Midweek Service: An Old Advent Sermon — Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room

This sermon was preached 11 years ago as part of a series on creating ‘margin’ in our lives. Three of us preached in this series — on economics, relationships, time. And when my turn came, the topic was a tough one for me: honoring these bodies we’ve been given by caring for them well, including making space for Sabbath. It was preached during Advent and used one of the Isaiah Advent texts as its primary focus. And it was preached at the end of a very difficult year for me personally. I had been on an extended medical leave from January-August and the story I tell happened during those months.
Each week’s photo is from a collection of pictures taken in St. Vitus’ Cathedral, Prague.

     Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room
preached by Diana R.G. Trautwein
Montecito Covenant Church
Advent Series, December 15, 2002
“Making Ready: Is There Space for God in Our Bodies?”

I never cease to be amazed at God’s sense of humor.  I am perhaps the last person who should be standing up here in front of you all, giving you a pep talk on taking care of your bodies.  Because I’m doing a really lousy job of it at the moment and actually, to be honest, have done a really lousy job of it for most of my life.  And lots of people that I talk to, church people, followers of Jesus Christ,  tell me the same thing. 

Why do you think that’s true?  Why do you think we let our lives run right out to the edge of the page physically? Is there something we should be doing (or not doing!) that we’ve lost the knack for?  Is there something we should know that we have forgotten?

Our text for this morning offers some helpful ideas.  This beautiful poem from the prophet Isaiah has been read as part of the celebration of Advent for hundreds of years.  And I believe that it (and a couple of other admonitions in scripture) can point us in the right direction as we reflect together on what it means to live our lives with physical margin.

I want to make something crystal clear as we begin this morning:  to be a follower of Jesus Christ means that everything we are and everything we do is to be set inside the sphere of his Lordship.  Jesus did not come to Bethlehem, to be born in isolation, homelessness, and poverty so that he could establish yet another religion, another set of rules about sacred and profane.

Jesus came – as a baby born of a very human mom, as a young boy filled with curious questions, making messes, laughing, crying, eating, sleeping, dreaming; as a grown man, learning a trade, living in community, walking the dusty roads of Palestine, catching fish and catching people — Jesus came to save us, to bring rich meaning to our very human living, to show us what margin looks like in day-to-day life, long before the term ‘margin’ was ever coined.

Jesus came to call us to God, to point us to truth, to walk the way of holiness in our midst.  And every bit of Jesus’ coming speaks loudly and clearly to the worth and value of human life, of physical life as well as spiritual life.  By choosing to wear human flesh for 33 years, Jesus of Nazareth gave new meaning to our understanding of what this flesh means.

These bodies, my friends, are the place where we meet God, where we receive God’s grace, where we live the life granted to us on this earth.  And they are precious gifts.   No matter what shape they are in.  No matter what we or anyone else thinks they look like.  No matter what our culture tells us they should look like.  No matter what the ravages of age or disease may do to them.

No matter what. 

They are gifts and they are temples.  There is no sense of our bodies, in and of themselves, being outside the range of God’s saving grace.  Now what we choose to do with these bodies can be, and often is, anything but sacred.  In fact, we can choose to profane these gifts rather royally.  But the bodies themselves are hallowed, sacred and splendid, God’s chosen dwelling place through the grace of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, what we do to and with our bodies is of primary importance and is not to be ignored.

Somewhere along the way, a whole bunch of us Christians got the idea that the body is somehow disconnected from our spiritual life, that it is of little or no value to God, that only what happens between our ears or in our hearts is important.

It just ain’t so, and the whole scope of scripture gives testimony to this truth.

Isaiah recognizes it here, in his word picture about the coming of God.  This beautiful poem is a vision on many levels – it speaks to the people to whom it was written – the Israelites living in exile and hoping for a better future; it speaks to the Jewish people who read it hundreds of years after it was written – nurturing their desire for the Messiah, who would bring about the glorious era pictured here; it speaks to us, followers of Jesus in 2002, who see in these words a description of the in-breaking kingdom of God, made real on earth by Jesus’ first coming and being brought to full fruit with Jesus’ second coming somewhere further out in the future.

It speaks to mind, spirit and body:  “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees,” the prophet cries.  Tell them this good news:  “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”  The body and the spirit are redeemed, ransomed by the glorious salvation of God.

