Jesus shall reign

They had been in Bethany the night before. At the home of Lazarus, yes, that Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from death to life only days earlier. Mary and Martha were there also, and they were having dinner.

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.[1] The stench of death had lingered over this household only days ago, but now the fragrance of love and devotion filled everything.

Mary shows us what discipleship is. Judas thought pouring the equivalent of some $20,000 over Jesus’ feet was extravagant and wasteful.[2] Extravagant? Yes. Wasteful? No. Nothing done out of love is ever wasted. On Thursday, we call it Maundy Thursday, Jesus would wash his disciples’ feet and ask them to repeat this act of service for one another—to approach one another not as masters, but servants. He would tell them that everyone would know that they were his disciples by the love they offered in response to God’s love.[3] Mary poured out her love over Jesus’ feet. She knew how to respond without being told. She gave boldly of herself in love.

We talk about stewardship of time, tallent, and treasure, and we talk about budgets and the cost of ministry, and all that has its place; but Mary shows us the foundation of all those conversations: Mary shows us faithful discipleship in offering her love in response to God’s love in Jesus. The house was filled with the fragrance of love responding to love. And the world is waiting to be filled with the fragrance of love responding to love.

We went back to the house of Lazarus in Bethany to remember that the next day when Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, he brought that fragrance to the city. It travelled on a breeze ahead of him, and throughout the Passover crowd children were tapping their parents knees and tugging their sleeves, “Mom, Mom, what is this? It smells so good.”

“It’s the fragrance of God’s Anointed, dear, the king of Israel, he’s coming to Jerusalem.”

Their hopes, their hunger, their longing for freedom, their memories of Israel’s greatness under king David poured out of the city with them to meet him, and they greeted him like a warrior king, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the king of Israel!” Such joy. Such expectation. And then they saw him, riding by on his little donkey. Do you imagine they all fell silent immediately? John is telling the story, and it is John’s voice, not a voice from the crowd, telling us, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.”And John tells us that even Jesus’ disciples did not understand these things at first. This would not be the expected coronation. The fragrance of his anointing was the announcement of a kingdom not from this world.

Meanwhile, a kingdom very much from this world was asserting its power in spectacular fashion. Every year, in time for Passover, the Roman governor moved his headquarters from Caesarea by the sea to Jerusalem. Passover made the empire very nervous. Large crowds were difficult to control under any circumstance, but add the hopeful memory of Israel’s liberation from Pharao’s yoke, the celebration of the exodus from the house of slavery to the promised land, and the situation could turn quickly from joyful worship to revolt. So Rome made its presence and power known. The governor, Pontius Pilate, entered the city riding on the biggest horse he could find in his stable. Behind him, elite soldiers on horseback, followed by rows and rows of foot soldiers; you could see banners and golden eagles mounted on poles, the sun’s bright beams reflected by helmets and the tips of countless spears; you could hear the beating of drums, the marching of feet, the clinking of metal against metal. The procession was designed to impress and intimidate. Rome knew how to project power and quell any outbursts of enthusiasm that might escalate into a governor’s nightmare. The heavy beams used to crucify the most dangerous troublemakers had already been stacked at the governor’s headquarters; Rome was prepared.

On the other side of the city, the crowd was pouring out through the gate, ready to greet their king: God’s anointed who would rally his people, organize the militias into an army, and drive out the foreign occupiers. “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the king of Israel.” And then they saw him, riding by on his little donkey. There was a fragrance of promise about him, but he wasn’t entering the city to take over the system and put himself at the top. He came to reveal the power of redemptive love; he came to undermine and topple the logic of domination. A few days later, the two met, Jesus and Pilate, at the governor’s headquarters. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asked, and Jesus responded, more than once, “My kingdom is not from this world.” Pilate spoke and understood only the language of power and violence. He didn’t know what to make of a rebel who not only didn’t play by the rules of his game, but played an entirely different game.

We look at the scene from the other side of the cross, from the other side of Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension to the throne of God. We have heard the witnesses, we have seen glimpses, moments of great clarity when we knew that this servant’s love reveals the heart of God. Jesus shall reign, we sing as we watch him riding by on his little donkey.

