Midweek Service: What Are You Afraid Of?

Continuing a summer series of sermons, posting them on Wednesdays to honor
a tradition of midweek services, long since gone.

This one was preached in the summertime about six years ago
and it is one of my favorites. Every sermon I’ve ever preached
has been preached to me first — and this one hit me where I live.
I am so grateful for a strong, healthy, loving Savior,
who is bigger than my fears and refuses to be categorized as ‘nice.’

What Are You Afraid Of?
Luke 8:26-39
by Diana R.G. Trautwein
A sermon preached at Montecito Covenant Church
June 24, 2007

Things that go bump in the night.  Scary stories or movies.  Invaders who do harm to hearth and home.  Kidnappers, car-jackers, rapists or mercenaries.  Cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis.  The list of things that frighten us sometimes seems endless, don’t you think?  There is something to be frightened about on the news or in the papers every single minute of every single day; there are hard and horrible things happening in our neighborhoods, around the corner, across the street.  Scary stuff happens to our friends, our families, even to us.

Honestly, it is a wonder that we ever leave our homes at all – except for all the scary things in that place!  Spiders in the corner, bathtubs to drown in, showers to slip in, steps to fall down, windows to be broken into, doors to be jimmied….there are days when it feels like they’re (whoever ‘they’ may be) out to get us!  Days when the onslaught of dangerous forces from without makes us want to curl into a fetal position and stay under the blankets all day long.

You think I’m exaggerating – and perhaps I am.  But here’s something I know to be true and not an exaggeration at all.  If you think the stuff that’s outside of us is really, truly scary: just wait ‘til you take a good, long look at the stuff that’s inside of us – that stuff can shiver your timbers, and send you scuttling back to bed for good.

That is, if we’re brave enough to take more than a peek at what’s in there.  Most of the time, it’s easier, and much, much safer, to look to the outside of us . . . and then get to work and build up those walls of resistance, dream up those plans for escape, invest in those security systems, add that extra alarm to our car, buy more insurance for our possessions. The inside of us is much harder to manage, much more difficult to protect, much more terrifying to examine.

There is a series of stories that have come down to us from the 13th century about a fabled wise fool named Nasrudin.  One of my favorites is this one, and I found it in this great little book titled, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery, written by Dr. David Benner :

 “Nasrudin – the protagonist of many Middle Eastern, Greek and Russian folktales – was approaching the door of his house one night when he suddenly realized he had lost his key.  He tried to look around for it, but the night was so dark he could hardly see the ground.  So he got down on his hands and knees and examined the ground where he was standing.  But it was still too dark to see anything. Moving back toward a street-lamp, he again got down and began a meticulous examination of the area.

        “A friend came by and, noticing him, asked what he was doing.  Nasrudin replied, “I       lost my key and am looking for it.”  So the friend too got down on his hands and knees and began to search.

       “’After a while, the friend asked,  ‘Do you remember where you might have lost the key?’   “’Certainly,” answered Nasrudin.  ‘I lost it in my house.’   ‘’They why are you looking for it out here?’ Because,” answered Nasrudin, “the light is so much better here.””

It’s so much easier to look outside for things, and then try to arm ourselves against all the scary, hard stuff in life that comes at us from ‘out there,’ than it is to look inside, to examine the tough, scary truth about ourselves, as we really are, and by God’s grace and through his powerful word of authority, become who we can be.  It’s that internal look, that interior examination, that wrestling with the demons within that can make the difference between a life that’s lived in fear and denial and a life that’s lived in power and hope.

Our gospel story for today outlines this powerful truth in some interesting and thought-provoking ways.  Will you hear the word of the Lord as it is recorded for us in the gospel of Luke, chapter 8, verses 26-39:

They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” For Jesus had commanded the evil spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.

       Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

    “Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.

    A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

    When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.

    The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.

Oh my, what a story.  It comes second in a series of four stories in Luke’s gospel, four stories which tell us about the authority and power which Jesus had in several different realms of human existence.  It directlyfollowsthe story of Jesus calming the stormy sea, simply by the power of his word.  It comes justbeforetwo interwoven miracle stories – one illustrating Jesus’ power to heal chronic illness and one illustrating Jesus’ power over death itself.

