I can tell we're nearing Holy Week.
And not just because we've stepped out of Luke for a detour into John with the foreshadowing of Jesus' betrayal and death (and resurrection).
Through Isaiah, God proclaims, "I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert" (Isaiah 43:14). We often talk about Lent as "desert days." We give up things that bring us passing pleasure to help us draw closer to the Source and Life of Being who brings us true joy and peace. We practice resisting temptation just as Jesus resisted temptation during 40 days in the literal desert. In the Northern Hemisphere, Lent begins during the end of winter, when the sky is still dark and the land is still hibernating, not yet bearing fruit. In the Southern Hemisphere, Lent begins during the end of summer, so the parched land very much echoes desert.
But rain will fall in the desert. Such rain that there will be rivers.
Okay, this is a bit of an uncomfortable statement here in the Northeastern USA where we had so much rain and wind last weekend that many roads and schools and workplaces shut down, where many people stayed home not just because it was unsafe to travel but because their basements were flooding. One of my friends who works in graphic design lost huge portions of her high school and college art portfolio when her parents' basement flooded while they were out of town.
But this is not that kind of unwelcome river -- well, maybe it is. God is not always welcome in our lives. "My ways are not your ways," we heard God say two weeks ago (Isaiah 55:8).
This week, God says, "Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old" (Isaiah 43:18). That is difficult. My friend who lost much of her portfolio? One of her friends commented: "Jim Morrison once permanently destroyed all of his writing by intentionally setting it on fire. He said it gave him the freedom to write new things that were completely original. I've thought about doing the same to everything I have before, but never had the guts..." She said, "I like that thought... freedom to create new things. I'll keep that in mind, thanks," but I don't imagine that was easy.
This past Wednesday, Laura Ruth reflected on the passage in Luke (9:1-6) where Jesus empowers and commissions the disciples. Jesus' instructions end: "If people do not welcome you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave their town, as a testimony against them" (Luke 9:5). Laura Ruth talked about transitions -- about how difficult it is to know when to move on, to not leave too quickly and to not labor too long. She wondered whether the disciples got the hang of it after a few times -- if these pairs of disciples had conversations like, "I think we should go -- I think we're not welcome here any more" / "What are you talking about? We're definitely still welcome here." I'd never thought about that part of this passage -- that it's one thing to not be welcomed into anyone's home and to shake the dust off your feet on your way out of town rather than try to wheedle your way under someone's roof for the night, but once you have lodging somewhere you still eventually have to leave. At morning prayer this Lent we're following the PC(USA) lectionary, which Gospel readings take us through all of Mark, and earlier this week I commented on how every day or every other day we read that Jesus and the disciples got in the boat and went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee -- Jesus is forever leaving communities, moving on to new communities that also need to hear the proclamation of the dominion of God and to feel the healing touch.
As I said at Rest and Bread this Wednesday, I'm really bad at letting go of things. I want to stay and try to fix them, even long after they have ceased to nourish me. I'm kind of a control freak, and I want things done my way, and so I keep coming back and trying to make them better, to make them more like I want them to be. I'm not good at shaking the dust off my feet and letting go -- moving on to places or people that might be more willing to receive me. Oh, I'm happy to make my home in those communities that love me, that nurture and challenge me and allow me to nurture and challenge them in return. But I still try to work in these other places as well -- struggling along in ill-fitting garments, in unfruitful lands.
In our Gospel reading today, we read about Mary (sister of Martha and the resurrected Lazarus, I presume) anointing Jesus' feet with a costly perfume made of pure nard, and wiping them with her hair. Judas is outraged and points out that this perfume could have been sold for three hundred denarii (a year's wages) and the money given to the poor, but Jesus replies, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial" (John 12:7). There will always be opportunity to provide for the poor, but I, Jesus, will not always be with you.
In their book on Holy Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan talk about the version of the story in Mark (14:3-9) and argue that the woman is the first to really realize what Jesus is saying.
