Lent 5C, 2019

Isaiah 43:16-21

Philippians 3:4b-14

John 12:1-8

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan


A few years ago, I encountered the story of a woman who faced many losses and challenges in her life.  She lost friendships and a marriage and really struggled to get her feet back on the ground. Then shortly after that she had a really terrible string of losses of several loved ones.  So, she grieved and put herself back together again.  But then she lost her job when her company felt forced to layoff many of their employees. So, she talked to her priest again and he suggested she spend some time in silence and prayer and rest and listen for God to lead her in the next phase of her life. So she went to a monastery to heal.  She signed up for two weeks of silent retreat, packed comfortable clothes and just one book and checked in to this large monastery. She was riding an elevator to her room and found herself weeping quietly and pondering how utterly tired she felt. She had hardly noticed the only other person on the elevator with her. It was one of the brothers. He asked her why she was so troubled and she told him her story, listing her long list of losses. The monk said, “God must love you very much.”  Then they parted to return to their silences but she was left with much to ponder for the next two weeks.

Indeed to realize that we endure much suffering is to realize how much God loves us and walks with us in our struggles.

There is a saying in the church that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.  But that’s not in the Bible (unless you misinterpret 1 Corinthians 10:13) and it’s really not very good theology.  Life is full of challenges because we are a fallible and fallen people who struggle with the fact of evil in the world, and we struggle too with the long list of other facts that follow this evil: hunger, poverty, ignorance and greed to name just a few.

God does not cause us to suffer.  We have plenty of suffering just being human.  But God does love us and call us to love each other so that we can face all these losses and challenges as a community, supporting each other.

I have a practice of always writing a book in my head.  Sometimes I actually do some research, note taking and actual writing.  I’ve got three book projects on the back burner right now.  I may never finish any of them. 

Lately, I came to the realization that I don’t really want to write a book on the concept, I just am working something out in my thoughts. I’ve seen others do this.  It’s a way of saying, “I’m working on something, an idea, a concept, a new value. And, while some of these back burner books are worth the discipline and hard work it takes to finish and publish, I’ve found that many of my unwritten books are just as valuable staying there, on the back burner. These un-written books are full of learning for the failed writer, as it were.

One such book on my back burner is titled “Loser.”  I imagine this image for the cover - a forefinger and thumb in the shape of an L on a forehead. Maybe my forehead. That gesture is a mocking gesture that teenagers have been throwing at each other for decades as a way of name calling. “You’re such a loser!”

Well, in my book, and in today’s lectionary lessons, being a loser, it turns out, is a good thing.  In fact, it is the best way of living.  You see, because trying all the ways we try to avoid our losses leaves us running, and hiding and pretending and missing out of the healing of living through the grief, the worry, the heartache that is just life. Recognition of our suffering brings us closer to Christ.

Isaiah says that the Lord says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing.” This could be translated essentially, “You’re all a bunch of losers (or at least sinners) but never mind all that, let’s move forward with this new creation stuff!”

The Israelites had to suffer much and lose everything multiple times before they were ready for God to free them, before they were ready for the messiah.

Now, in the Epistle reading, Paul says, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to be regarded as loss because of Christ.” He waxes poetically in this passage about the importance of being a loser.

Paul begins this section by outlining everything about himself that might be considered of value and significance. All those things which will increase and maintain his self-esteem and status in the eyes of himself and others.

•        Paul lists his background and his heritage: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.”

•        He makes clear his education and training: “as to the law, a Pharisee.”

•        Then he boasts of his religious and political convictions and activism: “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church,” because that was still something to brag about.

•        And finally, he notes his lifestyle: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

These are all gains, all plusses, all valuable in our life also, as ways to achieve status and significance.  Paul emphasizes that whatever anyone else might claim, he is sure that his resume equals if not eclipses all the others. Paul has “made it!”

But, Paul then makes an extraordinary statement. He describes the value of all this within the value system of the kingdom of Christ Jesus his Lord -- complete rubbish! Absolute trash!

Paul understands that if he is to “attain the resurrection from the dead” then first he must share in the sufferings of Christ. The sufferings of Christ have been articulated in the beautiful Christ Hymn in the chapter of Philippians just before our reading this morning (verses 7 and 8):

He “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross.”

So, here we are, in the next chapter of this letter and Paul is talking about  salvation through resurrection to which Paul aspires.  And he tells us that this requires one simple thing: The willingness to let go of all status and significance in the eyes of the culture in which we live. Nothing we have been, nor that we have worked for previously is of value unless it is rooted in and built upon the foundation of love in Christ.

