Saturday, March 12, 2016

"When the Authentic Shows": a sermon Year C Lent 5 2016

“When the Authentic Shows”
Year C Lent 5, March 13, 2016
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond, VA

“When the Authentic Shows”
Year C Lent 5, March 13, 2016
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond, VA

The Collect:
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
John 12:1-8
1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

From Anthony Bloom:"We must try to discover the real person we are; otherwise we cannot encounter the Lord in truth. From time to time something authentic shows through: in moments when we are carried away by such joy that we forget who might be looking at us...when we are unself-conscious in moments of extreme pain...or when we have a deep sense of sadness or of wonder. At these moments we see something of the true person that we are.” (

Bloom is speaking here about when we lay out our souls naked. Others may squirm or look away, but when we are at that point of baring it all, emotionally, spiritually, whatever, in these moments we may be able to glimpse our truest selves. These moments are the ones beyond what we do, and they actually define who we are. These are moments that do not make rational sense, they only make sense with the sense of the heart. Mary, I believe, did that this day.

She opened up and did not think about the cost. She, in her ecstatic joy over her brother’s resurrection, tried in a tangible way express to Jesus how she felt about what he had done for her. In anointing his feet, she bared her very soul.

I have seen bumper stickers extolling the “Practice [of] Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty.” This could not be more different. There was nothing Random about this. There is nothing Senseless about this. She was intentional and deliberate. Maybe we should learn something from that.

People, had they been able, would have stopped her. So many social norms were being broken here. She uncovered her hair. No, no, no. She touched someone, a man, to whom she was not related. No, no, no. She took an extravagance, something worth close to a year’s wages, and poured it out like it was water. No, no, no.

I think she was not stopped because there was a quality about her that would not have been stopped no matter what. She was beyond herself that day, expressing perhaps her truest self, as Bloom intimates. She went forward to the Master and knelt at his feet. She uncovered her hair, and used it as a towel to clean the dirt and grime from the road off of Jesus.

Judas complained about the shocking waste, and it is alluded he would have taken a good percentage had it been sold to help the poor. He complained, but notice he did not stop it. I believe the reason why no one stopped this was because despite all the social norms this was breaking, it was a moment of Grace, with a capital “G.” (I have a hard time writing Grace without a capital “G.”)

It is said that the uniqueness of humanity is that we are the storytelling creature. Other animals share information, but we build our lives around stories. You are sitting in a room listening to me talk about stories. When our family arrives home, we ask, “How was your day?” Narratives drive our understanding of our lives. We even see narratives when there are none sometimes, we so long to find a meaning and purpose to our experiences.

Think of the great stories of our culture, the ones that resonate and ring true in cultures around the world. These tales are the ones that are repeated and recycled and handed down from generation to generation. And I would argue that the ones that are people’s favorites are the ones where we see these Points of Grace, whether fictional or real.

What do I mean by Points of Grace? I mean those moments when we see someone being who they were created to be break forth. I mean those moments when despite all the world being against them the individual triumphs, often at great risk or cost, and will not be defeated even if they lose.

For brevity’s sake, let’s just look at a few examples. Sports come easily to mind. Think of those moments when it all comes down to one play, make it or lose. All the pressure, all the hopes for and all the curses against, the shot goes up, the buzzer sounds, and collectively thousands hold their breath while they wait to witness the impossible. The shot goes in and the thousands jump up or cry or scream, or all three at once. Why do we care so much? Because sports are a metaphor for life, whether we like them or not. Little bite-size encapsulations of being alive, where there are set rules and determinable outcomes. And that is why we remember these Points of Grace in sports. When injured Kerri Strug landed on one foot in the ‘96 Olympics to win the Gold Medal. Wow! We even give them names sometimes. The Miracle on Ice from the 1980 Olympics. The Ice Bowl from Green Bay in 1967. The Catch from Joe Montana to Dwight Clark in 1982’s NFC Championship game between the 49ers and the Cowboys. These moments when the miraculous (loosely used there) is seen.

But the movies and books we remember most are the same, as well. There is a reason why Rocky 7 is in theaters now. It might be called Creed, but everyone knows it is Rocky 7. At the end of Rocky, the first one, he loses the fight, but gains the world. He did not back down or give in when everyone and everything was stacked against him. Even in his defeat he won. He was his truest self. He did not quit. He was a rock, he was Rocky Balboa. And that is why we keep going back, hoping for that moment of Grace.

In Star Wars, the first one, Luke Skywalker lets go of his fears and becomes his true self, claiming the Grace that was his to receive. And they made 6 more.

