Smelling Memory

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

John 12:1-8; Text for Sunday April 7, 2019

Memories are tagged by senses as well as words.  The sight of a particular blue, the sound of a musical note, the feel of a knitted blanket, the taste of a familiar dish.  Of all of these sense-triggers, smell goes deepest, evokes the most.  The smell of bread baking, of beef stew simmering.  The library smell of old books, wood and wax. The milky smell of a baby.   The fall tang of wood smoke.  The sharp green of fresh-cut grass.  Hyacinths honey-sweet and lavender astringent and blue.

What did Mary remember when she uncorked that perfume?  What did she remember as she anointed Jesus’ feet, wiped them clean with her unbound hair?  Did Mary think of Lazarus her brother, so lately dead and buried?  Did Mary think of Martha, her sister, who had called Jesus Messiah and Lord?  Did Mary think of Jesus ordering the stone to be rolled back in spite of Martha’s warning of the foul smell of four-days-past death?  Did Mary remember that what had emerged from the tomb was her living, walking grave-cloth-bound brother, coming out in response to Jesus’ call? Did Mary remember what those grave-clothes smelled like, when Lazarus emerged? Had she clung to her brother through the musky-sweet scent of decay? Or had he smelled instead like new-born life?

The whole house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

What did Mary remember at the end of it all, whenever after she smelled the fragrance of the nard?  Did she remember Lazarus sitting host again to the one who had hosted his return to life.  Did she remember Martha paused in the doorway, bringing in the bread and wine, smile of joy turning into an O of surprise?  Did she remember Judas’s question?  Did she remember the rest of them gathered there?

Or did she only remember him?  Did she only remember the hem of his robe and the shape of his feet as she washed them in perfume and wiped them with her hair?  Did she only remember somehow knowing that this would be one of the last times he would be with them.  Did she only remember that this was her last time to make her thank-offering for one life returned, her gift-offering for another death coming?  

Six days before the Passover.  The third day after that.  Whenever after Mary smelled the perfume, what did she remember of the love-offering she had given? What did she experience of the love-offering she had received?

revised from 2010

Bearing Figs

Then [Jesus] told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Luke 13:6-9

text for Sunday March 24, 2019

What was wrong with the tree?  Why did it not bear fruit?

Was it that the tree had been planted in the wrong place?  Was there was too little sunshine, or too much?  Was the soil was too acidic, or not enough?

Surely the tree longed to bear fruit.  

Maybe the tree looked at the other trees in the orchard, saw all of them bent with the happy, heavy weight of fruit.  Some trees bore fruit that was round and red; others longer and green; some trees were hung with fuzzed-globes of warm yellow while others bore smaller globes, with a purple-blue haze to the skin.  But no fruit hung from her branches.  The tree wept for her own barrenness, for the wrongness of her planting in this place, for the fruit she had been meant to bear but had not.

The master came to look at her, “Three years I have looked for figs,” he said, grieved to find the branches empty.

Figs?

‘Sir, let it alone for one more year,” said the gardener.  “I will dig around it and put manure on it.”

Figs?  The tree heard and wondered.

The gardener came to the tree. “Figs,” he murmured, soft as a breeze.  “You are meant to bear figs,” he told the tree, “You have always been meant to bear figs.  Be fruitful.  Bear figs.”

The tree listened and began to hope.  Her barrenness was not the master’s design; it was a grief to him as well as her.   The gardener dug around the tree, and put manure in the soil.  The gardener put new heart in the tree. “Figs,” the gardener whispered blessing to the tree.  To her neighbor, he whispered “apples” and to another “pears” or “peaches” and “plums.” The tree listened and began to understand.  She was meant to bear figs – not the fruit that every other tree bore, but figs, green-skinned, purple-fleshed, seeded and sweet.  The tree had blamed the planting, blamed the garden, blamed her own inability to be something she was never even asked to be.  Now she realized her true purpose.

“Bear figs,” the gardener promised.  The tree heard and believed.  The tree put away her tears and began to bud.  The tree bore figs for the master’s joy, and her own.

