Archive for October, 2020

Mark 14:66-72

October 16, 2020

While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” But he denied it, saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed.

And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.”

At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept. Mark 14:66-72

What motivates us to deny the truth? It really isn’t all that complicated. Doesn’t it usually have something to do with either what we hope to get, or what we hope to avoid? And in that, doesn’t denying the truth usually flow from a place of self-interest? Beyond that, isn’t it true that, if you deny reality consistently, relentlessly, shamelessly, you might have the power to replace reality in peoples’ minds with a new version of the truth that better serves your purposes?

We learn that lesson in childhood. We learn it as we contort the truth to “get away with something.” If it works, we do it again. If it keeps on working, we keep on doing it. If we keep on doing it, it becomes a feature of our character. It might even come to define us.

Peter said, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” This is quite obviously a lie. This isn’t fake news, alternative facts, or a hoax. This is a lie. A lie told to a servant girl. Peter not only knew he was lying, it must have bothered him so much that, Mark tells us, he immediately left the side of the fire and escaped into the courtyard.

But she wasn’t done. Again she named the reality that Peter was a follower of Jesus. Again he lied. Others joined in, each proclaiming the truth, again he lied. Only then, hearing the sound of the cock crowing, does what he had done hit him. He broke down and wept.

Why did a simple, powerless, servant girl have such power over Peter that she could cause him to deny even knowing the man who Peter had pledged his life to protect? Because she wasn’t powerless. Despite her place on a humanly created pecking order of her place on the social hierarchy, she possessed the only power that rises to the level of love – she possessed the truth.

The power she wielded over Peter was the power of truth. She held the truth against him and he crumbled. To protect himself. He lied.

There are only two bits of good news in this story of Peter’s denial. One is the power of the truth. The other is that Peter broke down and wept. He knew what he did was wrong. He wasn’t shameless, he was broken. His tears were honest tears.

Whenever I read the story of Peter’s denial I remember how John would later write the Jesus story. At the end, after Jesus rose from the dead, he shows up along the side of the Sea of Galilee to cook breakfast for the disciples who had spent the night fishing. They had returned to their old lives. When Peter sees Jesus on the shore he dives into the water and swims into his presence. We know why. We know what Peter was seeking. Mercy. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. And that is exactly what he received.

And then Jesus gave him a gift. Jesus gave him a sense of purpose. Love my sheep. Feed my sheep. Live, not for yourself, but for the sake of others. The truth set Peter free.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we’re not shocked by Peter’s denial. We’ve heard the story before. This time, let this story speak deeply into our hearts, calling to mind the many times and many ways that we have ran from the truth in self-serving ways. You named the evil one the “father of lies” and you promised that it would be the truth that would set us free. May we trust that to be true. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 14:51-65

October 15, 2020

A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.

They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, warming himself at the fire.

Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” But even on this point their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But he was silent and did not answer.

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’”

Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” The guards also took him over and beat him. Mark 14:51-65

Sometimes, when I read the verses for the day in these devotions, I worry that some readers might skip actually reading the Bible and just read what crosses my mind. I hope that doesn’t happen. Especially today and tomorrow.

So, now, go back and read today’s verses again….

It begins with this strange verse but the unnamed young man who almost gets caught by the authorities – they catch him by what little he is wearing – but he wriggles free and, naked, runs to safety. What a strange verse!

Some interpreters have suggested that this is John Mark, the possible author of the gospel. I have no idea what the basis for that suggestion would be. We ought instead just let the verse stand as it is. One more follower of Jesus stripped naked as he flees for his own protection. Can we blame him?

Then we move to the “trial”. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice sits on a six acre site in Montgomery, AL. It was created to force us to remember the terror and injustice of the wave of lynching African Americans that spread across the country from 1880-1940. Every “trial”, which preceded every such lynching, looked just like the “trial” that Jesus faced.

It was never about justice. It was only about power. And when justice falls victim to power then the darkest sides of fallen human nature rule the day.

Some things never change. Unless people decide they must change and go to work to do it.

Jesus bravely stands his ground. The high priest is so enraged that he tears his own clothes – he too, like that unnamed young man – is stripped bare. He too, who ought to have known better, shows his true colors. He only cares about retaining his own power. Even if that means killing an innocent man. Meanwhile, Peter sits quietly outside.

