Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Tale of Two Women (Mark 12:41-44 & 14:1-10)

Here's the manuscript from my sermon this past Sunday. It's not the best thing to have been put together, but I figure it's important to lay it out there anyway, flawed as it is. I guess it's a life style choice, ever thought of trying it?

I’ve been reading a book this past week, call A Resilient Life, by a man named Gordon MacDonald. He has an interesting story of his own, but there was something that struck me as I was thinking about Lent, about Jesus’ sacrifice, about our response and what kind of life I want to live as a result. Here’s an excerpt from this book, he’s recalling when he was in a private boy’s school as a teenager and seeking to be on the track team:
As best as I can recall his words after all these years, he said, “Gordie, I’ve been watching you carefully. I think you have the potential to be an excellent runner. You have a runner’s body and a natural stride. And you are fast. But you have much to learn. If you are to compete for Stony Brook, you’re going to have to work hard. You’ll have to learn to discipline yourself, and it will mean that you have to trust me and follow my instructions. Every day you will have to come to this track and complete the workouts that will be listed on this board. Now, Gordie…don’t commit to this if you are not willing to give it everything you have.” And then he posed the question, “Gordie, are you willing to pay the price it takes to become a Stony Brook trackman?”
…That infamous day, the coach was not asking for an immediate answer. Instead he said, “I want you to leave the track and think about what I’ve said. And when you decide what you want to do, come back and let me know.”
Last week Cam examined Jesus entry into Jerusalem, as King. These are moments that are rich in historical significance in the gospels, and just like lent, this is a time that can be pivotal in how our hearts and minds are shaped in discovering Christ. I find it interesting the specific parables and stories that remain from the time of Jesus’ entering Jerusalem and his death and resurrection. This is not a significant period of time chronologically, but if you consider that it’s really only a few days between his entrance into Jerusalem and his death on the cross, there’s a lot that takes place and significantly a lot that Jesus makes sure to point out and use as teachable moments for his disciples.
There are two short stories of women (somewhat in honor of International Women’s Day) that grab me as I read these final chapters of Mark. What is it that Jesus sees as teachable moments for his disciples? Why does it happen now? What can we learn from these encounters? Hopefully as we look at these women in light of lent and the season of remembering Jesus coming sacrifice not only will the actions of these women and Jesus’ words regarding them, but also Gordon MacDonald’s story of considering joining the track team will begin to paint a clearer picture.
Let’s look at the two women in Mark, the first one in 12:41-44:
 41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
 43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

Okay, nothing surprising there. Jesus notices the poor widow giving and points out her sacrifice to the disciples. Now let’s look at another short little story of a woman and Jesus’ words regarding it:

 1 Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. 2 “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”
 3 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
 4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? 5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages[
a] and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.
   6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.7 The poor you will always have with you,[b] and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
 10 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. 11 They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

