Friday, March 30, 2012

Why This Waste?

Mark 14:3-11
by Daniel Harrell

Last Sunday’s foray into end times predictions always comes off sounding a little bizarre. Jesus foretells how “the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” The imagery comes out of Isaiah, apocalyptic pictures the Bible rolls out whenever it’s trying especially to get your attention. As such, you can imagine how terrifying solar eclipses must have been to the ancients. And how immensely grateful they had to have felt afterwards once God showed his mercy by letting the sun shine again. While Isaiah could have never known the physics, the fact is that the sun will go dark one day. Though nobody will be alive to witness it. Anybody in the vicinity will have already gone dark themselves. Here’s a view of a dying star going dark in our own galaxy, 3,800 light years away, taken from the Hubble space telescope. It’s called the Butterfly Nebula, a star that was originally about 5 times the mass of our sun. This is what eventually happens to every star. What looks like dainty butterfly wings are actually roiling cauldrons of gas heated to more than 36,000 degrees, tearing across space at more than 600,000 miles an hour. That’s fast enough to travel from Earth to the Moon in 24 minutes. Talk about shaking the heavens, when this happens to our own sun one day, it will effectively wipe out the whole solar system.

I spent this past week in New York at one of my faith and science gatherings, attended as usual by some of the most brilliant theologians and scientists in the solar system, including astronomer Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, the Senior Researcher for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope program. (She will be with us this coming fall for a weekend sponsored by Colonial’s Guelich Lecture Series—watch for details on that.) This past week’s conference premised how God displays his nature through both nature and scripture. As the Psalmist sings, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the earth shows forth his handiwork.” To have faith is to understand this. You look up into the night sky and marvel at the majesty of the Lord. Without faith, however, a heavenward gaze only leads to despair. As Richard Dawkins famously put it, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” The late astronomer Carl Sagan added, “We live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”

Astronomers conclude that the universe has been around for some 13.7 billion years; an amount of time that is truly incomprehensible. If you were to somehow condense it down to a single year with the Big Bang kicking off January 1, the earth doesn’t even show up until September 1. It takes eleven billion years to get from “in the beginning” in Genesis 1:1 to “earth.” Single cell life on earth shows up around September 15, followed by multi-cellular organisms bumping around for the next month or so. You’ve got a burst of organisms on the scene after that, with the dinosaurs coming and going around Christmas. Mammals start to expand shortly thereafter (once there aren’t any dinosaurs to eat them), with humans popping up so late on New Year’s Eve that there’s barely enough time to pucker up for a kiss. In evolutionary terms, your own life on earth isn’t even the neural impulse that leads to the blink of an eye. Christians believe people to be made in the image of the Creator himself, but science makes us out to be more of an afterthought if we’re even a thought at all.

The Psalmist rightly asks of God “what are human beings that you are mindful of us, mere mortals that you would care for us?” And yet, Jesus insists that “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to save it,” an absurd notion unless you recognize that this is precisely the way God has always worked. Not only did God create the heavens and pick an obscure blip of a planet to populate with people, he went on to pick the most obscure bunch of people with whom to have a relationship, a people for whom he eventually showed in person, as an indiscriminate carpenter in a backwater village in a backward time in history, who ends up rejected, unjustly convicted and executed on a cross. The Bible calls this “good news,” the demonstration of God’s love for the world, from the Lord of the Cosmos whom the apostle Paul describes as “pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

The magnitude of such things is truly incomprehensible, even if we do believe it. In this morning’s passage from Mark’s gospel, a woman crashes a party and pours an entire bottle of expensive perfume on Jesus’ head. Jesus recognizes it to be an expression of love that mirrors God’s own. He says, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

The occasion was dinner at the home of Simon the Leper—which has to mean former Leper since no one except Jesus would have risked entering a leper’s house to eat. Jesus made time for sinners and outcasts of every stripe, basically breaking with every religious convention of his day. He may have had a mouthful of food when this woman entered to empty her jar. Back then, like now, perfume was used for enjoyment and beauty as well as for expressions of love. Unlike now, dinner hosts back then would customarily perfume the heads of their guests as they walked in the door as a sign of welcome and honor—much like we take our guests’ coats and offer them something to drink when they enter. But our offer would be for a glass of wine, perhaps, not for the entire bottle. Likewise, first century hosts would dab just a bit of perfume, nor pour out a whole jar, and definitely not a whole jar of the best stuff. One whiff and everyone knew what the woman brought was not a brand she’d bought by the quart. Mark describes it as being made of pure nard, an exotic root native to India. And it was expensive—think Vol de Nuit by Guerlain, which in New York will run you about $327 an ounce. Hers was an extravagant expression of love.

But as with all things extravagant—a word which means to lack restraint or unnecessarily exceed—the reaction to it was instinctively critical. Bring your wife back a small sampler of Parisian chocolate from New York that cost close to a hundred dollars, and her reflex response will be, “you should not have done that,” even though she’s glad you did. Of course you may be wondering if you’re paying your minister too much if he can afford a hundred dollar box of chocolates. Mark tells us how the guests at Simon’s table “said to one another in anger, ‘Why was this perfume wasted like that? It could have been sold for a fortune and the money given to starving children!” They scolded the woman, but Jesus understood their scorn to be aimed at him. He told them to leave her alone, because “she has done a good service, a beautiful thing for me.” And as to their rationale, he added, “The poor you always have with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.”

Ironically, this saying is often offered as rationale for not helping the poor. We take it to mean that Jesus labels poverty a lost cause: “Hey, the Bible says ‘you’ll always have the poor with you;’ what can you do?” Actually Jesus alludes to Deuteronomy 15 here, where God commands his people to always take care of the needy anyway. His is not a remark of resignation, but rather a bit of rebuke: “You will always have the poor with you. You can help them whenever you want.” In other words, if you really wanted to help the poor, you’d be doing it already.

But this wasn’t about helping the poor. It was about saving face. Mark doesn’t say, but if Simon the Leper was a leper Jesus healed, why didn’t Simon pour perfume on Jesus? Why didn’t he show some love? It’s the least a good dinner host would have done for an honored guest even if he hadn’t cured him of a skin condition that banned him from polite society. In Luke’s gospel, Simon is a Pharisee and the woman was one who had “lived a sinful life.” Simon the Pharisee wonders to himself why Jesus can’t smell a sinner when he sees one. If Mark and Luke are describing the same scene, you may be wondering how a leper could ever become a Pharisee. But then again, the church is chock full of sinners saved by grace who grow to act like they don’t need grace anymore. And of course once you stop needing grace, it’s not long before you stop giving it too.

In Luke, Jesus went on to tell a parable about a certain creditor who had two debtors; one owed the creditor five hundred dollars, and the other fifty. When neither could pay, he canceled the debts of both. Jesus asked Simon the Pharisee which debtor would love the creditor more. And Simon rightly replied the one who had the bigger debt canceled. Jesus then proceeded to forgive the woman, much to the continued consternation of the Pharisees present. Nobody forgives sins but God alone. Who did Jesus think he was?

Unlike Luke, Mark makes no mention of this woman being a sinner in any special sense. She’s just a party crasher and a bottle breaker. A fragrance counter sales rep gone wild. The costly and posh perfume runs down Jesus’ hair, over his shoulders, and drips off of his sleeves. A whole year’s salary worth in a puddle on the floor. Who does that? Why spend all that money on something that’s just going to get washed off once Jesus takes a shower? Why give your wife ridiculously expensive chocolate that she’ll savor for a second and then digest the same way she would a handful of M&Ms?

There was a book out a few years back entitled Scroogenomics, by Wharton Business School economist Joel Waldfogel. In it he argued what so many of us instinctively feel: expensive gifts are wasteful. He rolled out the stats to prove it. Even in a down economy, Americans give somewhere between 60-90 billion dollars in gifts during Christmas alone, despite that according to surveys, most people value gifts at about 50 cents on the dollar. That’s a lot of waste. Half of those surveyed even admitted to re-gifting the fancier presents they received. But simply running the numbers on gift-giving discounts other intrinsic values. Not only is gift-giving a way of expressing how you feel for somebody, receiving a gift can be a reliable way of determining who the people are in your life who truly understand you. Had I brought my wife a hundred dollar box of cigars, for example, she would have wondered what I thought of her since she doesn’t smoke cigars that often. Moreover, a hundred dollar box of cigars isn’t what you’d ever call extravagant. I learned that to my own embarrassment after Violet was born.

If receiving a gift is a reliable way of determining who truly understands you, then the woman here in Mark understood Jesus even better than she realized. “She has performed a good service for me. She has done what she could”—by which Jesus meant she did everything she could. And note he doesn’t say, “you shouldn’t have.” He accepts her extravagant gift as a proper display of extravagant worship. He knows who he is. But he also knows where he’s headed. “The poor you will always have with you… but you will not always have me.” “She has anointed my body for my burial.” OK, so that’s kinda morbid. “Thank you for the chocolates honey, I’ll enjoy them as I die?”

Jesus’ mention of his burial is sandwiched like stories often are in Mark, one inside another in order to amplify the meaning of each. Here the top slice of the sandwich is verses 1 and 2. The chief priests and scribes are gunning for Jesus—something they’ve been doing since chapter 3. They wanted him dead for acting like God Almighty and because his popularity threatened their dominance of the religious market. They looked for a stealthy way to arrest Jesus because he was too popular to pick up in public without inciting a riot. Their desire for secrecy finds opportunity with the bottom slice of the sandwich. In verse 10, one of Jesus’ friends and disciples, Judas Iscariot, steps up with his offer of betrayal. He’d lead the religious authorities backstage away from the crush of Jesus’ fans. The priests and Pharisees couldn’t believe their luck. They probably even thanked God for it. They definitely thanked Judas by offering him a finder’s fee, albeit one that amounted to the going rate you’d pay somebody to walk your dog.

The bounteous meat between these two pieces of envy and penny-pitching deceit is the woman’s lavish devotion. Jesus receives her extravagant gift as good and beautiful, but also as timely. Perfume was used to express love and honor to the living, but also to express respect for the deceased. Jesus would be put to death as an outlaw, and therefore be denied the grace of a fitting burial. But Mark makes sure we see that Jesus did not sustain the disgrace his opponents later assumed he had. Though executed as a criminal; the woman provides his proper funeral. This is why “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world,” her act would be remembered for what it was: an expression of extravagant waste, vindicating Jesus as Lord and Savior, the one who extravagantly wasted himself on us, for us, because he loved us.

The word to waste comes from a Latin root meaning to empty out. The same Latin root also gives us the word vast, meaning enormous or great. Thus to make empty is to make vast, which does sound a lot like the last going first and the least being the greatest in the Kingdom of God. However the Greek word translated as waste in Mark is the word meaning ruin or ravage, which is harder to hear as anything sounding like the Kingdom of God.

Critics of Christianity look to science to show how the emergence of human life on earth demanded enormous ruin and ravage, billions of years of apparent waste and futility, species extermination and organism road kill. Not only was the massive dying off rampant, it’s mandatory too. The emergence of life depends on the death of prior life, millions of generations of mutational and reproductive failure. Moreover, the familiar struggle for survival reveals a process in which cruelty and suffering are standard fare. There has been so much dysfunction, so much excess and error, so much ruin and ravage in the evolutionary epic that to attribute it to any superior, intelligent and benevolent Being is practically an insult.

Jesus knew all about insults. They were heaped on him as he hung on the cross. And yet by faith we view this ancient instrument of ruin and ravage as the supreme expression extravagant, sacrificial love. In this light, we can see the entire creation as an expression of God’s sacrificial nature; a cross-shaped character permeating the whole universe. Billions of years and billions of galaxies and stars and moons, all extravagantly wasted on us, for us. From all that vastness materialized one miniscule scrap of planet inhabitable for human life: life that took millions of years to unfold through untold waste and sacrifice so that we mere mortals could emerge as image-bearers of God, redeemed into the likeness of Christ by his own wasteful death, and so extravagantly filled to overflowing with his Spirit, that finally reflecting our Creator, we might extravagantly waste ourselves to his glory for the cause of love.

Monday, March 19, 2012


Mark 13
by Daniel Harrell

We’re back in Mark this fourth Sunday of Lent, working our way to Easter, but with a passage that points more toward the Second Coming than the Resurrection. Not that it matters. Let’s admit it: both of these “orthodox” tenets of Christianity are pretty outlandish. Neither gets brought up much in serious conversation. Not much in serious sermons either. I remember a fellow being new to church and asking, “Am I really supposed to believe that one day Jesus will show up from heaven riding on clouds with trumpets blaring like the Bible says?” I replied how stranger things have been believed. “No they have not,” he cried. “That’s as weird as it gets!”

The weirdness of Christian belief (which we prefer to call the “mysteries of faith”) probably explains why so many church folk prefer to emphasize Christianity’s more reasonable aspects: living an ethical life, making beautiful music and art, doing justice and serving the poor, building healthy marriages and raising good kids. The trouble is that you don’t really need Jesus to do any of those things. As theologian Philip Clayton puts it: once our beliefs become merely metaphorical or poetic—or worse, when one finds oneself using language one no longer believes but vaguely feels that one ought to believe–-one begins to wonder about the reason for the church’s existence.

It’s Jesus’ fault. He taught so many wonderful things; why did he go and mess it up by telling us how he’ll fly back to earth some day with angels no less? Mark and Matthew both record him saying how he’ll gather the elect from the four winds. In Corinthians, Paul has everybody rising from the dead. In Thessalonians, we all meet Jesus in the air. And then of course there’s Revelation. Martin Luther tried his best to get that book taken out of the Bible. It can be a little embarrassing—even though everybody does seem to be into apocalyptic storytelling these days. Bestselling author Tom Perrotta poked fun at the popular Left Behind series in his most recent novel entitled The Leftovers. I assigned it to my seminary class to get a sense of how secular culture views Christian weirdness. Perrotta depicts millions of people of all ages, genders, and faiths or lack thereof suddenly disappearing all over the world, but the question of what caused their disappearance is never answered. Jesus never shows up. There’s a satirical take on an un-raptured minister who’s so angry about being a leftover that he starts up a hateful newsletter dedicated to digging up dirt on the suddenly departed in order to protect his own piety. Though why bother? A Last Day that seems strange with Jesus is downright ridiculous without him.

One of my students put it this way: “However one may scornfully reject the story of eschatological zealots and religious nuts, the question remains: what replaces faith to meaningfully account for the disappearance of loved ones and an absence of purpose? The author unwittingly seems to be providing the answer. It’s just a random, sad, meaningless world that the author pictures before our eyes.”

Of course having a self-righteous minister get left behind wouldn’t be outside the realm of Biblical possibility. You may remember that Mark 13 follows on the heels of Jesus condemning a bunch of righteous ministers who managed to hoodwink a destitute widow into giving her last two cents to the church. Jesus lets loose a scathing indictment against these Pharisees, fuming about how “they shamelessly devour widows’ houses, cheating them out of their property, and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public.” Alluding to the poor widow and her mite, Jesus not only condemns the ill-advised values that motivated her action and the people who conditioned her to do it, he condemns the entire Temple-based religious system, labeling it bankrupt and doomed to destruction. Here the disciples marvel at the magnificence of the Temple—which people’s offerings had gone to construct and maintain. But Jesus replies, “Yes, look at these great buildings. They will all be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!”

Jesus’ terrifying talk of wars and earthquakes and famine was hardly the end of the world compared to the loss of Jerusalem’s Temple. For Jews of Jesus’ day, nothing could have been more terrifying that that. The Temple was the religious, political and cultural nexus of Judaism; the very locus of the good Lord’s presence on earth. As such, it was thought to be impervious. This was God’s house. How could the Temple be destroyed when the Lord was still in it?

This logic momentously amplifies what might otherwise have been considered a throwaway line in verse 1. Mark writes that Jesus “came out of the Temple.” The Lord had left the building. Within forty years, Rome would ransack Jerusalem and reduce the Temple to rubble. According to the ancient historian Josephus, a Roman siege prior to the rampage caused frantic citywide starvation—people ate their babies to survive. Factional fighting among God’s own people resulted in more casualties than the Romans inflicted once they invaded. The scene was utterly bloody and chaotic. It’s why Jesus told his followers to run for the hills.

Their signal to run was the “abomination that causes desolation,” a phrase from Daniel’s prophecy which Josephus took to be the desecration of the Temple by Jewish zealots. After a stunning upset over a Roman legion in Jerusalem—akin to Lehigh taking down Duke on Friday—these zealots presumed their victory as divine prerogative to treat the Temple as booty. They allowed criminal perpetrators of every stripe to roam free in its courts. They made a mockery of the high priest, acting as if they were the Almighty themselves. The eventual Roman backlash resulted in many Jews fleeing to the Temple presuming God would save them there—that he would never let his house be sacked by pagans. But the Temple wasn’t God’s house anymore. Jesus made that clear when he cleaned out the moneychangers—a story we’ll circle back to on Palm Sunday.

For now understand that Jesus’ cleansing the Temple wasn’t about the money. Buying and selling in the Temple was a kosher business. Since the animal sacrifices offered there had to be perfect animals; and since living any distance from Jerusalem made it tough to get your perfect animal to the Temple without dinging it up, the religious authorities arranged it so you could buy a blemish-free bull or bird at the door. Turning over the money changers’ tables turned over the whole the sacrificial system. But why? Why undo the very means of grace proscribed by the Torah? Because, Jesus said: “You have made my house a den of robbers.” If you read “den of robbers” as “hideout for evil,” then what you understand is how God’s people treated the Temple as a safe-house for their sin. They used the sacrificial system as merely a cover, treating grace as permission to do as they pleased. Asking forgiveness has always been easier than actual obedience.

The Temple never would be rebuilt. But it did get relocated. The stick and stone structure gave way to a flesh and blood embodiment of God’s presence: Jesus himself. Embodying the Temple, Jesus too was destroyed due to the sins of the people. But unlike the Temple, Jesus was raised and vindicated as the only Son of God and Savior, triumphant over sin and rebellion, over injustice and evil; victoriously seated at the Father’s side with his enemies serving as his footstool. Citing Daniel again, Jesus foretells his victory parade as a “coming in clouds with great power and glory.” In Daniel, the Son of Man is granted “authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” Jesus employs Daniel’s language to frame his own resurrection and ascension, which is how he’s able to say in verse 30: “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”  The disciples indeed witnessed Jesus risen and ascended—just as some of them saw the Temple decimated too.

If this was the end of the story, we could assign Mark 13 to history as already fulfilled. The problem is that as the disciples stood and gawked at Jesus ascending to heaven in the book of Acts, two angels appeared and promised that “this same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go.” “Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” is how the Nicene Creed puts it. And Christians still recite it—even if they can’t believe it. Who can? Who would want to? Jesus says, “Beware that no one leads you astray.” “Be alert, I have told you everything.” “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” Jesus warns of persecutions and troubles his disciples will endure for being disciples. “You will be handed over to authorities and flogged. Because of me you will be hauled before governors and kings.” Not even their own homes would be safe: “Brother will betray brother and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will eventually hate you because of me.”

Everything that Jesus said would happen to the disciples of that generation did happen. And a lot of it happened to disciples of later generations. And it happens still to Christians in many parts of the world. Certainly there have been plenty of wars and rumors of war and earthquakes and famines like Jesus said. And given the current state of technology and travel, you can make a good case for “the good news being proclaimed to all nations.” It’s 80 degrees in Minnesota in March! You’d think that if Jesus was coming back, now would be as good a time as any. The apostle Paul was eager for it. So were the earliest Christians. Of course then so was radio evangelist Harold Camping who had a lot of people looking up last May and then again in October with his end times predictions. Jesus did say that God only knows the exact time and date. In the meantime, the best we can do is endure, like the grandmother of a Southern friend of mine did, with a little sign she hung over her bed that read, “Perhaps Today.” The point seems to be that every moment matters. Jesus says live your life like the servants of “a man gone on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come.” “The one who endures to the end will be saved.”

In 1937, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who conscientiously resisted the Nazi regime at the cost of his own life, wrote a little book entitled The Cost of Discipleship. In it, he attacked what he called “cheap grace,” which he labeled as that prevailing practice among Lutherans designed to keep people comfortable with their sins—not unlike the prevailing practice Jesus attacked in regard to the Temple. “Costly grace,” Bonhoeffer insisted, carried with it the obligation of obedience. He wrote, “It is only through actual obedience that a person can become liberated to believe.” Although Luther taught that faith is prior to obedience, Bonhoeffer insisted that the two are effectually simultaneous, “for faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it.” In the end, what you believe is not what you say you believe, what you believe is what you do.

The last time I preached from Mark 13, the World Trade Center in New York had just been reduced to rubble. That felt like the end of the world. The London Times ran a story about a young British man employed by a firm with offices among the upper stories of the World Trade Center. The young man was taking vacation back in the UK visiting his family because his father was terminally ill. As the time approached for the young man to return to the United States and to work, his sister pleaded with him to extend his stay as it was likely to be the last time he would see his father alive. So the young man called his boss early that fateful September morning to request a few extra days, easily understandable given the circumstances. However, his boss refused the request, adamantly demanding that he return to his job as scheduled. And as the boss insensitively laid out his reasons, the young man heard a scream and the explosion in the background. And then the phone went dead. There were no survivors from that NY office. The friend who showed me this article remarked how it’s hard to imagine someone’s last acts on earth being the denial of another a few last days with his terminally ill father.

