April 8th, Wednesday Holy Week
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.
Jesus’ Tuesday in Jerusalem had been a most demanding day. All day long he was in the Temple preaching and teaching, and the sermons and lessons had to have been extremely taxing. For one thing, they were freighted with matters of eternal consequence. In one of his last earthly teachings, Jesus was striving to convey the meaning of God’s kingdom. Making it even more burdensome was the fact that there were those in the crowd whose only purpose was to harass Jesus in hopes of discrediting him. It had to have been one of the most strenuous times in Jesus’ life. Thus, it should not be surprising that on Wednesday Jesus headed to Bethany to rest and prepare for the ordeal ahead.
It was on that Wednesday evening that we have the powerful story of Mary’s anointing Jesus with expensive perfume. This story is told in the other gospels, with different characters and even different times. However, I like John’s positioning and telling of this story. You will remember that in John’s Gospel Jesus had healed Lazarus, Mary’s brother. It had created quite a commotion, one that some scholars have speculated led to the huge display of emotion at Jesus’ Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. We don’t know for certain, but for me, this story of Jesus’ anointing finds a meaningful place here, because the story takes place in Bethany at the home of his good friends, good friends who are still in some form of amazed shock after Lazarus’ call from the dead.
There are a few things to note about this after-mealtime experience that might help us visualize the story. For one thing, the men in the room would have been in reclined positions, the typical dinner posture of that day and time. Mary’s entrance among all these men would have been more than just a bit dramatic, and her behavior made it even more so. She had her hair down, which was unheard-of for adult women in that part of the world (then and now). In those days, from the moment when a woman became eligible for marriage she wore her hair up, only letting it down for her husband. Mary’s entrance must have stunned those at the feast, but before anyone could say a word, she took an expensive bottle of perfume. (And when I say “expensive,” I mean expensive. The name nard or spikenard denotes an essential oil from a plant in northern India, which was quite rare and costly, worth up to a year’s salary.) She poured it on Jesus’ feet and then wiped it with her hair. It was an astonishing gesture.
While everyone else gasped at the enormity of the act, Judas, speaking for all who value reason and practicality, asked why the perfume had not been sold, so that the proceeds might have been given to the poor. It was a good question. As my friend Brett Younger quips, “Is it any wonder Judas was shocked? What would be your reaction if our next finance report included a $35,000 charge for perfumed oil?” It was a deed of great extravagance, and one not only noted by Jesus, but affirmed.
One of the best movies of any year is entitled Babette’s Feast. It was first a short story written by Danish author Karen Blixen, whose pen name was Isak Dinesen (whom we might remember as Meryl Streep’s character in the movie, Out of Africa). Babette’s Feast is about two sisters and a most rigid community who live off the coast of Denmark. The two sisters are living out their lives, carrying on the strong piety of their minister father. They live a grim, spartan kind of life, with their daily diet consisting of a gruel of boiled cod fish and dry bread. Babette comes running into their lives, an immigrant fleeing the French revolution in which her husband and son both perished. After the sisters take her in, she works for them for 14 years. Ironically enough, at the end of fourteen years it is discovered that Babette has won a lottery and will be rewarded with 10,000 francs. The sisters assume she’ll be leaving them now, but her only request is that she be allowed to cook a dinner to celebrate the 100th birthday of their austere, deceased father. What they don’t know is that Babette will spend all of her winnings on the meal, and they are aghast when supplies begin to be delivered. Accustomed to their daily gruel, they are shocked to see live animals arrive, not to mention wine. The two sisters, worried about their souls, round up all of those who are to join them for Babette’s meal and have them swear that no matter how the food tastes, they will not say a word. However, at the banquet, the rigid moralism begins to melt, old wounds begin to be healed, old divisions begin to be closed, and all insults and slights forgiven. At the end of the meal the old general stands and says, “We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and shortsightedness, we imagine divine grace to be finite. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see, and we realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude.”
Tomorrow we will commemorate Jesus’ “last supper,” but in so many ways, this “next-to-the-last supper” in Bethany has meaning for all eternity. May this Wednesday find us remembering the extravagance of grace and even daring enough to share it.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- How much of what you believe about God is inherited, and how much is first-hand experience? Has there been an occasion in your life that sparked an awareness of that difference?
- Can you remember times in your life when you were blessed by extravagant expressions of kindness? As you remember, share your gratitude to God for those times and people.
- Have you ever been extravagant in your expressions of God’s grace? Would you like to do so by asking God to reveal opportunities for such expression?
- How might we as a congregation embody grace in this stress-filled time?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: William Wordsworth’s sonnet, “Inside of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge”
Tax not the royal Saint with vain expense,
With ill-matched aims the Architect who planned—
Albeit labouring for a scanty band
Of white-robed Scholars only–this immense
And glorious Work of fine intelligence!
Give all thou canst; high Heaven rejects the lore
Of nicely-calculated less or more;
So deemed the man who fashioned for the sense
These lofty pillars, spread that branching roof
Self-poised, and scooped into ten thousand cells,
Where light and shade repose, where music dwells
Lingering–and wandering on as loth to die;
Like thoughts whose very sweetness yieldeth proof
That they were born for immortality.
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
During this pandemic we have all had to learn things we never thought we needed to know, especially biological matters about this coronavirus. Two of the best teachers on this subject are Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci. They have sought to teach all of us, including the President, the dynamics of this subtle but powerful virus. In listening to them night after night, I have grown increasingly impressed and grateful for the gentle ways they handle difficult matters. With intelligence and grace they are desperately trying to teach us ways to not only save our lives, but to enhance their living.
Their presentations have made me reminisce about teachers who made a marked difference in my life. In high school there was an English teacher, Mrs. Sawyer, who saw promise in me that sparked a new path. Then at Baylor, I was inspired by the explosive intellectual energy of a history teacher named Robert Reid, the steady wisdom of religion professor Dan McGee (our own Merolyn’s husband), and the analytical insight of philosophy professor, Bob Baird, to name just a few. In seminary, Bill Hendricks’ encyclopedic mind began lectures when the bell rang, even if he was still walking to his desk, and ended them lecturing as he walked out the door; New Testament professor Fred Craddock was a giant of a man even though he was barely 5’ tall; and John Marsh’s lectures painted a Rembrandt-quality portrait of Jesus to replace my stick-figure understanding. Looking back, I can see that my life was immeasurably enriched by these teachers, who were masters of their subjects, to be sure, but also passionate in their desire to share the gifts they had been given.
Today, we see the genius of Jesus as a teacher. He has returned to the Temple, where he finds in his make-shift classroom a most difficult collection of students. I suppose every teacher encounters such a class from time to time, one that thinks they already know it all. The questions from such students are, if not sarcastic in nature, framed to show how much they know. How many goodhearted teachers must suffer from students who are so full of themselves that they have no room for wisdom and knowledge that would make them better human beings!