In this story, Jesus has just calmed the chaos of the storm, thereby taming the beasts in the natural, created world, and now he proceeds to calm the chaos in this strange, wild, frightening beast of a man who wanders the tombs.

The presence of the swine in this story tells us that Jesus and his band of followers have entered Gentile territory; they’ve crossed the Sea of Galilee and entered a new and different place, only to be immediately accosted by a man described as demon-possessed.

We can’t even begin to understand all the layers of meaning implicit in the use of the word ‘demons’ in this story about Jesus and his word of authority.  21st century westerners are uncomfortable with the idea of evil forces inhabiting human persons.  Many, if not most, people walking the streets of Santa Barbara this morning would deny their existence outright.  Yet missionaries who carry the gospel to less sophisticated cultures than our own, tell stories that sound a whole lot like this one.  Perhaps what one commentator said is true, “Satan has less need to manifest himself openly in a culture that denies his existence.”

Yet despite our own culture’s struggle with the idea of Satan or the devil or his demons, no one living in the here and now can deny the existence of evil in our world and in ourselves.  A great old southern preacher named Fred Craddock says, “All names of the enemies have been changed but the battle still rages.” And while we may not know too much about the kind of demon possession that is pictured here, we certainly know about our own personal demons.  Those things that cripple us and trip us up, big-time.  Those addictions and behaviors and thought processes and reactions that hold us captive, that keep us wandering in the tombs, lonely and frightened and disconnected from our best selves, disconnected from God.

A look at just a few recent news headlines reminds us of this truth:

Last week, police around the world arrested hundreds of people involved in the internet trafficking of child pornography.  31 children – so far – have been released from captivity, some of them involved in horrific, sexual abuse, shown world wide through live video streaming.

Over 6 million Americans aged 12 and over have used crack cocaine at least once in their lives.

5 percent of high school students have used crystal meth.

A US Dept of Health and Human Services bulletin from January of last year, showed that 11% of 8th graders, 22% of 10th graders and 29% of high school seniors had done intense, heavy, binge drinking within the two weeks prior to the survey being taken.  Now, consuming large amounts of alcohol at any age is dangerous, but it is especially calamitous for adolescent brains, causing permanent damage and leading to a lifetime of risky, dangerous behavior patterns.

Every one of these terrifying statistics has at its base the reality of demons within. Because we live in the computer age, we can cover up the mess in there a tad better than the Gerasene man was able to do.  The pedophilia ring that was broken up last week named it’s website “Kids: the Light of Our Lives,” for heaven’s sake.

No, most of our ‘demons’ don’t cause us to wander the cemeteries without our clothes on, yelling at the top of our lungs.

Yet the truth is that every one of us in this room deals with now, or has dealt with at some point in the past, our own particular and unique set of demons.  We each have our shadow side, those areas of pain and difficulty that need to be named and then opened to the healing power of Jesus so that we, too, might become those who are, ‘clothed and in our right minds, sitting at the feet of the Lord.’

Please hear this wonderful truth, however: whatever it is that you’re dealing with inside, it is not outside the reach of Jesus’ authority to resolve.

Look at what happens in our story.  Jesus sails into foreign territory, and makes it his own.  He remains completely calm and unflappable throughout his confrontation with the demon-possessed man, never raising his voice, never saying or doing violence of any kind.  He immediately takes charge of this chaotic and chronic situation, commanding the evil forces to leave the man alone.  Those forces recognize the authority of Jesus, calling him “Son of the Most High God,” and begging for mercy. Jesus calls the demon by name and exercises complete authority over it.  In an almost humorous turn of events, Jesus agrees with the demons to send them into the nearby herd of pigs (one unclean thing into another, I guess!), clearly not allowing them to dictate their ultimate destination.  They end up in the abyss, despite their pleas to the contrary.

Jesus is in charge, from beginning to end, and his authority over the evil that dwells inside of us human creatures is complete and sure.

The man himself is able to witness the resolution of his long-term suffering and imprisonment – he can see those pigs running right off the cliff into the water, and he knows that his healing from the inside out has been accomplished.  He literally becomes a new man.  Discovered by the frightened townspeople to be – not a raving madman, haunting the lonely, desolate places outside of town – but a disciple – (the language of ‘sitting at Jesus’ feet’ is a dead giveaway to his new status) – now they find a learner, a quiet, calm, clear-headed, fully clothed, fully released, God-possessed human being.

