at last!

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In John’s telling, Jesus is Christus victor, the one who triumphs over sin, death, the grave. Over brokenness, betrayal, pain. Over anxiety, depression, illness of all kinds. Over it all. 

And he does it without flinching, without second-guessing, without question. 

For me, this year, this is the picture I need. It is yet another reason why I am so deeply grateful for all four of our gospel accounts, for their unique vision, purpose, structure, story-telling.

Some  years, I need to read about Gethsemane — to weep with Jesus, to pray fervently, to try to stay awake, to be faithful.

But this year?

This year, I need to hear Jesus say, “Who are you looking for?”  And I need Jesus to tell me I am released — I am set free, I am blameless. And I need Jesus to model for me courage and commitment and unflinching resignation — no, scratch that. Unflinching welcome of the pain that lies before him.

An embrace of the dying that is to come, looking ever forward to RESURRECTION.

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Headed into surgery on this foot in early June to repair (hopefully) a badly torn tendon
and to break and reset a congenitally off center heel bone.)

I need to hear the “I am,” the clear, calm cry of identity that John puts into the mouth of our savior at least eight times throughout his gospel. “I am” — he tells those who will listen — I am the living water, the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate for the sheep, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way the truth and the life, the vine.

And here, right here in that last garden?  “I am,” says Jesus. “I am the one you seek.” 

That old, strong, breath-filled name that the God of Israel gave to Moses. That name that could not be spoken, but only breathed. That name, that name. “I am.”

Oh, Jesus.

Be the “I am” in my life!

Stride right through the pain and confusion, the uncertainty and the fear, the injury and the hard work of breaking and mending. Help me to see you, strong and steady. Help me to hear you, clear and calm. Help me to know you, to know you.

To see and remember the beauty of the roses, the joyous abandon of the dolphins, the cheerful tapping of the woodpecker, the green beauty of the palm fronds, the flickering lamps of the soldiers, and your gift of freedom and release to those who are your friends.

Thank you that you call me exactly that, your friend. I’m counting on that.

 

My deep thanks to Don Johnson, Jon Lemmond, Bob Gross, Martha Johnson, Jeanne Heckman and every member of the worship team and the office/administrative staff who contributed to yesterday’s celebration. I look forward to the events of this whole week because of your dedication and creativity. 

Let the Alleluias Begin! A Photo Essay

It rained on Easter Sunday, gentle but insistent,
washing the air, watering the earth,
catching our attention.

The sun did not break through until late in the afternoon,
and somehow, it felt absolutely right for this particular Easter celebration day.

I have stepped back into leadership during this Lenten season,
enjoying the familiar rhythms of leading weekly communion services.
Services that are liturgical, yet at the same time, informal and friendly.

 Our congregation enjoys the aesthetic contributions of a small group
of thoughtful, talented women
who work with the preaching pastors to provide
a worship environment that encourages us to better
focus on the Word offered on a particular Sunday,
or throughout a season.
All during Lent this year,
we were reminded of the journey
by a simple purple drape on the cross
and a large urn,
filled with bare branches.

On Palm Sunday, those branches were visible above the array of color
provided by palm fronds and fabric.

On Maundy Thursday, they were visible on the back altar table,
behind the richly purple setting on the front table.

 On Good Friday, they disappeared,
along with every other usual object in the chancel —
the baptismal font and table removed,
the pulpit shrouded.
And on the side shelves, where greenery usually flourishes,
only these upended wooden boxes, draped
in dark fabric like the cross.

And then came Easter!

Those bare branches?
Now richly flowering.
The purple drape on the cross?
Replaced with shining white.
Those stark wooden boxes?
Filled to overflowing with
lilies, waving their brilliant faces across the front of the sanctuary.

 

 A glorious feast of white and gold,
the Christ candle tall and stately in the center of it all.

 Shaking rainwater off of coats and jackets, worshipers filled the sanctuary
earlier than usual.
Almost on cue, they began to settle into their seats,
quiet their conversations and ready themselves to worship.
We began where we left on Friday.
That night the plaintive sounds of  “Were You There?”
filled a dark room, and everyone left in silence.

On Sunday morning, the lights dimmed,
as the room filled once again with the sounds of that old song,
this time in the lilting soprano of a high school senior.

 As she sang, our pastor came slowly down the center aisle,
lit candle in hand,
arriving at the Christ candle as the song came to its end.

And as the Light is lit,
the alleluias begin — full lights,
drums, trumpets, oboe, voices and glorious, glorious music.
“Christ is Risen!”
“He is risen, indeed!”

