This sermon was preached at Westfield on Sunday, March 17 from the Gospel Lection for the week.
I love a show. From last night’s fantastic Coffee House to broadway musicals, I love the idea that we can tell the human story through plays and musicals and songs. One of my favorite shows is Fiddler on the Roof. Have you seen it? It’s not a particularly happy show–not one of the ones you go to see for it’s toe-tapping, show-stopping production numbers. This is a musical that weaves through story and song the tale of the human condition. The musical tells the story of a Jewish family and their village–their sorrows and joys, and their forced departure from their home. At the beginning of the show there is, as the title tells us, a fiddler on a roof playing a lone tune. Tyve, our protagonist, walks onto the stage and says “a fiddle on the roof. sounds crazy, no?”
Lent is a time of the crazy. Lent is a time of the illogical, of the unexpected. Lent is a time of paradoxes. It’s a time when everything is turned on its head. Shane Claiborne reminds us in his book Jesus for President that these paradoxes aren’t unique to Lent, they are the story of our faith. He writes that this is “the greatest paradox and humor of God’s audacious power: a stuttering prophet will be the voice of God, a barren old lady will become the mother of a nation, a shepherd boy will become their king, and a homeless boy will lead them home.”
For the past weeks, we’ve been walking with Jesus toward Jerusalem, toward the town that will name him both king and criminal. But, before he reaches Jerusalem, Jesus decides to stop at a familiar place, a home of sorts.
John tells us that Jesus had just come to Bethany six days before the Passover. Now this wasn’t Jesus’ first visit to Bethany, a village near Jerusalem on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. Just a chapter earlier than where our reading began today, Jesus was called to Bethany by Mary and Martha to help their ill brother Lazarus. Well, I’m sure you remember what happened there! Jesus doddles, doing some kind of work for the Big Guy, and ends up running late.
When Jesus finally arrives four days later, Lazarus has died. He is greeted by a less than content Martha who walks up to him and says “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus replies, stating that Lazarus will rise again. Martha, confused, dismisses Jesus’ comment: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
You can almost hear her think, “but that doesn’t do anything for me, here, now!”
Jesus then offers one of his more iconic teachings on the Resurrection. You remember this part: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”
Even though they die will live. Sounds pretty crazy to me.
Jesus approaches the tomb and tells the people gathered there to roll away the stone. Martha runs to him. “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” Jesus pays no mind and calls Lazarus back to life. The dead come to life again, that which was rotten is made well.
This is the event that is fresh in everyone’s mind when we pick up the Gospel lesson today. It’s six days before the Passover. Now, John has three Passovers in his narrative. This is the final, and most critical, one. It is during this Passover that Jesus will be crucified–our paschal lamb sacrificed for us. Jesus, of course, knows what’s coming and decides that a visit with friends might soften the blow. I can imagine wanting the comfort of a dear friend if death was knocking at my door.
He arrives at Mary and Martha’s house. Both women are there, along with Lazarus and, of all people, Judas. Here, gathered in one space we have the span of humanity–the worker, Martha; the adoring disciple, Mary; the betrayer, Judas; and the resurrected, Lazarus.
They ate supper, and afterward, we are told that Mary took a pound of pure nard, a perfumed ointment imported from the Himalayas, and anointed Jesus’ feet with it. Then she wiped his feet with her hair. Judas, ever the realist, jumps at Mary and scolds her: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
Three hundred denarii was a lot of money, nearly a year’s wages.
The writer of John adds his own aside here: “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.”
Jesus jumps to Mary’s defense. “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Mary’s action here, Mary’s anointing of Jesus, is one of the paradoxical moments of Lent. At once, she is anointing a king and preparing a body for burial. Jewish custom held that Kings, upon their coronation, were anointed with perfumed oils as a symbol of God’s abundance and choosing. Tradition also held that when someone died, they were anointed with oils as a symbol of honor (the nicer the perfume, the higher the esteem). This anointing was also practical, it made the process of death a little more bearable. Frankly, it helped to control the stench.
We are told earlier in the story of Martha and Mary that Mary was the model disciple–sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening. Here, she doesn’t even speak. Rather, her actions speak for her. She, at some level, understands what’s coming. Mary understands that what is will no longer be. She sees that God is doing a new thing.
Judas however is blind to the beauty of this action. He protests. In fact, he offers a logical reason. Feed the poor! We could do so much more with this money! Why waste it?
But Mary’s action is beyond reason or logic. Mary’s action is one of love, of embrace. She sees the new things that are part of her future, while Judas wallows in the the things of old.