Wow!  Time to bring out the fatted calf, right?  The people in the town must have wanted to have a big, old party, don’t you think?

Well . . . not exactly.

Apparently, the evil they knew was far less frightening to them than the power they didn’t know.  So their primary response to this strange Jewish man from the other side of the lake is one of fear, perhaps, even of terror.  Because the authority of Jesus is a very scary thing.  When Jesus comes on the scene, he shakes things up.  He rattles the cage, he upsets the status quo, he does startling things, he can’t be tamed, or put in a box, or sent to the tombs to wander around alone.

Too much modern Christianity forgets this truth.  We’ve tried pretty hard to make Jesus a really nice guy, with a nice smile and great hair. He loves little kids (and indeed, he does), he hunts for little lost lambs (and indeed, he does), he tells quaint stories, he helps people out a lot, he’s just a really great guy, you know?

Look again.  This is one gutsy guy, not intimidated by the crazy man wandering around naked in the graveyard.  This is a guy who talks right back to the demons, who clearly is in charge here, who is willing to do a daring and economically threatening thing like destroy an entire herd of pigs to salvage one human life.  This is a demanding guy, who tells the newly re-born Gerasene that, no, he cannot leave his home and follow him.  Rather, this new disciple must stay put and be a witness in his own hometown. He must tell the story of what God has done for him – he must go back to the town from which he had been ejected and isolated, back to the people who were even more frightened by the dramatic change in his demeanor and behavior than they were by his previous lunacy, back to the very ones who wanted him kept at a safe distance, outside the city gates.  And he must tell them of freedom and of healing and of God’s power.

These are not the responses, these are not the actions, these are not the words of a “really nice guy,” a really “great guy.”  Maybe this air-brushing we do so easily and so frequently is one of the ways in which we, too, ask Jesus to leave, to get away from us, because we cannot understand his power, we cannot accept his authority.  We domesticate him right out of the picture.  Dorothy Sayers, British writer and theologian from the early 20th century, put it this way:

“The people who hanged Christ…never accused him of being a bore. On the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up the shadowing personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the lion of Judea, certified him ‘meek and mild,’ and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”

May God forgive us for trying to smooth off the brave, outrageous edges of our magnificent Savior!

If we are to face our own demons, we need Someone who is strong and unflappable, One who is centered and authoritative, a Friend to stand with us, to go before us, to show us the truth about ourselves, to name that demon within and to tell it, in no uncertain terms, exactly where it can go!

Jesus is that Friend.  Thanks be to God.


Let us pray:

Holy God, Brave Savior, Powerful Holy Spirit,

Oh, how we thank you for this story.  For the clear evidence of your deep desire for our wholeness, for the word of authority that only you can speak to the demons within.  They have lots of names, Lord, and sometimes we’re too frightened or too proud to acknowledge their presence.  Deep and dark sexual fantasies, addictions to alcohol, or pornography, or drugs, or food, or shopping, or gambling.  An untamed tongue that too often flares in anger, or cuts in criticism, a spirit of despair that feels increasingly familiar and comfortable, an unwillingness to extend ourselves in your name to people we find scary or odd, a spirit of lethargy or apathy that keeps us at a distance from people or projects that would bring us good and build your kingdom, a debilitating shyness that inhibits our ability to offer that cup of cold water, a refusal to think of those from other cultures or other races as creatures also made in your image.

You know us better than we know ourselves, Lord.  Show us what we need to name.  By your grace, enable us to release authority over our demons to you, embolden us to ask for help, if we need it – medical or psychological or recovery help – all of them instruments of your healing power – then continue to heal us from the lingering aftereffects not only of our own demons, but also of the denial, of the wrong behavior, of the wrong choices that such demons produce in us. Then we will gladly bear witness to all that you have done for us, O Lord, because of Jesus, in whose name we pray, Amen.



