“Who Listens to Women?” Luke 24:1-12

Who will listen to the women?

I had a recent event where I was reminded that in our enlightened age it is still the case that women’s voices are discounted and dismissed.   In this case it was amongst my own colleagues, when in a social media environment an older male cut short and dismissed a fellow colleague because she was a woman.

It catches me short when that happens.   Why does this myth of women as being lesser persist?

It catches me short in this Gospel story, as I see this story with new eyes in the light of that moment.

I am accustomed to pointing out the role of women in Jesus’ final days and in the resurrection accounts.

While the disciples flee in terror for what might happen to them, the women (by virtue of their relative anonymity and ability to be “invisible”) are able to stay at the foot of the cross and witness the crucifixion.

I mean, who pays any attention to women in the dirty business of execution?

They are also the ones who can make their way to the tomb on Easter morning primarily because, again, no one pays any attention to them.

So, they are witnesses!

But, just because you are a witness does not mean that you will be listened to, even if you see the extraordinary events.

Who will listen to the women?

We are told by Luke that to those closest to Jesus, the disciples themselves, were told this story by the women that day, but it seemed an “idle tale” to them.   And, for the first time I begin to see now what is really going on in this story.

The women see the resurrection.  They behold the stone rolled away, and they have an encounter with messengers from God dressed in white who tell them what has happened…. but you know women.  How reliable can they be, with their emotional tongue wagging and incessant gossip?

That’s what must have been going through the minds of the Disciples.   “An idle tale” is the phrase used to describe their witness to the Resurrection, and it is a demeaning phrase.  “Idle tale… gossip… hearsay…. prattle…. You know how women are..”  That is that is what is implied if not outright said.

Even Peter, when he goes to check it out what they report is only amazed that the tomb is empty.  He only sees in this event, this empty tomb, as worth noting.  There is nothing that would convince him of the resurrection.  He is simply amazed at this turn of events!   He does not then go and talk with the women further.

Peter gets no men dressed in white, no reminder of Jesus’ words.  The women do, but not Peter.   He is left to his own devices, and cares little for what the women have to say, it will take more than “idle women’s words” to convince him.

What will it take to convince him?

Well, the women know!  It will take a living encounter!

Look at their actions.  The women are terrified, “and bow their faces to the ground” Luke says, which is not a natural reaction if you’re scared.

If you’re scared, you tend to look at what you are frightened of, or you tend to look for an escape route, you don’t look down, avert your eyes, you need to see what this is all about, figure out where to run!

But the women are having an encounter with the living God, or at least God’s messengers, and because of that they are not terrified for their lives, they are instead terrified at the truth of it.

He is risen, he is not here.  “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

The women have this incredible news to share, but now discover that no one will take them seriously because those whom they try to tell about it have already made up their minds that women can’t possibly be reliable witnesses.

What will it take for the disciples to finally believe; for this story of a resurrected Lord to be more to them than just an idle tale?

It will take their own an encounter with this Risen Lord.

If you go on in Luke’s Gospel, as we will in a couple of weeks, we’ll hear the story of the two men on their way to Emmaus, and how the Risen Lord walks with them, and opens the scriptures to them, and is made known to them, revealed in the breaking of the bread.  They will have an encounter with the Risen Lord, through Scripture, through fellowship, and in the Sacrament, and when they meet him there, their hearts burn within them – and those men who are going along the way to Emmaus will be listened to!

If you go on in Luke’s Gospel as we will in a couple of weeks, you’ll hear about Jesus meeting the disciples, sharing a little fish with them.  It is an encounter with the resurrected Lord that happens, and in that encounter, he again opens the scriptures to them, and opens their minds to understanding.

That is how it is with idle tales. They are easy to dismiss in the moment, and perhaps easy to dismiss because you doubt the reliability of the witness.

I mean, really, what did you expect the Pastor to say on Easter?  That the whole thing was a conspiracy of some kind?   Of course the Pastor’s going to talk about Jesus being raised, but really, how reliable a witness is he?   You know he makes his living off this.  It’s all just a pretty story, a fantasy we wink and nod and like to believe.  Easter Bunny on the first floor between services, Jesus rising from the dead in the Sanctuary.    Idle tales abound.

But here the thing about what at first seem to be “idle tales” and unreliable witnesses.   They will hammer at you over time.

It is easy, dear friends, to dismiss the reality of a Resurrected Lord, if all you do is stick your head into the tomb once, or into the church once, but God is relentless in lifting this story up again and again.

