Written by Pastor Ed
Expect the Unexpected
March 13, 2016 Lent 5
Phil. 3: 4b-14
John 12: 1-8
You’ve all heard the phrase, “God moves in mysterious ways.” Perhaps mysterious isn’t quite the right word, but certainly in unexpected ways. At times we wonder what God is thinking, or has in mind, as we encounter the unexpected in our lives.
Six years ago one evening the phone rang and a person named Marguerite was on the line from Calgary, Alberta saying, “I think you met my husband Dan several months ago at a meeting in Kansas City.” Which was, in fact, true; we had been assigned to the same table at some meetings of Mennonite Church USA boards and Dan was there as a part of the MennoMedia board. And then she went on to say that she had served on the MCC Alberta board with my brother Glen. And so the conversation went from there.
Expect the unexpected.
One day, sitting in my office in South Dakota, I got a phone call from a young person who said he was leading a group of people in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, a church who was interested in becoming a Mennonite church. What would it involve to do that? And so one evening I found myself sitting in the basement of a pub, talking theology and church with a group of mostly young adults with more piercings and tattoos than you would probably have found in all the other Central Plains churches at that time, put together.
Expect the unexpected.
After Pope Francis took his position as head of the Roman Catholic Church, he followed the tradition of holding a Maundy Thursday service which included the rite of footwashing. But Pope Francis didn’t hold it in the Vatican with all men gathered around him but went instead to a juvenile detention and washed the feet of 12 inmates, both men and women, including a Muslim woman. He has continued this practice each year, once at a centre for disabled people and last year at a prison in Rome.
An unexpected move that has angered some Catholic traditionalists.
When we’re dealing with the ways of God, we can never be sure of what will happen. And that can be upsetting. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, recounts all the things that are expected as background material. If anyone was a good Jew it was him.
He was of the right heritage- the tribe of Benjamin, had gone through all the right rituals, he was from the right class of people and had studied at the right schools. In other words, he had followed all the expected paths that make one an upright citizen and good member of society.
And then he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, and none of those things really mattered. In fact he says they are worthless, rubbish. Encountering Jesus leads to unexpected results and surprising experiences. We see the world differently, as I said last week.
In our Gospel lesson for the day, we have the interesting story of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus and wiping them with her hair. Now let’s put this into some context, at least according to John’s account. Right before this, John has told us about the death of Lazarus, Mary’s brother, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. That was certainly an unexpected move and John tells us that many of the religious leaders of the day were concerned over Jesus’ popularity among the people and began plotting how to get rid of him so that Jesus was no longer free to come and go as he pleased.
So Jesus, heading toward Jerusalem and the Passover, stops off at one of his regular places, the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. And they have a dinner for Jesus and his disciples. And, while Martha was busy serving the dinner, Mary took this extravagant and unexpected act of anointing Jesus’ feet with a costly perfume and wiping them with her hair.
This was wrong on so many levels. I’m sure Martha would have preferred a little help, as she did on another occasion. Washing the feet of guests was the role of servants, not of the mistress of the house. The perfume was expensive, as Judas was quick to point out, and this seemed like a waste of good money, when water would have worked just as well.
And then there was the intimacy implied. Perhaps we don’t recognize the scandalous nature of this act to those who were at the table with Jesus. For a woman to behave in this way would normally have been unthinkable.
But expect the unexpected.
Indeed throughout the history of God’s people there is a thread of the unexpected. A slave people in Egypt become God’s chosen. The youngest son becomes the chosen one. And the prophets over and over promise things that seem unlikely.
Isaiah says, “Thus says the Lord,”
19 I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
20 The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
21 the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.
And of course the most unexpected of all was that Jesus, the promised Messiah, the one expected to deliver God’s people from the oppression of the Romans, chose the way of the cross to fulfill that promised deliverance. That those who want to save their lives should lose them.
God continues to do unexpected things among us and in the world around us, of that I am convinced. So part of the question we need to ask is, “Do we recognize when that happens?” and “How do we respond?”
Jacob Enns, my Old Testament professor at seminary, introduced us to a little snippet of poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that I have always remembered.
“Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire from God
But only he who sees takes off his shoes,
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.”
All too often, I’m afraid, we think we know what is coming. We have the path fairly well laid out and think we know what should come next. We had some places in mind that we thought would have been appropriate places to move to, they would have fit into our ideas. Calgary was not on the list!
And because we have in mind what to expect, we often miss those unexpected places where God shows up. When I shared with some of my fellow conference ministers about meeting with this group in Minneapolis, they remarked that there were similar groups they were aware of but they weren’t sure whether they should meet with them or not. They weren’t sure what they’d say, or ask, and they wanted to have things planned. I said,” Just meet with them and see what happens.”
One of the axioms of the missional church movement is that God is already at work in the world around us. We just have to open our eyes and take notice and then join with God in what is happening. But if we think we know how God is going to work, then chances are we’ll miss many of those opportunities and just sit around and pluck blackberries.
So the first thing we need to do is be aware of those God moments around us and not think that we know exactly how God will or won’t work.
And then, when we recognize God at work, we need to be open to join in and not be like Judas or sometimes some of the other disciples who complained or objected because it just wasn’t being done right. How often have we heard the phrase, “well we don’t do it that way here.”? Or we decide we can’t do something because it doesn’t follow the guidelines or bylaws.
Now guidelines and bylaws are important, don’t get me wrong. We need some order in our lives, undoubtedly. But when they become unbreakable rules that keep us from trying new things, then we will miss opportunities that arise. Again one of the missional emphases is experimentation. Try something. It may or may not work, but if you don’t try it, you’ll never know.
But I’ve been in too many places where the first questions are “Can we afford it?” or “Does it have the proper approvals?” or “Which committee should look after that?” rather than asking if this is something God is calling us too. I recall hearing a denominational leader, of another denomination, tell how ten years previously the denomination was struggling and their financial people said if things continued as they were going they would use up their reserves in just a few years and need to fold as a denomination.
In the midst of that they felt called to move in particular direction and decided to follow that urge, even though it looked like it mean they would only be in existence a few years when they would run out of money. And lo and behold, they were now ten years down the road and healthy. All because they dared to do the unexpected.
Jesus told Judas, and all those listening at the table, because believe me they were all ears, that Mary’s act had a purpose and was thus a welcome and loving act. It was bold. It was unexpected. And it was extravagant. And at the moment it was exactly what was appropriate.
The events we commemorate in these next several weeks don’t fit anyone’s expectations – then or even now. Yet they are the high point of the church year, the events without which there would be no church and we would be left with only the mundane, expected life.
What does the future hold for us as individuals, as a congregation, as a denomination, as a church? I don’t know, but I do know one thing. Expect the unexpected.