Like those who dream
SERMON: 5 Lent c April 7, 2019
Isa43:16-21; Ps126; Phil3:4b-14; Jn12:1-8
Once there was a brilliant medical scientist who had solved many of the medical problems besetting humanity. He was quite full of himself. He bragged he had so much medical understanding that he could create a human being. He was so famous and respected that people believed him. He died and was checking in with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates when God strolled by. After the scientist had pompously introduced himself God said, "I understand you claim you could create a human being all by yourself." The scientist replied, "Yes, just like you did." "OK," God said, "this I'd like to see." So the scientist reached down to scoop up some dirt, to make a person like God did. "Oh, no," said God. Make your own dirt."
I like this story for a couple of reasons. One is that is depicts human arrogance and does so pretty thoroughly. But it also shines a light on our own ideas about creation and God. Whatever form God possesses isn't really what matters. Or maybe it matters, because God is important, but it's pretty clear we are not going to figure it out any time soon. Likewise, whether God made us from dirt or we evolved from salamanders doesn't matter much either. We're here. Sometimes I think the notion of creation is not nearly as exciting as the notion of evolution. And I don't think they are mutually exclusive. My point is, whatever God is, God is the Creator. We are created. We live in creation. We feel we are utterly blessed to do so. Why is God so good to us? How do we express our appreciation?
It seems fitting that we should do so in the season of Lent. Yet these stories this morning seem to introduce an element of deep joy that is a little surprising in Lent. But Lent is drawing to a close. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday and we will be expressing joy at Jesus' celebrated entry into Jerusalem. That love fest will overshadow today's by far.
Our readings this morning give a clear message of gratitude. They remind us of God's saving acts which spared Moses' people in their exodus from Egypt and which drowned their pursuers although they were armed and riding chariots.
According to Isaiah God also said, "Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing..."
Then God promises rivers of water in the desert and compliant animals. Isaiah further said the people "whom I formed for myself" should offer praise.
It's pretty clear to us that we need someone or some place to acknowledge as our benefactor, the entity to which we offer our expressions of gratitude for the amazing fact of creation and our much appreciated place in it. As Christians we call that entity God. Other religions use other names and the non-religionists have even more different points of reference. But there is no question that we are blessed, is there? Or fortunate, in the language of the non-religionists? That we are flat-out lucky beyond our due? That nothing we have done has entitled us to a functioning life in such a benign environment?
This perspective is manifested in our psalm this morning with language that thrills anyone paying attention. The opening lines say it all. "When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream." Then were we like those who dream is language that each of us can relate to from moments in our own lives where, truly, everything was dreamy, exactly the way we would want it. Then were we like those who dream points out to you and to me that our lives are that. We enjoy our lives and our lives in faith and as we do so fully we realize, it is like a dream. There is nothing missing. Everything is just right: as our collect says, "(O)ur hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found."
For those who are not convinced, consider what St. Paul says in the letter to the Philippians. He reminds us that he was a leader in the Jewish faith and faithful to its precepts until he was overtaken by Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul says that he has suffered the loss of all he had when he converted to Christianity, but he does not consider it loss because of what he obtained: he now believes he comes by faith in Jesus through righteousness from God.
Echoing Isaiah, Paul writes: "forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus."
Although each of our readings points to gladness, the manner in which our Gospel conveys that message is especially helpful to us in the complicated times we live in. Even in the readings already discussed there is no mention of pure joy in the stories related, from beginning to end. The followers of Moses suffered hardships before the exodus; the fortunes of Zion had to be restored before they were like those who dream. Likewise Paul fell from his horse and experienced blindness, not to mention the loss of his vocation as a member of the Jewish hierarchy, before arriving at his confession of faith in Jesus.
Our Gospel tells us of Mary's devotion to Jesus and her anointing of his feet with expensive perfume. This would seem to be a lovely experience for all involved, lovely scents emanating from the sitting area as she wiped the perfume on his feet with her hair.
But Judas criticized her for wasting money on the perfume which he said could've fed many in need. And while this was true, our reading pointed out that Judas was not as careful with the funds of the disciples as he indicated Mary should have been. Then Jesus gracefully reminded everyone of the import of Mary's kindness: she was offering a blessing in acknowledgement of the sacrifice which Jesus was about to make, the giving of his life for all of humanity. It was a blessing of the most delightful scent, it was noticeable by one and all, it was an uplifting of the group of disciples and all they had been working to achieve for three years, and she applied this costly gift with her hair, a sign of humility and love.
Jesus admonished Judas, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
That last message may have been intended for us here at St. Paul's. Because we are blessed with the privilege of serving the needy here at St. Paul's, the opportunity to serve God by loving our neighbor. It is this kind of inverted gift, the giving becoming the gift, which Jesus brought to the world, to demonstrate to humanity the path to a fulfilled life, full of satisfactions of the spiritual type which leave us feeling "then are we like those who dream." Amen
A sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, April 7, 2019, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church,
Poughkeepsie NY by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector