Sermon Preached at
St. James Episcopal Church • San Francisco, CA
St. James Episcopal Church • San Francisco, CA
Sunday, March 17, 2013
Lent V – Year C
The Rev. Ron Willis
Jesus, the Son of God, the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, that Jesus, our Jesus, wept…
That’s what happened the last time Jesus was here in Bethany… a village not all that far, just across a valley, from Jerusalem. And according to John’s Gospel it wasn’t all that long ago, either.
Of all of Jesus’ committed disciples during his few years of active ministry, some stand out as having shared a particularly endearing relationship with him. John the Evangelist, our Gospeler today, is most certainly one of them.
Mary of Magdala, and Mary his beloved mother, these immediately come to mind. Then so do Martha and Mary of Bethany, and their brother, Lazarus, about whom Mary cried, “he whom you love is ill.”
Not all that long before today’s Gospel account took place in Bethany, Jesus had led his disciples to this village to answer the desperate call of Mary and Martha that Lazarus their brother, Jesus’ beloved friend, was dying. But Jesus had tarried on the way, and Lazarus died before his arrival.
Now John tells us that Jesus knew that his mission in Bethany at that time was to prove beyond any doubt that he was God’s chosen One… that he would raise Lazarus from the dead in order to reveal the power of God in and through him, and thereby increase the number of the faithful.
However, when confronted with the profound grief of Martha and Mary, even knowing what the outcome of the situation would be, Jesus cannot help but be touched by and drawn into the depth of their pain… and allowing himself to enter into that pain, Jesus weeps. John’s account goes on to describe that Jesus continues to experience profound sorrow in solidarity with his friends, right up until he raises Lazarus from the tomb.
In John’s Gospel there is a strong connection between what happened during Jesus’ prior visit to Bethany and the one we hear about today. The siblings’ direct experience of Jesus’ divine power inspires Mary’s extraordinary response to Jesus’ presence today.
But before we go there, it is important to take a quick detour and look at what the broader consequences of Jesus’ actions were after that earlier visit to Bethany.
By the time Jesus and his entourage arrived at the home of Mary and Martha, Lazarus had already been dead for four days. Many other faithful members of their Jewish religious community had gathered and were sitting in vigil with them when Jesus arrived.
So when Jesus raised Lazarus from that cold and putrid tomb, there were numerous witnesses to this miracle. Many immediately became his followers. Some, however, ran to Jerusalem and couldn’t wait to tell the religious authorities what they had witnessed.
The authorities were petrified at the prospect of someone who could supersede their authority, as certainly none of them had ever raised a man from the dead. Beyond that, the potential for testimony from a man raised from the dead as a witness was just too much to bear. And it was based upon this fear of loss of power and influence that the authorities decided emphatically that Jesus had to be put to death. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
As a matter of fact, fast forward just a bit to the verses following today’s Gospel, and they were so unnerved that they sought to kill Lazarus, as well, to ensure that the story of the miracle was extinguished for good.
However, after Lazarus is raised, and before word can reach nearby Jerusalem of his miraculous act, Jesus and his disciples retreat northeast into less-populated lands.
Knowing, now, the background of Jesus’ current visit to Bethany, it is clear that he makes his return to Judea knowing how dangerous it is for him to come closer and closer to Jerusalem. As a matter of fact, we are just days away from his passion - which makes today’s Gospel message all that more poignant.
On his way to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to be followed so very soon by his mock trial and sentence, all of which we commemorate in the liturgy of the Palms next Sunday, he pauses on his journey to break bread with his dear friends.
Picture it… Bethany… 33 AD…
A modest but ample home shared by three siblings is abuzz with preparation for a very special dinner party. The aroma of olive oil and herbs mingle with the fat of lamb as succulent droplets collide with hot coals; citrus, anise, coriander, these, too infuse the air. This is a most special day.