Now, go back and read the verses again…

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, in your trial, in your bravery, in your powerlessness, you stand with and for all of those who were murdered without justice, simply because of the imagined threat they posed to those clinging to their own privilege and power. May we never sit idly by, silent, in the face of devastating injustice. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 14:43-50

October 14, 2020

Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him.

But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

Then Jesus said to them, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.” All of them deserted him and fled. Mark 14:43-50

If you have ever invested money, then you have heard something like this: “Past performance does not predict future returns.” Except, over time, with a large enough sample, it usually does. The leopard can’t change his spots.

Jesus is betrayed by Judas with a kiss. A sign of friendship and trust is perverted. This betrayal cuts much deeper than Judas “telling on” Jesus.

A church member once reminded me of this passage when he was explaining the godliness of the 2nd amendment. He assured me that “Even Jesus’ disciples were armed!” I guess we are always tempted to do what we want with Bible stories.

It is interesting to note that Matthew, retelling this same story, includes Jesus’ response to this feeble attempt to be helpful: Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” (Matt. 26:52-54)

Luke goes even farther in cleaning things up. He writes, “When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. (Luke 22:49-51)

No surprise, I didn’t change my friend’s mind about the godliness of violence, even in self defense, Luke and Matthew didn’t help either. We’re always tempted to hear only what we want to hear. Jesus used to say that…Let those with ears, hear.

What ought we hear in this story? The scriptures were being fulfilled. Or is it that the scriptures were being repeated? Because there is nothing new about people rejecting God and God’s ways of being in the world. From the forbidden fruit to the Dance of the Golden Calf to the excesses of Solomon to the rejection of the prophets, there is nothing new to see here.

What ought we hear in this story? Jesus was left alone. Everyone fled but his captors. The very people who ought to have known better were the ones leading the charge.

It is so much easier to focus on the innocence of Jesus than to acknowledge the shame of everyone else. We’re always tempted to twist the story to suit ourselves even if that means turning this passage into an argument for the 2nd amendment.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we’ve seen this happen far too many times. Crowds gather and blood is in the air. Violence breaks out and, once again, you are betrayed with a kiss. Teach us anew to reject violence, to meet the crowds with love rather than joining them in hate. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 14:32-42

October 13, 2020

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.”

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him.

He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” Mark 14:32-42

The best stories are the ones that draw you in, won’t let you go, and never run out of meanings. You read them – you feel like you are right there – you ponder them – and you keep seeing something new.

Jesus takes his friends to a garden. Today, it is a fenced in grove of olive trees. Ancient olive trees. The trees give you a sense…that you are THERE where it happened. Your mind reaches back to the very beginning. To another garden where all was well. But all is no longer well.

The olive branch is a symbol of peace. From this garden the Prince of Peace will soon be cast out to get a dying lesson in what peace looks like in the land ruled by the Roman army.

Jesus prays. His prayer, the intimacy in how he addresses God, reveals his humanity. He is torn, distraught, full of grief. Then he says it, the words which echo through history, “yet, not what I want, but what you want.

This is the prayer of a leader. This is what leaders look like. Self-giving, servant-hearted, love.

But leaders cannot be leaders without followers. And this is not the finest hour for those following Jesus. They can’t stop falling asleep. They’ve been told “stay awake” but they just can’t pull it off.

Their slumber is part of what draws us into the story. Wanting better from them turns inward and suggests that we ought to want better from ourselves. To stay awake, alert, prepared. But we know how we are – the burdens and cares of life, the times of trial – overwhelm us and we just want to sleep in. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is still weak.

Meanwhile, the Roman SWAT team assembles, every soldier grabbing their precious instruments of war, preparing to march smartly into the garden of peace, to assert their dominance over a single Jewish peasant who wishes no one harm.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, penetrate our spirits with the prayer of Jesus. Not our wills but your will be done, in our lives, in our world, despite the cost. Rouse us from our slumber that we might stay awake. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 14:26-31

October 12, 2020

When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written,

‘I will strike the shepherd,

and the sheep will be scattered.’

But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”

Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.”

But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same. Mark 14:26-31

Peter was absolutely sure that he would stick with Jesus through whatever life might bring their way. He was a true believer. A warrior. The best of friends. Dedicated. Devoted.

Everybody else might back down. They might give up. They might crumble and crater. But not Peter. “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.”

