5th Sunday in Lent: Leave her alone!

First Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21

16Thus says the Lord,
  who makes a way in the sea,
  a path in the mighty waters,
17who brings out chariot and horse,
  army and warrior;
 they lie down, they cannot rise,
  they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
18Do not remember the former things,
  or consider the things of old.
19I am about to do a new thing;
  now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
 I will make a way in the wilderness
  and rivers in the desert.
20The wild animals will honor me,
  the jackals and the ostriches;
 for I give water in the wilderness,
  rivers in the desert,
 to give drink to my chosen people,
  21the people whom I formed for myself
 so that they might declare my praise.

Psalm: Psalm 126

1When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
  then were we like those who dream.
2Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.
  Then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”
3The Lord has done great things for us,
  and we are glad indeed.
4Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
  like the watercourses of the Negeb.
5Those who sowed with tears
  will reap with songs of joy.
6Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed,
  will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Second Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14

 [Paul writes:] 4bIf anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Gospel: John 12:1-8

1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(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.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

CHILDREN’S SERMON:  Share with your neighbor, your first experience with death.  Was it a pet, a grandparent or perhaps a newsworthy person?

Let us pray.   Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer

SERMON

Today’s text is our last text in Lent before next Sunday, Palm Sunday, and the beginning of Passion Week.  I want to look at the text through the eyes of Lent and the journey to the cross, to death.  I will not focus on Mary and her extravagant gift of perfume.  I want to focus on how Jesus’ walked to death and how that helps us as we face our mortality?  Nobody in our text knows this is Jesus last week, but Jesus does.  Standing at his side is Lazarus, his friend, whom Jesus raised from the dead in the previous chapter of John, a quiet hint that there is life beyond death. 

         I am going to look at the text through the modern phrase being used in my world, “age in place.”  The Internet defines the phrase this way, “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines aging in place as: “the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely.”  “Aging in  place” while used with elders to talk about taking preventative measures to avoid institutionalization due to mostly age and family or community related complications, actually does not have an age parameter. Accidents, disease, and life complications can affect any age group.  Perhaps a less cliché way of phrasing it is to ask ourselves what do we need to do to live life to its fullest, as long as possible, in the setting of our choosing, safely?  I would suggest to you today that our passage speaks to “aging in place.”

Six days before Passover

According to the Gospel of John, our scenario today occurs six days before the Passover.  The next day will be the entry into Jerusalem.  Next week we will wave branches in commemoration to welcome a Messiah.  The people in Jerusalem did not realize what the week would hold.  We do not know what tomorrow will bring either.  Life is a bit like that.  We embrace life hoping for Passover celebrations and never counting on the Garden of Gethsemane or the Cross.  When I was probably in kindergarten or first grade I had a pet turtle named George that disappeared into the couch somehow and when found, was rushed to the vet and died.   We named our pet turtle in Kenya, George, and fed him flies.  He died too.  Our second son at age four developed juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.  Every evening his temperature rose.  I remember him asking me, “Mom, does God hate me?  Am I going to die?”  Tough times! Death is part of life but it is always something we think about as future.

         Some of us have had a person close to us die not so long ago but for me, my grandparents lived across the country and all my friends were healthy.  I led a shielded life.  But certainly in places like Ukraine, in the famine relief camps where we worked, death and disease are daily realities and threats.  I suspect many of us are like the disciples at the celebration unfolding in our text, hoping for the best in a very chaotic world.  Jesus is with us and death is a thing for “tomorrow.”  Jesus knows it is “six day before” the inevitable.  How does Jesus use his time to age in place?  What is his strategy?

“Jesus came to Bethany”

         First, Jesus positions himself geographically in Bethany, close to Jerusalem.  He is not avoiding and running in fear.  Jesus positions himself socially with friends that have been his support team.  Jesus is emotionally enjoying a dinner celebration with friends and not overcome with anxiety about what tomorrow might bring.  Jesus accepts the love of his friends.

As we age, we go from insulation from death, innocently protected by our birth family and community.  As we grow, we venture out to chase a job, an education or perhaps a spouse.  We learn to drive with the dangers that involves.  Now, some of us are retired and getting around to those fix-it-up tasks we have put off.  For many baby boomers we are making decisions about positioning ourselves for that last lap to age in place or to help our loved one age in place as long as possible.  Jesus positioned himself.  He positioned himself in the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, his beloved friends. We too want to be in supportive community. 

         So perhaps the first question confronting us today in our text is to reflect on how supportive we are for each other, as friends, as community, and as part of our world, as we face tomorrow and its challenges with the always-present aging process.  Are people who come to Bethany “safe” from snarky remarks, from gossip, from embarrassment?  Just askin”? If someone visited my home as Jesus did, would the person be able to age in place safely. Comfortably?

“2There they gave a dinner for him

         With Jerusalem on the horizon, just miles away geographically and possibly closer emotionally, Jesus is in the middle at a dinner party. The disciples are there.  Friends like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are there.  Surely there were others too.  Jesus is surrounded by friends doing their thing.  Martha is serving … as usual.  Lazarus is reclined at the table with Jesus.  Jesus while knowing the future is inevitable, is embracing the present moment.

