Monday, August 5, 2019

El Paso and Dayton

I had a normal eventless Saturday. In light of the news, I guess I should say I had a good Saturday. I went to the farmer’s market and picked up some of Joe’s Brauts for dinner. I took the boys to Waynesboro for back to school shopping, perhaps that like families in El Paso. We played cards in the evening. I went to bed aware that a horrific shooting took place in El Paso, TX. Sunday morning, Melanie Rhodes, our assisting minister asked if she should include a prayers for the shooting victims. I said, “please.” It was in the prayers of the people that I learned that a second shooting had taken place in Dayton, OH. Had I known the second shooting had happened, I probably would have changed my message for the day. I had a normal Saturday, and many families wished they had a normal Saturday.

The statistics vary and different people track different numbers. By one set of numbers, there have been more mass shootings than days in 2019. The United States has experienced 255 mass shootings, defined by incidents where four or more people have been shot. Also, the United States has experienced 17 deadly mass shootings in 2019, where four or more people were killed in a shooting incident or string of related incidents. That is more than one mass shooting every day and more than two deadly mass shootings a month. Either way that is a powerful amount of grief.

During the month of July, I read the book of Ezekiel. One of the three great prophets and four major prophets of the Bible. I told my congregation on Sunday that reading Ezekiel truly weighed me down with the grief of our heavenly Father. In Ezekiel somewhere there are words to express the grief I feel at listening to the reports of these tragedies and the hollow sounding talking points that followed. Now, I have a strong need and a strong desire to shift to the hope of the Heavenly Father that comes to his creation in Christ Jesus. I have told my congregation that I will read the gospel of Luke next in search of the words that describe the hope that comes from Christ.


There are other ways in which I will respond. On Thursday evening, many of us will gather at Grace Waynesboro for a prayer service. I know some people roll their eyes at “thoughts and prayers.” Still we gather not as a media spotlight, but because we need to gather and we want to pray. I will also change my donation to the Violence Policy Center from an annual gift to a monthly donation. I will post details about the prayer gathering on our Facebook page. And I will give thanks to those who have found stronger words to express their thoughts, their grief, and their hope.

Pastor McCarty


Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Good Samaritan

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
July 14, 2019
Pastor Robert McCarty


Preaching Texts:    Luke 10: 25-37

Please join me in a prayer of gratefulness and thankfulness for Pastor C-- Tr--, who supplied for me last week and Pastor Ch-- R-- who will fill in for me next Sunday. I am truly blessed, we are truly blessed to have a couple of friends who worship with you and know you well to step into this pulpit when I am away on vacation. We thank God for their faithful presence. 

For those of you reading Ezekiel with me this month or trying to read Ezekiel, it gets better this week. The first 24 chapters of Ezekiel give us an eye opening experience about the depth of grief that God experiences. The grief of a father who has been woefully betrayed by a favorite child. But this week, the prophet begins to warn Israel’s neighbors that God has also seen their failings and that His chosen people will return to prominence. All of our reading this week sets up the Valley of the Dry Bones a week from Tuesday. I encourage you to stay with it and persevere.

Now, to our gospel lesson for today, we return to this most familiar of Gospel lessons: the story of the good Samaritan. As soon as I say "good Samaritan," as soon as you hear this gospel lesson, your mind probably rushes to a situation you have found yourself in where you either passed by on the other side or where you stopped and gave aid. Maybe you thought of both moments, most of us have in recent memory a time when we stopped and helped a stranger as well as a moment where we passed by on the other side. Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan is one of those stories where everyone who hears it can feel singled out. 

Perhaps that sounds amusing, everyone feels singled out. Actually, the purpose of this story is to unite people, even unite enemies--unite opposites might be the better term. A Samaritan helps a stranger; a Jewish rabbi praises a Samaritan over and above a priest and a levite. Jesus’ listeners would expect the priest and the levite to be the heroes of the story. Perhaps even offended that they are not the heroes of the story. Then comes a Samaritan? 

To understand Samaritan, I suggest that you think of your least favorite person that you see all the time. The individual that makes you think, “not you again.” We have to understand who the Samaritan is to the people of Jesus’ audience. The pimple on your face is annoying, but the Samaritan is the pimple bloated on your face on the day of your family photograph. Or if you watch FOX news, the Samaritan is your least favorite person on CNN. The same is true vice versa, if you watch CNN, the Samaritan is your least favorite person on Fox News. You can’t stand them. Get the idea of what Samaritan means.

