Sermon Archives

Monday, March 21, 2016
Monday in Holy Week 2016
The Reverend Dr. Sam Portaro, Jr., Guest Preacher
Holy Monday

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.

Navigating life’s stream is difficult. The challenges of change are many, not least moving from life through death and back to life again without loss of our true selves. It panics us—this fear that something essential to who I am will be lost. The loss of even the smallest detail alters the totality of one’s identity. That’s why in family histories there are no minor details; it’s important to pay attention to the subtle details of this week’s stories, to pay close attention to Jesus.

When we do, we’re privileged to see a very human Jesus as he struggles to remain faithful to who he is, as he works to discern and maintain his integrity. He’s tempted, as we are, to take the easy way out, to compromise his integrity, to choose ease over truth, life over certain death.

Speaking to the House of Bishops in 2005, Philip Sheldrake noted that

To discern is not … a deeper level of awareness or … merely a decision. It ultimately involves moving further towards a harmonious relationship with what we most genuinely are as individuals or as a community…, a matter of continually reaching out for integrity.

… discernment can be understood as a way of moving from the surface of our lives … to our centre, soul or essential self. Here, where we are in contact with our deepest desire, we find that we are essentially and simply attuned to God.(1)

When we truly grasp the very human Jesus, we see that Jesus reveals a God who’s made us holy in the perfect wholeness of human life and experience. Jesus embodies all that God has made us to be. Jesus invites us to see more clearly and hold more dearly the reality of our lives, the truth embedded within us that we’re so fearful to bare to the light. Jesus fully embraces this life we so often deny, deface and despise. Jesus embraces our very real, gritty, not-always-sweet-and-lovely lives—and Jesus encourages us to embrace it all.

That’s why it’s so important to see the testy side of Jesus that snaps at the disciples, as Jesus snaps at Judas in Mary’s defense; the frustration that causes him simply to walk away into hiding, weary of those who’ve failed to grasp his teaching even after three years of intimate fellowship and hours of instruction, as he does tomorrow; the weariness that finally goes silent and drives him to his knees with a basin and towel on Thursday; the resignation as he realizes that nothing he could ever say would change the outcome, much less their hearts. Sheldrake points us to a source for Jesus’ growing anguish in his assertion that discernment “ultimately involves moving further towards a harmonious relationship with what we most genuinely are as individuals or as a community,” that it’s “a matter of continually reaching out for integrity.”

The reality is that right up to the final moment of his life, Jesus is where we found him at the beginning of his ministry: he’s in a wilderness, alone, with all the temptations of mortal humanity working his literal last nerve. He could save himself. He could capitulate to expectations and capitalize on his charisma. He could lead the kind of messianic campaign his zealous followers want.

But that’s not who he is. And much as Jesus might want to give his disciples a faith in God comparable to his own, because that faith is based in Jesus’ personal integrity and his own relationship with God—his radical trust in God—that’s not his gift to give. His trust in God is the substance of deeply intimate relationship. Each must come to that relationship on his or her own.

Philip Simmons’ pilgrimage to death through Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) led him to discern that you can’t fix people, “About all we can really do for people is love them and treat them with kindness.”(2) But as we find him in so many stories leading to Calvary, Jesus isn’t there yet—he’s frustrated that he can’t fix them.

That’s why I’m intrigued by an easily overlooked detail, and that’s the contrast between Bethany and Jerusalem—towns separated by maybe two miles, but emotional worlds apart for Jesus. Bethany’s a haven of friends, Jerusalem’s a maelstrom of intrigue and danger. Moving back and forth between them was essential to his discernment, for we often do some of our best discerning “on our feet,” so to speak. In our own journeys of discernment, as we struggle daily to figure out who we are, what we should do with our lives and how we should do it, we also need the equipoise between the extremes of challenge and security. Between them Jesus wears a path.

Tonight he’s in Bethany, in the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus—perhaps his closest friends, the ones to whom he went when he couldn’t bear anyone else, though this evening they all seem to be present. Mary kneels and anoints his feet with extravagantly expensive aromatic oils, provoking Judas to ask why the ointment wasn’t sold and the proceeds given to the poor. Or to further the revolution Judas so zealously wanted—but he thought better of saying that aloud. Jesus tells them to back off and defends Mary.

So there are two “last suppers,” one in Bethany, where he’s a guest, and the other in Jerusalem, where he’s host, each featuring Judas in a supporting role—both Jesus and Judas navigating treacherous waters of change. But love won’t be forced. Judas discerns his vocational path, leaving the others to share a Passover meal. Jesus can’t fix him. God can’t fix us and we certainly can’t fix ourselves. God can only love us and wait for our response, wait patiently, even painfully for our love to open to God’s love.

The dramatic tension between Jesus and Judas can distract us from the reality that in the relationship of these two men we glimpse the inherent suffering of life from which not even God is exempt. For to suffer is not only to endure pain; it’s to bear the burdens of life, including the weight of time itself—a burden that weighs heavily upon us especially in times of transition as we struggle to grow and change with integrity. To suffer is to bear with ourselves and each other as we struggle to be faithful to ourselves and faithful to God simultaneously, as we grow—as it’s hoped all children shall—into maturity. A character in Michael Arditti’s novel Easter, offers an apt summation:

The truth is that Christ became incarnate not in order to redeem a sinful people who had cut themselves off from salvation but to reasssure a suffering people of their unity with God. Or, to put it another way, the world was not in a state of sin waiting for Christ to rescue it; the world is in a state of grace, waiting for us to recognize it.(3)

1 Philip Sheldrake, “Discernment and Decision-Making,” delivered to a meeting of the ECUSA House of Bishops, Sept 22-27, 2005 in the Diocese of Puerto Rico. Originally available in pdf via the Episcopal Church Archives, the files are no longer available.

2 Philip Simmons, Learning to Fall: The Blessings an Imperfect Life, Homefarm Books, (Center Sandwich, NH, 2002), p. 15.

3 Michael Arditti, Easter, Arcadia (London, 2000), p. 377