Sermon for Lent 5, Sunday, March 13 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Is 43:16-21; Ps 126; Phil 3:4b-14; Jn 12:1-8
Sometimes people say that they find the Jesus of John’s gospel the hardest to relate to, that Jesus in the other gospels seems more human. I don’t find that to be true; in fact, John’s gospel is the only gospel which talks about Jesus having friends. Not just disciples, but friends, people with whom he had specific and personal human relationships. The Beloved Disciple. Mary Magdalene. And perhaps most of all, the Bethany family, Mary and Martha and Lazarus. Jesus walks into Jerusalem, where he knows very well the authorities are trying to kill him, because of Lazarus and Mary and Martha, because Lazarus is dead and Mary and Martha are grieving, and it is the raising of Lazarus which sets off the final plot leading to Jesus’s death. Not only Jesus, but the disciples as well, knew this when they came back to the city. “Let us go and die with him,” says Thomas, as they set off towards Lazarus’s grave, as Jesus sets off to lay down his life for his friend.
Martha comes to meet him on the road and makes an extraordinary confession of faith. “I believe that you are the Christ, the one who is coming into the world.” She is the only one, in this story, who unambiguously recognize Jesus as Messiah during his lifetime, taking the step which Peter takes in the other gospels—just one example of John’s tendency to place women in leading roles where the other gospels place men. And Jesus stands in front of the grave and calls Lazarus out, and demonstrates that death does not, in the face of love, have the final word.
Now, as the authorities move in, this little threatened group of friends, probably still emotionally exhausted from everything that’s happened, sit down for dinner. And at dinner it is Martha’s sister Mary who makes the exceptional gesture. She comes into the room, and kneels down, and pours an absurdly large amount of extremely expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet. She unties her hair and wipes his feet with it. None of this was normal, any more than it would be now. None of this was polite or well-mannered or in any way reasonable. It is an act of extravagance and self-revelation and vulnerability, the kind of love we are mostly too constrained, too afraid, ever to show.
Mary doesn’t anoint Jesus’s head, which was the traditional way of honouring a guest. She falls down before her friend and anoints his feet. It is both an act of humble service, an act normally performed by a servant, and also an act of prophecy—it is what women did when they were preparing a body for burial. She anticipates Jesus’s own act of washing his disciples’ feet, shows that she already understands Jesus’s call to service without needing that lesson. And she shows as well that she understands the cost; that by raising her brother, Jesus has set himself on the path to an inevitable death at the hands of the political and religious authorities. The Messiah who kneels to serve, who calls us to imitate him in that service, is also the Messiah who offers himself, his whole life, who puts no boundaries on his love. And Mary models that before him, her understanding, her incarnation, of what he has taught and will teach.
And Jesus receives this love. Before he bends to wash the feet of Peter and the others, he allows himself to be served by this woman, to be given care, in a way that society would find inappropriate, unreasonable. He allows Mary to be the model of God’s excessive, unmeasured, unreasonable love for us, the love God pours out on us like perfume, love to the point of death on a cross. The love that it is so hard, sometimes, for us to accept. So easy to refuse. And a love that is, like Jesus’s love for the members of the Bethany family, personal, individual, specific. God loves each one of us, not as an abstract representative of humanity, but as the particular, named, troubled and lovely exact individuals that we are, with all our strengths and flaws, our complicated histories, all the desires and wishes we can hardly admit to ourselves and the goodness within us which we can hardly begin to know.
There is another named person at that table. There is Judas. In Mark and Matthew, it’s just “some disciples” who ask why the ointment wasn’t sold and the money given to the poor. John, once again, makes this a story about a particular individual, with a particular relationship with Jesus, a relationship which is breaking down on one side. And I think gives us is a clue about the real problem Judas presents with his statement here, even if we don’t accept John’s accuations of theft—which I suspect was an after-the-fact justification, born out of the knowledge of the betrayal to come. But that is not, I believe, what’s happening just now. Judas—exhausted and probably terrified himself, near breaking, about to break — is thinking, insofar as he’s thinking at all and not just lashing out in pain, about a kind of big abstract category, “The Poor.” This sort of general mass of unfortunate people, who don’t really have characteristics, aside from being Poor. They don’t have names, histories, friends or families, desires or griefs. They’re just Poor People. And you give money to them, in a distant sort of way, without having to get to know them by name. That is the thing that you do, the way things are done.
Jesus’s response to Judas says that this big abstract mass he imagines, The Poor, Those Poor People—that abstract mass will always exist. You can always find someone less well off, and find a way to deliver some charity to them at a distance. But individuals, real people, whether Jesus or that panhandler on the corner, people don’t last forever. People are as temporary and fragile as the first grass of spring. A person, the person you have a relationship with, the person you are called to serve, that person will not always be there, they may not be there tomorrow. It is from that care and knowledge, I think, that we may come to the point of wanting to change things, not only to relieve need in a temporary way, but to create a world where no one needs to walk for miles on bleeding feet to get a sandwich in a church hall, where no one is treated with disdain or disrespect, where all the particular individual people can live lives of particular individual safety and dignity. And to know that people may want things that are not the most useful. Maybe flowers on a table, or music, or a decorated tree at Christmas, take some kind of priority over nutritious food sometimes, because we all need those things, we need useless beauty, we need art, and we need pointless expressions of love. We all need, as the old union song says, both bread and roses.
To be in relationship with a named, a known, individual means many things. It means that we have to try—admitting that we will usually fail—to love the ones God loves, the unlikeable ones, the difficult, unpleasant, demanding, needy ones, the ones so like ourselves. To accept, as well, that people will want impractical things, inappropriate things, unreasonable things; to be prepared sometimes to offer that. Not because they are The Poor but because they are people, mortal transient people who will die someday and be lost to us, whom we must love now when we have the chance. And so we reach out from our own poverty, our grief and selfishness, our confusion and uncertainty, and do our inadequate best to love in the way the person, the real person, in front of us needs to be loved, with whatever resources we can find.
Because God loves unreasonably, loves each one of us in our individual and personal and often very silly needs. And we can only respond to this love by loving back. Loving the people who are here in this world with us, so briefly, so vanishingly, people who are hurt and lost. Not trying to reckon what they deserve, because God doesn’t care about what we deserve, and thank God for that. None of us deserves the infinite love of the divine, and it doesn’t matter. God only cares what we need. There is need and desire, there is the pouring out of care, there is the frail human effort to incarnate God’s love for each other.
It might be easier if God’s love were measured, if it were about what is useful and appropriate, if it were about what we earn or deserve; because then we could respond with a kind of measured, appropriate, limited care. But we are not asked for that. We are asked for relationship, a relationship that takes us places we would never willingly go, that will spill a whole jar of perfume, a year’s wages, on one worn and calloused pair of feet. A relationship that takes us to the offering of the Cross, and of our own whole lives.