I don’t know that I’ve ever been more grateful to say those words
than I was this year.
One of our founding members, now in her 90’s,
declared this the finest Easter celebration she has ever experienced.
And I’d have to agree with her.

One of the lovely events that added layers of meaning to the day
was the baptism of the infant daughter
of our former Director of Children’s Ministries.
Following the tradition of the early church
(and the contemporary Catholic church, as well),
we folded small Anastasia (whose name means ‘to live again’)
into the family of God on Easter Sunday, trusting that the work of the Holy Spirit
will be real in her life as she grows to claim
the name of Jesus for herself.

Jon and I read the words together,
asking the age-old questions of parents and people,

dripping the water on her small head,

offering words of blessing to this babe and her family.

And then,  Jon carried the church’s newest member
up and down the aisles, introducing her to her new family,
while we all sang, “Children of the Heavenly Father.”

Jon’s sermon was strong and true,
spoken from the heart with illustrations my visiting
grandsons could enjoy.

It was a magnificent way to begin the Easter Feast.

 And then our smaller-than-usual family group continued the feasting
gathered around our table, as the rain fell gently outside.

Our oldest daughter, her husband and three fine sons
joined my husband, my mother and me to break the fast of Lent
and celebrate the Risen Lord.

The salad course was first,
followed by barbecued salmon,
cheesy potatoes,
a divine quinoa side dish that Lisa has added to our repertoire,
and baked asparagus with a balsamic glaze.

Even our resident vegan ate enough to require a little resting between courses!

These three young men have had a more difficult life than most their age.
They lost their dad after a long, lingering and difficult illness.
It is good to see them happy as a family,
with Karl and Lisa giving good direction and
providing a living model of redemption in that home.
There can be resurrection in this life of ours —
we remember this truth every time we are with them.

 Fourteen-year-old Joel is our resident baker/chef and he created this
stunning coconut cake to cap off the day.
It tasted even better than it looks,
and it looks divine!

Poppy got a candle in his piece,
because he celebrated a birthday that was
pretty much lost in the shuffle of Holy Week activities.

The candle that was lit at the beginning of our worship,
was also lit in the center of our dining room table.
And as the afternoon clouds moved slowly away,
the blueness of sunshine-after-rain
seemed a fitting and celebratory way
to finish off the feast.

Christ is risen!
He is risen, indeed! 

Joining this longer than usual picture-essay with Michelle, Jen, Laura and Jennifer

 


Scandalous, Extravagant Love — A Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Lent

Scandalous, Extravagant Love
a sermon preached at Montecito Covenant Church
Sunday, March 17, 2013
by Diana R.G. Trautwein

(If you prefer to hear rather than read a sermon, the podcast for this will be available late in the day on Thursday, March 21, 2013 at www.mcchurch.org under “Resources”)

We’ve heard the word of the Lord from the prophet Isaiah and the apostle Paul. Now it’s time to hear it from John. Today, I invite all who are able, to stand for the reading of the gospel. And though I do encourage you to turn to chapter 12 in your pew Bibles, or in the Bibles you’ve brought with you today, I’d like to ask that you listen to it now. I’ll be reading from The New Living Translation.

Hear the good news from John 12:1-8:

                                   Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the
                                   home of Lazarus—the man he had raised from the dead. A dinner was  prepared
                                   in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate with him.
                                   Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of
                                   nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair. The house
                                   was filled with the fragrance. But Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon
                                   betray him, said, “That perfume was worth a year’s wages. It should have been
                                   sold and the money given to the poor.” Not that he cared for the poor — he was
                                   a thief, and since he was in charge of the disciples’ money, he often stole some
                                   for himself. Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my
                                   burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.                                 

The gospel of the Lord.

You may be seated.

I don’t know whether it’s the arrival of daylight saving’s time or the early beginning date for Ash Wednesday, but somehow, Lent seems to be flying by this year. I don’t often say that, you know. Lent sometimes feels endless to me, six long weeks of plodding my way through the wilderness, of not singing, ‘hallelujahs,’ of giving something up or adding something on, of getting ready for the events of Holy Week. But here we are: one week from Palm Sunday, on our calendars — only one day away on John’s.

This little vignette happens just before the triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. And Jesus is deliberately not in the city. Because at the end of the preceding chapter — the one in which Jesus commands Lazarus to, ‘come out!’ from the tomb, four days after the man died — there is a lot of buzz going on about him, and about Lazarus, too.

There were a lot of witnesses to this miraculous stripping away of the bonds of death from Jesus’ friend Lazarus. All those who came to help the sisters mourn — who were with Mary and Martha when their brother died — they saw what happened. And they were blown away by it. Many of them followed after Jesus — John tells us that they ‘put their faith in him.’ But a few, well a few of them went to the Pharisees. . .who went to the High Priests. . .who called an emergency session of the ruling council to talk about this remarkable feat.

