Sunday, March 13, 2016

"What Honors God?" -- a sermon for the fifth Sunday of Lent

Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, March 13, 2016.

What honors God?

Over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus raises the question: “What honors God?”

He asks it of Pharisees and Sadducees. Of disciples and detractors. A week from this Thursday night in Gethsemane, with his life in the balance, he will even pose it to God herself.

Not “What do I like?”

Not “What makes me feel comfortable?”

Not “What is the easiest?” or “What makes me feel strong and superior?” Not even “What makes the most sense?”

But “What honors God?”

What makes the divine heart dance? What makes the divine voice shout for joy? What makes the divine eye beam with pride?

What honors God?

It’s a hard question to answer. Because God is love, what honors God is always about love, and there isn’t a messier, slipperier creature in heaven or earth than love.

We know that, don't we? We know from our own experience that love doesn’t make things easier and simpler. Love makes things harder. Love complicates everything. Love makes things really, really, messy.

And so sometimes the only way to start. Sometimes the only way to try to answer the question “What honors God?” is to start with what doesn’t. To start with the places where the very stones beneath us cry out: NOT THIS.

That’s how I felt on Friday morning.

On Friday morning I stood with some other members of our Cathedral community and a small group of others outside the Peabody Opera House. We had come to stand in support of our Muslim sisters and brothers and against the hatred and fearmongering of Donald Trump, who two days earlier had declared on national television that “Islam hates us” – using his considerable pulpit to mischaracterize and sow fear about that ancient religion in the hearts of millions of Americans.

The line for the rally was thousands of people long. It wound around blocks. It was old and it was young. And periodically the crowd would break into a chant of:

“Build that wall.

“Build that wall.”

A huge crowd of people, many of them in their teens and 20s and even children who couldn’t be more than five years old pumping their fists in the air chanting:

“Build that wall.

“Build that wall.”

And I was filled with an overpowering sadness. A sadness that seemed to well up not only from deep inside but even from beyond my body.

This was not about political disagreement. This was not about Trump or Cruz, Clinton or Sanders. This was not even a spirited debate on immigration policy. This was about human beings, created in the image of God, gleefully -- gleefully proclaiming that other images of God were less than they were. That other images of God were to be feared and hated because of the color of the image of God they were, because of the name of the God they worshipped, and because they had dared to raise their voices and demand our nation actually live up to Emma Lazarus’ plea to “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

I was filled with overpowering sadness because I could feel God weeping for all of God’s children in that moment.. How broken we are. How trapped in false dichotomies of us and them. How those on the margins instead of being embraced were being pushed further and further and further out.

And I thought of Jesus’ question, “What honors God?” And in that moment I was sure of one thing.

Not this.

Not this hatred. Not this fear. Not this building of walls and sharpening of swords.

What honors God?

Not this. Definitely, not this.

And as I stood there with “Not this. Not this. Not this.” pounding with every beat of my heart, I was tempted to despair. I really was. The chanting crowd seemed like a tidal wave and how could we stand against it.… and then I remembered the Gospel reading for this morning.

And I was filled with hope.

Because I remembered Mary’s answer to the question.

I remembered what honors God.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is at the most vulnerable point of his life so far. He has traveled long and far and loved so boldly that he knows that powers of the world are preparing to take him out. His ministry is over. All that is left for him is the journey into Jerusalem to die.

And so he takes refuge with those dearest to him. With Lazarus, Mary and Martha and yes, with Judas. And that’s where a scene unlike any this side of the Song of Solomon and Fifty Shades of Grey plays out.

Mary takes a pound of the most expensive perfume. Now this ain’t something she got from This is like Chanel Grand Extrait -- $4,200 an ounce. The whole bottle is worth an entire year’s salary. And Mary doesn’t just dab some on Jesus. She slips off his sandals, and takes his feet – feet that are dirty and dusty and cracked and sore from walking so many miles – she takes his feet and cradles them in her hands and then lavishly pours all the perfume all over them and lovingly massages those feet with her long fingers digging deep into them until both her hands and his feet are glistening wet and yielding to the touch.

Then looking at him lovingly, she caresses his feet over and over again with her long hair, soaking up all the perfume until her hair is dripping and his feet are dry and soft and radiant.

And the fragrance of the perfume fills the room, overflowing into the nostrils of every person at the table – and probably into their shocked, gaping open mouths as well. Captivating them in this dance. Because that’s what it is. An extravagant. Passionate. Loving. Dance.

This is not an ordinary act of hospitality. This is extravagant. This is intimate. This is sensual.

This is Mary, Jesus … for God’s sake, get a room!

Jesus is facing his death. He is about to go into Jerusalem where he will be betrayed and beaten, crucified and killed. And Mary meets Jesus at his most extreme marginalization and vulnerability and loneliness. And she meets him not with fear or anger or hatred – but with deep, slippery, sensual, messy, extravagant love.

Love that is unexpected.

Love that flouts conventional wisdom.

Love that offends sensibilities and defies purity codes.

Love that can be mistaken for nothing else but divine love, the same passionate, extravagant love that will lead Jesus out that door and place those same feet on the road to Calvary.


Why would Mary love Jesus so extravagantly?

So passionately?

So messily??

Because that’s what honors God.

What honors God is when deep pain is met with extravagant love.

What honors God is taking the best we have and meeting Christ at his most vulnerable knowing that the face of Christ always rests on those who are the most vulnerable, are the most marginalized, are the most condemned.

What honors God offends our sensibilities. It seems impractical, even crazy.

It is O’Henry’s Gift of the Magi.

It is the “with all that I have and all that I am, I honor you” of the marriage service.

What honors God is loving one another the way God loves us, the way God loves you -- extravagant, passionate, intimate, crazy, wild love.

And no wall shall ever stand against it.

And what does this love look like? It isn’t always clear. It looks different in every situation because love is always personal and contextual. But we do know it is always costly and it is usually uncomfortable to be around. It is the love of the poured out perfume. It is the love of the journey to the cross. It is the love of healing on the Sabbath and putting your body in the dirt between the woman on the ground and the crowd holding the stones.

It is a love that risks ridicule and that means we will always have those voices inside and out that are telling us we’re crazy just as we’re giving it away.

It is the love of standing with our Muslim sisters and brothers, even putting our bodies between theirs and an angry mob – just as many Muslims have done time and again forming human shields around Christians in the Middle East.

It is the love of seven women and men staging a 39-hour filibuster to try to beat back a vicious LGBT-hating bill this week on the floor of the Missouri State Senate.

It is the love of greeting a parent struggling with a restless child in worship with a look of joy and understanding instead of annoyed scorn.

What honors God? That’s for us to figure out. But it always looks like love. Extravagant, overwhelming love.

Here at Christ Church Cathedral, when I think of what honors God, I think of evensong.

Here at Christ Church Cathedral, evensong is a feast for the senses. The beauty of this space as night is falling. Soaring anthems offered by the choir. And to top it off, when it’s all done, Myrna Wacker, Dave Lawson and the St. Martha’s Guild lay out a spread of some of the most sumptuous gourmet hors d’oeuvres you have ever tasted.

We don’t pack the house for evensong. We get 50 maybe 75 people. But what I love is seeing those of you who are living in the deepest vulnerability come off the streets often carrying all your possessions with you, come in and fall into a chair. I know from our conversations that the moments of beauty in your life are often few and far between. And I see you close your eyes as you let the music wash over you.

And then after the service is over. I see you come to the table where this amazing feast, this heavenly banquet is laid out – and in a world that seems to begrudge you even a bologna sandwich or a bowl of soup, a world that will soon enough ask you to sleep on hard concrete instead of a soft bed – I see you partaking of food that explodes with rich flavor, finally a feast worthy of you as images of God.

Every time I see it, I think of this Gospel passage. Because it us as a Cathedral taking the finest that we have and offering it to those among us who are most vulnerable.

It is us as Christ Church Cathedral at our best.

It is love that is unexpected.

It is love that flouts conventional wisdom.

It is love that offends sensibilities and defies purity codes.

It is what honors God. And in our blessed humanity we do it so imperfectly that it is important to hold up the glimpses when we get it right.

Because this is how we fight the fear. This is how we fight the hatred. This is how we fight all that stands opposed to God’s dreams for us, all that makes Jesus weep over all our Jerusalems. By asking and living this simple question:

What honors God?

It is the question that brings out the best in us. It is the question that will tear down walls and build up bridges. It is the question that will lead us into holy trouble and scandalous joy.

And so we need to remember to ask it. Again. And again. And over and over again.

When you came in this morning you were given a bracelet that says, rather predictably, at this point: “What honors God?” I hope you’ll put it on. I hope you’ll wear it even for this one week as we with Jesus turn our face toward Jerusalem. Wear it as a reminder not to ask ourselves “what would Jesus do?” but rather “what would I do for Jesus?”

To ask ourselves in every situation we face: What honors God?

We will not always agree on the answer. And that won't be anything new for us at Christ Church Cathedral. But Jesus asks us to wrestle with that question and to have that conversation -- even if the conversation is just with ourselves or just between us and God. When we are presented with a challenge, be it the diversity of race or class in our community, the challenges of our budget, the fussiness of a child or expressions of our sensuality and sexuality; the crowd chanting hate or even the guy cutting us off on interstate 40 to reach beyond our personal preferences and momentarily offended sensibilities to ask ourselves and one another and God in that moment:

“Ok, but what honors God?”

What does pouring expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet and wiping them with our hair look like in this situation?

What does recognizing that the person in front of me is the very image of the divine and that I am not only called but given the gift of opportunity of loving this person extravagantly look like?

What does passionate, crazy, purity-code busting, conventional wisdom flouting, scandalous, I can’t believe you said that, I can’t believe you did that love look like?

Over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus raises this question: “What honors God?”

Not “What do I like?”

Not “What makes me feel comfortable?”

Not “What is the easiest?” or “What makes me feel strong and superior?” Not even “What makes sense?”

But “What honors God?”

It is our job to name it.

It is our joy to live it.

It is our deepest destiny to show it to the world. Amen.

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