Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 27, 2016
Isaiah 65:17-25, Luke 24:1-12
These are my numbers (showing a lottery ticket). These are my lucky numbers. They are precious. These numbers are secret. These numbers are handed down generation to generation like my grandmothers meatloaf recipe. And when they win big…then wow it’s going to be great. These are my lucky numbers. Every year people spend $1.5 billion on Mega Million lotto tickets and about the same amount on Powerball. They, or should I say we, spend almost another $6 billion on lottery games of all kinds. And we do so knowing that the odds are against us. In fact the odds of us winning the grand prize are somewhere in the neighborhood of 292,201, 338 to 1, and even the smallest prize of $4 the odds are about 38 to 1, meaning on average you would have to by 38 lottery tickets in order to win $4. You would think then that we would quit, give up, save our $38 and pay ourselves $4 for doing so. But no, we keep on buying because we believe. We believe that the prize is worth the risk.
In some ways this is a lens through which to view the attitude of the people of God, the Jewish people living in the time of Jesus. They believed that they too could be winners; that if they just believed enough, were faithful to God enough, then they could win the prize held out by Isaiah in the passage we read this morning. For more than five-hundred years they had been believing that the promises they contain would pay off. And the promises they contain certainly seem like they would be the jackpot of a lifetime. The city of Jerusalem would be a joy, meaning it would be free of outside interference and political oppression. In an age of high infant mortality, children would live long, prosperous lives where they live to be one hundred-years old. People who work for their living would not have it stolen by invading armies or corrupt governments. Even carnivorous animals would become vegetarians. This was the prize worth believing in. And so, even when things were going from bad to worse they still believed. The question becomes then, how could they believe when it never came true?
Perhaps it was because there were those moments when it appeared that the new heaven and earth were on their way. When they were in exile in Babylon a Persian King set them free and sent them home. It looked like this might be the moment of victory but it was not. Then there were the people called the Maccabees, Jews who helped them win independence. Maybe this was the kingdom come, but no it was still not to be. And then there was this Jesus of Nazareth. He was doing all of the right Isaiah things; giving sight to the blind, making the lame walk, feeding the hungry and healing people of their diseases. He was saying all of the right things. He was talking about the Kingdom of God. He was talking about a transformed world. He appeared to be running for the kingship of creation. So the people bought in. The people saw in Jesus the one who could make them winners. But then there was the arrest, the trial, the flogging, the crucifixion, the death and the burial. And like a worthless lottery ticket he was crumpled up and thrown away, buried in a tomb to be forgotten by everyone except a couple of women who loved him. For Jesus’ disciples and the people who had flocked to him a week or so before would have to wait for someone else to make them winners and not losers.
It was with that understanding that the women came to the tomb. They came as those who had lost once again. What they didn’t realize was that they were actually winners. They didn’t realize that they were winners because they were not playing the right game. They were playing the Let’s Get Rid of the Romans scratch off game; scratch off three Caesars and you are free. Jesus however was playing the, let’s defeat sin and death game. The women and their friends were playing the short game and Jesus was playing the long one. Jesus had come not to exchange one political system with another. He had come to exchange one reality for another. He had come to exchange the reality of death for life, hatred for love, prejudice for acceptance, greed for generosity and fear for faith. He had come to bring about a new heaven and a new earth…one person, one community and one world at a time. And the only way he could do this was by giving his life for the world and trusting that God would raise him from the dead.
The women and the world were winners and it was only when the angelic figures appeared reminding the women of the fact that the resurrection had come, that they realized it. For you see, the Jews understood that the resurrection was the kickoff of the new reality coming into being. It was the sign that their belief, their faithfulness had paid off; that things were about to change. So when the women learned that Jesus was raised, they recognized that they had won. Excitedly they ran back to their male counterparts and let them know that they were all winners. Yet, like the dozens of people who have held million dollar winning tickets and never turned them in…yes that’s right, dozens of $1 million dollar winning tickets have expired unclaimed…the other disciples could not believe that that had won because they were still playing the wrong game. They still didn’t recognize the resurrection and what it had done for them. Jesus would still have to work on them.
The question for us this morning is whether we recognize the resurrection? Whether we recognize what Jesus has done for us. Whether we recognize that we are winners. When I say winners I don’t mean winners in the way the world means winners; winners in terms of achievement, accumulation and appearance, or the Leo DiCaprio syndrome. What I mean by winners is that inside of each of us, because of Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s resurrection work, is the potential to become new people. We have the potential to become people of great sacrificial love, incredible compassion and extraordinary generosity. We have the potential to become people who transform the world because we have been transformed. We have the potential to leave behind our past and take up a new and better future. We have the potential to mirror Christ into the world. We have this potential because the lucky scriptures are the fulfilled scriptures; because in the cross and resurrection a new world has broken through.