Notice any similarities in the women of these stories? Notice any similarities in Jesus’ response to his disciples?
Make no mistake, these are definitely separate stories. They are not related aside from some of the same characters and each holds its own significance in Jewish culture and in the historicity of events. However, there are some curious similarities that I don’t think we can ignore as they not only set an example for us but also provide a foreshadowing of what is to come.
There are three observations from these two events that can be paralleled for us in reflection during this time of Lent.
1)      These women are unassuming.
In each of the accounts, while different, the women are painted as unassuming. They are not of high stature and they do not have any expectations, they simply do what they see as necessary and Jesus praises their efforts.
The poor widow is juxtaposed to a bunch of loud and self-righteous rich people, who do things to gain attention, seek the approval of those around them, and welcome the perks of being public religious figures and rich people that draw praise from the people. These people give large amounts and make it known while the poor woman is also seemingly aware of her status and her ability to give and does so without really drawing attention. After all, she is only giving a few cents, right?
The second woman (known as Mary from similar accounts in Matthew and John), also unassuming just goes ahead and does what she sees as best in the situation. She grabs the most expensive gift that she can find and heads straight to Jesus, not considering or perhaps just not caring what kind of response she may receive. Her only intention is to serve Jesus by anointing him with this expensive perfume, she sees the value in doing so and does it. Not unlike the poor widow seeing the value in her gift and does so.
Jesus’ response regarding both of these women is that she has done all she can.  That’s what I want his response to be to me, “he’s done all he can”, given everything I have to give. This isn’t to live life exhausted, it’s a life that is unassuming, not seeking gain but living generously for the sake of the Kingdom of God, not unlike the two women we see in this stories.
2)      These women are self-denying.
In each instance Jesus points out the value of the woman’s actions. The poor widow is surrounded by those who are able to give immensely more than she could ever dream, but as Jesus makes sure to show the disciples, she has given absolutely everything she has that day. The Temple treasury was the place where a number of different baskets were placed for people to give their non-animal sacrifices for a variety of purposes. This was an act of complete self-denial on the part of the woman, again juxtaposed to the self-gratifying acts of the rich who were giving large amounts of money with little value to them. In contrast the woman has given everything. She is in a sense pouring herself out, disregarding her needs in service through giving money.
The second woman, we can see a more literal act of pouring out, though it does hold some similar symbolism. She literally pours the expensive perfume over Jesus, normally reserved for a burial ritual after a person has died. In this moment she is literally pouring out her love for Jesus and he recognizes this. When she is accosted by the other people there Jesus defends her actions, she has done everything she could. In a sense she has given more than the others, who while their desire to help the poor is noble, it was clearly not what the best use of the perfume at that moment.
This second story has a number of very rich things to draw from it (and perhaps some slightly controversial), but the point for today is that she had given the best of what she had to honor Christ, she is in a sense pouring herself out for Christ. The author also tells the story of Judas doing the precise opposite act here in pure selfishness, selling out Jesus for a pocket full of coin. So here I ask myself, which would I rather be like?
3)      These events are a foreshadowing and an example.
Finally, these two events serve as a foreshadowing of things to come. The second story from Mark 14 is much more clearly portrayed as such with imagery like the pouring out of the perfume, a burial ritual, Jesus’ acknowledgement of his coming betrayal and death. However, the poor widow of Mark 12 does hold similar significance of giving up everything for the sake of something greater, a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice to come.
I’m quite confident that there was no mistake in the placement of these stories in Mark. Jesus has come into Jerusalem as a King, he has been recognized by the masses as the Messiah and we are now seeing the contrasting picture of what it means to be a “suffering servant” on our level. Jesus has his own level of suffering to come, these two women have given just a small glimpse of what is coming in pouring out of themselves just like Jesus will be poured out as the true suffering servant who will take on the sins of the world in such an unassuming manner, denying himself to be the sin offering.
So of course what does this mean for us? What these two woman have portrayed can fit into our world today as examples of ways that we can pour ourselves out, but perhaps there are other ways. Paul says it well in Philippians 2:3-18:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
 6 Who, being in very nature[
a] God,
   did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
   by taking the very nature[
b] of a servant,
   being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
   he humbled himself
   by becoming obedient to death—
      even death on a cross!
 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
   and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.
 12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
 14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.”[c] Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain. 17 But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.
What does it look like for you to pour yourself out? For the widow it was giving all the money she had. For the woman in Mark 14 it was offering herself as a servant to anoint Jesus. For Jesus it was a story of betrayal and horrific death. For Paul, being poured out like a drink offering. The women we’ve taken a look at today were indeed small glimpses of what Jesus would be doing on a much larger scale in only a few days. Jesus then lived out his sacrifice, a suffering servant for the sake of the world. Paul’s life was an example as he followed Christ’s example. We have pictures of what it might mean for us to truly serve Christ by serving others, selflessly handing ourselves over in ways that will mean sacrifice, but will work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
All of this shows that we, as those who are looking to follow Christ in everything we do, will continually pour ourselves out, looking to the interest of others, giving up of ourselves for a greater purpose. These women were blessed by Jesus in what they did, he took notice of them and declared what they did as good. This is not a magic formula to get good things, it’s not a way to try and gain salvation/accolade/wealth through selfless action, it is as Paul put it, identifying with Christ.
Gordon MacDonald writes these words after his recounting that story I read before:
A day later I told Marvin Goldberg that I would trust him and that I would be willing to pay the price. The day after that, my name appeared for the first time on…the white bulletin board. Eight months later, I wore my first white cardigan sweater with a large S.
Gordon’s coach wanted him to consider the weight of what was being asked of him. It wasn’t simply a small price that would be paid, not just a little would be required, he was requiring every ounce of energy and time in preparation for competition. This is the same kind of pouring out that the women experienced in the presence of Jesus, giving everything they had. For one it was a couple coins, for another it was her undivided attention and some expensive perfume, for Gordon on the track team it was countless hours spent on the track in training. For you it will likely be different, at different times. Jesus poured himself out completely, to the point of death, but even before that his life reflected (one could argue the same of the women in these stories) sacrifice, commitment, dedication, discipline. Giving whatever you have, not money necessarily, it could be something like time or perhaps a gift.
Dedication, hard work, emptying of self to serve those around you. The day will come when this life is finished for you, what kind of life will you have to look back on. Will we have shined like stars amongst a warped generation through selfless living and sacrificial giving? Or will we have a “pocket full of change” at the cost of truly identifying with Christ?
Paul’s coined a phrase in recent weeks, “all life altering love requires substitutionary sacrifice”. Christ’s sacrifice is just that, how will it reflect in your life?

