When I preach, I try to be very intentional to share where I am in the process of whatever it is I’m preaching on. This can be a difficult and fine line to walk in preaching a sermon in which you are using yourself as an example rather than preaching about yourself. But there is a line that differentiates a sermon about God from a sermon about yourself. It can be a difficult line to walk. I don’t always stay on the God side of the line. But I try.
What I’m trying to show when I do this is that just because I’m looked at as being the one who has it all figured out, I’m still doing the work myself. And that sure, I’m the priest, I’m the pro, I don’t have to do this work, but I’m doing it anyway. Because that’s what God calls me to do. That’s what it means to be on the journey I’m on, to becoming an apostle of Christ, someone who spreads the message of God. As opposed to a disciple, who is someone who follows God (often spreading the message through behavior and belief). Both are important, and just slightly different. Everyone is called to be a disciple, not everyone is called to be an apostle. Paul is also trying to show he’s walking the path to be an apostle, even though he doesn’t have to in this section of Philippians.
What Paul and I are trying to show is that this winding path, this incredible journey to discipleship, has many distractions. What we do with those distractions, those missteps, those times when we do what we think we’re supposed to do rather than what God is calling us to do; those are part of the adventure of being fully human, and what we do with those distractions and decisions, matters, a lot.
But, it’s a choice to be on the path. It’s a choice we all must make and make every day.
Every day I make the choice to follow Jesus; choosing his teachings over what society says I can or should do. It is genuinely amazing to me that a man who has been dead for so very long, is so deeply influential in my life. How he has encouraged me to be different than who society tells me to be. Paul, the Disciples, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, everyone who followed Jesus around or who has taken the time to truly get to know what Christ taught, it changes a person.
But, even within Christianity, there are those who let society influence what they determine Jesus is saying and teaching. Ironically, at least to me, these tend to be the literalist and conservative readers of Scripture.
The very people who read Scripture as being literally true, are the ones who are most allowing society and cultural expectations to influence how they understand Scripture. Because, they don’t separate how they read the text with what the text meant when it was first written or said. There needs to be an intentional effort to unpack our modern lenses and our personal lens and expectations from how the interpretation of Scripture.
It’s easy and tempting to fall into this trap, this trap of being lazy with our faith. Of assuming that what Jesus taught is what we want too. Of reading Scripture to support the way of life we want to live.
Especially when we lazily read Gospel stories like the powerful one we have today, and we see that ending line “you will always have the poor among you but you won’t always have me.” It is so easy to read that line and think you can focus on individual desires instead of caring for one another.
But that isn’t, in any way, shape, or form, what Jesus was saying. Instead, Jesus was calling us, and the disciples, back from the red herring of helping the poor. The poor and marginalized were an integral part of Christ’s ministry. If Jesus was saying that the cost of this extravagant and seemingly unnecessary gift didn’t matter, there’s a reason.
Look for it. It’s an important landmark along this path.
So I want to set the scene for you a bit.
Lazarus has just died in Chapter 11. Dead, dead; the corpse had started to stink, been embalmed and in a tomb for 4 days. Lazarus is dead. Martha was pissed at Jesus because Jesus was too busy doing other things to come save Lazarus before he died, but still faithful. Mary was heartbroken and a bit disillusioned, but still faithful to Christ.
Jesus went to Bethany, and he wept at the loss of his friend. Then he stood up, in the midst of a crowd gathered to mourn and see what Jesus would do.
The air would still have carried the scent of the embalming perfume that Mary and Martha would have lovingly covered Lazarus’s body with. But as Jesus demanded the tomb be opened, that perfume would have been overpowered by the stench of death the perfume was supposed to cover.
With a prayer and a shout, Lazarus was no longer dead.
People don’t come back from the dead. No one is supposed to have the power to raise someone from the dead. And Lazarus was dead. Until he wasn’t.
This immediately took the ruling elites from concerned about Jesus to certain Jesus was a threat to the established order who needed to be eliminated. A plot was made to arrest and execute Jesus at the next opportunity by the Chief Priests and the Pharisees.
Jesus sets off from Bethany to Ephraim to be in the wilderness for a while right before Passover. Having what is, basically, a Lenten period, a period of preparation for his pending murder and resurrection. He stays in the Wilderness until 6 days before Passover. When preparations for Passover would have begun.