My challenge to you then on this Easter day is this, to ask yourselves, how am I living into my potential as a follower of Jesus Christ, knowing that in his death and resurrection I have won and am a new creation capable of living the Christ-like life?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 20, 2016
Isaiah 50:4-9, Luke 19:28-40
We had hope though we probably shouldn’t have. It was my senior year in college at Trinity University in San Antonio, a school of about 2,300 students, and our soccer team, of which I was a member was headed down Interstate 35 to play the team from the University of Texas at Austin; a school of 40,000. We had played them in the second game of our season and been, well, trounced, 11-0. They were better at every phase of the game. Even though we had players from around the world, we were no match for them. I wish I could say we had improved dramatically since then, but we were on the tail end of a losing season. If we had lost 11-0 on our home field, there was little doubt as to the outcome of the pending encounter. But we had hope. We had that kind of hope which is at the heart of the American experience. So in the 90 degree heat we took them on, and when the final whistle blew we stared in amazement at the scoreboard. Trinity 1, UT 0. Somehow, our hope had not been in vain.
In some ways this is the stuff of dreams right? It is the 1980 United States Olympic Hockey team. It is David beating Goliath. It is a 15th seed defeating a number 2 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament. It is the reason we never give up…except when, the only reasonable thing to do is to give up; to surrender. I say that because there are times when there is no other sane option. This is what Robert E. Lee did at the Appomattox Courthouse. This is what Cornwallis did at Yorktown. This is what Napoleon did at Waterloo. This is what Rubio, Carson, Fiorina, Christy and countless others have done this primary season. They have understood clearly that they were not only part of a losing cause, but that the better part of valor was to surrender, give in and in some cases endorse someone else. There are those moments, as I said, when this is the only sane course of action for people that will protect themselves and those who had chosen to serve them. Which is why it would have probably been the thing that Jesus should have done as well.
Jesus had been causing waves. Jesus had been drawing crowds. There were people who wanted to make him king. There were people who would rally around him. Yet as he moved toward Jerusalem, it was more than apparent that the only outcome of this course of action would be his death. King Herod Antipas was after him. The Romans were going to have no part of a would-be king of the Jews. They had already in fact crucified numerous others. And by continuing his march to the capitol, Jesus was also endangering his followers. It was a fool’s errand. Yet not only did Jesus continue on to Jerusalem, he made sure that everyone knew that he was coming. In fact he acted as if this was his coronation. Each step in this process was carefully choreographed. No one had ever ridden on a donkey before, so he rode on a donkey into the city. Cloaks were spread on the ground. His followers were praising God for all the acts of power that they had witnessed. They were chanting the Psalm, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” Each of these acts was intended to say, here comes the king. In the moment when he should have either headed for the hills into a comfortable retirement, or surrendered he did neither. He walked right into the belly of the beast. The crucial question is, why?
Jesus goes on because he has hope; hope that in and through what he will do on the cross he will create a new kingdom; a kingdom based not on the acquisition and abuse of power but on the grace and love of God. Jesus will create a kingdom that looks like the kingdom desired by God; one in which there is justice, mercy and enough for all. And this kingdom will be possible because Jesus, in his ultimate act of self-giving will create new kinds of people to be citizens of that kingdom; people with radically reoriented hearts; hearts turned away from hate, prejudice, greed and fear and radically reoriented toward the love and grace of God and neighbor.
The people around Jesus believed that the Romans were “the problem” and that if Jesus just got rid of them everything would be fine; God’s kingdom would perfect. But Jesus understood that the Romans were not the problem. He knew this because even when Jews had been free they had rulers who conquered and oppressed not only the nations around them but their own people. The problem was not who was in charge, but was with the constricted hearts of human beings; hearts bent inward and filled with prejudice, anger, hatred and greed. Only by radically reorienting the human heart could the trajectory of history be changed. Only by sacrificial love, only by going to the cross could those hearts be turned outward toward God. So when Jesus moved forward into the city making a claim to kingship, it was of a real kingdom that was to come. But it would also be a kingdom like no other, a kingdom which would be organized around the love issuing forth from radically reoriented hearts.
The gift that we have been given is that we have radically reoriented hearts. When we confess Jesus as Lord, it is a recognition of that reality. We have the capacity to reject fear, hate, prejudice and arrogance. We can be those who live and love sacrificially. The problem is that we live in a world in which the powers and principalities as Paul calls them do not like radically reoriented hearts. For a heart that has been reoriented is focused solely on God and what God desires. It is not focused on what the powers and principalities desire. It cannot be manipulated to do the whim and will of the powers. So the powers do all they can to re-constrict our hearts. They try to cause us to fear, to hate, to desire what we don’t need. They try to once again constrict our hearts so that we will do what they and not God desire. So the question becomes, how to maintain our heart health? How do we maintain our radically reoriented hearts?
