This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matt Benton about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (2 Kings 5.1-14, Psalm 30, Galatians 6.1-16, Luke 10.1-11, 16-20). Matt is the pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including subtitles, Andy Root, sacramental theology, unnamed characters, healing, airplane confessions, inadequate prayers, poetry and prose, American Beauty, weddings, karma, James Joyce, boasting, ordination, and leadership. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Consequence Culture
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (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.) Jesus said, “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.”
Lent is such a strange time in the life of the church.
Yes, during Advent we re-await the baby born King in Bethlehem, which is bizarre in its own right. The author of the cosmos condescends to dwell among us through the least likely of people in the least likely of places.
But Lent? During Lent we hear about sin and shame – the need to lament and repent. We sing songs about death and crucifixion, we gaze inwardly at our wanton disregard for the good, the true, and the beautiful.
But Lent, contrary to how we might convey it or even embody it, isn’t really about sin and it definitely isn’t about punishment. It is a time set a part to behold God, so that we might see ourselves and all in things in light of God’s devotion to us.
In other words, Lent is a strange time of good news because in confronting the truth we are able to do away with falsehoods and trivialities. Looking at the cross, and our complicity in it, gives us the space to admit that nothing is as it should be.
Just here in our local community we’ve seen, over the last week, an entire apartment complex being forced to vacate into a market where there are no available rentals, a student fired a gun inside a middle school bathroom, and a campsite for homeless people caught fire.
Each of these incidents, sadly, can be attributed to our own sinfulness and selfishness. When we care more about our wealth, our freedom, and our clean streets, than the wellbeing of others, we only further prove that we have behaved badly.
And it’s not even just the headlines that we can read in the paper. Lent, oddly, forces us to come to grips with the fact that even Beauty is not as it should be.
Beauty cannot save the world, at least not in the ways we want it to be saved.
Our cultural achievements, our aesthetic sophistications, our programs of spectacular morality cannot deliver us from the evil at work without or within us.
It’s notable how often the strange new world of the Bible and the tradition of the church warns us about the dangers of beauty; beauty tricks us into believing that all is well when, in fact, all is hell.
Beauty is fleeting and finite, and no matter how hard we try and how much effort we put into things, they cannot save the world.
On Tuesday there was a benefit concert that featured the music of Ed Sheehan, Camila Cabello, and other artists that raised over 21 million dollars for Ukrainian refugees. It was a two-hour live streamed collection of performances during which the myriad array of musicians pleaded for an end to the war in Ukraine waged by Russia.
21 million dollars is no small feat.
But you know what happened in Ukraine? Nothing.
The bombs kept falling. Cities continued to crumble. And families fled out of fear for their lives.
In Jesus’ prelude to his Passion, on the eve of Palm Sunday, he arrives in Bethany and goes to the home of Lazarus. Mary and Martha decide to throw a little dinner party for the Lord and while their kicking back over appetizers, Mary bends down to the floor with a pound of Chanel No.5, pours it out on Jesus feet, and then she wipes them with her hair.
Judas, of course, jumps up from his seat and puts her in her place, “Woman, what’s wrong with you? That perfume is worth $50,000, why didn’t you see it and give the proceeds to the poor?”
Jesus, ever calm, responds to his soon-to-be-betrayer, “Leave her alone. She bought it for my burial. There will always be poor people, but I won’t be here forever.”
Its Lent which means, hopefully, we’re all in a space to admit that we agree with Judas. We know we’re not supposed to identify with him, he is after all the one who gives up his Lord, but he has a point. It’s such a waste to pour out the perfume on Jesus feet when it could’ve been used to make the world a better place.
And Jesus’ words are downright offensive, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
C’mon Jesus! Don’t you know being a Christian is about transforming the world? What a waste! Think about what we could’ve done with all that cash!
It’s embarrassing to hear the Lord speak in such a way.
And perhaps embarrassing isn’t the right word. It’s threatening to hear Jesus talk in such a way. His proclamation here to Judas threatens to upend everything we think we know.
Our world is built on the assumption that whatever ails us can be fixed by us. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is good and right for us to dig deep into our wallets and purses to help those in need. We do have an obligation to love our neighbors and our enemies as ourselves. We need to believe in a better world. We need hope.
But we aren’t the hope of the world. If we were then we would not longer need newspapers to tell us what’s wrong in the world because there wouldn’t be anything wrong in the world.
Remember: some of the most horrific events in human history were done in the name of progress.
Transcendent hope, real hope for things not yet seen, can’t come from us, it has to be done to us. And that kind of hope has a name: Jesus.
The extravagant gift of the perfume poured out by Mary reveals to us that, unlike Judas, she knows that Jesus in the only hope in the world that we’ve got. She, therefore, can do something wild and reckless because she’s recognizes the wonder of the cosmos sitting at her table. She knows that true gifts, like the perfume and the incarnate One, cannot be controlled.