The One Thing That Silences Heaven

I’ve read the book several times.
I’ve even taken an entire seminary class on it.
That helped, actually.
That helped me to see the book as a whole,
instead of a bunch of crazy-making pieces;
as a dramatic re-telling of God’s story,
of incarnation, salvation, faithfulness in the journey,
hope for the future.


It’s a tough nut to crack,
filled as it is with highly visual language,
pictures of strange creatures, horrendous battles,
frightening predictions.

So when it showed up in the lectionary for this Eastertide season,
and when Pastor Jon chose to use those texts
for the preaching series,
I will admit to a few moments of freak-out.
“Oh, no!” I thought. “Not THAT.”

I’m talking about the book of REVELATION,
that frequently misinterpreted, over-analyzed, deeply profound
collection of visions from John, the teacher, as his life neared its end.
To tell you the truth, I was dreading it a little.

Little did I know.

This has been a dynamite series, rich with meaning and encouragement.
Our Director of Worship Arts took up Jon’s challenge to write a song
for each week in the series;
our chancel artists have outdone themselves with altar pieces,
and Jon (and Anna, our intern this year)
have preached the word with power.

From Revelation.

Each week’s text has been centered around a worship scene in heaven,
worship — the true theme of this book.
The magnificent songs that fill these passages are
ones that have been written and re-written over the centuries,
enriching worship services from Orthodox to Pentecostal,
and most certainly enlivening our worship, week by week this Eastertide.

This week’s text was particularly powerful — please read it below the picture.

 “When he opened the seventh seal,
there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.
And I saw the seven angels who stand before God,
and seven trumpets were given to them.
Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar.
He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people,
on the golden altar before the throne.
The smoke of the incense,
together with the prayers of God’s people, 
went up before God from the angel’s hand.
Then the angel took the censer,
filled it with fire from the altar,
and hurled it on the earth;
and there came peals of thunder, rumblings,
flashes of lightning and an earthquake.” — Revelation 8:1-5

Did you catch that?
“There was silence in heaven. . .
for about half an hour.”

Silence. In heaven.

And what is that makes all the noise in heaven come to a halt?

The prayers of God’s people are being offered on the altar.
The prayers of God’s people.

Rising like incense, heaven is silenced as the people of God
offer their prayers, their words of thanks and praise,
their, ‘Help, ‘Thanks’, ‘Wow,’ as Anne Lamott has put it recently.


 This is a picture I want to keep in my mind’s eye, day in and day out.
This is a vision that is important for us to grab,
to savor,
to hang onto
when it feels like all the silence
is on THIS end of the prayer equation.

The big take-away from this picture is this:



All of heaven quiets for our cries.

And then, after the hearing:

those words, those sighs, those groans,
are thrown right back down onto the earth.
Do you see what happens?

“. . . and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, 
flashes of lightning and an earthquake.”

As John enters into this vision, he actually sees our prayers —
ascending like incense, and then descending with power.

There are dangerous things going on when we pray, my friends.
Dangerous, wondrous, life-changing things.
The ways of the world are upset, the dynamic,
ever-fluid partnership that God Almighty has established with
the people of God is alive and well and making a difference.


So why, then, do we spend so little time in prayer?
Why do we more often choose to spin our wheels,
to worry,
to busy ourselves
with whatever we think it
is God ‘needs’ us to do
in order to change this world of ours?

Why is prayer so often a last-order resort
rather than our first thought?
Do we feel like we’re taking an illegal escape route of some sort?
Do we think there’s something magical about it all?
Are we afraid to take the risk of believing
that the God of the Universe
invites us into the work of creation,
the plan of salvation,
the transformational work of redemption?

Or maybe we worry too much about being ‘nice,’ and polite,
politically correct and proper when we pray.
Maybe we need to remember the psalms of lament,
the cries of dereliction,
the heartfelt pleas of those who suffer
that are woven throughout scripture.
Maybe we need to shout down heaven’s doors when despair hits us hard.
Maybe we need to keep on pounding and pounding on the gate,
like the widow who refuses to stop pleading her case.

Maybe we don’t believe that prayer makes any difference at all.

Ah. But it does. It does.

Not always the difference we hope for,
maybe not even very often the difference we hope for.
But maybe, just maybe,
that’s not the point.