Weirdly, reading these verses reminds me of a fight that happened in middle school between two good friends of mine. Tony was a talker. He put himself out there as a tough guy. George? George was George. He was just a good guy. He was the kind of guy who wouldn’t hurt anyone. Everybody liked George. But Tony called him out and George followed.

One punch later and Tony changed his tune. A couple more punches and Tony was done. I never saw either of them ever fight anyone else again.

I know this memory didn’t come back to me this morning because I encourage fighting. I don’t. And no, I don’t think anything in the story would have changed at all had Peter later showed that he had the walk to back up his talk.

I remember this story because all it took was one punch.

One punch to reveal our true selves.

Jesus saw it coming. Jesus knew that he alone would have to do what he alone could do. Jesus knew that the only power he possessed was the power of love. He couldn’t – and more importantly, he wouldn’t – force anyone to trust him. To follow him. To love him. Only love could do that.

The love that possessed Jesus was not a selfish love. Just the opposite, it was a self-giving love. Peter thought he loved Jesus in the same self-giving way. One punch was all it would take. One punch and Peter’s faith would crumble in the face of his fear.

Jesus knew that punch was coming. We never know when it will come. But it will. Again and again and again. We will betray our best intentions; we will deny our deepest values. We will trade it all in because of the fear that hides our selfishness and self-centeredness. We will break on our own brokenness. And when it happens, we won’t even see it coming.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, like Peter, we too are steadfastly determined to trust ourselves and our own ability to stay the course of trusting, of following, of standing up for what you have taught us to do. This morning we take great comfort in knowing that you know us far better than we know ourselves – yet you still love us enough to give your life for us. Thank you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 14:22-25

October 9, 2020

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” Mark 14:22-25

The first congregation I was called to serve was Zion Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas. After all these years, I still look back at those years with deep gratitude. Along with all the lessons I learned about ministry and life from the people of Zion, my senior pastor blessed me with a constant, invaluable, theological continuing education.

I’ll never forget the sermon where he drew a distinction between what is “necessary” and what is “essential.” He was talking about Baptism but the same distinction can be made with Holy Communion. In short, “necessary” means “required” while “essential” means “participating in the essence of something.” That distinction is a godsend as we wade through the coronavirus pandemic.

Jesus must have shocked his friends with his words, “Take; this is my body.” They knew what they were doing, they were celebrating the Passover meal. They had done it before, every year of their lives. It was a liturgical, ritualistic, meal. Every item of food meant something. Every taste triggered a memory. It was good to be together. But it got weird in a hurry.

“Take; this is my body.” “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” They weren’t expecting that. But they did as they were told. They ate. They drank. Together.

No one there was taking notes. No cameras captured the moment. The specific words he used weren’t necessary, but the shared experience was essential. They remembered his words. Long after he as gone, they gathered, again and again and again, around a table. Around bread and wine. They remembered. And, as they gathered, ate, and drank, they participated in the essence of Jesus’ continuing presence. To this day.

We haven’t conducted a public Sunday morning worship service at Faith since last March. Like every other community of faith, we have had to figure out what faithfulness looks like for us today. What is faithful to our calling as a Christian community? What is faithful to my calling as a pastor of the church? What is faithful to our calling to love our neighbors?

The practice we adopted was to literally bring the shared space of our sanctuary into the living spaces of our members. We worship, as we do so many other things these days, via ZOOM. When it comes time for Holy Communion, we say the Words of Institution over the bread and wine in the sanctuary as the people eat and drink at home. Our motives are pure. Jesus is present. We participate in the essence of his presence.

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” Here again comes the image of the Great Feast as a metaphor for eternal life with God. “Kingdom” – or “Kindom” – is best understood as a relationship. Restored and whole. No tears. No grief. No heartache. No pain.

There will come a day when our congregation gathers again in the sanctuary. That will be a great day, but it will not be the ultimate day of restoration. Undoubtedly, when that day comes, some will choose to remain safely at home. Until there is a credible vaccine we won’t fully get to a new normal. The risks of this life will continue until we are gathered in the life to come.

But, until then, when we eat, and when we drink, and when we gather around the words of our Lord, we participate in the essence of his presence. Wherever we are.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, thank you for your wisdom in giving yourself to us in the common gifts of bread and wine. For calling us into the company of others. Continue to sustain us with mercy, forgiveness, courage, and hope. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 14:17-21

October 8, 2020

When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?”

