Sunday, April 29, 2012
Sunday, April 22, 2012
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy
They beat – and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet –
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”
Sunday, April 15, 2012
Jonah: Dove of God
First in a Series of Four Sermons on Jonah
© 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington
Second Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2012
Now the word of God came to Jonah ...
But Jonah set out to flee ... from the presence of the Lord.
This is the first part of a series of four sermons on one of the most charming stories in the Hebrew Testament, at least in my view. Probably it’s not as familiar as a lot of Bible stories except for the King James mistranslation of “fish” as “whale,” and children’s musicals with titles such as “A Whale of a Tale.” Parenthetically, I think it’s an odd story to choose for a children’s musical in many ways, because if we read it with even a small degree of understanding, it’s a pretty terrifying tale!
Sometimes, when I preach from a story or passage in the Hebrew Testament, people will ask me why I am not using the New Testament, especially in these next Sundays that the church refers to as the “Sundays of Easter.” Well here is a little New Testament connection and quiz for those who enjoy Bible games. Can you recall the man in the New Testament whom Jesus called “Simon bar-Jonah”? I’ll give you more of a hint than that. Simon bar-Jonah means “Simon, son of Jonah.” I suspect this helps some cranial lights to switch on. He is the Jewish man who, according to the book of Acts, was in the coastal town of Joppa – incidentally, the village where Jonah’s ocean voyage began – and who had been praying peacefully up on the roof when he came down for lunch and fell into a trance. In that trance he was instructed to be receptive to folks who, before, as a faithful Jew, he would have thought were unclean. He baerely emerged from his dream-like state, when representatives of a Gentile Roman centurion named Cornelius knocked at his gate. Who was this rooftop pray-er, named for the reluctant Old Testament prophet Jonah, sent to the Gentiles in Nineveh by way of Joppa? It was none other than Peter, foremost of the disciples, the rocky apostle on whom the church was to be built.
So, Jonah is a story well-fit for fans of the New Testament as well as the Old.
About today’s sermon title: in Hebrew the word Jonah means “dove.” And what is a dove but an albino cousin of the common pigeon, something, colloquially speaking, that Jonah apparently was attempting not to be: a sucker, a dupe who travels on a one-man mission to Israel’s bitterest enemy to deliver a prophecy. To hear the name Nineveh the way the first readers of Jonah would have heard it, think “Berlin” for a mid 20th century Jewish person. Why wouldn’t he try to flee the task that God presented, to prophesy to the bitterest enemy Israel ever had? We shouldn’t forget, though, that it was a dove that Noah sent from the ark looking for land after all the wicked people of the earth were destroyed in the biblical tale of the great flood. There’s more to this dove business than we might think. A dove is a sign of hope on tiny wings, which is the way hope often appears: tiny, vulnerable, and seemingly powerless, yet possessed of a power most often misunderstood by the world.
One of the very first examinations that I had to take in my very first semester of seminary was in an Hebrew Testament class. The question was “What is the point of the story of Jonah?” It’s a really good question. What do you suppose this story of Jonah is really about, anyway?
I have discovered over the years that there is no single answer to that question, which is one of the reasons this little story is so much fun. To determine what a Bible passage says, difficult as that is, is not impossible; there are ample highly trained translators who spend hours deciphering such things for us. But what is the point of the story of Jonah, what does it mean? Today and over the next three Sundays I’m going to talk about what I think the story means, but remember that it is supposed to mean something special, something unique to each of us as well as to all of us. Here are some starters:
· Some would say that this is a story about God’s judgment. “Indiana Jonah and the Temper of Doom.” That’s really what it was, you know: a message of doom. Straightforward and dangling out there like an exposed nerve. No “Telling them what they want to hear,” so that the Ninevites might be more inclined to listen to a pasteurized word of judgment and accept it. Lord knows, in the end Jonah had very little interest even in their hearing his message, let alone their being moved to repentance by it. Still, it obviously worked on the Ninevites. In fact, the message of doom, which comes on week 4 for us, worked better on the foreigners in Nineveh than it ever had back home in Israel. But since the narrative spends so much time on board ships, and in a fish’s tummy, and elsewhere, it is easy to lose track of the central message that Jonah was called to proclaim, which was – there is no getting around it, even on a Sunday after Easter – that God was upset with these people, and they were going to suffer for it.