The priest and the levite is the pillar of your community, the soldier, the sailor, the police officer, or teacher, nurse, doctor, firefighter, pastor, but the Samaritan is the person who does the right thing in Jesus story. The Samaritan shows mercy; the Samaritan shows compassion that goes beyond what is normally expected. “Here are two denarii, I will return and cover the balance.” Jesus describes a community where Samaritans are not just your neighbors, but are neighbors worthy of emulation and praise. Jesus erases the borders that has Jewish people and Samaritans living in two separate neighborhoods. Jesus speaks about unity that is beyond anything his Jewish followers could have imagined.

This gospel passage is about borders and foreigners, so perhaps you read in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago an opinion column written by Tracy Pyles who made reference to this gospel lesson in an article about immigration.

Tracy Pyles served on Augusta County’s Board of Supervisors, and for a while served as their chairman—a conservative, Republican. He lifted up the story of the Good Samaritan in response to the heartbreaking news photograph of Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his 23 month old daughter Valeria lying dead on the bank of the Rio Grande river (that tragic photograph you may have seen in the news). 

I will just quote three paragraphs. He wrote on June 30th in the News Virginian: “This week’s haunting picture of a young father, failing to keep himself and his 23 month old daughter safe when seeking a better life for her, will live with me forever. And be a constant reminder of how Christians can be split on an issue that should unite all believers."

Pyles continues, “Jesus’ parable [the Good Samaritan] message was clear, 'love your neighbor' without qualification and without delay. And His instruction to the lawyer is just as unambiguous, 'go and do likewise.'
His third paragraph: “Another question generated from recent events is this: Do “conservative” Christians inhibit or give cover to politicians who reject what I believe is a consistent part of the Gospel message: compassion without borders.” (end quote.) Not all Republicans support what is happening at the Mexican border: detainment and antagonism. Likewise not all Democrats are unwaveringly pro-choice.

I agree with Mr. Pyles, but I am not so naive as to believe that all Christians agree with us. When you recognize that disconnect, then you truly understand just how challenging this Good Samaritan parable is. We struggle with how to do and say the right thing, when conventions suggest silence. How to talk about issues of justice in ways that do not divide us. As I read over the parable, I cannot help but wonder about the priest and the levite, in praising the Samaritan, does Jesus rebuke the priest and the levite. Or do we read the rebuke into the story because we no longer hold the priest and levi up as role models. 

We struggle with this. I have seen members walk away, leave when I have talked or we have talked about gun violence, and same gender marriages, health care. We think about these topics as political issues, but they are also justice issues about life and freedom. And the lawyer's question that starts off this whole story is a question about life: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds with a question, “What do you find in the law, what is written there?” 

“You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and all your mind and your neighbor as yourself.”

Love your neighbor as yourself. That you may recognize as a variation of the golden rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Every major religion has some variation of the golden rule. I have a page in the back of the church with some of the variations you can find. None of those variations say treat all "believers" as you yourself wish to be treated. None of the variations place the limit on "brothers" and "sisters of faith" or "citizens." Always in the broadest of meanings neighbor and other: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” 

This is the key to life and there is no work around. The key to life lies not so much in seeking to preserve your own life, but in seeking to preserve the life of those people who live by you, whoever they may be. Life is precious to God and worth both cherishing and preserving.

Amen



Monday, June 24, 2019

The Church for a Broken World

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
June 23, 2019
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts:    Luke 8: 26-39

We like a rational world that makes sense. We like when life is predictable with a high level of stability. Instead the world seems broken or wild and we are trying to figure out our place in it. Our Gospel lesson gives us this wild story of extreme brokenness and chaos that just seems so antiquated. A demon possessed man running around naked breaking chains does not fit into the current world view. How does this story help us make sense of today’s world and our place as church in it? If this is our story how is it relevant to the rest of the world?

My sister Beth sent me an article this week written by a former college classmate. The article essentially asked two questions about relevancy that plague congregations like CELC: why church in the 21st century? and how church in the 21st century? I appreciated the article she sent me because Rachel Meyer, the author, didn’t just say “No” to church. She struggled with the question of relevancy especially as to what it means to her children. 

She is not alone in the struggle. Probably some of your friends are asking similar questions about why church? or how church? Perhaps some of your children or grandchildren have stopped asking the question and just said “no” to church.

Here is my answer to the first part of that question, why church?
A church builds community based on a common respect for the sacred and divine and helps people to recognize that the sacred lives even in marginalized (broken) places as well as marginalized (broken) people. 
The Christian church today recognizes just how broken the world is (the world seems). In today’s gospel lesson Jesus has ventured into another broken territory under Roman occupation. Of course, Jerusalem and Galilee are broken as well, but sometimes it is easier to see the brokenness in others than in your own lives, your own community. This land of Gerasenes is on the fringe. And the setting reminds us of other strange stories like Mad Max beyond the Thunderdome, or episodes on the border planets of your favorite science fiction series: chaos, strange relationships, different behaviors.

Our attention begins with the possessed man. How can you ignore a naked man living among the dead? Well you can’t, and Jesus does not ignore him. Jesus cares for him. Jesus does good, a miracle happens, chaos controlled. The story might even have a little bit of humor with the pigs, but the humor is lost on most of us today. Actually, this story lines up with our vacation bible school theme: “life is wild, but God is good.” Our VBS week set us in the midst of the African savannah as if we were in another story, Disney’s The Lion King. My thanks goes out to [names] who spent a week teaching youngsters about Moses and the Exodus of the Israelites into the wilderness. I love this theme, “Life is Wild, God is Good,” and how it matches this story of Jesus coming to this fringe community. Miracles happen, Jesus does good, chaos controlled, man is cured, sitting in his right mind. 

Let’s move on, because what I truly find interesting, and important, happens next in the story. The people of this fringe territory arrive and reject Jesus. This rejection does not make sense to me. Even though I have heard plenty of plausible explanations—they are scared, they are upset over the loss of the pigs, Jesus is a foreigner. These explanations sound straightforward enough, seem likely, but it still just does not make sense. Jesus has just brought order into a chaotic mess. He has done something beautiful in an ugly setting of tombs. And as these people come out to see what happened, “they found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” If Jesus brings order and stability to a wild situation, then why do people send him away. That actually sounds familiar, like today in the church. You and I see how Jesus brings stability, but others want distance between themselves and Jesus. Maybe this gospel has something to teach us.

To sit at the feet of someone at that time implies the relationship of student and teacher. The man has not just been healed, he is now a student of Jesus, learning from Jesus and what Jesus means to this country of Gerasenes. Instead, the local people are afraid, and we hear it a second time, “They were seized with great fear” and they send Jesus away. Except, Jesus has prepared his follower. A witness remains in the form of a new disciple for whom Jesus has done great things. 

As I grow older and stronger in faith, I see more people looking at me with these eyes that do not understand my faith. I feel normal and at my best when I sit at the feet of Jesus, but yet people are looking at me as a curiosity. They look at me as a curiosity even while I look at them with eyes that understand the brokenness they experience. They have questions they do not know how to ask, and I have stories that sound far-fetched to them about a man who died two-thousand years ago. This seems like uncharted territory that we are in.

We sit at the feet of Jesus and people treat us like the one possessed. As we sit there, Jesus gives us an answer as to how to be church. You remember those questions from the beginning: why church and how church? I gave my sister a nice answer, perhaps a bit stronger for the why church than the how church.

Jesus gives us the answer though for how church, how to be church in the twenty-first century, “return home, go and declare, tell people, how much God has done for you.” The once-possessed man goes and declares throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. How he was broken and God made him whole again.

As we prepare our stories, it may be helpful to remember the most important stories for others to hear have less to do with our success and good fortune and more to do with how we were broken and God snuck into our lives in an unexpected fashion and healed us. I have one such story shared with me about a young man who reflects back on how his parents handled him misbehaving. 

As a small boy, this person consistently came home late from school. He must have been hanging out with his friends after school. One morning his parents “warned him that he must be home on time that afternoon, but nevertheless he arrived later than ever.”

“His mother met him at the door and said nothing. His father met him in the living room and said nothing. At dinner that night, the boy looked at his plate. There was a slice of bread and a glass of water. He looked at his father’s full plate and then at his father, but his father remained silent. The boy was crushed.

“The father waited for the full impact to sink in, then quietly took the boy’s plate and placed it in front of himself. He took his own plate of meat and potatoes, put it in front of the boy, and smiled at his son.

As a young man reflecting back on that moment of his childhood, he said, “All my life I’ve known what God is like by what my father did that night.”

(Shared by Craig Brian Larson in 750 Engaging Illustrations.)

You have stories as well to share with the world about how God has come to you in a broken moment and made you whole. Those stories seem simple now, but they hold hope for our world.

Amen

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Down in the River to Pray

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
May 12, 2019
Pastor Robert McCarty

The Song lyrics below are from "Down in the River to Pray" from the movie "O Brother, Wear Art Thou." And yes, I sang the song from the pulpit.

Preaching Texts:    Revelation 7: 9-17   John 10: 22-30    (especially Revelation)

As I went down in the river to pray 
Studying about that good old way 
And who shall wear the starry crown 
Good Lord, show me the way 

Last week I talked about Wow moments in scripture. Revelation is a book just full of the Wow. I was reading Revelation this week, and I saw the line about holding palm branches and I thought we could sing “All Glory Laud and Honor” again this week. We could join our voices with the heavenly choir and praise God and sing this refrain: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen" (Rev:7:12). We can come here and praise God the Father and lift up our palm branches and all wear white.

O brother’s let's go down,
Let’s go down, come on down,
Come on brothers let's go down, 
Down in the river to pray 

Why do Lutheran pastor’s wear white robes? We call them a symbol of our baptism—the community’s baptism—as if we are down in the river. But, you also know that our worship anticipates this moment—Revelation—when we all wear white, and we all sing, and we all wave palm branches, and we are thousands upon thousands, a great myriad of hope basking in the glory of God. That moment is surely coming. So sure are we that it is coming that the glory of this revelation moment spills over, splashes into our worship today. 

The outside world also splashes into our worship today—more than just the rain— because we live in the confluence of two kingdoms. We have a foot in the world and a foot in heaven. Well, it probably is more like a toe or two in heaven and a foot and half on earth. A foot and a half and then some lives in the reality of earth. But sometimes with our baptism, living in our baptism, we can throw ourselves, cannonball, belly flop, feet first or head first dive into the kingdom of heaven.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

The movie O Brother Where Art Thou has not one but two baptismal moments as George Clooney’s character and cynic Ulysses Everett McGill escapes from jail and becomes an overnight singing sensation and thwarts the klan, receives pardon from the governor, saves his marriage and comes face to face with the law and death. All of this happens in an hour and forty-five minutes. In the middle, in the first baptismal scene he and his two other jail-mates encounter a church gathering, not just at the river, but in the river to pray.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

(Sometimes Woody and Gerry and their blue-grass group has sung that song for us.) 

Ulysses two jail-mates, Ulysses as well, the three of them are surrounded by a congregation of Christ singing and clothed in white robes over their Sunday best outfits, and they process through the woods where Delmar and Pete and Ulysses are cooking and eating squirrel and the singing congregation lines up in hip deep water and the preacher takes them one by one and dips them backwards beneath the water. Full-immersion, they do not say the words in the movie, but you know the words. “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

O sinners let's go down, 
Let's go down, come on down, 
O sinners let's go down, 
Down in the river to pray 

Overcome by the moment, Delmar runs, no procession for him, he runs into the water and splashes his way to the front of the line into the hands of the preacher and he comes up out of his baptism proclaiming the wow moment of God’s goodness.

“Well that’s it boys, I’ve been redeemed. The preacher done washed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out. And heaven everlastings my reward.”

Ulysses chastises him, “What you talking about? We got bigger fish to fry.”

So Delmar says it again. “The preacher said all my sins been washed away. Including the Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yaslu.”

Ulysses, “I thought you said you were innocent of those charges.”

Delmar pauses to think for just a second, “Well, I was lying, and the preacher said that’s sin been washed away too. Neither God nor man’s got nothing on me now.”

Then he leans back with eyes closed and face up to heaven, arms outstretched. “Come on in boys, the waters fine.”

Pete thrusts his hat into Ulysses hands and runs into the water.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

O mother’s, let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
Come on, mother’s, let's go down
Down in the river to pray.

Oh, that we all run into the water. That we all splash face first into our baptism and into our future that kingdom, that heavenly kingdom with God. 