He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” Mark 14:17-21

How many times have you read these words? How many times have you heard this story? Why does it still have the power to turn your stomach?

Jesus and his disciples are sharing the Passover meal. A time of togetherness. Of remembering God’s faithfulness down through the ages. And then the totally unexpected happens. A verbal bomb drops into their midst. “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.”

We understand what betrayal feels like. Somewhere along our journey, we might have been betrayed or we might have been the betrayer. A friend promised to keep a secret forever but posted it to Facebook. A spouse admits to an affair. A trusted co-worker spread gossip about you so that they could advance beyond you. A business partner stole your top customer to start their own firm. You find out that an employee whom you had been very kind to embezzled money.

Betrayal cuts deep precisely because it is both so unexpected and because it attacks you in a very vulnerable place. It leaves you feeling violated; you feel like a fool for being so trusting. That is why this story, when you slow down enough to let the words hit you, turns your stomach.

It hurts. You just want to get past it. You just want it to be over. You want to forget it. And yet this moment has been enshrined in history in the very words through which Jesus still assures us of his continuing presence in our lives.

In the night in which he was betrayed….

One of the biggest problems in the Christian faith is the reduction of the word “faith” to mean little more than intellectual assent to a specified set of doctrinal statements. We turn the faith into a head game. Then we argue with one another over the correctness of our doctrines. We forget that “faith” primarily means loyalty, fidelity, and trust.

The word “betrayed” brings us back down to earth. Down to the reality of vulnerable human relationships and how they can be abused, destroyed, when trust is broken. It reminds us that we have been both victim and victimizer. There is a little Judas in all of us.

Yet Jesus still made a place at the table for us. Judas ate too. But he didn’t yet know the whole story as we do. At least, as much of the story as has yet been told. Because you and I are still writing the story. Let our next chapter be rooted in loyalty, fidelity, and trust.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we can sense the power of the betrayal which you experienced that night because, in our own ways, we have felt that too. Forgive us for straying, for betraying, the trust that you have given to us. We pray for mercy and for fresh resolve. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 14:12-16

October 7, 2020

On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”

So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal. Mark 14:12-16

Get any group of old friends together and, at some point, a story will be told that begins with the words, “Hey, remember when…” Imaginations kick in. They won’t just remember the story in their minds, they will experience it again in their bodies.

Shared stories are evocative – laughter, tears, anger, pride. They are also constitutive – they create a sense of identity, togetherness, community.

The Passover story remains such a story among Jews. The traditions, the food, the setting, the memories, both at a family level and a communal level.

Hey, remember when our ancestors found themselves at the edge of starvation so they traveled to Egypt hoping to find food?

Hey, remember how shocked they were to find that Joseph had achieved such a powerful position that he was able to make provision for his family?

Remember how it was that the Egyptians turned on our people and reduced us to slavery?

Remember how God raised up Moses who confronted Pharaoh with the cry to “Let my people go!” And then, how God punished Egypt until finally giving the instructions to quickly prepare a lamb, spreading its blood on the doorposts of our homes, eating it fully clothed so we would be ready to run?

Remember how Pharaoh’s army drowned in the sea?

Remember how our people wandered in the wilderness for 40 long, hard years? How God provided food and water. How God provided the Law. How God brought us into the Promised Land. How God continued to reach out to us through the voices of the prophets. How God has promised to send us another Moses, the Messiah, who will right the wrongs of our lives.

These were the stories rolling around in the minds of the disciples of Jesus as they went on their errand to find a place where they would celebrate Passover together. Little did they know….

Passover teaches us that God wants to see the enslaved liberated, the oppressed set free.

Passover teaches us that God leads the way.

Passover teaches us that God will provide.

Passover teaches us that we will all get through this together.

Passover teaches us that the end of the story has not yet been told.

So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, thank you for the stories that make us who we are, and teach us who you are. Remind us that you lead us, not just TO the wilderness but THROUGH the wilderness, to a better place. May we, like your first disciples, always be willing to do what we can to continue your work in the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 14:10-11

October 6, 2020

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him. Mark 14:10-11

Welcome to one of the mysteries around the death of Jesus. Why did Judas do it?

A common explanation is that Judas had become disillusioned with Jesus. His tipping point was seeing that woman wasting her expensive ointment in anointing Jesus’ head. As we read yesterday, “But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her.”

