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4-14-19 — In Humble Majesty — Philippians 2:5-11, John 12:12-16 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

          One of the first parades I remember was in late February 1962.  I was eight years old and living outside Washington, D.C.  My father and I drove into the city and found a spot to stand along Pennsylvania Avenue.  We were there to see my boyhood hero, John Glenn.  Just days earlier Glenn had become the first American to orbit the earth.  President Kennedy had escorted him from Cape Canaveral to the nation’s capital, and now he, along with the other Mercury 7 astronauts, was being honored with a parade from the White House to the Capitol where a joint meeting of Congress was waiting to pay them tribute.  I still remember the thrill of seeing those heroes drive by accompanied by the Vice President of the United States.  They symbolized all that was good and promising, all that was possible, not just for America but for the entire human race.  No longer were we bound by the confines of this planet.  The stars were within our reach.  What a marvelous day that was to be eight years old.

        We’ve accomplished a lot in the decades since that parade.  Where we invested effort, determination and ingenuity, we’ve made remarkable progress.  We met Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon by the end of that decade.  We’ve sent spacecraft beyond the reaches of the solar system and penetrated the mysteries of a black hole.  We live longer.  Our children are healthier.  We’ve made progress in civil rights and women’s equality.  But there are some things that haven’t changed, some things that no amount of energy or grit or resolve can alter. 

We’ve figured out how to break free from the limits of the earth, but we’re still bound by the limits of our humanity.  One of the first things you realize when you’re a child is that you have limits.  That’s what makes the terrible twos so terrible.  Children discover that the world won’t accommodate their every desire on demand, and it makes them furious.  The older you get, the more aware you are of your limits.  When I was sixteen I finally admitted to myself that I would never be first chair trumpet as long as Bob and Manuel were in the high school band.  By the time you’re middle aged, you know there are certain things you dreamed of doing that you probably won’t do.  One characteristic of wisdom is recognizing our limits and learning how to live fully within them.

Neither have we figured out how to stop things from changing.  The car that made us feel so up-to-date when we bought it new starts to look drab and worn.  The fresh new-car smell gives way to that tired aroma of worn upholstery.  The best friend with whom you share everything moves away.  Children grow up.  You long to go back to those days when they bugged you to play their games, games that seemed so trivial compared to the important things you had to do.  Now they have more important things to do, and there are things you wish you could do over.  Life is transient.  You can’t hold on to anything and keep it the same, no matter how hard you try.

And we haven’t figured out how to keep from dying.  We can extend life and, in many ways, make it better, but it still ends.  Along with all the other animals, we have an instinctive aversion to death and an innate desire to survive.  But unlike other creatures, we are aware of our own death.  It casts a shadow over life.  We know that no matter what we do our days will one day come to an end.[1]

Today we remember another parade, one that took place 2000 years ago.  I suspect that the people who lined the parade route into Jerusalem were there for reasons that were similar to the reasons that took Dad and me into Washington, D.C., that damp February day in 1962.  They were there to catch a glimpse of someone who had done an incredible thing and who held out the promise of things even more amazing. 

Jesus had done many remarkable things, but what was creating all the buzz, according to John, was what he did for Lazarus.  Lazarus had been dead for four days when Jesus called him out of the tomb.  It was clear now that Jesus had God’s power on his side.   People were counting on him to use that power to restore Israel to the glory it had in the days of David and Solomon.  He would throw out the Romans.  He would set up a throne on Mt. Zion.  It would be glorious, the way Jesus would use his power.

But in the grand scheme of things what the crowds expected from Jesus was the same old thing.  The kind of glory they expected from Jesus the conquering hero eventually fades.  Other empires rise to power and dominate the world.  And not even the most powerful emperor can conquer death. 

Jesus was coming with another kind of power, power not even his disciples understood until he had died on the cross.  The power Jesus brought is the power that created the universe and breathed life into us.  It’s the power that never changes through all the changes of our years.  It is the power of God’s love, the love that gives itself completely to the ones God loves.  It is the love that transforms us from the inside out by taking on our limits, our transience and even our death.

