Sunday, March 21, 2010

Lent V

John 12:1-8
Lent 5

“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”


Could Jesus have said anything more jarring?
Our community gives a lot to the Safe Ground movement.
I help coordinate Trinity’s response to their needs. 
I know some of these people whose portraits look out at us. 
And I know that every other time Jesus spoke of poor people,
it was to bless them
and to love them.

And I know how willingly this community responds. 
I’m here on shelter nights. 
I know how gladly people give of themselves,
their time, their energy.

Jesus’ words here feel like a slap. 
They go against everything else he ever said. 
They fly in the face of his tradition. 
No self-respecting Hebrew prophet would ever say anything like that. 
And Jesus knew it.

That’s because money isn’t the point. 
Look at the rest of this scene.

We’re in the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. 
Mary, the contemplative. 
The one who would rather sit at Jesus’ feet,
and take him in with her eyes and her heart,
than do anything else in the world. 
Martha, always responsible
for making the household run smoothly.
Always busy, bustling around.

Lazarus.  Brother to Mary and Martha. 
Friend to Jesus,
like a brother to him as well. 
Lazarus, whose death made Jesus weep,
and whom he had raised from the dead
sometime shortly before. 
The author of John writes
that the raising of Lazarus had caused the Temple authorities
to conspire to kill Jesus. 
Jesus knew he was in danger;
he “no longer walked about openly.” 
Mary and Martha and Lazarus knew it too.
The air was electric with danger,
heavy with the smell of impending death.

Lazarus was at the table. 
But it’s hard for me to imagine that he ate. 
He had been dead. 
And he walked the earth again.
Don't bother asking, how does that happen? 
It doesn’t.  But it did. 
I picture him doing what I imagine I would do...
just staring. 
Having to be pulled out of himself,
when the others laughed at some mundane joke. 
Unable to walk in both worlds at once. 
Still stumbling sometimes,
as if his legs and feet were still bound. 
Trailing rags behind him,
in his mind if not his body. 
When I was detoxing from chemotherapy,
I would break out into cold sweats.
No one else could smell it on me,
but I could.
Lazarus could still smell the sickness
that killed him.
He could still smell the sourness of death.

Mary is the quiet sister. 
The one who understands without being taught. 
Who always infuriates Martha,
because she leaves Martha all the work. 
Mary gets it right, again.

Mary knows how to respond
to God in her living room. 
She kneels on the floor,
breaks the jar of perfume,
and pours it over Jesus’ feet. 
Just like that. 
She moves without speaking. 
She’s silent, slow, purposeful. 
She does not ask permission. 
She doesn’t explain herself in words. 
She doesn’t need to. 
Jesus understands what Mary is doing. 
He translates for the others: 
“She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”

This household knows the smell of death. 
Lazarus had been in the tomb four days. 
Martha had begged Jesus not to roll away the stone.
She knew the smell would overpower them.
Jesus yelled in the face of death,
and Lazarus walked out alive.

The jar of perfume that Mary broke
held about a pound of scented oil.
That's at least a couple of good double-handfuls.
She doesn't anoint his head,
like you would do for a king
or somebody important.
She anoints his feet.
While Jesus is still living,
Mary prepares his body for burial.

She held Jesus' feet,
and she poured the oil over them.
The scent—somewhere between mint and ginseng—
exploded into the house.
The oil ran over Jesus' toes, down his ankles,
all over Mary's sleeves,
and onto the floor.
The house smelled like burial spices,
like grief, and like love,
for a long time.
Mary rubs the oil into Jesus' skin.
She wipes him dry, with her hair.

Judas sets up the point that Jesus is making.
He asks a perfectly legitimate question,
“Why was this money not given to the poor?”
Really, it was not a small amount.
Three hundred denarii would feed a family for a year.

Jesus doesn't say, don't take care of the poor.
He says only, not right now.
He says, Mary knows what you're not seeing.
Let her care for me.
He knows the law full well, and he honors God in his response.
He's quoting Deuteronomy 15:11.
The full text of the verse he alludes to is this:

“Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, Open your heart to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

He's saying, While I am here in front of you, love me.
Focus first on the love that drives you,
that gives you life,
that is the reason for everything you do.
When I am gone,
you will be able to love me
by loving the poor, the homeless, and the needy.

Love extravagantly. 
Love with all you are.
The poor you always have with you—
their faces are here with us, on these walls. 
We have sheltered Carol and Barbara. 
I’ve heard stories of some of the others. 
Love these people whose portraits you see. 

Family Promise starts tonight. 
Go see if there are still times you can sign up. 
Cook dinner for our guests. 
Play games with the kids. 
Help them with their homework. 
Stay the night.

Jesus doesn't literally knock on our door
and sit at our dinner table.
We cannot serve him directly in the way that Mary did. 
But we can do what he commanded us to do. 
We can love one another, as God has loved us.
The presence of Christ lives in everyone. 
Love the people who show you to yourself. 

We have enough love. 
God has broken that jar, over us,
and given us each jars to break.
It's running over us right now,
in our hair, soaked in our skin,
dripping onto the floor.
Like Mary, pour it out without counting the cost.
Give it away.