Monday, March 22, 2010

The Fifth Sunday in Lent [Year C] - March 21, 2010 (Philippians 3:4b-14 and John 12:1-8)

It’s quite a fashionable thing nowadays to have something called a “Bucket List.” Popularized by the movie from a couple of years ago by the same name, starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as two patients with terminal medical diagnoses, a bucket list is a list of accomplishments one would like to achieve before, well, kicking the bucket. In the movie, the main characters—one of whom is very wealthy—become acquaintances as roommates in the hospital after they’ve learned they will both die within the year from cancer. Throwing caution to the wind, the two then embark on the adventure of their lives, methodically ticking off their bucket list items: skydiving, scaling a Himalayan mountain peak, going on a lion safari in Africa, climbing the Pyramids, and so on. Some of the items on their bucket list are not so far-flung, and include commonplace everyday nuggets, like “help a complete stranger for the common good,” and “laugh till I cry.” It’s an interesting, if not flawed, notion: that a meaningful, fulfilling life can somehow be made up of a string of special accomplishments, that the aim of life is to rack up personal or even altruistic triumphs. The film touches on that tension a bit, but even the touching finale still finds its way revolving around items on the characters’ bucket list.

Whether or not the movie is to blame, I’ve heard more people make mention of their own bucket list. I’ve even fancied a few ideas for myself, experiences I’d like to rack up if I ever have the opportunity. Yet, for all the items I’ve heard—and even considered—for a bucket list, I must admit I’ve never come across the one mentioned by Paul in his letter to the Philippians. And perhaps I should. There, situated in the heart of his letter to his beloved congregation in Philippi, he writes, as if it is the key to a wholesome life, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.”

In a way, it’s his sole “bucket list” item: “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection,” to “share in his sufferings.” It doesn’t exactly make for something to boast about. After all, what kind of exotic adventures could that produce? Who has any great scrapbook photos or slides to show of “knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection”? Yet, for Paul, it is the aim of life. It is that path—knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection—which is greater than any Himalayan mountain-climb or opportunity to jump out of an airplane and yell “Bonzai!”

To be sure, Paul has not compiled a list of things he’d like to do before he dies, but it is clear that he has struggled to define his life by a list of his own achievements. He names them, one-by-one, in his correspondence with the Philippians, and it is a list that would make any first-century Christian or Jew jealous. He hails from one of the most illustrious and law-abiding pedigrees. His claims about his heritage and even his circumcision all serve to paint the picture of someone whose been doing all the right things since the very beginning. He’s gotten his degrees, proceeding through the ranks of rigorous credentialing to become a Pharisee. He’s even made a name for himself in the cause of persecuting the church. In the eyes of most anyone in the ancient Mediterranean world, man, he’s just about done it all!

Yet, it is all nothing, he says—“rubbish”—compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ his Lord. None of those accomplishments, none of those feathers in his cap, none of that former status is going to provide him the essence of a fulfilled life now that he has come to understand the value that his faith provides. Knowing and being known by Christ is something so great and so deep and so extraordinary that it makes him want to forget what lies behind him and only press on to venture further in faith.

In a culture that preaches the virtues of building a resume, of making the varsity team, of getting accepted into a top-ranked program, of having it all look well-put-together, it is important for people of faith to be reminded that knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection is really the focus of our lives. He is of surpassing value to us because he has demonstrated by his life, death, and resurrection that we are of surpassing value to him. Knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection and sharing in his sufferings means having a share in the love that eventually turns the world upside down. Knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection means in any given moment, in any given place, no matter how dark, no matter how ordinary, lies an opportunity to bring glory to God.

That is what is happening with Mary’s devotion in the gospel text. Even her jar of expensive perfume, which could be used for any number of things, becomes oriented towards Christ and who he is. Jesus has just raised her brother from the dead. The smell everyone has likely had on their mind is the stench for which they braced themselves when Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb. As Mary anoints Jesus’ feet, the whole room is overtaken with the beautiful smell, and the motive of her action it becomes unmistakable: she understands the surpassing value of Jesus. She is sharing in his suffering. To put Paul’s words in her mouth, she is wanting to know the power of his resurrection, because she understands he has come to die and bring salvation to all.

It goes without saying that we all have ways we share in Christ’s suffering and seize those opportunities to model the power of the resurrection. The quilts against your back, the health kits for Haiti relief, the precious hours you put into handbell practice…all are examples of cracking open that expensive jar of perfume, of what Paul calls “straining forward to what lies ahead in Christ.” In doing so, we begin to realize that all other possible achievements and accomplishments pale in comparison to our baptism, to the fact that the Creator of heaven and earth who will eventually bring all the universe under his authority loves us and has redeemed us and made us his. In seeking to know Christ, we realize this gathering this morning—the words we hear in Scripture and the sacraments we behold—is the most formative event of our week. And that’s not because we can go home and check off “going to church” off some list of achievements, but because here we hear and are reminded that our life is not really our own. We don’t need any “experiences” to make our life complete because Christ has already done that and he calls us to press on, to share in his sufferings and know the power of his resurrection another day—to pour out all of our lives for him and not leave any left over.