The real power of the resurrection is not found in an empty tomb, or in the waft of lilies that assault you today.

The real power of the resurrection is to be found in the fact that Jesus can and will show up in your life anywhere!

He will show up when you least expect him.

He will show up when you need him most.

He will often appear when it is least convenient, reminding you of what it is that you should be doing in this world.

He will even show up when you can’t imagine him being interested in showing up at all.

The Resurrected Lord Jesus can find you in the midst of service, as you think you are doing good for someone else, you are suddenly aware that you are serving Jesus himself, just as he said you would.

That cup of cold water thing.

The risen Lord can find you as the scriptures are laid open and you begin study them, you read  and discover things you didn’t notice before.

The Risen Lord can find you in the opening of your minds to new possibilities, new thoughts and new understandings of how God is at work now in this culture, which may be very different from what God was doing 2000 years ago.

The Resurrected Lord will come to you in the midst of prayer.

That Risen Lord can come to you through the witness of others, and can at times even speak to others through your own words and your own actions without you even being aware of it.

The Resurrected Lord is not bound by time or space or convenience.

The Resurrected Jesus pushes boundaries, and just when you think you have him pinned down and can always recognize him, and you think you know just what Jesus would be doing…. he is likely to vanish leaving you to wonder if it was really him that you just glimpsed!

This is the amazing thing.  This part at least Peter gets right, even if he doesn’t listen to the women.

Jesus is not where you think he should be!   Which leads you to wonder; just where is he?

You begin to wonder just where Jesus may show up next.

Look for him, this week, not in the usual places, but in the everyday encounters that you have.

Look for the resurrected Lord in your workplace.

Listen intently to the words of those whom you meet, do not dismiss such testimony that they may give of their faith or experience as a mere “idle tale” and you will begin to recognize in their words the care, or the challenge of the Resurrected Lord working in this world.

This is the truth of the Resurrection.  Jesus is loose upon the earth, and no witness to his resurrection should be dismissed lightly.

He will come, you know.  And so, like Peter, prepare to be amazed and prepare to be used as a powerful witness yourself.

This is no “idle tale,” and you are indeed witnesses to it

“Dinner Party Dynamics” John 12:1-8

I find this story oddly reassuring.  Maybe it has to do with my own experiences of dinner parties and gatherings.

It seems to me that such gatherings are often places where a rather thin veneer of propriety and civility masks much deeper thoughts, convictions and motives that are at work around the table.  Every dinner party has a sub-text of what is going on that begs for some examination and interpretation.

One could, I suppose, draw some parallels between this dinner in Bethany for Jesus and a host of other dinner parties that you may have experienced.

You might make a comparison of this dinner party with any dinner given at the recently concluded “Downton Abbey” television series.   There you know Julian Fellows used the dinner table as an occasion for exploring motivations and events.

The dinner party would begin with a mixture of polite jabs at one another over this topic, or that event, and would end with the not-so-subtle look down the nose at the lives or actions of others with whom you did not agree, revealing the inner thoughts of all those assembled.

We just couldn’t wait until the Dowager Countess had her “zinger” comment about the subject at hand.

We just couldn’t wait to see who would be put in their place, and who would scandalize the gathering with a comment that was made, or a history or action revealed, or heaven forbid an improper use of a table service setting!

Or you might draw comparisons between this dinner party at Bethany for Jesus and some dinners that have taken place in your own family gatherings.

Some of these characters around the table with Jesus are, after all, quite recognizable.

You probably have the steady serving character of Martha in your own family.  She (or he, as the case may be) is the one who blends into the dinner party and is unremarkable except that none of this would be taking place if it wasn’t for their presence serving, providing, and doing all the work behind the scenes, for which she (or he) probably gets neither thanks or nor acknowledgement.  It is simply expected of them, this is what they do, how they are, we come to just expect them to come through no matter what and take them for granted until they are gone.

You probably also have the character at your table who makes everyone uncomfortable simply by his or her presence.  The “what is he/she doing here?” character, who in the case of the dinner party at Bethany would be Lazarus.

Sure, he is Mary and Martha’s brother and all, but just where do you seat someone who had previously been dead?   Who wants to sit beside him?

The solution seems to be to have him sit next to Jesus, since he’s ultimately responsible for his presence.  Let Jesus figure out what to do with him and how to treat him!

You probably have the bean counter as well, that obnoxious uncle or aunt who just can’t keep their mouth shut.