The answer is that we have to work at it. Just as we work to maintain our physical heart health, we have to work to maintain our radically reoriented hearts as well. And so, what I want to offer you on this Palm Sunday is radically reoriented heart health routine. There are five parts to it, and the best part is that you can do the first three before you get out of bed in the morning. Step one in the routine is, as you wake, open yourself to God. Ask what it is that God wants of you on this day. Be silent, be open and allow God to fill you. The second part is to confess. Spend a few minutes confessing where you have allowed your heart to be constricted; to be recaptured by the powers of this world. For it is only by acknowledging those movements toward constriction that we can reverse their course. Step three is receiving forgiveness. Many of us are very good at confessing but not very good at receiving forgiveness. The problem is that if we do not allow ourselves to be forgiven, we become stuck in the past and cannot move forward with our heart realignment process.
The next two steps come after you have begun your day. Step four is to offer up an act of sacrificial love. It is to offer up an act of kindness, love and compassion to someone who might not be expecting it; who needs to be touched by love and grace. In so doing we are actually exercising our hearts. We are unconstricting them. The final step is to become part of a community that supports your work of radically realigning your hearts. My guess is that many of us have tried to diet or exercise on our own and have not been all that successful. However when we have become part of a group, a community that works with us, we have found our efforts to be much more successful. The same is true for continuing to radically realign our hearts. If we are in a community that walks with us, encourages us and supports us as we do so, we are much more likely to stay the course and align ourselves with the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Over the past several weeks in our study on The Heart of the Matter, we have examined how God wants our hearts to be strong, steadfast, repentant, open and loving. But none of those heart qualities are possible unless we have continued to work at the radical realignment of our hearts. That then, as we enter this holiest of weeks, is my challenge to you, to ask, how am I working to continually radically reorient my heart so that I might daily show the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ to all.
Rev. Amy Morgan
March 13, 2016
Isaiah 43:16-21, John 12:1-8
She sat with him in the darkest hours of the night. As his breathing became more labored, as doctors and nurses checked his vital signs, she kept her hand on his shoulder and talked about sports. She wanted him to know he was not alone.
She had never met the man who lay dying in the hospital bed beside her. She volunteered to relieve family members of those who were dying in the hospital and to sit with those who had no family members to be with them in their last days. Perhaps she did not slather their feet with precious perfume, but she gave them the valuable gift of her time and her presence. She could have prioritized her time differently. She could have volunteered to work with the living – serving food at a homeless shelter or tutoring underprivileged schoolchildren. Why waste her time with people who were dying?
This is the kind of opinionated question posed to Mary as she kneels at the feet of Jesus, her hair an oily mess of perfume mixed with dirt. Now, Judas, we are told, had his own hidden agenda buried in his query. But it’s a legitimate question, nonetheless. Why waste an ointment costing a year’s worth of wages in such an extravagant gesture?
Like Judas, we all have opinions about what others should do with what they have. Whether it is time, money, or talent, one person’s waste is another’s wealth. And, like Judas, these viewpoints we have are shaped by our own motivations and priorities. They are windows into our hearts.
Do we operate out of scarcity or abundance? Are we motivated by greed or compassion? Do we have a big picture mindset, or are we caught up in the minutia? Are we fretting about the future, regretting the past, or living fully in the present?
Most of us are a complicated combination of all of these things, but at any given moment, our views about the allocation of resources comes out of this web of motives. And, like Judas, they can keep us from recognizing the true value of what is right in front of us.
Judas is as complicated a person as ever there was. He felt called to follow Jesus, to learn from him, carry his message out to others. Somewhere along the way, he was given charge of the common purse for the Jesus cause. Perhaps he had been a tax collector and was good with numbers. Or perhaps he talked the group into trusting him with the funds in the hopes that he would someday serve as head of the treasury in the new kingdom Jesus kept talking about.
Somewhere along the way, he began to see how he could profit in the here and now. Skimming a little off the top. Setting aside a portion of the donations for his personal use. It was thrilling at first. And then he came to resent Jesus and the other disciples. How could they be so blind, so trusting? He should have been caught long ago. If they didn’t care to keep an eye on him, he would just go on stealing more, seeing how far he could take this thing.
