My guess is that Paul was so moved by the love of these people lived out in the example of the young man, Epaphroditus, that he saw in that boy’s love and sacrifice all the steadfast love of God. When Epaphroditus stuck his head in Paul’s cell, what Paul saw was the face of Christ. I imagine we’ve all something akin to that experience, from the time we were children, I hope, – maybe in a hospital bed, or late at night when your car broke down … you know what it feels like to see that face.
Just last week I read something about a woman who was in her mid-thirties, I think, and she got a terminal diagnosis -- some sort of cancer. It was something that would kill her but not right away. She was working in a non-tenure track academic position that frustrated her so she quit, but she still had to work, so she got a job at Trader Joe’s because she loved the cheerful friendly atmosphere. It didn’t pay much, but it got her up in the morning. I get that.
"To have regrets is to be human, but if we wallow in past regrets, they can, of course, hamper us from moving forward. But what is truly interesting is that in today’s passage, Paul is actually referencing our past gains; our successes–these are the things, he says, that most impede us."
My favorite part of the story is when the two, sitting there in the motel cafe, all alone now, make a mutual observation. They say, “Weren’t our hearts burning within us as he spoke to us? Even before our blindness left us and we saw who he really was, something deep within us was catching on?” That seals it for them. That changes them. They will never be the same people again. In the wake of that dinner, everything that before was complex and puzzling for them, became totally simple. It was suddenly a matter only of their hearts and nothing else. Barbara Brown Taylor says the resurrection of Jesus permanently rearranges our understanding of reality. Just ask any of the millions of non-religious people who were moved to tears watching Notre Dame burn. This stuff is deep in us, no doubt about it.
It has been noted that dying people often become more who they are in those moments than they have ever been. Any pretense they may have previously held up as a defense falls away. Right? I mean, what would be the point of being anything but who you are at such a moment? One interpreter, citing this tendency, says that at the point of death, we all become the condensed version of ourselves. We become who we are at our core.
.... Then Mary does four remarkable things in a row. First she loosens her hair in a room where there are men, which a respectable woman would never do. Then she pours this balm on the feet of Jesus, which also is not done -- maybe on the head, but not on the feet. The intimacy of the event more than doubles when she touches his feet with her hands. Finally the coup de gras-- she wipes his feet with strands of her flint black hair. Love and death bound together forever in one picture. The whole thing leaves them all speechless.
Eight hundred years ago the Italian poet, Dante, posited that hell was not really a place of punishment. Instead, he argued that it was a place God, in God’s infinite love, offered to those who, for whatever reason, don’t want to walk humbly and eternally with God. Dante argued that “hell” was not a place where God slaps people with the right hand of God’s wrath but, rather, offers them the left hand of God’s love.
Way back when the narrative about Abram and Lot begins in Genesis 12, Abram is called by God and this interesting piece of information is inserted. God says, “Abram, through you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Note that God does NOT say, “Through you, only those people who are your DNA matches on ancestry.com will be saved. No, God has in mind to bless ALL the families of the earth. It’s counter-intuitive. And it’s easily forgotten, which is why 80+% of Christians in this country condone racism and xenophobia.
Vladimir Putin, interviewed on NPR a year after 9/11, spoke of Osama bin Laden as very like Pharaoh. He was asked, “What did you think when Reagan spoke of the USSR as an evil empire.” His answer: “It was just a manner of speaking -- just cold war rhetoric. We didn’t take it too seriously.” “What about when Pres. Bush spoke of Osama Bin Laden as evil?” Pres. Putin answered, “It was an understatement. I cannot use words to describe him on the air.” Then he said something to make one’s blood run cold. “We are as dust to them." Just like the Israelites were to Pharaoh. Just like the Muslims were to the white supremacist shooter in New Zealand on Friday.
According to the story, it took some time for Hosea to begin to get an idea of what God was doing by calling him into such a marriage, but that part of the narrative makes this rather fascinating, because it takes a long time for most people to understand why he or she marries the particular person they choose to marry, does it not? The real reason, I mean.