· Others might agree, up to a point. But they would add that judgment tells only half the story. Since the outcome ultimately – warning: spoiler alert here if you don’t know the whole story – the outcome was a happy one for Nineveh; they say the story is about disobedience and repentance. Disobedience, of course, brings on the judgment of God in the first place, but then the repentance brings about God’s broad mercy. Never mind such nagging little details as how the Ninevites were supposed to know what they were disobeying since they hadn’t been privy to the Hebrew covenant with God in the first place. They were apparently just so bad that anyone should have known it.
· Some might say the story is for sailors. Notice the subtle irony in the story that one outcome of the sailors’ encounter with their trouble-making guest, Jonah, was that, though they were pagans in the minds of Israelites, they were moved to offer a sacrifice to the Lord of Israel, even using Israel’s most sacred name for God, and promised to serve the Lord. The chosen prophet of God couldn’t be counted on to head East instead of West, but so able was he at his unchosen profession that he converted even those who threw him overboard. Which brings us to another related interpretation.
· Some folks might want to say that the story is about one of the greatest missionaries of all time. Without meaning to, he converted a whole shipload of pagans.
· There are other interpretations. Some say it is nothing more than a fairy tale about a man named Jonah. Others say it is strictly a moral lesson about God’s mercy. I say it combines something of all these interpretations, but that it receives its most apt interpretation from the preaching of Jesus.
Mark records that when Jesus came into Galilee preaching the gospel of God, his preaching could be summed up in one short verse: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; turn away from sin, and believe in the good news.”
Jonah preached a one point sermon which we could sum up, if we want to bother to sum up seven words, by saying “You’re going to get it.” Jesus said essentially the same thing, but added, “Repent and believe.” The fact is, the Ninevites did repent, and they were spared. God’s mercy is not simply a New Testament idea any more than judgment is solely a feature of the Old Testament. Any time the word of God is faithfully preached, there is an element of decision involved. The time is up, decision time is here, whether it is a decision to follow Jesus, made for the first time, or a decision to reaffirm, or a decision to hear the word of God to us today, as we have heard it in the past, and be renewed by God’s Spirit.
In Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick, dreaded by high school juniors everywhere during my high school years, Father Mapple, the preacher at Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford, specifies “willful disobedience” as Jonah’s sin. He declares that God more often commands than seeks to persuade because what God wants of us is too hard for us – if we must obey God then we must disobey our own desires, and it is in this disobeying ourselves that the difficulty of obeying God is found. The sailors, agnostic as far as Jonah’s God was concerned, still managed to behave so much better than the lone-ranger prophet did. Together they have a conscience, while, on his solo flight West when God commanded him to go East, Jonah finds his sense of right and wrong too easily influenced by his own willfulness. It is a continuing theme that will play itself out over the next three Sundays.
So who is Jonah to us? In our world he is likely to be the one who does not bother to list the number of enemy casualties in the Middle East, while making daily newspaper tallies of our own. He is apt to be the person who exits church services scratching his head and wondering why “there wasn’t a personal message for me today.” He is the one who sees in the sacrifice of Jesus only a personal salvation with little regard for all the others in the world who have not responded, or even those who may have responded haltingly.
What is Nineveh to us? It is whatever person, nation, or force that threatens all the things we hold most dear, a terrorist with bombs strapped to her waist, a character assassin who belittles us at every opportunity, anyone who scorns and laughs at our most deeply-cherished beliefs. And no sooner do we start thinking about what that might mean than we realize this is precisely the sort of place to which God will direct the prophet, this person who perhaps had the absence of mind to have said once, “Here I am, send me.”
Yes, Jonah is a masterpiece of writing, and it is both captivating and terrifying in what it suggests about the nature of God, the nature of human life, and the nature of our call to serve God’s purposes no matter what. No wonder he headed West when God said East. Who among us, left to our own devices, would have been likely to have done any differently?Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
 slang. Pigeon: One who is easily swindled; a dupe.
