Christians have always gone all out for Easter. Not long ago, all the churches were packed out at Easter and everyone had on their Sunday best. Probably, any church that could manage it had a big choir anthem and recruited members of the local brass band. Afterward, folks went home to big meals and kids gleefully searched for Easter eggs in the back yard.
This Easter, St. Paul’s is returning to the heart of the celebration: Jesus’ resurrection. We’re focusing on the sweetness of old-fashioned community. We’ll have a reception and egg hunt (hopefully on the lawn), and we’ll savor being together and being a part of Easter hope. It’s an Easter to celebrate in our own creative and honest ways. If you wear shorts and a T-shirt to the service, that’s perfectly fine. You won’t be alone. If you feel like bringing some flowers from your yard to decorate the altar area, great! If you want to bring your (small) pooch disguised as a rabbit, no problem.
What makes Easter precious and joyful is that we are together in the love and life-giving power of God. We don’t need a brass choir to hype that, it’s already extraordinary. So if you have a post-Christian friend who might not come to the big to-do, invite them to St. Paul’s. It’s gong to be a very special day.
An imagined letter from Simon. (as recounted in Luke 7:36-50)
To Joseph bar Benjamin, my dear brother
From Simon the Pharisee
Greetings in the name of the Lord most High.
As you have heard rumors of what went on in my house
And sent inquiries about it,
I am writing to set the story straight.
Indeed it was the most extraordinary dinner I have ever hosted and I am happy to tell you about it. The rumor you have heard though is wrong on several accounts. I urge you to correct the falsehoods that are circulating and, as much as it may upset you to do so, set the record straight.
First off, let me be clear. The angels appearing in the sky over the house? That part did not happen. There was no celestial activity whatsoever. I assure you. And no shepherds appeared with their sheep. I don’t know where that came from.
So let me start from the beginning.
I had been fascinated by this Jesus of Nazareth for some long while as you know. The other Pharisees on the council speak of him with deep scorn and ridicule, but I was curious. I’d heard of his miracles and wanted to give him a fair hearing. So I sent a servant to invite him to dine with me when he was in town.
I was careful not to treat him in high regard, knowing that every move I made would be watched. If I treated him too well, with too much respect, my council would come down hard. You know how they are, Joseph. I invited a few of the more influential among them to join me at the dinner. It was a small affair, maybe forty people or so.
As the meal ended, we were all reclined there at the table.
I was sitting on one side of Jesus, the head of the council on the other. I could not help but be offended by him. This Jesus is a peasant, unlearned, poorly dressed, and homely, yet he treated me and the head of the council as if we were equals! As if he could speak to us from a learned place! At times, it was all I could do not lean over and slap him. I confess to you, there was something about him that made me feel so deeply uneasy. Even before, the incident with the woman, he was difficult. He made one feel as if they were standing on uneven ground. And yet, at the same time, he was fascinating.
Do you know, we had a small quartet between the final courses of the meal. They were lively in their playing. And he asked me would I dance? As if I would dance, there in front of the head of my council? Of course I said no. But he signaled to his friends, (I had the courtesy to invite some of them) and they rose and danced. As if it was their own house and they could do what they wanted! He even laughed out loud! Loudly! With great pleasure. As if it was his house not mine! Scandalous.
Then he sat down and looked at me as if this was all perfectly fine. I remember thinking he must be possessed of the devil to not know right behavior from wrong.
It was all quite…upsetting.
And this woman slipped in. All who dwell in this town know her. Or, more correctly, I should say, know of her. You know her too. Remember Sarah’s daughter? The one who was sold to that Roman Merchant? The one with the scars on her arms? Yes, it was her. It’s true she was cruelly treated. Thrown into the street after that merchant was jailed. But her sins! They are a stench in the nostrils of the Almighty! Prostituting in this city all these years! Drunken and passed out in corners. Half naked and filthy!
My wife has always been especially offended by these vile women. She has taken the honorable path of leading the women’s guild in finding such women in acts of abomination and bringing God’s swift justice for their sins. I’m not sure how Sarah’s daughter escaped death.
But there in the midst of our dinner, she appeared. A hush fell over the whole large space. The shadows flickered, the oil lamps gave off their smoke and fumes, only their hiss could be heard. She knelt at Jesus’ feet.
I won’t disgust you with the details of her wretched behavior. It was enough to make us all wish to vomit. I have never in my life had such an abomination happen under my roof. My wife ran from the room, as you can imagine.
But this man, this charlatan posing as a representative of the most High,
Watched her calmly. As if she was removing a splinter or sweeping up the floor. He did not blush, he did not kick her in the face, (as he should have). He let her touch him. He even looked at her with love. As if he knew her. Do you hear me? Knew her!