The man they know as both friend and Messiah is to join them with his friends for dinner this evening. Martha, of course, is spinning in circles trying to make sure that everything is in its place. Mary, on the other hand, keeps fighting back the urge to cry. And Lazarus, well, he’s just sitting there with a big smile on his face. (Normally I would want to comment on the pervasiveness of patriarchal stereotypes in Ancient Near Eastern texts, but… he was dead and entombed for four days recently, so in my book that gets him a pass).
And now, Jesus and his friends arrive. Warm greetings are exchanged and all are genuinely filled with delight to be together. Eventually the men gather around the low table, and reclining on their sides they enjoy their splendid meal.
Conversation ensues, the meal is devoured, and contentment, at least for the moment, inhabits the home. Unexpectedly, an intoxicatingly sweet aroma commands the room and drives away all olfactory memory of meat or vegetable, herb or spice.
Heads turn around the candlelit room until the source of the extravagant perfume can be identified. Eyes fall first on Jesus, then to his feet, then to Mary’s delicate hands as she anoints Jesus’ feet with the most precious of fragrant oils. As the cracks in his heels and the calluses on his soles become softer and less prominent, Mary begins to wipe the excess oil from his feet with her long brown hair.
Jesus’ disciples, despite all that he has shared with them about the coming days, remain utterly clueless about Jesus’ imminent passion. So Mary’s actions are simply inexplicable to them. Judging by its fragrance alone, they know that the perfume must have been terribly expensive, so why use it on, of all places, someone’s feet?
And beyond that, they all knew that Mary was a beloved friend and disciple of Jesus… the subservient act of wiping and drying another’s feet with one’s hair is an ultimate sign of inequity, something that would only be done when there was an enormous discrepancy between the status of the individuals involved.
But then Judas, ever watchful for an opportunity to increase his lot in life, exclaims scornfully that Mary has just wasted perfume worth a year of wages, and for what?! “Think about what that could have done if used for the poor! “(As if Judas cared the least bit about those who were in need.) Judas is ironically trying to stake the moral high ground here, but only out of grief over what he could have purchased for himself out of the portion of the 300 dinarii that he would have stolen from the common purse had they sold the perfume.
Jesus responds immediately and forcefully to Judas’ rebuke, exclaiming, “Leave Her Alone!”
He then follows with one of his most abused of his Scriptural quotes when used out of context, “You always have the poor with you, but you don’t always have me.” How many times has this been proof-texted to uphold a theology that claims that Christians have little or no role in caring for those in need, or for the mindful stewardship of the Earth, but instead are only responsible for making new Christian converts? Faced with the overwhelming number of times that Jesus stresses that our most important obligation after loving God is to love our neighbor, how do people fall into this heresy? But, I digress…
What Jesus wanted his disciples to understand was the imminence of his execution. And at this very late point in their relationship, it seems that it’s less about his concern that they intellectually grasp the fullness of his ministry – he must know that in time that would come. Instead, perhaps it is their emotional state that is his primary concern. If only they had listened more carefully, if only they had understood what Jesus had been saying about his ministry for the last months and years, they might be able to steel themselves for the coming onslaught of disbelief, fear and grief that they would soon experience.
Just as Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb, so too his heart must have ached over the dark path upon which his disciples were about to embark. If only they understood, like Mary of Bethany did, that all God asked of them was faith in Him as their redeemer.
Mary provides an intimate window into the life of a true disciple – to offer all that we have in service to our Lord and Savior. Her act of compassion sets the stage for Jesus’ similar compassionate act of washing the feet of his disciples in the coming days, and his charging them with doing the same for each other. It’s not an accident that John uses the same word to describe Mary’s act of wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair as he uses for Jesus’ act of washing the feet of his disciples. But for now, only Mary of Bethany and a select few others truly understand who Jesus is, and to whom they belong.
To close I would like to share a poem I discovered while studying today’s reading. From Liz Curtis Higgs:
Gratitude brought her to her knees.
Reverence brought her closer still.
Love now draws her face toward the ground.
Like the perfume before it,
her dark hair spills across his feet.