You know the type.

He (or she) is the one who has to comment on everyone and everything and who comes off as the “know-it-all.”   Here the person who fits that description is Judas, who feels compelled to comment on the cost of the perfume, and to point out what could have been alternative uses, better uses for it.

The words he speaks are shallowly received.  There are mutters under the breath all around about his comments.

This has always bothered me about John’s Gospel.

There is a vindictive element to John’s comments, a “well, you know what he’s like” sort of tone set about Judas.

We are privy to more information about Judas than we really want to know.  John gossips about his thieving activity, his callous outlook of “what’s in it for me,” his lack of concern for anyone outside of himself.

In a way we almost feel sorry for Judas.  If this is the way everyone around the table looks at him, talks about him, no wonder he feels compelled to bluster and to make pronouncements.   Nobody likes him, they just tolerate his presence because Jesus is the guest of honor and Jesus let him in.

And then we have Mary.

Poor impulsive Mary, who does this beautiful, but really uncomfortable thing.

It isn’t just the perfume you know, which is weird and extravagant enough.   Yeah, the stuff costs a year’s wages, but it’s also used for funeral purposes to anoint bodies for burial.

I wonder how the smell of that stuff must have struck Lazarus, who had been drenched in it not that long ago?  What went through his mind, through all of their minds since smell is such a powerful trigger for experience?   Jesus just can’t seem to get away from the smell of death, even at a party in his honor.

No, besides the cost of the stuff, and the smell, the really uncomfortable thing is Mary letting down her hair in public at Jesus’ feet.

This is an overtly intimate act.

Most would say this is a borderline sensual, almost sexual act, for a woman to let down her hair in the presence of a man.

Eyebrows must have gone up all around the room.

Mary is the family embarrassment. She is the impulsive family member whose heart is in the right place but whose actions are sometimes not what anyone else in the room would ever actually do!   She acts out of her passions, out of her personal devotion, out of her desires which makes the rest of the family cringe.

This is the dinner party given in Jesus honor, and the more we look at it the more it resembles the kind of gatherings that we find we are accustomed to, but with which we also don’t exactly know what to do.

It’s last Thanksgiving when the revelation was made by the pushy aunt…

It’s last Christmas when the daughter or son came out …

It’s the family reunion where the fistfight almost broke out…

It’s the gathering at the in-laws where the tears were shed, and the words were spoken that could not be retracted, where everyone nervously sat and bided their time until a graceful departure could be made.

We know this kind of party.

We’ve been here.

What I find oddly reassuring is that through it all Jesus is still the honored guest and Jesus still sits, uttering not a word except to let the people who are gathered here be who and what they will be in his midst.

Judas is who he is, and Jesus accepts him for it, even knowing betrayal is coming.

Mary is doing what she does because of who she is, and Jesus simply lets her do what she finds meaningful in the moment, unashamed of her passion and love.

Martha, the same, and Lazarus as well.

The only chiding from Jesus is the one given to Judas who does not want to let Mary be Mary, and then it’s not so much a scolding as it is an urging to let her alone, what she is doing is just fine, as scandalous as it may seem.

It’s a picture of Jesus comfortable where we are not, and allowing us to simply be in his presence

Which is, of course, what makes that final sentence all the more ominous.   Not so much the part about the poor, we get that. No, what nags at us is the part where he says we won’t always have him.

That is the frightening part of the passage.

We know it refers to what is about to happen to him in Jerusalem.   We know what Jesus is talking about is how he will make his way to Jerusalem and be taken from them in the swirl of events that surround the trial, crucifixion, and death.

We know that what Jesus is talking about here is his absence just for a time.

We stand on this side of the Resurrection, and so we believe in his return to the upper room, in the sending of the Spirit, in the promise that he will be with us always to the close of the age.

But still, it makes us pause to think.

How would we get along without him?

How would our gatherings be different if instead of sensing his presence in the midst of them, we had only the empty place at the table?

How would we treat each other if we did not sense Jesus acceptance of us, or follow his example of letting us be who we are in his midst?

What would our gatherings be like without Jesus to somehow bind us with cords of love, acceptance, and grace?  Without his presence to remind us that he was comfortable with us?

It’s worth thinking about, if for no other reason than from time to time we do indeed act as if Jesus is not there, catch ourselves acting like Jesus is not around.

This is what I find strangely reassuring in this story.