This beautiful chapter is a vivid picture of what life can and will be like for all of those who choose to put their trust in God, who choose to let God be God – no thing or no one else.  The desert turned to a pool-filled garden, human bodies restored to their creation design, harmony between humanity and the animal world and the created order, the joyous praises of God’s people resounding throughout – that is what is promised to those who choose to find their strength, their hope, their joy in God.

Ok.  So it’s a beautiful picture.  Sounds great – wish I was there.  In the meantime, how do I live in the now?  How do I manage these tired hands and these feeble knees?  While I’m waiting for Jesus to bring in the kingdom in all of its fullness, is there any way for me to experience just a taste of it in the present?

Yes, as a matter of fact, I believe there is. As I read and reflected on this picture, this passage, over the past couple of weeks, I also did some other kinds of reading. I read the book from which this sermon series gets its primary focus:  “Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives,” by Richard A. Swenson, M.D. and I read: “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives,” by Wayne Muller.

Both books are excellent, helpful and come to you highly recommended.  And as I read these two gentlemen’s suggestions for living more balanced lives, it seemed to me that the picture Isaiah paints is available to us in the here and now, at least in part.  For the Kingdom of Heaven is alive and well in the hearts of believers right here, right now and there are ways in which we can connect with that truth, even in the daily-ness of living.

It also became increasingly clear to me that the questions I asked at the beginning of this sermon (and those question were:  Why do you think we let our lives run right out to the edge of the page physically?  Is there something we should be doing (or not doing!) that we’ve lost the knack for?  Is there something we should know that we have forgotten?) those questions can be answered, in the context of this week’s theme and topic with these two statements:

1.)          We need to remember that our bodies are sacred, gifts to us from God to be used for his glory, not our own. And . . .

2.)          We need to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy – so that it can help keep us holy.

We’ve already spent a few minutes this morning looking at the truth of that first statement and now it’s time to look at the truth of the second one, particularly in light of our need to create physical margin in our lives this Advent season.

From the opening verses of Genesis, God declares and models the need for margin in our lives – and he calls that space “Sabbath rest.”  It’s a thread that continues throughout the Old Testament, showing up as the 4th commandment (one of only two that are stated in the positive rather than a ‘do not’), and noted again and again as a necessary ingredient in the life of the people of God.

Jesus observes its importance – as it was originally designed by God, not as it was legalized by religious rule-making – and Jesus models its place in the flow of life.  Repeatedly, the gospels tell us of Jesus’ drawing away to be quiet, to pray, to be alone or with a small circle of friends.  He often left in the middle of ministry, he left with the job undone, he left with people in need, standing on the doorstep.  He honored, he remembered, that ‘Sabbath thing’ as an essential part of his life; we who are his friends are called to do the same.

God our Creator has built into us a need for rhythm in our lives – the rhythm of action and inaction, doing and being, moving and resting.  I want to give you just a small picture of how that need for rhythm was brought to my attention this past year.

After about six weeks of staying at home, seeing a few doctors, resting, worshipping in private, playing way too much computer solitaire. . .I began to feel stronger and more able to face the outside world.  The timing was wonderful, it was February and Ash Wednesday was coming.

I wanted to go somewhere for an Ash Wednesday service where no one would know me, but I could enter into the beauty of rhythmic worship and begin to find nourishment in community once again.  I chose to go to the noon service at the Old Mission.  Now I had lived in Santa Barbara for just over five years at this point in my history and I had never taken the time to visit the mission.  I had never been inside.  So I went, not knowing what to expect at all.  There was a good crowd of people there – probably about 400 or so – and there were printed worship folders, complete with melody lines, so that everyone could follow the service.  I sat on a hard wooden bench about 2/3 of the way back in the sanctuary and waited.

Suddenly, there was this gloriously beautiful voice drifting over my head, like an angel song, I thought at the time.  The service had begun and it was lovely.  The words of the songs, the rhythm of movement – standing, sitting, kneeling, processing – the words of the liturgy, the reception of the ashes – all of it was intensely moving and drew me into a time of true worship and repentance.  I had had a Sabbath experience at lunch hour on a Wednesday.

Later that same day, I drove down to Carp to get a gift for my husband for Valentine’s Day.  I had heard about this orchid warehouse and thought I’d check it out.  So in I went, feeling refreshed from the church service and some time in prayer with a friend.  I walked into the showroom and was suitably impressed at the wonderful arrangements and plants on display.