When we talk about the wow moments of living here on earth, many probably recognize the most basic wow moment of our common experience is the wow moment of birth. B--- and D--- up in the choir went down and visited J--- and L--- last week and brought back a few pictures of their baby son with his tuft of black hair. Because when you look at a new born child, you just have to stop and think we have all been there. We have all been small and vulnerable, totally dependent on the adults in our lives. Needing help to eat and get dressed and diaper changes. Small and no words. We have all been there.


Thank you to D--- for coordinating the carnations this morning. D--- and L---  and R--- and B--- and R--- and A--- for helping to hand them out. I have heard of another congregation where even the men get carnations, because we all have mothers. Those (men and women) whose mothers still lived would receive a red carnation and those whose mothers had died would receive white carnations. Then you could look across the congregation and see the mixture of emotions associated with mother’s day. I know some of you wish that your mother could be here. I also know that some mothers wish their children could be here as well.

And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

I have the good pleasure of telling you today, by the words and ministry of the Good Shepherd, Christ your lord, you have been born anew in these waters. You have come up out of the waters wet with your salvation won for you by the cross of Christ. Maybe that is why it is pouring rain today, so you have to get wet.

You have been saved. You have been redeemed. The straight and narrow path to heaven has been set before you. And yes you will stray again, but these waters before you will always show you the way back. These waters will always cleanse you from your sins and your transgressions. Come back to these waters, you come back to this congregation, you come back to this meal. Heaven everlasting is your reward.

And when you embrace this truth—the truth of your baptisms—and embrace this hope for the future kingdom of heaven here now on earth now, that moment in your life is also a huge huge wow moment. Born again, Jesus tells Nicodemus.

(Singing while moving from pulpit to baptismal font.)

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

O mothers, let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
Come on, mothers, let's go down
Down in the river to pray.

O children, let’s go down
Let’s go down, come on down
Come on children, let’s go down
Down in the river to pray.

(Placing my right hand in the font of water and then stepping into the congregation making the sign of the cross.)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Keeping The Doors Unlocked


Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
April 28, 2019
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts:   John 20: 19-29

You come today to receive the blessing from Jesus. Every year on the second Sunday of Easter, Jesus ends the gospel lesson by blessing those who have not placed their fingers in the scars and seen his wounds and yet believe. You have experienced God in the breaking of bread, the reading of scripture, and the fellowship of the faithful. Yet this blessing is for you who missed out, like Thomas in the first half of the story, and still have come to know Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

I love this blessing, but this week, as I read this Gospel passage, my heart and attention turned to the fear of the disciples locked away in the room. Churches bombed in Sri Lanka last Sunday, Easter Sunday. A Synagogue attacked in California yesterday, in the midst of passover. Mosques in New Zealand attacked to a horrific extent. Today, I understand their fear. It may seem like God is under attack. Even fires at churches fit that motif. The truth is a lot more complicated.

Music concerts in Manchester (Aria Grande) and a huge outdoor musical festival in Las Vegas. We have had to deal with school shootings for twenty years. There was a bombing at the Olympic Festival concert in Atlanta in 1996, so another musical concert. You may also remember shootings at places of employment—recently that includes the newspaper in Baltimore, a shipping company in Chicago.

It is not just churches that are under threat. All of that which forms community and gathers people together is under attack. That which gives us joy, and purpose, and fellowship. If you understand joy, and purpose and fellowship as gifts from the Creator, then yes, God is under attack, and it is more than just the faithful who are at risk.

No wonder the disciples gather in fear. You might want to lock the doors as well, cloister yourselves together. Hide out. But the question is not how long can you hide for? (You can get anything delivered now.) The question is not how long can you hide for, but if you hide, what are you living for?

Life gains purpose and spirit by that which builds community and gathers people together. Joy comes from the fellowship, purpose comes from employment and education. And hope comes—along with other gifts—from the worship of God. Hope tells us we are stronger together than we are apart and that we are stronger praising God than we are bemoaning the pains of creation.

I know this topic is not for everyone, and I will be brief. For those of you who have these questions, I will listen to your questions and try to give some answers the next three weeks in our Rejoice Sunday school class. I will be there at 9 AM with coffee. (People will wander in from before 9 AM, at 9:10, even later at 9:20 AM. I do not guarantee there will be coffee if you come at 9:20 AM.) Whenever you come, we will give you a chance to voice your questions. I have a video that might help us. My older son introduced this video to me the includes Christopher Hitchens, who before his death was a notable author and atheist. He wrote a book called God is Not Great. Mr. Hitchens struggled with some of the same questions that St Augustine and Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rabbi Harold Kushner struggled with. (Rabbi Kushner wrote the book Why do bad things happen to good people?)