*originally written 2010

The Meaning of Beloved

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, …’ 

Luke 4:1-3; full lectionary gospel linked below:

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+4%3A1-13&version=NRSV

Sunday March 10, 2019, Lent 1

If love has the last word, then why is the devil speaking? 

Jesus has just been baptized with water from the river and with word from on high (Luke 3:21-22).  Jesus is Son.  Jesus is Beloved.  Jesus pleases well.  And Jesus, full of the Spirit, is led by that same Spirit into the wilderness, and there Jesus is tempted by the devil for 40 days.  Jesus will be famished by the days’ end.  How should this be? 

If you are the Son of God,’ the devil prods.  Is the phrasing a taunt, casting doubt on the prior experience, the wonder of blessing having given way to wilderness stress?  Is the phrasing a challenge, ‘since you are …’* — testing the bounds of how that claim will be lived?  Does the devil seek to cajole or to provoke?

In any case, why should Jesus be there, in the wilderness, accosted by such active, persistent, personal temptation?  Why should the Spirit have led Jesus to this?

Or is this, yet again, what the Spirit does:  makes plain what beloved-ness is, what blessing means, what inspiration leads us to see.  Encounter with God necessarily requires encounter with neighbor.  People are hungry — how shall they be fed?  People search for meaning — where shall they find it?  People long for community — how will they create it?   The people are not pretend nor their needs imaginary.   They are flesh and blood and desperately real.  They are famished.  As Jesus becomes.

Luke presents the test with a fable-like setting and pair.  Jesus and devil both are well-versed in the written word of God and well-acquainted with the needs of the world.  But the devil disguises the needs as a set of hypothetical tests, as if the claim of beloved-ness is proved in accurate quotation and pure speech.  Jesus refuses the hypothetical.  Jesus turns to the real.  Jesus will not use the world to prove the Word but will live the Word to heal the world.  Jesus — still filled with the Spirit (Luke 4:14) — will ‘return to Galilee’ and begin to teach and claim for himself Isaiah’s anointing to ‘bring good news to the poor’ (Luke 4:18).  Isaiah the prophet who, seeing God in glory, saw himself and his people with new-opened eyes (Isaiah 6:1-5).

We cannot see God without seeing our neighbor.  And maybe, when we truly look to see and hear and love our neighbor, we will find that we have learned to see and hear and love our Lord. 

I am not strong enough to pray that the Spirit may lead me into the wilderness. But I can at least pray to see and hear and love more fully, more truly, even knowing that wilderness will occur.  And I pray that when I know myself there, the Spirit will remind me — yet again — that this new sight is the meaning of ‘beloved,’ reassure me that the Spirit is leading me through, and revive in me the conviction that the Spirit will fill me and use me toward the healing of the world. 

*The Greek can be read either way.

Transfiguration

for Sunday March 3, 2019

Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.  When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them.  Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai.

Exodus 34:29-32

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.  And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.  

Luke 9:28-29; full lectionary text linked below

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+9%3A28-36&version=NIV

This has been a hard week for the people of God called Methodist, the people among whom I live and work and love, to whom I am committed, with whom I have communion. Some of whom now have been dealt the blow of exclusion.   News is still too new to know if, or how irrevocably, communion has broken.  But the specter itself aches.  I feel uncharacteristically wanting Ash Wednesday, texts and liturgy that match my mood.

But first comes this Sunday, when the church recalls Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain.  The lectionary twins the text from Luke with that of Moses’ transfiguration.  The writer of the gospel evokes Exodus motifs:  dazzling white glory, shining shadow cloud, divinity speaking on the mountain.  Jesus is about to accomplish his own (literally) ‘exodus’ at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31).  Moses and Jesus. The figures are connected.  But I don’t think their comparison is the sum of the gospel’s aim.  Such reading is too facile, too swiftly exhausts the significance of the text.  If it is about no more than proving Jesus’ identity as ‘Son,’ then we the church could just recite the creed and be done.  It would be a much more efficient use of Sunday mornings.  But we’re given — yet again — a story. 

One story.  Doubly told.  A story about encounter with the LORD.  About how that transforms those who are directly there and those who encounter them.