Beware,” Jesus said, “for you do not know when the time will come.” Every moment matters. So much of what Jesus laid out for his disciples here had been spoken already in Mark. Jesus had already mentioned his glorious return back in chapter 8 as he admonished his followers not to be ashamed of the gospel. He gave them a glimpse of his glory in chapter 9 with his transfiguration. The darkening sun and moon were stock Old Testament apocalyptic language. The abomination that causes desolation and the Son of Man coming in clouds came from Daniel, as did the elect written in the book and the description of unparalleled distress. Like the disciples, Daniel the prophet had asked of the Lord “what will the outcome of all of this be?” And the Lord replied, “Go your way Daniel, because the words are closed up and sealed until the end of time. Many will be purified, cleansed and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand.”

Therefore, Jesus says: “Let the reader understand!” The Bible does not yield up much by way of encyclopedic detail about the last day. Faith is called faith for a reason. Christ’s command to the church is for obedience, not calculation. You need not know the when or the where—only the who and what. It is God in Christ who will finish what he began at creation and redeemed at Easter. It is Jesus who pulls everything toward its glorious Omega.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “It is only when one loves life and the world so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world. It is only when one submits to obedience that one can speak of grace, and only when one sees the anger and the wrath of God hanging like grim realities over the heads of one’s enemies that one can know something of what it means to love and forgive them.” A British prisoner described Bonhoeffer in his last days as one who “always seemed to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every smallest event in life, and a deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive.” The same prisoner wrote that when he was taken away to his execution, Bonhoeffer said, “This is the end—for me, the beginning of life.”  

Friday, March 09, 2012

Shame On You

Mark 12:1-12
by Daniel Harrell

We’re walking through portions of Mark’s gospel most of this Lent—using Luther Seminary’s Narrative Lectionary. The exception is next Sunday when we welcome Dr. Karoline Lewis, Assistant Professor of Biblical Preaching from Luther Seminary, who will speak from the gospel of John, a specialty of hers. Ironic, I know. Not that John and Mark are opposed to each other. Both have Jesus marking out the hard, cross-shaped road of discipleship. As Dr. Lewis will read next week, Jesus says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” It’s the same thing Jesus says in Mark, though last Sunday Jesus couched losing your life in terms of losing your lifestyle. A rich man ran up and asked him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” To which Jesus answered, “Go, sell however much you own, give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me and you will have treasure in heaven.” As we all know, the rich man couldn’t do that, and neither can most of us.

Jesus disciples, however, had given up everything, and in turn Jesus promised not only that they would inherit eternal life in the hereafter, but they’d get a right rich life in the here and now too: a hundredfold return in houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children and fields—albeit with persecutions. How was this possible? I suggested last Sunday that Jesus meant the hundredfold return metaphorically: houses and fields were code words for contentment, and brothers and sisters were code words for community. In other words, we the church, the body of Christ, serve as each others’ hundredfold return on earth—as hard and as challenging as that can be. Being present to one another in the more difficult times of life, bearing each others’ burdens will cost us something—if not a loss of life, at least a loss of lifestyle and time.

Many of you loved that idea. And loved that sermon—one of you went so far as to call it the perfect sermon—which I’m not exactly sure what to do with, aside from saying thank you and praise the Lord. Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut this morning—why mess with perfection?—except that the true measure of sermonic perfection is the effect any sermon has on our life as a congregation afterwards. As Jesus always said, “A tree is known by its fruit.” That’s why, at the risk of sounding cheeky, I should probably respond to sermon compliments with something along the lines, “it’s too soon to tell.”  

This being the case, the closest thing to a perfect sermon I’ve ever witnessed was preached many years ago by David Fisher, the former Senior Minister of Colonial Church. I was sharing with some of you last weekend about how David preached his perfect sermon while we were both serving at Park Street Church in Boston back in the 90s. David was mid-sentence regarding the resurrection hope we have in Christ when an usher rushed up to the pulpit and urgently slipped him a note. One of our long-time members had just keeled over dead in his pew. David read the note, looked over and observed that, sure enough, the pew seat which this longtime member occupied every Sunday—and where he had been sitting when the sermon started—was now vacant. David paused to pray for the dead man and his family as doctors in the congregation assessed the situation. Not missing a beat, he then applied his point about our resurrection hope to this very moment. No sooner had he finished that point, than the longtime member who was dead, bless his soul, suddenly sat up, revived. Needless to say, David Fisher went home feeling pretty good about that sermon.