Truth be told, it was completely unlike any tapestry I’d ever seen. As one of the arts and craft activities at the Seventh Day retreat last weekend, the 5th- and 6th-grade students of our synod assembled a giant patchwork quilt, not too unlike the ones you see draped across our pews this morning. Each participant had been given one cloth square to decorate with markers, and, upon completion, those squares were tied together with small ribbons. That, in and of itself, was nothing out-of-the-ordinary. It was beautiful and colorful and creative—and it hung nicely as a backdrop—but we’ve all seen plenty of quilts or tapestries that are beautiful and colorful and creative. What was so striking about the production of this one last weekend, however, was that the young participants had been learning about Jesus’ command to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. One of the topics of the retreat was “Who does Jesus teach,” and we had been asked to reflect on the fact that Jesus teaches everyone—righteous and unrighteous alike—and that his followers are engaged in loving the world in the way Jesus did, which often entails reaching out to those who seek to do us harm. To make their portion of the tapestry, asked to draw a picture of someone they perceive to be an enemy—someone they are in conflict with whom they might not imagine Jesus teaching. “Oh, my,” I thought to myself, “don’t the craft leaders know they’re asking us to pour out a good bit of our precious perfume?”

Taken individually, each little square did not seem very remarkable, but stitched together and hung as a backdrop for our final worship, they had quite an effect. There in front of us, like an oversized parament, was a piece of cloth decorated with a hodge-podge of stick figures and multi-colored faces depicting playground bullies, classroom tormenters, unfair siblings, back-stabbing friends. As we worshiped, we were stared at a tapestry of the people who were difficult for us to know how to love and communicate with, a visual prayer for those we often have a hard time seeing as “loved by God.”

Could you imagine, for example, if we made one of those tapestries and hung it behind the large cross on the wall behind our altar, so that every Sunday as we sang our hymns, we’d have a visual prayer of all the faces of those with whom Christ came to reconcile us, all those who are being called, along with us, to share in his sufferings? Talk about knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection! Talk about sharing in his sufferings! Talk about filling the whole room with the aroma of love! Even the thought of such sight, added together with all the other offerings of our lives, would send a clear message to ourselves and to the world that we are pressing forward in faith, seeking to know the man of surpassing value. It would send the message that we are moving forward with Paul’s one-item bucket list! Bonzai!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"The Calculus of Forgiveness" - March 10, 2010 (Matthew 18:15-22)

[Speaker enters sanctuary down the center aisle, wearing college-themed hoodie or sweatshirt and blue jeans, carrying a backpack. At the center of the chancel sits a school desk, the kind with the desk part attached to the chair. Speaker sits in the chair and pulls a notebook with the word “Calculus” on it.]

Maybe it was a mistake to sign up for this professor. It’s very likely I could fail. Of all the calculus professors I’d heard about on campus, this one was supposedly the best. As an instructor, he has a reputation for being very demanding, with a good grasp on the material he is teaching. However, he is also one of the most unpopular instructors. For, out of all the calculus and advanced math professors here at the university, he is the only one who offers no partial credit on assignments or exams. Not even a little bit. That is, if the final answer at the end of your four-page solution is wrong—even by a small fraction—he counts the entire problem as wrong.

[face the “front of the class” and act as if responding to a role call]

For those of you who have been lucky enough to escape the purgatory that is calculus, you must know that receiving partial credit is often the only hope of passing a calculus class. Like I said, solutions to problems can go on for pages. It’s not like arithmetic—two-plus-two equals-four, and there you have it. Here, one little misplaced negative sign or one small misstep early on in the process can completely skew the final result. Every step of your logic can be correct and well-thought-out, but the final answer can still be wrong.

Other professors will look at the process you used to answer a problem and grade you on that, overlooking the fact that the end product is off. Other professors will give your thought and intent the benefit of the doubt, saying, “well, up until this point, your solution was on-track,” and reward you for it. In other words, you can take an entire test and still pass without ever getting an answer technically right.

[pause and face the front for a few seconds, as if listening to the instructor]

But this professor doesn’t allow that. He is adamant. He sees no point in partial credit, and it is not uncommon for an entire section of his class to receive a failing grade for the semester. This is not gracious, at least in the eyes of most students, but I’m going to give him a try, anyway.

I suppose I should introduce myself at some point. I’m Peter, college student.  Willing disciple of the academy, going for that degree. My fellow classmates know me as the one who speaks out a lot and gets myself into trouble with some of the questions I ask. Even though it might be foolish for me to be taking calculus from this professor, I suppose I’m drawn to him because something tells me that only someone with truly firm and complete grasp of how to communicate the subject matter can demand such a high standard from his students.

You know, in that sense, calculus is a lot like the business of forgiveness, which I understand is your focus during Lent. It, too, involves grueling work. Like a math problem that goes on and on for pages in search of an undetermined figure, forgiving someone is often a lengthy process striving toward and end result you won’t know until you get there. That’s one of the more frustrating aspects of it. You often have to keep working and working at it and at some point you might even think forgiving someone and re-establishing trust is an unsolvable problem.