Jesus‘ last words in this story emphasize this. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Here, Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 15: ‘For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand…to the needy and to the poor, in the land.” Jesus isn’t dismissing the poor, but pointing to the new thing that is happening in the midst of what always has been.
But hear this: we can’t see the new thing God is doing in our midst if we are consumed with the former things.
Our reading from Isaiah today warns us against just that: being so caught up in the former things, the way things always have been, the way things always have been done, that we become blind to the new things happening in front of us.
Do you remember Isaiah words?
Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
Did you hear what Isaiah tells us? God is still working in our midst. The prophet doesn’t write “Thus says the Lord who made a way in the sea…who brought out chariot and horse.” No. He says “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea…who brings out chariot and horse.” You see, God is still working in our midst. Yet, despite his on going work, we are blind to it.
So Isaiah decides to spell it out for us. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth (or in another translation, “even now it’s coming”, do you not perceive it?”
Do you not perceive it? Think back over the past weeks of Gospel readings. We’ve seen Jesus as both lamb and shepherd, both prince and slave. We have seen him clothed in light upon the mountain, and we look toward him being stripped of his might upon the cross.
Even in our Gospel lesson this morning, we see the broadness of his grace–accepting the generosity of Mary and the presence of the one who would betray him.
He is at once earthly and cosmic. He was defeated and is victorious. God is doing a new thing! Do you see it?
My last congregation, back in Georgia, has a beautiful building. It’s a smaller sanctuary built a hundred years after ours. It’s built from Georgia granite and is graced by stained glass windows in different shades of purple and green.
I recall one summer, when it became clear that our church building, with all its beauty and all its grace wasn’t accessible in ways that it needed to be. Like many old churches, accessibility issues weren’t really a consideration–not like we’d think of them today. There were lots of steps–sound familiar? No elevator. We wanted everyone to be welcome, but we particularly wanted a little girl to know she was welcome. She has a condition that keeps her in a wheelchair. It was clear that she needed to have as much access to our church as anyone else.
Not even a year later, good work was afoot, money was being raised, and necessary action was being taken to make sure that anyone and everyone that wants to be part of this community has that opportunity. Some pointed to the cost of these additions as more than the church could handle. They asked this question: couldn’t this money be better spent somewhere else?
Could we spend that money on another program? On outreach? On the roof? Yes. But if we ask that question, then we must ask this one: Did Mary waste perfume on Jesus’ feet? Did Mary waste perfume anointing Jesus’ feet? Hardly. He accepts her extravagant gift with grace and gratitude realizing that generosity breeds generosity.
Soon, in this church, we’ll be talking about structural improvements. Our good team of steeple people have been faithfully figuring out how to address our beautiful and slightly leaky steeple. But we’ll also be looking beyond that–about being sure that our structure matches what we as a congregation already are–welcoming, inviting, loving.
As theologian William Carter writes “either we love generously, or we do not. Either we are already engaged in providing for the poor, [the outcast, the other], or we are secretly hoarding what might otherwise be shared.”
The poor Carter speaks of aren’t just economically troubled. No, the poor encompasses the outcast, the other, the ones who don’t look like us, who don’t speak like us, to don’t eat like us. And when we look in the eyes of these, we are looking into the eyes of Christ. When we provide for these, we provide for Christ.
What we are called to do today is to not remember the former things. To be clear, I’m not suggesting we simply forget the many and beautiful ways that God has worked in our lives and the in the life of this church. To do that would be to sin. What I am suggesting is this: the way things always have been is not an acceptable reason to keep our eyes closed to the ways God is working right in front of us in this very sanctuary. No longer can we say “We’ve never done it that way before” as an excuse to keep from doing God’s work.
Gone are the days where security and stubbornness disguised as tradition can keep people from our midst. This is not just our problem. This is a problem for the church universal. We are called beyond hiding behind our traditions to live risky lives.
Because here is the Good News: God loves us. And because God loves us so much, God sent his son, Jesus. And Jesus taught us to live risky lives. To risk loving one another. To risk feeding people. To risk nourishing them. Jesus taught us to risk hope and to risk joy. To risk extravagant generosity. To risk radical hospitality. He taught us to risk using the good oil, to risk anointing the beloved. He taught us to risk opening our eyes to the new thing that is happening.
Yes, it’s risky. Yes, it’s messy, Yes, the answer might not be clear just yet. Yes, it’s frightening. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. But God is doing a new thing; even now it’s coming. Do you see it?