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Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126:1-6, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

Life goes along and suddenly something happens. Everything changes—sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better. At times, we may speak of such occasions as turning points, as life-changing.

Both Isaiah 43 and Psalm 26 speak of restoration following times of trouble—whether the trouble be exile in a foreign land, wandering in the wilderness, or some other misfortune. In Isaiah, it comes as a promise of a change from the old to the new. God is not to be found in dwelling on past sorrows, because God is in the new thing that is being done. (Isaiah 43:18-19)

I love it when scripture speaks of laughter and joy, as it does in Psalm 126:2. Tears are turned into shouts of joy. (verses 5-6) There are other scriptures that speak of God wiping away our tears, of it being darkest just before the dawn, etc. I remember once hearing a sermon preached by a civil rights leader in which a repeated line was, “It’s midnight, but morning’s coming.”

There are tears in life; health and healing will probably not be achieved unless they are allowed to flow. These scriptures don’t deny such sorrow; they simply remind us that past things which have injured us and torn our hearts to pieces are not forever. Turning points happen; good things come along. Psalm 30:5 says, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

I once got the message from a young child, my daughter of about eight years old. The family was being wrenched by a divorce. This daughter called me one afternoon from her mother’s place. “Dad, are you feeling sad today?” I actually wasn’t in too bad a place at that moment, so I said something like, “Not particularly.” She persisted, “But Dad aren’t you feeling sad today?” As we got to the third round of the conversation, she said, “Well, just say your feeling sad.” So, I did. She responded, “Okay, I have good news to cheer you up.” Then she told me about the grades she had received on her report card. Her point was that, although times were pretty troubled right then, there was still good news.

The epistle, in Philippians, chapter three, is about a journey that looks ahead with eagerness. As is the case in Isaiah, there's an emphasis upon “forgetting what lies behind.” (Philippians 3:13) It is not just all the sorrows of the past that pale in the light of what is yet to come. Even the highest achievements of our lives may seem to matter little when we consider the spiritual possibilities before us. (verses 7-8) So Paul presses on toward the goal of the journey in which God is leading him. (verses 13-14) He doesn’t pretend to have arrived. (verse 12) None of us have. It’s good start, though, to keep facing in the right direction.

The Gospel lesson is one of those some would call a “difficult passage.” People too often grab hold of the final verse (John 12:8)—Jesus words, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Social activists may say, “Surely Jesus couldn’t have said that. Didn’t he teach us to give generously to the poor?” Others may take the verse and use it as an excuse to ignore the poor. “After all, we can’t fix the problem. What we can do is but a drop in the bucket. After we’re long gone, there will still be poverty in this world.”

The story is about a dinner party at the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. Mary pours expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet. Judas complains that it should have been sold and given to the poor. In Matthew and Mark, Judas is not named. It is “the disciples” or “some who were there” who complain. Notice that Judas’ motives are questioned. He’s not really concerned about the poor, we are told. He’s just a thief.

We have Judas as a cold and calculating person and Mary as a spontaneous person whose enthusiastic love cannot be contained. It is not that we should forget about helping the poor. Helping the poor, though, can become a mechanical activity from which our hearts get disconnected. Is Jesus saying, “Don’t forget to renew the source of the love that is in you so that your social action is truly a ministry that touches people’s spirits?

Is it a story to remind us about the importance of spontaneity in life, or extravagant love that is not calculating? Perhaps it is a story to call us to examine our motives. Are we really concerned about the poor, or about some gain we hope to receive in the process of our “helping”?

In verse 7, there is the suggestion that Mary’s act was part of a ritual preparation for what was to come. While helping the poor must always be part of our ministry, we are also called to continue to participate in the rituals that make sense of living and dying, and, yes, even of ministry. We press on toward the goal (including the goal of feeding the poor) because there is meaning in the journey—and, to use somewhat cliched language, the journey only makes sense when we stay close to Jesus (i.e., to his living Spirit in our time and place).

So, let us journey onward, companions on the open road.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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