Scripture: John 12:1-8
Originally preached on March 17, 2013 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY
The walk had been so long. The trip seemed endless. The sand and dirt had started to cover ever part of their bodies and still they walked. Their feet ached, the legs ached, and this was starting to feel like the trip that would never end. In the distance they could see Jerusalem though nobody understood exactly why Jesus wanted to go there. When he had turned his face towards Jerusalem nobody could talk him out of it. “Jesus,” they had said, “you can’t go to Jerusalem. You can’t go there. They are after you and you will be walking right into their hands. You will be handing yourself over to the forces that have been trying to figure out a way to catch you for your whole ministry.” And yet, he turned and just started walking. And he would not be deterred. Jesus, for his part, knew. Whether or not he had some vision of the future, he knew how to read the present. He knew that the things that he had said had shaken and challenged the old order of the day. Had shaken and challenged both the religious power of the day and Roman occupying forces. “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.” And he knew that with each step he was getting closer and closer to the end. And he was all alone. I mean, sure he was with his friends, his followers. Sure everywhere he went, everywhere he spoke the townspeople would line the street and climb trees and hills just to get a glimpse of him. Everywhere he went those who believed came to him desperate to find a healing touch, to hear him say, “Go my child and be at peace, your sins have been forgiven and your faith has made you healed.” But even in the midst of his followers, his friends, all the folks who pressed in to see and hear him, all the folks desperate to know God’s love through healing and forgiveness, even then, he was all alone. And who can blame him, really? He had mentioned the possibility that his ministry could end in his death. You can’t actually challenge the old order of the day without death being a distinct possibility as an outcome. You don’t have to look very deep into the history of humanity to see folks who have met untimely ends for standing up for what they believe. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Oscar Romero, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. But every time he mentioned it to his followers they immediately tried to get him to move past it. “Jesus, you are the Christ, the son of the living God,” they would say, “you can’t die.” Try as he might, he could never seem to convince them that part of being devoted to God as the divine parent is being willing to give one’s life to testify both to the presence of God and God’s love for the world. And so they kept on walking.
After one particularly long day of travel, they finally arrived somewhere where they could relax without having to be on their guard, without being inundated with crowds of folks, where they could speak freely and honestly with each other and their hosts. Finally, they had gotten to Bethany, to the house of their friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. They had been invited to stay their for dinner, perhaps for the night, and there, they could expect to be treated as honored guests. And the meal was spectacular. Martha was always a great cook. Freshly caught fish cooked with herbs and spices from the garden outside. Hummus and unleavened bread. Home grown vegetables. They each ate until they had their fill and began to tell stories. Jesus was always such a great story teller. When he would tell stories the whole room would be entranced with him until he was done. The disciples had seen on more than one occasion Jesus keep a group of five thousand men (along with women and children) in rapt attention for hours. And so no one knew exactly how long he had been talking when the scent of nard began to fill the room. Surely Martha hadn’t also made dessert. They were all so stuffed from the main courses that they couldn’t imagine eating anymore. But the smell continued to fill the room and it got stronger the longer they sat there. Jesus, for his part, was feeling quite relaxed. It had been years since his feet had felt this good. Walking all the time left one tired, after all. And so Jesus sat their and allowed Mary to massage the priceless oil into his feet. First, one, then the other. And the longer it went, the more he was able to relax, to let go, to forget if only for a few minutes the task that lay ahead of him. And after the long massage, Mary began to unwrap her hair, take it down out of its covering and dry his feet. With her hair down in this way, Jesus was reminded of her true beauty. And so it was that Jesus continued to simply exist in the moment, trying to feel each squeeze, each smell, each brush of her hair across his feet until… Judas. Jesus’s moment of bliss, perhaps his last moment of bliss, was broken and he was snapped back into the real world. What were the disciples squabbling over now? Judas, piped up, looking down at the woman with great disdain, “what is she doing?,” he said. Doesn’t this silly woman know that this oil could have been sold for three hundred denarii? Do you know how many poor folks that could feed? As Judas continued on and on the mood in the room, a room that had been relaxed and jovial became filled with tension. Jesus, who just a minute ago had been transported from this world into a world of rapture, now was fully present in the room again. “Judas, do you really have no grace in your heart, no eyes to see and ears to hear, do you really not know what’s going on? Leave her alone. Each of you have heard me speak of my death for years now, have heard that this is where this road ends and each time you have put it in the back of your minds or tried to push it out all together. Each time I have tried to explain that this will be our last trip into Jerusalem, that I wanted to spend it with you, my friends this one last time, you have presumed I was wrong. All of you still don’t get it. But Mary does. Mary understands that this is the last time we will ever see each other and she has chosen to mark this day by offering herself to me one time. Taking all the resources of the family to give me one final symbolic gesture and to make my road a little easier to walk. Don’t worry, if you truly want to help poor folks, they are always going to be around, but you aren’t always going to have me. Let’s all of us linger in this moment just a little while longer before things start to speed up and spin out of control.”