And then he asked me that question. I’m sure you heard all about that interchange. Oh, I wish to heaven that I had never invited this man into my house.
How dare he ever have the nerve to ask me!
Obviously, he did not know who I am.
I, the second most influential man in this town.
Of a long heritage of righteous and godly rabbis.
Faithful to honor the Sabbath. Faithful in keeping every command.
And he compared me to a prostitute.
Let me be clear.
He watched this filthy woman for a long while in silence. While everyone else watched in horror. And then he said. Out loud, in front of everyone. He asked to me: A certain creditor had two debtors: one owed 500 denarii and the other owed 50. When they could not pay he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?”
“Of course it is the one with the greater debt forgiven.” I answered.
But then he went on to shame me in front of all my guests. He said,
Simon, when I arrived here, you did not kiss me,
or wash my feet, you did not anoint my head,
and yet this woman has done so much more. She has washed my feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, she kissed my feet, which is disgusting indeed, and she anointed me with perfume.
He let that foul woman be honored over me in my very own house!
And then, may heaven forgive me for the abomination I brought upon my household,
He pronounced the forgiveness of that woman’ s sins.
My brother, what you heard is true. This man had the audacity to say to that Harlot, Your sins are forgiven.
Right there on my dining room floor.
Then she stood up, bowed, and left.
I admit we were all so astonished, so offended, there was not one who could move.
He told her to go in peace. But there have been none of us who remain in peace in my house Joseph.
He sowed the whirlwind.
That woman walks the street with her head high.
There is no way to remove her now. She has not committed another offense. My wife has become obsessed with a desire to destroy her, to catch her in some act of wickedness. It is shameful how she cannot stop talking about Sarah’s daughter. Yet I will confess, I cannot stop this anger in my heart. I ushered Jesus out as quickly as I could. I apologized to the Council members. We have talked over the matter. It is all settled, his heresy, his appalling behavior. But the ground continues to shake. The way he looked at her. The way he treated me as an equal. The things he said. For the whole thing. I will not forgive him.
Recently, Deacon Barbi and I joined four other Christian ministry groups from the east side of Carondelet. When we went around the room describing the strengths of our communities, Deacon Barbi gave her assessment of St. Paul’s. The words she used struck a chord among all of us in the room. She said that St. Paul’s greatest strength was its “unbridled joy”.
I had not thought of us as unbridled in our joyfulness. Unhinged perhaps, but unbridled?
What a beautiful thing to think about!
To me, unbridled means, we’re getting over ourselves and our need to project a competence and perfection that is untrue of any human being. We’re not hiding behind a façade of being "under control". Instead, we feel free to roam in the wideness and mercy of God’s love and forgiveness for us. We have fun, play and laugh, even in the midst of our pain and the seriousness of the situation.
Joy is that sweet treasure that doesn’t require the perfect environment in order to grow. It is able to shine through the prism of our tears; it surprises us in the midst of our challenges.
Thank you for being a part of the joyful life of St. Paul’s. It is a gift to journey with you and celebrate the freedom and love God bestows so generously on us all!
I’m so grateful to be your pastor,
A Poem Written In response:
At St. Paul's we have found unbridled joy to behold.
Within our hearts love for each other does unfold.
No one is better than and no one is seen as less.
Our church is filled with lots of love and happiness.
We have abundant love for every man, woman, girl or boy.
We come through get her with God's glory to employ.
We give helping hands, ready hugs and we smile a lot.
Come to us as a stranger, but when you leave, you're NOT.
Written by Sue Steptoe
(Inspired by Barbi)
As may be typical in this life, one crisis got elbowed out by another. Goodbye frontpage COVID news, hello frontpage War in Ukraine news. Not to mention so many other concerns that haunt our days. As is also typical of this life, one beautiful thing gave way to another. The stark beauty of winter is softening into the great glory of spring.
In the Bible, there are guidelines for marking transitions. Many of them are holy days (holidays) or sacramental celebrations. But there are other ways as well. God seems insistent that we take note of transitions. Over and over, God calls us to remember. Remember that we are dust. (Remember that one?!?) Remember the exodus, remember me, says Jesus. Marking and honoring these milestones is important! Are you doing it?
When the people of Israel crossed the Jordan, when Jacob woke from a divine dream, they marked their experience is a specific way. As a part of our spiritual formation, we follow their pattern. Doing so deepens our faith and serves our mental health.
Perhaps today you have the blues because the event you looked forward to for soooooo long happened. And it was great, but now there are just memories. Perhaps you are past the anguish of grief or illness but are unsure how to name where you are. Our tradition offers you resources to make meaning.
Here are a few steps to help you name the transition and honor it as a place God has brought you to-and-through. Adapt these steps to your own interests, skills and proclivities: