Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

How our cat taught me the meaning of "Footprints in the Sand"

Sermon 3-22-15

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
You all know that poem. You've seen it countless times before – on posters, mugs, T-shirts, bible covers – on the backdrop of gentle waves on a pristine beach, with or without optional sunset… all beautifully framing a trail of footprints in the sand.

You probably remember the basics – man has a dream that he was walking along a beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashes scenes from his life, and for each scene he notices two sets of footprints in the sand – one for him and one for the Lord. But after the last scene had flashed before him, he looked back on the beach and saw that sometimes there was only one set of footprints, and they happened to coincide with the very lowest and saddest times in his life.

According to one version, the man said, “Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troubling times of my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why, when I needed you the most, you would leave me."

The Lord replied, “My precious, precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

For some of us, this poem is our reality.  Some of us at times have been so overwhelmed with these lowest and saddest times in our lives that we cannot take even just one more step forward. Sometimes we experiences trials and sufferings so great that they leave us completely spent. It is then that our Lord does scoop us up in his arms and carry us through to another day.

Whether you love this poem or not, it does remind us of Jesus’s promise, of how much he loves us and would never leave us. It reminds us of the promise that as we walk through life, where we are, there Jesus is also.

But at other times, our walk with the Lord may look a little different. It can leave behind a different kind of trail in the sand.

The mentioned comic from Facebook.
A few weeks ago I found a slightly different take on the footprints poem. In the first panel, a bearded man portraying God has his arm around the person having the dream. God says, “…where you see one set of footprints is where I carried, you.”

But on the second panel, God is pointing off in the distance and says, “…THAT long groove is where I DRAGGED you, kicking and screaming.”

Remember, Jesus promises us that where HE is this followers and servants are too. Where I am, Jesus is. And this does indeed bring us a great deal of comfort when we undergo pain and trials. But that also means that where JESUS is, there I am, too. And that is an entirely different kind of promise altogether.

You see, I’m not sure Jesus and I have the same taste is places where we can be found. I like to be at church, drinking coffee at Starbucks, or asleep in my bed. But where does Jesus like to hang out? Just from the last few weeks in Lent, we can get an idea of what kinds of places he likes to frequent:
The wilderness with the wild beasts, being tempted by Satan.

With his disciples, talking about crosses, death, and self-denial.

In the temple, trashing the booths of the money changers and chasing out their animals with whips.
In late night conversations with Nicodemus, comparing himself with the bronze serpent on a pole, foreshadowing his own death.

Hanging out with Greeks – ethnic outsiders – chatting with God through thunder, and YET AGAIN speaking of his own death.

And Jesus does not pull any punches for their sakes. He gave them his message, un-deluded. Seeing Jesus is seeing death. Seeing Jesus is seeing the cross. Seeing Jesus means following him to the cross, to suffering, humiliation, and death.

The cross is not a place anyone in their right mind would want any part of. And yet, that is exactly where Jesus calls us. To deny ourselves and take up our cross.  To love light and not darkness. To lose our own lives for the sake of Jesus and the good news. To be driven into the wilderness. To proclaim the kingdom of God come near.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised when following Jesus looks more like a long groove than footprints in the sand.

The Greeks were drawn to Jesus. And at some point, you were drawn to him too. As Jesus said, “I will draw all people to myself.” The true meaning of this word we read as draw actually has more to do with fish. It’s a word that is used to describe what fishermen do when their nets are full to bulging once they get to shore. They “draw,” or rather, drag, haul, pull, heave these heavy nets onto the beach. Probably leaving behind them a long groove in the sand
Where Jesus is, there we are, also. Even if sometimes we have to be dragged, kicking and screaming. Even if it means Jesus is calling us to new life, which can, at times, be very scary, and make us want to dig in our heels.

When Beau and I first moved to New Jersey, we had to bring our cats with us. They are part of our family, and where we live, they were going to live. Even if that meant knocking them out for a good portion of the twenty hour car ride here.

A year and a half ago, when we moved to Trenton, it was the same story: they were going to be coming with us, whether they liked it or not. This time, no “calming spray,” though, in hindsight we should have known better. Everything was packed up and had been moved over to our new place… except for the cats. They were the last thing on the list. No problem, right?

"I'm sorry! I love the new place!"
Wrong! As I put the second cat in the carrier, she decided to share with me how anxious she was about the move by using her back claws to scratch up my pinkie. Great. So I got her in the carrier with her brother, but I’m bleeding, and all the bandages are packed up at the new place. So I find a napkin and drive into Trenton like I’m having a tea party with a bloody napkin. Yes, I am able to laugh about it now.

But I understand. The cat didn't know where we were going and she was scared. She didn't know that we were taking her with us so she wouldn't be left behind. So her long groove in the sand and my hand happened to intersect. But it didn't matter, because they were coming with us, whether they liked it or not.

Perhaps some might say, half-joking, that they might have known what they were in for. Animals are smart. They can sense things like earthquakes and storms before they happen. Perhaps they already knew that Trenton is not a place people usually move TOWARD. Everybody knows that Trenton is a place of darkness. Everybody knows Trenton is a place of suffering and desperation. Everyone knows that Trenton is a place of death.

Last Thursday my husband Beau lead a service of remembrance for a homeless man. As Beau was speaking about how God is a God of many second, third, fourth, and fifth chances, one of the homeless friends of the dead man spoke up. He ask about the criminal crucified with Jesus asking for forgiveness just before Beau was going to read that very passage.