In the time that I have been here, a number of passages that I thought I knew so well before have become alive with new meaning for me. For much of my life, I read this story and understood it from the perspective of Judas. Of course this perfume should have been sold and the money used to feed poor people. I actually think the parts in parentheses are later additions to the text by folks who read it the same way I did and wanted to come up with an explanation as to why Judas was wrong. And being at odds with Jesus in a Biblical story is not a good place from which to try and preach and so I had always gotten to this passage in the lectionary and chosen to use something else. But this Lenten season has opened my eyes to new ways of reading scripture in general and this passage in particular. More specifically, having to look at death in a very real sense over the last few weeks has opened my eyes to a new way to read this story that takes into account that this is Jesus last few weeks on this side of the Jordan. And as I read this passage for today, I think about those who just a few weeks ago were in our midst, on this side of life and how much those who were closest to them, those who knew them best might want an evening, an hour, a minute to linger with them in pure bliss. To massage oil into their feet. To enjoy a meal and talk about old times. To be fully aware of each moment as it passed by and not let one second go by in which they were not fully present to one another. The brokenness of the world held at bay for just one night. The old order of the world that will always be there with poor folks and sick folks and folks without homes or families or friends, that part of reality somehow separated for just one minute, one evening in which you could say all you wish you had said, you could do all you wish you had done. Without concern.
It strikes me that there are two ways to view the world. The first, presumes that we are to be servants to the bottom line. That is what responsible people do. We crunch numbers and we apportion out each line item, this for education, this for utilities, this for housing, this part we will set aside for the poor. Maybe it is one percent, maybe, it is ten percent but that’s how we look at the world. But strangely, that doesn’t seem to be how Jesus, nor most of the women in the gospel story view the world. Because more often than not, it is the women who are able to see the shades of gray. More often than not it is the women whom Jesus praises, whether it is Mary (in two separate occasions), or the poor woman who gives all she has to the temple, or the woman who was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’s garment. In a story recorded in a time in which often women were seen and not heard that there are so many recorded stories of Jesus interactions with women is telling. It is more telling that in each of the gospels it is recorded that the women are the first to know of Jesus’s resurrection and that it is ultimately Mary Magdelene to whom Jesus first appears following his resurrection. And in many of the accounts of women, what we see is not a rational segmented approach to faith, it isn’t faith that is dolled out, but rather it is faith as devotion. Devotion to Jesus the person, yes. But also to ministry of Jesus. And so it is that when Mary, sister of Martha, sees Jesus on this trip to Bethany, she, more than anyone else in the room is able to sense that this will be the last time she sees Jesus. Mary, more than anyone in the room, is able to sense that if she wants to thank Jesus for all he has done for her and her family this is the last chance she will have. But more than that, she is able to sense his dis-ease as the prospect of walking towards Jerusalem. She is able to sense the darkness that is growing in his eyes as his days grow shorter. She is able to look at her friend and know exactly what he needs at that moment. She, more than anyone else in the room has eyes to see and ears to hear. So what do we learn from Mary?
In our own time and place there seems to be two ways to conceive of faith. The segmented kind, in which our faith is a thing next to other things. Vying for our time and our attention. In which we apportion out the proper measure of faith just as we apportion out other parts of our lives. We work, we eat, we sleep, we pray. Or we choose to live as people, fully aware of each moment in time and what each moment requires. Fully aware of the presence of God and the Holy Spirit in our midst. Fully aware of the incredible potential we have in the lives that we are given. Fully aware that each moment brings an infinite number of ways in which we might better serve God and each other. Fully aware that while the pull of the old order of the world is strong, the pull of God is even stronger if we will but open our eyes and ears and live into it. Fully aware that the world is ours to change and make into the world that we know, we know it can be. Fully aware that the call to devotion may require the ultimate sacrifice because you can question the old order without the old order striking back but also fully aware that in the end, we lie in the hands of God and nothing else. Held up and loved, surrounded by the protection of God, the love of God, from which we may never, ever be separated no matter what.
Jesus, turned his face towards Jerusalem, following that night. Knowing full well that it would be his last time to do so. Knowing full well that each moment took on an importance, took on a a poignancy, took on an intimacy with those whom he loved the most, and so with great agony and exhaustion he moved on from Bethany towards Jerusalem and so we go with him too. To enter the city on Palm Sunday and die with him on Good Friday. It’s the only way. Amen.