Friday, March 09, 2012

A Resilient Life

I started reading a book the other day, interestingly enough (to me at least) I've been far more productive this week by taking time to read something refreshing aside from and along with Scripture than I had been in the weeks previous without doing so. The book is called A Resilient Life by a man named Gordon MacDonald about practices and concepts that are helpful towards resiliency in life, especially a Christian walk.
I had not previously heard of MacDonald, though strangely enough I've had this book on my book shelf for a few years now and have never picked it up aside from purchasing it some time ago. I am not exactly sure when it may have been though my best guess would place it at a Christian book store in Red Deer, Alberta roughly 3 and a half years ago while in the midst of a life transition I thought it could be here I am some years later taking a look through it and discovering some interesting things both about the topic and the author himself.
MacDonald is a few generations ahead of me, actually probably about a generation before that of my father's so he just escapes the "baby boom" generation (that's a topic for another time). This isn't a book review or anything, I just find some of what I've been reading interesting in light of MacDonald's own life journey and some of his perspectives. I remember reading Wild at Heart a few years back when it was the talk of the evangelical Christian world of men. I was finishing up some (albeit not so good) work at a church after my final year of Bible college before moving on to a new adventure of pastoral leadership in a small Saskatchewan town. Life was in turmoil to a degree and I found comforting and challenging words from John Eldredge, but similarly I sat in discomfort as well as I read. I find this to be a recurrence this week with MacDonald's musings. He's of a very different generation than I and there are ideals he describes which I am not extremely comfortable with agreeing to. Mainly some of what is portrayed as a "rest is for wimps" kind of mentality that you may find prominent of some Christian circles past. I do recognize that he is not expressly saying this as truth, but there are certainly undertones of a grievance of lost work ethic in younger generations. Again, not a book review, just expression of thoughts as I've been reading.
MacDonald certainly has a lifetime of insight to offer on such a topic of resilience and has had the misfortune of a public moral failure to add to it. Some may (and have, judging by some reviews read online) write off a person like MacDonald whose high profile ministry career had been torn apart by his adultery. This really is a story of resilience, however, because he has been in essence "nursed back to health" by a group of committed people who exercised the love of Christ and effectively helped to restore this man from his brokenness and walked with him and his family through the turmoil of it all.
I don't know much about the situation just described but I do know that this is a reality in life. Hopefully it's not something that is praised by any means, but to face such horrific disaster in one's own it and walk head on into the fire storm for the sake of renewal is commendable to me. It also allows me to learn some wisdom from a man who's "been to hell and back" so to speak. He'd gone so far down the path of least resistance that he could no longer see straight and has had to claw his way back and by the grace of God has found just that...grace. Not that this is my experience per se, but such an extreme example gives me hope.
Resilience, to bounce back in a way. To fall, fail, drop, collapse under the pressure of life, be destroyed by circumstance either chosen or imposed and to chose to stand up and keep walking through it. To face adversity with determination, to be pressed but not crushed, persecuted not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed. I think this is what a life of faith looks like. Unfortunately sometimes a lack of faith can be the cause of the collapse under pressure, but restored faith and the practice of spiritual discipline can be what begins to bring one back.
I wonder how many know what forgiveness feels like. To be in a position where someone has every right to despise or reject them but to be looked in the eye and hear the words "you are forgiven". How many Christians really know the weight of this concept? It is, after all, the crux on which many of us base our beliefs that Jesus died for this very purpose (simply put) and rose from the dead for life. All that to say, if one really experiences forgiveness, sees the core of that mean then we can all become agents for a resilient life. Once you've known forgiveness, release of a debt you owe, you can really only then become an encourager of resilience for others. Just what MacDonald has become.
It's interesting that I picked this book up this week as I'm preaching this Sunday and had been considering two women in Mark, a poor widow who gives all her money and a woman who pours out expensive perfume on Jesus' head. These two women pour themselves out for the sake of others in their individual circumstance, just like Jesus was about to do (both of these events occurred in the days previous to his crucifixion). Resilience requires emptying oneself for the sake of others. This isn't just confession to be absolved of sin and it's not just the matter of bouncing back, it is these things but more than that. One can be resilient without having sinned, of course, something may be inflicted or circumstance may call for one to climb back after a hard hit. One can be resilient by taking responsibility for malicious actions and facing the onslaught of marauders who want nothing more than what they feel is "JUSTICE" though their picture of justice is rather skewed.
More than any of this I think that a resilient nature requires one to be an encourager of resilience in others, a facilitator of it one might say. When you take on the task of walking with someone who needs to "bounce back" and perhaps is trying to but is not given a chance by others, you are in fact personifying resiliency, you are personifying Christ the ultimate example of it.
A thought struck me yesterday, however minute it may seem for some it was a remarkable moment for me: I can treat this time as sabbatical. I am unemployed, in a new place, seemingly desperate to work and unable to do so because of the market or what have you, but I am afforded the opportunity to study in these days. Why it hadn't struck me sooner is a mystery, perhaps because I have been absorbed by the situation and not able to gain much perspective beyond my "closet", is beyond me. But it has struck me nonetheless, I am taking some classes and I have time to learn in between looking for work and writing sermons and volunteering elsewhere. Why not dive into Scripture? Why not dig up some old treasures of books long gone dusty? Why not look for ways to grow and to nourish and to discover the call of God on my life (once again)? Why not take advantage of a hopefully relatively brief moment in time where I am afforded the opportunity to bask in the presence of the Almighty God to glean from him what I can in preparation for what is coming...developing resilience for the future and learning lessons for today.
I may not always sit comfortably as I read this book (just like Wild at Heart) but that's a good thing, it keeps me sharp and makes me aware of those things in me that need a little smoothing out.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Days Go By