Moses has been on Mount Sinai 40 days and 40 nights (Exod 34:28).  Moses has asked, and been granted, a vision of the LORD’s glory — an encounter so powerful that God himself must shield Moses from its full effects (Exod 33:21-23).  The LORD, who knows Moses by name (Exod 33:17), descends in a cloud and proclaims his own name:  ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation’ (Exod 34:5-7).  Moses has spoken with the LORD; Moses has heard God’s own mouth proclaiming God’s own nature:  ‘I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy’ (Exod 33:19).  No wonder Moses shines with the reflection of God’s glory!  No wonder Aaron and the rest are terrified!  Moses mutes his glow, tells what the LORD had told.  Ever after, when Moses speaks with the LORD, his face again shines (Exod 34:34-35).

Do Peter and John and James shine when they came down the mountain?  Like Moses they had stood in the presence of God, been enveloped by the cloud, heard divine speech (Luke 9:33-35).  But unlike Moses, when they came down the mountain, they had nothing to say.  Not yet.  They kept silent (Luke 9:36).  Maybe because they still did not understand the encounter they had had, and until its fullness was revealed after Easter, they were unable to receive it, unable to tell it, unable to glow with the reflection of its glory.  In time that would come.  In time, maybe, they would glow.  In the presence of joy.  In the practice of love.  In the experience of communion.

I have seen that glow.  Not the overwhelming glory that tells me that I am in the direct presence of divinity but the glow that tells me the one whose face is shining has been.  And the glow of encounter has shined on my own face.  I don’t always know it, think only that I am telling of some newness I have seen, some wonder I have encountered, don’t even realize I am aflame until the person to whom I am talking lights in response and I realize.  Oh.  This is it.

Here’s the thing:  I have seen that glow on those who hold inclusion as dear as I do and on those who do not.  I have learned from them; they have learned from me.  We have disagreed about how God sees and yet at times — to our mutual surprise — we have recognized a glow of glory and lit a new sight of God for each other.  I believe the LORD has been delighted by the spark kindled, the light spread.

Transfiguration Sunday is not only about Jesus but about the church.  We live after Easter.  We are no longer to remain silent as the disciples did. We are not to turn away from each other’s light nor quench each other’s fire.  We are called to encounter God with and through each other, to shine in communion, to glow with the glory of the LORD, the LORD, merciful and gracious.

May God’s mercy and grace heal those hurt, guard the glow, and restore our hope of inclusive communion, that we may all look full and loving at each other whole, ascend the holy mountain, speak with the LORD, and feel our faces shine bright with God’s glory.

Living Water

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. … 
“But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. 

Luke 6:27-28, 35-36

for Sunday February 24, 2019

Wednesday it snowed.  Flakes fell fast and the ground was cold so they stuck and they stacked, and soon the sight through the window was of shades and shadows of grey — from white to blue to dove.  After the snow came some freezing rain, skimcoating the ground with an icy glaze.  By night, the streetlights seemed to show a frozen world.  All stiff and still.

Thursday it was warm.  The sun and the temperature rose together.  In the afternoon I took a walk.  The snow was much melted.  The white cover persisted in the shade, rapidly sagging, showing more and more of the color beneath.  The snow and the earth were softening into each other.  I saw the wheaty-green of wintertime grass, the squelchy brown of mud showing through.  Snowmelt gurgled in downspouts and ran along the edges of the road, glinting and glimmering as it rushed downhill.  Its motion flashed in the sunshine.

How do we have a conversation?  How do we have a dialogue, an argument — in the best sense of the word?  How do we define the issues, limit the dispute, carefully explore each point of view?  How do we come to mutual understanding even if not common agreement? 

I am a professor.  In class I talk.  I review the readings; I add information; I invite discussion.  Sometimes there is little answer.  The information feels too new or there is too much of it.  And I stand there as an expert, which itself can inhibit response.  I have learned to ask “What questions do you have?” not “Any questions?”  I try to listen and not rush to fill the pauses.  I am still working on it.  But I try, not just for the sake of my students’ learning, but for my own. Because the possibility for surprise flows both ways.  Because it is delight when the talk takes an unexpected turn, latches on to an overlooked detail, makes it new for all of us.  Makes us newly alive.