And in the verses just before our story for today, Caiphas, the highest of the high priests, spoke these prophetic words: “It is better that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” Apparently, this latest Jesus-deed was terrifying to them, so terrifying, that they immediately began to intently plot and plan for his death.

So Jesus removed himself from public view for a little while. In the meantime, the people who were gathering in the temple court, getting ready for the festival of Passover –they were looking for him, wondering where he was. And the high mucky-mucks? Oh yes, they were looking for him, too.

And Jesus? Well, Jesus went to a dinner party.

It’s interesting to me how often Jesus is eating dinner or somehow referencing food in the gospels. We’ve got parables about salt and yeast, and mustard seeds and banquets. Jesus miraculously feeds large crowds of people, he is criticized for eating and drinking with sinners and for not forcing his disciples to fast. He dines at Peter’s home, and more than once, at the home of the siblings we see today — Mary, Martha, Lazarus. And of course, he uses the imagery of the Passover feast to describe what his own death means. As Jon’s quote from N.T. Wright last week put it, “Jesus didn’t give his disciples a theory about the cross; he gave them a meal.”

So with all these pieces of background in mind, let’s look at this eight verse section a little bit more closely and see what we can glean from the story before us this morning.

The scene is a party, a party honoring Jesus. Maybe it’s a big thank-you feast, with Jesus as the honored guest, and Lazarus as one of his tablemates. Lazarus, the dead man brought back to life — yeah, that guy — he’s right there, eating and drinking and whoopin’ it up with the rest of the gang.

You’ll note that Martha — well, Martha is serving the dinner. That’s familiar information, if you’ve read Luke’s gospel, very familiar. You may remember that Luke talks about these sisters as two sides of one coin — one busy and distracted (that would be Martha), scrambling around to make and serve dinner; the other quiet and reflective (that would be Mary), sitting in the position of a disciple, at the feet of Jesus. And here in John, we think we’re hearing a snippet of the same kind of song — yet I see no judgment or critique of Martha’s role here.

John, you see, has already told us that dear Martha is no slouch in the theology department. She is the one, the insightful disciple, who boldly tells Jesus — even before he raises her brother from the dead — “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” Not bad for a worker bee, not bad at all.

So, the three siblings: Lazarus is at table with Jesus, Martha is busy carrying hot dishes in from the kitchen, and Mary?

Where is Mary anyhow?

Ah yes — once again, Mary is at the feet of Jesus.

But oh, my goodness, this is a brazen woman! In the ancient middle east, women did not enter the public dining space of the house when men were eating, unless they were carrying food, like Martha was. Martha’s presence was legit. But Mary’s? Not at all.

In fact, just coming into the room would have been offensive and questionable in that time and that place. But what she does next? The only word for it is this one — scandalous.

She takes an extremely expensive vial of perfumed oil, she breaks the top off, and she pours it all over Jesus, most specifically all over his feet. The very place where she went to listen and to learn.

Those feet that trudged up and down the long,
dusty roads between Jerusalem and Galilee.
Those feet that went into the byways of small country villages,
into the synagogues and the temple court,
into the homes of his friends,
up into the hills
and out onto the boats,
and across the landscape of the land
carrying the body of the Lord, the Teacher,
the Healer, the Beloved of God,
carrying him into the lives of the people of Palestine.

Those feet that Mary loved.

She poured this gift liberally, spreading its beautiful fragrance all through the house, infecting everyone gathered there with that scent, that scent of love and sacrifice and extravagance.

And then, she did the unthinkable — she untied her hair, and she leaned over those feet, and she wiped the oil right into all the cracks and crevices, anointing him with this precious stuff, this imported, expensive, strong, sweet stuff. Such an intimate act, and such a shocking one.

I don’t know if it’s even possible for us to grasp just how scandalous this was. A woman in 1st century Palestine could be divorced if she was ever seen in public with her hair down. To use it to wipe the feet of an adult male? Unheard of.

Mary’s act is a scandal. And according to Judas, it was also a disgrace, an ethical failure, a misappropriation of funds. A waste.

And Jesus cuts him off, right then, right there.

“Leave her alone!”

Down from the soapbox, Judas. Stop your moralizing and take another look at what’s really happening here. Do you see this woman, this friend, this disciple of mine? She is sitting right square in the center of God’s will, in the center of my life right now. Mary has been paying attention, really listening to me. And this generous gift she’s given? It’s the most perfectly appropriate thing she could have done: she is getting me ready, she is marking me, anointing me –not in the usual way, not in celebration, not to mark a festive occasion — but to prepare me to die.