Where there is darkness, that is where Jesus is. Where there is suffering and desperation, that is where Jesus is. Where there is death. THAT is WHERE JESUS IS. And that is where we are to be, too.

Jesus went before us so that we could follow – to the cross, to death, and to the tomb. Jesus went before us so that we could follow also when the cross was empty, the tomb was empty, and when death was emptied of its power. His cross of death became our tree of life. Some days we walk, and some days we have to be dragged. But whether we walk, run, fall, or are dragged, the promise remains. Where you are, Jesus is. Where Jesus is, you are. Amen.

Simon the Leper and the Woman who anoints Jesus

Lent Meditation 3-4-15

Let the word of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Christ the Rock of our salvation. Amen.

Over the course of these next few Wednesday nights, we get to meet a few of the cast of characters that surrounded Jesus. And tonight we’ve meet two more: Simon the Leper and the woman who anoints Jesus.

Were you able to picture the scene in your mind? Did you hear the babble of conversation suddenly interrupted by gasps of surprise? Did you smell the strong scent of the nard ointment filling the room? Did you see the confused faces of the guests? Did you yourself feel a little confused? There’s much more going on in this scene than simply an interrupted dinner party.
We could, like the rest of the guests there that night, get caught up in the money details– for example, a jar of nard worth more than three hundred denarii. A denarius was an entire day’s wages, so that means, in today’s money, this jar of nard might be worth… somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty thousand dollars.

Gosh, that WOULD have gone a long way if say, she were to have donated it to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, or RISE here in Hightstown. She could have fed forty refugee families for a year through ELCA Good Gifts, or funded around a year and a half of one seminary student’s education.
But what did she decide to do with that costly jar of ointment? She decided to waste it all on Jesus. At least that’s what the other guests at Simon’s dinner party thought, and of course they entirely missed the point.  It’s as if they were watching a 3D movie without the special glasses.

This actually happened to Beau and me not that long ago. We paid for and thought we were seeing a regular old 2D movie. But after the regular-looking previews, the movie began with that blurry, double vision screen that makes your eyes hurt from trying to focus, and nothing was making sense. Fortunately, the theater fixed their mistake by giving us all 3D glasses and restarting the movie from the beginning. And itt made SO MUCH MORE SENSE!! We could actually understand what was happening!

The guests at Simon’s house for dinner did not have on their cross-shaped glasses. And that was why the events unfolding around them did not seem to make any sense. People just don’t go wasting expensive perfume on ordinary guys like Jesus, no matter how good of a preacher or teacher or healer he was. That was money poorly spent, down the drain, thrown in the trash. Like the jar you saw as you walked in tonight – a jar of precious perfume among the garbage in the trash.

The great tragedy for them is that they SHOULD have already been wearing their cross-glasses, for the very fact that they were having dinner at the home of someone called Simon the Leper. We assume that whatever skin disease he might have had had been cured by Jesus– which might be why Simon invited him over in the first place: out of gratitude. We can’t know for sure, but some have supposed that Simon is the unnamed leper that Jesus heals at the very beginning of Mark. In THAT encounter, Jesus heals the leper in question, and then tries to swear him to secrecy. But this non-leper leper will have none of that – he went everywhere spreading the word about Jesus, causing a big stir.
Though now, even if he had been cured, Simon is forever known to us as “the leper.” And no one in their right mind wants to be anywhere near someone with leprosy, which was painful and mutilating to the skin. He probably knows what it is like to be treated like garbage and to be discarded by society - to be thrown away by the side of the road.

Without their cross-shaped glasses, the other guests at this party didn’t understand that the same Jesus who breaks bread with lepers also is the same Jesus who refuses to scold women who seem wasteful.
While Simon was defined by his illness like it was part of his name, this woman has no name for us to remember – only this single act of love. In some of the other gospels, she is Mary, sister of Lazarus, or a sinful woman. But for Mark, she is a woman on a mission.  She has one job – to remind Jesus of who he is and why he came.

She anointed Jesus so that he could take his rightful place as king – not in a coronation, but through death on a cross. “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name: it’s his title. Christ in Greek and Messiah in Hebrew both mean King or anointed one. A king was crowned by being anointed, in order to be set apart for a special purpose. But anointing does have another use – on the bodies of the dead to prepare them for burial. That is what this woman did. She couldn’t follow Jesus by leaving her home and family and work. But she could show him one last kindness on his road to the cross.

Jesus knows that just around the corner lies betrayal and suffering and humiliation and death. His body would be beaten and flogged and a crown of thorns would be shoved onto his head before he was hung to die on a cross and then hastily laid in a borrowed tomb. His death might have looked like a total waste to the rest of the world – a waste of three years, a waste of a life, a waste of time for the Son of God.

But God using the kindness of an unnamed woman is not a waste. Breaking bread with the unwanted is not a waste. The cross is not a waste – in fact, it is the exact opposite. The entirety of God’s love that Jesus shows us could not fit on the cross – and that is why it stands empty. Empty like an entire jar of nard, poured out and seemingly wasted in an act of love one woman gave to her Lord.
So… Who are the people around us that the world won’t waste their time on? Who do we see when we put on our cross-shaped glasses?

And what are YOU squandering on Jesus? What are you willing to give away, throw away, or pour out in the service of following him? What are you willing to waste, in Jesus name?