Maybe the point is that prayer is the greatest school of all,
prayer is how we learn and grow and understand.
Prayer is the cauldron in which the work of the Spirit gets done in us,
and then through us, in the worlds we inhabit, day after day after day.
Maybe the prayers that we offer to God are then flung back into our very souls
as fire and lightning and earthquake . . .
changing us from the inside out.

Maybe prayer is where the truest transformation takes place.

And maybe, just maybe,
the deepest experience of prayer begins to happen,
when we, too, learn to be silent.
To stop.
To pay attention.
To offer just one word, or two,
to sit in the presence of God,
in the anteroom of heaven itself,
and become prayer.

Our very selves, offered on the altar, and then flung back to earth,
slivers of shimmering reflected glory,
living out that deepest, wildest, most profound prayer of them all:



Joining with Jennifer and Emily and Ann tonight.


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. . .



It’s Time…the Water Is Ready

What is it about water?
The Book we read is literally swimming in it.
The waters of chaos,
out of which the Lord God creates.
Waters flooding the earth,
to wash it clean from the evil wrought by humankind.

Rebekah watering the camels of a traveling servant,
leading to the foundation of the people of Israel.
River water as the salvation for the baby-in-the-ark,
the one who grew up to become 
the bearer of the rod,
the rod that brought water to its feet 
in the parting of the Sea of Reeds,
and brought water from the rock
for a thirsty, complaining people.
The Promised Land, 
a place fed by streams and 
pools and springs abundant.
The Jordan River –
the headwaters into which the people of Israel
carry the Ark of the Covenant,
and stack the stones of remembrance.
The Jordan –
through which and by which the 
Baptizer offers his call to repentance
and shouts out the promise of One Who Is to Come.
The Jordan –
into which steps Jesus, the Messiah,
submitting himself to the same waters of repentance
as every other respondent to John’s call.
The Baptism of Our Lord –
one of the layered meanings and celebrations 
marked with the name Epiphany:
The light dawns,
the promise is fulfilled,
God comes to the help of God’s people.

Descending under the flow,
rising up through the surface,
glistening in the afternoon sun,
shaking the drops from hair and beard,
gasping for air, arms outstretched,
the Savior, our Immanuel, hears a voice
and the dove descends.
It is time.
No trumpets, no angels, no drum roll.
A simple walk from the shore to the river.
And the mission is launched.

What does Jesus hear as he steps out of the crowd,
out of obscurity,
out of preparation time
into the arena, ready for the main event?
What does he hear?

And what do we need to hear as well?

Three things – three things as vitally important
as the water itself to the life he – and we – are to lead:
He hears who he is.
He hears he is loved.
He hears he is pleasing.

Because of Jesus, we also have:
a new identity;
a powerful and life-changing relationship of love;
a deep-seated knowledge that
God is pleased with us,
before we do one single thing.

Do we get that??
God is pleased with us.
Because of Jesus.

And it is in the water,
the waters of our own baptism,
that we know these things to be true.


Simple. Ordinary.
Tangible. Irreplaceable.
And absolutely vital.
 The Living Water calls us to reflect who he is,
he calls us to be life, 
to share live, 
to live life
as if Jesus himself is the well.
Oh, how deeply can I draw from this Well as 2012 unfolds?
How widely can I spray this essence of life around me?
What time is it for me?
What time  is it for you?

I am indebted to Pastor Don Johnson and the worship team at Montecito Covenant Church for most of the ideas contained in this reflection and most particularly for the beauty of a worship service in which we are given the precious opportunity to renew our baptismal vows. Swishing our hands in the waters of the font, singing, “All Who Are Thirsty,” every New Year, we remember again WHO WE ARE. Thanks be to God.
Joining with lots of friends today as I’ve been away from this blog for over a week, traveling to get my mom moved and then re-settling at home with a too-full calendar. So tonight, I’m fixin’ to join with Michelle, Jen, Emily (if she’s open for business again), Ann, Jennifer & Bonnie. Each of these lovely sites has great writing going on – check them out.