The good feelings lasted only until the medical exam came back reporting that the man had in fact only fainted. The usher had overreacted and felt utterly humiliated, so much so that he resigned his usher post and thought about leaving the church. We managed to talk him out of that, but just barely, the shame he felt was so strong. Most regarded his shame as another overreaction, a disproportionate response given the situation. We inhabit a culture in which shame is regularly minimized and considered toxic to our self-esteem. Best to let it go and move on. However for this usher, an Asian-American man, honor and shame meant everything.

I was reminded of this last week during the theology class I’m teaching at Bethel Seminary. Our guest was an Asian-American pastor, who remarked how so many Lenten observances in American churches, in focusing on the cross, focus mostly on the horrific physical pain Jesus endured. For modern Americans, the avoidance of pain is our utmost concern. We can even handle death as long as dying doesn’t have to hurt. It’s the physical suffering that we fear. For Asian cultures, however, shame is much worse than physical pain. As this pastor saw it, the true horror of the cross was the horror of public disgrace. To die on a cross was to hang naked and fully exposed, humiliated and unable to hide yourself,  dishonored for all the world to see and scorn. The was crucifixion’s intent: it was cruel and unusual. No wonder the disciples were always so offended whenever Jesus told them he would take up a cross. It was scandalous. In ancient cultures, pain and suffering were just common parts of everyday life. The avoidance of shame was their utmost concern.

And yet University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that shame, “our most primal emotion as humans,” ironically “tells the truth that certain goods are valuable and we have failed to live up to them.” She asserts that shame can serve as a “morally valuable emotion, playing a constructive role in development and social change” for both individuals and societies. Shame is “essential for protecting our relations with people and groups whom we love and upon whom we are dependent;” shame serves as a “guardian of our desire to be worthy people.” Nevertheless, allowing for the benefits of shame remains difficult, especially in church circles where shame is viewed as “religious guilt,” detrimental to one’s spiritual health. It’s hard to hear Jesus’ shameful death tell the truth about our own sinful condition. The injustice of Jesus’ crucifixion was intended to rouse shame on the parts of its perpetrators—not only the Romans and the Jewish authorities—but all whose sins made his death a necessity, including you and me. A proper response to Christ’s death on the cross is not sympathy for his suffering as much as our shame for having caused it—a proper shame that properly motivates us to become people worthy of it.

Proper shame tells the truth and inspires transformation throughout Scripture. This morning’s parable form Mark is a prime example, told against the religious authorities who eagerly conspired to have Jesus killed for what they considered to be his blasphemy and his threat to their way of life. The parable was a story they would have already known. It came straight from Isaiah chapter 5: “Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard… he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” The Jewish religious authorities would have known the vineyard to be a metaphor for Israel, bad fruit a metaphor for disobedience and the vineyard owner a metaphor for God. Jesus takes a few liberties with Isaiah’s imagery which Jesus being Jesus was at liberty to do. He shifted the focus off the bad fruit and onto the ones who grew it: a band of tenant farmers whom he introduced into the story.

It was customary for prosperous absentee landowners to lease out land to tenants who would manage the vineyards, farm the land, turn a profit and then pay rent with a percentage of those profits. The absentee owner in this story happened to be very absent—off in some far country—so he sent a servant around at harvest time to collect the rent. The tenant farmers, for some inexplicable reason, decided they weren’t going to pay. So they grabbed the servant, beat him up and sent him away empty-handed. The owner sent another servant whom the tenants insulted then pelted with rocks. The owner sent still another servant and this one the tenant farmers murdered! It was ludicrous. Still, the vineyard owner kept sending servant after servant and the tenants kept beating and killing them all. The vineyard owner was either a sucker for sedition or unbelievably long-suffering.

