Midweek Service: Mary & Martha — With Our Whole Selves

I think I have recovered enough decent old sermons to continue this series through the summer. Each week, I’ll also include a photo of one of the stained or painted glass windows in St. Vitus’s Cathedral in the city of Prague. Most of these sermons are dated, a few are not exact, but I can estimate the time frame in which they were originally preached. This one comes from the two-year interim period while we searched for a new Senior Pastor AND engaged in a massive building campaign that had been on the books for almost a dozen years. Our worship center (we met in a gym for over ten years) and office complex had to be completed by a certain date or we faced the re-submission and approval process which in Santa Barbara can take years. It was a season of flux and transition. It was also a season of remembering who we were as the people of God in this place.

Made to Matter: People Who Partnered with God Sermon Series
Mary & Martha: With Our Whole Selves
 Luke 10 & John 11 & 12
October 5, 2003
Montecito Covenant Church

Let’s see. . . since we began our fall preaching series on September 7th – that wonderful morning when we broke ground for the project that is now unfolding all around us – we’ve spent our sermon time each week looking at such great biblical characters as Barnabas and Paul, the apostle Peter, those 3 boys in the furnace  described in the book of Daniel, and last week, another trio from the Old Testament, Moses and Aaron and Hur.

In fact, we’ve discovered a whole bunch of fascinating and encouraging guys to learn from over the past four weeks.  And we’ve learned some good and helpful things as we continue to discover what it means to follow God into unknown territory during this time of transition and change here at Montecito Covenant Church. But today, in just a tiny change of direction, I think maybe it’s time we looked at a couple of the women in scripture who partnered with God. Seems truly appropriate to do so today, in good keeping  with the theme of the morning, which has something to do with finding and maintaining good balance in our lives.

Greg has read for you a brief section of scripture from the gospel of Luke – the first story in the New Testament about a couple of sisters who were very important in the life and ministry of Jesus when he walked this earth.  Their names are Martha and Mary, and I believe these two women from a long time ago can help us wrestle with one of the most important truths we’ll ever need to learn as followers of Jesus Christ.

And that truth is this: when we choose to enter into relationship with the Great God of the Universe by means of the pathway God himself has given us – the pathway that Jesus carved out with sweat and blood and death and resurrection – when we choose that relationship, we are invited, we are taught, we are requested, we are urged to choose it with our whole selves – with all of who we are.

And in the process of living out that whole-self relationship, we are reminded by the Word of God, and by the life of Jesus, and by the mistakes and the successes of God’s people as told to us in Holy Scripture – we are reminded that living the Christian life with our whole selves is not a particularly easy thing to do.

And why isn’t it easy?

Because we’re a messy, sometimes thoughtless, sometimes frazzled, sometimes thoroughly distracted bunch of people.  Because we so often miss the point, get our priorities out of whack, allow ourselves to be hijacked by the culture in which we live, a culture that surely doesn’t go out of its way to encourage us to be whole people, living a life that is equally rich in activity and in quietness, in busyness and in stillness, in doing and being or – as Karen reminded us with her two hats earlier this morning – in acting and thinking.

Because sometimes, to be perfectly honest, we simply don’t get it.  We don’t see why we need to choose ‘the better way’ as Mary is described as doing in the story before us today.  In fact, we’re often not convinced that her way is the better way.  Why should we sit on the floor at anyone’s feet when we could be up and moving, bustling about, accomplishing something.

In fact, I’m willing to wager that a goodly number of you – if you were really honest about this – might agree with me that Martha has gotten kind of a bum rap over the years.  I mean, be real.  Haven’t you always heard this story told in such a way that Martha comes off as the prototypical busybody, A-type personality who’s a little bit dense when it comes to the ‘really important’ thing that Mary has chosen to do?

Sweet, pliant, passive Mary – praised to the skies because she sits on her rear while all the work is being done.  Be honest here, hasn’t that thought ever occurred to you when you’ve read or heard this story?  Well – here’s my ‘honest’ response to the story before us today – and this ‘honest’ take comes in somewhat equal parts from both my own thinking and wrestling with this story over many years and from some of the scholarly reading and reflecting that I’ve done this past week.  Here’s what I think about it all:

Martha is a trooper, in my book.

We’re told that she’s the owner of the home to which Jesus has come for dinner – and that’s a fairly unusual thing in 1st century Palestine – that a woman should be a property owner.  That makes her interesting to me right from the get-go.  And homeowner Martha has extended her wonderful gifts of hospitality to Jesus and she’s doing her hostess thing –  the good thing, the right thing, the expected thing.  She’s fixing a meal, she’s setting a table, she’s timing the meat and the side dishes so that nothing’s too hot or too cold when the food is spread.  She’s workin’ it – apron around her waist, sweat in her hairline, doing her darnedest to make things nice for the visiting rabbi.

And she’s doing it all by herself.

She doesn’t live here alone, you know.  She has a sister – undoubtedly a younger sister – one who seems to have sort of a ‘crush’ on Jesus.  There she is, sitting on the floor at his feet – just like she was a real student of his!  And Jesus is allowing it, even seems to be enjoying this conversation with a woman, treats her like she might have a brain in her head.  But nonetheless, she is just sitting there.

