Paul's Episcopal Church
Sermon - March 17, 2013
"Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses of the Negev. Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy."
Right now I'm on my spring break. Last week I took advantage of some of my vacation time to fly to California--my home state--to visit family. Any time I take a break from my routine, and especially when I travel, I tend to look at things a little differently. This is especially true while I am actually en route, when I am on the airplane or in the car. During these times, I'm in an "in-between" place, neither home nor yet at my destination. And in this "in-between" place and time, I often find myself looking both backward at how things have been going and forward to hopes and plans not only for my trip, but also for my life when I return home. I find I often have a lot of thoughts running through my mind, but I have the time to let them swirl around and then settle in new ways. I allow myself the luxury of reflection--reflection on all of the different, and sometimes conflicting, ideas rattling around in my mind.
We might say that today's gospel is about an "in-between" time for Jesus. He's at dinner at the home of his friend Lazarus and the sisters Martha and Mary. It is the placement of this story that truly makes it "in-between," a turning point, if you will. The story comes just AFTER the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and just BEFORE the Palm Sunday story of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Between these two momentous events -- a miraculous raising from the dead and a grand entrance into Jerusalem -- we have today's story of a private, intimate dinner among close friends. Perhaps it was this moment of comfort and friendship that gave Jesus the strength to prepare himself for what would come next.
All of our readings today, in fact, contain or represent turning points--moments when the past and the future come together in significant ways. Both the psalm and the passage from Isaiah that we read begin with reminders of God's saving power in the past, and then they shift to looking forward in hope to an even better future. And Paul's letter to the Philippians was written while Paul was in prison. I imagine that if sitting in an airplane is an "in-between" time, giving us the opportunity for reflection, sitting in a prison cell must be even more so.
These "in-between" times, these turning points, can be confusing. Ideas about the past and the future don't always fit together. When we let our minds go and our thoughts and experiences bump around, we may sometimes feel even less clarity about what comes next. But I also think these times can create richness and creative thinking. I have a friend named Polly who has a blog called "Panorama of a Pastor's Wife." She started the blog when her husband was rector of a church. Polly is someone with little to no religious upbringing who brings a healthy dose of skepticism (but also respect) to all things religious, and she is married to a priest--talk about being "in-between!" And now, to make life even more interesting, Polly's husband is not just a priest, but he is the recently-elected bishop of New Hampshire. I would like to read to you from the introduction to Polly's blog:
My title [Panorama of a Pastor's Wife] refers more to the kind of expansive view I get to have from my vantage point as a clergy spouse with layers of involvement in the secular world. Sometimes there is a lovely blending of elements, and sometimes things collide in a dizzying way. More and more, I am struck by how often two contrasting experiences keep company together. … My husband painted our bedroom recently, and my favorite part is the line between the rich beige (called “Amulet”) and the white of the ceiling. Over and over, my eye is drawn to where the two colors come together…but stay separate. These places, to me, illustrate so much that is true about regular life. … We are shaken or maybe moved by the juxtaposition of things, and we try to get hold of our feelings. During the years that I worked at a tough urban high school where students’ basic needs were often unmet while my own kids were choosing among an array of extra-curricular activities, I felt that I was leading a kind of “split screen” life. It wasn’t a question of which side I was on, but rather an issue of trying to see as clearly as possible what was happening, to make out as best I could the topography of the landscape.
As Polly says, when two different things come together, whether it be the past and the future or a wall and a ceiling, it can be confusing, but these turning points can also be important "in-between" moments of reflection and growth. At the end of this service we will be reminded that we are at a turning point here at St. Paul's as we seriously consider the possibility of changing our Sunday morning schedule. It's a time for all of us to look to the past to reflect on our traditions and what we value most, and to look to the future to imagine how changes might enrich us and help us grow as individuals and as a community.
And so, let's return to the gospel story--that "in-between" moment when Jesus is enjoying what must have been a celebratory dinner after the raising of Lazarus just before his glorious but fateful entry into Jerusalem. The scene is intimate, but it contains "walls and ceilings" that bump up against each other. In the midst of this celebration of life comes Jesus' reference to his own death, which must have been confusing and somewhat troubling to those in the room. As we head into Palm Sunday next week, we know that we ourselves will experience similar confusion as we read the Passion story --we will move from shouts "Hosanna" to shouts of "Crucify him!" within just a few minutes--this is always an uncomfortable and strange moment for me.
But, this strange, confusing clash of shouts always spurs me to reflect more deeply on what the story means to me. And in today's gospel story-- an "in-between" moment that contains some conflicts--we find beautiful images of love and relationship as Jesus prepares for the future, perhaps with trepidation, but also with hope. Ultimately, hope is what every turning point, every "in-between" time is about. Sitting in prison, Paul was sustained by hope. When Isaiah and the psalmist looked back on all that God had done, they were expressing hope and confidence that God would be there for them in the future. If we think about it, every moment of our lives is an "in between" time. "Right now" is just a moment between the past and the future, whether we are on an airplane, in the middle of a busy work day, or at home with all of the love and challenges that come with everyday life. Our goal should be to live deeply in the "right now," in every "in-between" moment, reveling in all of the contradictions and confusions that come together each day. Just as Jesus was able to enjoy a calm moment with friends even as he knew what he was about to face, so we can embrace each day, sustained by the past, strengthened through the giving and receiving of love, and emboldened by steadfast hope for the future.