Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Day the Lord Made

Passion/Palm Sunday, April 5, 2009
Copyright © 2009, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Mark 14:1-11

This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.

I remember the day Gene Pitney died a few years back. Some will recall that he was a teen idol pop singer of the early 1960s, a sort of cross between Bobby Darin and Frankie Avalon. These were teen idols who were in a kind of leftover generation from the music, style, and fashions of the late 1950s, and their world rolled to an abrupt stop when the Beatles brought their music across the Atlantic from Liverpool and a revolution in popular music and culture was fully underway.

The day I heard that Pitney had died, I felt a little twinge of sadness, I had liked some of his music, especially his ballads. My two college roommates and I exchanged e-mails about his passing, one of them remembered a record I bought in our freshman year of Pitney’s greatest hits. I know I still have that record somewhere, though I no longer have anything that I can play it on.

Our little e-mail exchange got me to thinking about the portability of our lives, or the lack thereof, and the useless junk we cart along with us. My story is common in mobile America, having lived in six different cities since I left home for college. Every time I’ve moved, I’ve done what we all have done at one time or another, sorted through all that stuff we drag along with us through life, deciding what to keep and what to let go. The only certainty is that whoever is following us won’t want it left behind, and certainly won’t bother to keep any of it, they will be bringing their own mounds of junk. I can’t think that anyone living any place where I’ve lived before would want my old Gene Pitney 331/3 rpm record.

There is something cleansing about moving though, deciding what goes and what goes away. It is a cleansing feeling really. You never really liked that old painting over the hutch anyway. Thank goodness for a reason to let go of that horrible tie, or that summer suit that hasn’t fit you since 1981. Too bad we can’t have that same choice with other things that burden our lives: the bad memories that won’t ever change, no matter how often we remember them; the injuries we have suffered over time, both physical and emotional; the losses we have known.

Well, “this is the day that the Lord has made,” said the psalmist, and today it’s time to pack for a one-week trip to and through a land called Holy Week. One thing we should carry is the story from Mark.

There is a story in John’s gospel1 about Mary who anointed Jesus’ feet in the home of Lazarus, spreading the ointment with her hair. Today we heard what may be Mark’s account of the same event, or perhaps a different event altogether. Some details differ. Mark, characteristically, pays scant attention to the names of other people present, most remaining nameless: those who complained about the apparent waste of the expensive ointment, the woman doing the anointing, though Judas is named in both accounts.

Because a good understanding of first century Jewish meal customs is not one of the things most of us have packed around with us since Jesus walked the earth, the scene set by Mark does not shock us, though it certainly would have shocked its first readers, for several reasons.

First, a woman appeared in the room where men were eating. There is no way I could get you to look as shocked as those early listeners to the story would have looked. Remember, in those days, men and women had very little contact with one another socially. Women basically stayed home, men ate with other men. To shock you as much as those first listeners, I’d have to say something like, “a woman entered the room with snakes for hair and smoke coming out of her ears.” Men were eating and a woman came in. That in itself was a shocking thing for those folks. It was something which, as my little grandmother used to say, “simply isn’t done.”

But that wasn’t the half of it. If they were shocked to see her appear, imagine their shock as she:
  1. Cracked open an alabaster jar of extremely costly ointment; This would have been a very expensive jar, which together with its very expensive contents was likely to have been worth more than the house in which they were dining, about year’s wages;
  2. Poured the contents on his head. Anointing on the head was something reserved for royal anointing, as when the prophet Samuel anointed David to be king over Israel
In one stunning succession of events, this woman broke the taboo of women being in the presence of men who are gathering socially, and declared by her action that when they sat with Jesus, they were sitting with royalty. When the Bible says she “broke open” the jar, the Greek word is much stronger, it mean she literally smashed it to bits, it is the same word used in the Greek version of the Exodus story of Moses smashing the tablets of the law when he came down from Sinai and saw the golden calf.

Mark reports that some of the reactions to the woman were filled with anger, anger about the waste, the lack of concern for the poor, the sheer inappropriateness of the entire sequence of events. The one who seems not to have been troubled at all was Jesus. As they fumed and fulminated, Jesus said not a word until after their scolding, when he said enough is enough, this woman has done something good for me.

This is a funny week for the life of faith, isn’t it? We have this day that most of us associate with the laying of palms before Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, though only John reports the actual use of palms, and we know that palms didn’t grow naturally in Jerusalem, it was too dry. But that triumphant ride down the hill from the Mount of Olives rests right alongside these stories of Jesus at table, Jesus anointed as a king would be anointed, Jesus being betrayed by one of his own chosen disciples into the hands of those who wanted to do him harm. The triumph of Easter, which is yet to come, is set right up alongside the hard reality of suffering and death. We’re all in favor of the former, not so sure about the necessity for the latter, if attendance at most mid-week services in most churches during Holy Week is any indication.

The psalm for today places together the same sort of thoughts that we might normally think would be at odds with each other: the triumphant “This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice,” set alongside “the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” That psalm, which the pilgrims repeated as Jesus made his way into the city astride his colt, carries alongside the note of triumph an equally loud note of foreboding.

Verse 22 in particular gnaws at the sense of triumph and disables it. The stone is not to be used until first it has been rejected. Everything around that note concerning the stone has an air of celebration, but this line suggests that before there is triumph there must be denial. The context of rejoicing carries within it the seeds of a prior sorrow to be endured before rejoicing can predominate.

On this day which the Lord has made, we probably all carry our own jars in need of smashing to let the anointing of the Lord happen in our hearts. There are folks who need to smash the jar of addiction.2 There are many of us who have probably arrived yet again at a time in our lives when we need to decide what we will carry forward with us in our lives, and what we will leave behind. Go ahead and keep storing away your GI Joe action figures or your 78 rpm records, or the dress you wore to the prom if you want to. But you and I both know, there are things in our lives that we can lay aside, leave behind. We will box our things up, and they may look so precious as they go in, but sometimes, at the end of months or even years, when we get around to opening those cartons, all we find in them is trash, things no longer filled with life, things that need to be smashed open, and used to anoint the one who comes to bless who we are, not what we’ve been or what we have, but who we are and who we can be, now that the day which the Lord has made has arrived.

Let us rejoice.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 John 12:1-11
2 Thanks to Anna Carter Florence and her sermon, “Smashing Beauty” Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2004, pp. 18-22, for this and some other images in the sermon.