So I’m not at all surprised that our friend Martha begins to mutter under her breath all the while she’s stirring the pots and setting the table.  “I do, and do and do for you people, and this is the thanks I get???” And I am intrigued by the fact that she then proceeds to say those mutterings out loud, and directs them to . . .Jesus.  Not to her slack-off sister, but to the rabbi himself.  She’s no coward, that’s for sure.  She seems to feel sure enough about her own relationship with Jesus to speak the truth – to share her feelings and her concerns.

And here’s the kicker for me in this story – Jesus is really so kind to her with his answer.  Contrary to many interpretations of this little story, I don’t think Jesus is rapping Martha across the knuckles here.  He loves the fact that Martha is doing something nice for him, that she is welcoming him to her home with food and drink and festivity.

We know from so many other small stories in scripture that Jesus himself was a great host – a person who loved to welcome others and to provide for their physical needs.  And we also know that Jesus loved a good dinner party – had quite a reputation in some quarters as a bit of a party animal, if the truth be told.  So as he responds to Martha’s outburst, he calls her by name – twice.  “Martha, Martha. . .” which is a lot like saying, as the New Living Translation puts it,  “My dear Martha.”

Martha, my friend, one that I love – these details are killing you!  Let them go.  Just let them go.  I know your meal will be excellent.  I thank you for your care for me.  But . . . listen to me, my love.  All of this hustle and bustle is just wearing you out.  There’s more than enough for all of us to eat.  Come, sit down for a while.  Mary, bless her heart – she’s made a discovery today – a wonderful discovery.  She’s found the most nourishing thing to do today and that’s to sit and listen to me, to talk to me, to learn from me, to be with me.  Come, my friend.  You do the same.  We’ll all eat soon enough and we’ll love every bite of your beautiful meal.

That is the spirit of this brief couple of sentences.  There is no condemnation in Jesus’ words – there is just a little bit of gentle pushing, a tiny, very careful attempt at re-focusing Martha’s attention on the most important thing about the day – being with her guest.

It is basically a call to Martha to be a whole person, fully engaged with all of who she is in her relationship with Jesus.  Her generous service is welcome and gratefully received.  But the personal interaction is what is missing.  Sweating in the kitchen is leading to Martha’s being burned out and burned up.  She’s tired and she’s resentful – a deadly combination when it comes to relationship-building.

But . . . here’s what I don’t want us to miss here:  she tells Jesus about it!

She doesn’t just keep on muttering to herself, growing ever angrier and more bitter.  No, she unloads it on the Lord.  Now it is quite true she doesn’t get quite the response she thinks she wants!  She thinks she wants Jesus to make things ‘fair,’ to get Mary off the floor and into the kitchen.  But what she truly wants – and Jesus, of course, knows this – what she truly wants and what she truly needs, is to get out of the kitchen and down onto the floor  – right there with her sister.

When I am working hard – when I am working too hard, to be more exact – I can so completely understand what Martha is feeling in this story.  Especially if I’m working and someone else isn’t.  I did this with my kids when they were growing up, I do it with my husband and my friends more often than I like, and I’m increasingly aware that I even do it sometimes when I’m all by myself.

I see something that needs doing – a good thing, a necessary thing,  a hospitable thing, a thing that I know God would want me to do.  And I. . . bury myself in it.

I don’t look for the simplest way to do the thing, in fact I often get just a little bit hung up on doing it well enough that others will be suitably impressed.

And then, somewhere in the middle of it all, it gets twisted around somehow.  And in addition to wanting to impress others, I also want them to know just how hard I am working.

And not only that, I want them to feel badly about how just how hard I am working.

And not only that, but I can very quickly move into a really sad  ‘poor pitiful me’ mood and you truly do not want to be around when that happens!

Does this ever happen to you?

Well, let’s both learn a little something from Martha here.  The next time we begin this downward spiral that moves from doing something good and worthwhile, to overdoing that something for the wrong reasons, to feeling really sorry for ourselves while we’re overdoing, to blaming others and inviting them into our misery . . . let’s do what Martha did.  Let’s take our sad and hurt feelings directly to the one who will listen with compassion.  Let’s tell Jesus about it.

And let’s try to quiet ourselves just enough so that we can hear his answer to us, which is very likely to be one like this: ”My dear one. . . chill out.  Sit down a minute.  Be quiet inside.  Let me lead you with love to a better place, a place where all of who you are is invited and involved, a place where you can serve me in healthy, wholehearted ways and a place where you can simply be with me, as the prophet Isaiah said ‘in quietness and in confidence.’

Martha is not the villain of this piece.  She is the center of the story and she does learn a powerful lesson – at least we hope she does.  This story doesn’t actually tell us if that’s the case.  But the apostle John takes up these same characters in chapters 11 and 12 of his gospel – and there we learn that both sisters have learned something from this encounter with Jesus the night he comes to dinner.