         In reading the story, we tend to forget that Roman soldiers are enforcing a fragile peace a few miles away.  We forget the poverty people lived in like slaves and second-class citizens.  We forget that women had no status.  Unemployment was real.  Diseases like leprosy had people quarantined on the edge of town.  Passover for the Jews was a time when they remembered their captivity in Egypt and their miraculous deliverance.  Passover was a time when the angel of death passed over and did not claim the life of the first born because a lamb had been slaughtered and the blood was on the door-posts.  The coming dinner was historically significant because it was a time when hearts and minds turned to topics of deliverance and God’s action. Preparations are being made for that celebration.  We can imagine an animated conversation even as we have a week before Christmas.

         Perhaps one of the secrets to aging in place successfully is to remember that we are not only with friends but also to remember how far we have come and what the presence of God has meant in our lives.  We need to remember all we have to celebrate that remind us of God’s presence and enabling through our lives. 

         So what are we celebrating today when we are with our friends?  Perhaps you have heard the joke that the celebration at a retirement center is like an organ recital.  Everyone shares his or her medical woes and most recent medical visits.  We want to be with our friends but what is the content of our friendship as we spend time together?  We do not know what everyone was discussing at this dinner party for John shifts our attention to the actions of two people, Mary and Judas Iscariot.

Anointing

         Mary does the unexpected, the culturally questionable, the deed that raises eye brows.  Mary does not follow social etiquette and is not helping Martha serve. But Mary becomes transparent.  She goes beyond sitting at Jesus’ feet, soaking in all his teaching and instead she takes a pint of perfume worth a year’s wages and pours it on Jesus’ feet, and wipes the feet with her hair.  Hmmmm.  Houston, we have a problem.  That was a conversation stopper for sure.  Can you feel the tension in that room?  Fun celebration has become a tense silence as the scene unfolds and the scent of the perfume wafts through the air.  This is a very intimate, tender moment and some have tried to make it sexual.  That just is not said.  But something extraordinary has occurred.  Jesus has been anointed.

         Bodies are anointed after death but kings are anointed before.  In the face of possible death, at funerals we try to allow time for testimonies either in the service or at the gathering afterwards. We have wakes that allow people to wail and grieve or to line up and express condolences to the family.  We focus on good moments and history is retold through a lens of gratitude.  Mary has acted out tangibly her love of Jesus before his death.  It is extravagant and it is extraordinary.  The perfume scent fills the room.  We do not know if she knew he would die for Jesus had been saying he was going to die but it seems no one understood.  They are expecting a conquering Messiah.  Perhaps Mary understood.  Jesus hints that might be the meaning of her actions.  How does Jesus respond?

         I find the interesting point is that Jesus accepts her act of love and defends her.  Affirmation of our life and its impact on others is a deeply affirming experience.  Too often we wait til the person is gone to say our words of affirmation.  Too often when complimented, we become embarrassed and say, “Gosh, it was nothing.”  Jesus accepts the love of those around him and does not dismiss it or diminish it. Perhaps the affirmation strengthened him for the coming trial.

         As we age in place, the extravagant expressions of love are appropriate and should not be dismissed.  As we age in place, are we making those extravagant expressions of love to those who have meant so much to us?  Is our life characterized by an attitude of gratitude?  Jesus not only faced death by being with friends, by fellowshipping with them but he also accepted their love, no strings attached.

“But…”

         As Jesus places himself in a safe space to age in place, the voice of doubt undermines the gifts of the moment.  Judas Iscariot points out the extravagance of Mary’s gift, the inappropriateness of Jesus’ response, the needs of the world and the writer comments on Judas’ possible greedy  motives.  Judas pours cold water on the scene and is what we call a “party pooper.”  John has pulled us right back to Lent.  In Lent we walk with Jesus to the cross.  I suspect that we think more about our journey to heaven and try to avoid thinking about death and the cross. The cross, the brokenness of place, community, and love expressions are part of the journey.  Judas reminds us that we are broken people in a broken world.  As much as we try to position ourselves in Bethany, a community of friends, we are on the edge of Jerusalem, the political capital occupied by a foreign power, wrecking havoc on our world.  As much as we try to fellowship with our friends, there is often that interaction that pushes our buttons and challenges our boundaries of what is acceptable.  And as people reach out to affirm us, often it is so hard to trust motives.  Aging in place is the dream, the goal, and we pray it will be safe but the truth is that we are aging. 

         Aging does not have the last word, though, Jesus does.

“Leave her alone.

She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.

 8You always have the poor with you,

but you do not always have me.”

         Jesus steps in and shields Mary and us from evil.  He tells Judas and evil to leave her and us alone.  He accepts our intentions that might not be perfect or the exact right timing.  He reminds us that the important focus is to focus on God. 

         Next week is Passion Week.  Let us not forget to meet together to affirm the Lenten story that defines our communities, our gatherings, and our expressions of love!

The people of God said, “Amen!”

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