Jesus’ words, “you do not always have me” are a reminder that from time to time we will indeed act as if he is not there.

We will be selfish.

We will be self-centered, mean, and outright obnoxious.

That’s what happens at the table, our tables, our gatherings and parties and parking lots.

Which I suppose is why Jesus continues to gather us at his table.

This is why he breaks bread and blesses wine and invites us to join him again, so that he can accept us as we are, willing to put up with all of our craziness.

“You do not always have me.”  Jesus says, but that does not mean by any means that Jesus will not always have us!

He is the guest in every gathering.

He is the presence, whether acknowledged or not, that somehow binds us together and makes us in turn pay more attention to one another.

He is the one who strips back the veneer of our false proprieties and the masks we try to hide behind.   He is the one who with his presence now reveals our deeper thoughts, convictions and motives that are always at work around the table.

This is what Jesus does for us, and what I find reassuring in this story.

There is no gathering, no matter how crazy, bizarre, inappropriate or ordinary that Jesus will not join us at gladly and as the honored guest.

“Context” Luke 15:1-3 (and the Prodigal Parable)

There has been an awful lot of ink spilled over this parable, which is really quite remarkable if you think about it.

You can find whole dissertations about the meaning behind this one.   Reams and reams of paper about the older brother, and the situation of the younger brother, and what inheritance laws were like in Palestine in Jesus’ day.

You can find whole sections of libraries devoted to discussing the parables of Jesus in general, what they were meant to do, what they must have “felt like” when they were first told, what influenced them and what kind of influence they had on Judaism, Christianity, and western culture in the centuries that followed.

All this writing done on a memorable little teaching device that was just told as a comment on something very simple.  An observation really which turned out to be troubling.   The parable is a comment upon who gets to hang out with Jesus, and who gets upset about it.

So I’ve decided to just skip the parable today.

Heck, you can speculate on that and find all kinds of stuff on the parable if that’s where you want to go, but today I’m finding Jesus’ comment through the parable more distracting than helpful on looking at the central questions that lead up to it… which really haven’t changed in 2000 years.

 “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  So he (Jesus) told them this parable: 

That’s what I want to focus on today, not the parable itself, but on the context into which it is uttered.

Why is there this question about where and with whom Jesus is spending his time, and why are the Pharisees so upset about it?

The nub of the issue seems to be about where Jesus is choosing to spend his time, and it’s not with us.  That is the context that prompts the comment, and once you put it like that then the situation screams across the centuries.

What is wrong with you Jesus?

We Lutherans, we have the best theology.  We’ve spent a lot of time and thought and money on building our institutions.   We have the largest social services network in the entire United States! (Did you know that?)

Our work with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services is unparalled, a model for others to resettlement in the U.S!   It has been since WWII.

We kicked off the Protestant Reformation for crying out loud that is now bearing fruit in in that the Roman Catholic Church coming around to acknowledge that we were right about a bunch of things, not least of which being the interpretation of scripture and on Justification by Grace through Faith. – our central tenant!

Just when we’ve got all this going for us, … now you’re not around Jesus?

The same critique seems to be on the minds of all the mainline denominations as we all experience the decline of trust in institutions, and in our minds Jesus ought to be a bit more helpful than he’s been of late.

You’re talking with other non-denominational groups, Jesus.   I see them growing or being able to adapt to the changing landscape with your help.  Why are you spending your time there?

Or I see you showing up in house churches and generally sneaking around in the gutters and at the fringe?  That’s fine but they are never going to have the capacity for response that we have, so why spend your time there?

Or, worse yet, we suspect that Jesus may be showing up with the likes of the Megachurches —  is Jesus enamored now with numbers and they very Theology of Glory that we rejected centuries ago!

What is the deal Jesus?

You hang out with the very people we find abhorrent!  Those who are contrary to everything we stand for, and you seem to dismiss everything we have accomplished in your name, as your people, faithful through the ages.

Look at what we’ve built for you!   Why aren’t you blessing it?

You let beautiful churches rot and crumble to dust for lack of participation and adherents, while you seem to go slinking off with every Tom, Dick and Harry shiny new movement that comes along and wants to claim you as their own.

Isn’t this what is creeping around our thoughts?

I know it creeps into mine.

It creeps in enough that I’m sometimes even willing to entertain threats.

“Listen here, Jesus, I didn’t go to Seminary and spend 30 years of my life following you to be a part of something that is circling the drain!”

I hear it creeping in to the comments of people.