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun

does its successive journeys run;

his kingdom spread from shore to shore,

till moons shall wax and wane no more.

Jesus is riding on, past the churches with the big steeples, past the office buildings and the shiny bank towers, past the university campusses and the corporate headquarters, and the court house, and just watching him ride down West End and Broadway we realize how much we depend on him to redeem us from playing Pilate’s game.

To Jesus endless prayer be made

and endless praises crown his head;     

his name like sweet perfume shall rise

with every morning sacrifice.

There it is again, there it is still, the sweet perfume, the fragrance of love responding to love. And Jesus is riding on, but before he turns left to ride up to Legislative Plaza and Capitol Hill, he turns right and rides around Music City Center, wondering about the NRA and its firm grip on the imaginations of our legislators, and we wonder, too, because we’re the ones proclaiming that he shall reign.

Blessings abound where’er he reigns;

all prisoners leap and loose their chains;        

the weary find eternal rest,

and all who suffer want are blest.

That’s a good hymn to sing over in those parts, you know, over by the Mission and the Campus for Human Development, but not only in those parts. All of us carry a measure of weariness, all of us long to rest in the love of God, long to live in a world where Jesus reigns.

I want to talk a little bit more about a world where prisoners leap and loose their chains. Right now, the chains that tie prisoners to their past are heavy and strong, even after they have been released from prison. Landing a job is no small feat. Aside from figuring out where to sleep, nothing is more worrisome for people leaving prison than figuring out where to work. And finding a job is not just a matter of learning to stand on one’s own two feet again, or wanting to contribute, to support one’s family, and to add value to society at large. Finding a job allows a person to establish a positive role in the community, develop a healthy self-image, and keep a distance from negative influences and opportunities for illegal behavior. And beyond all that, most state parole agencies require parolees to maintain gainful employment, and failure to do so could mean more prison time. So finding a job is crucial, but it’s harder than it needs to be. Nearly every state allows private employers to discriminate on the basis of past criminal convictions or even arrests without conviction. It’s understandable; employers are cautious, they want to avoid hiring somebody who may pose a risk to their business, to their other employees, or their clients. The church wouldn’t hire a nursery worker with a conviction for child neglect and abuse, and a business owner wouldn’t want a bookkeeper with a criminal record of embezzlement and fraud. Rebuilding trust takes time, and it may be better for somebody with a child abuse conviction to seek employment in other fields such as construction or transportation, or perhaps bookkeeping. But many ex-offenders have difficulty even getting an interview, because of the box on job applications in which applicants are asked to check “yes” or “no” if they have ever been convicted of a crime. And it doesn’t matter if the crime had anything to do with the job they applied for. In too many cases, ex-offenders’ applications will automatically go to the bottom of the pile or be tossed out. Those men and women may be out of prison, but they’re still chained to the past.

In the early 2000s, groups in San Francisco and Boston began urging local governments to remove questions about convictions from job applications so that people can be judged first on their qualifications. Their past convictions would still be considered, but not until later in the hiring process, when an applicant has been identified as a serious candidate for the position. And then he or she would have a chance to talk about their record face to face, instead of being reduced to a label. Today there are 14 states, the most recent one being Georgia, and more than 90 cities and counties that have adopted such fair chance policies. The executive order signed by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) in February states that “such policies allow returning citizens an opportunity to explain their unique circumstances in person to a potential employer.”[4] There’s an effort underway here in Nashville through a charter referendum to remove questions about criminal convictions from the initial application stage for Metro government jobs, and you can support the effort this morning by being one of the 6,847 voters whose signatures are needed to put the referendum on the ballot.

Jesus is riding into the city to reveal to us the power of redeeming love. Asking a city to consider removing a box from a form is nothing spectacular, but it may open windows for the restoration of community. It may open windows for the fragrance of redemption to spread.

[1] John 12:3

[2] A day laborer’s wages for a year of work (300 denarii), calculated with a minimum wage of $7.25/hr., would be between $17,400 and $26,100, based on an 8-12 hour workday.

[3] John 13:35