Why conversation? you wonder.  Why listening and speaking when Jesus is talking about love?  Love your enemies, do good, bless, pray.  There’s nothing in that list about listening.

No.  But Jesus’ four-fold litany — love, do good, bless, pray — is addressed to “you who are listening.”  Listening, it seems, is the prerequisite.  Listening is the beginning.  Love, it seems, starts in listening.  In listening to Jesus’ speech.  In listening to each others’ speech.  Not just passively allowing the sounds to flow past our ears, but listening with our whole hearts and soul and strength and mind (Luke 10:27).  Listening, expecting nothing in return, listening even to our enemies, those who hate us, who curse and abuse us.  For our Father is merciful to the ungrateful, even to the wicked.  Our Father listens even to us (Luke 11:9-10).

Jesus is talking to us.  Not to our enemies.  We who are listening are the ones addressed, the ones invited to respond.  Whole-hearted listening is the start of our loving; and love continues in whole-hearted speech.  We are not meant to stand frozen stiff and still in pristine purity but to turn towards each other, to soften into each other.  To listen and love and do good and bless and pray. 

May there be space for words and space for silence.  May there be openness to the possibility of mutual surprise.  May there be the delight of new sight, of unexpected understanding.  May we be each transformed by the encounter.  May we know communion.  

See!  We are having a conversation!  See how it burbles and glints as it flows!

Living water.

Hearing Healing

for Sunday February 17

[Jesus] came down with [the twelve] and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.  Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God. 
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh. 
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation. 
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep. 
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. 

Luke 6:17-26

I wish this text did not have ‘Woes.’  A bit ironic when last week I had been so stricken as to join Isaiah’s own and claim hope in it.  It would seem nicer if this text had only blessings.  Even if I could not claim myself among those identified as ‘blessed’ — we are not poor nor hungry, although weeping I know — I could at least hang near their fringes.  Luke’s Jesus does not seem to permit this sidling near.  There are those pronounced ‘blessed’ and those to whom Jesus addresses woes.  Luke’s Jesus explicitly addresses the extremes, as if there is no middle.  One is blessed, or one is addressed with woe.  Those are the only options.

‘Don’t spiritualize Luke,’ the commentaries all agree.  When Luke says ‘poor,’ do not helpfully complete the phrase ‘in spirit’ (Matt 5:3), think destitute, even desperate.  When Luke says ‘hungry’ do not imagine hungering for righteousness (Matt 5:6), think bellies bloated with emptiness, of daily bread prayed for more often than eaten.  Definitely do not let this thought drive you up from the table for another square of dark chocolate.  Set yourself back into your seat, staring — glaring — at this text, sorry you cannot count yourself poor and hungry, sorry to know you are rich and full, wishing there was a word in Jesus’ words that you could claim as happy, a happy word you could claim as for you.

‘Happy’ or ‘fortunate’ — these are equally apt translations for the ‘blessed.’  And the ‘woe’ is not itself a curse although it pronounces the pain to be felt when we see as God sees.   The words are powerful, blessing no less than woe. Jesus’ speech makes something plain that was not so before; Jesus’ speech makes something be that had not been before.  The poor realize their inheritance, the hungry experience fullness, the mourners hiccup past the worst of their tears and begin to feel a peace steal over their spirit.  Jesus’ words perform what they describe:  blessedness.

And the rich?  Those who are full and laugh and have the praise of ‘all’ (an inherently suspect acclamation)?  Does Jesus truly speak ‘to’ or only ‘about’ them?  Are they rhetorical figures, straw-persons set in opposition to the blessed?  Were they there among that crowd of disciples who had come to hear and be healed?  If so, what did they hear?  How were they healed?

‘Power came out of him,’ Luke writes of Jesus, and the power that came out from him ‘healed all of them.’  And then Jesus looks at his disciples — not only the twelve apostles but the whole ‘crowd’ of disciples there — and speaks.  

Healing precedes hearing, one commentator notes.  I wonder.  Maybe the power that comes out and heals is Jesus’ speech.  The sound of his voice, the rise and fall of his tone, the shapes of his words, strung into sentences of blessing and of woe, sentences that make things happen.  You listen as if he is talking to you.  You listen because he is talking to you:  ‘Blessed are you,’ ‘Woe to you.’  And because Jesus is talking to you, you yourself, you hear what you had not before. You’re not inappropriately sidling near, as if hoping blessing might trickle down.  You already are there, already trying to hear. Maybe the point is not, or not only, the proclamation of blessing, the pronouncement of woe, but the adjustment of sight, the glimpse for a moment as if through God’s eyes, of God’s judgment, in God’s reign.  A flash like lightening on a summer night that shudders across the entire sky, shows the world brighter than day, so that darkness after seems blacker than before.  But there was that moment.  When you saw.  That those consoled in their riches have exhausted all the consolation that they can know.  But those — rich and poor alike — who gather on a plain, bringing their illnesses and their troubled spirits to the source of consolation may yet be healed, may yet become a community together, a crowd of disciples, gathering and eating and sharing the kingdom of God.

One Is Coming

As the people were filled with expectation and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,  John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.  But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison. 

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

Luke 3:15-22 [NRSV]

Sunday Jan. 13, 2019

I’m browsing Amazon, clicking idly from title to title.  Hygge:  Danish Secrets to Happy Living.  Lagom: Not Too Little, Not Too Much: The Swedish Art of Living a Balanced, Happy Life. Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.  Amazon reviews suggests the specifics vary — hygge stresses the satisfaction of just being, ikigai advocates a fulfilling busy-ness, and lagom perfectly balances busy-ness and pause — but there is a sameness in the patterning of the titles and the covers (they tend towards folk-art simplicity in pastel tones) and in the promise that this approach to living will renew your life. 

The trouble is that the pastel tones seem insufficient to counter the weight of the dailiness which wears me down.  The dailiness of my own life; the dailiness of the lives with which I am woven in love — family, and friends, and their family and friends; the dailiness of the life of the wider web of the nation and the world, reported in the news.   My soul aches with the weight of it all.  Anger; division; hate; hurt.  I close the news tab on my browser, go back to Amazon for more pastel prettiness, the promise of joy sparked and life changed through simple tidying.  It’s not enough.

The people ‘were filled with expectation,’ Luke writes.  It’s a hopeful phrase, suggesting a folk-art innocence.  The people’s anticipation seems that of children — soon it will be wonderful, soon it will be now.  Can such simple innocent hope bear the burden of my own weariness?

The two independent clauses in the English — ‘were filled … were questioning’ — in the grammar of the Greek is more dependent — ‘being filled with expectation, the people were questioning’  The expectation seems  the condition which sets the people to questioning.  The expectation and the inquiry are intertwined, not independent.  Because the people are so filled, they ask.  

More than that, the Greek verb is rougher than the English ‘expectation.’  The lexicon suggests the people were ‘waiting with apprehension or anxiety.’   Being anxious in their waiting, tense in their expectation, they encounter John and wonder, Is this he for whom we are waiting with such apprehension?  Is this the one who will answer our need?

No, John tells them.  I am not he.  John speaks of gathering in and of burning clean.  John recasts the weight of all the world’s pain as no more than chaff to be lifted on the wind and consumed by flame.  And this is good news.  Good news.  He is coming, John says.  And before the passage is done, he has come, and been named Beloved.

But the passage that ends with Jesus’ baptism, the heavenly proclamation of him as Son, begins with the people’s apprehension, the urgency of their expectation, a tension that drives them to wonder and to ask.    Their insistent need is neither innocent nor incidental.  It pulls at them; it pulls them.  The people’s expectation strains from brokenness and lack towards wholeness and home.  Towards life.

I need not flee the tension nor deny its aching weight.  But through its claim that what is is not what should be nor what shall be, keep seeking and asking and offering my need.  In expectation of answer through the voice of the text saying Child, saying Beloved, saying Pleased.  

And the voice sustains the weight of the dailiness, eases the ache, revives the recollection of joy and the commitment to the promise, the proclamation of good news:  One is coming.