1st Reading: John 12:1-8
1st Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21
2nd Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14
When Sterling was about to turn 2, I took his pacifier away. We gave him a pacifier when he was a week or two old, because he was not sleeping and we were not sleeping and the studies said that babies who used a pacifier were less likely to succumb to SIDS. Sterling came to call it his night night, because I would only give it to him at night or when he had a nap. The first night taking it away was easier than I thought. The second night wasn't that bad either, but the third day, during naptime, he was just miserable. I remember him standing in his crib, crying, “Night night! Night night!” Tears were running down his face. I said to him 2-3 times, “Night night all gone.” Then he looked at me and clear as day he said, “Pacifier!” I said, “I know honey. Pacifier all gone.” And he was fine after that.
I knew that the pacifier had its time and place. It was useful for awhile. I was adamant that I wouldn't let the pacifier keep him from learning to talk. I figured the earlier I took it away the easier it would be. I was not going to be one of those parents who's child is almost 4 and is still walking around the grocery store with a binky in his mouth. I want to give my child the comfort he needs, but also teach him to be independent and help him go through each stage of letting go and moving on.
We get a triple whammy this morning of letting go and moving on. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” we read in the Old Testament this morning. “Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead,” we read in Philippians this morning. Jesus has crossed the line of no return in today's Gospel. He's offended the Pharisees by comparing them to the older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This is just before the triumphal entry. Jesus has crossed the point of no return. There is no going back, but only forward toward his arrest and crucifixion.
For the Israelites to forget the past was absurd. When they came into the promised land, God reminded them who they are. They had been slaves in Egypt. God had brought them to this new place. Because of their history, because God cared for them, they were to take care of the resident alien in their midst. They were to care for widows and orphans. They were to remember.
But there had been some things they needed to forget. When they left Egypt and were wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, they kept complaining and wanting to go back. At least they had some meat to eat, even though they were treated brutally. They wanted to go back to Egypt, because they had a selective memory of what that was like. They chose to remember the good ol' days and it was keeping them from moving forward to the new thing that God was doing in their midst.
When we hear this, we think of the glory days. We might think of when Sundays were set aside for church and Wednesday night was church nights. To this God says: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” I don't think it really means to forget. I think it means remember your values and where they came from. Remember how you got to this place in your life. Remember who to thank for all your blessings, but God didn't bring you this far just so you could turn around and go back. God brought us this far because there is something even better coming.
How do we keep our eyes open for what is next? How do we keep from turning and running?
We've come this far from slavery, from greed, from ascribing value based on how much money we earn or the nice car we drive. We're letting go of the idea that might makes right and that violence and war is the answer. We're letting go of our empty deserts and all the places we go that are not full of life, that dry us up, that wither us. We're letting go of putting our confidence in our own power to save ourselves. We're letting go of keeping score, a list of all the rules we follow. We're letting go of judging others. We're letting go of comparing ourselves to others. We're letting go of being afraid of people who are different from us. We're letting go of money, comfort, power, possessions, influence, and strength. We're seeing all that as rubbish. We're letting go of lavish gifts, costly perfumes, treasures that sit on the shelf but don't do anyone any good. We're letting go of what served us well in a particular time and place, but is holding us back from what God is trying to give to us.
And we're standing here with empty hands, having gone past the point of no return, hoping we didn't go through that all for nothing.
And we either realize that what we let go of really was all meaningless or we start to panic and wish we had our pacifier again, thinking it must be the answer, because I don't like to stand here in this uncomfortable in between place.
But inevitably, God does come through. The Israelites stood there empty handed in the wilderness and God gave them something that would last, a relationship of trust. By the time they arrived in the land of Canaan, he was their God and they were God's people.
When Saul stood on the roadside, having been knocked blind off his horse, and heard the voice of God telling him how wrong he had been in persecuting the Christians, as he stood vulnerable in their midst feeling terrible about how he had treated them and knowing they would be justified in taking his life at any point, he found relationship. He found love and forgiveness and openness. He found that he had literally lost everything and found everything.
When Jesus crossed the point of no return, his closest Disciples didn't see it. It was Mary who really saw what was happening. It was time to use the perfume she had been saving for his death. When none of his Disciples would listen to him. When they wasted the chance to tell him goodbye and thank you and I'm sorry and all the things we need to get off our chest when someone is dying, Mary was there at his feet again. Acknowledging by her anointing that he truly is the Messiah, making a fool of herself by taking her head covering off, making a spectacle of herself by touching Jesus' feet, overcome with emotion, and making it clear what she knows—that Jesus is about to be killed. There is no gesture too grand, no expense to be spared, because what is of value is Jesus. What is of value is the gift that he was to her and to all of us. What is of value are the teachings he shared and the example he was. What is of value is the love he gave. What is of value is the new life that he offers. When Mary dumped out all that perfume and her tears and dignity, she sat there in emptiness for a week or so, but it wouldn't be long before she saw the empty tomb herself and became one of the first preachers of the resurrection, telling the Disciples that Jesus is risen. She received new life. It wasn't some future promise she held, but her new life had begun.
When Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” Jesus isn't saying that the poor don't matter. He knows first of all that Judas doesn't give a fig about the poor. He's just bringing it up to line his own pockets and to strike fear in those gathered there that they won't meet some ideal of service to the needy. Judas is trying to distract them from the connection they are sharing which is of infinite value. The truth is, we always do have Jesus among us, in the poor. And because of that it is important not to just throw money at a problem, but build real relationships of empowerment and connection so we see people, so we see Jesus, and not just the poor, so we learn from people who are poor, so we sit at their feet, so that when they hurt, we hurt, and so that we grow in compassion and understanding because of knowing them and their stories.
What is of value is that Jesus emptied himself, even to become a human among us, letting go of all the powers he held as God, and becoming like us. He stood their powerless in our midst, he spent his time with those who are powerless and rejected, he gave up everything, and we killed him. He cried out on the cross, with empty hands, feeling abandoned, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And three days later, God raised him from the dead, once again fulfilling that promise and showing us that God never leaves us or forsakes us.
Sometimes transition times can be such a pain, when you've let go of one thing and are waiting for what is coming next. Maybe it is a transition with work, being out of work, or retiring. Maybe it is a family transition, kids moving out or parents moving in or not feeling as close with a spouse. Maybe it is a transition with health, healing from surgery or a decline in what you can do. Sometimes it can feel so quiet, so empty for so long. The silence can be deafening. The emptiness can feel crushing. But it isn't actually emptiness. The presence of God is in that stillness, that emptiness, that gap and fills it with new relationship and healing and new life.
It is always my challenge to let go, stop worrying about it and trying to control everything and see what I can learn from my situation. How can I let go of fear and instead open my eyes to God's presence with me and going ahead of me to make that way in the wilderness?
One way is practice letting go each day in small ways. At the end of the day to stop and say thank you to God, like Mary did at Jesus' feet. We can remember our baptismal promises that our sins are washed clean each day and we get a new start. We can forgive others who have hurt us and let go of our feelings of revenge or anger. We can put our energy into what does have value, which is relationships, which is loving kindness.
Jesus is right in front of us and he has given up everything out of love for us. This is our chance to sit in the light and love of God. This is our chance to thank him. This is our chance to give back, to do something extravagant. This is our chance to sit there empty handed with him and become open to what is next, death and resurrection, new life, hope for the hopeless, a changed heart, a changed world.