Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent
April 7, 2019, Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
John 12: 1-11
Introduction to the Scripture
We’ve been reading and thinking about parts of Luke since before Lent started, but today the lectionary takes a detour from Luke into John. Before I read from John, a couple of comments about today’s passage:
1. When Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you…” he was quoting a part of Deuteronomy 15 that would have been familiar to his companions, and they were probably mentally filling in the rest of the quotation the same way we would if someone said, “A stitch in time….saves nine.” They knew that the whole of the Torah is clear that there is never an excuse for failing to respond to the needs of the poor and vulnerable.
2. Making disparaging comments about the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time and putting the full blame for his death on them rather than on the Roman army of occupation has long been used to excuse anti-Semitism. We Christian readers have a particular responsibility to be careful about how we hear and interpret references to Jewish leaders, such as the chief priests.
Finally, a note about the context of today’s scripture reading: John 11 is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus and the reactions of people who saw it or heard about it. Some people, John says, believed in Jesus; others, particularly the religious leaders, and I think we should add, the Roman authorities, were threatened by Jesus. As a result, it was no longer safe for Jesus to be in public because his enemies were planning to kill him. Our reading today picks up from that point.
John has taken us to Bethany; we’re in the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus where Jesus had come for safety from his enemies. A woman moved quickly and gracefully from kitchen to table, her capable hands full, and the aroma of good food almost visible. She was working as hard as our deacons do. It was Martha, of course. Who else could it have been but Martha? She stopped by the side of one of the men, her brother Lazarus, newly released from the grip of death. Judas was nearby among the other disciples in his pinstriped, well-tailored robe, watching alertly so he didn’t miss a thing. Meanwhile, onlookers gathered outside the house, while the religious leaders were conspiring again against Jesus and the disciples. The church was inside, doing what the church often does, sharing in a meal and arguing about finances, while the world looked on from a distance, some people hoping to see something true and important, while others were afraid to see signs of life.
Then Mary entered the room, holding a jar with great care. She pulled out the stopper so that the scent of nard filled the air, perfume so expensive that a pound of it would cost the equivalent of a laborer’s annual earnings. As Mary knelt in front of Jesus, she anointed his feet with perfume so that even the sumptuous aroma of good food was hardly noticeable. It was an action of spectacular generosity, devotion and love.
For a moment, the whole room was stilled. But Judas couldn’t let it be simply what it was. Almost immediately he began criticizing Mary, saying that she had just wasted resources that could have been used to feed hungry people. To give him his due, he was accurate in what he said about feeding the poor. Still, Judas missed what mattered most, as Jesus was quick to point out: Jesus knew, and they knew, how precarious his life was at that point. Mary had done something new and probably unprecedented and maybe that was part of Judas’ problem. She had stepped out of the role her society assigned to her and had been extravagantly, generously assertive, purchasing enormously expensive perfume, and doing for Jesus what a servant would ordinarily have done, and doing it with stunning flair as she even wiped his feet with her hair instead of a towel.
Maybe Judas was so serious that he felt responsible for everything and was afraid that Mary had messed things up. He knew that changes were happening all around him, and he was aware that Jesus and all of them were in danger. Maybe Judas just wanted to be sure that the good work Jesus had been doing was sustainable; maybe he wanted to control everything so that his expectations about what should happen were met. Then again as John says, maybe he was just a thief. Or maybe his words and his thoughts were a complicated mix of all of that.
Mary saw that something, someone, utterly new and transformative was present in that room. She knew what Jesus had been doing, who better than the sister of Lazarus! But more important, she saw who Jesus was. So she poured out her love with abandon in that extravagant gesture that so disturbed Judas. Her celebration of the presence of Jesus with them stands in contrast to Judas’ anxious seriousness. She knew that the religious leaders and the Roman Empire were a danger to them all, but she also knew that more than all the doing and achieving in the world, what matters is being fully, joyfully, creatively present and alive.
Sometimes we get obsessed with what we think we should be doing and sometimes we are able to allow ourselves to be the best that is in us. And sometimes we are pulled in several directions at once.
Sometimes we are with Judas, at his best at least, fretting about the practicalities, wanting to make sure that the bills get paid and some money is set aside for future needs, and checking that the locks are secured before we leave the church building.