Then someone opened a sliding door near the back, and I walked into this absolute symphony of color and design.  There were thousands of brightly colored orchids extending to every edge of this huge warehouse.  I don’t remember ever seeing so many beautiful plants in one space ever before in my life.  It was truly breathtaking.

And I had another experience of Sabbath, of worship, right there in beautiful rural Carpinteria.

Tears came and I uttered a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving to our Creator God for his genius and for the gift of partnering genius shared by us human creatures in propagating these gorgeous plants.

The entire day was a gift, a gift of the rhythms of life lived in Sabbath mode.  Somehow, the great gift of Sabbath rhythm, of Sabbath rest, has been lost in our time, in our culture.  If we are to experience it again, we must be very intentional about it, and we must look for opportunities to incorporate its benefits into our lives in all kinds of ways.

Let me suggest just a few ways in which you and I might experience a sliver of the paradise described by Isaiah and included in the biblical concept of Sabbath.  In addition to incorporating better health habits like eating well, sleeping well, and exercising regularly, I believe the intelligent, prayerful observance of Sabbath can give us the physical margin we all so badly want and need.

The age we live in values speed, noise, activity, money, success.  Sabbath values are centered around slowing down, being quiet, being still, saving time, building relationships – the very opposite of what we are told, every single day, is what really counts.  So what I’m asking us to do is not going to be easy, but it is going to be incredibly rich.

Here’s a beginning: if at all possible, set aside one afternoon or evening each week to observe the holiness of Sabbath.  Turn off the phones, the television, the computer, the beeper.  Light candles for dinner.  If you live with family or friends, enjoy their company over a good meal, play a couple of table games or read a book together.  If you live alone, create a beautiful space for yourself to eat, to be quiet, to read, to reflect.  Or invite someone over to share it with you.  Incorporate some simple prayers into your mealtime, inviting God to be present in your Sabbath.

If an entire evening or afternoon of keeping Sabbath seems overwhelming to you, start smaller.  Take a walk sometime during the week – for 20-30 minutes. Keep silence during the walk, and do it somewhere beautiful if at all possible.   Look around you, observe what you see. Then sit down and reflect for a few minutes on what you’ve experienced.

Observe moments of silence during your day.  Just stop whatever you’re doing and be still for 2-3 minutes.  Pray if you wish, or just breathe.

Breathing consciously, intentionally, slowly — breathing is actually a fairly important part of slowing life down. There are ancient Christian practices of prayer that are centered on our breathing patterns and they can help us for just a few minutes of the day – to capture some Sabbath time.

Offering blessings, silently, to those around you is another small way of keeping Sabbath.  Try that the next time somebody cuts you off in traffic!  Offer words of blessing instead of frustration (or worse!) – bless the people around you wherever you are.  Ask God to make you a blessing to others as well.

Rediscover the fine art of dinking around – spend time doing not much: sitting in the yard, pulling a few weeds, playing a board game with some kids or adults, tossing the baseball, shooting a few hoops.  I’m not talking about hustle here, I’m talking dinking around, deliberately slowing your pace.  And do this whenever – in the middle of your day, in the middle of the night if you have trouble sleeping.

Refuse to be driven by the need to be finished before you stop doing something.  Our need to be finished is one of the primary forces pushing us away from Sabbath-keeping.  The commandment is ‘to remember’ the Sabbath, to keep it holy.  And we so easily forget it, don’t we?  I surely forgot it these last few weeks and my body is telling me that’s a real shame!

Let’s face it.  There will always be more work to do than we can conceivably get done.  We will never be finished, and that’s the truth.  Therefore, we must learn to stop working, to stop pushing, to stop achieving, to stop trying to do it all: to stop.

That is a huge part of what Sabbath is all about.  Stopping what we ordinarily do.  Stopping.  And the other part is remembering: remembering whose we are, remembering to say thank you to God, to others, re-membering ourselves, getting ourselves together, in one piece, ready, then, to return to work, to daily doing.

