Early on in my preparation for ministry, I learned a valuable lesson when it comes to creating a sermon–that it has to come from my heart. In what was probably the second worst sermon I’ve ever given, I had very little creative input into what I said. I was working as an intern for the high school ministry of church I’d grown up in, and I had the opportunity to preach at this youth group gathering coming up. And when discussing with the director of that ministry about it, he laid out for me pretty much exactly what he thought I should say.
And I bombed. Because it wasn’t meaningful to me. It didn’t speak to me, and to my hope and passions and all the things that I find meaningful about following Jesus and how it changes one’s life.
That’s when a sermon writes itself. Which is the surprising thing about today’s readings for this fifth Sunday in Lent, as that didn’t happen for me. It’s surprising to me because of what is in front of us, as we have some of the most wonderful things with which we could find meaning and inspiration for our lives: In our Gospel reading, we have this beautiful moment where Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume, not many days before his crucifixion, which is then contrasted with Judas’ deceptive statement that the money spent on it should have gone to helping those in need (even though he probably just wanted to steal that money, because he was a thief).
Or take our reading from Phiippians, take this gem of a statement: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” That right there is like a preacher’s paradise, a literary and theological playground. What else does so magnificent a job of delineating the overwhelming superiority of Christ to all else in this world or in our lives, and especially on this Fifth Sunday in Lent, where two weeks from now we will be celebrating this very resurrection that we read about in these verses.
And even Isaiah and the Psalm couldn’t do the one thing I needed them to do: To overcome my existential acedia I’ve encountered when hearing news out of Ukraine.
The amount of suffering we see, the magnitude of it all, and the callousness of it, is unfathomable to me. And what is especially disturbing is seeing how much has been directed at civilians. Not only at the military, but at the civilian population. Seeing images of cities bombed and shelled to rubble, wholesale, and hearing the latest news of the corpses of civilians found with their hands tied behind their backs or their bodies booby-trapped–how is there another explanation for these things than civilians being targeted.
In this I do see parallels of our Gospel, in the words of Judas, who said “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” The justification given for why this war is necessary, why troops and tanks needed to go into Ukraine, is just a smokescreen to cover up other less noble intentions.
And we see the disaster that results, in the loss of life, the loss of homes and workplaces, of hopes and joys and dreams, and the many things that make life beautiful.
The world feels like a very dark place right now.
So I’m actually grateful, as I reflect on it, that we have Psalm 126 appointed for today. The Psalm was likely written upon the return of some of the Israelites who went to Jerusalem following the Babylonian Captivity, so around 500 B.C.E. or so, because of that first verse: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion.” Which is most curious, because when the people returned to Jerusalem, the city was still looking a bit like it had when the Babylonians tore down the city wall and the Temple. Perhaps that’s why the following verses go:
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses of the Negev.
Those who sowed with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed,
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
To me, that is at the heart of resurrection. That the pain and suffering that we see in this life is not the last word, but that there is restoration and revival that still remains out there. That disaster can be overturned, that sorrow can turn to joy. That those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.
It strikes me as particularly meaningful today, that last verse, “Those who go out weeping, carrying their seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.” Keep on keeping on. Keep doing the work, even though it’s hard, because good will result from it. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, that even though each step may be small, many steps added together equals progress.
Just like when Jesus did on the path to Golgotha, and it resulted in resurrection for all humanity.