March 17, 2013
My friend Caela is a pastor in Indiana. She and her husband David have two preschool boys. While watching his Mom read the news on the internet this week, three year old Maitland said, “Oh, I see the Pope! Pope Francis. He is a pastor, just like my mama.” Of course, he is too young to grasp the many layers of irony that make us laugh at his observation. Yet, making the connection between a married, woman Protestant pastor and the Pope surrounded by centuries of tradition and trappings is something of a metaphor for living between the past and the future.
Thanks to Randy for the update from the Search and Call Committee today. Just as the election of a new Pope is a sign that we are living between the past and the future, anticipating a new pastor is an experience of living between the past and the future as a congregation.
We all knew from the beginning that as an interim pastor I would be with you for a brief but important time. Realizing that our time with you will be soon drawing to a conclusion, means that Candy and I are also aware of living in a particular space between our past and our future. We’ve begun to make lists of what we need to do here and in Dallas. After Easter we’ll be with our son David’s family and with Candy’s Dad in Milwaukee to dovetail future plans. I’ve had some inquiries for our next interim ministry but don’t know where God will take us.
Today’s Scripture readings are about emerging from the past so we can embrace the future. They can help us listen for God in the spaces between past and future. They prepare us for God to reverse our expectations.
Providing pastoral leadership and care while the Search and Call Committee looks for another pastor is only part of the ministry of an interim pastor. Equally important is creating a space between pastors that insulates the new pastor from comparisons with the previous pastor. In my time with you, I hope I have helped you listen for God in between pastors.
Isaiah 40-55 was pointedly applicable to Judah’s Babylonian Exile and prepared them to return to their homeland. 43:16-17 recalls God opening the Sea (of Reeds) so they could escape Egyptian slavery on dry ground. But when they were captives in Babylon, a desert rather than a sea was the barrier they would have to cross to get to freedom. Through the prophet, God promised a reversal of the escape from Egypt. Instead of dry land through the sea, God would make a river in the desert; instead of a pursuing army, God would use a pagan King to launch and finance their return to the Promised Land.
Isaiah 43:18-19 says, “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing.” Paul was thoroughly familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, so I wonder if he wasn’t thinking of that when he wrote in Philippians 3:13 that he was “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” For Paul, the reversal was to relinquish the accumulation of his greatest religious credentials and accomplishments for a future of knowing Christ and attaining the resurrection of the dead. The space between Paul’s past and Paul’s future was to press on in the power of Christ’s resurrection and the fellowship of Christ’s suffering.
The prophet asked Judah, “Do you not perceive the new thing God is doing through you?” Seen from a New Testament perspective, Judah’s return from Babylon was far greater than the Exodus from Egypt, as it set in motion the coming of the Messiah. For Paul, relinquishing his own righteousness was far eclipsed by receiving the righteousness of Christ. On a congregational scale, I am convinced God is saying to this congregation, “In your space between pastors, the future I have awaiting you will far exceed the best of your past. I’m about to do a new thing. Can you not perceive it?”
Lent, also, is a space between the past and the future. We look back at our spiritual struggles and wandering, and we look ahead to redemption and resurrection. Lent is an annual reminder that we are neither chained to our past nor fully living our future. In Luke’s Gospel, we’ve been following Jesus through the spaces between his Galilean ministry and his redemptive mission at the cross. Today we jump to John 12:1-8 for a poignant, personal glimpse into one of those spaces. All four Gospels record a woman anointing Jesus. Scholars love to debate the identity of the women and the exact occasions of the anointings. That could be another fun Bible study, but too detailed for a sermon. I will tell you this much. Matthew 26 and Mark 14 are almost certainly reporting the same incident. I believe Luke 7 was a different woman much earlier in Jesus’ ministry. While I can’t prove it, I suspect John 12 is the same woman and incident as Matthew and Mark, that John has told in his own way of making the dramatic transition to the events of Holy Week.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary 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. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(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.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
The dinner for Jesus at Bethany seemed to be out of gratitude for the raising of Lazarus. Though unlikely that Mary bought the perfume thinking of Jesus’ burial, he pointedly turned it into a stark precursor of his death.
When Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 15:11 about always having the poor, both the context of that verse and his own life, preclude using it to rationalize withholding generosity from the poor. By saying “you do not always have me,” he focused this occasion on his coming death.
For Mary to anoint and let her hair down in public to wipe the feet of a man who was not her husband was scandalous intimacy. I have posted some art work that gives a sense of this at the QR code or web address on the back of the bulletin. In these passages, I believe I hear the voice of God in the spaces between the past and the future inviting us to a similarly close relationship with Jesus.
In Isaiah 43:21, God called Judah “the people I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” Each time we see Mary of Bethany, she is an icon of deep closeness with Jesus: the dinner in Luke 10:38-42, the death of her brother Lazarus in John 11:28-33 and the anointing we read today.
When Paul wrote in Philippians 3:8, 10 that he wanted to know Christ, he wasn’t thinking of a seminary degree. He wanted to be so absorbed in Jesus that he could live every day by the power of Jesus’s resurrection.
Paul also knew that for Jesus’ resurrection to be his daily reality, not just a past event or future hope, he would also share the fellowship of his suffering. To be with Jesus in the spaces between the past and the future is to be with him wherever people suffer as you journey toward the future with hope.
As we read that Paul pressed “on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus,” we need to be careful to realize he had not just replaced one form of human spiritual exertion with another. Rather, like Paul we can be confident that Jesus has made us his own, so as we live in the spaces between the past and the future, we are increasingly congruent with Jesus.