The Cost of Value
It’s time to value the “in-between.” We have reached the beginning of what the Church calls “Holy Week”. Beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with Easter Sunday, these intense eight days are the focus of the gospel. If there was ever a time to pay attention, to break the infrequent attending to our faith, this is the time.
This is what the forty nights and days of Lent have been leading toward – toward a full week of focus and attention of what God desires of us.
This is a week in which not even the Sundays are enough. Missing the days in between can even be misleading this week. If we take part in today’s triumphal procession into Jerusalem and jump ahead to the empty tomb and the risen Christ, we might think that this Jesus we follow rides from crest of victory to victory, and that this Christian faith is one of puppies and butterflies. Of all weeks, this is the week to pay attention to the details.
When we piece the story together from the four gospel accounts, we learn that Jesus enters Jerusalem and heads straight to the Temple, where he flips over tables and directly challenges the powers that be. The priests and religious authorities culminate their plot to eliminate this threat, finding in the disciple Judas a willing accomplice.
As Jesus gathers his disciples for the Passover meal, breaking bread and washing feet, he lets them know that his betrayer is one from his circle of trust. As they head to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray among the ancient olive trees, he is arrested. On Friday, he is tried and tortured, and then sentenced to die. The writers do not turn away from the pain of the cross, either, painting a picture of Jesus’ suffering in excruciating detail. Once dead, he is buried in a tomb, sealed with a large rock over the mouth of the cave.
If we contain the gospel to the two Sundays that bookend it, it would be understandable to call the week “holy” and to call its Friday “good”. But when we look closely at what happens in between, these words begin to lose their meaning…
Friends, we increasingly live in a culture where our “faith” is of our own making. No respecter of political affiliation, this “faith” is Christian in flavor, but one where we discard the things that make us squirm and add in the things that reinforce what we already think is true. For many, faith in Christ has become “one and done” – once baptized or confirmed or born again, there is no need to darken the door of the church. From now on, it’s me and Jesus.
Let’s make no mistake. Churches have helped to erode this relationship. The scandals of child abuse make for headlines and sell papers. The self-righteous hypocrisy of preachers is cartoonish in its villainy, holding their people hold to an unreasonably high standard while taking gross advantage of the power and influence they hold.
Meanwhile, as the world seems to move at a million miles an hour, churches – for the most part – have chosen either to throw their lot in with the whims of today, priding innovation over tradition, or they have stuck their heads in the sand, believing that nothing good can come from our cultural Nazareths. Those who, in past generations, might have become active church members have been turned away by the parallel idolatries of entertainment and institutional preservation.
In other words, the bookends matter, and matter a great deal; and so does everything in between. The difference is that it’s a lot harder to live in the in between. The very place that the Church has abandoned is the very place that we need to value and need to be.
This year, Holy Week is the week for spending time in the in-between.
It’s the second half of this morning’s lesson that highlights how much more difficult it is to stay with the in-between. Jesus, at the home of Simon the Leper, becomes himself an object lesson. An unnamed woman carries in an expensive alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume. In an over the top act of affection and adoration, she shatters the jar and pours the perfume on Jesus’ head.
Almost immediately, there are those who leap up to criticize. If she had chosen to sell that jar and its perfume, so much good could have been done! What a waste!
Jesus, much to our surprise, defends the woman. She has done a good thing. There will always be poor people. But Jesus will not be around that much longer, as she seems to know, offering a ritual of burial, if a bit prematurely.
This is a critical, in-between moment. On the one hand, we can sympathize with those who think the value of the perfume jar could have been used more justly. On the other hand, we can see how some could take Jesus’ words “the poor you will always have with you” as permission to ignore the poor so that we can focus on glorifying God. And yet, neither of these gives voice to the holiness of Holy Week.
Jesus is the incarnation of God’s holy presence. This is something truly worthy of adoration, something that only this woman seems to notice. And, at the same time, listen carefully to what Jesus actually says: “You always have the poor with you. You can show them kindness whenever you want.” In other words, the poor deserve to be treated with kindness. It is the faithful thing to do. In fact, in Jesus’ absence, being kind to those who are unlike us may be the closest we can get to pouring costly perfume on his head.
You see: instead of planting ourselves at one extreme or another, self-righteously proclaiming that true holiness is found only in serving the poor or only in serving Jesus, we ought to nestle in-between, recognizing that they are one and the same! After all, look at the Palm Sunday procession: the colt on which he rode into Jerusalem was a borrowed one. And look at the Friday burial: the tomb where his body was laid had been donated for that purpose. To love and serve those at the margins of society is to love and serve Christ himself. And if there was any doubt about that, Jesus says it himself: “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat…I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink…I was a stranger and you welcomed me…Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”
You see, in the kingdom of God, in the world the way God desires it to be, we value people – because by doing so, we value the image of God imprinted within them. It is not enough to show up only on the Sundays of faith. We must also be there on the Thursdays and the Fridays. We share at the table, not only with Jesus, but with his betrayer, experiencing the heartbreak first-hand. We pray with him in the Garden, faithfully putting away our swords even when we would rather raise them in anger. We take the lashes with him, and stand at the foot of the cross, suffering with him as he dies.
It is not enough to stand beside the road and shout “Hosanna!” as Jesus enters to Jerusalem and then sing “Alleluia!” as we discover the tomb is empty. We must also cry “I am thirsty!” and “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and “It is finished” at the foot of his cross. We must value the in-between. And when we do, that is when the triumphal processions begin to deepen and offer the hope that they are meant to bring.
There is no resurrection unless there is a crucifixion. There is no ultimate victory unless there is defeat. There can be no “new life” without death first taking hold. It is only when we live in-between that we can understand that “Hosanna” is not a shout of victory, an anachronistic synonym for “Yay!” It is, instead, an ancient cry for help – an adaptation of a Hebrew prayer meaning “Save us!”
Friends, life is not an endless series of “good news” – you only have to live in order to know that this is true. There is much from which we have to be saved, not least of all, ourselves. And when we are saved, when we are pulled out of trials and into the arms of mercy, we cannot turn around and lord it over those who are left, still in-between, still in despair. We must, instead, recognize that we ourselves might just be the very instruments of saving that God calls us to be.
That is the place of the Church. We are meant to be those who do not fear the past, the present, or the future, because God is present in all of them. We do not fear innovation, because we know that God can be at work in our transformation. We do not fear history, because God redeems it all for the sake of God’s desires. We do not fear the death of institutions, because we are a people of resurrection. And we do not fear the in-between, because we know that God holds it all!
My prayer is that this table today would be a solid reminder of all of this. Once we are fed, God is not honored if we take it as a sign of favor above those who go hungry. Instead, we lift it up as a sign of undeserved grace. And so, our hunger fed and our thirst sated, we go out to feed the world. For in so doing, we love and serve Christ the Lord himself.