The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Gifts and honors bestowed can be tricky matters. Someone showers you with an unexpected, lavish gift. Do they have a hidden motive by making such a gift? You receive a special recognition – nice, but is it always comfortable, especially if you feel undeserving: “If you really knew me, you wouldn’t be doing this.” I imagine Mary’s extravagant anointing of Jesus silenced dinner conversation that evening. What’s her motive? Who did she make uncomfortable?
Recently Jesus raises, or “revivifies” Lazarus from the grave. Martha throws a dinner party to celebrate Lazarus’ raising and Jesus’ visit. All are happy to the hilt – except for religious leaders, alarmed as Jesus’ strength and fame grow: “This man raises the dead.” If Rome gets wind of this they’ll march in, take care of business and religious leaders will be on the street. Jesus must die – maybe Lazarus, too, since he’s the living evidence of Jesus’ powers.
Mary again finds her way to sit at Jesus’ feet, pouring an uber-expensive perfume on them, drying his feet with her hair. Is Jesus as uncomfortable by this as others are?
Judas lets us know he’s annoyed: “Mary, think of all the starving children you could have fed.” Good old Judas, thinking about the poor. He does have a point though. Jesus leans toward the poor. Gospel writing John reminds us ahead of time, Judas is a traitor, and as keeper of the purse embezzles the disciples’ funds. Judas cares more for his well-being, not the poor – or Jesus either.
This year at St. Paul’s we focus on identifying points of gratitude in our lives. Gratitude evokes generosity. Mary enacts a parable of abundance, gratitude and generosity for Jesus. John is silent about her motive. But this is what gratitude can look like.
Jesus evokes many responses – not all are gratitude. Think of priests and Pharisees, Pilate, Judas, the fickle crowds. How do you respond to Jesus? Years ago in Lent, a question got ahold of me, and wouldn’t let go: “Does Jesus make a noticeable difference in my life? If so, how am I different?” Mary gets me thinking about all of this.
More people these days prefer being spiritual and jettisoning religion, which I think means the church. The Eucharist expresses God’s abundant love and generosity. That’s one reason why the church matters. We are drawn, and invite others, into God’s story around this table – a story told for thousands of years, with a power we don’t understand that changes people, and gives life meaning and hope. Jesus is central in our worship. Gratitude is a scripted response to help us. “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving.” By faithfully receiving bread and wine week after week, we express gratitude for what we don’t fully understand. I doubt Mary understands Jesus’ interpretation – anointing for his burial, or what lies ahead.
What difference does Jesus make for you – how you treat others, spend your time and money? Does he shape your values? Low levels of gratitude, love and generosity correlate with a shallow relationship to Jesus. That might be Judas, but Jesus is still with him. We don’t need to be perfect, know all – just love and appreciate Jesus. Mary often listening, learning, absorbing at his place, the place disciples sit for teaching and to learn – knows Jesus better than his disciples do. Mary’s found a Savior who makes a difference in her life. Many these days are looking for a savior, too – just as we see throughout scripture – in Jesus’ day. They show up at political rallies, pinning their hopes on who’s saying what they want to hear. Modern saviors make all sorts of promises they can’t keep. A clergy friend once told me in response to such: “Too bad so many have missed the Savior God sent.”
We have a critical story that needs telling. We gather to hear these stories and be formed by them. People in exile needed a Savior – and prophets like Isaiah tell them the Savior is about to bring them home. What’s old gets transformed into the new thing God does. We gather to tell stories of a new heaven and earth – of death defeated – the power of love and forgiveness, mercy and grace, reconciliation. These stories finally point us to a cross – as the sign of the burden God bears to love, forgive, redeem and bring us home. What difference does Jesus make for you? Government, politicians, science, medicine, Wall Street, no cultural gods people flock to then or now, bring life and hope, make us more grateful and generous toward others – and catch us up into God’s great mission – a Savior who makes the difference.
God anoints us to a live a new story: to love regardless, forgive without limit, give abundantly of what we have and can, wash feet, live for others, give life away, and raise the dead, because God does. That’s the difference Jesus makes. We can, because we know how the story ends, unlike Mary, who saw something in Jesus she didn’t understand yet, but responded anyway. Jesus receives her gratitude and says: “Leave her alone. She bought it to anoint me on the day of my burial.” What in Jesus evokes such extravagant gratitude? Once more, the room grows quiet.
Maybe we need to start talking with each other about the difference Jesus makes for us – listen, share, learn where God is acting in our lives. What do you think? People longing for hope and meaning want to know – if Jesus makes a difference for us, and how. Jesus says we live in the world but not of the world. So who do we trust – in these days, who will we trust – and will it make difference in how others see and know us? I hope in this room we won’t grow quiet. It’s time for talking and doing.