The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Lent 5—Year C; Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8 Video
Oh, we are hurtling toward Holy Week at, what feels like, the speed of light. We are on this train speeding toward Palm Sunday, and all that follows, and there’s no stopping it. So, before we launch into these events that we know are coming, and that we know we have no control over, and we know we can’t stop—we get this one last chance to step back with Lenten spaciousness, and take stock of our lives, and see where we are. Because Lent is this stretch of time when we can slowly, methodically, take our lives out, and turn them around, and look at them from every conceivable angle. Once Holy Week begins next Sunday, we are on for the ride, and there’s no getting off until the Easter dawn breaks.
So, what are we given to contemplate today. A lot. The collect sets us up beautifully. Acknowledgement that God alone can align our unruly wills and disordered affections. Acknowledgement that love and desire are very much at the heart of the matter, and that it is only by grace that we are able to love what God commands and desire what God promises. There is the acknowledgement that life in this world is lived among varied and swift changes that can completely knock us off of our feet, and that amidst such flux, amidst the swirl of life that feels so out of control, amidst that, there is a longing in our hearts for our hearts to be fixed in that place where true joy may be found. We could just stop right here and meditate on this for the next 10 minutes, but there is more.
There is Isaiah and the LORD who proclaims that we are not enslaved by former things, by the things of our past, by the things of old; who proclaims that God is about to do a new thing, who whispers, “It’s on the cusp, it’s about to spring forth, do you not perceive it?” Like the life that is about to burst through the soil all over these mountains, and the song of the birds that is growing stronger, and the light that is lingering later—small changes, are we paying attention? Are we aware? Are we awake? God is bent toward life and possibility. The God of Isaiah knows there is always a way through the wilderness, always a river to be found in the desert. Being perpetually lost is not our final resting place; there are waters that can quench our deepest thirst.
The psalmist reminds us that those who sow with tears do indeed reap with songs of joy, that those who go out weeping carrying the seed, do indeed come again shouldering their sheaves, bundles of harvest. And could it be that the two are inextricably bound up together? Could it be that the tears are good and necessary, and that it is our tears that water the earth where we sow the seeds that enable the new growth to come? Could it be that, as we shed those things that encumber us, that keep us from the fullness of life, could it be that we have to grieve the loss of those things, even as we sow the seeds of new life in God? But as with being lost, this grief is not our final resting place—the tears, like the liquid they are, are fluid. They flow, and they soften, and they transform our hearts; they prepare the soil of our heart for new life that will indeed be reaped with songs of joy.
And Paul, Paul takes us into deep, deep places today. Paul knows his False Self intimately. He’s the champion of soundbite credentials. I just love this: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. I am a zealous, persecuting, law-abiding, card-carrying Israelite, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, pure Pharisee.” My goodness, this man could run for office. He knows exactly which buttons to push with his audience. He can check all the boxes that prove his purity. By all measures of his society, and his party, he was a rousing success.
But Paul had had his dark night of the soul. Paul had been knocked off his horse. Paul knew what it was like to see nothing and to stumble around lost in the dark. Paul knew that all the trappings of the False Self mean nothing. Oh that everyone offering themselves for leadership would know what Paul knew. All this stuff, all these roles and accolades, all this puffing up and purity—they add up to nothing.
Paul continues: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Paul knew what we all come to know sooner or later in our lives, the gains just don’t satisfy our souls, they just don’t. Knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, knowing that he has claimed me as his own, being found in him, knowing that I am beloved of God, knowing that God doesn’t love me because of what I do or don’t do, but knowing that God loves me because I breathe, because God looks in my eyes and sees God’s own eyes looking back, knowing that it’s all about trusting that I am loved with a love that will not let me go—this is the pearl of great price. And Paul speaks the longing that is in all of our hearts—I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. And Paul knows that you can’t get to resurrection if you don’t share in the sufferings, and you can’t get to new life without passing through death, and here we are again, back to grief and tears and praying for our hearts to be fixed as everything around us changes.
And finally, we come to John’s gospel, and this exquisitely beautiful scene of Mary pouring a pound of nard over Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair. Let me tell you, this was not the done thing. It’s extravagant and sensual and so not respectable. And a thousand things could have been done with the money that could have come from selling that nard—why it was a year’s worth of wages. Judas is the sensible voice of reason, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? That really could have helped the poor!” Jesus tells Judas to leave Mary alone. She bought that nard for the day of his burial. That nard marks that death is coming. That nard is the fragrance of surrender that will open the gates of life. That nard is the sign and symbol and sacrament of a love that will transcend the realms. You can’t put a price on that. And Jesus then says something to Judas that should shake us all to the core. “Judas, you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me. Judas, you want to give the money to the poor, but don’t you understand, you are always to have the poor with you. They are not people that you do things to, they and you are woven into a web of relationship, you are inextricably bound one to another. And when you fail to recognize an act borne of love, you don’t have me. Where love pours, there I will be, always. Judas, could you bind yourself in love to the poor the way that Mary has bound herself to me?” Now, that’s a haunting question for us to consider.
So much to think about today.
Where are our wills unruly and our affections disordered?
Where are we standing firm amidst all the varied changes swirling around us?
Where are we fixing our hopes, our hearts?
Where are we perceiving a new way forward?
What in our False Self are we needing to shed? How about our collective False Self that is running rampant in this election cycle? What do we need to suffer the loss of if we are to know Christ and the power of his resurrection?
Earlier this week, I was at our clergy retreat, and some of us were talking about the campaign around the supper table, and someone remarked that what we are witnessing in this campaign is only mirroring back to ourselves what our culture and our society has become—coarse and meanspirited. I have to agree. This is what happens when we do not do our work, and when we let the False Self have free rein.
This past Wednesday in our Healing Service, at the time of open intercessions, I prayed for Donald and Marco and Ted and John and Bernie and Hillary—beloved sons and daughter of God. I prayed that we might see the face of Christ in them—as in our baptismal vow: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”—and I prayed that they might see the face of Christ in each other, and that we might see the face of Christ in all their supporters—and I know that Bernie is Jewish, but Christ is bigger than Christian faith—Christ as that icon that reminds us that God is in the flesh in this person before us. Disagree with policies and absolutely call violent rhetoric that incites violence out-of-bounds—but never forget that God lives in all these people. My concern is this: Are these individuals offering themselves for leadership awake to their True Self or is their False Self running rampant? And as we engage this election process, are we awake to our True Self or is our False Self having a self-righteous field day?
Richard Rohr says that the person who is living out of the False Self will do evil and call it good, and that evil can take a lot of forms.
Our job as Christian people is to call all of us back to our True Self—that self that Paul came to know, that self that longs to know what it means to know you’re a beloved son or daughter of God, who longs to know what it means to live as that beloved son or daughter of God, and who knows that all the gains in the world mean nothing if we don’t know that True Self. But we will have to die to our False Self, if we are to know the power of resurrection that comes when we know our True Self is all we really have. I pray that all those offering themselves for leadership will come to know these truths that Paul knew.
And the final questions with which we must sit.
Where are we being called to pour out that jar of nard in an act of extravagant love?
Where are we pulling a Judas and dodging binding ourselves with one another in love through the most elegant, and responsible sounding, deflections?
How are embracing the poor as our kin, instead of as the recipients of our charity?
How are the poor with us?
As I have said before, it’s Lent. We don’t get answers, only questions that will help us fix our hearts where true joys are to be found. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 13, 2016