My favorite novels are no different. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen is fulfilling the call of God as he understood it without thinking of the cost. In The Life of Pi, Pi Patel believes and gives his suffering a purpose and bigger vision by claiming “the better story.” In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, we see Jean Valjean so ultimately converted that he is willing to do anything to fulfill the Bishop’s claiming of his soul. We see through these stories which point to that Grace that underlies the hunger of our souls.

Often misquoted Blaise Pascal about the God-shaped hole in the heart of every man is correctly quoted here:
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?
This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself”
[This is from page 75 of Blaise Pascal’s Pensees (New York; Penguin Books, 1966).]

I think on the times when Grace has captured our news. The man on Air Florida Flight #90 out of National airport on January 13, 1982, and the victims floating in the frigid waters of the Potomac. Three times a man passed on the rescue rope from the helicopter so that others might live. And his acts of enabling others to live were the last things he did on this earth.

The tank man in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989, who stood alone against a line of tanks to try and stop them entering to open fire on student protesters.

I think this yearning for Grace is at the base of the heart, and that is why it is the root of our favorite stories and tales, and the basis of the images that haunt us years after the event. God breaks through when we, the very image of God, the imago Dei, open ourselves to being who God made us to be.

And when Mary comes in with that pound of nard, she becomes Thanksgiving incarnate. Her actions scream to all there in the room the joy and thankfulness for what Jesus has done. The Revenant (and thanks to the movie so I can use that word and people might know what it means) the Revenant, her brother, sits there in the room watching her give thanks in the most honest of ways. She says thank you with her whole self.

John goes on to say that “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” These points of Grace are like that. They permeate us all. They pluck our heart strings. They speak to us about the reality we hope and pray is true. Like the perfume’s fragrance, when Grace breaks through it fills the space. There is no getting away from it.

Another favorite movie of mine is The Commitments. It tells the story of a young man in Dublin who decides to put together a Soul Band. Being white and Irish did not stop Jimmy Rabbitte, but even though a modicum of success found the fledgling band it fell apart. The wizened old trumpet player who had played with all the greats pulls him aside to impart some Truth with a capital “T.”

Joey, the wizened trumpet player: Look, I know you're hurtin' now, but in time you'll realize what you've achieved.
Jimmy Rabbitte: I've achieved nothing!
Joey: You're missin' the point. The success of the band was irrelevant - you raised their expectations of life, you lifted their horizons. Sure we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable. This way it's poetry.

Mary’s actions that day were poetry. No one stopped her because she was unstoppable. There are a mere 4 stories that are in all four of the Gospels.

The baptism of Jesus by John.

The Feeding of the 5,000.

The Confession of Peter that Jesus was the Messiah.

And this story. The anointing of Jesus feet. While the details may be different in the various versions, the truth of the story remains the same. In Mark’s account, Jesus even says that wherever his story is told, this story will be included. I think this impressed Jesus, too.

And while we stand in awe, and think how wonderful Mary is, how might we be like her? Not in doing what she did. Jesus is not here, and our brother was not just resurrected. But in Christ, how can we be our truest self?

On Friday, I heard a moving piece on NPR from Francois Clemmons. He played a police officer on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He began in 1968, after Mr. Rogers heard him sing in church. He offered him a role on the show. Clemmons, being African-American, felt uncomfortable portraying a police officer, as he put it “having grown up in the ghetto” not to mention the racially charged atmosphere of 1968. He did take the role, and portrayed Officer Clemmons for years, 25 I think. One poignant episode, Mr. Rogers was dipping his feet in a wading pool on a hot day, and invited Clemmons to join him. Clemmons said the sight of the skin of their feet next to each other made a strong statement. And then, Mr. Rogers took a towel and dried Clemmons feet. Without words, Mr. Rogers soul came out. Without words, Christ was preached more loudly than from a pulpit. Later, on another episode, at the closing when Mr. Rogers said like always “I like you just the way you are.” After they wrapped up, he walked over to Clemmons who asked, “Were you talking to me today?” Fred Rogers responded, “I have been for years, you just heard me today.” Mr. Rogers’ authenticity finally broke through.

The collect from today prays: “Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners…” I would say just that, as we allow God in to bring order to our unruly wills and affections we start to become who we are. And we can start to become who we are because of whose we are. We, like Bloom said, get out of our own way and “From time to time something authentic shows through…” That is my prayer for all of this Lenten day. That we can let go of our unruly wills and affections and not do something, but rather, BE WHO GOD MADE US TO BE. The world may not understand, and that is okay. Acting out of Grace will not make sense to the mind, but nothing could make more sense to the sense of the heart.

We are enabled and empowered and expected to let the authentic show through, and when it does the world will be in awe. Like it was with Mary. Like it was with Christ on the cross. Like it can be when you claim your birthright in Christ. Who can we be when the authentic shows through? Amen.

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Blessings, Rock