So when Judas looks down at Jesus’ feet and sees what Mary has done, he doesn’t see an act of love and gratitude. He sees a waste of money, more money probably than he had in the whole common purse. With his deceitful tongue, he argues that they should have sold the perfume…you know, to give it to the poor. His value of money has blinded him to the value of Jesus.
Still, Mary’s way of showing how much she does value Jesus seems rather odd. Jesus comes to her defense with the bizarre insight that Mary had purchased the expensive perfume for his burial. Jesus, who, as far as anyone knows, is not sick nor, at this point, condemned to death. What a strange thing for Mary to do. It would be like spending a million dollars on a grave blanket for an apparently healthy, successful, 33-year-old. Presumably, the flowers will be long gone before they’re needed.
But that is the truly amazing thing about what Mary does. She gives Jesus something so rich, so costly, and it is completely useless, totally impractical. We might teach our children “it’s the thought that counts” when they receive a gift that is not much to their liking. But this goes so far beyond that. In pouring out this perfume on Jesus’ feet, it ceases to be useful to the rest of the world – either as a burial ointment or as a means to care for the poor. It is a lavish gift not only in its price but in its transience – a house filled for a moment with the fragrance of nard and the soft, slick feeling on the skin of Jesus’ feet.
In all it’s wonderful strangeness, Mary’s offering was the perfect gift for Jesus, from one who knew him best. Mary, who sat and listened at the feet of Jesus, had been watching his every move and pondering his words. She knew the Jesus of overflowing abundance who turned water into 180 gallons of the finest wine and fed crowds of thousands with leftovers to spare. The Jesus of reckless healing, who made enemies by casting out demons and forgiving sins and restoring broken people to wholeness and community. The Jesus who is the living water and bread from heaven, offering eternal nourishment. The Jesus who marked himself for execution by raising Mary’s brother, Lazarus, from death.
Mary had also heard the fearmongering among some of the temple leaders, those hoping to keep the status quo, prevent a riot, avoid rocking the boat of the Roman Empire. While Jesus’ disciples were preparing for a rebellion, Mary was the only one who really saw what was going on. She knew he was marching to his death. And she knew better than to try to stop him. She knew, better than most, that death has no power over him.
Like the volunteer in the hospital, Mary occupies the sacred space between life and death. Just days before this dinner, Jesus brought her brother Lazarus back to life as her sister Martha fretted that the oils they had put on his dead body would not be enough to keep down the stench. A few days after this dinner, Jesus will die and be buried in such a hurry that they have no time to anoint the body. But here, in that space between her brother’s resurrection and her Lord’s death, Mary annoints Jesus’ feet, letting the living Jesus enjoy the musky fragrance of the nard and feel the tender caress of her hair. She understands that the cost of the perfume is nothing in comparison to the price Jesus is about to pay for bringing the kingdom of God to earth. Mary knows the price of this treasure, the gift of Jesus, God’s Messiah, and it far exceeds 300 denarii.
In the space between life and death, Mary understands Jesus’ declaration that “you will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” “The poor” is a stereotype, a faceless, generic group. “The poor” do not engender true compassion, as is evidenced by the fact that Judas uses them as a way to ultimately put more money in his pocket. “The poor,” along with all the other categories of marginalized people, will always be with us. Because we will always try to group people together and label them so that we can figure out what to do with them.
We will always have “the poor.” But we do not always have Jesus. We do not have Jesus when we act of our self-interest and greed. We do not have Jesus when we label and generalize about people. We do not have Jesus when we de-value other human beings.
We do have Jesus when we see each person as Mary saw Jesus – as an individual, as someone uniquely made in the image of God, as a person with a purpose and a path. We do have Jesus when we, like Mary, show love and gratitude. We do have Jesus when we value him over our own selfish desires.
The truly remarkable thing about that volunteer in the hospital, and the hundreds of other people who do what she does, is that she saw this stranger the way Mary sees Jesus. She took whatever information she had about him, and saw him as a unique, particular person, beloved of God. She realized his temporary nature, and she gave the valuable gift of her time to show love and gratitude to him while he was still living.
If we group people as “the poor” or “the dying” or “the underprivileged,” we will always fail to meet their needs because we will always fail to see their true value. We will do what we want with what we have instead of experiencing the transforming power of radical love and self-giving. We might end up with more money, more leisure, more accolades. But there is so much we will miss.
Judas’ path after this dinner in Bethany leads him to accept a bribe and betray his friend. It leads him to hopelessness and despair. We don’t really know what happens to Mary. This is the end of her story in the gospels. But we might assume that she lives to see the resurrection of Jesus. She likely benefits from her brother’s extended life. Perhaps she even teaches others the things she learned at the feet of Jesus.
What you do with what you have is entirely up to you. People will have opinions, yes. But the choice is ultimately yours. And that choice begins with how we see Jesus, and how we see Christ in each person we meet. When we value the presence of Christ in our lives above all else, and when we experience the presence of Christ in others, our gratitude overflows. There is no limit to the love we can give.
And so that is my challenge for us this week: Can we place greater value on Christ? Can we see Christ in others and value them as well? Can we value them in the particular and not just as generalities?
In doing this, we will not feed “the hungry” or tutor “the uneducated” or care for “the poor.” Instead, we will share a meal with George, read Tamika’s favorite book with her, and help Lorenzo get his driver’s license. No matter the cost, because these people are Christ with us. When we have them in our lives, we have Jesus. And that is something more valuable than we can possibly imagine.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 6, 2016
Isaiah 41:17-20, Luke 15:1-10
Abraham’s life was going nowhere fast. Growing up in a poor Hispanic section of East Los Angeles he had found himself in trouble with the law early and often. He had joined a gang, dropped out of high school and been in and out of Juvenile detention. If anyone had been giving odds, they would have been overwhelmingly in favor of his ending up in prison for most of his adult life. Yet something happened to Abraham. He is now a high school graduate and is attending community college. He has been selected for a special month long learning opportunity at Oxford College in England. He has met the Queen of Sweden. And his goal is now to go to UCLA law school and become an attorney in order to help kids like he was. So what happened? How did this come about? The answer is that someone listened to Jesus. But in order to understand this we have to return to our story.
Our Jesus’ story this morning begins with Jesus teaching, which is nothing out of the ordinary. What is out of the ordinary though are those who are being taught. Jesus was teaching those whom most of us would not invite to a dinner party. He was hanging out with sinners and tax collectors…or as we might think of them…homeboys, or for those of us from South Texas, the cholos. These were the people that respectable people avoided. But there were other people there as well…the religious elite known as Pharisees. They were scandalized by Jesus’ new found friends and began whispering about how inappropriate this was. What I love about Jesus is how he responds to their campaign. He tells stories.
The first story is about a shepherd who has had one of his 100 sheep wander off. The shepherd leaves the other sheep and heads out to find the lost lamb. When he finds it he throws a party. The second story is about a woman who loses a coin and spends a great deal of effort trying to find it. And when she finds it she throws a party as well. Both of these may seem like strange stories. Why would a shepherd care about one sheep? Why would a woman care about one coin? For those listening to Jesus the answers would be obvious. For the shepherd, he would care so much because the sheep are not his. Shepherds worked for other people and were responsible for every, single animal. He had a duty to find it. The woman needed the coin because it probably represented her entire life savings and was perhaps the only thing that might save her family from starvation. The sheep and the coin were of almost incalculable value. The gift of these stories was that they made everyone think, not just about lost sheep and coins, but about God. They made them think about God because everyone knew that Jesus was not just talking about a shepherd and a woman, but he was talking about God; the God with a searching heart. The God of Israel was always the God who came searching for God’s people. God searched for them when they were slaves. God searched for them when they were exiles. God searched for them when they had wandered off again and again and again. And God searched for them because God loved them; because they were of incalculable value. And now God had sent the messiah to bring them home. They got it that God had sent Jesus to gather God’s people and not just the perfect people, but all of the people including the homeboys and the cholos; the sinners and tax collector; you and me; every person on the face of the earth because each of us is of incalculable value to God. It was this God who found Abraham.
This God with a searching heart found Abraham through the work of Father Gregory Boyle and Homeboy Industries. In 1988 Father Boyle and his parishioners knew something had to be done about the rising gang violence around them in inner city LA. So rather than asking for more police and prisons, they started a program to love, cherish, teach and train gang members so that their lives might be turned around. And they did so not simply to help bring peace, but because they believed that each and every one of those young men and women were of incalculable value to God. Over the years Homeboy Industries has become the world’s largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program. Each year they help more than 10,000 gang members to turn their lives around. This is how Father Boyle puts it, “If ours is a God who is too busy loving us to be disappointed in us, then imagine what that means for your ministry or being. And imagine, if ours was a God who didn’t want anything from us but only wanted for us, then suddenly, all these walls and doors are opened.” This was what Father Boyle helped Abraham to understand…that God had been searching for him and that the walls that had constrained Abraham were now broken down.
This morning I have two challenges for you. The first is, as you take the bread and the cup, to remember that you are of incalculable value to God; that God has been searching for you and that there is nothing you could have ever said, done or thought, that can change God’s love for you. Second, to ask yourselves, how am I partnering with God’s searching heart to go searching for those who like Abraham, need to be found?