My house this year does not yet have a single decoration in place.  There are very few Christmas gifts bought.  The Christmas letter has not been written.  And you know what?  I’m increasingly ok with that.  Surely one of the most powerful messages of Advent is the value of stopping – waiting — and being expectant rather than distracted or overwhelmed.  And Christmas itself is really about things like smallness, vulnerability, wonder, quiet, and mystery.  If I don’t somehow slow down enough to see it, to sense it, to experience it, the truth and beauty of Christmas can pass me right by.  And I don’t want that to happen again, do you?

I am going to stop long enough to enjoy a taste of the glorious kingdom described by Isaiah.  I am going to remember the keep the Sabbath, in ways both large and small.  I am going to acknowledge that this very tired old body of mine is a gift from God, a container for my spirit, a container for the holiness of God Almighty, a sacred thing, a set-apart thing, a living organism with a real need for that blank, white space around the edges.

My prayer for all of us, for me and for each one of you, is that this will be our experience this Advent, this Christmas.  That we will find ourselves traveling on the Holy Way, redeemed by our God, on our way to God, “singing,” as the prophet phrased it, “with everlasting joy upon our heads.”

Will you stand with me and sing a song of everlasting joy to our good and generous God, creator of all that we are?









Midweek Service: Deborah — “The LORD Is Marching Ahead of You”

This week finds me dipping once again into that time when we were between senior pastors, when we were in the midst of transition and new construction at the same time. It’s really good for me to remember how faithful God was to us during that 2-year time stretch — and how faithful the community was to one another, too.

All stained/painted glass windows in this series are from the Cathedral of St. Vitas in Prague, The Czech Republic

Made to Matter: People Who Partnered with God
Deborah:  “The Lord Is Marching Ahead of You”

Preached at Montecito Covenant Church
November 16, 2003
by Diana R.G. Trautwein

Today is a day for telling stories, for remembering stories, for celebrating stories. Today is a day for finding ourselves in the midst of someone else’s story, in the midst of our own story, and most wonderfully of all, today is a day for finding ourselves in the midst of God’s story, sometimes when we least expect it.

I find myself this morning nearing the end of a long, hard weekend. And there are about 15 other folks scattered around this room this morning who find themselves in the same place. Your Church Council leaders met on Friday night for 3 hours and then again yesterday from 9-4:30 in order to spend some concentrated time together, learning more about the people we’ve been seeing around the tables at our meetings each month, learning more about what it means to truly be a leadership ‘team,’ learning more about what it means to dream God’s dreams for this place, to take some risks with one another, to be encouraged by God’s words delivered to us through the words of a friend and fellow traveler.

Yes, it has been a long, hard weekend. But also, a tremendously exciting weekend. To catch a tiny glimpse of what God is up to in this place — to be reminded, even in the midst of what seem at times to be overwhelmingly difficult circumstances that, “The Lord is marching ahead of us” — this is a wonderful thing. In fact, I would venture to say, it is a life-changing thing, a life-saving thing.

And today, we’re going to look at the biblical story of Deborah and we’re going to remind ourselves that the Lord our God is not out of the marching business – that God does indeed remain faithful to his promise to walk with us, to partner with us in this life. We are going to hear the wonderful truth one more time, the truth that when we show up, God shows up. And that is all that is required, no matter how overwhelming the circumstances may appear to be.

So . . . the story-telling begins. With Deborah.

A little background, please. . . I’m sure you all remember Moses, the Exodus, Joshua and the taking of the land from the early books of the Old Testament, right? Sometimes it’s good to remember that this was a very long time ago, that the Israelites were a pretty rough-neck group, probably armed at any given time with wooden, maybe bronze implements and weapons. They had strong tribal ties, yet they were only very loosely connected to one another. And when they moved into the land, suddenly they found themselves surrounded by a much more sophisticated culture, one with fortified cities, elaborate and difficult religious rituals, and sometimes much more effective weaponry.

They struggled to settle in, and they did a pretty lousy job. This was true primarily because they allowed themselves to get sucked into and subdued by the cultures around them, adopting their rituals, intermarrying, and basically forgetting who they were as children of God, as God’s chosen people.

And if I’m honest, I can’t blame them too much for that. Sometimes it’s just plain easier to ‘go with the flow,’ to do what everyone else is doing, to worship the god you can see rather than the One who is unseen by human eyes.

And after the death of Joshua, that’s pretty much what happened. The book of Judges is the story of the people of God regularly forgetting who they were, of falling into the ways of the world around them, and then of suffering the consequences of their amnesia. And those consequences involved coming under the oppressive control of those surrounding people groups with alarming and depressing regularity.