To prepare Jesus to die. This scandalous, extravagant gift had one primary purpose: to mark the physical body of Jesus with the promise of death.

Kings were anointed before their coronation. Jesus is anointed before his death, which will be, as we now know, the opening of that final door to the Kingdom of God. The cross, that place of paradoxical humiliation and glory, of strange and wonderful, upside-down power, of scandalous, extravagant love.

“The poor,” Jesus says to Judas, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”

Mary and Judas stand in such stark contrast in this small story, don’t they?

Which one are you?
Which one am I?

My guess is, we’ve got a bit of both goin’ on. My guess is, it’s that Judas bit in us that keeps us from fully embracing the Mary side that’s struggling to be free. It’s the phony moral outrage that trumps the passionate embrace. It’s the self-righteous judgmentalism that supersedes the intuitive sensibilities. It’s the sneak thief that pushes the empathic encourager into the background.

It is Mary in this story who sees and tells the truth.
It is Mary in this story who makes her love for the Lord visible and tangible.
It is Mary in this story who pays attention to what’s really going on.

And it is Mary who is strong enough on the inside to do something scandalous, and extravagant and real on the outside.

And you know what I think? Despite John’s extra details about betrayal and thievery, I have a hunch Judas wasn’t all that different from a lot of us church folk. He was part of the inner circle, after all. He was privy to the private lessons, the extended discussions, the uneasiness of the disciples about where Jesus was headed. He was on the inside.

But he wasn’t paying attention.

Maybe he was too busy with his own agenda. Maybe he completely misunderstood who Jesus was. Maybe he wanted to control outcomes, to manipulate the Lord into doing what Judas thought was best.

Whatever it was, Judas was tied to a lie, unable, maybe even unwilling, to see the truth that was right there in front of him. Judas had not built an inner life that had space for empathy or insight or loving response.

It is Mary who is the model disciple in this story, the one who both listens to and acts on the commandments of the Lord. You remember those? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus was both, wasn’t he? The Lord her God, and her neighbor.

Here’s the piece that we must not miss here, my friends. Jesus tells us that he continues to show up in our neighbors. “If you do it unto the least of these,” he says, “you do it unto me.”

Staying close to the heart of Jesus necessarily means staying close to our neighbors. Staying in tune with the God of Love means offering that love to others. Paying attention to what Jesus teaches brings insight, intuitive responsiveness, genuine empathy and acts of love.

Sitting at the feet of Jesus will always lead to pouring out the fragrant oil on those very same, very dusty, very real feet. They go together, two halves of a whole, two sides of the equation, two parallel, intertwined pathways leading to the same destination.

It is also true that sitting at the feet of Jesus may very well lead us into some scary, risky places. Learning to be in tune with Jesus could bring us to make a wild leap once in a while, to do the unexpected — maybe even the unacceptable, but oh-so-deeply loving thing. Because sitting at the feet of Jesus will always involve a shocking amount of wild and crazy love.

Because the feet that were nailed to that cross are the most perfect picture of Love this world has ever seen. And sitting by those scarred feet will lead us down, down, down into the very heart of our God, where we will know that love is, and always has been, the only answer that makes any sense of anything.

And when that happens, when that downward, deepening, true knowing about love happens — the world moves.

I tell you, the world moves.

Pray with me:

Oh, Lord — will you move the world through us?
Draw us to those feet of yours, help us to sit still long enough to listen,
to understand, and to experience your love.
Then send us out to pour scandalously expensive love on the feet of others.
And when we do, to see you there, to see your eyes shining back at us.
Help us to be you, and help us to see you.
St. Teresa used to say that you have no other hands but ours —
will you help us to give these hands, and these hearts,
and these feet to you, Lord?
To you. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Maybe you’re sensing today that pull inside,
that downward pull to the heart of love, the pull that will
always bring you to the feet of Jesus.
And maybe, just to sort of cement that awakening in your spirit,
you need to take a risk.
And dear friends, in this particular community,
sometimes the riskiest thing we can do
is to step out, in front of God and everybody, and just say, ‘yes.’
So Pastor Jon and Anna will be here in the front to hear your ‘yes,’
to pray with you if you wish prayer, to encourage you to let the Mary in you
come out into the light. We’re going to sing a litte, and you can come right then,
if you’re feeling especially brave; but they’ll both be here after the benediction, too,
so you may come whenever you wish. But, I say to you,
as kindly and lovingly as I can, if the Spirit is drawing you, come. 