The Apostles’ Creed leaves out all the teachings of Jesus. Every one of them. Here is how some have put the problem. The place for the teachings of Jesus in the Apostles’ Creed is held by a comma – it’s the comma between “born of the Virgin Mary” [comma] and … “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Do you see? Jesus’ whole life is left out, as if the only important thing is that he was born, and that he died. That amounts to “Christianity-lite,” to me, especially when it comes to this morning’s text. It leaves out the hard stuff. It says to Christians, pay no attention to what the man Jesus said. Just believe he died for your sins and live however the heck you want.
Life, according to Jesus, is like the medieval symbol of life, a great WHEEL OF FORTUNE. It just keeps moving around and around. Jesus’ point is simply that those at the top, with the wind blowing in their hair, will eventually have their turn at the bottom. And those at the bottom, in the mud and the mire, will one day fly with the eagles. They may not think so. Being at the bottom is debilitating, but things change even when you are there in the pit.
We humans have a myth attached to it – the myth of Sisyphus, right. What is life like? It’s rolling a huge stone up a hill all day long, only to have it roll back to where we started and we have to push it back up the next day all over again. It may be your obstreperous child, or your alcoholic husband, or someone at work who works above you, or something inside you like an obsession, or a loss you can’t seem to put behind you, or some fear that won’t ever go away.
How do you know what you are supposed to do with your life? This is a weighty question, regardless of where you happen to be on your journey: facing a decision about graduate school and career; working hard at your job while wondering whether it’s the right one; deciding what to do when the kids are fledging, approaching retirement, when the work that has occupied you and defined you is coming to an end and you’re wondering about what you will do with the rest of your life.
Now, I wonder why they cried? What in this hearing of scripture, was so emotive? Reading the Bible in worship doesn’t usually make us cry, except maybe at a funeral, or maybe a wedding, those moments when our lives are most cracked open and receptive. But at the Water Gate that day, they cried. Maybe they cried for the same reason that we cry when we see a movie that moves us, a scene of pathos that touches our emotions or something that so engulfs us in a wave of memory that we see ourselves in that situation and know that feeling, or remember something touching our own experience. I’m guessing that they cried for as many different reasons as there were people gathered who cried.
.... but let me ask, how much power do the rest of us really have over making our twilight years happy? What might indicate whether the wine in the second half of this journey might be better than the vintage in the first half?
I want to use this sermon to focus on that last word – truth. Mostly because it is such an issue today – a day when more and more people, it seems, are playing fast and loose with it. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.” That may be the most important statement made by anyone in government in our lifetime, but not enough people seem to appreciate that today.
On the last day of the year 999, the old Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome was thronged with a mass of weeping and trembling worshipers awaiting the end of the world. The pope was there, and he was just as anxious as his flock that some cataclysmic act of God was at hand. When midnight came round and nothing happened it was said that his flock ran out into the streets of Rome, shouting and cheering and celebrating the fact that they were still alive. Well, most of them, anyway. Apocalyptic-ism has been around for a long time. It is in the Bible. The early Christian church, living under intense and often cruel persecution, fervently prayed for Jesus to return and bring to an end the horrific ordeal they were enduring in his name.
Fifth grade seems to be the key year over all. It is often the year kids put all the academic pieces together. They are able to look at school with a little distance, Teachers are no longer substitute parents. Kids will come out of fifth grade either saying, “I got this,” or “I’d rather be somewhere else. School’s just not for me.”
Singing does amazing things to the human spirit. It's powerful; sometimes it's downright dangerous. One December, late in the 1980s, near the end of it's rule, the white government in Pretoria, South Africa banned the lighting of candles AND . . . the singing of Christmas carols in the township of Soweto.
When asked, “Why?” by a member of the press, the government spokesperson said, "You know how emotional black women are. Christmas carols have an emotional effect upon them." Geez, you let a poor Jewish peasant woman like Mary, or a black mother in Soweto sing -- well, you don't where it might lead. They were right. They proved the moral bankruptcy of their rule by saying it, but they were right.