Every so often, though, someone within the chosen people would remember — “Wait a minute here. . . we have a God who calls us by name. Shame on us because we’ve forgotten to call HIM by name.”

And the next thing you see in the whole, sad story of the Judges are these moments of remembering, of calling on the name of the LORD for mercy and deliverance, of deciding to show up. And guess what? Every single time they do that, every time they show up — God shows up. And the first thing God does is to raise up a leader, an encourager, sometimes a warrior, but always someone upon whom God’s Spirit rests in a special way. These leaders were called judges over the people, and through them, God showed the people the way toward freedom, deliverance and ultimately, peace in their land.

Our story this morning is early in the series of these sad cycles of forgetting and remembering, and it’s told in two chapters — one a narrative and the other a long poem or song. Chapter 4 outlines the events as they happened, but chapter 5 fills in the blanks of the narrative with a fascinating, creative and beautiful set of verses. These verses, this song, is probably the oldest piece of scripture that we have in the entire Bible — one of the very first things that the people of Israel wrote down to help them remember the faithfulness of God.

And this is the story it tells: Joshua is long dead. The people have sunk into despair and oppression at least three times and have then remembered God three times. And once again, times are tough. A Canaanite king named Jabin, who builds huge forts for cities and then lives behind the walls, has forced the scraggly band of Israelite people into a hard and discouraging life

They have endured twenty years of oppression of the worst kind. Jabin’s military general Sisera has built himself a terrifying army of men and machines. The Philistines had discovered the secret of smelting iron and then used that knowledge to devise a deadly killing machine — the heavy duty tanks of their day — in the form of a chariot made of iron. These chariots could trample a man on foot in mere seconds. The Philistines used these chariots to keep the Israelites off the roads and to continue to use the most primitive of farming methods. This meant they could never rise above subsistence living and it generally made their lives miserable.

What could a group of unsophisticated, under-equipped, tribal warriors ever hope to do against such technological superiority?

Well, they began by calling on the LORD for help, as verse 3 of chapter 4 tells us. And then the very next verse begins the amazing story of how God chose to deliver his people this time.

 “At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment.”

So, here is the new leader! A woman. A woman who is a prophet, who sits under a palm tree up in the hills.

Uh. . . I’m not sure this would have been MY first choice for the salvation of the people, but. . . Deborah is God’s choice.

And God’s choice calls on Barak, who lives in a different community, one that is in closer proximity to those walled cities and those awful chariots. Deborah has a word for Barak when he gets there. And in the original language, it comes in the form of a question: “Didn’t the Lord God command you to go? To take an army and lead the way to Mt. Tabor?”

And his reply is more than a little bit surprising: yes, he knows the question. Yes, he’ll go to Mt. Tabor . . . under one condition: if Deborah comes with him. I’m betting he figured that it might be a good idea to take the ‘word of the LORD’ along with them into battle. And Deborah, the one who sat under the palm tree, she IS the word of the Lord during this time period.

So Barak gathers together a very rag-tag bunch of 10,000 foot soldiers and they head to the top of Mt. Tabor, peering down into the Kishon River Valley. Which might not have been the smartest military strategy in the world.


Deborah is listening to the LORD. She comes along with Barak and she continues to listen as Sisera arrives with his men and his iron chariots and all of them fill that river bed. She is still listening . . . until . . . she yells out, “NOW. Charge! Now is the time. The LORD is marching ahead of you!”

At this point, I’d like to take a small pause in the story-telling and offer a word of support for Barak. It is true that he wanted a woman to go with him. And yes, Deborah told him that that choice of his would mean that he would be outdone by a woman before the day was over. And it is also true that early in this story, the narrator sets us up to discover who this woman might be when he mentions Heber the Kenite and his tent near the battle site.

But just try to imagine this, okay? You’re on the top of a mountain with a bunch of guys with sticks and maybe some very bendy bronze spears. At the bottom of the mountain are 900 iron chariots, at least that many horses and thousands of soldiers outfitted in the very latest fashion of heavy metal armor. You’ve decided to throw in your lot with this woman who talks to God and she says, “CHARGE!” just when your men can see the overwhelming might of the enemy.

What was she thinking??