That is what we will talk about next week. Why do bad things happen to good people? What does evil tell us about God? And your questions about Faith God Hope and Love.

Love often gets lost in all of this. Because of the love of God and because of the love we have at the church, places of worship place themselves in the middle of issues that matter. That makes us targets.

Churches placed themselves in the middle of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and that made them targets. Whenever there is war churches have a voice. Pastor Reynolds told me how during the last Iraq War, thirty Methodist Bishops went to Capitol Hill and said, “Don’t do this.” Churches and Mosques and Synagogues have reached out to immigrant communities for hundreds of years. Now, synagogues and churches and mosques are participating in interfaith dialogues to better understand and know one another, and some people don’t like that and what to stop it. 

A couple of years ago this congregation willingly struggled with the question about same-gender marriages, because it was a social issue that mattered. We ventured into that conversation even though we have a variety of opinions on the subject. As church we will struggle with issues that matter, and we will not be deterred by fear. What happens here matters, and builds community, strengthens fellowship. We call purpose, “mission.” Joy, hope love all of that happens here.

We will gather like the disciples gathered. We will keep the doors unlocked, and we will trust that Jesus will cut through all our angst and break into our presence. Just like he does today and bring us a moment of peace. He tells us all today, “My peace I give to you.”

As you notice, Thomas misses out on the first part of the gospel lesson, which reflects other people who have missed out on Today’s message and worship and blessing of peace. We pray for their presence here next week, and take a moment to invite them in.

Amen.



Monday, April 8, 2019

Mary's Generosity

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
April 7, 2019
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts:   John 12: 1-8

Are you offended by this story of Mary anointing Jesus' feet and using her hair? The moment has a certain awkwardness to it. I suppose it might be different if Lazarus came up to Jesus with an expensive bottle of whiskey and raised a few fingers saying, “To your glory.” Believe it or not we have scriptural justification for this. Proverbs 31:6 (NRSV) states, “Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,” or more clearly from the New Living Translation, “Liquor is for the dying.”

If Lazarus came up to Jesus with a bottle of whiskey worth a year’s wages, we would read that as an extreme gesture of thanksgiving. After all, Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead. A year's wages gets you a top-shelf bottle of whiskey aged fifty years. You can picture Lazarus sitting down and pouring two glasses to toast Jesus, “To your glory.” Of course, if Jesus just pulled you out of the grave, what could ever repay such a gift. But then what if Lazarus then took the bottle and filled Jesus' glass to overflowing so that the expensive whiskey anointed Jesus' hands and fingers, and all those present could smell the aroma, and Lazarus kept on pouring. As he approached those final drops he lifted the bottle to Jesus' head and poured it on him, anointing him. Whiskey, by the way, has the Gaelic meaning of “water of life.” To those who do not know that Jesus is going to die, they may be offended. You might be offended by a description that mixes Jesus and whiskey. The Pharisees, those Pharisees present, would wink at each other, “See, he came eating and drinking, Look a glutton and a drunkard.” Again, biblical, that paraphrase comes from Matthew 11:19, when Jesus quotes what the religious elite say about him. If Lazarus had given Jesus a moment of brotherhood, it might slip by with less scrutiny. It would still be scrutinized, but less so than Mary anointing Jesus' feet with costly nard and using her hair to care for him before his death.

Today we have this description of generosity taken to extravagance. Today you hear a story of generosity that seems slightly uncomfortable. You witness intimacy and love, a public display of affection, between a man and a woman not married. At first people suspect it as an extravagant gift of thanksgiving, but Jesus explains the true intent. Mary anoints Jesus for his death. Truth be told, we are more comfortable with smaller gifts and tokens—like mugs. How many mugs have you received over the years? How many mugs have you given over the years?

My favorite mug—I have had it for twenty years, give or take—was given to me by my Uncle Tom for Christmas one year. I forget one detail, whether he gave it to me the year before he died from colon cancer or on the Christmas day on which he died from colon cancer. The doctor diagnosed my uncle early in the spring with stage four colon cancer that had metastasized to his liver. The first thing Tom did after his diagnosis was take a week vacation with his girlfriend, who was the mother of his youngest child. They went down to Florida. Then he returned to Vermont and fought like hell.

