Wednesday, March 16, 2016

In a Stew

Sermon preached on March 13, 2016

Texts: John 12:1-8

            Dear Abby: Ten years ago, when I lived in California, I dated the love of my life, “Tammy.”  We were perfect together, and I was often amazed by how much I loved her, which was palpable.  After about two years we broke up, and I moved 3,000 miles away.  My rebound relationship lasted a decade and produced a beautiful baby boy.  After it recently ended, I reached out to Tammy.  We hadn’t communicated in 10 years, and I learned that she is married with three kids and she’s miserable.  She said she misses me and has never stopped loving me.  We talk on the phone often, and she says she wants to see me.  I have no idea where this is going, but I’d love to see her.  We have decided that we will abide by your advice.  What should I do?  Nostalgic in New York
            What a lot of feelings – nostalgia, longing, unhappiness, concern, sadness, angst, maybe love.  Emotional life is turbulent, writes psychoanalytic psychologist Michael Eigen (Coming Throught the Whirlwind, 178).  Another psychologist, Charles Spezzano, writes: The meaning of life lies precisely in the apparently insane mix of emotions such as love, loneliness, and rejection that characterize all relationships (What To Do Between Birth and Death, 49)
            The letter to Dear Abby, which appeared in Friday’s newspaper is filled with a mixed-up confusion of emotion.  I had considered calling this sermon, “Mixed-up Confusion” after a really early Bob Dylan song.  I was worried, though, that you might take mixed-up confusion and expect a sermon on our contemporary presidential politics.
            Mixed-up confusion, an emotional stew.  Such things can be found not simply in the “Dear Abby” column in the newspaper, but also in our Scriptures, like this morning’s Scripture reading.
            Look at all that is going on here.  Jesus comes to Bethany, the home of  Lazarus, the man who Jesus raised from the dead.  They gave a dinner for him. Martha served.  Now isn’t that just like Martha, except the story of her serving is not found in John, but only in Luke (10).  Anyway, Martha serves, Lazarus is at the table, and his other sister, Mary takes a pound of costly perfume, made of pure nard, and anoints Jesus feet, wiping them with her hair.  The fragrance radiated through the entire house.  Here we have joy, and welcoming, and deep love.  There is an objection, though.  Judas Iscariot, the keeper of the common purse thinks this extravagant and a waste.  “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?”  We get a side authorial note.  Judas does not really care about the poor.  He is skimming money from the common treasury, and is angry that an opportunity for more money is being missed.  We have feelings of anger and deceit, and perhaps a modicum of guilt coming out sideways.  Jesus stands up for Mary, grateful for her kindness in the face of his impending death.  There will be other opportunities to help the poor.
            This is quite an emotional stew, isn’t it?   There is an awful lot stirring around here.  Our own lives might often be found in an emotional stew.  Emotional life is turbulent in many ways.  Our emotions don’t simply arrive one at a time, clearly and distinctly.  Emotions can come at us wave upon wave, simultaneously pulling us in one direction and another.  What do we do when we are in an emotional stew?
            Additionally, matters become more complex when we also come together in groups.  The emotional stew described in John 12 is a group stew.  To be sure, Judas has multiple emotions going on inside him – his feelings of disappointment at not being able to get his hands on more money, the guilt feelings knowing he was being deceitful, and perhaps some genuine feelings of concern for the poor.  We wonder if anyone else at the table thought Mary’s actions too extravagant, if not financially, perhaps emotionally.  There may have been annoyance.  How could you possibly smell good food amid all that perfume?
            That we feel is a good thing.  Our emotions are an important part of who we are, and a vital part of God’s good creation.  Yet our emotions can be challenging, especially when they come at us in waves.  Our emotions can be challenging, and sometimes we need to not only feel and acknowledge them but also challenge them.  So what do we do when in our lives feelings come wave upon wave and we find ourselves in an emotional stew?  What do we do when we are in a group that is in a stew, or potentially so?
            One lesson from the gospel reading for today is that we concentrate on what is central, focus on what is most important.  The reading begins, “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany.”  He had been traveling about, apparently.  We don’t know just where he came from, but shortly after the story ends, we know where he is going – Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is where Jesus will meet his end, death by crucifixion.  He seems very aware of the dangers.  John 12:27: Now my soul is troubled.  And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.
            The situation around Jesus is an emotional stew, but he is able to work with this because he remains committed to his mission, focuses on what’s most important, stays centered in what is central.
            When we are in an emotional stew, it is helpful to find just a bit of breathing space and remind ourselves of what is most important, of what matters most, and of what God might be calling us to.  God has a call for each of our lives.  I don’t think it is terribly helpful to think of that narrowly. God’s call can have a breadth to it.  God’s call is more a direction than a set of specifications.  God’s call in our lives may not be a specific vocation, or living in a specific place, or having a specific relationship.  God’s call is about each of us using our gifts, our skills, our experiences and growing, and helping the world be better – more just, more peaceful, kinder, gentler.  When emotions threaten to overwhelm, keep moving in the direction of God’s call.
            That is just as true for churches as for individuals.  Church consultants will often tell you that churches tend to risk more conflict when the lose focus on their mission, their purpose, on moving in the direction of God’s call.  Little things matter, but sometimes little things should matter a little.  They get out of hand, the emotional stew comes to a boil, more often when we forget what the big things are.  The big things for the church are helping people come to know God in Jesus Christ in ways that heal and free.  It is being the kind of community that helps love people into life.  It is being a place committed to helping people know God’s love and show God’s love.
            The other potential emotional stew that can come to a boil is the potential conflict between good things.  As a church, we want to do good in the name of Jesus Christ.  But we need to remember that there is more good that could be done than what we can do.  I have to say “no” to people who come to my office looking for money.  The need may be real, and my mixed-up confusion feelings in saying “no” are real.  But we do not have the capacity to manage distributing funds directly to people, so we give money to the Gabriel Project at CHUM.  We cannot do all the good that needs doing.  Yet, we try to do the good that we can, and do the good that we are good at.  A couple of weeks ago, someone called looking for help – for food.  We have some Ruby’s Pantry food still around, so I delivered a bag of groceries.  We keep moving in the direction of God’s call, of doing the good we can do.
            The other way to work with emotional turmoil, with being in an emotional stew, is to remember that love is always at the heart of God’s purpose.  Mary’s act was an act of deep love which Jesus received graciously.  Love given generously, and received graciously always seems to be part of God’s purpose in the world.  Jesus was not going to get caught up in an abstract debate at that moment about the poor.  It is clear from the Gospels that Jesus cared deeply about the poor.  It is a care grounded in love, and love, whenever it is generously offered and graciously received enlarges the heart, and the poor, and all who are down and out, will benefit.
            I have read the Bible through a number of times, and have read many parts of the Bible countless times.  It seems there is always something new to discover.  I will never forget the feeling, though I cannot remember the exact time frame, but the feeling I got when I encountered what has become one of my favorite verses of Scripture.  It was certainly not the first time I had read it, but this time is found a deep place inside.  It is about love and it is from I Corinthians, but it is not in chapter 13.  Rather it is this simple verse, I Corinthians 16:14: Let all that you do be done in love.  In the midst of any emotional stew, remember that.
            Dear Nostalgic: I’m glad you asked, although I doubt you will heed my advice.  Here it is: You and Tammy should postpone any reunions until she has resolved her marital situation because there are more people involved now than just the two of you.  Whether she remains unhappy in her marriage is anyone’s guess, but if you step in now, it will only add to her troubles.
            Dear Abby is telling Nostalgic in New York to focus on what’s most important and that is that it is no longer just about he and Tammy – the love of his life who he somehow dropped ten years ago.  If he really loves Tammy, he needs to let her deal with her current marriage.  I don’t doubt that Nostalgic cares for Tammy, even loves her, but his own emotional stew needs some work as well.

            Let all that you do, be done in love – love generously offered and graciously received.  Amen.

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