If you were to chart the story told in the gospel of John, it would look like a great arc – an inverted parabola.  Jesus starts on high with the Father in all the glory and splendor of heaven.  He comes down and lives among us, taking on everything that makes us human except our sin.  He experiences the limitations of our human bodies.  He endures first the hosannas of the Palm Sunday parade and then the derision of the Good Friday mob.  Jesus takes on himself everything that is human and carries it to the cross.  He is anointed, but his anointing is for death.  He wears a purple robe, but it is the cloak of mockery.  He is presented to his people, and they reject him.  He is lifted up, but it is on a cross.  And on that cross he draws all people to himself.[2]  “He did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself… being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.  Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”

A while back I had the privilege of giving the blessing at the dedication of a new facility for homeless people in the city where I lived. The ecumenical agency that helps the homeless had acquired a former rehabilitation center and converted it into apartments. After the ceremony there was punch and cookies, and I was visiting with one of the residents of the men’s floor.  He asked if I’d like to see his new home, and I said “Of course.”  He took me down the hall of what used to be a nursing home and proudly opened the door of his room.  It was a simple place – a small room with a bed, a dresser, two chairs, a tape player and a small TV.  Over and over again he said how grateful he was for it.  That room – his home – symbolized for him his new life.  And he was emphatic that it was because of Jesus.  Jesus had reached down to him in the gutter, opened his heart, and invited him to turn his life over to God.  He did, and Jesus, working through the ministry of the shelter and the churches that supported it, rescued him from the street.

That’s where real power lies.  We can reach for the stars.  We can cure diseases.  We can improve the quality of life.  Thanks be to God for the ability we have to make the world a better place.  But only God can change lives from the inside out.  God does it by touching the depths of our souls, by coming to us in Christ and redeeming us through his grace.  And not only our souls, but all creation will one day be changed by his love that gives and gives and gives until in emptying himself he is exalted in glory.  “Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.” Hosanna in the highest!


[1] From a talk by Martin E. Marty at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, March 1998.

[2] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1966), p. 463.

4-7-19 — Always the Poor — Isaiah 43: 16-21, John 12: 1-8 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       A man bought a retriever, and when he took him out to the lake to train him, he was stunned.  He shot a duck and instead of jumping into the water and doggie paddling, the dog stepped onto the lake and ran across the surface.  The man couldn’t believe his eyes.  When he got back into town, he rounded up his hunting buddies.  He could hardly contain himself.  “Just wait till you see this new dog.  You won’t believe it.”  He piled them all into the back of his pickup and drove them out to the lake.  They hid in the blind, and before long a flock of ducks flew over.  The man shot, one went down, and he sent his dog to get it.  The dog bounded out onto the water, ran over the top of it, and was back in the blind with the duck in less than a minute.  “What do you think of that?” the man asked his friends.  One of the friends said, “I don’t blame you for being so worked up. I’d be upset too – pay good money for a dog that can’t even swim.”

       The gospel according to John is filled with stories like that.  Jesus does incredible things, things never seen before, but people who see them completely miss the point.  They’re so used to looking for one thing they can’t see anything else.

       Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine.  It was a sign he is lord over the most basic elements of the earth. To anyone who understood, it meant the creator of heaven and earth himself was in their midst.  But what did people see?  They saw what they were used to seeing.  They assumed that the host had just saved the best wine till the end of the party.

       One time, Jesus fed 5000 people with only five loaves of barley bread and two fish.  For those who understood, it was a sign that Jesus is the bread of life, the one who gives life that never ends.  But what did people see?  They saw a free meal, and when they tracked him down the next day, they weren’t looking for the bread of life.  They were looking for another handout.

       The people in John’s gospel remind me of the dog I used to have.  He loved to chase squirrels. Sometimes if I’d want to get a rise out of him, I’d point to a squirrel in the yard.  “Look, Robbie, there’s a squirrel.”  But he’d just gaze at my finger.  That’s all he saw.  He didn’t understand that he was supposed to look beyond my finger to the squirrel.  I was trying to give him the thrill of a good chase, and he was trying to figure out what’s the big deal about my finger.

       Mary had been watching Jesus.  She had seen his signs.  Recently she had seen Jesus raise her brother Lazarus who had been lying dead in a tomb for four days. People were still talking about it, still trying to figure it out. The religious leaders thought that anyone who could raise a man from the dead was a threat to their power and should be executed. Those who were looking for a revolution saw Jesus as the one who could overthrow the Romans and lead the people to freedom. But Mary got it.  Mary saw beyond the sign.  She saw what Jesus’ miracles had been pointing to.  She saw beyond the obvious to that new creation God promised in Isaiah when God said, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43:19) Mary saw that Jesus is the one whom God sent to bring in the new creation. 

Once Mary understood, once she saw beyond the signs, she did something that looked foolish – unless you understand.  She took a pound of pure nard, costly perfume worth a whole year’s wages, and she poured it on Jesus’ feet.  Then she stooped and wiped his feet with her hair. It was her way of showing that everything she had belonged to him. She belonged to him, body and soul.

       Watching this spectacle was Judas. He saw Mary pour the perfume over Jesus’ feet and asked “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 

Judas looked at that puddle of perfume in the middle of the room, its aroma filling the whole house, and he saw all the food it could buy.  He saw food that could be filling empty stomachs, food that could quiet the cries of a starving child, food that could give a destitute widow strength to make it through another day.  What a waste of God-given resources, he thought.  What a foolish waste.

       But whom did Jesus side with? What did he say was right – pouring out a year’s wages’ worth of perfume at his feet or selling it to feed the poor?  What would you say?  Who was right, Mary or Judas? 

It was Mary.  She got it. Jesus praised Mary for her extravagance, for seeing beyond the nuts and bolts practicality of feeding the poor, to the completely transformed creation where poverty and suffering and hunger and sorrow don’t even exist.  She saw that Jesus didn’t come just to feed the poor but to end poverty.  He didn’t come just to heal the sick but to put an end to sickness.  He didn’t come just to make the world a better place but to transform the whole creation.

       Judas’ strategy for fighting poverty is a prescription for frustration.  It’s the same mindset of those communist regimes that poured every resource toward the production of goods. They did away with things they considered irrational frivolities that distracted from the hard work of transforming society.  Worship, Bible study, and prayer were a waste of time. Art had to serve a practical purpose. Instead, everyone had to make a commitment to the five-year plan, the rationally considered, well-developed scheme to end poverty and human need.  And what did such a well-considered, rational plan lead to?  Poverty and deprivation.

       You see, if you carry Judas’ rational mindset to its logical end, you still arrive at the truth Jesus told Judas: “You always have the poor with you.”  No matter how hard we work, no matter how much we give, there will always be poverty and inequality and injustice.  And once you realize, through logical, rational consideration, that you always have the poor with you, where does that leave you?  You either give up in despair and end it all like Judas who hanged himself, or you turn your back on the needs of others  and don’t think of anyone but yourself. 

       Was Jesus being callous?  Was he telling us to turn our backs to the poor?  In the gospel according the Matthew Jesus tells us how we’ll be judged: by what we do to the least of those, Jesus’ brothers and sisters who are hungry and thirsty and in prison.  When Jesus told Judas the poor will be with us always, he was alluding to Deuteronomy 15:11 where God says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” 

       It’s not within the realm of human possibility to end poverty and suffering on our own.  We have to rely on a power that is greater than anything in us.  That power is Jesus Christ.  He understood Mary’s extravagant sacrifice as her anointing of his body for burial. Mary was pointing beyond that room, that dinner party, to the sacrifice Jesus would make in just a few days.  She was pointing to the cross where Jesus put to death the corruption and greed and sin that cause poverty in a world where God has given more than enough for everybody.  Mary was showing us what it takes to feed the poor in such a way that poverty really ends.  It takes more than making a donation to a good cause.  It takes more than giving what we’ve got left over after we’ve paid the bills.  It takes pouring out everything we have and all that we are at the feet of Jesus, giving ourselves as living offerings for him to use in transforming the world.

       When we give ourselves to Jesus as Mary gave herself, we do more for the poor, not less.  We don’t settle for just a year’s worth of wages.  That’s not enough.  We give ourselves and all that we have.  We proclaim the new creation he began on the cross.  When we make an offering on Sunday, we’re not just making a donation but engaging in an act of extravagant praise like Mary’s because with our offering we give ourselves.  When we help the poor and needy, we’re pointing to the one who came to end all poverty and suffering.  We do that when we give backpacks to kids at East York Elementary School.  We travel to North Carolina to help people rebuild their lives after natural disasters.  We welcome refugees who have fled to our country for their lives.  We help fill bags of food for Rise Against Hunger. Some will see what we do a commendable acts of charity, good deeds that make us feel good for having done them.  But to those who have eyes to see, to those who are as astute as Mary, they can see what we do for the poor as signs, signs that point beyond the obvious to someone greater, to Jesus Christ who poured himself out for us. To him be honor and glory forever and ever.  Amen.

4-7-19 Bulletin

4-7-19-bulletin

3-31-19 — Is Anyone Listening? — Psalm 142 — Rev. Guy Dunham, guest pastor