5 Lent C—4/7/19
Pr. Scott Kramer
(This sermon was delivered to the people of Columbia City Church of Hope)
My sermon illustration this morning is a blanket. As you can see, this is no ordinary blanket; it’s a wet blanket!
If someone calls you a wet blanket, or says that you threw a wet blanket on a situation, what do they mean? That’s right; you’re no fun—a “spoil sport!”
There are lots of opportunities over the course of a lifetime to be a spoil sport. I remember from my childhood a jingle that kids would say to each other if one of us didn’t want to join in the fun (whatever that might mean): Every party needs a pooper, that’s why we invited you—party poooooo-per, party poooooo-per!
The church’s season of Lent is not famous as a party destination, but unexpectedly, this last half of Lent features parties! In the story of the Prodigal Son that we heard last week, an irresponsible son returns home after squandering his share of his father’s fortune. The obedient, responsible, stay-at-home son is resentful of his father’s decision to throw a party for the selfish son.
In today’s story, one of Jesus’ best friends lavishes expensive perfume on him, triggering a resentful response from one of his other closest friends—Judas. And next Sunday is Palm Sunday, the huge public party thrown for Jesus upon his entrance into Jerusalem. (Spoiler alert–this also generates resentment from both the political and religious leaders!)
The responsible son. Judas. The religious and political leaders. Every party needs a pooper, that’s why we invited you!
On the other hand, these “wet blankets” deserve a hearing; they have good points! Why should the Prodigal Son not be punished by his father instead of treated to a party? Why, as Judas asks, would anyone pour out expensive perfume? Seems like a waste, especially if it can be sold and the money given away to people in need!
And yet, Jesus’ response is unsettling: 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.
What is going on here? With that comment Jesus seems to be doing his best Donald Trump imitation!
Yes, in fact, this line has been twisted and abused by Christians throughout the ages. It seems to suggest that we’re supposed to focus on “spiritual” things, a private faith—just “me and Jesus.” “Stop mixing politics with religion!” some Christians are fond of saying.
But any teaching can be distorted if taken out of context. We know from the grand sweep of God’s story, from the Old Testament through the life of Jesus and into the church, that care for the poor, the outcast, the stranger, the foreigner—these are not some sort of “extra-credit for spiritual overachievers.” Instead, care and advocacy for those without a voice are at the heart of discipleship; they are evidence of a person’s determination to follow Jesus. With other practices, they form the bedrock of Christian faith.
8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.
Well, the first part of that sentence has been proven true throughout history up to and including our own time, and will be proven true again and again, wherever human beings are found. If that sounds like a “wet blanket,” so be it! It’s merely an acknowledgement of the vast gulf that exists between the love of God and human nature, no matter how well-intended we might be.
Today’s story is custom-ordered for the times in which we live. There’s enough here for all of us to ponder, no matter our political or religious inclination.
A good place to start: Where do you find yourself in the story? Is it the conservative Judas, who seems oh-so-concerned about responsible financial management? Is it this same Judas, whose belief is that “this is my money to do with as I see fit”? Judas is described as a thief, but you can be law-abiding and hard-working, and still be a thief. Striving to pay as little tax as possible, for example, is a way of robbing the common good, including generations yet unborn.
But today’s reading is an indictment of the liberal mindset, as well. You will always have the poor with you? Well, the answer to that for those of us who pride ourselves in progressive values is often: programs and money. If conservatives are known for guarding their stash, liberals are known for throwing money at problems and letting institutions take care of it.
In our day, both ends of the political spectrum miss the mark, in part because both are distracted in different ways by money. When money becomes a preoccupation with God’s people, the chances are good that we become–like Judas, like the responsible son in the Prodigal Son story–a bit too self-serious. A bit too much of a “wet blanket.” And wet blankets, literally and otherwise, don’t do people on the streets much good!
What, then, is the antidote? How to embrace bedrock teaching of care for the poor, with something like a lightness of spirit? Well, today’s story is clear: Throw a party! When it all gets a bit too serious, find an excuse to throw a party! Like the father of the Prodigal Son, throw a party! In today’s story, Lazarus had been raised from the dead. Sounds to me like a great excuse for a party!
What is it about a party that has power? Well, just this: suddenly it’s not all about money. It’s about relationships! It’s about fun! What brings people together like a celebration? And what both reflects generosity and encourages generosity like a party?
I was at the annual Treehouse fundraiser luncheon for foster children this past week, which raised $1 million in one hour. But one reason so much money was raised is that it wasn’t all about money. It was about stories, testimonials, relationships, trust, and love.
Back in December I got a text from your Pr. Darla, asking if our congregation would consider talking to Tent City 3, in response to their need for a place to stay. After several hurry-up meetings, we said yes. Because of your contact, Tent City 3 was with us until just a week ago. Out of that opportunity, you sent volunteers as a presence in our church office, you donated food and money. I got to meet Steven and Charles.
Now, you might not call that a party, exactly. But parties usually emerge from existing and often long-standing relationships. It’s relationships of love and trust that prepare for the possibility of a party. And relationships have to start somewhere!
In this is one of the great secrets of the spiritual life. The good we do for the sake of others can be more than just charity. Charity doesn’t require a relationship; but love does. Love has the power to transform lives. Tent City 3, for example, is not merely a recipient of charity; the campers have the power to develop relationships, not only between them and sponsoring churches, but among our church communities—Lakeridge and Church of Hope! Tent City 3 is teaching churches how to be a bit less isolated and self-sufficient, and a bit more about how to be the Body of Christ!
The poor will always be with us. To lighten that burden, our work for justice is a faithful response to our basic Christian calling. But, neither charity nor justice is a substitute for relationship. Neither charity nor justice is a substitute for love. Relationships create opportunities for joy and celebration. Jesus said, “You will not always have me” as a reminder that opportunities for joy and celebration are fleeting.
So–people of God, recognize the living Christ when he takes on flesh among us—and let the party begin!