And, though we can’t help ourselves but agree with Judas, we also know (in some way, shape, or form) that Mary is right. We all encounter extravagant gifts that can disappear just as soon as they arrive.
A choir works for hours and hours only to stand up, sing for 4 minutes, and then it’s gone never to be heard again, at least not in that way.
A teacher does the same thing with every lesson just as a preacher does with every sermon.
Flowers are given in honor, love, memory, and respect only to die and wither shortly thereafter.
People like you and me put our money into offering plates week after week.
Even Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, only for Lazarus to die again in the future.
Well, love is a strange thing. As is hope. But without them, we are nothing.
Judas rebukes Mary for her waste because she could’ve help the poor. And yet, Judas lacks the vision to see that Mary is helping the poor. She pours out the extravagant perfume on the poorest of all: God in the flesh who condescends to dwell among us. She gives value and worth to the very people that Judas is advocating for.
But Judas has his mind stuck on earthly things – he believes that the only real and important changes can come out of his own goodness and charity.
Mary, however, has her mind on the divine, she perceives, somehow, that the One sitting at the table is the only One who can ever really make something of our nothing.
Does this mean that we are no bear responsibility for the last, least, lost, little, and dead? On the contrary, this dinner party disagreement is a profound declaration about the role of the church in the world. The world is an absolute mess and yet the church is a constant witness to the value and the worth of those the world throws away like trash.
Lazarus was dead, wrapped up in a tomb. And Jesus brings him back.
The 5,000 have nothing to show for their faithfulness except the hunger in their bellies and Jesus feeds them.
The 12 disciples abandon, deny, and betray Jesus and he still breaks bread with them and returns to them on Easter.
Wherever the world sees failure and brokenness, Jesus sees value and beauty.
And beauty is a fickle thing. It is often fleeting and wasted. And it will not save the world. But it might make the world a little more bearable.
Only the world that cannot save itself will be saved by God. And only the beauty that cannot save the world is worth saving at all.
Do you see? In God’s weird and wondrous way, Jesus himself is the nard purchased at a great price, to lavish upon the dying world. As Christ’s body in the world we are called to be symbols of broken beauty for a world that cannot and will not save itself.
We have hope because we know Jesus Christ and him crucified. Hope measures the distance between the now and the not yet. Hope is only intelligible amidst hopelessness. Were it up to us alone the world would never ever change. But it’s not up to us – Jesus is the hope of the world.
The anointing of Jesus’ feet is a reminder that, by the end of the week, those feet will be nailed to the cross. Jesus comes into a world that does not request him, nor even want him, because when push comes to shove we’d rather take matters into our own hands.
Or, put another way, when Jesus arrives with proclamations of grace and mercy and forgiveness, with announcements about a new age called the kingdom of God, we nail him to the cross.
Things are not as they should be.
No matter how hard we try there will always be more to do. But here’s the Good News: the one thing that needs to be done is already finished in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. Though we are unworthy, Christ makes us worthy. Though we have sinned, Christ offers pardon. Though we feel empty, Christ proclaims that we are enough.
We are freed from the burden of being God. We, like Mary, can do wild and reckless things because Christ is the hope of the world, not us.
There is nothing beautiful about the cross. It is a sign of torture and death. And yet, for God, it is our salvation. Beauty will not save the world, but God does. Amen.
In United Methodism pastors are subject to appointment and that means we go as the Spirit leads the church. A particular pastor can serve as short as one year in a particular place and some can serve one church for their entire vocation. The point of itinerancy is to be subject to the movement of the Spirit and to go where you can best serve the Lord.
I just finished my first full week as the pastor of Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA after serving St. John’s UMC in Staunton since 2013. Like all churches, Cokesbury is unique in a number of ways and has been around longer than I’ve been around (and will be here long after I’m gone). Below are ten things I learned from my first week in the new appointment.
- Names Are Important
Of course names are important, but they can mean a whole lot to a whole lot of people during the first week. I did my best to match names to faces as quickly as possible such that when I was serving communion for the first time I was able to call a few people by name as I handed them the body of Christ. After the first service was over, the individuals whom I had called by name all made comments about how valued they felt because I had made the effort to know them. Names are important and learning the names of the people you serve God with is the beginning to a strong ministry.
- You’re Not The Only Visitor
On Sunday morning I stood in the parking lot greeting people on their way into church and welcomed them even though I had never been there before. I made a lot of jokes about welcoming people into their own church and when a younger couple walked up I did the same thing. However, it was their very first time at Cokesbury just as much as it was my first time. It was an important lesson to learn before the service because it reminded me not to use “insider language” and therefore made it as welcoming to people as possible whether they’d been in the church every Sunday of their life or if it was their first Sunday.
