Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Sunday, April 07, 2019

The Bible is a guidebook, not a rulebook

A Sermon for Lent V - April 7, 2019

Christ Church, Milford

As we prepare ourselves for Holy week beginning with the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday next week, I want to state something you may or may not have considered but it is nonetheless important to know: The Bible is a guidebook, not a rulebook.

The Bible should, most definitely, be taken seriously - but not literally. The Bible tells us that a snake spoke to Eve in the Garden of Eden, but we know that only the snake in Harry Potter talks.  The Bible also calls Jesus the door but he wasn't hinged and made of wood. 

Some of the Bible is allegory, some is parabale, and much of it is poetry, but language is insufficient to contain the truth or descrbe the deep mystery that it God.  

Language can only point to truth; poetry can only hint at the fullness of God.  

During Holy Week we are going to be reading directly from scripture in church, each of us taking parts, so much so that you might think that, if we simply follow the rules set forth in parts of scripture, we’ll live ‘happily ever after’.

Happily ever after is what happens in fairly tales. And, ‘ever after’ does not mean ‘the after life’ but the life you live after a particular event – usually a woman finding her Prince Charming.

If you’ve been paying attention over the years, you might have discovered that Scripture is not a fairy tale, Jesus is not Prince Charming and the ‘ever after’ we are promised is about what happens after our life on this earth, in a place where we will exceed the bounds of human happiness and know, instead, the unspeakable joy resurrection.

In our Epistle reading, Paul seems to be boasting that he is as good a Jew as any, and perhaps even better. Not only was he circumcised on the eighth day as prescribed by the law; not only was he named after the only king of his tribe of Benjamin; not only was he as observant as any Pharisee; but he went as far as persecuting the church, which he once saw as a threat to true Judaism. 

Oh, that it were as simple as that: a handy-dandy check off list of do's and don't which come with God’s official stamp of approval, which will insure our entrance into heaven!  

Well, think again. Even Paul says he counts all those things as “rubbish”. 

Life is so much more complex than that. Life hands us dilemmas and mystery, puzzling paradox and deep, painful irony. God wants us to use the intelligence we are given to make good choices – not that we will always do, necessarily, what is right, but always to err on the side of that which is good.

You may have also discovered that I am an veritable font of useless information about the church in general and the Anglican Communion and Episcopal Church in particular which will neither get me a seat on the cross town bus nor a seat in heaven. It will, however – at least I hope – keep us entertained until Jesus comes back.

So, let me repeat: The Bible is a guidebook, not a rulebook. And, that guidance will often lead you to break a few rules, when necessary to keep the New Commandment Jesus gives us.

But, I’m getting out ahead of my skiis. This morning’s gospel lesson lays the foundation for the unfolding of the Story of The Passion.

In this pericope from John’s gospel, not only has Mary of Bethany broken lots of societal rules, she has done so in honor of Jesus, who has broken lots of rules from the scripture of his day and time.

The gospel scene is in the home of Lazarus, in Bethany, a town on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, about 2 miles outside of Jerusalem. We are invited into the midst of a dinner which celebrates the return of Lazarus from the dead. 

It is six days to the celebration of Passover in Jerusalem

You may remember that Jesus raised Lazarus after he had been dead three days. Technically, that’s not what got Jesus in trouble. It may have earned him the ire and resentment of the Pharisees but it was the rule that he broke which scholars say was the last straw.
And what was that rule which Jesus broke which set the stage for his persecution and death? It is this:
Jesus had performed a miracle on the Sabbath.
The Levitical Rule is that nothing gets done on the Sabbath. Nothing. Not no thing, not by no body, not no how, not no where.

Not only had Jesus performed a miracle on the Sabbath, he had performed such an extraordinary miracle, a prodigal, extravagent, lavishly wasteful miracle of healing that it had earned him a measure of notoriety and fame. Actually, he had previously healed seven people on the Sabbath. 

But, this! This was an extraordinary event. Jesus had raised his good friend, Lazarus, from the dead. I mean everybody heard about it! Everyone was talking about it! And, there they were, Lazarus and Mary and Martha and all the disciples, all celebrating the resurrection of Lazarus with a festive dinner.

Clearly, something had to be done. This was the last straw.

And then, there is Mary, the sister of Lazarus. In celebrating her brother’s return from the dead, she does a most extravagant thing. She breaks open a full pound jar of expensive perfume, made of pure nard, an aromatic amber-colored essential oil, derived from a flowering plant of Spikenard, a member of the valerian plant family, which she had probably obtained from an Egyptian trader and stored in alabaster case to preserve its fragrance.

And then, she does something which breaks all the societal rules of polite company: She bathes the feet of Jesus in the nard and then wipes them with her hair. 

There’s an awful lot going on here, beyond the cultural norms of the day. 

Yes, it was the practice, in ancient Israel, to offer a basin of water for guests to wash their feet, especially before a meal. It was considered an act of hospitality.