Interestingly enough, Luke places his story about Martha and Mary right in the middle of a whole section of his gospel where he is talking about what it means to be a disciple, one who learns, one who follows a master teacher.  And these two women are there, without a lot of fanfare, just there – as disciples of Jesus.

John takes this truth even further in his retelling of a couple of very important events that happen just the week before Jesus dies.  Martha and Mary have a brother named Lazarus, John tells us.  And they are all close friends of Jesus and his inner circle of followers.  They live in a little town called Bethany, which is on the way to Jerusalem.  Word comes to Jesus and his crew that Lazarus is very, very ill.  Several days later, Jesus arrives at Bethany – and he learns that Lazarus has been in the grave for four days.  Martha hears that Jesus is near to the house – and in typical Martha fashion, she races out to meet him.  And she greets him with a grief-stricken accusation:  “If you had been here, our brother would not have died!”

And then she and Jesus engage in a really interesting conversation – a conversation of vital importance to all of the disciples’ growing understanding of who Jesus really is.  The result of their dialog is that Martha makes a wonderful proclamation of truth about Jesus:  “You are the Messiah,” she says, “the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.”

Martha nails it – she preaches it – she runs back to the house to tell her sister that Jesus has come.

And very soon, they both will witness the amazing miracle of their brother being raised from the dead.  Martha becomes the one who learns . . .and she also becomes the one who proclaims!  Martha is learning to be in relationship with Jesus as a whole person, with her whole self – her serving, action-oriented self and her thinking, learning, reflective self.

And what about Mary?

In the next chapter, Jesus is once again at the home of his friends.   And, once again, Martha is serving him dinner.  But Mary is not off in the corner sitting on the floor this time.  No.  Mary is doing something in this story – she is doing something amazing, something surprising – even shocking.

She comes to Jesus at the dinner table, she opens a jar of very expensive perfume. . . and she pours it over his feet.  Then she loosens her hair – something seldom done in that time and place – and she wipes the oil off his feet.  The whole house fills with the sweetness of the perfume and Jesus commends her for this act of service, this act of love, this act of sacrifice.

For Mary realizes – as no one else seems to – that Jesus will soon be dead.  Maybe that’s something she learned while she was sitting at Jesus’ feet that day – who knows?  But somehow, in some quiet, open-hearted way, she has discovered the truth at the very heart of Jesus’ ministry on earth:  that he came here to die, for our sakes.  And Mary acts on that truth.  Like her sister, Mary becomes a whole-hearted disciple, one who relates to Jesus with all of who she is – her quiet, reflective self, and her loving, serving, acting self — her whole self.

And if we are to be in relationship with Jesus in this way – as whole persons, fully engaged in both service and silence, in both acting and thinking, in both doing and being – we must make space in our lives for both Martha and Mary.  Both gifts are needed, both parts of our selves are invited to the table.

Does the Martha in you tend to crowd out the Mary?  Do you too often find yourself buried by work, by good work, by God’s work . . . only to find yourself disconnected from God himself?  Then, as we come to this table today, invite Mary to join you.  Make a little space inside for listening and learning.

Or does the Mary in you find plenty of room for expression?  Are you able to be quiet easily, sometimes too easily?  Do you rely on your quiet nature too much sometimes, trusting yourself to be where you think you need to be spiritually rather than trusting God to fill you with power and strength so that you can also do the work to which he has called you?  If that is true of you today, then I urge you to create some space for Martha next to you at the table today.  Invite the more active part of yourself to fully engage in fruitful, meaningful service in Jesus’ name.

God has called us by name and we are his.  All of who we are is his.

Let’s take our whole selves to God in prayer.

Gracious and loving God, father of our Lord Jesus Christ and our Father,
we come to you today acknowledging our need to live fully for you,
to live as whole people in your presence and in this world.
Help us always to choose the most needful thing
of being with you to listen and to learn.
But also help us to use the gifts you’ve given us
to serve you and to serve the world.
We pray this in the name of Jesus,
who modeled for us a life wholly lived,
a life fully lived,
a life lived with passionate action
and with quiet devotion.
Amen.

Midweek Service — “Waiting”

I am slowly reading through a stack of old sermons, editing, deciding which I would like to place here as a record-of-sorts, primarily for my family and friends. In honor of the many years when my family attended a midweek service (now just about completely extinct!), in the middle of each week, I’ll put one up in this space. I am hopeful that remembering where the Lord has met me in the Word over these years will speak again of love and power and healing — in my own life, first, and in the lives of others as well. These posts will be longer than most and will always include reference to the text(s) of the day.

This was a sermon given at my home church, the place where I was called out to ministry, about a year after a traumatic cleaving in the congregation and a time of waiting for what might come next. I am happy to report that in the four years since that time, they have found a pastor they love and who loves them, and God is doing good things in and through them all.

 

“WAITING. . . “
Mark 5:21-43 with Psalm 130 and Lamentations 3:23-33
Preached at Pasadena Covenant Church, June 28, 2009
By Diana R.G. Trautwein

Two stories, one twisted within the other.  Two stories, two women – one older, probably in the midst of what we today might call ‘the pause.’ One younger, just embarking on the journey to womanhood.  Twelve years of bleeding, twelve years of life.  All the usual resources exhausted for one, almost all hope gone for the other.  Both in desperate situations.  Both in need of a healing touch.  Both in need of a saving touch.  By the time they encounter Jesus, each of these unnamed female characters is…dead – the younger one, truly and physically dead – the older one, socially and communally dead – marked by her unceasing flow of blood as unclean, untouchable, unreachable.

