Worship | Lent 5: Turn/Return | April 3

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Sermon by Carolyn May

Over the course of this Lenten season our theme has been Turn/Return. Our gospel reading today begins with Jesus’ return to a town called Bethany. The last time he was in Bethany was in the chapter just prior to this one. In that chapter he went to Bethany because his dear friend Lazarus had fallen ill. By the time he actually arrived at Bethany he learned that Lazarus had been dead for four days already. Jesus is greeted by the same sisters we encounter in our story today, Mary and Martha. Martha first meets Jesus and they have an exchange in which Jesus tells Martha that he is the resurrection and the life and that surely Lazarus would rise. When Mary comes to Jesus she immediately falls to his feet and weeps. She says, Lord, if you had been here my brother would still be alive. Mary’s grief, perhaps, stirred up Jesus’ own as we are told that he loved Lazarus. He is taken to the tomb and he tells those gathered to roll away the stone. Martha, always the practical one, warns against that idea alluding to the stench that must be present after four days. Nonetheless, the stone is rolled away and Lazarus returns to life.

So we have Lazarus returning to life and Jesus returning to Bethany. The two are described as lounging around a table along with some of Jesus’ disciples. Martha, we are told, is serving those gathered. Classic Martha, right? She’s the same one described in Luke’s gospel as being worried and distracted over many things as she runs around cooking and cleaning during Jesus’ visit. In that same story in Luke we’re told that Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his teachings.  In the narrative of Lazarus’ death and resurrection Mary is described as falling to Jesus’ feet. And here, yet again, we encounter Mary at the feet of Jesus. In John’s gospel Mary is the only person noted to be at the feet of Jesus. The only other person described as being at the feet of another is Jesus in the following chapter when he washes his disciples feet. In this story Mary takes out expensive oil and she pours it onto Jesus’ feet before wiping it with her own hair.

When I’ve tried to imagine myself in the room during this encounter, I can feel myself blush. I think I’d be embarrassed and uncomfortable to be present during such an intimate moment. I feel this discomfort sometimes in my work as a hospital chaplain. There are times when the intimacy of a moment feels like it should be private. And yet, I continuously have families that invite me into these spaces with them. We don’t get to know exactly how it made Lazarus, Martha, or, in John’s gospel, any disciples besides Judas feel. But we do learn that Judas has some objections to the gesture. Judas asks a seemingly fair question: Shouldn’t she have used something so valuable to help the poor? John gives us insight, though, into Judas’ motive. We’re told he doesn’t actually care about the poor. Instead he cares about the fact that had the oil been sold for their missional work, it would have wound up in the money bag that he has been in charge of and has taken the liberty of dipping into whenever.

To be honest, I really don’t think Judas’ point (though apparently not sincere) is what’s wrong with this response. And I don’t think Jesus necessarily implies that either. I think the bigger issue is that Judas doesn’t stay present in the moment. I think this moment of intimacy was uncomfortable to be in the presence of. I think this was probably especially true for Judas who at some point knew that any moments of intimacy he shared with Jesus or any of those close to him were disingenuous. Jesus’ response to Judas is quite simple. He doesn’t call Judas out for this disingenuity. He doesn’t question Judas about the money bag and those things that were for others that Judas took for himself. He doesn’t let Judas win because he doesn’t allow himself to be pulled out of this moment. Rather than following Judas, Jesus turns the readers of this gospel and those gathered in the room back to the moment at hand. Jesus tells Judas to leave Mary be. He says you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. Burial

This phrase used to bother me but when we put these words in the context of Jesus’ ministry it seems clear that what Jesus is not saying here is that it’s okay to disregard the poor among us. Indeed, many commentators, when discussing Jesus’ comment about the poor always being present point to Deuteronomy 15:11 which reads, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” That the poor will always be with them/us doesn’t mean we give up on trying to meet the needs of others, rather it is a reminder that our ongoing call is to return to the care of our neighbor. In discussing Mary’s action toward Jesus, writer Debie Thomas notes:  [Mary] loves the body and soul who is placed in her presence.  In doing so, she ends up caring for the one who is denied room at the inn — even to be born.  For the one who has no place to lay his head during his years of ministry.  For the one whose crucified body is laid in a borrowed tomb.  In other words, it is the poor Mary serves when she serves Jesus.  Just as it is always Jesus we serve when we love without reservation what God places in front of us, here and now.

So yes, the poor will always be with you. Which again means that each and every day we are invited–we are called–to return to the care of the poor. Duh, Judas. But, Jesus, seems to say, today, in this moment, Mary has done something good and beautiful.  In the Mary and Martha story in Luke Jesus says, only one thing is needed and Mary has chosen the better part. And here again, Mary seems to have chosen the better part. For by being fully present in this space she has anticipated and met a need that perhaps she didn’t even realize she was meeting. She has done something to prepare me for my burial.

I can only imagine the whirlwind of emotions folks in the room must have been experiencing. On the one hand having this story so shortly after Lazarus’ resurrection makes it feel like there must be an air of celebration. Like the story we heard last week, “This brother of yours was dead and is now alive again. We must celebrate!” And yet, in Jesus’ reply to Judas he points ahead to his own death. And so maybe Mary’s gift was one of gratitude for returning her brother to life but also maybe it’s an outpouring of love done in anticipatory grief of Jesus’ death. Maybe it’s both. In this moment, perhaps they are both celebrating life and acknowledging death. That’s a strange and uncomfortable space to dwell in. No wonder Judas wanted to get out of that moment.

I’m not sure how many folks here will have seen the movie Elizabethtown. It stars Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom and it’s from the early 2000s. In the movie Bloom’s character is trying desperately to get back to his hometown for his father’s funeral. He meets Dunst along the way and they share some adventures together. One stop they make on their way to Elizabethtown is at a hotel where a couple, Chuck and Cyndi, are celebrating their marriage. There’s a scene where Bloom’s character runs into Chuck and when Chuck finds out that Bloom is at the hotel because his dad has died and he’s on his way to his funeral he is overcome with emotion. Bloom is in the hotel room right next to Chuck and Cyndi. Right in the midst of the wedding celebration is this person who is not celebrating but grieving. Chuck tearfully says, “Death and life. And death and life. Right next door to each other. There’s like there’s a hair between them!”

That feels kind of like the vibe of the gospel reading today. Death and life and there’s literally a hair between them. Or several. And they’re Mary’s. These characters in this story are dwelling in a fragile place, that thin realm between life and death. We have the stench of Lazarus’ four day deceased body mixed with the strong aroma of this expensive perfume. We have the dirt on Jesus’ feet touched by the softness of Mary’s hair. We have the celebration of Lazarus’ new life and the anticipation of Jesus’ approaching death. The veil is so thin that perhaps Mary didn’t know that what she was doing was a preparation for burial. There’s love and gratitude and astonishment and grief and fear. And it’s all swirled together. Sounds exhausting. No wonder why Judas wanted to get out of that moment.

In many ways I think we all are always living in that fragile space. The hope, then, is that, like Mary, we might have the courage to remain there. By avoiding the uncomfortable and incomprehensible we risk the loss of experiencing holy moments with those we love. And with God Godself.  So may we have the courage to stay present, to lean into service, into vulnerability and into intimacy. May we have the courage to live boldly in that strange place where life and death kiss.