- Social Experiment Video: Veteran Returns Money
Anointings can be a revolutionary act. And it can be done by common people: you and me.
Anointing was first reported in Hebrew scriptures as an event that sets aside priests and prophets. That happens in today’s Exodus text. After the time of Samuel, anointing with oil acknowledges kings and judges, starting with David and Solomon.We see it here in Psalms, when a king raises up a song of victory and praise to God.
In later Christian traditions, oil was also applied sacramentally for healings. Or to bless the dying. It was often called extreme unction or last rites, but has since been called ‘sacrament of the sick.’
In the Gospel story, the woman’s act of anointing is personal. Yet it can also be heard as political and public, since she stands in the tradition of prophets who anoint kings. She marks Jesus as a leader. And as we know, his coming death on a cross was a political form of execution by the Roman empire.
Since this anointing is also done by a woman, in a patriarchal society, it’s even more unusual. Lots of layers of social and cultural and spiritual complexity!
Anointing shows up in today’s texts in more traditional ways. Oil is used to mark something as holy. In Exodus, it is used to mark generations of priests descended from Moses’ brother Aaron. And it marks the tabernacle as holy. Plus anointing shows up in the song of the king.
Yet in yesterday’s story, a woman anointed Jesus. A regular person, a householder, sees the holy identity of God walking among us, and lavishly pours herself and her resources into naming and claiming that One with expensive oil.
Note to self: We tried anointing each other in church yesterday, and I learned not to use tea tree oil again; it’s very pungent. Try olive oil, right? We didn’t have access to nard …
Others in the house, in the Gospel story, protest the expense and waste of pouring so much oil on Jesus. She uses the equivalent of a year’s salary in this act!
Jesus defends her. He says her act shall be remembered, and that she’s preparing him for burial. He foreshadows the events of the Passion Week.
Jesus’ language of remembrance recalls the sacramental language of the Last Supper. “When you do this, remember me.” And in the versions of the story wherein she pours oil on his feet and washes his feet with her hair, it also recalls the foot-washing by Jesus for his disciples after the Last Supper.
This story shows up in all 4 Gospels, and in two versions, the woman who anoints Jesus is unnamed, in one she’s called a sinner, and in one she’s named as Mary of Bethany. So over the course of history this woman’s identity has often been collapsed into that of Mary Magdalene, and she has been labeled as a sinner, ie prostitute, which makes the scene seem even more sensuous and outrageous. Scholars and church authorities now admit that Mary Magdalene wasn’t aligned with the woman called ‘sinner’ in some texts, so that complexity has been lifted, although its hard to rid ourselves of hundreds of years of storytelling.
Anyway, it’s a sensuous, fleshy story. It’s a bodily sign-act.
Such perfume – nard — is often used to tend to the feet of a corpse. And in one version of this story, Mary and Jesus are indeed in the home of a former corpse, Lazarus, who was raised by Jesus from the dead. More allusions to death and resurrection.
On Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Lent, we anointed each other in church. We claimed the same role as the woman in the story. We put oil on each other, and gave each other blessings. Because in the UCC tradition, we are all empowered to do so. We are all ministers. We are all followers and servants and doers.
We are — each and all — allowed to receive such a blessing. And we are invited to offer it! Not just kings and prophets and priests. Regular people. Common folk. Householders. Women. Lepers. People brought back from death, or the edge of death.
When you think about it, the woman in the story lavished such oil on the body of Christ. And who is now the body of Christ? Us … you and me.
Selections from today’s lectionary:
- Psalm 20: 6 — I know that the Lord will help his anointed;
he will answer him from his holy heaven
- Exodus 40:9 — Then you shall take the anointing oil, and anoint the tabernacle and all that is in it, and consecrate it and all its furniture, so that it shall become holy.
- Exodus 40:15 — And anoint them, as you anointed their father, that they may serve me as priests: and their anointing shall admit them to a perpetual priesthood throughout all generations to come.
- Hebrews 10:22 — Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
We often use the word SAINTS. We usually mean those who have lived particularly righteous lives, made extreme choices to follow their faith, those who have been martyred for their faith. Sometimes we refer to those faithful souls who have died and gone ahead of us.
In today’s readings, I would say that SAINTS refers to those who ‘seek after God.’ It’s a description that can work in today’s world, as well as historical contexts.
Being a SAINT is not an implication that such people are perfect. They’re not. People such as Mother Theresa, named a saint by the Catholic church, reveal the depth of their doubt and fear through their own writings. Writers such as St. John of the Cross, writing centuries ago, called the times when he grappled with isolation, depression, and despair as ‘the dark night of the soul.’
Wrestling with faith deepens it. It’s part of the human journey.
So don’t think that being a SAINT is about being perfect in deeds, words, thoughts or emotions. Humans simply cannot live perfect lives.