One we meet in person – we watch her, sneaking up from the back of the crowd, wriggling her fingers up close to the traveling rabbi, wrapping them in just the very fringiest ends of one of the long tassels he wore.  One we meet first through her father – an important man, given a name by our storyteller.  A leader in his town, a man with a heightened sense of right and wrong, of clean and unclean, of all things good and righteous and holy, and all things not good, unrighteous, unholy.

Jesus and his disciples have just returned from a rather momentous journey across the Sea of Galilee, across that boundary line between the Gentile world and the Jewish world.  There has been a storm, a vicious, terrifying storm – and Jesus, by the power of his word and his will, has calmed the storm.

There has been a terrifying encounter with a crazy man – living like an animal, filled with demons of all kinds. a man beyond the pale of human community, without hope, without recourse.  And Jesus has met that man, met him with pity and with power – power to heal, to save, to transform.

And now, the boat is back.  The disciples are back.  Jesus is back.  And as the little ship slaps its way up onto the sandy shore, they are surrounded by a huge crowd, an eager crowd – pushing and shoving, wondering about this wonder man, watching to see just what he will do on this side of the sea.

Striding through that crowd is the figure of an important community member, a leader in the local synagogue, Jairus, by name.  And the first thing Jairus does is the last thing the demon-filled man had done – he falls at the feet of Jesus and begs him for something.  The demoniac on the far shore, with the voice of the demons who had fractured him for so long, begged Jesus to cease and desist.  The desperate father begs – over and over, our text tells us – for mercy, for healing, for salvation for his little girl, his much-loved daughter.  And Jesus says, “Sure!  I’ll come.”  And they turn and head in the direction of the man’s home.

But then…

And isn’t that just exactly what so much of life is like?  You’re heading in one direction quite often a really good direction, somewhere you are quite intentional about going, to do something that is a really good thing to be doing…

But then…

You’re busy raising a family, or you’re busy establishing yourself in a career, or you’re busy studying to get through school.  Maybe you’re sinking your roots in a community, or fixing your home into a place of welcome and respite…

But then…you lose your job or your investment portfolio heads dramatically south, or you lose your scholarship or student grant, or your spouse becomes frighteningly ill, or your marriage begins to unravel, or…And, all of a sudden – you are seriously interrupted.  You are forced to change direction.  You are required to take a step back, to look at what’s happening in the moment, and to wait, to see what the outcome of it all may be.

Imagine what that waiting felt like to the leader of the synagogue.  An important man, used to being treated with respect, even deference, humbling himself at the feet of a relatively unknown itinerant preacher/teacher/healer, taking immediate steps to accomplish what he had come to accomplish – and being stopped dead in his tracks by….this woman, this unclean, unwelcome, unacceptable…woman.

People pressing in on all sides, disciples skeptical of their own teacher, confusion in ascendance, and as the healer stops, turns, asks, “Who touched my clothes?”  This woman – the one everyone knew was trouble to be around – this woman – the one that Jesus should have known was not worth his time, this woman – the one awestruck by what has just happened inside her own body, this woman – who dares to tell the whole truth in a culture – much like our own! – where truth is not easy to come by and is often hard to hear, this woman – stops the whole parade.

And Jairus is forced to wait, on the sidelines, out of the spotlight, his concerns for his daughter momentarily forgotten while the rabbi engages in a time-consuming, highly personal, deeply transformative conversation with this woman.

“Daughter,” he calls her.  “Daughter,” folding her in with a single word.  The actual physical healing takes but an instant – a momentary exchange of power.  But the conversation, the truth-telling, the recognition, the inclusion, the blessing – ah, that is where the true miracle happens. And our storyteller gives us such rich detail, quiet commentary, instructive modeling as he describes it all for us.

Jairus is asked to wait – in the midst of an urgent, life-threatening situation – he is asked to wait…for a little while.  But the woman…Well, the woman knew a whole lot about waiting. Twelve years worth of waiting.  Waiting for doctors to be successful, waiting for the bleeding to stop, waiting for permission to rejoin her friends, her family, her worshipping community – for her symptoms required her to be on the outside of all the circles of her life.

Like so many stories of the Kingdom of God, these stories before us today are about insiders and outsiders – and about how unpredictable those definitions become when Jesus is the one doing the defining.  Like the later stories of The Prodigal Son, or the Good Samaritan – the ‘usual suspects’ become the true neighbor, the party-worthy son.  This woman becomes “daughter!”  The leader of the synagogue becomes the man on the edge of the crowd, waiting for Jesus to continue on the way.