This argument is bolstered by the little tidbit we get in John 12:6, “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” But before we land on that answer, we need to be aware that John’s gospel was written decades after Mark. John tells the Jesus story very differently; John specifically names Mary (of Mary and Martha fame) as the woman who anointed Jesus’ head.

Maybe John’s version is the result of people, from the very beginning, asking our same question. Why did Judas do it?

Matthew’s gospel, again, written after Mark, adds another tidbit to the “he did it for the money” argument. Matthew 26 tells us that, as we all remember, Judas did it for 30 pieces of silver. So maybe that is it then. Just follow the money.

But there is another possibility.

Maybe the question ought not be “Why did Judas do it?” but, instead, “Why does this story need a Judas in it?”

Mark doesn’t tell us anything about Judas’ motives. But Mark DOES tell us – we’ll get to those verses later this week – that Jesus knew it was coming. Mark wants us to know that Jesus knew that his betrayal to the Romans was an “inside job” just as much as it was a conspiracy led by the religious authorities. At the end, everyone yells “Crucify him.”

From the very beginning, the Judas story sent a message to all who would follow Jesus that the possibility of THEIR betrayal would be as devastating as anything that religious or political authorities might throw at them. Traitors are even worse than enemies.

The function of the role played by Judas is to hold all of us who seek to follow Jesus in our lives accountable to not selling Jesus out for our own selfish motives.

But I don’t really think it was about the money. Money, in and of itself, is nothing but a means of exchange. It isn’t money itself, it is what money signifies, what money buys, how money functions as an identifier of social standing and social worth, THAT is where money moves from being a means of exchange to exchanging one God for lesser, idolatrous, gods.

I think it runs even deeper than money (even though we are so easily wowed and cowed by people who have a lot of it.) I think the simplest explanation is that the religious authorities needed a scapegoat, a fall guy, someone who could take the heat off of them even as they hatched their self-serving, insidious, plan to rid the world of Jesus.

Does that really happen? Powerful people using less powerful people to blame, to deflect responsibility, to “get the job done” even as they gain “plausible deniability”? Of course it does. The question is, when it happens, would we be able to notice it?

Let those with eyes, see.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, Judas has long been for us a warning of how easily we can be misled into doing the wrong thing, even though we are convinced that we are right. Judas reminds us of the danger of turning money into an idol. And Judas convicts us in that we know how easily we can be swayed. Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from evil. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 14:3-9

October 5, 2020

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.

But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” Mark 14:3-9

It has been said that you can learn a lot about a person by the company he keeps. As we walk with Jesus in the last week of his earthly life, we find him having dinner in the home of Simon the leper.

Simon the leper.

Today we know that leprosy (called Hansen’s Disease) is a bacterial infection that attacks the skin, the peripheral nerves, the upper respiratory tract, and the eyes. Left untreated, it can be horribly disfiguring. It is not very contagious – you need to have very close and repeated contact with an infectious person to catch it. And it is both treatable and curable.

They didn’t know any of that in Jesus’ day. As far as people knew back then, a leper had been cursed by God and was a danger to the community. Lepers were outcasts, suffering both from the effects of their illness and the pain of social dislocation.

In terms of social rejection and public fear, until the coronavirus pandemic, the HIV/AIDS crisis is the closest most of us have known to the experience of leprosy in Jesus’ day. In terms of health, it was simply a dangerous and deadly virus. But left in the hands of people with their own agenda, it was cast as a shameful illness and a sign of God’s wrath. Doubly tragic.

It says a lot about Jesus that he chose to have dinner in a leper’s home.

Suddenly the party is crashed by an unnamed woman who surprises everyone by anointing Jesus’ head with oil. “Messiah” means “anointed one.” The Hebrew expectation was that the Messiah be a king, a political leader, who would liberate the people and usher in an era of peace. Jesus praises her for her action – everybody else thinks it was a waste of money.

A leper. An unnamed woman. And a group of people who seemingly have no idea who Jesus is or what Jesus is up to. Quite the motley crew.

Whatever you think about Jesus, leave room in your understanding to appreciate the company he kept.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, yes, we still remember the woman who lovingly anointed your head. We can imagine the rich smell that filled the room. May our minds and hearts continually be open to the ways that you always show up in the most surprising places, among the most unsuspecting people. Especially now as we taste of the fear, the loneliness, and the misunderstandings around the coronavirus. In Jesus’ name. Amen.