On Tuesday Jesus is seen returning to the Temple, having created quite a stir in Jerusalem. First, there was his most powerfully symbolic entrance, one that inspired “hallelujahs” and a path strewn with cloths and branches. Then there was the unsettling experience in the Temple where he disrupted business-as-usual, setting Jerusalem abuzz. Consequently, there was a crowd waiting on him on that Tuesday. In the crowd were Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees and other members of the Jewish intelligentsia who had come to entrap him with their provocative questions. What ensued was a not-so-subtle display of Jesus’ creative intellect, miring his skeptical students/interrogators in their own questions.
They begin their not so well-concealed assault on Jesus by asking a question, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gives you the authority?” He adroitly answers, bringing up the ministry of John the Baptist, forcing them to struggle for a proper response, while at the same time letting them know who was the teacher and who were the students.
Amy Jill-Levine comments on this passage with insights from her own teaching career: “Such students sometimes show up in my classroom, raise their hands and ask their questions. But, given that I do know what I am doing and that I do not want to waste my time or that of the rest of the class, I answer in such a way that they never ask such obnoxious questions again. I take my cues from Jesus here. First, try to figure out what is behind a question. Some questions are asked for reasons of cruelty or self-import, and not all questions deserve an answer. In responding, I do my best not to sound rude or dismissive or insulting. I do not want to humiliate anyone in the classroom. On the other hand, I do not want to waste either my time or the time of the student who really wants to learn more about Jesus and the Gospels. Thus, the question asked in a nasty or snarky way receives a patient answer, but one that clearly indicates I am aware of the attitude behind that. Second, know the Scriptures well. Third, make sure that, for seekers who are really interested in what you have to say, you respond not only with kindness and respect, but also with empathy. Jesus is a master teacher, and in listening to him teach, I find I become a better teacher myself.”
Jesus follows up with several scintillating parables in response to the questions intended to embarrass him or even incriminate him. His answers are brilliant as he responds to his critics and at the same time gives us lessons of life and life hereafter. He concludes his teaching with a scathing rebuttal to his opponents, reminding them and us about how important it is to know what is ultimate.
Elie Wiesel, the renowned Nobel prize-winning author and Holocaust survivor, once described an experience in helping a teacher to find his true voice. Jan Karski was born in Poland, but eventually became a citizen of this country, where he taught at Georgetown University. Wiesel found Karski at Georgetown, living in obscurity, trying to stay out of the headlines. In Wiesel’s research he had learned that Karski had written a 1944 book about the Holocaust. During the war Karski was a courier for the Polish underground and the exiled Polish government. He was captured by, and escaped from, both the Gestapo and the Soviets. He was given the assignment to return to Poland, to the Warsaw Ghetto, and to the notorious concentration camp, Belzec, to see if the rumors about the Jews were true. He reported that the worst was indeed true, and he took it upon himself to inform the leaders of the Allied nations as to what was happening. That brought him to America to a meeting with President Roosevelt, who listened to him without comment. Karski then talked to Justice Frankfurter, who was a Jew, and Frankfurter said he didn’t believe him. Karski then gave some lectures around the country, wrote his book in 1944, and then dropped out of sight until Wiesel found him. Wiesel had spoken to television producer Claude Lanzmann, who convinced Karski to tell his story. In a filmed interview Lanzmann asked Karski why, after all those years of being silent, he had decided to speak again. Karski replied that there were two reasons: First, because a whole generation had grown up not knowing what happened, not knowing what racial prejudice and hatred can do if they’re not opposed. Secondly, he said, “I did it because I believe there will be a last judgement, and God will say to me, ‘Karski, I gave you a soul. Your body is gone, but your soul is mine. I gave it to you. What did you do with your soul? And I will have to answer him.'”
Those words still teach, don’t they? Today, let us sit at the feet of Jesus, to learn again the wisdom of the ages.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- In author Chaim Potok’s writings he sometimes describes Smicha, the papers of ordination given to rabbis who have completed their academic training. In those writings he has one professor explain that when he signs the ordination documents, he is signing on behalf of his own teachers and their teachers, and even their teachers. In your life, who has signed your “ordination papers”? Who are the teachers who have blessed you and influenced your paths? Remember them, and lift them up in gratitude to God.
- What are the most important lessons you’ve received in life? Who gave them? And how did they give them?
- In the cycle of life, we students are all called to become teachers in some way. Where is your classroom? Who are your students? What is your style? Consider that before God.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins
(regarding a teacher’s difficult task of imparting his passion for his subject)
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Holy Week: Monday
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
One of the things that makes me angry these days is to see preachers (And I use the term “preachers” rather than “ministers”, because these men would rather preach than minister.) refusing to close their churches during the pandemic. With all of the evidence pointing to social distancing, their need to have worship services is maddening. Perhaps Jesus’ actions on this Monday speak to this issue, because on that Holy Week Monday Jesus cleansed the Temple.
To get a picture of this event it is important to understand the enormity of the Temple complex. Instead of one worship center, it was a huge campus with several buildings (Think in terms of the Vatican complex in Rome.) that served a variety of purposes. Religiously, it was the gathering place for folks who journeyed for the major festivals; it was a place of prayer for all peoples; it was the only place in the Jewish world where sacrifices could be offered.
But it represented more than just religion – it was a symbol of the nation Israel, something akin to the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., or the Statue of Liberty in New York City. It was also the site of numerous Temple-related businesses. Like the modern-day Vatican, it was a small city of specialized workers. In addition to the priests, a host of artisans and merchants were required just for maintenance purposes. On a regular basis the Temple employed carpenters, stone masons, gold- and silversmiths, butchers, bakers, shepherds, doctors and ditchdiggers . . . all paid from the Temple treasury. For instance, according to the Mishna, the written collection of Jewish oral tradition, 82 women worked full-time to weave and repair the curtains. In the Temple there was also the equivalent of the national bank. And during Passover, it would have resembled our American 4th of July, with people celebrating their freedom with patriotic as well as religious fervor. (By the way, that was why Pilate came to Jerusalem with his soldiers. He wanted to make sure the Jewish patriotism didn’t get too out of hand.) The backdrop for Jesus’ acts was huge and complex.
This scene of Jesus depicts him in a manner that makes us a bit uncomfortable. It doesn’t jibe with our cherished image of Jesus . . . You know, the one who consistently turned the other cheek, loved his enemies, and refused to buck opposition. The Jesus we know and love was unfailingly kind toward children, longsuffering toward sinners, and gentle toward strangers. The titles we ascribe to him reflect his placid nature: “Good Shepherd,” “Lamb of God,” “Prince of Peace.” In popular piety we have taken this image of a gentle Jesus and made it into a full-blown caricature. Christian art depicts him as soft, harmless, and passive; and many of us prefer to keep him that way. We like Jesus just the way we’ve made him — sweet . . . “Sweet Jesus.” This scene in the temple is startling, because it confronts us with a side of Jesus we are reluctant to face – the angry Jesus.
All four of the Gospel writers seem to agree on this point. Jesus was mad. But why was he mad? While some would say that he was confronting the money changers, because they were taking advantage of the pilgrims, others would say that he was making a statement against the Temple itself. And while there may be some truth in all of that, I believe that the thing that infuriated Jesus was the dilution or corruption of what he declared to be the Temple’s ultimate purpose, serving as a “house of prayer for all people.”