Joining this much-longer-than-usual-blogpost with Laura, Jen, Michelle, Jenn and who knows who else I might think of. . .

 


MercyMondays150

Reflections on Mortality and Holy Week

 It only lasts a minute, maybe two.

That sense of stepping off a cliff –
when a lump rises in your throat,
and immediately catapults into your stomach. 

Or maybe it’s more like being blind-sided by a phantom,
a phantom with snarling breath that blows down the back of your collar 
and frizzes the ends of your hair.
You can be living your ordinary, everyday life – 
driving the car, for instance.
Or having lunch with someone you love.
Or resting after minor surgery. 
And wham! It hits you like a bracing splash of ice water:
death happens everywhere.
We are surrounded by it, 
entangled in it,
bewitched by it. 
And most of the time, we are oblivious.
Quite intentionally so, I believe.
We cover it up,
tuck it away,
move it aside.
And we do that with all kinds of things, 
in all kinds of ways.
We do it with food,
or alcohol,
or television,
or reading,
or even – gasp! – writing. 
It’s the spectre on everyone’s horizon,
the uninvited guest at the table,
the devilish imp around every corner. 

And we don’t want to see it.
And much of the time, we don’t.
We don’t

But then, you turn just a little,
and you cast a glance over the wrong shoulder,
you catch a glimpse 
just there – 
off to the side – 
and the rawness of it socks you in the gut. 
Two sisters, having lunch. 
Best of friends, longtime traveling companions,
singing life’s song together for over 85 years.
You stop to take a picture – 
and you see it.
Just there, in the sagging skin.
Or there, in the squinting struggle to see something –
anything that’s recognizable.
Or to the right – see it? – the big red walker,
just there,
the one that carries the frail, flailing, failing body
slowly and carefully from place to place.
And you know:
it won’t be long now.

Or you take a little drive,
off to find a new dress for a 90-year-old.
You go down familiar streets,
remarking on changes made here and there.
And then – there it is.
The shabby motel where he lived,
your youngest brother,
the one who hid so well –
who hid the drinking and the illness and the shame,
the one who died, far too young.
Over there –  
just there – 
lurking by the office,
just down from the dark, dank corridor
of his room – you spot it.
And your stomach clenches,
your eyes fill ever so briefly,
your breath catches
between the pleasantries you speak. 
Or you’re driving home from the dentist
after a routine surgical procedure,
and your face begins to pound and swell.
Within hours, you look like a prize-fighter,
so you pile in the car for some urgent care.
And you see it again!
Just there,
in the bright red gauze,
the deepening purple of bruise,
the slow, constant tender aching.
No longer a wraith, but a sharp, clear reflection
in the window pane behind the surgeon’s worried face. 
The ever-present visitor that no one
wants to see, to wrestle with, even to acknowledge:
we all age;
we all die. 

For these intimations of mortality are all around us,
constant reminders of the ephemeral nature of our
sojourn on this planet.
No one escapes,
no one is immune,
no one is immortal. 

But then…

Holy Week arrives,
right in the middle of the muddle,
amid the weariness of watching death in action, 
inexorable and overwhelming. 

 And a tiny green thing begins to wriggle its way 
to the surface of your soul.
A sprig, really.
A small, tender shoot of hope and life. 
Because somehow,
in the very middle of death itself,
there is this ever-growing wick of light.
As we follow the story 
to the upper room,
to the garden,
to the house of the high priest,
to the halls of Herod and Pilate,
through the narrow winding streets
of the city,
up that pathway marked by the blood of Jesus himself –
even there…
even there.

There is a whiff of green, a scent of spring. 
EVEN THIS, Jesus knows.
This sinking queasiness, this revelation and recognition
that death is an unavoidable part of life –
Jesus has been here, too.
Jesus has been here ahead of us.
And Jesus walks with us when the 
dark, shadowy fears show up and torment us.
Even this, Jesus knows.


So today, and tomorrow, and the next day…
I want to shelter this bit of life amid the ashes;
I want to water it with my tears,
and nourish it with my songs of thanksgiving.
And then I want to position it  
just there,
where the sunlight, 
streaming forth from the empty tomb,
can help it to grow strong and true,
always and forever stretching toward the Light.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.”
1 Peter 1:3-4
Joining with Michelle at Graceful and Jennifer and the Soli Deo Gloria Sisterhood at Finding Heaven and the generous Kimberly at Journey to Epiphany, who is temping for Emily Weirenga for a while. I’ll also join it to the Lauras, even though it’s not a particularly playful post nor is it so much about a place physical as a place emotional and spiritual. And with Ann V, too. (Although I can never get her button to work here.)


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