“If we don’t start getting people through the door to help pay the bills we’re going to have to do something drastic!   We’ll cut have to cut budget!   We’ll have withhold our benevolence.  We’ll have to complain to the Bishop!   We’ll have to find a Pastor who knows how to grow church.”

I hear it creeping into my thoughts about what I’d like God to do for us.    I’m not really asking for much.   We’ve done all this work to lay the groundwork, you’d think God could help out a little by sending some new members, or maybe a well-timed unto-fore unknown estate gift, or a lead on a grant or two so that we could fix the pilasters, address the pink wall, put in a Pantry door, get a new sign out front.  Is that really asking so much for all we’ve done for this community?

This is how it is, how it has always been, with Jesus you see.

He stubbornly refuses to meet our timelines, step in where we have scheduled his necessary presence.

If he’d paid more attention to the Pharisees and Sadducees he probably could have even avoiding that whole messy showdown in Jerusalem… the trial, crucifixion, and cross.   We could have worked out some agreeable arrangement where a portion of his time was spent with the lost and the larger portion kept maintaining the institutions of the day.

If only Jesus hadn’t been dilly-dallying with the sinners and tax-collectors of his day, he could have spent more time with the Pharisees, with the heroes of the church… with the truly faithful.

Well, truth be told however, if Jesus hadn’t been spending so much time with tax collectors and sinners, we wouldn’t have been the recipients of an awful lot of his teachings or his parables, as he desperately tried to help us see the God often hidden from our eyes.

And we wouldn’t have gotten this moment now to recognize how much of the older brother hangs out in us.

He hangs out in our demands, in our expectations, in our thoughts about what God should and should not be doing because after all, we’ve been good all along.

No, I’m not going to talk about the parable today.

I think you can see for yourself why it is told, and why we have to hear it.

It is our lot in life that (like the Pharisees before us) we will get so wrapped up in the policies, the procedures, the protecting of the institutions, the putting out of the fires, and the generally trying to be the “good older brother” that we will forget that the Father loves with an everlasting love.

It is an irrational, everlasting love that comes from a broken-heart parent that can’t say “no” to any of God’s children.

We forget that running the farm — running the church—is not the most important thing.

What is most important in life, and in the Kingdom of God, is attending to relationships.

It doesn’t matter in the end you see, if the farm is running better without the younger brother around.

What matters to the God who is Father is reconciling and joining in the celebration, welcoming the lost home.

This is what it is like for the God who chooses to spend time not where we expect God to spend God’s time, but rather where God needs to be to heal and to restore those for whom no one else will have regard or hang out. That is always going to be unsettling is for those who have devoted their lives to trying to be good.

Good models.

Good servants.

Good followers.

Jesus tells parables to remind us that God’s economy and our economy are almost always at odds, because God in the end does not give a fig for protocol, procedure, process, or productivity.

God is all about the relationship, and restoring it when it is broken.

It doesn’t matter in the end, you see, that the Pharisees of Jesus day had been the model of how to keep the law in uncertain times.  If they did not have love, if their quest for keeping God’s command excluded the very ones God wanted to love, it was all for not.

That is the take away for us, as hard as that is to hear.

It doesn’t matter in the end if we are a model of efficiency as a church, locally, regionally or nationally.   It doesn’t matter if we feed thousands, resettle tens of thousands into new homes, and get aid to hundreds of thousands.

If we’re willing to do that out of a sense of what is expedient, if we do it at the expense of not forgiving or loving or welcoming the one stranger or the one who is different from us… it’s all for not.

It doesn’t matter if our worship is soaring with pipes and brass or rockin’ and jammin’ with guitars and drums.   If we’re not attending to the relationships we’ve been blessed with, strange as they may be, and have not love and patience with one another in the midst of it all—then it’s all just a clanging gong, and a noisy cymbal to God.  Jesus will go hang out with those who need to be healed, and leave us to play our own tunes.

It doesn’t matter if your building is a glistening Crystal Cathedral or walled City in Rome, if it all becomes about how things run and how things look and not about the relationships you share in that place and the world surrounding it, then it’s all as good as dust and rot already.

This is hard thing for us to hear.

We have built so much, done so much, all with the best of intentions and noblest of ideals.

We really want God to have the same attitude that we have about it all.

But thanks be to God, our God has the attitude of a broken hearted parent, who simply will not let those on the edges remain there.

Not even us, ….when our good, well ordered life falls down around us, for it will.