Time flies when you're doing nothing.That's how it feels sometimes, though it may not be the reality of the situation. I am by no means overrun with things to do, but I am similarly not completely static.

What's your experience/perception of unemployment?

I have to be honest, I've had some relatively narrow opinions of those who aren't working. Perhaps that's even part of the battle right now as I sit in this space of not being able to secure a regular position. It's a bit of a frustrating space, it seems that the kinds of jobs I could get are literally not worth my time right now simply because employment insurance pays more than they would, for now. I could look at the situation and say "it's ok because I'm a student" *part time* or "it's a tough market" *so what?* or something else but the truth of the matter is that I need to recognize that it's simply beyond my control.

I don't like not having control and I'm sure you can understand the feeling. In light of recent events I've been discovering that the idea of "control" is really just an illusion that we all like to hold onto. How much can you really control in your life? Think about it...really how much? I know this isn't a new thought, but it's particularly relevant to me right now. What is your life? It is a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes (James 4:14). Or to quote a cult classic, "all we are is dust in the wind dude...dust...wind...dude." We think we have everything under control, but we really just think it, it's not actually what is happening. I don't think this is a bad thing at all though, and any number sermons that you could google would point out that it's Biblically accurate, relinquishing our illusion of control to God is what is best cause he knows best.

That's not the only reason I don't think it's a bad thing. I think me/us not being in control of everything is a good way to keep us grounded, keep us sane, tied to the nature of Christ in us. There are little hints here and there in life to bring us back, to break the illusion that we have it all in our grasp. Sometimes the "little" hints don't seem so "little" but let's be honest, if I'm still waking up in the morning it can't be as horrible as I might think. Some things really are devastating, but there is still life to live beyond those circumstances. Some things only seem devastating, but bubbling beneath the surface is a tremendous new experience or opportunity that is just waiting for the right time to appear, almost like God had something in mind the whole time. I want to believe that, so I need to choose to.

I sat down yesterday in a counselling office, it's been a few years since doing something like that. If you ever need a reality check, it's a good thing to do sometimes. There have been a number of reality checks for me this week, I can be a scary beast when I isolate and I have a tendency to do so in a new place. This is a new experience for me, however, because it is not just me now and how I am directly affects the one I care about most. Reality Check: no man is an island and I am no exception. Reality Check: I am not a victim of circumstance but I do not have control over much of what happens in life, I can control myself and that's where I need to focus. Reality Check: Running to God is much better than running from him, when you know you're built for something you should accept that and lean into it. I'm still learning how.

There's some jumbled thoughts from a tired mind.