Isaiah 43:16-21 | Psalm 126 | Philippians 3:4b-14 | John 12:1-8
The parable last week of the prodigal father and his two sons was a great story for drawing us in. It is so easy to identify ourselves with one or another of the characters. And I suspect, like me, over years of hearing the story, you find yourself identifying with different characters as your own story changes, as you are in a new place, and open to new lessons and new insights. Sometimes I am the younger son, searching for the unconditional love I crave in all the places it cannot be found before finding it where it was all along. Other times, I am the dutiful son or daughter who does everything right and yet, I’m so empty and unsatisfied. And sometimes I am the father, the waiting one, so full with love that there is room for nothing else.
And while it may not be so apparent, the story today in this house in Bethany offers us an equally interesting set of people who hold a mirror to our own lives. Mary and Jesus tend to take center stage here, but this room in the house of Lazarus on a Sunday six days before the Passover is full of people whose stories speak into ours on this Sunday in this room in the home of a dead man who is alive and comes to meet us in this Word and at this table.
We have Judas, of course. We know him as the betrayer. John’s gospel calls him a thief. But I wonder. Who among us haven’t asked the question he does? And why shouldn’t we? St. Andrew is a community that cares deeply about the poor. We give a tremendous amount of our own resources—our money, our time, our creativity and passion to the women and families of the Center of Hope, to the men of ARISE, to the men and women who sleep outside on our Renton streets, to those who suffer from mental illness, to the families who come to be with us on Bridge Ministry Sundays, and to each other week after week. We are intentional about living within our means, with balance; we share what we have. Is it so bad to ask about the wise use of resources?
And yet, what does the judgment of the gospel writer have to teach us about our own questions? Are there times when we too shape a question that sounds more altruistic than it really is? Do we betray ourselves and our communities with assumptions we have not examined fully? If Jesus is not saying that the poor do not matter, which, he isn’t, then what is he saying about the nature of extravagance, about what time it is, about our attention to the moment and what it requires?
Judas may be, as John says a thief. But we know two thieves will be on Jesus’ right and his left, hanging beside him at his crucifixion. They will each choose different paths, and even if we know the future for Judas, we know ours is still open.
The season of Lent invites us to look more deeply at what really drives us. It offers us the opportunity to turn away from self-deception and choose honesty and ultimately health and wholeness in our lives. It invites us to be courageous in self-awareness, trusting that goodness meets us on the other side, that righteousness is a gift offered freely to us.
So there’s Judas. And Martha is here in the room, and so is Lazarus. Martha is serving. What a beautiful thing she is doing! If we pay attention to the original language we’ll know she is being a deacon. She is ministering to others in the room. What she does allows the beauty that is revealed in the story to unfold.
This happens all the time, of course. There are people in this room this morning who quietly make things better for others. They don’t need a lot of attention. They may not even want attention. But they go about quietly serving, giving, blessing others. They’ve washed linens, prepared flowers and candles and music. They pass out worship aids and quietly offer a hymnal opened to the right page to someone who doesn’t quite have our way of doing things down yet. And, you know, sometimes it is worth our noticing. It is worth paying attention to the goodness that surrounds us—especially in those moments in history when it seems there is so little of it.
Which brings us to Lazarus. Lazarus is a problem for some. To put it more succinctly, that Lazarus is in the room at all is a problem. He was supposed to be dead, and his presence now in the room where Mary and Martha were mourning and Jesus wept is a problem for Jesus’ enemies. They will go out and plot Lazarus’ death along with Jesus’ in short order. And, yet, he is alive. He is at the table, eating and drinking, his life given back to him. Imagine the energy he has—this one who shouldn’t have survived, but did. Surely his presence bursts like a beautiful spring day filled with color and fragrance.
We know these people too, don’t we. The ones who always make us feel better, who bring us back to ourselves. Vonnie Braun is always that presence for me. Who is that for you? Have you thanked them? We know the feeling don’t we? Sometimes we are that presence for others.
And it’s that joyful presence that reminds us there is reason to hope. We are, of course, unsettled by the rising tide of intolerance we see in our political process. We see the growing divide between different groups. But there are so many peacemakers out there working to understand. There are so many people, many in this room, in fact, who go about their lives listening to others, treating everyone they meet with honor, quietly mentoring and nurturing young ones and caring tenderly for old ones, building friendships, reaching across difference, seeking understanding. And with each and every act, new life is born and we remember what we’ve known: we can make it—at least for a while, at least until we next gather in this house around word and bread and hope and promise.
And then there is, of course, Mary. This one of such passion and extravagance. What a courageous presence she is—seeing what is coming, anointing Jesus for his burial by making a claim about the meaning of his life of self-giving love. Mary reminds us that the answer to intolerance is empathy. The answer to fear is audacity. The answer to doubt is generosity.
Mary’s extravagant act is the sermon that day in that house. And it is the center of the sermon in this house today as well. There are no tears with this Mary. That’s for the other gospels. This Mary is audacious, bold and so filled with love there is room for nothing else.
And when it all could turn awkward, as it no doubt could with Judas’ judgment in that room on that day, and in our room when conventional restraint is abandoned, Jesus’s affirmation confirms that all is as it should be, that Mary has done a beautiful thing. And Jesus will learn from her. When they next gather in that house, he will be the one who gets on his knees and serves, washing their feet, and showing them what it means to be his disciple.
The quote from Wendell Berry on the front of the worship aid says it all: “What we need is here.” Everything that is needed in this story is present, and it is present in our own midst as well—all the gifts of the Spirit that make for life, that shape us as a community ready to face whatever we will face with the love and empathy and generosity that has the power to overcome the world—its all here. God’s righteousness, in you! Do you see it? Do you believe it? Join the song. Follow this way, and live.