Amy-Jill Levine, the brilliant Jewish scholar who teaches New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School, points out that the key to Jesus’ actions can be found in Jeremiah 7:9-11. His accusation comes directly from these verses, “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” Dr. Levine goes on to say that “a den of robbers” is where robbers have gone after they’ve taken what does not rightfully belong to them. The Jeremiah scripture is about Jeremiah condemning his own people for riotous living, a transgression that would be punished when the Babylonians eventually destroyed the Temple, along with most of the rest of Jerusalem. Dr. Levine’s take on this is that what Jesus was attacking in the Temple was the hypocrisy and false piety on exhibit by all who were coming. They were simply boasting of their faithfulness to God without being righteous and just. Dr. Levine’s insight has made me take another look at this depiction of Jesus, and it has caused me to cringe with its ramifications for us.
During my sabbatical at the USC Film School years ago I had some of the most significant spiritual conversations of my life. After the students and professors realized that I wasn’t on some kind of holy crusade to convert them and the school, they began to ask me interesting questions about faith. Their questions resulted in some meaningful discussions that inspired my personal spirituality… so much so, that by the time I returned home I decided that I was going to try to create opportunities for conversations about faith outside the church. So, I went to several people in the city who I knew to be persons of integrity who were not affiliated with church. I asked them if they would consider getting together every now and then just to talk about their beliefs. I promised them that I was not out to try to coerce them into becoming church members, but that because I respected them, I wanted to learn from them.
Six of the folks I asked agreed to do so. However, just to test my willingness, they scheduled the first meeting in a bar in the heart of the city. I didn’t flinch, but I did tell the Deacon Chair what I was up to, just in case some Baptist eyebrows were raised. We met for nearly a year, and I grew to greatly appreciate the thoughtfulness of those in the group. However, I won’t soon forget something that came out in one of the first meetings. One of the men said, “You know, Mike, I might consider becoming a member of your church, but the truth is, some of your church leaders who act so pious on Sundays are ruthlessly deceptive in their dealings the rest of the week.” Those words startled me then; they startle me now, because I think that is something that makes Jesus angry.
I mean, here we are in a church that preaches the words of Jesus in such forthright ways. But how seriously do we really take the words of Jesus? Are we people who practice the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount away from the church? It makes me aware, especially in this strange time of coronavirus that my neighbors are looking closely at my actions. Do they catch a glimpse of Jesus? I want them to, and I’m going to try earnestly to be more intentional about the things I know are important to Jesus and the Kingdom.
When we were studying at Oxford, I remember seeing a sign over the door of the Staunton Harold Church in Leicestershire, England, that read:
“In the year 1653 when all things Sacred were throughout ye nation either demollisht or profaned, Sir Robert Shirley, Baronet, founded this Church whose singular praise it is to have done the best things in ye worst times, and hoped them in the most calamitous.”
I hope that someday the same thing could be said of us, don’t you?
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- Consider your personal calling. Can you imagine things that you “major” on that are “minor” in the Kingdom of Heaven?
- What are some things we could be doing as a church that more truly capture the spirit of Jesus?
- In these difficult days, can you imagine some things we might say and do so that in the worst of times we have done the best of things?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Malcolm Guite’s “Cleansing the Temple”
Come to your Temple here with liberation
And overturn these tables of exchange,
Restore in me my lost imagination,
Begin in me for good the pure change.
Come as you came, an infant with your mother,
That innocence may cleanse and claim this ground.
Come as you came, a boy who sought his father
With questions asked and certain answers found.
Come as you came this day, a man in anger,
Unleash the lash that drives a pathway through,
Face down for me the fear, the shame, the danger,
Teach me again to whom my love is due.
Break down in me the barricades of death
And tear the veil in two with your last breath.
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were
saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
This week I watched the difficult interview of the choral director in the state of Washington whose choir had rehearsed together just as word was beginning to break about the coronavirus. The group of sixty assembled, all appearing healthy, and enjoyed the comradery of singing together. Within a week forty-five of those were diagnosed with having the virus, and two eventually died. The choir director was distraught. Although he had done nothing wrong and had even warned the choir members to take all the precautions known to be necessary at that time, it was heart-wrenching to witness how quickly the songs of praise turned into cries of lament.
The same could be said of those good people who gathered on that first Palm Sunday to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem. They were singing songs befitting the occasion, songs from the Psalms known as the Hallel, songs of praise punctuated by refrains of “Hallelujah.” These songs were often sung at Jewish festivals, and most surely Passover. But their songs of their praise for the entrance of Jesus soon caught in their throats, because Pontius Pilate’s parade from the other side of the city was beginning to make its presence known. His parade was not to induce praise, but the obedience of submission. How quickly the songs of praise became muted, and even more dramatically would transpose to ominous tones and overtones by Friday. Jesus’ entry was mere prelude to the somber reality of Roman occupation.
Palm Sunday is an interesting day for Christians. We tend to do to Holy Week what we do with Christmas. We take the separate stories of the Gospel and homogenize them into one story. But doing that means that we lose some of the meanings intended by each of the Gospel writers’ own unique perspectives. For instance, we call this day “Palm Sunday,” but the only Gospel writer who mentions palms is John. How interesting… However, with that noted, we will not seek to do an academic investigation of the nuances of each Gospel writer’s perspective, but look in a general sort of way at the event(s) of each day as a spiritual guide for our own pilgrimages to Easter.
Today is Palm Sunday, a day that beckons us to pay attention to what we are looking for. Frederick Buechner remembers being in Rome one year on Christmas Eve and going to St. Peter’s Square, waiting in that enormous crowd for the Pope to arrive to give his Christmas blessing. What struck Buechner the most about that amazing night was the entrance of the Pope, Pius XII, being carried in by the Swiss Guard in a most grand way. Buechner says Pius XII looked like the tired old man he was, small and shriveled, stooped over, gray-skinned, but what caught Beuchner’s attention was the Pope’s eyes. There was an intensity of his stare, peering out into the crowd as if he were looking for someone, someone in particular.
In thinking about Buechner’s observation I can’t help but wonder about that first Palm Sunday and what Jesus was looking for. Did he view the crowds with the conflicting understanding that their euphoric enthusiasm today would turn into dashed hopes by the end of the week? Did he have a feeling of cynicism, questioning the loyalty of those who seemed so devoted on this day, but whose dedication would evaporate like a summer shower in the desert when He was put on trial? Would they be the ones in the crowd at the end of the week yelling “Crucify him” rather than “Hosanna”? Did He worry about whether or not these would-be disciples ever really understood what He was doing? What was He thinking on that ride into Jerusalem?
From another perspective, I wonder what the disciples were thinking. Were they caught up in the glory of it all? Had they forgotten what he had told them on the way to Jerusalem, those unsettling words about his impending death? Had their fears dissipated, the ones that had been so evident just a week or so ago when He had made the decision to go to Jerusalem, the fears they had of the danger lurking there? Were they captivated by the crowd’s unabashed adoration of Jesus? Were they perhaps envisioning a bit of success and fame for themselves? What were those disciples looking for?