Finally, all out of servants, the owner decided to send his only beloved son. (An obvious tip-off to those who’d been at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration and heard God refer to Jesus that way.) “Surely they’ll respect my son,” the owner reasoned, due to either some very odd logic or to his being incredibly na├»ve. What father in his right mind sends his child into a bad neighborhood where he knows they regularly brutalize and kill people? Having already gotten away with murder, the tenants say to each other, “This is the heir to the vineyard! Come on, let’s kill him too and the inheritance will be ours!” How did they figure that? They were renters, not relatives. What sort of idiots were these farmers? Their lease arrangement was customary and profitable. Were they trying to cover up the bad fruit their work had produced? When the son arrived, they killed him and tossed his body out of the vineyard without even the decency of a proper burial. Did they really think the owner was that far away? What would the vineyard owner do to them once he finally returned? Jesus answers this one: “The vineyard owner will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Then Mark adds in verse 12 how the religious rulers “knew Jesus had spoken this parable against them.” And yet they had no shame.

Jesus tried again. “Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Of course they had. They’d devoted years to training and study, they had their Bibles down pat. They were Masters of Divinity. They knew Psalm 118:22, which Jesus quoted, by heart: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’.” The religious authorities had always considered this verse to be speaking about them, the true chosen people. They were the rejected stone whom God would make the cornerstone. That Jesus would apply this honor to himself infuriated them. In effect Jesus declared himself to the true vine, the obedient child of God, the tree who bore righteous fruit; the one who would be despised and rejected for doing so, for making the chosen people look bad, for shaming the religious leaders. Shame is a powerful thing. It can evoke transformation. But it can also provoke violence.

In his most recent and disturbing book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, eminent black theologian James Cone addresses the church’s complicity in the common practice of murdering African Americans as a means of social and political control after the demise of Reconstruction. Like ancient crucifixions, lynchings were torturous, public spectacles. And more often than not, they were carried out by “good Christian folk”—people of genuine faith, deluded into believing that a dedication to white supremacy was part and parcel of their Christian identity. It is no coincidence that most of the lynchings from the late 19th to mid-20th century occurred in the Bible Belt. Church­going lynchers were often murdering other churchgoing Christians who were of the same communion: Baptists killed Baptists and Methodists killed Methodists. It’s how Dr. Cone ties the lynching tree to the cross: each was an unjust atrocity perpetrated by chosen people against one of their own, or in the case of the cross, against the chosen one.

As tenants of the vineyard, Israel’s religious leaders committed a double atrocity: they not only unjustly executed God’s beloved Son—along with all the servant-prophets who had previewed his arrival—but they outrageously ventured to usurp what belonged to God for themselves. It’s easy to write off these religious leaders as power-hungry malcontents whose illusions of entitlement blinded them into seeing themselves as immune from reaping what they’d sown. And yet, while the gospels tend to group these leaders together as one insidious lot and label them Pharisees, there were those among them whose faith in God was genuine. There were Pharisees who devoutly studied their Torahs, who worshipped sincerely, who cared for people, aided the sick, thoughtfully preached, who diligently obeyed the law while they fervently awaited the coming Messiah. Yet surprisingly the gospels make no distinction between the faithful and the deceitful when it came to the crucifixion. The good Christian Pharisees were guilty too.

As were Jesus’ own disciples. Sure they had given up everything to follow Christ, but once it looked like they might actually have to lose their own lives and honor, they gave up Jesus. No wonder they were so scared when he rose from the dead. Luke has them mistaking Jesus for a ghost. John has them hiding out for fear of the religious authorities, but having heard that Jesus was loose from the grave, they were also afraid of what he might do to them. They were ashamed of how they had treated to the Lord who loved them so, especially Peter who denied Jesus three times. When it came time to stand by his Lord, he lied about ever knowing who Jesus was. Nevertheless, Jesus forgave Peter three times over and told him to go out and feed his sheep. Lead his people. Build his church. Change the world.

 The stone that the builders rejected became the chief cornerstone. “This is the LORD’S doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” You probably know next verse of Psalm 118 by heart: “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The shame that provokes violence also evokes transformation. Grace does that. Black theologian James Cone concludes that the horrific acts of lynching in America became acts redeemed by time; ethical examples of unearned violence that cleared a pathway for racial reconciliation. The same shame that provoked violence evoked transformation. Cone ties it to the power of the cross. The shameful cross that violently crucified Jesus shamed the prodigal Peter, and shames us too, back into the everlasting arms of God and then out into the world to feed and serve as Christ. May the communion table that makes us mindful us of Christ’s death shame us for our part in it. And may that shame transform us by grace into a fruitful vineyard of God.