A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 17, 2013. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, and John 12:1-8.
The scriptures today invite us to get ready, to heighten all of our senses if we can, to listen, look, taste, see, feel… “I am about to do a new thing,” says the Lord. And he asks Isaiah (and us), “Do you not perceive it?”
The section we hear from Isaiah today comes from a larger section that promises good things to the people of Israel. And yet, this word of encouragement from God through Isaiah comes while the Israel is still far from home. They are still captive in Babylon and only have the hope of returning home. Isaiah says, “Hang on. It’s going to get better.” “I will make a way.” I will bring water to the thirsty and food to the hungry. I will lead you out of this, into a better place.
The Psalm sings of just that, of God’s deliverance. This is a pilgrimage psalm. People would gather together to make a trip to the temple in Jerusalem and they would sing psalms like this one on the way to celebrate the Passover, just like the kind of procession we’ll re-enact next Sunday, procession and pilgrimage of Palms that leads to the Passion of Our Lord. They would sing together, “We remember when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, when God rescued our ancestors. Then we were like people who dreamed, but the Lord filled our mouths with laughter and joy.” For those on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as they moved from one place to another, they carried with them hopes that God would do something new in the new place, that the journey would involve change and growth and renewal. They identified with their forbears, mixing past and present, affirming that if God saved them in the past, God would surely save them in the present. And so people of faith then and now make pilgrimage, pray for God’s presence and power to change us, and still pray with confidence, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord. Fill us with joy again.”
The Gospel take us right to the edge of Jerusalem, to Bethany, thought to be where today’s West Bank is, about a mile and a half east of the temple in Jerusalem. It’s not far in proximity, and it’s not far from the events we will retrace in Holy Week.
Jesus is with his friends, the sisters Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus. This is just after Lazarus has died, and Jesus has raised him from death. But this is just a hint of what’s coming. Lazarus has been resuscitated, given a new lease on life, but he will presumably die again, later. This “raising” has to do with Lazarus and is a sign. But it begins to reveal the power of God in Christ, the power that will be fully unleashed on Easter with the resurrection not only from death, but with a victory of sin and death for ever.
Each of the Gospels has a story about a woman anointing Jesus’ feet, but each one puts a slightly different slant on the story. Some accounts are more ambiguous than others. For example it is Matthew’s description of a “woman with an alabaster jar” who anoints the feet of Jesus that leads author Margaret Starbird on a fanciful story of how this woman is actually Mary Magdalene, which is all related to the Holy Grail, and then gets picked up by Dan Brown or his tale of the Da Vinci Code. It’s all great fun, but of very little biblical or spiritual substance.
John’s version of the anointing is a fuller story and placed where it is for a reason. Here, Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of her friend and teacher, probably as a gesture of warmth and hospitality. Jesus names it as anointing for death. Jesus knows what’s ahead. Judas shows up to criticize, to misunderstand and to miss the significance of Jesus’ presence. Judas’s point of view is taken up soon after this scene as the religious leaders get together and decide that because of the raising of Lazarus, something has to be done to stop Jesus. He’s getting too popular. The people are losing their minds over him.
Today’s Gospel sets the stage for next Sunday and Holy Week. Judas’ criticism signals the betrayal of Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane. Mary’s anointing hints at the women who go to the tomb to anoint Jesus and discover the tomb is empty. The raising of Lazarus foreshadows the great movement from death to life. But this story also sets a pattern for friendship with Jesus the Christ, a pattern open and available to us.
In the Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes about how nothing in his life matters but his relationship with Christ. That he is a Jew, doesn’t matter. That he is learned, doesn’t matter. That he’s a person of some standing, doesn’t matter. His friendships, his family, his experiences, his eloquence…. That’s all rubbish, Paul says. The thing that matters is “that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” Paul says he wants to know the full power of the resurrection from the dead, and while he doesn’t yet know it, “I press on,” Paul says, because “Because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
The physical body of Christ is not ours to anoint or hold or touch. And yet, Christ has told us where to find his body—not in a tomb, and not even in scripture. Jesus lives as our brother and sister, the expression of God’s Incarnation all around us. In trying to explain the Kingdom of God, Jesus talks about the opportunity to meet him in those who are hurting and in those who are in need. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Mt. 25:35-36). Those listening ask him, when that happened, when did he come in those ways and when would they have met him. And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Mt. 25:45). Whenever we notice the poor, the imprisoned, the hungry, the lonely, we stand the chance of seeing Christ in them. When we anoint them, we anoint him. It’s this Risen Christ that St. Francis meets in the leper, as we can see in our stained glass window (middle window, second panel from the top). It’s the same Risen Christ we meet from time to time on the street, in our family, at work, when we least expect him.
Christ is met in the stranger and the suffering, but we also encounter the Body of Christ at the altar. In Holy Communion, we become one with him and with one another. In the sharing of a meal, we become a family. In the eating and drinking, we take into ourselves the Body and Blood of Christ. At every Mass, as I add a little water to the wine, I pray the traditional prayer, “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity,” and that’s what happens in Holy Communion. Christ’s divinity and our humanity co-mingle and become one, so that, with Paul, we “may gain Christ and be found in him.”
And finally, that unmistakably sensual-spiritual quality to Mary’s anointing of Jesus points to a kind of relationship we can have with Jesus Christ that is even beyond the physical and beyond the sacramental.
Christ also lives mystically and spiritually, as all the saints and mystics attest. But he doesn’t just show up, one day. He doesn’t barge his way in. This kind of relationship happens over time, through persistence, and patience, and penance, and prayer. It happens through silence and yearning, through our longing to reach God with the same kind of passion as Mary who reached out to touch and anoint her friend. Jesus wants to be our friend.
We might not be as comfortable with language about Jesus having to do with friendship, but that’s a part of our faith. In some ways it’s a part of our faith that makes us unique within the Abrahamic faiths. Austin Farrer once said, “One of the silliest of all discussions is the question whether God is personal-it would be more useful to inquire whether ice is frozen.” God is personal by definition, in God’s very being. Through the Incarnation, God comes to us in personal, present ways. And one of those ways is as a friend.
A friendship takes time to develop, it involves talking and listening. We can be ourselves with a friend—no pretenses, just comfort. A friend can challenge us and change us. A friend’s presence can give us all that we need sometimes to get through the day, sometimes to get through the hour. Jesus can be this kind of friend. I don’t mean the kind of self-serving Jesus-Friend who is a copilot in driving and steers us through green lights and finds the perfect parking space. That’s a silly piety that doesn’t stand up to much challenge. But Jesus our Friend is more like the one who stretches out his hand when we’re about to lose our footing. Jesus our Friend shows up when no one else is available. Jesus our Friend stands between us and danger, sin, and death itself.
In just a few days from now, on Good Friday, the Church will sing a prayer that is among the most beautiful. It speaks to the power and the passion of the friendship of Christ. In these final days of Lent, may we be led forward by all our senses to pray that Our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, would set his passion, cross, and death between all judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death. That God would give mercy and grace to the living; pardon and rest to the dead; to the Church peace and concord; and to us sinners everlasting life and glory.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.