Text of the sermon preached on Lent 5C (March 13, 2016) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius’ Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.
This is a fairly familiar Gospel text that we heard today. But I want us to look at it in a little bit of a different light, because it shows us what it looks like when someone gets the point about Jesus. It also shows us what it looks like when someone doesn’t get the point. It also shows us some of the unexpected ways that God can work. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
John told the same story we can read in Luke, but he presents it in a different manner, with a slightly different angle. John wants us to know the significance of what is taking place at the home of Simon the Leper. He gives us some insight into what is happening as Mary broke open her finest Chanel and lavishly poured it on the well-worn feet of Jesus. Her actions are in great contrast to the reaction of Judas, who equated lavishly action with irresponsibility. He criticized her right then and there for her act. As John tells us, “But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 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.” Judas just flat out missed the point on this one about Jesus.
John wanted to be sure everyone knew who did get the point. As it was more often than not, the one who really got the point about Jesus was not the religious scholar. It was not the rich, the righteous, the popular. No, it was the “sinner” in the crowd who no one else seemed to notice. That is what happened with this woman. She made every effort to show her understanding, gleaned from personal experience, of who Jesus was and what he was all about. Her extreme generosity and wholehearted sacrifice to Jesus speak throughout the ages of what it looks like when a person gets to point about Jesus.
So, just what did she get? John’s account of this event is different in several ways, one of which is in filling us in on who is at the table. Did you catch that Lazarus was there? He is there, sitting at the table, recently revived from the dead and barely out of his grace clothes. What must that have been like? What kind of prayer do you think he gave at the start of the meal? Seeing Lazarus there at the table helps us understand how full Mary’s heart must have been as she took in the scene as she walked into the room. New life was sitting at the table. And the source of new life was sitting right next to him. No wonder she fell at the feet of Jesus with her very best. Wouldn’t you?
Back to Judas. He had entered the same room. He too could see the results of what happened when Jesus touched a life, of the power of God even over death. And yet his reaction was drastically different. Well, yes, he was trying to be responsible. He must have cared for the poor, even if his statement came off more as concern more about policies and procedures than about the poor. Even if he was really concerned about helping the poor, he missed what was really happening there in the splashes of perfume.
Here we go. It’s not even Holy Week yet and we are already beating up on Judas. It’s not hard to do, for he does become for us a scapegoat in many ways. Pointing our finger at Judas and putting our eyes on him keeps us from doing the same to ourselves. I wonder, though, how is it that we can so easily miss the point about Jesus? How is it that you and I walk in, right past the Lazarus’ in our midst and not see the one who is the source of their new life? How is it that we can be attentive to the duties of our work in the church while forgetting why-and for whom- we do that work to begin with? However it is we who miss the point, and we do miss it. Our way of changing our behavior is helped more by our repentance than our self-analysis. So, how is it that we can be more like Mary than Judas?
Maybe the best next step for us is to look around the room a bit, not just looking but really seeing who is here. Go ahead, take a look. See Lazarus anywhere? I think you can see several of them. Here is Lazarus. There is Lazarus. We are all Lazarus, aren’t we? We ought to come to worship with such a sense of awe of the new life in this room, that we can’t help but do anything but drop to our knees at the feet of Jesus and give him our best. Maybe we, like Judas, have become desensitized to what Jesus does that we just stop being awed by it all. Or, maybe we feel it deep down inside, but our focus has become so much on the business of ministry that we totally miss the one for whom and through whom all our ministry takes place.
Yes, Jesus is concerned for the poor. He was poor and he spent more time around them than he did the rich. Yet, he knew the vital necessity of the heart of service. He made it clear that what Mary did for him that day was what we should all do — stay connected to the source of it all. That’s what this season of Lent is all about, isn’t it? We identify some things in our lives that have become bigger to us than our heart for Jesus and we set them aside. We look within and see the attitudes, the thoughts, the worries, and we change our minds about them. We take time to see that even our best efforts to help the poor and needy of our world can be in vain unless we are remembering why it is that we do what we do. We do all of this, remembering that new life is here. It is sitting at the table with us. Our acts of devotion to the one who is the source of it all, will flower into the beauty of the empty grave of Easter. Now, though, let us not miss the point of Jesus.
And it would do well for us to remember that this story reminds us that God does unexpected things. God is often up to unexpected things with, for, and through unexpected people. People expected the messiah to look like King David — instead the people got a former carpenter and itinerant preacher. The crowds who welcome Jesus a few verses after these expected Jesus to throw out the Romans; instead he is crucified by them. Even his followers expect his crucifixion to be the end of the story; it turns out to be just the beginning.
And of course this isn’t the half of it. Sarah wasn’t expected to have children, let along found a dynasty. Moses wasn’t expected to lead the Israelites to freedom. The ruddy-faced shepherd boy, David, wasn’t supposed to be king. And on and on and on.
On a regular basis, God loves to do the unexpected with, and through unexpected people. And the culmination of Lent and celebration of Easter are the highlight of the work and activity of this unexpected God, as death is assumed to have the last word, until Jesus is raised from the dead.
I think the big question of this story isn’t why Mary chose to pour that perfume over Jesus’ feet. I think the big questions are what do we expect of God and are we prepared to be surprised by God again and again as God does the unexpected?
We need to ask ourselves if God works in unexpected ways as he did through Mary, then who might God work through next? Look around at those sitting next to you, across from you, around the corner from you. For God may be about to use each and every one of you in a surprising way to care for your neighbor, to offer a listening ear, to do work with faithfulness and courage, to stand up for those who are less fortunate, to resist peer pressure at school. Who knows? What we do know is that God is regularly about the business of surprising us with where God shows up, whom God uses, and what God accomplishes.
Go out this week and look for traces of the predictably unexpected God, the One who shows up where we least expect God to be, and always for good.