Sunday, March 14, 2010

Wednesday of Holy Week Mark 14:1-11

1 It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; 2 for they said, "Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people."
3 While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. 4 But some were there who said to one another in anger, "Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor." And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."
10 Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. 11 When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

We have been spending Sundays in Lent following the Gospel of Mark through Holy Week, using a book titled The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan as our guide along the journey. This week we are looking at the events of Wednesday.

The chief priests were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. They knew they couldn’t do it during the Passover festival or the people would riot, because Jesus was extremely popular. Everywhere he went the crowds gathered – when he entered the city crowds laid palms at his feet. When he turned over the moneychangers tables in the temple on Monday the crowd was there to admire him. Tuesdays crowd was very pleased by his confounding of the priests and Pharisees and scribes and Sadducees, they were spellbound by his teachings. So they couldn’t take the chance of arresting him while the crowds were present or they might riot, and if they rioted the Romans would retaliate, people would be injured and killed, the Temple leadership could lose their positions or even their lives. I know we have learned to think of the crowds of Jews as being opposed to Jesus when Pilate is asking what to do with him, but right here, in this passage, it is clear that the crowds were with Jesus and against the Temple leadership. And the Temple leaders give up. Unless they can find some way to arrest and try Jesus in secret, they can’t move against him.

Meanwhile, Jesus is frustrated with his disciples. Throughout his gospel Mark keeps telling us about ways the disciples are just not getting it at all. Jesus has now prophesied his own death three times, first in Chapter 8, then in Chapter 9 and finally in Chapter 10. In each case he refers to himself as the Son of Man, speaks of his betrayal and death and of his resurrection three days after he is killed. But the disciples don’t understand what he means. Even after three prophesies he catches them arguing over who will be closest to him when he comes to power. I can just imagine Jesus shaking his head over his disciples’ lack of understanding.

As they sit at the table a woman comes in and anoints him with very rare and expensive ointment, pouring it out onto his head. We don’t know who she is. She isn’t named or described in any way. And it is really important that we not confuse her with the Mary of John’s gospel or the sinful woman of Luke’s gospel. It’s important that we see her just as Mark portrays her here – an unnamed woman who is part of the company who follow Jesus. Jesus lifts her up and claims she will be remembered and celebrated where ever believers gather together.

And why is this? Because she, not the disciples, is the first believer. She is the first one to realize what his prophecies mean and so she pours out upon his head this costly ointment – preparing his body for the grave. For Mark, she is the first Christian. Even before Easter, before Jesus’ appearances to the disciples after his resurrection, this woman believed.

Not only was she the first who believed, the first of his many followers on the way who really got what he was trying to tell them. She was also the first to model the kind of leadership he was trying to teach them. She led the others in belief and also in service. We’re going to come back to the woman in a minute.

Judas went to the priests. Mark doesn’t tell us why Judas decides to betray Jesus. Historians have lots of theories and other gospels talk about Judas’ motive. But Mark doesn’t. Mark is sort of a “just the facts” gospel. It was both the first gospel written and the shortest. The stories are fairly brief and unembellished. What we know from Mark is simply that Judas, one of the Twelve, decided to betray Jesus. He went to the Temple leadership and offered to find a way for them to arrest Jesus without the crowds knowing about it, and they offered to pay him. They were, of course, delighted to have an insider willing to betray his rabbi. Judas’ action will fulfill the prophecy of betrayal and arrest.

I wouldn’t have noticed this contrast between Judas and the woman without Borg and Crossan pointing it out. I mean, I’ve always loved this woman’s story, but I’ve always focused on how it foreshadowed the crucifixion, or how we are to understand that statement “the poor will always be with you.” It never occurred to me to look at this woman alongside of Judas, one of the Twelve. But that’s what Mark intended for us to do – to look at the woman in the context of discipleship and belief and leadership. She understands what Jesus is teaching better than any of the Twelve, who still don’t understand Jesus’ prophecies or the idea that leaders must first be servants. She does. She is the perfect disciple in contrast with Judas who is the worst possible disciple.

This unnamed woman, this perfect disciple, models for us what it means to be a leader. Her faith led her to follow Jesus’ teachings far better than those of Jesus’ followers whose names we do know. At Delhaven we understand that one of the many ways we can follow Jesus is to serve the poor, to feed the hungry, to make education available for those who have little or nothing to spend on education. A number of us will be walking in the Church World Service CROP walk later today and the money we raise will help care for the poor and dispossessed around the world. Serving others is how we serve God. It is how we show our love for our brothers and sisters as we have been commanded to do.

And how special is it that this passage be the one we read on Girl Scout Sunday? We all know that Girl Scouting teaches girls to lead through service. One way that we experience their leadership is in their dedication to keeping Delhaven’s food pantry supplied so that we may serve our neighbors. Girl Scouts earn badges and other awards for so many different forms of service and caring for others that listing them all would take way too long. Former Girl Scouts lead their grateful nation in every conceivable occupation; soldiers and astronauts and teachers and religious leaders, even our Secretary of State was a Girl Scout.

Today we have celebrated five young women whose faith has led them to serve others. Each one has spend the better part of the last year working toward the religious award she received today, an award designed by her own faith tradition to help her grow in her faith through serving. (The girls will each say something about their religious award project and how it serves the community.)

Like the woman who anointed Jesus, each one of these young women knows that it is through serving others that we best serve God and our community. Each one knows that the very best leaders are those who are dedicated first to serving, like Jesus.