Sunday, April 8, 2012
We Have Waited for Him
copyright © 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Easter day, April 8, 2012
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God;
we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
It seems that every year when Christians gather following Good Friday to celebrate the death of death on Easter, we have to admit that death has not taken all that much of a vacation. It’s not something we like to think about really, but it remains true, death stalks the world as it always has, whether from roadside bombs in the Middle East, collapsing coal mines, traffic accidents and disease, or the simple slipping away at the end of life. Since we last thought about the “death of death” on Easter a year ago, death has not ceased to take away the living, has not even taken a short vacation.
When Isaiah declared, “we have waited for [God], so that he might save us,” exactly what did he mean? If we are waiting, how will we know when the saving of God has arrived? What will that arrival look like? Are we saved from something, or for something? Or both? If death continues to move through the world unchecked, what does it mean to be saved? What are we waiting for? The women who arrived at the tomb on Easter day didn’t wait around all that long to find out, not according to today’s gospel reading anyway.
I have always been attracted to Mark’s account of the resurrection. Its ending is so completely different from the other gospels, it simply leaves you hanging, almost in mid-sentence. “So [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s it. That is “all she wrote.” It’s even more abrupt than the tidied-up version of the Greek that translators give us. In the original Greek it simply says, “afraid they were, for.” Is that anyway to end a paragraph, much less a gospel? My high school English teacher, Mrs. Lanier, would not have been pleased!
Still, I think I am drawn to Mark’s gospel because it reflects how natural it is for us to react to shocking circumstances the way these women did. They dropped everything and ran from the tomb the same way it appears Mark dropped his pen and ran from his writing desk. Whereas the other gospels report positive reactions on the women’s part (they ran to tell the other apostles what happened, what they had seen and heard) here in Mark they are overtaken by fear and they can say or do nothing other than just run from the empty tomb in a kind of panic. And honestly, now, who among us can say we would have behaved any differently?
Is this any way to end a gospel? It is hardly the best setup for a triumphant singing of Easter music. One New Testament professor shared a story of a student who memorized the whole of Mark’s Gospel in order to present a sort of one man show before live audiences using nothing but the actual words of the gospel. After thorough study, he determined to stay with the original, abrupt ending we heard today, as the most authentic. At the first performance, after he spoke that dangling, final verse, he stayed onstage, standing awkwardly for what seemed like an eternity of silence. He was through, but, like most of us, the audience knew other, more satisfying endings of the Easter story and simply were not aware that he was finished. Anxious seconds ticked by until he spontaneously added, “Amen!” and made his exit. The relieved audience applauded appreciatively. Still, as he thought about it further, he recognized that his addition of “Amen!” had actually betrayed the dramatic intention of the text. So at the next performance, after delivering the final words: “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” he simply paused for a brief moment and then left the silent audience to contemplate for themselves what that meant. “The discomfort and uncertainty within the audience were obvious,” his former professor reflected later, “and as people exited ... the buzz of conversation was dominated by the experience of the nonending.”
The women at the tomb that first Easter morning weren’t weak or cowardly. They alone had watched the crucifixion on Friday, Mark makes no mention of male disciples at the cross. They were long gone. So here were these women alone again on Sunday morning. Do you suppose they were looking forward to handling a corpse, dead for some 36 hours? These were not giddy women, easily frightened. They were brave, courageous even, in their commitment to do the right thing. In the end, though, the last word was that they were afraid. Even though later manuscripts contained additions to Mark’s original, trying to tidy up that abrupt ending, all the earliest copies have the ending just the way we heard it today. They fled from the tomb in fear.
Now, all these centuries later, as with the women at the tomb, isn’t it true for us that our experience, particularly our fear, gets in the way of our understanding more often then we’d like to admit?
I read of two people who sat next to each other on an airplane. In the few minutes before takeoff, they introduced themselves to each other. One was a pastor who was taking his first airplane trip. He was as nervous as could be. He kept opening and closing a small copy of the Bible he had with him, wiping his brow with a handkerchief; he was unable to sit still.
Seated next to him was a businesswoman who traveled a lot and wasn’t afraid at all. Reading the Harvard Business Review, she was totally relaxed, but could not help but observe the pastor’s anxiety. Finally, she asked him if he was going to be OK, and he admitted to her his fear of flying.
“Why is that?” she asked. “You’re a person of faith. Doesn’t the Bible report that Jesus said something like, ‘I am with you always, even to the ends of the earth?’ If that’s true, what have you to fear?”
The minister thought deeply about what she had said, reflecting on the woman’s point and knowledge of scripture, and then he replied, “That is very helpful, but, you didn’t get the quote exactly right. Jesus says, ‘Lo, I am with you always ... Low!’”
Fear can do that to us, make us unreasonable, impervious to a word of hope or help. We often choose familiar ways, even though they are painful, disappointing, self-limiting, because we know what to expect, and for many of us, the pain, the disappointment, the failures we know are less fearful than the uneasiness of a future that is open but filled with uncertainty.
The women at the tomb that day were thinking just the way we do, contemplating the physical realities of our living and dying. They went to the tomb the same way we would go to the cemetery, not with notebooks and pencils, hoping a crucified Jesus would awaken and continue to teach them. They brought no one to the cemetery for healing. What they brought, the gospel reports, were spices, traditionally used to anoint the bodies of the dead. They expected the tomb still to be sealed the way we expect to arrive at the cemetery and still find the graves of our loved ones covered in earth or stone. They anticipated no encounter, no voices, and certainly no instructions to greet them there.
Of course, as we heard, upon arriving at the tomb they found all of these unanticipated things:
· a rolled-away stone, some living presence sitting in a tomb where no one would expect to encounter anything alive,
· the absence of the body for which they had gone to the trouble to gather and carry all their anointing spices,
· A firm instruction about where they were to go, who they were to tell, who they were going to see.
It turns out that the unlikeliness of everything they encountered, along with the very emptiness of the tomb, will frustrate our every attempt to possess the man from Nazareth rather than be possessed by him. In order to see Jesus, we must do what the women, the disciples had to do. Go to Galilee. Galilee, the most distant, least cosmopolitan district of ancient Israel, represents to us the challenge of the whole world lying beyond the tiny circumference of Jerusalem, the tiny circle of our own experience. It represents leaving behind old thoughts of what is holy, and realizing that Jesus’ death has sanctified every place: not just sanctuaries and cemeteries but streets and sidewalks, offices and restaurants, farms and factories, buses, and bridges.
Mark leaves his story with us. No neatly packaged ending here, we are challenged to help determine how the story will come out. We are invited to become part of the continuing narrative of the Gospel, the good news about Jesus. No written conclusion could contain him, any more than any tomb could. He always goes before us, always beckons us to a new appearance in Galilee of the nations, Galilee of daily life, where there is work to be done, truth to be told, compassion to be manifested, healing to do, justice to be established, Galilee of the other 364 days of the year beyond Easter.
Easter is not a call to believe something. It is a call to do something. And, as if to provide an example we can’t refuse, Jesus has already left town to do something himself. Go today to whatever passes for mission to the world represented in scripture by Galilee, go, if you’d like to sign on.Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
 Factoid: The standard theory about the phrase “That's all she wrote” is that it arose during World War II referring to "Dear John letters" received by many servicemen from sweethearts back home bluntly announcing the end of their relationships.
 ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ
 Professor, Donald Juel. I am thankful for Tom Long’s sermon, “Dangling Gospel,” in Christian Century, April 4, 2006, for the reminder of this story from Dr. Juel.
Thursday, April 5, 2012
For and Against
Exodus 12:1-14 Maundy Thursday
Romans 8:31-39 April 5, 2012
Reading over the Exodus account of the institution of the Passover, we discover important resources for preparing our hearts and minds for the holy meal we are about to celebrate. In the old days, some denominations required the use of little wooden or metal buttons called “communion tokens” which were handed out the week before the Lord’s Supper was to be celebrated. These were supposed to serve as certification for admission to the Lord’s Table on the following week. The leaders of some churches made it their business to keep very close track of those who failed to participate, and also to see to it that “unfit” people were not permitted to commune.
The majority of churches have discontinued this practice, for the most part. One of the reasons is that we are aware of different needs in modern circumstances. Members of congregations are on the move continually, and so we couldn’t count on the fact that a token handed out one week would be used in the same sanctuary the next. But there is a more important reason. Just as we can’t count on the presence of the same folks from week to week, we wouldn’t want to limit access to the table only to those who are active members of our own congregation. In the Invitation at the table we hear words such as: “Our Savior invites those who trust in him to come and share in the feast which he has prepared.” Now, Jesus does not invite just this church or that denomination, but all those who trust in him. That means that the table is pretty open to anyone and everyone whose life is in the process of responding to the call of Christ.