In the Gospel lesson, we find Jesus, six days before his arrest sitting at a dinner party in his honor at Martha and Mary’s house.  Their recently-raised-from-the-dead brother Lazarus is at that table.  But Jesus sits in between a winner and a loser.  Mary, the sister whom Jesus praised for sitting at his feet and listening as he taught and Judas who is the keeper of the purse.

Who’s the loser?

Mary anoints Jesus with expensive oil worth the equivalent of a year’s wages for these day laborers. Judas questions her stewardship of their resources.

Who’s the loser?

Mary’s anointing has two meanings. Two big events in ancient Palestine would call for an anointing like this: a coronation and a burial. This scene shows that Jesus is a king, about to ride into Jerusalem among crowds of people praising him. It also shows that he is about to die. And Mary knows this.  Judas knows that he can gain from his betrayal, get more money, the poor be damned.

Who’s the loser?

Jesus doesn’t take this moment to point out losers and winners.  Instead he says something quite mysterious.

The poor you always have with you.

At least 46.5 million people, including 1 of every 5 children, are living in poverty, an increase of more than 9 million since 2008. An additional 97.3 million people are officially designated as low-income. Taken together, this means that 48% of the U.S. population, nearly one in every two people, is poor or low income.

The poor you always have with you.

The top 1% of the population own 43% of the nation’s wealth; the top 5% own 72% of wealth and the bottom 80% are left with just 7% of wealth. At the same time, racial and gender inequality remains as deep as ever.

The poor you always have with you.

What does it mean to fight against poverty, when we face the reality: That the poor we always have with us?

There’s a common misinterpretation in this passage. Good Christian people use this passage to explain away our inability to help the poor - and unfortunately they also use this passage as an excuse to do less to reach out to the poor.

Maybe we should work to re-imagine the meaning of this mysterious response from Jesus at this dinner party. In response to Jesus who says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” some argue that we should attend to our spiritual needs over, above, or instead of the tangible needs of the marginalized all around us.  As one scholar put it, “Just a closer walk with Thee instead of a march on Washington; thoughts and prayers as opposed to votes and legislation. Even at its best, this perspective promotes only individual acts of kindness but keeps the church out of the realm of policy making and community activism.”

It’s worth spending some time in this last week of Lent 2019 pondering these realities. Jesus didn’t mean for us to ignore the poor as some insurmountable problem out there.  Rather, Jesus commands us to help the poor because there are always poor who need help.

For one last look at the idea that we should become poor in order to join the poor, I would give you a sermon illustration from Winnie-the-Pooh. I would use Pooh stories every week if  I could.  I love those stories.  I guess because I grew up with them. But, I realize they have been overused and risk becoming trivialized and I don’t want to participate in that or to bore you with the same old images of Pooh and Piglet.

But, in reflecting on the idea that living into our suffering is our way to join the Kingdom of God, I cant’ help but think this morning about gloomy old Eeyore.  Do you remember Eeyore?  He was a sad and withdrawn donkey whose house seemed to always be falling down and he was always losing his tail.  He’s a strange character who sometimes offers some profound comment but mostly is just off being depressed or something.  Why did A. A. Milne add this funny, sad little donkey to the mix of personified stuffed animals?

Maybe it was so that Christopher Robin and his friends could rush to the rescue of their gloomy friend.  Maybe it was an example of human kindness, Christian charity or the societal necessity of keeping depressed and grieving people part of the community rather than marginalizing them.

The truth is, A. A. Milne had PTSD.  He came back from WWII shell shocked and depressed.  He lost his marriage, had great difficulty working and was left with one friend and one son who had a funny collection of stuffed animals.

I think Eeyore is autobiographical.  Eeyore was an embodiment of Milne’s post war depression.  I think that sad donkey was in there just to remind us to keep those grieving friends close to the community and care for them.  It also turns out that Eeyore is the wisest - even more wise than Owl.

But there’s another possibility.  Maybe Eeyore is the luckiest one of all.  Because he has faced great losses, least of all his house and his tail, Eeyore is the one who is most likely to be charitable, to be Christ like.

 So, my friends. As we step out on the spiritual journey of the next two weeks to finish out Lent, walk with Christ to Jerusalem, to the cross and prepare our hearts for Holy Week and Easter, I ask you to consider all your losses as gains and all your gains as stumbling blocks.

Because God does love you very much.