To better help us understand the timing of all this, it really helps to jump from the narrative in chapter 4 to the song in chapter 5, where there are a couple of hints in verse 20 and 21:

“The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The torrent Kishon swept them away, the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon. March on, my soul!”

So, what do you suppose Deborah was listening for up there on the mountaintop as she waited with Barak and his motley band of fighting men?

She was listening for a word from the LORD, and I think that word came in the rushing roar of a summertime flash flood, as a rainstorm caused a wall of water to surge down that canyon below them, engulfing those heavy iron monsters in a miry bog of water and mud.

So as the Israelites descended the mountain, all of Sisera’s men — including Sisera himself — jumped out of their chariots, off of their horses, dropped off their heavy armor and weaponry and ran for their lives. It was a complete rout!!

And then, of course, there is the wonderful, very gory footnote of this story — the detail that every Confirmation student just loves! Running in fear of his life from Barak and his men, Sisera caught sight of those Kenite tents. Now Heber has had a friendly relationship with Sisera’s boss, Jabin, and Sisera knows it. What he doesn’t seem to know is the long history of good relationship between the Kenites and the Israelites, going all the way back to Moses’ marriage to the daughter of Jethro, who was a Kenite.

Heber’s wife, Jael, stands outside her tent and offers Sisera hospitality as he runs toward them. “Have a rest,” she says. “How about some milk or yogurt?” she says. And the milk has its usual soporific effect and Sisera falls asleep, exhausted from his wild running retreat.

And then, Jael — amazing warrior that she turned out to be — took one of her hefty wooden tent pegs, and her handy-dandy wooden mallet, and she smashed that peg right through the man’s temple and into the ground beneath him.

End of Sisera. End of story.

But let’s notice how it is that God chose to do God’s work in this particular story for a few minutes. God brought deliverance to God’s people by assembling a surprising team of leaders. First and foremost, there was Deborah — who listened to God, who spoke for God to the people, who believed that God would do God’s part.

Deborah is like a brightly blazing torch, shining the light of God, the hope of God, the call of God, into the lives of the people God called her to lead. She spent time under that palm tree listening to God, listening to the people, reflecting on what God wanted, and, when asked, she also leapt into action, going with Barak and the troops to the mountaintop.

Without her, a willing instrument in God’s hands, there would be no story.

But there is also Barak. As I noted earlier, he gets a bit of a bad rap in both the story and the song. But the New Testament writer of Hebrews, chapter 11, lists him with some of the other judges rather than listing Deborah. What’s up with that?

Well, I think we can find ample evidence to support the argument that Barak had a measure of faith as well. Perhaps his was not as sure and steady as Deborah’s, but he was willing to trust her, to act on Deborah’s command without knowing what God was going to do to save the day, wasn’t he? I think that’s why he’s included in the roll call of heroes of faith in that chapter in Hebrews. Barak trusted Deborah’s relationship with God, and ultimately, he trusted Deborah’s God to get him through.

And then, of course, there is Jael. It’s tough to make a moral heroine out of a woman who uses subterfuge and violence to accomplish her goals, but she, too, is important to this whole tale. In a way, Jael did the dirty work. At least that’s how it appears to us, standing here in the 21st century. As followers of Jesus Christ, the Peace of God, it is hard for us to wrap our minds around the bloody violence of the Old Testament. Yet I find hope and encouragement even in this hard part of the story. For we, too, are warriors in a battle. And sometimes, the circumstances of the battlefield around us seem overwhelming.

Our children are sucked in by the values of this culture, and sometimes, so are we. We read the newspapers, listen to the news, try and balance the checkbooks, deal with aging and dying parents, or with rebellious and broken children, live with sadness and sorrow on every side. Sometimes it looks just plain overwhelming and hopeless.

The bad guys around us seem to have heavy-duty iron chariots and we’ve just got these pointy sticks!

And what can you do against the bad guys with a wooden stick and a mallet anyway?

Well, you can do a heckuva lot of damage! You can take the bad guy out of the picture entirely if you’re in line with God’s purposes for the battle, if you’re relying on God to ultimately snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.