Finally, I wonder what the crowds were thinking. They had expected a warrior messiah, someone akin to Judas Maccabaeus, someone who would return them to those thrilling and victorious days of yesteryear. What did Jesus look like to them on that day, that fateful day when He came, not on a powerful war-horse, not in a royal entourage, but perched on the back of a lowly donkey? The crowd broke branches off the trees and bushes and waved them as signs of welcome, hailed Jesus as King; but were their voices sarcastic, laced in comical irony… King? Some king, bouncing on the back of a donkey. Did he look like a king to them? I wonder what they were looking for.
Of course, this all comes current today, because Jesus seeks to come among us, looking for us, seeking to help us pay attention.
Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest and a most gifted preacher. In her book, The Preaching Life, she tells the story of how Jesus came looking for her. One afternoon, when she was a sophomore in college, she was sitting in her dormitory room minding her own business when someone knocked at the door. She opened it to two young women clutching Bibles to their hearts. Barbara’s heart sank. With her parents’ help, she had avoided organized religion most of her life, and these two—with their gleaming eyes, earnest faces, modest plaid skirts and sensible shoes—these were just the sort of people she had hoped to continue avoiding as long as she could. The Holy Spirit had sent them, they said. Could they come in? While Barbara was thinking of a suitable reply, they did come in, and she was a goner. They sat down on her bed, opened their Bibles, and began to ask her questions, “Are you saved?” one of them asked.“Well,” Taylor said, “it depends on what you—” “No,” the other one said, writing something down on a pad of paper.“Do you want to be saved?” the first one asked, and both of them gleamed at Barbara while she thought how awful it would sound to say, “No.”“Sure,” she said, and they leapt into action, pulling her down to sit beside them on the bed, one of them began reading selected passages of Scripture while the other drew an illustration of her predicament on her pad.“Here you are,” she said, drawing a stick figure on one side of a yawning chasm. “And here is God,” she said, drawing another figure on the other side. “In between is sin and death,” she said, filling in the chasm with dark clouds from her pen. “Now the question is: how are you and God going to get together?”“I don’t have a clue,” replied Barbara, and they both looked delighted. Then the one with the pen bent over her drawing and connected the two sides of the chasm with a bridge in the shape of a cross.“That’s how,” she said. “Jesus laid down his life for you to cross over. Do you want to cross over?” “Sure,” Barbara said, and the look in their eyes was like one of those old cash registers where you crank the handle and the little “Sale” sign pops up. They told Barbara to kneel by her bed, where they knelt on either side of her and instructed her to repeat after them: “I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior and I ask him to come into my life. Amen.” Then they got up, hugged Barbara, gave her a schedule of campus Bible study, and left. In reflecting on her experience, Barbara writes: “The whole thing took less than twenty minutes. It was quick, simple, direct. They did not have any questions about who Jesus was. You are here. God is there, Jesus is the bridge. Say these words and you are a Christian. Abracadabra. Amen. “It is still hard for me to describe my frame of mind at the time. I was half-serious, half-amused. I cooperated as much out of curiosity as anything, and because I thought that going along with them would get them out of my room faster than arguing with them. I admired their courage in a way, but nothing they said really affected me. Most of it was just embarrassing, the kind of simplistic faith I like the least, but something happened to me that afternoon. After they left I went out for a walk and the world looked funny to me, different. People’s faces looked different to me; I had never noticed so many details before. I stared at them like portraits in a gallery, and my own face burned for over an hour. Meanwhile, it was hard to walk. The ground was spongy under my feet. I felt weightless, and it was all I could do to keep myself from floating up and getting stuck in the trees. Was it conversion? All I know is that something happened, something that got my attention and has kept it through all the years that have passed since then. I may have been fooling around, but Jesus was not. My heart may not have been in it, but Jesus’ was. I asked him to come in and he came in, although I have no more words for his presence in my life than I do for what keeps the stars in the sky or what makes daffodils rise up out of their graves each spring. It just is. He just is.”
Palm Sunday is a day to help us begin to learn how to look.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- How much of what you believe about God is inherited, and how much is first-hand experience? Ask God to help with the way you look.
- Has there been a time(s) when something was said or done that changed the way you thought about God? Thank God for those times.
- Can we be honestly courageous enough to ask God to come among us now, seeking to help us see the Kingdom in new ways?
- Who is it that helps you look? Can you thank God for them?
A Guide for Prayer: Ernest T. Campbell
O God, you who have endowed faith with power to overcome the world, increase our faith. Help us at the beginning of this holiest of weeks to examine again our commitments, assumptions, and loyalties. Let the figure of Jesus Christ stand over us in mercy and in judgment, measuring our sin and point us to grace.
Illumine the way of all who are confused.
Quiet the troubled heart.
Deliver those who are captive to mean and unworthy purposes.
Companion the bereaved and comfort the dying.
Expand our horizons, O God, lest the trial of the moment close us in to despair and shut us out from the certainties to all who love you and look for your appearing. And as these mercies come, we will turn with thanks to you the giver.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Of all the harrowing issues we’re all experiencing at the moment, financial insecurity ranks right up near the top; as livelihoods, careers and businesses, from the smallest food trucks to the largest global corporations, try to cope with the stress of uncertainty. As one whose future is now more tied to the fluctuation of stocks and bonds, I’ve been more than a bit interested in the roller-coaster financial ride of the past few weeks. Our financial advisor contacted me along with his other clients, to calm our frayed nerves by assuring us that this, too, will pass. I appreciate his calm optimism. But the truth is, I probably need to be paying more attention to Jesus’ words for today. They are the guides to help us understand this and all times.
This part of Jesus’ sermon is a collection of teachings on various matters. However, there is a unifying theme that has been at the heart of this sermon; that is, to be conscious of and diligent toward seeking the Kingdom of Heaven above all earthly matters. He tells us to “not worry.” Perhaps, he was addressing concerns described by a contemporary phrase, “worried sick.” Jesus employs the famous rabbinic method of arguing from the lesser to the greater: “If God takes care of birds, won’t He take care of you?” He makes this argument in several different and poetic ways, and he sums up this portion of the sermon with a verse that has been a guide-verse for me since college, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.”