But, there is high symbolism in the foot, which, in antiquity, symbolized aspects of the soul. And, in antiquity – and, even today – a woman’s hair is a symbol of her sexuality. It’s why, traditionally, nuns were required to cut - sometimes even shave - their hair. 

It’s also why, in every movie from the 40s and 50s, when you see a woman take the pins from (or untie the bow from) her hair, you know something sensual is happening. And, if you hear an oboe playing sultry music in the background, you know in the next scene two people are going to be in bed and one of them is going to be smoking a cigarette.

Mary has broken more than a few societal rules and norms and Judas, for one, is deeply offended. Oh, sure, he complains about the cost of the nard – which, in today’s currency would be about $50 or an entire year’s wages for a man in antiquity – which could be used to feed the poor. But, Judas is really deeply offended about the sensuality of this public display.

Jesus rebukes Judas. He knows what Mary is doing, even if she doesn’t. She is anointing him in preparation for his death, which will happen just a few days from now, about two miles from where they are sitting. 

It will be Judas who betrays Jesus. Judas, who is concerned about breaking the rules, will betray the best parts of his relationship with Jesus – the generosity, the compassion, the kindness, the devotion of Jesus who risks his life by breaking the rules to save his friend.

Oh, the irony and the paradox of a such a bitter pill to swallow. Judas will keep the rules and betray Jesus. Jesus will sacrifice his life for breaking the rules to save the world.

Let me repeat:  The Bible is a guidebook, not a rulebook. And, that guidance will often lead you to break a few rules, when necessary, to keep the New Commandment Jesus gives us to love one another as He and God love us.

I’ll finish with a story. It was in the late-80s and I was a newly ordained transitional deacon, about 3 months from being ordained a priest. I was working in Boston, and the first wave of the AIDS epidemic had begun to wash over the city, carrying away some of its brightest and best.

One of them was a young man named Jimmy Mac. He was 28 years old and a very popular DJ at a local radio station. He was gay. And, he had AIDS. 

We worked a great deal together, Jimmy Mac and I, providing education to anyone who would listen to us – and, in those days, not too many places wanted to listen to us. 

Funeral homes were declining to accept the bodies of those who had died of AIDS. Some churches – yes, even some Episcopal churches – were refusing to hold funeral services for people with AIDS. In the midst of an epidemic, people were afraid. Very afraid.

Jimmy Mac and I were steadfast in our belief that education was the cure to the second epidemic associated with AIDS. He called it “Afr-AIDS” – fear of AIDS – and we were determined to educate people to the facts as we knew them about AIDS transmission and prevention.

A few days before he died, I went to see Jimmy Mac in his room at Mass General Hospital. In those days, we had to “suit up” – light green paper gowns with matching paper hair and shoe coverings, a paper mask over our mouths and plastic gloves covering our hands.

I must have looked a sight but I almost gasped at the skeleton of Jimmy Mac which I found in his hospital bed. Always a gentleman, Jimmy Mac broke the tension by saying, “Oh, darling, look at you. They’ll see you on the news. You’re gloves don’t match your shoes!”

We talked for a bit and then, realizing that our time was short, Jimmy Mac got right to the point. “Listen carefully to me, darling. I have something to ask,” he said. “It’s been days since I’ve seen a human face without a mask. I can’t remember the last time anyone touched me without wearing those damn plastic gloves. I’m dying. I know I am. Will you take off your mask so I can see your face? Will you take off your gloves so I can feel your hand in mine? Please? Before I leave this earth, will you do that for me, my darling?”

And, even though I knew the rules of the hospital, even though I knew the consequences for breaking those rules, I remembered the rules of my faith. So, I took off my mask. And, I took off my gloves. And, because Joe Biden ain't got nothing on me, I climbed right into that hospital bed with Jimmy Mac and held his wasting body next to mine and stroked his hair with my fingers and softly kissed his face.

I was able to do that because I know that the Bible is a guidebook, not a rulebook. 

Sometimes, in order to keep the great commandment of Jesus, you have to live the irony of breaking a few rules. In order to see new life, you have to live the paradox and let the old stuff die.

I hope you will remember that as we prepare for Holy Week and for the long walk we will take with Jesus from Bethany to the Garden of Gethsemane in the Mount of Olives, and from there to Jerusalem, to the courts of Pilate and Herod and onto the cross at Golgatha.

Sometimes, you have to break a few rules to discover that ‘happily ever after’ is a crock. And, sometimes, you learn that the unspeakable joy of resurrection is absolutely worth the sacrifice. 

Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to discover one of the great ironies of life and the paradox at the center of Holy Week: You have to reach down – way, way down – in order to touch the stars.  



Unknown said...

What a great sermon. You are very talented at writing and I'm glad God has given you that talent. I always look forward to reading your sermons and thank you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you. Next time, please leave your name.