You have probably heard similar stories of people, who diagnosed with a terminal or near terminal disease, their first response is to take a trip of a lifetime— Make*A*Wish for adults. Sometimes they even splurge and go first class, though that doesn’t sound like my uncle. 

Make*A*Wish has had some extravagant requests over the years. You may remember that five years ago, a large portion of San Francisco turned out to watch “Batkid” fight crime on the streets. Batkid aka Miles Scott, who had leukemia, hit the magical five year anniversary of being cancer free. He is now ten years old living the life of a normal boy in Northern California

Sometimes, Make*A*Wish takes a simple request and goes all out. In 2006, doctors diagnosed Sam Farris with neuroblastoma, stage 4. He fought it for a year. Then, in the summer of 2007, oncologists scheduled Sam for a stem cell transplant. Sam loved playing baseball with his friends. When Make*A*Wish reached out to Sam before his stem cell transplant, Sam knew he could not play baseball, but he wished that his friends could play baseball in his backyard.

That is how Sam Farris ended up with a regulation Little League field in his backyard, complete with irrigation system and scoreboard. Make*A*Wish, and the Town of Mantachie, Mississippi, and ground crews from University of Mississippi and the local community college built Sam a regulation baseball field. They got donations of sod for the field, backstop, chain link fence, an irrigation system, and a scoreboard. Opening Day for Farris Field, Sam coached 18 of his friends against a junior varsity team. A neighbor sang the Star Spangled Banner; a local sports announcer called the game. (wish.org)

Eight to ten years later, John Lassiter made a short documentary about Farris Field, and Sam Farris, still living, also cancer free, had a chance to relive the experience of his town building him a ball field. Make*A*Wish loves these stories of the dying pulled back to life. Not just Make*A*Wish, we love these stories too.

These stories of life and dying and generosity give us the best avenue to understand Mary’s generosity. How much would you do for a dying friend or family member? What extremes would you go to, if someone you knew had maybe only six months or six days to live? Mary gives Jesus an extravagant gift; also a rather intimate gift; deeply, deeply personal; love to an embarrassing extent. Probably more people besides Judas felt uncomfortable by what was taking place between Mary and Jesus. But Mary understands. She sees what Jesus has shown his followers. She gets it. Jesus will die and he has already done so much, healed the sick, fed the multitudes, raised her brother. Mary gets it.

Tom, my uncle, went Christmas shopping with his grown daughter. He wanted to pick out gifts with meaning. While shopping outside of Dartmouth, New Hampshire, they found a designer-labeled cotton men’s dress shirt that cost 130 dollars. Tom and daughter joked about what kind of guy needs a dress shirt that costs 130 dollars. This was twenty years ago—that same shirt probably costs 200 dollars today. Daughter’s Christmas gift to her father was that expensive dress shirt. I mentioned Tom died on Christmas day. When we went to Vermont for the funeral, she gave that shirt to my father. He still has it hanging in his closet.

It is a fine line between extravagance and generosity, and Jesus crosses that line full throttle.

Jesus gets it. You are dying. We are dying, maybe not like my uncle. Death serves both as metaphor, for he we are mired in sin, but also as literal truth. For everyone of us, our days are numbered. We want to live and play ball with our friends and make the world a better place, but we just do not know the number. We do not know how many days or months we have to live.

And so Jesus does something extravagant for you, and deeply personal, for you. Jesus does something--love to an embarrassing extent--for you. He dies, for you, for us. In doing so, Jesus lives in Mary’s generosity. Imagine if Jesus hoarded of himself and went back to Galilee and lived the somewhat normal life of a prophet. Imagine if he healed the multitudes that came to him, dazzled with wisdom those who tried to trick him up. If from this moment Jesus runs back to Galilee just to live out his days, then Mary has the pinnacle moment of the Gospel of John and it goes for nothing. And Mary gives the greater gift.

Instead, here is what happens six days later after Mary anoints Jesus: Jesus anoints you. You are anointed in Jesus death and resurrection. It is not nard. It is not whiskey. It is something more, something greater, something eternal. Jesus has pulled you up out of the grave and anointed you with this water of life, your baptism. 

So we live in this story that begins anew next week. The story of a people who were dying and were given new life by Christ Jesus. Come next Sunday and hear the story of a holy week and three days where death gives way to Holy life.

Amen