My friend Scott Walker, who used to pastor First Baptist Waco, once told of a man he remembered from his days as a son of missionary parents serving on the Philippine island of Luzon. Their friends were the Harolds, who had moved to the Philippines to serve as teachers right after the Spanish American War when the Philippines became an American protectorate. Thousands of young Americans were recruited and sent to the Philippines as teachers. But the teachers wound up doing just about everything. Mr. Harold was assigned to the Mountain Province and put in charge of building the first road over the mountains. The task was made almost impossible by the lack of equipment. For example, there were no earth-moving vehicles. They had dynamite to blast through the mountain, but nothing to remove the loosened dirt and rocks. Consequently, mountain tribesmen were recruited, and these strong and lean men worked long and hard. In fact, these short, muscular warriors seemed tireless, but the progress was snail-slow. Every bit of dirt had to be shoveled into buckets and carried off by hand. During this time Mr. Harold had to periodically ride his horse down the mountain for supplies. After he arrived in Baguio, the town at the base of the mountain, he would borrow a truck, load it up, and bring the newly purchased supplies back over what passed for a road. Then he would drive the borrowed truck back to Baguio, return it, and ride his horse back to the camp. On one particular trip he discovered some bright, shiny wheelbarrows from the United States. Hardly able to believe his good fortune, he bought them, loaded them up, and delivered them to the work site a day’s drive away. The next morning the tribesmen unloaded the wheelbarrows, and he began the long journey back down the mountain where he then delivered the borrowed truck to its owners. He then got on his horse and began the three-day trip back up the mountain to the work site. When he arrived, he almost fell off his horse with laughter. There before him were the dozen new wheelbarrows safe and sound. In fact, they were not only safe, the tribesmen were already energetically and enthusiastically using them. However, having never seen a wheelbarrow, the foreman had assigned four men to each wheelbarrow. With shovels they would quickly fill the wheelbarrows to the rim with rock and dirt. Then the four men would each grab a corner of the wheelbarrow, grimacing as they lifted it on their shoulders, and carry it to a ravine where it was dumped. For them, a wheelbarrow was simply a large metal container to carry dirt. They knew nothing about the leverage and the power of the wheel, which is, of course, the genius of the wheelbarrow.
Scott made the point that this story is a parable about the way we try to handle our fears and anxieties. We shovel them into our wheelbarrow of concern, try to lift it on our shoulders, to carry it by ourselves to the ravine in order to shove our fears and anxieties over the side. No wonder we break down so often in the doing of it. We have forgotten the leverage of prayer and the wheel of trust.
I think Jesus is calling on us to be realists, but to be realistically trusting. When our worries and anxieties seem to want to overwhelm us, Christ calls us to go to God for the strength and courage that can sustain us.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- It’s interesting to see what we save, isn’t it? My mother saved Christmas creches. She must have had over twenty of them when she passed on. My father-in-law collected coins. And I think of my own collection of first-edition books. What do our collections say about us? Spend some time with God, thinking about your own earthly treasure and how it relates to the Kingdom.
- Annie Dillard wrote a wonderful, insightful book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, where she spent time purposefully paying attention to nature. Here is one of her recorded thoughts: “It has always been a happy thought to me that the creek runs on all night, new every minute, whether I wish it or know it or care, as a closed book on a shelf continues to whisper to itself its own inexhaustible tale. So many things have been shown so to me on these banks, so much light has illumined me by reflection here where the water comes down, that I can hardly believe that this grace never flags, that the pouring from ever-renewable sources is endless, impartial, and free.” Take time to go outdoors, whether physically or mentally, and consider the lilies of the field, taking in the wonder of God’s creation as a guide to your prayer today.
- With so much to be concerned about, place your worries in the presence of the One whose love and understanding knows no bounds, so that you may embrace the life you have in this very moment.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: William Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us”
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
One of the interesting side-effects of this time of forced quarantine is that it is making us aware of the spiritual discipline that Jesus is talking about today – fasting. We could all talk about the planning that we’re having to make in regard to food – its procurement and preparation. But the discipline of fasting can also be meaningful in other areas of our lives. One of the most prominent places where many of us are finding this to be true is in regard to our television habits. Rather than resorting to our usual rote “couch-potato” mode, it’s dawning on us that our mental, emotional and spiritual health can be strongly affected by our choices in what we’re watching. Personally, I’m convicted in the recognition of how much sports and sports commentary I used to watch. Granted, this is a painful confession, but really, have you ever considered how inane sports commentaries like Sports Center and the likes can be? Each hour the talking heads prognosticate about which players will be drafted where. Will you admit with me that you watched literally months of speculation about where Tom Brady was going to play next year, rehashed hour after hour, day after day? What’s more, there’s been the complaining of multi-millionaire athletes about the prospect of playing games without spectators, while myriad front-liners in a wide variety of professions are putting their lives on the line for the sake of our humankind. It is a sobering realization, to say the least. I think Jesus’ words today speak to the need to hone the excesses of our lives that distract us from that which is ultimate.
To be honest, the modern church has not really been a proponent of fasting. In fact, we have little knowledge and even less understanding of this discipline. Richard Foster, the gifted Quaker author and guide, noted in his book, The Celebration of Discipline, “In a culture where the landscape is dotted with shrines to the Golden Arches and assortment of Pizza Temples, fasting seems out of place, out of step with the times.”
That was not so in Jesus’ time. It was a prescribed spiritual discipline that sought to focus our attention on God. It’s refraining from food or other things, sure enough, but more than that, it is, in professor Tom Long’s words, “a form of worship; it is prayer in action.” In biblical times, this was often done in times of societal crisis, acting out lament and submission, praying in repentance and for renewal. The prophets often prescribed that Israel fast for the sake of righteousness. Fasting was and is an important spiritual discipline.
There have been times in America’s history when our country was called upon to practice this discipline. Many are unaware that the Declaration of Independence did not come into being until a day of fasting and prayer had been observed. Designated by the Continental Congress, it was kept by all the colonies on May 17, 1776. Why? Because they wanted to try to ascertain God’s purpose in this most important decision. President Abraham Lincoln did much the same thing. On April 30, 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed a National Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer. In this proclamation he said: “We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to God that made us! It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.”
I wonder if this has been considered in Washington in recent days… probably not, and probably for good reason. It would be seen more as a ploy. After all, the same thing happened in Jesus’ day when fasting became a public ritual rather than a spiritual retreat. Fasting had gotten out of hand, with people announcing their fast with weeping and wailing, with faces contorted in anguish and sometimes even covered with ash. (In some ways, it’s like those who have gone on a diet and can’t stop talking about how difficult it is, and how they ache for one little candy bar. Interesting, that even when abstaining from food, they can’t quit thinking about it!) Jesus’ words today assume that we fast (“and when you fast . . .”), but he says the fast’s purpose is not to express a doleful countenance, but to become hungry for the justice and mercy of God. In fact, Jesus basically tells us that while fasting, we’re to “put on a happy face.”
I have never imagined Dolly Parton to be a spiritual guide, but back in the 1980s, People magazine interviewed Ms. Parton. She surprised the interviewer at one point when she answered the question, “Where do you ever get such a strong character?” And Dolly told about her family and her Christian faith. “I quote the Bible real good!” she said. “What about psychiatry?” asked the interviewer. “So many people find the need to get counseling, especially in the stresses of show business.” “No,” said Dolly, “I don’t see a psychiatrist. I fast instead.” “You what?!” “I fast!” “Is that like a diet?! “No!” said Dolly. “I do it to get in touch with God! Sometimes I’ll… fast 7, 14, or 21 days… I don’t drink nothing but water and I don’t ever say when I’m on a fast — Scripture says you’re not supposed to.” She went on to say that she’s never made a major decision without fasting and prayer. The interviewer was astounded, and so was the public, I’m sure.
Nevertheless, it is a gentle reminder of the strong words of Jesus, “when you fast . . .”
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- Is there something you might consider giving up in order to spend more time with God? Why did that particular thing come to mind? Pray for God’s help in that regard.
- Is there a vital decision that you need to make? Pray for insight in how a fast might assist your focus and direction.