I have to tell you that for a long list of reasons this past week has been one of overwhelming circumstances for me. I can’t even tell you exactly why. We have dear friends in pain, parents living with loss, more work to do than can humanly be done, and I’ve been feeling more than a little bit hopeless about not finding enough people to do the work I think God is calling us to do right here, right now, at Montecito Covenant Church

But here’s the deal: I spend too much time looking at the hard stuff. Now that stuff is certainly real and I don’t want to make light of it in any way. But sometimes, looking at all of that tends to take my focus off the palm tree, that place where I can meet God, where I can talk and laugh and wonder with friends and co-workers, with the people who can speak God’s words of hope into my life.

There have been times in my life and ministry when I have been tapped by God to be a Deborah in the lives of others. I am humbled by that and grateful for those opportunities when they arise.

But this week, I needed a Deborah or two . . . or three or 14 or 15!

And here’s what happened: I showed up, 14 members of the Church Council showed up, and God showed up. It was a remarkable time. As we closed our time together on Friday night, we affirmed in one another some qualities of leadership we saw, using a list provided by our consultant as we move through this time of transition.

And we also asked for prayer for that one area where we each felt the weakest that night. One of us asked for more clarity and confidence; another asked for more compassion; I and several others asked for a greater degree of hopefulness as we continue together to provide leadership for this congregation.

I went home tired, feeling like the evening’s exercises had been good and helpful, but dreading another full day of group work when I had a sermon to write and a computer that had shut down.

As we began on Saturday, we were led in a time of sharing and prayer. And you know what? The woman who had asked for confidence and clarity, spoke with passion and great articulation about her faith in God, her faith in this process, her faith in this church. She lit a fire that morning that burned all day long. And a man, who had asked for compassion the night before, shared a wonderful story of family sharing and prayer that had broken through some barriers that night following our session.

Around the room we went and heard from one another exactly how God showed up! And I’ve got to tell you, at the end of the day, after listening and laughing and dreaming together, my own sense of hope was rekindled, big time.

So I’m here today to give testimony to the truth that overwhelming circumstances are God’s specialty! That if we show up, God will show up. In fact, God is already there,  waiting for us to catch a clue. My prayer for all of us this day is that we would meet God meeting us in the midst of whatever overwhelming circumstances we are facing. That we might cry with the psalmist, “That some boast in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD!” That we might learn to write and sing our own songs of victory, just as the Israelites wrote a song to celebrate Deborah and Barak and Jael.

Wherever you are this morning, whether you’re in need of a Deborah, or you’re equipped to be a Deborah; whether you’re needing or offering strong words of encouragement from the LORD; whether you’re more like Barak, looking for a partner in the LORD to face the battle together; or even if your circumstances are more like Jael’s, calling for a firm, clear stand against evil in order for the victory to be won. . . wherever you are this morning, I urge you to lift your eyes from the circumstances that surround you and to ‘call on the name of the LORD,’ and then to listen for the word of the LORD — in the pages of scripture, as God speaks to your heart in prayer, or as God speaks to you through the words of a fellow believer — and then to act on what you hear.

Look beyond the circumstances;
call on the name of the LORD;
listen to the word of the LORD;
act in confidence that the LORD will bring the victory. Amen.

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.



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.

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,


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. . .



A Lenten Meditation — Week Four

Lenten Service, Week Four — A Reflection on the Lectionary Texts
offered at Montecito Covenant Church
Wednesday evening, March 13, 2013

Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; II Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

I’ve been reading and thinking and pondering and praying about the sermon next Sunday morning for the last couple of weeks. It will be the first one I’ve preached since retiring over two years ago, and I think I’m sensing a theme or two coming at me from the primary text for this Sunday. Funny thing is, I am finding a very similar theme in the texts for tonight, which are the ones we used last Sunday in worship. Do you think maybe God is trying to tell me something? To tell us something? Yeah, I thought so, too.

Okay. So. In our first Old Testament text for tonight — the Israelites are finally, FINALLY done with the manna. The wilderness wandering is over, they are beginning to settle into the new land, the new life, the new them.

And in number 32, the psalmist sings about the beauty of forgiveness, the change in his or her own emotional life because they have confessed their failings to God and have discovered that God is faithful to forgive, in fact, has forgiven in the very act of confessing. The singer remembers and celebrates that God is a safe place, not necessarily a tame place, maybe not even a non-scary place — as C.S. Lewis and others have reminded us – but a safe place, a hiding place, a space where all of who he or she is is welcome, loved, heard, forgiven.