- Prepare To Be Surprised
You can plan a whole worship service and line up all the hymns and the prayers and the liturgist but something will always spring out of nowhere. I hadn’t even made it to the scripture reading when a group of lay leaders brought forth a prepared liturgy to welcome me as the new pastor of the church. At the moment I was so consumed by the feeling that I needed to get everything right that I reeled when the service was taken by other people in order to ask God’s to lead me and guide me in the best ways possible for the church. I needed those words and prayers more than I can describe.
- Something Will Go Wrong
Like being surprised, it’s important to remember that something will go wrong. On my first Sunday at St. John’s I completely forgot to give the offering plates to the ushers and they just stood by the altar patiently waiting until one of the choir members waved her hands to get my attention. For my first Sunday at Cokesbury we didn’t have anyone to play music. The long time organist retired the day before I arrived and the back up players were either out of town or don’t know how to read music. So instead of singing along to an organ or a piano or a guitar we did everything acapella and (thanks be to God) we made it through the service.
- God Is In The Business Of Doing New Things
Just because the church has done something a certain way, that doesn’t mean it has to continue that way. This can be true on a number of levels from how many committees there are to what kind of songs is the church supposed to sing. For the first service at Cokesbury I tweaked the order of worship around a little bit but biggest change came during communion; instead of allowing the gathered people to tear their own piece of bread from the common loaf I offered a piece to each individual and instructed them to come forward with their hands outstretched in order to recognize the gift they were receiving. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that I felt led to change it this way but in response to the change in communion many people remarked about how holy it felt and how the experienced the Spirit’s presence in worship. God is in the business of doing new things, some big and some small but all for the glory of the kingdom.
- God Provides
After preaching nearly 250 sermons in once place I was nervous and anxious about preaching to a relatively unknown congregation. I knew what the last church needed to hear and what they were familiar with and what kind of stories would resonate in their heart of hearts. And even though I stressed about the words for the first sermon, God provided the words I needed to hear and the words Cokesbury needed to hear. The sermon came when I remembered that I am not the one called to provide for the church, only God can do that. And when I submitted to God’s will, the right sermon came forth.
- A Familiar Face Can Go A Long Way
We had already started worship when I saw one of my oldest friends walk into the back of the sanctuary with her infant daughter. She lives about 30 min away and made the drive down my first Sunday to be there in worship. I cannot convey in words how humbling it was to see her sitting in the back pew and how much it helped me to feel God’s presence in the midst of worship. A familiar face can go a really long way during the first worship service.
- Hope Does Not Disappoint
After the first service I showed up at the church every day for work this week and people from the community kept swinging by. Some wanted to ask questions, other wanted to offer advice, but all of them were filled with the hope that comes from the Lord; hope for things unseen; hope for new life and new ministries; hope for resurrection. Their hope in the Lord is infectious and I can’t wait to see what God is going to do next for Cokesbury.
- The Church Is Not A Building
One of the strongest ministries of Cokesbury is a weekly flea market that takes place in the parking lot every Saturday morning. I drove over to the church this morning to check it out for the first time and I was overwhelmed by the number of people, and by the interactions between people from the church and people from the community. In my limited ministry experience there are too many programs that feel like “us and them” whereby there is a divide between those who serve and those who are served. But this morning there was no line. Instead I saw conversations and interactions that triumphantly declared the church is not a building!
- Christ Is Alive
Christ is alive in the community of Woodbridge, VA and in the community of Cokesbury Church. Whether singing or praying, worshipping or praising, talking or eating, Christ has been fully present in the interactions I’ve had during my first week and is surely alive in this place. Thanks be to God.
One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
Of all the questions I get asked, the one I hear the most is: “What’s heaven like?” I’ll be down in the preschool when one of the children will saunter over and randomly ask the question with their eyebrows askew. Or I’ll be sitting with a grieving family planning a funeral service when a new widow will ask the question as if she’s never really thought about it before. Or I’ll be working on a sermon in a coffee shop with my bible open on the table when a stranger will walk up to ask the question out of nowhere.
“What’s heaven like?”
If Hallmark, the Lifetime channel, and uncles who tell bad jokes have anything to say about it, then heaven is a mysterious place in the clouds with fat little cherubic babies floating around playing harps, golden arches keeping certain people out, and Saint Peter sitting with a ledger.
If one of our preschool parents has something to say about it, then heaven (as she told her daughter) is a place filled to the brim with her favorite candy.
But if scripture has anything to say about it, then heaven is like a never-ending worship service. Which, to some people, sadly, sounds more like hell than heaven.
However, the bible is forever making connections between the worship of the Lord here and now, with the worship of the Lord in the New Kingdom. And not the announcements that always take to long to list at the beginning, and not the logistics of sitting down and then standing back up for hymns, but the beauty and wonder of encountering the beauty and wonder of the Lord.