"She has done what she could," says Jesus, "she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial" (14:8). She alone, of all those who heard Jesus's three prophecies of his death and resurrection, believed him and drew the obvious conclusion. Since (not if) you are going to die and rise, I must anoint you now beforehand, because I will never have a chance to do it afterward. She is, for Mark, the first believer. She is, for us, the first Christian. And she believed from the word of Jesus before any discovery of an empty tomb.I'm intrigued by how to use this in my own life -- to create rituals that allow me to prepare for leaving, that prepare me for the deaths that are a part of life.
I show up at the door (of someone I have dwelt with before) and I am told, "I cannot receive you right now." And I want to say, "But what about later? Is there a time I could come back? And can we talk about why you can't receive me? I don't have to stay at your house; I could come in for just a little while, drink a glass of water and then leave. Let's talk." But the door is shut. And I want to come back, to knock again, to have this clarifying conversation. And I know that's not a good idea. That I need to shake the dust from my feet and leave. There are others in the village who know me, so if this person wants to welcome me back at some later date, they can find me. I suspect they won't -- that even if circumstances change such that they would be willing to welcome me in, they won't be willing to make the effort to track me down and invite me back. But I have to risk that. For God is doing a new thing.
How do we pay attention for the signs that death is approaching? That change is coming. That our welcome is waning and it is time for us to move on.
I think one way to do this is to check in with ourselves regularly about whether the work we are doing is feeding us. Has the earth we were tilling turned into desert somewhere along the way? Yes, God is making a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, but that means we have to actually follow that way, to move from our old patch of earth to a new one along the banks of the river.
The Psalmist tells us:
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.I appreciate this reassurance. That God will restore our fortunes, our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy (Psalm 126:1-2).
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
The opening of this Philippians passage is familiar to me -- Paul establishing his credentials -- but I was struck when I hit verse 10: "I want to know Christ."
"I want to know Christ and the power of Christ's resurrection."
That's such an incisive summary of what it is to be a Christian -- of why we are Christians. That deep desire to know Christ and to know the power of Christ's resurrection.
What greater desire could there be than that -- to know the one who is the very face of God and to know the power that has defeated even death? We're not at Easter yet, but there is always a certain cognitive dissonance in Lent (as in Advent) because we are anticipating an event which has already happened. During Advent, we anticipate the coming of the Christ child alongside Mary and Joseph, who have had angelic visitors and even if they hadn't could certainly perceive the child gestating in Mary's womb. In Lent, we are reenacting Jesus' forty days in the wilderness, which fall between baptism and the beginning of public ministry, so chronologically it's entirely out of order for the weeks leading up to Jesus' death and resurrection, but of course it makes a great deal of sense psychologically -- although Jesus' disciples continue to Not Get It about what awaits them, Jesus knows what's coming, and so we are traveling with Jesus, trying to be faithful companions, to be attentive to Jesus' teachings.
And what awaits us at the end of that journey?
Betrayal, death, and resurrection.
Not necessarily literally (though yes, death is the literal end of our journey until the resurrection), but there is a sense in which Christ calls us to die to our old lives so that we can be resurrected in Christ.
There are lots of parables about that -- you can't patch an old wineskin with new cloth or it will burst and the wine will run out and be ruined, instead you must put the wine in new wineskins (Luke 5:36-39); a seed must fall and die and break open in order to become more than just the single seed that it is in itself (John 12:24). We could come up with our own parables -- like the caterpillar who metamorphoses into a butterfly.
In Trina Paulus' book Hope for the Flowers, we learn that in order to become a butterfly, "You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar."
Lent is about learning to give up being a caterpillar -- and about learning to want to fly. Learning to give up the things that keep us attached to this desert ground so that we can soar, as we were always meant to.
Lent is about preparing ourselves for that new thing which God is desiring to do in our lives. About preparing the desert places in our souls for God's quenching rain -- uprooting the weeds so that new life can blossom.
And so I send you forth -- back into the desert, back into the wilderness, back into wherever you are in the world -- to continue preparing for the rain which God is preparing to send, so that you may have resurrection life.