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.

1 comment:

  1. That's a powerful message, thanks for the visual; it's one I will think about today and carry with me for the future. I am grateful to have stumbled by here today, but now I realize it's not a coincidence.