I can’t tell you how many times in my ministry life I have said to people in trouble,  “I think that waiting is often the hardest thing that we’re ever asked to do as disciples of Jesus.”  It’s tough to wait in a surgical reception area.  It’s tough to wait for an addicted friend or family member to wake up and smell the recovery process.  It’s tough to wait for someone you dearly love to die, and to watch them suffer while they’re dying.  It’s tough to wait for decisions to be made by other people about your future, your life – whether that’s getting into the school you want, passing the course you’re struggling with, getting the job you’ve interviewed for, receiving the promotion you believe you deserve, or getting an ‘all clear’ after rigorous cancer treatment.  It’s tough to wait for whatever comes next when you’re part of a congregation that’s been through a hard year.  It’s tough.  It’s tiring.  It’s sometimes very scary and very lonely.

So, why does scripture talk about waiting so often?  And why is the language of waiting so often found in the language of lament, of all places?  “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,” our psalm of lament for today reads.  “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits…” And the reading from Lamentations says, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”  And, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.”

I am guessing that our friend Jairus didn’t think it was a good thing to wait for the Lord.  To stand there, desperate for his daughter, desperate to move, to go, to get there.  And I’m guessing that this woman didn’t think it was a good thing to wait twelve long years in the midst of deep isolation for someone to finally help her.

And yet….

And here are the counterbalancing two words to the “but then…” of a few minutes ago…

And yet…

Our psalm goes on to say these things: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.  O Israel, hope in the Lord!  For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.”

And yet…

In waiting, there seems to be room, space…for hoping.  In waiting, there is room for steadfast love.  In waiting, there is space to experience the power of God to redeem – even the most difficult, the most painful, the most terrifying situations – all those hard things that seem to come right along with the territory of being human creatures who live on planet earth.

So what is there about waiting that can help create space for all of these good things?  Space for hope, for steadfast love, for the power to redeem?  At least one solid clue is found in the two interwoven stories in today’s gospel lesson – and that clue underscores the word of both the psalmist and the prophet in our OT readings as well.  We are to wait….on the LORD.  You could even change the preposition to wait ‘in’ the Lord or wait ‘with’ the Lord or wait ‘through’ the Lord, or wait ‘for’ the Lord, if that helps you wrap your mind around this concept a little more easily.  The waiting talked about in the language of biblical lament, and the waiting pictured in the narrative in front of us is not the waiting experienced while standing around in the supermarket line, or sitting in the traffic lane at rush hour, or getting anywhere near the DMV office.

Both the woman and the synagogue leader waited…on the Lord.  Each of them put themselves in the presence of the Savior, deliberately choosing to be near him.  Each of them came to that presence, that nearness, with the concerns that weighed heaviest on their hearts, prepared to be completely honest and open about their pain and the reasons for it.  Each of them came to the Savior, each of them fell at his feet, with fear and trembling…and each of them came with faith. Feeble faith – I’m sure it was at times.  Magical, even superstitious faith – most probably it was at points.  But faith, however feeble or unsophisticated, is welcomed by the Savior whose presence they sought.  Faith, however flickering and doubt-filled it may sometimes be, is recognized by Jesus, is received by Jesus, is, in fact, seen by Jesus as a necessary and vital part of the healing, saving process.  “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease,” Jesus said to the woman, after she knew in her body that healing had happened.

“Do not fear, only believe,” Jesus said to the synagogue leader when word came that his daughter was dead, while he was waiting on the Lord.  There is a strange and wondrous alchemy going on here, one that I don’t begin to understand.  An alchemy between the power and the willingness of Jesus to heal and to save, and the faithful obedience of the broken disciple who needs that healing, that saving.  Neither the flow of blood nor the death of the daughter was a good thing –  they were hard, tough, difficult things, the kinds of things that happen to people a lot.  But…in the midst of each of those hard, tough, difficult things – in the midst of waiting on the Lord – they miraculously found…hope, they powerfully discovered…the steadfast love of God, they experienced…the power of redemption.

I’m not here this morning, in the midst of a place and a people whom I love deeply, to tell you that the hard things you all have experienced together in this last year are good things.  They’re not – they’re hard!  They cost a lot in shared pain, in doubt, in confusion and anxiety, maybe even in loss of trust and suspicion at points.  You’ve been going through the ‘but then…’part, haven’t you?

But I am here to tell you today that you are, even now, in the ‘and yet…’ part.  I haven’t a clue what your own individual healing or your healing as a community is going to look like, but this much I do know: it will come, it will happen.  In fact, I would venture to guess that it has come and is happening – and here is the alchemist’s mystery in it all – it has come and is happening as you practice waiting on the Lord, both individually and corporately.

As you earnestly seek God’s presence, as you tell the truth, as you fall at his feet in awestruck wonder, as you take turns being in and out of the spotlight of his love and mercy, or waiting on the sidelines, as you open yourselves to the grace and mercy of God, you will find healing.  Reaching right through the crowd to touch the edge of his tassel, or sitting quietly with just a few others in the bedroom of a dream or a vision that seems dead to your eyes, as you wait on the Lord – seeking his presence, offering your faith, no matter how frail it may be at any given moment in time, God is faithful.  His mercies are new every morning.

“Don’t be afraid,” the rabbi will say to you.  “Only believe.”

“Daughter,” our Lord will say to you, or “Son,” he will say:  “Your faith has made you well.  Go in peace and be healed of your disease.”

Let us pray together:

Oh, teach us to wait, Lord.
Teach us to wait on you,
for you,
with you,
through you.
By the movement of your Spirit
at work within us,
call us to yourself –alone and together.
Build in us a deep and lasting desire
to be intentionally with you.
Teach us to tell the truth,
to you and to each other.
Remind us of your glory,
that we might regularly fall at your feet,
both in awe and wonder at what you have already done in our lives,
and in acknowledgment of our ongoing need for you.

 And strengthen our faith, Lord.
Strengthen our feeble knees and our faltering lips.
Teach us to trust –
to believe that in the middle of the mess –
whether it’s a new mess or one of long duration –
you are there for us
and with us.
In the name of our Savior,
who welcomes us,
even though our faith is small and tattered,
even Jesus Christ,

Amen.

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

Grace and Peace — Lenten Services

Am I ready for this?

I’ve been sitting in the back pew for over two years now, and happy to do so.
Enjoying the leadership of others, fed by the word,
encouraged by the music,
grateful for the community.

After a few months of some disorientation,
wondering a bit about how I’d discover who I am
without the hard-earned role of pastor as my identity,
it’s been a rich two years,
filled with surprises and grace upon grace.

Who knew that reading and writing and meeting people
through the miracle that is the internet
could be so rich, so challenging?
Not I, that’s for sure.
It has been wondrous serendipity for me,
week after week.
Reading good words,
thoughtfully offered;
giving and receiving encouragement,
finding a prayer community.

To tell you the truth, it’s been a lot like pastoring.

So much so, that I have not missed the work like I feared I might.
So much so, that I’ve discovered that long stretches of
unscheduled silence and solitude,
by the sea or in the quiet of my bedroom,
can be gift-beyond-measure.
So much so, that working with directees in person,
and communicating with a wide range of ‘parishioners’ via the interwaves
has filled that pastor-piece very nicely indeed.

So it was with some trepidation that I assumed ‘the mantel’ this month.
On February 1st, I began a 3-month, very part-time stretch
as. . . Associate Pastor, once again.
And to start things off, I was invited to do something I love —
planning and leading a series of six Lenten services,
in preparation for Holy Week and Easter.

We began with a simple soup supper on Ash Wednesday, one week ago tonight.
We had about 25 RSVP’s,
but enough soup and bread for the nearly 70 people who showed up.

 Then another 20 people joined them in the worship center
as we began to celebrate the beginning of Lent,
sharing communion and ashes.

There is a sweet seriousness about Lent,
about worship in Lent.
There is an intentional slowing,
a purposeful remembering,
a focussed attention.

The structure is simple,
both formal and informal,
with responsively read prayers,
songs in a minor key,
times of silence and confession.
But there is also coming forward to tear the bread and dip into the cup.
There is a time for public offering of brief prayer requests,
and a shared response to each one . . .
“Hear our prayer, O Lord.”
And there is the passing of the peace.

I love the combination of words written
and words offered,
words from the tradition and
words from the heart.
I like reaching out to one another,
with a hug or a handshake,
a ‘peace of the Lord be with you.’

I’ve done the brief homily for the first two of our six,
braiding thoughts from the four scripture passages
read aloud during the liturgy.
And tonight,
with a very much smaller group,
I also offered the bread and the cup.

Doing this again makes me want to take off my shoes;
I am standing on holy ground,
offering the gifts of God to the people of God,
saying the words to each person by name:
“The bread of heaven, the cup of salvation,
for you,  . . . “
“The body of Christ, the blood of Christ,
for you,  . . .” 

This is the heart of it all, isn’t it?
For you,
for me,
for all of us together?
All of us together. 

Whether that ‘all’ is 250 or 12,
this is our collective story,
our shared remembering.

This is who we are; this is why we’re here.

I am including the homily from tonight’s service below the links to Jennifer’s place and Emily’s and Ann’s.


Lent, Week One — Brief Homily on Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans
10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

Four scripture passages, just like every week in the church year. But these four? They seem to have something important in common. And I think maybe it’s this: they all call us to remember important things.

The Old Testament passage in Deuteronomy? “Remember the story. . .” –the story of deliverance, of faithfulness. Tell it again and again and tell it with thanksgiving made visible in offerings and words and oil and song and respect.

The psalm? “Remember that refuge is found in God alone. . .” — when we name the name of Almighty God, we are secure in God’s presence, no matter what comes.

Paul’s letter to the church at Rome? “Remember that the word is near you. . .”
in your mouth and in your heart, and this living word is how we find rescue, how we are being saved, day by day.

And the gospel lesson — ah, yes, the gospel lesson. . . That one’s a little harder to pull out, but I think maybe it’s something like this: Remember to have your yeses so firmly in place that your noes will be almost automatic. . .”

And the through line all the way along, in each of the four, is this idea of ‘the word.’ The WORD — whether that word is the name of God, or faith in the resurrection, or offerings poured out in thanksgiving, or meeting up with the devil himself in the wilderness wasteland after 40 days of fasting and isolation — the Word is central.