- What might you do without, so that others might have?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Feast”
I drank at every vine.
The last was like the first.
I came upon no wine
So wonderful as thirst.
I gnawed at every root.
I ate of every plant.
I came upon no fruit
So wonderful as want.
Feed the grape and bean
To the vintner and monger;
I will lie down lean
With my thirst and my hunger.
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This, then, is how you should pray:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive
you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him.
–Matthew 6:5-15; 7:7-11
One of the dramatic images for me in this most difficult time is the picture of a single priest alone in a huge cathedral, leaning forward on a pew, praying for his parishioners, his community, his world. I think that is our calling this and every day, to be still and pray, voicing our cares and concerns, but also listening for God’s still, small voice.
You will recall that in this portion of the sermon Jesus is focusing on the spiritual disciplines used in worship. Today he is speaking to us on how to pray. We need to remember that no group ever had a higher ideal of prayer than the Jewish people. One rabbi said, “Great is prayer, greater than all good works.” Another rabbinic saying that I find so helpful is “He who prays within his house surrounds it with a wall that is stronger than iron.”
However, certain faults had crept into the Jewish habits of prayer – faults so discernible that Jesus begins His teaching on prayer by first telling His disciples how not to pray. As we look at this text we notice that Jesus admonishes his disciples not to pray like the hypocritical phonies who like to pray in public as if to be seen and heard. It seems that the Jewish people had begun making a ritual of prayer, scheduling specific prayer hours in much the same manner that Muslims pray today – pausing at 9 a.m.; 12:00 p.m.; and 3:00 p.m. What’s more, they used formalized prayers that could be quite long, such as the Shema, which in its shortened form reads: “The Lord our God is one God.” (found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11; 13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41) Jews were required to recite this every morning and evening, but many had begun using it as a public prayer as well. In addition, there was the Shemoneh Esreh, which means the 18 petitions, a collection of 18 prayers which are still part of the synagogue service prayed by devout Jews; but during Jesus’ time there occurred a public display of praying this long prayer in a very loud fashion. Jesus objected to this, stating unequivocally that prayer is not to be a public witness, but a private devotion.
In addition to his criticism of the hypocrites, Jesus also makes note of the Gentile prayers. Now, what did he mean by that – Gentile prayers? It very well could have meant the invocation of the many gods of so many cultures or the ritual repetition of prayer formulae. You will remember the antics of the prophets of Baal when confronted by Elijah, and how they ran in circles and kept uttering the same phrases over and over again. All of this speaking assumes that one who prays has to impress or gain attention of the deity, or that a correct formula must be used to ensure the effectiveness of the prayer. Jesus reminds us that we aren’t saying things to God that God doesn’t already know. The biblical scholar, Dale Bruner, says, “Prayer is not an intelligence briefing for God; it is intelligent conversation with Him.”
After all of these instructions on how not to pray, Jesus then turns his attention to how to pray by giving us this wonderful prayer, one that we know as “The Lord’s Prayer.” However, I think it is better understood, as “The Disciples’ Prayer.”. I mean, there are parts of this prayer that Jesus didn’t need to pray – “forgive me my trespasses . . .” No, Jesus gave this prayer to us as a model for prayer.
In the play and subsequent movie, Shadowlands, the story based on the romantic relationship between C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman, there is a scene where Lewis has returned to Oxford from London, where he and Joy have just married in a private ceremony performed at her hospital bedside. She is dying of cancer, and, through the struggle with her illness, she and Lewis have discovered a deep love for one another. Afterward, as Lewis arrives at Magdalene College, he is met by his friend, Harry Harrington, an Episcopal priest, who asks what news there is. Lewis hesitates; then, deciding to refer to the marriage and not the cancer, says, “Ah, good news, I think, Harry. Yes, good news.” Harrington, not aware of the marriage and thinking that Lewis is referring to Joy’s medical condition, replies, “I know how hard you’ve been praying . . . Now, God is answering your prayer.” “That’s not why I pray, Harry,” Lewis responds. “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God; it changes me.”
Tom Long, professor of homiletics, notes, “Prayer is not a message scribbled on a note, jammed into a bottle and tossed into the sea in hopes that it will wash up someday on God’s shoreline. Prayer is communion with God. We speak to God, but God touches, embraces, shapes, and changes us. Whether we pray for rain or pray for sunshine, our prayer is answered, because in the act of praying we receive the gift we really seek – intimacy with God.”
Prayer isn’t a prescription for those who are used to instant gratification. It requires a constancy that Jesus exhorts at the end of his sermon. We need to keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking at the door of heaven. For it is that discipline that changes the world by changing us.
No one believes that any more than the inspiring South African bishop, Desmond Tutu. Peter Gomes, Dean of the Chapel at Harvard University, remembered an experience which took place years ago now. “I remember when Archbishop Desmond Tutu came to visit our campus on his way to Oslo to pick up his Nobel Prize. We had arranged for a special service at noon on the day he was to travel through Boston. Needless to say, the chapel was packed to the rafters with nothing left but standing room only. It was a time of particular anxiety in South Africa. Nelson Mandela had not been released from prison, and hopes for that was a fantasy held only by a few faithful and most devout. DeKlerk was not yet President of South Africa, and the old Boers were in full and total and brutal charge. The chapel was filled with activists eager to do something about the situation in South Africa, and they wanted to do it then and there. Their moral and political temperature had risen higher and higher, almost over the boiling point. The Archbishop rose into the pulpit after many minutes of cheering from the crowd. In his lilting, musical, almost hypnotic voice, he said, ‘I’m going to tell you all what you most need to hear, the single most important thing you can do for South Africa.’ The sanctuary fell silent as we waited with bated breath, ready to follow him anywhere at any cost. ‘Pray,’ he said softly . . . ‘Pray for my people. Pray for us and with us, daily. Pray. That’s what you can do. That will change the world.’”
It was and is. Let us, therefore, pray . . .
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- How do you feel about your personal prayer time? Is it a source of renewal and inspiration? Are words difficult to find? There are times when it helps to simply sit in silence, open our heart and say, “Nudge me toward you, O God,” then to pause prayerfully for an awareness, a thought, an emotion, rooted in love.
- For many people, music is a meaningful part of prayer. A beautiful hymn tells us, “There is a place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God.” It concludes by asking, “Hold us who wait before thee, near to the heart of God.” In today’s world we are unaccustomed to waiting before God. If you find it helpful, sing this hymn softly to draw nearer…
- What are your deep concerns? Have you taken them to God, the source of strength, compassion, and understanding beyond our own?
- What are your praises? I remember in a staff meeting in Tyler, the Minister of Recreation, in his devotion to open our meeting, said, “I made an interesting discovery about prayer last night.” He went on to say that it was his custom to pray with each of his three children. When he prayed with his youngest, he realized that this little one’s prayers each night began with thanksgiving . . . “Thank you God for Mommy and Daddy; thank you God for . . . .” Let the prayers of children inform our own. During these trying times, are you able to specifically identify and express gratitude each time you pray?
- What are the needs of our community? The world? The traditional prayer of St. Francis begins “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” Ask God for an awareness of how you may embody that ideal.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: “Praying ” by Mary Oliver
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
–Matthew 6:1-4; 19-21
One of the positive aspects of this time of prescribed isolation is hearing about the number of caring deeds being done by people. YouTube is a continual source of music, poems, and heartfelt expressions of people passing on hope. And then there are those who are donating millions of dollars in assistance. These are all heartwarming, to say the least. But even more impressive is the fact that there are exponentially more inspiring deeds being done by people who seek no publicity, quiet acts of grace.
Jesus addresses that contrast in today’s scripture. Interestingly enough, it would seem that Jesus’ sermon shifts. It’s almost as if it is another, completely different sermon, and instead of being preached on a mountain, this one is preached in the Temple. Wherever it was preached, Jesus doesn’t alter his tone. He is just as direct about our worship as he has been about our ethics.
Jesus begins this part of the sermon talking about “almsgiving.” It is telling that while “alms” can be translated as money, the word that the Jews used for almsgiving, “tzedakah,” is also the word they used for “righteousness.” Giving alms was so important to their faith that almsgiving and righteousness were considered one and the same thing. In fact, almsgiving was seen by some rabbis, and even quoted in the religious book of Tobit, as a way to gain merit in the sight of God, and was even considered a means of earning atonement and forgiveness for past sins. This could be seen in one of the rooms in the Temple, known as the Chamber of the Silent. People who wished to make atonement for some sin placed money there, and poor people from good families who had come down in the world were secretly helped by these contributions. Caring for the needy constituted an important part of Jewish life. But the way a person gives and the spirit in which they give is important.
Maimonides, the great Jewish thinker, gave a most marvelous model for this kind of giving. He lists eight ways in which we give, beginning with the lowest: (1) Giving begrudgingly and making the recipient feel disgraced or embarrassed; (2) Giving cheerfully, but giving too little; (3) Giving cheerfully and adequately, but only after being asked; (4) Giving before being asked; (5) Giving when you do not know the individual benefitting, but the recipient knows your identity; (6) Giving when you know the individual benefitting, but the recipient does not know your identity; (7) Giving when neither the donor nor the recipient is aware of the other’s identity; (8) and the highest? Giving money, a loan, your time or whatever else it takes to enable an individual to be self-reliant.
I think the point that Jesus is making is that our giving is an important part of our worship, because it is so indicative of how we see the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s not so much a matter of the size of the gift, but rather the spirit in which it is given. The spirit is a testimony of what matters most, of what our heart really treasures.
Years ago, The Chaplain magazine told how the noted preacher Charles Spurgeon and his wife were called miserly, because they sold all the eggs their chickens laid and would not give any away. Even close relatives were told, “You may have them if you pay for them.” Because they always made a profit on their butter, milk and eggs, rumors circulated that they were greedy. The Spurgeons, however, took the criticism graciously, and only after the death of Mrs. Spurgeon was the truth revealed. The records showed that the entirety of their profits had been used to support two needy, elderly widows whose husbands had spent their lives in serving the Lord. The Spurgeons had refused to defend themselves, because they did not want to call attention to their giving or to the recipients of those gifts. You see, the Spurgeons were living Jesus’ teaching.
The call of Jesus today is to examine what we treasure most. Jesus would point us to the Kingdom. I pray that is where our hearts are pointed, don’t you?
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- Take some time to consider what matters most for you. What is it that fills your mind, your heart, and/or your effort on an ongoing basis? How does this dedication illustrate your spiritual life?
- Think about some of the ways you give that are not monetary. Thank God for those opportunities and abilities, and seek strength and even more impetus to continue being a blessing.
- Who in your community needs a helping hand today? Will you ask God to help you as you seek to meet that need?
- When you make your customary gift to the church, think about all the ways this money is used. Someone once said that “a church budget should be a mission statement.” Reflect on all the good/grace enabled by your giving.
A Guide for Prayer: Kahlil Gibran on Giving
You give but little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.
For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard for fear you may need them tomorrow?
And tomorrow, what shall tomorrow bring to the overprudent dog burying bones in the trackless sand as he follows the pilgrims to the holy city?
And what is fear of need but need itself?
Is not dread of thirst when your well is full, the thirst that is unquenchable?
There are those who give little of the much which they have–and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome.
And there are those who have little and give it all.
These are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty.
There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.
And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism.
And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue;
They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.
Through the hands of such as these God speaks, and from behind their eyes He smiles upon the earth.
It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked, through understanding;
And to the open-handed the search for one who shall receive is joy greater than giving.
And is there aught you would withhold?
All you have shall some day be given;
Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors’.
You often say, “I would give, but only to the deserving.”
The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture.
They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.
Surely he who is worthy to receive his days and his nights, is worthy of all else from you.
And he who has deserved to drink from the ocean of life deserves to fill his cup from your little stream.
And what desert greater shall there be, than that which lies in the courage and the confidence, nay the charity, of receiving?
And who are you that men should rend their bosom and unveil their pride, that you may see their worth naked and their pride unabashed?
See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving.
For in truth it is life that gives unto life while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.
And you receivers—and you are all receivers—assume no weight of gratitude, lest you lay a yoke upon yourself and upon him who gives.
Rather rise together with the giver on his gifts as on wings;
For to be overmindful of your debt, is to doubt his generosity who has the freehearted earth for mother, and God for father.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
— Matthew 5:43-48
As I have mentioned earlier, one of the things that bothers me most about this strange time in which we are existing, is the rancor, not only in politics, but in society as a whole. I am not naïve enough to say that bitter, hate-filled disagreements haven’t gone on before, (In my own lifetime I remember the damaging vitriol of racism/civil rights struggles and that of the Vietnam war. Each generation can point to its own tragic conflicts.) but the continual exposure to these current social and political enemies continually drains my spirit, as I know it does yours. You’re familiar with the drill… One side says “stop,” the other says “go,”; one says “black,” the other says “white,”; one says “We’re making things better.”, the other says “You’re making things worse!” . . . on and on it goes, ad nauseam. So, what are we to do?
I suppose that is why Jesus, with his innate understanding of human nature, spent so much time on this subject in this, his most well-known sermon. Consider today’s text. Just as we were getting over yesterday’s antiseptic command about refraining from retaliation, this next admonition kicks it up a notch by saying, “love your enemies.” How hard is that! The call is once again of perspective, and I think the key to today’s exhortation is found in the last line, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” What Jesus so desires is that we consider all of our relationships in light of our relationship with God. We are to love our enemies, because God loves our enemies. That in itself is startling, when you think about it. We are to love consistently, even our enemies, because God’s love is the very purpose of creation.
Martin Luther King, Jr., could preach about that better than almost anyone. In one of his sermons he says:
I think 1 mentioned before that some time ago my brother and I were driving one evening to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didn’t dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A. D. looked over and in a tone of anger said: “I know what I’m going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, I’m going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power.” And I looked at him right quick and said: “Oh no, don’t do that. Be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody’s got to have some sense on this highway.”
Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights, and that is the trouble, isn’t it? And as all of the civilizations of the world move up the highway of history, so many civilizations, having looked at other civilizations that refused to dim the lights, decided to refuse to dim theirs. And Toynbee tells that out of the twenty-two civilizations that have risen up, all but about seven have found themselves in the junkheap of destruction. It is because civilizations fail to have sense enough to dim the lights. And if somebody doesn’t have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world, the whole of our civilization will be plunged into the abyss of destruction. And we will all end up destroyed because nobody had any sense on the highway of history. Somewhere somebody must have some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.
One of my favorite books, John Feinstein’s The Civil War, is about the Army-Navy football game. It is an amazing story about life at the military institutions, and particularly the way the two schools prepare for their annual game, which, by the way, dates back to 1879. While each school plays a difficult schedule, their season’s success is based on this one game. From the beginning of spring training, practices end with, “Beat Army,” or “Beat Navy.” Spectators at the game see an intensity like none other, emotions that run high, players giving their all. But when the game ends, after the teams have shaken hands, all the players move to the end of the field where the losing team’s fans are seated – either the Brigade of the Navy Midshipmen or the Army Corps of Cadets – where they stand together, with hands over their hearts, as the band plays either “Blue and Gold” or “Alma Mater.” Then both teams walk to the other end of the field and repeat the process for the winner. Feinstein says that the first game-ending he saw gave him chills, because it was the time when troops were already stationed in the Persian Gulf preparing for what would be known as Desert Storm. Feinstein recognized in that instance that a greater allegiance was honored by all present.
Jesus calls us to love our enemies because God does. Enough said . . .
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, once said, “I have no doubt that we are here for a purpose. I have no doubt that the purpose is not only to bring God closer to his creations, but to bring his creations closer to each other.”
- Who would you consider to be your enemy? Why would you say that? Take time to ask God to illumine your heart and mind so that you might be able to see differently.
- Who considers you to be an enemy? What can you do to change that?
A Guide for Prayer: A Prayer by Ted Loder
O God of children and clowns,
as well as martyrs and bishops,
somehow you always seem to tumble
a jester or two of light
through the cracks of my proud defense
into the shadows of my sober piety.
Grant me, now, an enchantment of heart
that, for a moment,
the calliope of your kingdom
may entice my spirit,
out of my sulky self-preoccupations
into a childlike delight
in the sounds and silences
that hum of grace;
so I may learn again
that life is never quite as serious as I suppose,
yet more precious than I dare take for granted,
even for a moment;
that I may be released
into the possibilities of the immediate,
smudge souled as I am,
to join the parade of undamned fools
who see the ridiculous in the sublime,
the sublime in the ridiculous;
and so dare to take pratfalls for love,
walk tightropes for justice,
tame lions for peace,
and rejoice to travel light,
knowing there is little I have or need
except my brothers and sisters to love,
you to trust,
and your stars to follow home.
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
One of the descriptions of these terrible days of the pandemic is that we are “at war.” The reference, of course, seeks to mobilize all of our resources to defeat an enemy, similar in respect to World War II, where everything in our society was focused on defeating the Axis powers. While there is much wisdom in the mobilization idea, a problem comes in identifying the enemy. The coronavirus is invisible for the eye to see. Thus, what is happening in some quarters is to blame the place from which the virus came, almost creating a tangible character, an unseen invader into our lives. Consequently, there has been marked prejudice toward Asian-Americans. Not only are abusive words hurled, but people have sought to punish these good people by avoiding them, even ostracizing them. This bigotry reveals the human tendency to want to retaliate for things that happen to us.
Jesus’ words for us today begin with his quoting one of the oldest laws of humankind, the law known as “Lex Talionis” — “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Various theories attempt to trace the origin of this law, but it seems to go back to the very beginnings of written history. It is found in the Hebrew Scriptures at least three times, but it goes even further back in history to the Code of Hammurabi, compiled in 2200 B.C.E. For unknown ages it has served as society’s fallback protocol against any offense, thus becoming the rationale for wars, feuds and vendettas. Jesus’ words are not just the antidote to stop the cycle of violence caused by retribution; they are descriptive of how we are to perceive the Kingdom of Heaven.
Just a few years ago the world, and especially our country, had a Baptist Christian who lived out these particular words of Jesus. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who practiced what he preached. And what he preached was a non-violent resistance to what he decried as the “principalities of evil” found in the racial issues in our country. His emphasis on practicing the words of Jesus saved our country from a terrible bloodbath. It was difficult enough for King standing up against the racist mindset of the Klan and other groups who were constantly threatening him, but he was also being criticized by some in the African-American community who espoused a violent response.
While I lived through those days of racial upheaval, I don’t think I fully appreciated the unbelievable commitment it took for Dr. King and others to truly overcome hatred with non-violent resistance. Just a few years ago Lisa and I visited The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. It is an amazing and somewhat troubling place. I say “troubling” because its exhibits illustrate racism’s inherent inhumanity in such graphic ways. For instance, I had read about the 1960 Greensboro, N.C., sit-ins and even heard the legendary preacher, Otis Moss, Jr., describe his first-hand experience there. But an exhibit at the Center invites visitors to actually sit at an old Woolworth café counter wearing a headset transmitting continual screamed insults. If you close your eyes and try to visualize the actual scene, it can’t help but incense your anger. After hearing it myself, I was humbled by the devotion and discipline those young people displayed in taking the abuse without striking back. I was reminded of the words of Yale scholar, Roland Bainton, “If in order to defeat the beast, we become a beast, then bestiality reigns.”
Gerald Mann, a most iconoclastic Baptist preacher, once saw Jesus’ words in action at, of all things, a Little League baseball game. Mann was ten years old at the time and was best friends with Rudy Castillo, his team’s third baseman. They were playing for the championship of the North Zone of the Houston League. The game had come down to the classic situation – last inning, score tied, bases loaded, three balls and two strikes, with Rudy at the bat. He singled home the winning run, and everyone went crazy. The fans flooded the field; the place was bedlam. Then the big first-baseman from the opposing team – an Anglo boy – strode over to Rudy and through clenched teeth called him a hate-filled, derogatory racial slur. Rudy promptly felled him with a left hook. The first baseman rolled in the dirt, crying and spitting blood. Everyone associated with either team squared off to do battle. Rudy’s father, a gentle hardworking immigrant from Mexico, spun his son around and stared at him with a mixture of hurt and sadness. “Son,” he said, “You just proved that you are exactly what this boy called you.” Then Rudy’s father picked up the first baseman, wiped his face, and hugged him. The fight was over and an important lesson was learned by a lot of people, including a little ten-year-old who grew up to be a Baptist preacher.
Jesus’ words today call us from the perspective of retribution, of ‘getting-even,’ to the perspective of the Kingdom, of those who, in all circumstances, seek that which is right.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- Take time to examine your heart and your personal experience. Is there anything or anyone who makes you automatically grit your teeth or clinch your fists? Consider why that emotion rises up in you and what God would want you to do about it.
- Think about places and people today who need an awareness of the love of God. How can you be an instrument of grace in these times?
- Pray for all those who struggle with physical and/or emotional anguish, that they may find comfort and strength in God’s Spirit.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things”
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.