What does the Passover have to do with all this? A good deal. Frequently, the temptation in the church has been to overly spiritualize the sacrament. The insistence of 1,000,000 sermons since New Testament times – that the deliverance of God is a spiritual matter – must run up against the Old Testament feast of the Passover, which serves as the foundation for our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Our insistence that God’s liberation is spiritual does not cancel the Old Testament witness that the physical freedom of people is involved as well. This does not narrow the importance of the realm of the spirit, but rather enhances it. Perhaps it enhances our understanding of the “spirit” in unexpected ways.
Dr. Roy Fairchild of San Francisco Theological Seminary once asked a large convocation audience to call out words that came to their minds when they heard the word “spiritual.” “Piety,” “meditation,” “holy,” were the sort of words that came in response. Then he said, “What words come to mind when you hear the word “spirited“? Now folks thought of words such as “lively,” “animated,” “energetic.”
What was the difference? In actual fact, the word spirited is a more faithful biblical concept than our current understanding of spiritual. Our faith must not be conceived as a spiritual matter, so much as it is a spirited one. That throws the entire idea of such things as the Lord’s Supper into a whole new light. When we forget our Passover roots in the Lord’s Supper, we can become excessively spiritual about it, forget that God really intends to free real people. We can sit as isolated, even mournful-looking individuals in our pews, partaking of a sacrament that seems almost ludicrous when we think of the actual meaning of a word like communion: that it is community with God and each other which we celebrate at the table.
I hope we can begin to think of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as a spirited experience, enlivened by the spirit of God. Now, don’t fret, there will be no introduction of parlor games into worship in order to make the sacrament more lively. Still, I would like for each worshiper to consider not only their relationship to God which we declare in taking the sacrament, but their new relationship with each other which Jesus’ sacred meal makes possible. The Passover, as we will remember, was a distinctly social occassion, even though fraught with anxiety the first night it was celebrated. The Passover was not a time for each child of Israel to retire to his or her room and contemplate spiritual matters. Rather, it was a spirited occasion celebrated in households while people ate and drank together — as it is to this day in Jewish homes — in anticipation of God’s saving act of liberation.
When Jesus established the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, it was not alone in his room, but at this very Passover meal, with his family of disciples. Ever since it has been a means whereby the people of the church have declared the continuing presence of Christ in our midst. The Passover serves as a warning against overlooking the community in which we are gathered when we call ourselves a church. Both the Passover and the Lord’s Supper look to the past to find hope for the future.
Having recognized all this, like the people of Israel who first heard Moses’ instructions concerning the Passover, we may wonder at its power. Can we really believe that God has the power to overcome the evils that seem so much more present to us than the promise of our deliverance? We hear the words of the prophet Moses, but we see the power of Pharaoh and all his army standing between us and our freedom. Even if God in Christ is a powerful ally to us, is Christ strong enough to fortify us when the evils of the world seem so much more apparent? Paul asked the same questions when he wrote to the Christians in Rome.
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul came up with a pretty convincing list. Still, No matter the obstacles the world might raise, regardless of tribulation, persecution, powers, even our own self-destructive behavior, Paul declared that God is still for us more than anything else can possibly be against us.
That is what blood on the doorposts comes down to. That is what crucifixion comes down to. That is what symbolic meals shared around tables such as this one and real meals shared around other tables of love in our homes and gatherings come down to. That is what helpless armies of Pharaoh and other superpowers come down to. That is what the smallest act of kindness and the largest sacrifice we can make for others come down to. They all lead to the selfsame conclusion as the one reached with such dynamic intensity by Paul: The One who is for us is so very much more the wave of the future than all the evils that may line up against us that we may rejoice even if we must rejoice in adversity.
Friends, believe the good news of the gospel: nothing in the whole wide world can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory!
Sunday, April 1, 2012
A Day the Lord Made
First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington
Passion/Palm Sunday, April 1, 2012
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29;
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 gospel 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. 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.