Forgiveness can be very complicated. At one point in speaking with his disciples, Jesus lays out quite an extensive, multi-step pattern for how to address sin and brokenness between fellow believers. You begin by going to the offending party alone and address the situation that way. If that doesn’t lead to apology and reconciliation, then you bring a few witnesses along with you the next time. If that still doesn’t help, the larger community gets a say in negotiating the details of the facts and emotions involved. That’s, of course, where it can really get tricky, but the effort of the community in reaching out is powerful. In the end, if the offender still is not regained, Jesus surprises us with the conclusion that “such a person shall be to you like a tax collector or a sinner.” Well, we all know how Jesus treats tax collectors and sinners. Never saw that answer coming!

No matter what occurs, however, Jesus promises that he will be present on the side of whomever is honestly seeking reconciliation. “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” he says, “I am there with them.” That would be gathered in the name of forgiveness. All of this is surrounded in prayer of hearts that are earnestly seeking to do their Father’s will.

Let me tell you: calculus requires an awful lot of prayer, too. Especially in the high standards of this professor’s class.

[pause, as if taking notes]

By the way, a freak accident occurred in the city last week that came up in class. At one of the local malls where a lot of people shop, the parking deck collapsed unexpectedly in the middle of the wee morning hours. For no reason at all the thing just pancaked, each floor of concrete and steel dropping to the next one below it. Thankfully, no one was injured because it happened at such an ungodly hour, but if it had occurred during peak shopping hours, there is no telling how many people could have been killed.

As you can imagine, mall officials and contractors were all over the news, trying to explain the catastrophe. We came in for class the next day and do you know what our calculus professor said? He said, “I bet the engineer who designed that parking garage got partial credit in his calculus class.”

As it turns out, there’s no partial credit in forgiveness, either. Jesus has high standards, too, and he means to hold us to it. The standards for its practice must be high because the stakes are also high. The option, I suppose, is to live in a world that collapses like a parking deck under the weight of everyone’s sin and under the stress of everyone’s pursuit of revenge for every wrong done. The standards are high because if the community who follows Jesus can’t dedicate itself to practice complete forgiveness, then the world will just opt for the partial-credit versions it already has.

When Peter, my biblical namesake, wants specifics and asks Jesus if seven attempts at forgiveness is enough, Jesus sets his standards even higher. Like a master math professor, Jesus comes up with an even more terrific number, saying not just seven times, but 70 times that amount.

Well, you and I could calculate 70 times 7. It’s 490. Talk about an easy calculation! But that’s not the point of that number Jesus gives. You see, 70 times 7 is an ancient biblical way of saying “always,” or “the perfect amount,” or “until it’s done. And then some.” Jesus actually reaches into a story in the Old Testament to come up with that outlandish number. There’s a story in Genesis where a man named Lamech pronounces vengeance not seven-fold, but seventy-seven fold, or seventy-fold times seven. He is really forceful about it, as if this mode of eye-for-seventy-seven-eyes will rule his world.

Jesus’ response to Peter, then, is like the kingdom of heaven’s antidote to an unlimited system of revenge. How many times do we forgive our brother or sister? Until the problem is solved. Unlimited, if that’s the case. We put our energy in the vulnerability of forgiveness rather than the power of revenge. We always remain open—truly open—to the fact that God will bring about reconciliation between two or more parties. That doesn’t mean we lay down at the foot of our abusers and enable their harmful behavior. It doesn’t mean we let people walk all over us, but it does mean we take seriously that revenge-seeking and being utterly closed to a future of hope and reconciliation is not an option for those who follow Jesus.

It is something we are compelled to do, you see, because we are part of the Forgiving One. By virtue of our baptism, we’re all in this calculus class section, you might say. We have literally been made a part of his body here on earth, and the practice of forgiveness is the very blood that courses through its veins. He forgives, so we forgive. And there is no partial credit to it. Thankfully, the Spirit is given to aid us in the pursuit of these seemingly incalculable solutions.

Like I said earlier, only someone with a clear and complete grasp of the subject matter could hold us to such a high standard. I think Jesus pretty much proved that on the cross. There’s nothing really “partial” about that event. It may not sound like grace the first times we hear it—to have a professor who will demand so much from us—but it is.

It really is grace. It is grace to be involved in this world-changing force. Costly, incalculable grace. Grace that we first receive.

[pause and listen to front of class again, as if it’s about to come to a close. Begin putting book into backpack.]

Well, I suppose I’ve probably talked too long already. Class is about over, and he’s already handed out homework. As demanding as it is, I’m thankful for another opportunity to learn at the foot of the master, I presume you could say. Another chance, ears open and pencil ready, leaning forward to hear what he might say. Thankful for another day to have my own errors corrected, my own misperceptions of this calculus straightened out.

[leaving chancel, pausing to speak:]

Just like it’s another day to be forgiven. Yeah, that's it: forgiven. One more time.

But who’s counting?