Familiarity with The Word — learning it by heart as well as by head. Knowing the details of the story of deliverance, knowing them in our very marrow. Sitting with the story long enough to breathe it in and breathe it out. Absorbing the words as if they were living things, because that is exactly what they are, living and life-giving things.

Even when we’re at the end of our natural resources, even when we’re exhausted and hungry and thirsty, even when we’re wandering in the back of beyond, seeking the Face of God, carrying with us a blessing.

That pretty much describes where Jesus was in our gospel lesson tonight, right? From the high point of the dove descending in the River Jordan, to the immediate journey to the desert, to the 40 days of concentrated prayer and filling with the Spirit, Jesus is at his most vulnerable point when the devil shows up: weak, tired, hungry.

But ready.

Ready to meet the temptations thrust in his face, one by one, each invitation offered parried by a word from the Book.

We can only imagine what those 40 days were like for him – we are given no details other than it was a long season of fasting and solitude. What I imagine happening is something like this: gathering thoughts, solidifying goals, wrestling through the hard stuff, cementing in his mind and in his spirit who he was and why he came. Learning the YESES of kingdom work.

I think Jesus understood so clearly who he was and what he was about that saying ‘no’ was just about the most natural thing he could do when that temptor showed up. He knew the ‘yes,’ so he could offer the no. No to magic tricks. No to power plays. No to super stunts.

Yes to grace. Yes to worship of the True God. Yes to the upside down world that was his to usher in. YES to the story of God’s love for the world.

I wonder, what are the yeses in my life, in yours? Do we have them clearly in mind, part of our DNA? Yes to grace. Yes to God. Yes to the upside-down-ness of the gospel.

Because if we do, then saying no gets a whole lot simpler, doesn’t it? I’m pretty sure none of us is tempted to jump off a pinnacle in order to prove that angels will save us.

And I’m guessing that we don’t hear dark whispers, enticing us to make stones into bread.

Ah, but I too often succumb to the siren call of things that do not truly nourish me or others. All kinds of things – from food that is lousy for me to words that I read or say that do not bring life. I sometimes wrestle with the need to feel important and needed, to have others validate me and offer me ‘authority and splendor.’ How about you?

What are the words that can help us with the particular wildernesses in which we find ourselves these days? Where are they found?

Right here, around this table. That’s a good place to start. This is the primary place of remembering, for us who follow in the Jesus way, isn’t it? Remembering the story, remembering the refuge, remembering the word, remembering what we so need to say ‘yes’ to.

Remembering the gift and grace of salvation, taking in the bread and the juice, letting it flood us with light and hope, with peace and grace. Amen.

 

 

Ascension

Say what? I’m preaching again, for the first time in 9 weeks, and I’m acutely conscious of how very rusty I am – especially when the assigned topic is the ascension…something I’ve never studied in detail and have reflected on very little in my lifetime. And I’m working off some painful comments from a friend who informed me, that while he remembers every sermon I’ve ever preached here, he thinks I’ve gotten too dependent on script and, as a result, have ‘tightened’ in the pulpit, rather than ‘loosened.’ Ouch.

Hmmm…I preach pretty sporadically – to be expected in the ministry of a part-time associate. And preaching is serious stuff – after all, you basically stand in the pulpit to proclaim the word of God. And at the end of the day, I am a dreadfully insecure and anxious person. Put it all together, and it spells WRITER’S BLOCK. Top that with soul-searching about whether or not to experiment with a completely new style/mode of presentation…and you have your basic 5-car pile-up.

Now I’ve made progress in the insecurity stuff. Grace has touched my life through scripture, prayer, therapy, good friends, loving family, words of affirmation here and there. But, if I cut to the chase – I’m still pretty much a basket case as I contemplate this calling God has sent my way. What in the world can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said and said a whole lot better elsewherer?? Nevertheless, the task is mine and the sermon must be written.

It never ceases to amaze me that the sermons I preach are always, and I do mean ALWAYS, preached to me first. Whatever the topic of the week may be – whether I’ve chosen the text or it’s been given to me – it seems as though the first work of the Spirit needs doing in me before I can even begin to contemplate unpacking the word for others. And this week has been a doozy – 3 car trips of 100 miles +, difficult crises in our wider family circle on multiple levels, tension and fatigue at home, most of it due to this crazy, over-long remodeling process, and interesting cross-currents at work. All of it combines to create a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in me, a deep-seated feeling of abandonment, loneliness and weariness. It seems I need a good dose of the ascension to remind me who I am and who I am not.

Luke is the only gospel writer to include any description of the ascension in his account of Jesus’ life. Mark has the story end with the women running in fear from the empty tomb; Matthew has the disciples gathering on a mountaintop in Galilee to hear the Great Commission, John has an encounter at the beach, where Jesus joins them in a fish barbecue. Luke is the only one to mention Jesus floating mysteriously upward, disappearing into heaven from a hill near Bethany, as the disciples worship him and then joyfully return to Jerusalem. It is only in Luke’s second volume – the book of Acts – that a little more detail is provided. Because it is Acts that tells the story of the Holy Spirit and of the church, and the ascension is a key piece in that larger narrative.