And the epistle lesson? Oh my, we heard some powerful teaching on this passage last week! If you missed Jon’s sermon, I encourage you to go to the church website and look for the podcast — it was truly excellent. Jon pushed us to examine more carefully some of what many of us have been taught about what happened on the cross, about atonement. He reads Paul’s words to Corinth, and he finds there a very different kind of picture than the one a lot of us were taught. He finds a picture of new creation, of sinbeing nailed to the cross, of God loving us in spite of that sin, of Jesus’ death as the fullest expression possible of the Father’s extravagant and even risky love for us human creatures. An important text, with a strong clear message of transformation.

And then we have the gospel lesson.

Probably one of the most famous of all Jesus’ teachings, the one we call The Prodigal Son. And yes, I suppose it is indeed that – the story of the younger son, who treats his father as if he has died already, claiming his portion of the family estate and then wasting it, and his entire life, in a far off land. Soon enough, he wakes up, though, doesn’t he? And he seeks to return to the care of the father who loves him.

And here is where the story really gets interesting to me, and where I begin to question the well-known title of the story, too. Because I have to say the behavior of the father in this story is anything but usual, anything but predictable, anything but just – at least to our limited understanding of what ‘justice’ looks like.

This father does not do what so many might expect him to do:he does not rake the kid over the coals, he does not criticize his profligate behavior, he does not condemn the boy for having left in the first place, for having upset the family system, for having wasted half of the estate. Seems like that boyish behavior is worth at least a small hint of displeasure, doesn’t it? But we get none of it in this story from Jesus, not one breath.

What we see instead is a picture of reckless, extravagant, even scandalous love – which is, by the way, the title of next Sunday’s sermon. The father does the totally unexpected — he welcomes his lost boy home, not only welcomes but celebrates him with a grand party – new clothes, new jewelry, great food, good wine, lots of laughing and eating and drinking goin’ on. This is a party, man. A PARTY. A “he who was lost has been found” kinda party.

And there is not one hair’s breadth of hesitation from daddio. Not one: this is my kid. I love him to pieces. He may have behaved like a complete jerk, but that does not matter to me, now that he has returned. The point is — my boy is back. And that is all that matters.

I love the setting for this story, which the opening verses of tonight’s reading give us — the Pharisees have been grousing about the people Jesus chooses to hang out with. They do NOT approve and cast withering looks his way. Can you just see them? The scripture says, ‘they muttered.’ Muttering. That’s a pretty horrible word, for a horrible habit, one that most of us, if we’re at all honest, have to fess up to, don’t you think?

And that is exactly what the other son does as the story switches focus for a minute.

Except he mutters LOUDLY, and pointedly – at his father. His complaints are deep-seated, he feels excluded, left out, angry at the father’s expansiveness. He feels slighted, unappreciated, unnoticed AND he has decided that his father’s decisions, his acts of love and grace, are somehow unseemly. Jealousy rears its very ugly head and possesses this older, responsible kid.

Sigh. I can identify, can you?

I am the oldest kid in my family of origin. I am the ‘good girl’ in the story of my life. I am the one who behaves with decorum, trying always to obey the rules, even the ones that are unwritten and invisible. So I get this guy — WAY too well. But here’s what I notice almost immediately. The father gets him, too. 

He extends grace to both his boys this night.

Number one son gets assurances that ‘all that I have is yours. . .’ Did you catch that? All that I have is yours. Wow. No word of criticism here, either, is there? Nope. Not one. Only words of love and encouragement. “Come on, join the party. You know I love you — you’re the one that’s always here, you’re the one to whom everything belongs. Come on over – because, son, here’s the thing: WE HAD TO CELEBRATE. There was nothing else to be done.”

You know what I think? Maybe we should start calling this story the story of  “The Prodigal Father.” What do you think? It’s the father’s behavior that is ultimately the scandal of the day. He is the one who has nothing but grace to offer

to the profligate and the jealous older kid,
to the wastrel and the mutterer,
to the bitterness of failure and the pomposity of success,
to the wheedling cries of, “I am a poor worm, let me in, let me in,
to the offended (and offensive), “You never gave me any party.”


The Israelites in the wilderness,
the psalmist and his wasting bones,
the person who comes to Jesus for newness,
the younger brother,
the elder brother.

That father is something else, man. He is just something else.