Sometimes we are with Martha, making sure that the needs of our community are attended to, setting up for the potluck. Sometimes we are with Lazarus, marveling, still, at the sheer, simple wonder of life and freedom.
At other times we are with Mary: rejoicing in the presence of the Holy One with us, knowing that God is bringing hope and newness, and that transformation must be celebrated.
Often we’d rather not admit that we need our lives to be transformed. “I’m fine,” we might say, “Don’t worry about me.” We say that because we don’t want to need help. Or maybe we want to make people think that we’re competent and capable and always on the top of our game.
And most of us would almost always prefer to avoid looking at or acknowledging the systems that privilege us over other people.
As John reminds us, in the meantime, there are other forces at work, like the plotters who decided to kill both Jesus and Lazarus because Jesus had integrity and strength and a transformative presence. The community around Jesus was a reminder that the plotters themselves might be vulnerable to being changed, and that even the structures of our common life might be altered so that they support life more than death, freedom more than bondage, and creativity more than uniformity.
Oscar Romero was chosen to be Archbishop of El Salvador in 1977 because he seemed like a safe choice, at least for the privileged of his country. He was a shy, scholarly man, but when he became archbishop he began to be more fully aware of the abuses, repression, injustice and assassinations that kept the ruling class and the military junta in power. The combination of a new look at reality and Romero’s own faith transformed him. Like Lazarus, he was brought from a cave into the bright light of reality. He began to oppose the repressive military government and to position himself with the poor. The ways he was changing, even transforming life in El Salvador were such a threat to the powerful that they assassinated him in 1980. In the years since, life has continued to be incredibly hard for the majority of people in El Salvador, but Romero is remembered and revered. Hope for transformation still makes a difference.
Hope of change and transformation makes a difference here, too. Yet we in the church are often nearly as uncomfortable as the religious leaders and Roman authorities of Jesus’ day with the possibility of real change. We have settled in and settled down and settled for far less than we could have. In some times and in some places it would be fair to say that churches have become a society for the preservation of the status quo. We sit in the same pews week after week, even here at Crescent Hill, and only rarely do we realize that Lazarus and Mary and Martha, and maybe even Judas are next to us or just behind us. We like continuity; we hope not to have to give up our comfort with the way things are. We are not always sure that we want to know that change is possible. And the idea of real transformation is beyond uncomfortable for most of us. If the dead can be raised, everything is up for grabs, nothing is tied down, and the only thing that is certain is what we cannot control: the transforming power and love and compassion of God.
We’re not so very different from that first circle of disciples who gathered around Jesus. Martha, and Mary and Lazarus – and maybe even Judas – are here with us.
• Mary, you are here. You have been transformed from careful compliance to conventional expectations and you have become assertive and creative.
• Lazarus, you are here, as well. You have been raised from a grave of deadly sickness of some kind or another and you are free to live fully.
• Martha, we see you, too, even though you are usually busy taking care of the rest of us, just now you celebrate with us and feel the joy of the presence of Jesus with us.
• Judas, you, too, are probably here. Maybe even now you will be transformed to understand that there are more important matters than practicality and propriety.
• All the rest, too, are here, all the rest of us who exist with self-doubt and exhaust ourselves with all the demands we place on ourselves. We, too, can discover the meaning of living a new and transformed life.
All these amazing possibilities for us are not the end of the story. They mean that not only we can be transformed as individuals, but that our world can be changed with us and by us and by the transforming love and justice of God. So that we and this community and our world with us can become
• a place where everyone has enough and wealth is shared;
• where the lion and the lamb can lie down together and every little child everywhere can have enough to eat every day;
• where equality is the rule and justice is the same for everyone;
• where teachers don’t have to wonder if there will be pensions for them when they retire;
• where we don’t refuse to raise taxes even a little bit so that we can fund Medicaid or keep the swimming pools as well as the golf courses open,
• and where the privileges of being white, educated and upper middle class are not more than what everyone enjoys.
The creative power of the Holy was in and with Martha and Mary and Lazarus – and perhaps would have been even in Judas if only he had been willing. Although we may be frightened by transformation and sometimes resist it, still God is with and in us, here and now.