The psalmist says the one thing worth seeking after is to live in the presence of the Lord each and every single day, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to wonder and inquire in the house of God. In weekly worship, when we experience God’s faithful presence through a choice phrase in a prayer, or a melodic move in a hymn, or even a powerful sermon, we are catching a glimpse of heaven on earth. For when we gather in the house of the Lord, when we are confronted with God’s majesty, what could be better?
As Christians, we do well to seek out the presence of the Lord here and now as foretaste of the kingdom of heaven. We do it on Sundays when we gather together to proclaim and respond to God’s Word. We do it when we are invited to the table for communion. We do it when we sit with a friend and earnestly pray together. We do it when we hear God speak to us in the still small voice. And when we do, we receive an answer to the question, “What’s heaven like?”
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
When I am asked to preside over a wedding, I take full advantage of the opportunity to share the beauty of God’s love. During pre-marital counseling I encourage couples to find a bible verse that relates to their relationship, we discuss what it looks like to pray for our spouse, and we use God’s love as a lens by which we view the love we have for our partner. During the actual wedding ceremony I am unashamedly open about God’s love being at the center of this relationship, and that only with God’s power can all couples live in harmony and peace with one another.
This past Saturday I stood before a gathered community outside under the hot sun for a wedding. With sweat beading on my forehead I shared reflections on the joy of marriage and how God plays an integral role in all of our relationships. I used stories from the couple’s history in order to make the homily approachable, and I even included a number of lines from famous movies because the groom is a self-avowed movie buff. (For example: “Enjoy this time because life moves pretty fast, and if you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it” –Ferries Bueller’s Day Off)
Following the ceremony I was mingling among the wedding guests when a young woman approached me and said, “I wish my pastor was like you.” Startled by the compliment, I asked her to explain and she described how her pastor “never connects the scripture with regular life” and that she leaves church feeling like she “listened to a lecture.” Our conversation continued for a few minutes, and before we went our separate ways she asked where I was a pastor and told me that she would be joining the church for worship sometime soon.
As I stood there taking in the complimentary conversation, feeling affirmed in my words, and hopeful about a new person coming to church, I was struck with the sensation that I had lost my focus. I let myself get puffed up by her kinds words and I recognized that I selfishly wanted her and her family to start attending the church I serve. I like the idea that she wanted to come to the church because of me. It only took a few words to stroke my ego to such a degree that I forgot my place in the kingdom.
So before she had a chance to walk away and disappear into the crowd I asked her to do me a favor and I said, “Before you come to St. John’s, I think you need to pray for the pastor you have. Maybe God wants you to help him grow and learn what it means to serve your church rather than leaving to just try something different.”
The psalmist calls for God to “blot out my transgressions.” In our daily prayers we thank God for our blessings, and we ask God to intervene in our lives and in the lives of others, but rarely do we pray for God to make us clean, to rid us of our selfishness and false pride. This week, let us take time to be honest about our sinfulness, pray for God to transform us, and begin taking steps into a new way of life.
What are human being that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.
I was sitting on an elevated deck looking out over the Great Smokey Mountains when I read the words: “Dominion is not the same thing as domination.” I had been placed in Bryson City, North Carolina for my first field-education placement during seminary and most of my ministry that summer took place outdoors. Whenever I met with a congregant for counseling I suggested that we take a hike around Deep Creek, we celebrated worship on Sunday mornings on the banks of the Nantahala River near the Appalachian Trail, and I was staying with a couple who lived on the ridge line of a mountain that overlooked Fontana Lake.
During the summer, many of us seminarians stayed in contact through email and phone calls as we found ourselves in remarkably different ministerial settings. My best friend, Josh Luton, had been working on a sermon about the creation from Genesis for his field-placement and asked me to read through his first draft before he proclaimed the words. Right there on my computer screen I saw the words that I will never forget: “Dominion is not the same thing as domination.”
Josh’s sermon would go on to discuss how far we have fallen from the idea that we have been called to be good stewards of God’s creation, because we feel entitled to dominate that which God has given to us. Domination would imply that we have the right to control and have influence over creation. Instead God called us to have dominion over the works of his hands, “human dominion over the earth should contribute to the preservation and benefit of God’s creation. Dominion seeks to preserve and even benefit all of creation; not just humanity.”
Up until that point of my summer I had truly taken God’s creation for granted. I was constantly surrounded by the majesty and artistry of the created world, but my vision was limited by my selfish expectations. Creation is not just for us, but it is for all things. We have been called to be responsible for the remarkable gift so that all of creation benefits from our dominion, not just ourselves.
So, in the words of Josh Luton, “Let us recognize our own place within the divinely created world and let us take on the responsibility that comes with it so that we, with our Creator, may see that it is truly good.” Take a look around at God’s creation today, be thankful, be mindful, and be responsible; dominion is not the same thing as domination.