Extravagant Giving

The text for this Sunday includes the story of the widow’s mite – the gift of everything that our observant Savior watched from his perch near the offering ‘trumpets’ in the Court of the Women in the Temple in Jerusalem. This happened just days before his own arrest and crucifixion and it follows on the heels of some pretty strong words of warning about religious authorities and their hypocrisy. It’s a text that has been widely preached during November (when it falls into the lectionary calendar, as a matter of fact). November – the traditional month for stewardship sermons as year end approaches and new budgets are being formulated. ‘Give, give, give til it hurts’ – that’s often the interpretation used at such times. And I do think it is possible that this text can be used as a template for preaching the power of proportionate giving…except…it’s a bit troubling. Does Jesus really beckon the disciples to join him in his people-watching in order to show them the ‘right’ kind of giving, the kind that every ‘good’ disciple should strive to emulate? Should we all really give away all that we have to live on? Or is there something else going on in this text, something a bit more subversive, and perhaps a bit more in tune with the immediate and general context of the gospel of Mark.

Jesus enfleshes the focussed concern of God for the people on the margins, most especially the widows and orphans, in a society where neither is well-cared for and where both are usually invisible. Just before this small story, Jesus castigates the scribes – those interpreters of the law who oppose Jesus all through Mark’s gospel account – and he particularly rides them for ‘devouring the houses of widows.’ Probably he was making reference to the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that these ‘unpaid’ religious professionals often used their positions of influence to extort funds from the most vulnerable, especially widows, who enjoyed no legal protection, and – if they produced no male children – no financial protection either. Though these scribes received no ‘official’ recompense for their scribal and interpretive work, they did know ways of getting funds. Somehow the picture of tv evangelists comes to mind here…perhaps with the promise of ‘increased blessing for increased giving??’

We cannot know, we can only surmise. But it does seem clear – from the harshness of Jesus’ tone and the pointedness of his words – that the behavior of those in religious leadership, those finding themselves in positions of power and authority, reflected both an abuse of that power and a misuse of that authority.

Jesus says strongly, “This will not do!” “Beware!” The disciples are instructed, in no uncertain terms, to watch out for these wolves in sheep’s clothing, to be especially careful of authorities who like the perks of the job – who wear fine clothes in an ostentatious manner; who want to be seen in the synagogue, choosing to sit up in front, on the bench that faces the congregation; who want the best couch at the banquet; who pray long, elaborate prayers at the same time they are fleecing the widows. Beware. Be careful. Watch out.

And then comes this small story of the widow’s gift. And her generous spirit is to be commended. Her admission of her complete dependence upon God and neighbor is to be emulated. Her digging deep to share with others is praiseworthy. But…I wonder. Could Jesus also be verbalizing a lament-of-sorts in this scene? Could he be calling his disciples’ attention to the very thing he has just been warning them about? Is he bewailing the religious system that encourages such destitution? I think there may be some of that in this text.

It certainly lines up with Jesus’ earlier teaching, in Mark 7, against religious authorities who shelter their money by calling it ‘devoted to God’ instead of taking care of their elderly parents. It certainly lines up with Jesus’ strong prophetic word in the verses which immediately follow this story, at the beginning of chapter 13. There, the disciples are praising the beauty of the temple building and inviting Jesus to do the same. Jesus, however, looks at that magnificent edifice and sees it in ruins, ‘no stone upon another,’ shocking his followers with his foreboding word. He sees a religious system that is rotten to the core. Where others see authority and power, Jesus sees seeping decay and imminent loss. And he will not be a party to it in any way, shape or form.

So he speaks his harshest words of criticism yet. Mark’s version is much briefer that Matthew’s entire chapter 23, but it is still powerful to read. He is on his way to the cross and he knows it. Throwing any vestige of caution to the winds, Jesus blasts away at the ‘authority’ of the religious superstructure, in essence inviting them to come after him. Jesus is preparing to give the most extravagant gift it is possible for any human being to give. And because he is the Son of God in human flesh, the extravagance level takes on untold layers of love. So I think, despite the lament that surely was there in Jesus’ words, there is a lovely way in which this small person, living on the margins of her culture, provides us with a window into the gift that is coming. Like the other widow in this week’s readings – the one at Zarepath who used her last flour and water to feed a hungry prophet named Elijah – this widow willingly gives all that she has to the service of God.

Jesus had no use for authority that was illegitimate and abusive. And Jesus spoke with true authority – with power and certainty and ability that exceeded anything the scribes could offer. Jesus called false authority what it was. He named the evil and he stepped strongly into the melee that resulted from his truth-telling words. And on the way, he noticed a poor widow, flinging her tiny coins into the offering box at the temple. At one and the same time, her story serves to condemn the insidious abuses of wrongly-used authority and to highlight the beauty of generosity and humility, the offering of oneself and one’s meager gifts with relinquishment and dependence.

How hard it is for us to do that! We’d much rather wear the flowing robes and get the best seats at the banquet, thank you. Admitting that we are totally dependent upon Another for our very breath is difficult to do. It is somehow even harder to acknowledge that we are also dependent upon that One for the money in our pocket, the roof over our heads and the abundance which we enjoy. Placing ourselves in a position of dependence – or more accurately, acknowledging the fact that we are already there – is tough for 21st century western Christians to do. I have known very few people in my life for whom that kind of humility, graciousness and generosity is a natural part of daily living. And one of my primary life examples died this past week, a person whose absence from this planet impoverishes me and everyone who ever knew him.

I’ll write about Thomps in a later edition…

Working Toward Retreat…

It’s been almost a full year since I’ve done any speaking or teaching for a women’s group of any kind. For a while there, I was doing something with and for women on a regular basis – I facilitated a women’s Bible study group at church twice a month for about seven years, participated in four different women’s retreats for our own women (two as speaker, one as worship leader, one as communion celebrant) and spent a weekend here, a half-day’s worth of interaction and input there. I spoke at a ladies’ tea, and I offered communion to a Bible study leadership team every fall for several years running. I like working with women – I also love preaching to and teaching groups which include both genders and a variety of age groups. But there is often something rich and remarkable that happens when a group of women gather somewhere away-from-the-usual for the express purpose of drawing closer to God.

Two days from now, I’ll get that opportunity again as I lead a group of women from Brentwood Presbyterian church at their annual women’s ministries retreat – right here in Santa Barbara at la Casa de Maria. We’re looking at the book of Esther – which is the same material I used at the very first retreat I ever led by myself almost 10 years ago. My good friend Karen Jobes has written an incomparable commentary on this marvelous book and I have enjoyed re-reading it the last few weeks. (In case you’re wondering…this is the only commentary I have ever read from cover to cover!) Over the course of this weekend, we’ll be talking about and reflecting on:

The Hidden Presence of God in Our Story

“…for such a time as this…”

Session One – Friday Evening, January 26, 2007

Making Things CLEAR…

…the need for consent and clarity.

Session Two – Saturday Morning, January 27, 2007

Keeping Things CONGRUENT…

…the importance of consistency and community.

Session Three – Saturday Afternoon, January 27, 2007

Living with COURAGE…

…the need for conviction and commitment.

Session Four – Sunday Morning, January 28, 2007

Responding with CELEBRATION…

…moving through confession to cooperation.

Throughout the course of these sessions, the women will spend some time in individual reflection, some time in small group discussion and some time in large group learning. It is challenging and fun to lay out a series like this, and I am grateful for the opportunity. And I am especially enjoying wrestling through this topic at this particular juncture in my own life and ministry. I gave the leadership team at Brentwood a list of about six topics and this is the one they chose. After listening to a bit of their corporate story of the last several years, I can readily see that it is also a great topic for them to wrestle with for a while.

It’s a good and relevant topic precisely because God so often seems hidden to us. There aren’t too many miracles to be had, these days. Indeed, I believe that God chooses to work through the ordinary, non-remarkable circumstances of daily life far more often than God chooses to intervene with a miraculous event – and I believe that’s true in any day. There are far more stories like Esther’s in this life than there are stories like the Exodus. Perhaps a better way to phrase it is that there is more often a “miraculous quality to the ordinary” (a Jobes’ phrase) than there is an ordinary quality to the miraculous! The only problem with this truth is, of course, that we so often fail to have ‘eyes to see’ and ‘ears to hear’ the wondrous ways in which our God is at work in, around and through the ordinary stuff of life. I am praying that together, the women from Brentwood Pres and I will have our eyes and ears opened in new ways this weekend.