What we can do, in any circumstance, is ‘seek after God.’
In that seeking, we choose more often to reach for thoughts, feelings, and actions that bring us closer to God’s hopes for us. Those hopes are rooted in our personal, individual choices and deeds. Yet what starts with individuals flows into communities, systems, and impacts all of creation.
We become ‘saints.’ We’re not born that way. We learn this way of being. We put it to work. We practice ‘seeking after God.’
SAINTHOOD is a measure of a lifespan comprised of small moments. And we won’t always be at our best. Nobody ever is.
Even Jesus got angry or impatient: at fig trees, at markets in the temple, at his followers, at a woman he called a dog. He got tired and needed respite from crowds. He asked for the cup to be taken from him, when he wrestled with his own darkness, in the Garden of Gethsemane. Yet he struggled with those moments and grew as a person, and became a more gentle and compassionate human.
When are you pressed by fear, doubt, anxiety, sorrow, depression, anger? Those are the times when it may be most difficult to seek after God, yet that’s precisely when the practice of being connected to God, to faith, becomes most vital. Even if it seems like an empty exercise, because you’re down in the pit of despair, it’s the time to call out, to pray, to turn your mind and heart to God.
‘Seeking after God’ isn’t a brief moment. It’s a lifestyle choice. It’s a constant, daily practice. It’s a way of being. When we live by ‘seeking after God’ we are in the state of becoming saints.
Excerpts from today’s lectionary passages:
Psalm 53: 2 — God looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.
Revelation 19: 3b — “Praise our God, all you his servants, and all who fear him, small and great.”
Revelation 19: 7b – …for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
In the lectionary today, one of the most common themes is HOUSE. Like so many of these Lenten images, it’s a value-laden word. It’s strong. It promises shelter and safety. It aspires to intimacy and relationship. It suggests belonging. It brings up questions about hospitality and neighbors. It anchors our identities.
Sometimes we distinguish the structure of the building, the architectural existence of the house, from the emotional center of our lives, ie, our heart-centered home. In contemporary terms, the house can be considered bricks-and-mortar: a physical location. Or it might be understood as a metaphorical place where our hearts and spirits dwell.
For a list of cultural references to house and home, try some of these sites:
I struggle with the themes of oppression, subjugation, and exclusion that arise in the Bible around houses and homes. Ultimately I believe in the most expansive invitation into the kingdom of God and a broad welcome to the common table. I want everyone to have a room in the ‘house.’ Yet I have learned, through painful experience, that boundaries are important, too.
At least in the last lines of today’s Gospel text, Jesus suggests that the most vulnerable people will be welcomed into the kingdom of God. Nowadays, it sure feels like the door is narrow, and some people want to slam it shut and others want to tear it off the hinges.
Ow. This has real ethical, political, and cultural implications for all of us. We’re voting for political candidates who reflect our values. Policies and practices will be shaped by what we believe. This is a real question … and here we are, supposedly on our Lenten journey into the wilderness, far from home and getting lost. Yet we’re focused, quite often, on the politics of our own homes and the un-homed people who seek safety among us.
We’re reminded, for instance, in debates like this, about the Biblical definition of neighbors.Who is our neighbor? It’s one of the great questions in the Bible.
We construct many ideas about houses, and they bear real consequences. Being homeless or un-homed carries a social stigma, and a real loss of power and resources. So to gain access to services or identity, we often need a street address … a physical location that is acknowledged by official government maps or records. Being housed stamps us with a form of legitimacy, systemic access, and some level of power.
Un-homed … that’s a difficult story. Many local UCC churches shelter families in times of emergency, or as part of their service for organizations such as Family Promise, thus providing temporary refuges. And organizations such as Family Promise coordinate their un-homed clients’ mobile lives, becoming the headquarters that families use as an interim address and gathering place.
So what do we think about the mobility of people who couch surf? Sometimes it’s by choice. Some are people who travel and live – temporarily — at someone else’s address, sleeping on the sofa, remaining on-the-move and off-the-grid? Our own children do it from time to time, in the way that youth once used hostels.
In one senses, welcoming wanderers, couch-surfers, is a form of radical hospitality. In a more formal arrangement, it’s also a way to capitalize on your own stability as a form of business. Plenty of online platforms allow people to rent a room in someone’s house, thereby saving money while finding accommodations, either short-term or long-term. It eliminates some of the fuss of hotel reservations or apartment leases. Social media has its own way of regulating this system, through ratings and feedback, although I wouldn’t claim it’s secure and safe.
Off-the-grid! This transactional, cloud-based and fluid model of finding shelter seems like a potentially anti-establishment, cultural response to institutions, perceived government control, and monitoring. It resists traditional ideas about rootedness, identity, and belonging. Perhaps it echoes the way people are spiritual-but-not religious and won’t label themselves as members of organizations like … well, churches.
It’s also an economic reality. We live in a time when many people are not making a living wage in expensive places where they can find jobs, but cannot afford the security of a place of their own. The gap between the haves and have-nots is growing rather than shrinking. Even a couch in someone else’s place may be a luxury!
Let’s go global. Let’s consider the nation of Israel, its great religious narrative of exodus and wandering until the people of God reached their promised land. Centuries later, that idea, now made into a geopolitical reality in the middle of a contested land, is a polarizing site fraught with internal and external struggles.
It’s also an example of a troubling equation. When one group acquires land, it often means someone else is displaced. Yet our own histories repeat this cycle over and over, and those who were once exiled become the ones who occupy another’s house. To create and hold a homeland, who else’s ‘place of origin’ is overturned? It’s the story of North and South America, as we consider the ongoing legacy of First Peoples. It’s the story on every continent, really.
And in other parts of the world, it’s not just history. It’s happening now.
Read facts and findings from the UN about displaced people and refugees:
Once we consider displaced people, the whole conversation about contemporary times becomes even more tense. Refugees are fleeing their countries, without safe destinations or certain welcomes. Borders are closing or warded. Nations struggle to absorb and support the people they do allow into their lands.
And many people are displaced within their own nations, and yet they’re just as powerless as those who have been exiled … they have left behind their houses, their resources, their access to funds, shelter, education, food, healthcare, water and so much more.
One of the rare things some refugees seem to hold onto is the capacity to communicate and document their circumstances. Many have devices like cell phones: these are lifelines, ways to reconnect, or simply to be heard, and acknowledged as real people with a story to share.
In today’s Hebrew scriptures, ‘house’ is used to refer to the temple or a sacred tent or place where God resides. It can also refer to the name of a family, tribe or clan, usually defined through a male ancestor or patriarch.
In the Gospel, ‘house’ is part of the parable. It is, in its most straightforward use, the private residence where Jesus gathers to eat and teach and work among his followers in different towns and villages. Interestingly, the homes of women (which may indicate women of some independence, with resources and property) often became the places for this movement that formed around Jesus’ ministry. The homes of other outsiders, outcasts, and marginalized people, such as tax collectors who were powerful but ostracized, were sometimes used for the same purpose.
‘House’ is also used metaphorically to describe the kingdom of God. This arises in Jesus’ lesson about entering the house through a narrow door which has been closed. At least we’re consoled that the last shall be first, the least shall be welcomed into God’s keeping and God’s kingdom.
So then, I stop and earnestly wonder as I read passages like this, am I one of the last? One of the least? Will I be saved and walk through the narrow door?
Do I want to be one of the last or least, in this life? That sounds awfully uncomfortable and inconvenient. What does that really mean? Ummm … on second thought, do I want to go through that narrow door?
Except, wow, it sure sounds like there’s quite a party … quite a celebration … on the other side. Hmmm, do I need an invitation? If so, where is it? Who do I see about acquiring an invitation? Can I buy it at ticketmaster.com or boxoffice.com?
Oh, wait, just knock … At least that’s the first step.
Then ask the host or hostess, the one who wields authority in the house, if you can come inside. And hope. And wait.
Remember what this feels like: waiting and wanting to be asked inside. Remember this position, someday, when you’re the one who opens the door, and has to answer the same question. Trust me, it will happen.
Selections from today’s scriptures from the daily lectionary:
- 2 Chronicles 20: 5-6 — Jehoshaphat stood in the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem, in the house of the Lord, before the new court, and said, “O Lord, God of our ancestors, are you not God in heaven? Do you not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations?”
- 2 Chronicles 20: 9 — If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment,or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house, and before you, for your name is in this house, and cry to you in our distress, and you will hear and save.’
- Luke 13:22 –Jesuswent through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.
- Luke 13:25 — When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’
- Luke 13:29-30 — Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
Wilderness … this is the ultimate location for a Lenten journey, even if it’s metaphorical. The wilderness is the mythological place where civilization ends. It’s where you go when the garden is closed to you, when towns and cities aren’t safe, or the busy hubs of humanity are too noisy and busy to allow you to find your own spiritual center.
Wilderness is the place where roads stop, maps cannot offer a definitive blueprint for the paths in and out, and the GPS shows a blank screen. The place in scripture where trials occur and miracles show up, for the people of Israel, prophets like Moses and John, and even for Jesus.
Wilderness is the place where people are lost and tested and confused and stuck and changed. Where people stay for 40 years or 40 days … If people return from the wildlands, they’re often different.
Several faith communities are using the book Lessons from the Wild Wood as a Lenten guide this year… as in invitation to get lost. To make mistakes. To fail. To learn from our own vulnerabilities and flaws, and grow as spiritual beings by taking risks.
