(Lent is a great opportunity to grow our contemplative non-violent lives - even when we don't think we have one! I intend to use my blog to reflect on the invitation from God to live more deeply into a contemplative non-violent life which I want to respond to more and more. The plan is to write a reflection on Ash Wednesday, each Sunday of Lent and during Holy Week. I invite you to follow if you wish. With each entry I will suggest one prayer practice and one action that I will engage in and offer to you as a possibility. Blessings for a holy Lent.)
This week, I have chosen to not write something unique for my blog as we explore the call to a contemplative non-violent Lent because I think I have said exactly what I want to say in my sermon for this past Sunday, which was preached at St. Andrew's Church in Beacon, New York. I encourage you to delve more deeply into the reading of Scripture - as the invitation to a Holy Lent asks of us - to study this particular piece of John's Gospel. It is filled with wonder.
Here's the sermon:
I have to admit that sometimes by this point in Lent – the fifth Sunday of the season, I start to glaze over just a bit and wish we could just jump ahead to the Triduum. I’m always very serious about Lent on Ash Wednesday and right through the first several weeks of the season. But really, does it have to drag on for six weeks?!
I suppose wiser people than I figured this all out a long time ago, and as sure as I am about to just wish it were all over, the readings for the fifth Sunday pop up and I find myself totally rejuvenated and raring to dig deeper into the Lenten journey.
And so it was that I encountered the first reading for today’s Eucharist. Here the Prophet Isaiah tells us that God says:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I have to wonder if Jesus was not thinking of this passage from Isaiah when Judas got all bent out of shape about Mary’s taking the pound of expensive perfume and pouring it onto Jesus’ feet. I mean, Jesus really could have been thinking: “do you not perceive it?” or in contemporary parlance: “don’t you get it?”
After all, the reason they were all gathered was that they were having a dinner party with Lazarus – who had been dead just a few days before, but was now sitting at the table enjoying some of Martha’s cooking!
Imagine yourself in this situation: you’ve just had dinner with a man who only a few days ago was rotting away in a tomb and you're sitting at the same table with the man who raised him from the dead, and you are upset about the perfume being used! It is so typically human. Talk about not getting it!
What do I mean by that – well, John gives us a reason why he thinks Judas was upset. He says that Judas didn’t care about the poor but, rather, that Judas was a thief and wanted the money that the perfume would have garnered for himself. And there may be truth to that – maybe great truth.
But I also think that Judas’ anger was raised to the boiling point because Jesus was not fulfilling the role as Messiah that Judas expected him to fulfill. The perfume issue was just the excuse to explode. He had a specific vision of what the Messiah was going to do. Initially, Jesus seemed to fit the bill, but then, he seemed to veer from what Judas was certain had to be the truth.
You see, Judas was just the opposite side of the coin from the Romans. He, too, wanted to use unmitigated power to destroy the hold that the Empire had over the people. It is certainly understandable that Judas wanted freedom from the Romans, but what Jesus was offering was a much larger freedom. A freedom with no bounds.
For Judas, changing water into wine, giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf were all well and good. And these sorts of miracles, I’m sure, certainly attracted him as well as the other disciples.
But raising a man from the dead was a game changer. What Jesus was offering was life for all, and what the Romans, the Pharisees, and it turns out, Judas wanted, was death - not their own death, but someone else’s. Because if they got that – the death of some other person or power - then they were certain that all would be well. You see all of these players wanted to use raw power to give themselves the good life so no one could ignore such a powerful symbol of order being turned on its head, especially those who had everything to lose.
And make no mistake, there were all kinds of people who had something to lose if Jesus really had the power to raise the dead. You would think that any human being would be thrilled with the proof that Jesus could raise people from the dead. You would not have to be Jewish to think to yourself “wow – this gives my life a totally new meaning!” Jews and Romans alike should have been thrilled.
But some were not thrilled. Some, in fact, were down-right terrified. And that's because they had everything to lose. You see, the power brokers and their sycophants, in every society since the beginning of time, have held only the power of this world over everyone else. And that is the power of death.
Death, whether inflicted or accidental, due to murder or sickness, is the ultimate form of violence. And the specter of death hanging over us is the weapon used by the powers-that-be. This is the violence of death. And this violence of death is used by tyrants and petty tyrants the world over: From bullies found in the school-yard, to bullies who are terrorists, to bullies on the campaign trail. The threat of death keeps us in line and makes us buy into the system.
The threat of death makes us surrender to the cynical understanding of life as something that can be taken from us at any minute if we dare to step out of line, out of the system, and into a life of faith.
When we dare to believe that we should share our wealth with the poor; when we dare to believe that we should share our food with the hungry; when we dare to believe that the health care we feel entitled to should be available to all; it is then that we begin to whisper to each other: 'hush, if we dare to share our wealth or our food or our health care there won't be enough and they'll take it from us. We will die.”
The threat of death is the ultimate form of violence that is used by the powerful to keep us quiet. And that was no different in Jesus' day. So when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead he set the Jewish leadership that had made an alliance with the Roman powers into an uproar. “If the people begin actually believing in this Jesus,” they said to themselves, “then we are dead. We will lose our power and the Romans will bully us into even further submission.”
But what they did not realize and what Judas did not realize was that this Messiah was giving us freedom from power being used over us and freedom from a need for that type of power. This Messiah was giving us “water in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert” as Isaiah said. In their inability to comprehend Jesus' demonstration of a new way, a non-violent way to resist, a way that buries death once and for all, they had already died. Their desperation for power made them blind to the gift of the Messiah, the gift of non-violence. And Judas was simply caught up in their way of cynicism. A cynicism that teaches us to believe that power must be met, and ultimately crushed, with even greater power.
But Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, who told Martha just before he raised Lazarus that he himself “was the resurrection and the life” and that those who believed in him, “even though they die, will live,” was proposing a new kind of Empire – known most commonly as the Kingdom of God. This Empire, this Kingdom, would not be like any we have known.
No, this is a Kingdom in which we no longer need to believe that Caesar or the Sanhedrin, or the fear mongers on the campaign trail - those who see terrorists around every corner, or those who horde healthcare or food need to be obeyed. This is a Kingdom in which our leader is life itself, resurrection itself. It is a Kingdom in which the non-violence of everlasting life enters into our hearts through a celebration of life that is eternal.
If we believe in this new kind of kingdom, an empire that is not propped up with the violence of death, but with the gift of life, that means that our behavior changes. We are liberated from the power that bullies and tyrants have over us, and we are liberated from the cynicism that often accompanies a comfortable middle-class life. That cynicism that teaches us it is better to go along with the powers of this world, than to risk death.
And Mary, the one that history sees as the most contemplative one, understood this in a way that Judas never did. She had come to understand that in Jesus, God was making things new. That she no longer had to remember the former things – the way of death. She understood that she not only could use, but should use, the perfume meant to anoint the dead while Jesus was still alive. This was a beautiful way to symbolize non-violence. Because to be with Jesus is to celebrate life. It is to look into the face of death and say: no – I choose to live. I belong to the Kingdom of God. I say no to the power of death and yes to the path of non-violence. May it be so. AMEN.
May you have a Holy Lent.
Peace be upon you.