As Luke says in verse two of chapter one of Acts, the first book (the gospel) was ‘about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up into heaven.’ All that Jesus began to do and to teach…implying that there is much more to tell, don’t you think? And somehow that bit about ‘until the day he was taken up into heaven’ is a kind of dividing line between that beginning (the gospel) and now (the book of Acts). Something happens in that strange, apparition-like moment. Something happens that changes the shape of the ministry of Jesus, but not the content. An important transition is being made, a re-formation of Jesus himself, in a sense, a transformation from a single adult male walking the dusty roads of Palestine in the 1st century world of the Roman Empire to a multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-multi organic union that surrounds the globe and transcends time.

I have a new Macintosh laptop computer, courtesy of the church. It is a wonderful little machine, the operative word for this story being ‘little.’ I am a large person, with big hands, and not a particularly light ‘touch.’ So I find using a pad to move the cursor awkward and difficult . I invested in a wireless mouse, which comes in two parts – the part you plug into the laptop that provides the signal, and the small mouse, which moves the cursor in a way that is easier for me to manage. Last night, I packed up my computer and took it home, thinking I might get some work done there. I packed up the plug-in device for the mouse, but not the mouse itself. The wireless sending device did nothing for me without that mouse, I’m sorry to say. It was back to the touch pad if I wanted to do anything on the computer. This afternoon, I came back to the office to work because it is quieter than the hammering going on at home. The mouse was right here, sitting on my desk. But….the sending device didn’t make it back into my bag, I am also sorry to say. I need both pieces to effectively work on this machine with ease and comfort, the one that sends the signal and the one that receives it.

In a very crude, analogous way, that’s what the ascension is at least partially about. The work of salvation for which Jesus came to the earth was completed by his ministry, his death and his resurrection from the dead. He accomplished the ultimate expresstion of God’s love for our broken and fallen humanity both on the cross and through the empty tomb. “It is finished,” Jesus cried from that cross. The job is done, the debt is paid, the love of God is spilt for the whole world to witness.

He did not say, “I am finished,” because he is not. Jesus is still at work in the world – only now the more hands-on part of that work is being done by the Spirit, in and through the church and the individuals who make up the body of Christ in this post-ascension age. In the gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples that he must return to the Father (read ‘ascend to heaven’) so that the Comforter can come. And several of the epistles tell us that Jesus, in his resurrected and ascended humanity/divinity, is now seated ‘at the right hand of God,’ interceding for us, his church, as we continue to do the Jesus-stuff he commissioned us to do – announcing the kingdom of God, making disciples and working toward that day when God’s kingdom will be fully realized.

And how do we do this work? By the power of the Holy Spirit, that sweetly personal and fearfully omnipresent third person of the Trinity, sent with love by both Father and Son, to fill the saints with light in every generation. There is a beauty and a symmetry to this plan – a wonderful way in which the persons of the Trinity work together to make sure the ‘signal’ is made available to all of the body of Christ. You need the mouse, you need the transmitter, you need the computer to make it all work well. I’m going to stop there, rather than trying to pair images and lapse into either blasphemy or triviality! But i think you get the picture.

Jesus, in his magnificently glorified humanity (worthy of crown-wearing) breathes his life and teaching into the church through the Spirit, who moves unhampered by the limits of flesh in and amongst the millions of persons who together form Christ’s body here. And that together part is pretty key. In former times, the Spirit of God lit on individuals, anointed for specific, often short, periods of time to do special work. (Each of the judges, all of the prophets, an occasional king or two are noted as having the Spirit of God anoint them for very particular purposes.) Only after the completed work of Jesus, eternally incarnated in form, could the Spirit be released in multiplicity and in perpetuity to continue doing the work that the incarnate Jesus began. There are 11 of them gathered on that hillside in Bethany and there are at least 120 of them gathered in the upper room 10 days later when the Spirit descends in power to ignite the newly forming church of Jesus Christ. Wow! What a picture, what a truth.

So, after a particularly hairy week, this is very good news for me. Jesus is King, sitting at the right hand of God, praying for me (and, of course, the entire body of Christ :>). Praying for my daughter and her husband, praying for my mother and my brother, praying for our church, praying for all of the burdens I carry around, so often under the impression that they are mine to solve, to fix, to rescue. The ascension of Jesus reminds me, once again!!, that there is a God, a God who is sovereign, a God who is engaged with creation, a God who knows what it is like to wear this frail human frame, a God whose frail human frame has been transformed into that of an eternal co-regent with the Father who prays not only for me, but for all the church in every corner of this world, praying for the coming of the kingdom in each one of those corners.

And the ascension also reminds me that I am not alone, that I am never alone. God’s Spirit is with me – through the Word, through prayer and through the gathered body of Jesus, the church – that community that is flawed, imperfect, sometimes recalcitrant, often shortsighted and frequently prone to wander, yet still wondrously, miraculously, by the grace of God, the church, the together-people who form the body of Jesus to do the work of the kingdom on planet earth. Thanks be to God!

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