Who are we when we come back from the wilderness? If you make it back, perhaps you went through a time when you felt abandoned and alone. Yet if you come back, and you reflect on that time, perhaps you recognize the ways that God was present even in those remote spiritual or physical sites. Often people who return from the wilderness are more actively spiritual in their beliefs and practices, and they can point to specific examples of how God showed up for them.
Not everyone makes it back. The wilderness can cost your life. The journey can take its toll. Whether we’re talking about spiritual or bodily journeys … the risk can be real, in either example, when you step into the wilderness. And the resulting transformations from such a time apart in the wildlands can be just as real.
Lectionary scripture excerpts below:
- Then the Lord said, “I do forgive, just as you have asked; nevertheless—as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord— none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors.
- Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.
- When they were few in number,of little account, and strangers in it, wandering from nation to nation,from one kingdom to another people, he allowed no one to oppress them.
Today’s excerpts from scripture can cause us to ponder, what do we bring into this season? What do we carry with us, in our minds, bodies, and hearts? Are these things we bring gifts or burdens?
The challenge, ultimately, is to bring all aspects of ourselves into relationship with our community, our creation, and our Creator. All of ourselves … the parts of which we’re really proud and the parts we hide out of hurt, fear or shame.
Part of the opportunity today is to consider that sometimes the things we bring into a relationship with ourselves, our community, our larger world, and our God may serve as both blessing and burden. In this way, we may be able to re-frame how we understand and engage certain concerns or celebrations.
We can consider bringing our whole selves in different ways:
- Part of what we bring into this season is a gift of ourselves to others … stretching or offering more of ourselves as a gift … so let’s name these blessings we’re making available. We make this offering to be more present (in some way) to ourselves, to each other, to creation, and to God, following Jesus commandmant to love God, and our neighbors as ourselves (notice the three entities named in this commandment: God, others, self).
For example, I aspire to offer time set apart just for my family, being emotionally available to people with whom I have intimate relationships by making time to talk and be together, committing to personal wellbeing through practices such as better eating and walking daily, or being aware and ethical about the environment by using renewable resources such as a washable cup vs a disposable to-go cup.
- Part of bringing our whole selves means sharing our burdens or brokenness. And who isn’t burdened or broken somehow? So we can take this chance, during Lent, to bring these concerns and vulnerabilities to our community and God also.
I confess, in my own life, a few of these tendencies and ask for support around them. I acknowledge my preference to be anxious and controlling when I need to relax and collaborate. I admit that I get quiet and withdraw, faltering in consistent communication where it’s most needed, in stressful times. I say right here that sometimes my body’s softness and roundness (all euphemisms for harsher internal critical words I use about myself, like flab and obesity) embarrasses me. I inhale and confess that I avoid being honest and direct when I sense conflict or tension surrounding an issue.
- Can we share our whole selves, whether we understand these parts of ourselves as gifts or burdens? It’s easier, sometimes, to bring and share our gifts to help and support someone else than to bring and entrust our vulnerabilities to someone else’s care.
Allow this season to be a chance to put down burdens, let them go, and give them over to God. This doesn’t mean we get to set aside accountability. We remain responsible partners in our relationships. Yet we can share the burdens, as well as the gifts.
Let us trust that those gifts we bring will be put to use, and their purpose revealed. And also trust that if we relinquish some of our burdens and concerns, God will hold them with us.
Later we may look backward, and reflect about what committing ourselves fully, bringing our whole and broken selves into these relationships, renews in us at Lent’s ending. What will we bring away from this season? What insights, personal growth, experiences, healings, or renewals come to us, as we enter into the spirit of exploring and acknowledging our own mortal brokenness? Of trusting and believing we are in the presence of One who loves us enough to bring our lives into God’s own keeping?
Excerpts from today’s lectionary:
- Deuternonomy 26:10 — “So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”
- Romans 10: 15 — And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
- Luke 4: 1 — Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.
- Luke 4: 8b — “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.’”
Today we receive the hopes and passions of last year’s palms, burned now to a carbon dust. One thumbprint’s measure, worn like a tattoo, but without the conviction of ink on skin.
From ashes we once arose, and to dust our bodies shall someday return. In between … might we be stirred to life once more by the Breath of God?
Selections from today’s scriptures call out to the heart. Yet not just any heart … a heart broken open. A heart rent by weeping and mourning. A world-weary, beaten-up, endured-too-much heart. A contrite heart. A clean heart. A treasured heart. A returning heart.
Excerpts from today’s lectionary:
- Joel 2: 12-13a — Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.
- Psalm 51: 10a, 17b — Create in me a clean heart, O God. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
- 2 Corinthians 6:4-7 — but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God …
- Matthew 6:21 — For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.