When we go from this place today, let us keep this unnamed woman in our hearts. Let us seek to be like her, the perfect disciple, faithful and willing to serve without waiting to be asked.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Tuesday of Holy Week II Mark 12:28-13:37

All day long on this very busy Tuesday Jesus is engaged in confrontation. The priests, Pharisees, and scribes and even the Sadducees have been bombarding Jesus with theological questions in both hypothetical situations and very real, politically charged situations. All day long Jesus has been confounding them, telling parables that point out their failings and cleverly evading their attempts to discredit him. And somewhere in the middle of the day a scribe, an educated man employed by the priests or Pharisees, asks a question and agrees with Jesus’ answer. There is no confrontation, no test, no effort to make Jesus look bad or to incriminate himself. This is the only such situation all day.

Even though I know the story, just as you all know this story, this really is something I hadn’t noticed until Borg and Crossan pointed it out. Probably because I usually look at manageable pieces of the Gospel – a chapter or a short passage selected by the lectionary committee for preachers. I usually don’t look at the entire day the way Borg and Crossan do in their book The Last Week. But when we do look at the entire day we see something way bigger and much more radical than the juxtaposition of two passages into the commandments that Christians quote in every possible situation; Deuteronomy 6:5-6 “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength: and Leviticus 19:18 “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And look – the scribe not only agrees with Jesus but adds another statement that sounds like what we’ve heard from prophets like Micah. He says “You are right teacher . . this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” This educated man who served the Temple stood in front of the Temple and said love of God and neighbor is more important than the Temple and what happens inside it.

What does all this mean, exactly? That is, what does that mean when we look at it in relation to the confrontations and teachings of the entire day?

For one thing it means that not all the Jewish scholars and leaders agreed theologically or politically. I know, we tend to believe that all the priests and Pharisees and scribes and nobles were opposed to Jesus. That would be because not much attention is given to folks who agreed with Jesus, only to those who disagreed. Just as in John’s Gospel, where he often speaks against “the Jews” but is actually only referring to those who opposed and persecuted the Christ followers some 60 years later when that Gospel was being written. This probably shouldn’t surprise us, really. How many times have we heard people say all Christians believe this or act that way or whatever and we get frustrated because we don’t believe that or act like that or whatever. Just as not all Christians have agreed from the beginning of the movement, so too not all Jews agreed in Jesus’ time – or now or any other time for that matter. This passage serves to remind us to avoid stereotyping folks, for here is one example of a member of the ruling elite who agrees with Jesus’ teachings.

But Jesus’ long day doesn’t stop there. Even though no one dares question him any further, he goes on to attack some of the most dearly held traditions of the time. He wants to know why the scribes teach that the Messiah is the son of David when David spoke of the Messiah as Lord? You usually don’t call your son Lord, he said, but David calls the Messiah in the psalms. Jesus rejects the tradition that the Messiah would be a military and political leader like David. He goes on to attack the practice of some scribes of foreclosing on loans made to widows, leaving them homeless and destitute with no one to stand up for them or care for them, even though treatment of the widow is the primary test of whether or not justice is being practiced in the land. He follows this with the story of the widow putting everything she has into the temple treasury, encouraged by the religious leaders to give her all to the service God while those who have much more just give a small portion of their wealth.

And when his disciples admire the great stone buildings of the temple, he predicts their destruction. It is a fact that the destruction of the Temple would have been pretty easy for almost anyone living at the time to predict. Rebellion was in the air in Judah. Bands of rebels and bandits lived in the hills waiting for the right time to strike against Rome. Fear of a large rebellion that would trigger Roman retaliation was one of the primary reasons the leadership in Jerusalem were so afraid of Jesus’ popularity. And we must keep in mind that this gospel was written after the great rebellion of 66 ce took place, after the Roman retaliation and conquest of Judah, after the Roman troops had offered a sacrifice to Caesar in the Temple in just the same way that Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes had some two centuries earlier and then, torn the Temple down. After, in fact, most of the things predicted here took place. Jesus tells his followers that when these things happen they must not let themselves be drawn into the war, not even in defense of home or family. They must not be part of the violence, for to do so would make them part of the problem instead of part of the kingdom. And after all those things, then would come the end of days with the arrival of the Son of Man.

Mark, Matthew, Paul and other early Christian leaders believed that Jesus would return soon – next month, a year from now, in their lifetimes for sure. It didn’t happen, at least it didn’t happen in the way they way expected. But it is certain that Jesus came into the world, his message scattered to the four corners of the earth even as the Jews themselves were scattered after the Roman conquest of their land. It is certain that what was begun in Jesus will triumph, that one day God’s justice, compassion and mercy will rule the world in the place of the greed and power hungry machinations of the powers and principalities. It is what all Christians are called to teach and to do – to love each other as we love ourselves. We are the ones left in charge while our Lord is on a journey – we are the ones who are supposed to spread the Word and the love throughout the world.

Jesus said to the scribe, “you are not far from the kingdom of God.” He was close because he believed what he was saying, that love of God and neighbor was more important than Temple practice. But he wasn’t quite there because he wasn’t living what he believed.

What does it mean to live what we believe? What does it mean to love God? It means always putting God first. Giving God what belongs to God, ourselves. We belong to God and not to Caesar. This is really radical, because if God is Lord then the other lords - the Caesars and Emperors and Presidents and Queens and Kings - are not. They may have power over our bodies. They may have power over our money, or over where we can live or work. But we don’t belong to those powers. We belong to God. We answer to God first.

And what does it mean to love the neighbor? To love one’s neighbor as we love ourselves means that all the differences society would place between us really don’t exist – there is no Greek or Jew, no male or female, no slave or free, no rich or poor, no straight or gay, no righteous or sinner, no friend or enemy. There are just people, all our neighbors, all beloved children of God, equally valued in the eyes of God. Let us go and love one another. Let everyone know we are Christian by our love.