And then we get to this scene in the Gospel today. What we don’t know in this little snippet is that people are gathering around to see Jesus, and to see Lazarus, because honestly, it’s not every day that you get to see a man who was raised from the dead. The awe at Lazarus would also mark him for death by the same chief priests. Though, we don’t know from this text if Lazarus is ever executed. Based on how many of the disciples and apostles would be executed, which is nearly all of them, it is safe to assume that Lazarus was executed.
But for right now, he’s reclining at dinner with Jesus and the disciples, while Martha cooks, and Mary anoints Jesus’s feet.
What we miss from just reading this story with modern eyes, is, well we miss several things.
But a huge thing we miss is the smell of this perfume or nard, the most direct translation is actual unguent, this smell would have been one that the original readers and hearers knew was a smell of death. And they would have been able to smell the unguent.
This was the smell of the ritual of preparing a body for burial. Having the benefit of knowing the story that is to come, we know that Mary is anointing Jesus, in some way preparing him for what will happen in 6 days.
But the gathered Disciples, they didn’t seem to understand what was happening. What they saw was a woman, a wealthy woman, wasting precious and expensive ointment for the dead on a perfectly living human.
So they chastised her. We only have Judas chastising her, but even if he’s the only one who said anything, the others thought it. The others wondered why she wasted a year’s wages to anoint a living human as though he were dead.
I think, often, we get distracted by arguments about money, because so many of us think about money so often.
For example, a few years ago, when I was serving in Virginia, I had to go to their Diocesan Convention. A big issue that year was whether or not to hire an additional suffragan Bishop. They already had one, but also utilized a nearly fulltime retired Bishop, and quite honestly, there was enough work in Virginia for a 3rd full time Bishop. It’s the biggest Diocese.
A group of older male priests, all White, straight, and over 50, stood up to say they were very worried about hiring, basically, me: a younger priest to become the suffragan Bishop. Younger nearly always means more liberal. Though they didn’t say that, what they said this was they didn’t want to be responsible for paying another Bishop for 30 or 40 years.
It was so obvious to me that what they were afraid of was hiring a young liberal person who would make changes they didn’t like; actually, who would continue making changes they didn’t like, because they already thought the then Bishop, Shannon Johnston, who was from Alabama, was more liberal than they wanted. And it was Bishop Shannon who would choose the Suffragan.
They made it seem like an economic argument. But it wasn’t.
I talked to one of my colleagues, and she, much to my surprise, only heard the economic argument. And that ended up being persuasive enough for the proposal for another Suffragan Bishop to fail.
I think it’s because the money argument played into the ideas that as a culture, we are predisposed to hear and understand. But it’s a red herring.
Red herrings can be remarkably persuasive.
It was persuasive that day in Virginia, and it was persuasive that day in Bethany.
Bishop Shannon, just so everyone knows, was a good man. He was forced out of Virginia, by that same group of people who were disappointed that he had the audacity to be at all liberal. And his replacement will be one of 4 straight, White, men over 50. Which is all that is on the slate of finalists for the next Bishop of Virginia.
This Gospel story makes it seem like the argument is being made that money shouldn’t be wasted on silly things like anointing a man for burial who is alive and in great health.
But really, the disciples are upset at the intimacy of this moment between Jesus and Mary; they don’t like the reminder of death; and, they knew danger was afoot.
And this moment, this anointing, this smell, it gave a visual and olfactory reminder that death was surrounding them; circling closer and closer to them all the time. Death was literally in the air.
But rather than talk about the real issue, the story blames Judas for being greedy.
Judas, interestingly, is also the only one whose motivations are discussed. We don’t know what Lazarus is thinking or feeling, having been brought back from the dead and now reclining at the table with the man who resurrected him. We don’t know what the disciples are thinking about that very thing either, nor what is stirring in their hearts as the experience this moment.
We don’t know what Martha is thinking, as she works to serve, at least not in this accounting of the story. We don’t know what Mary is thinking, why she is moved to this action, what her motivation is.
The story leaves all that out, and instead has us chasing this red herring, about Judas and money. Focusing on foretelling the betrayal, which is a major plot point to come.
But without directly mentioning it, this gospel story also shows that being a disciple doesn’t require being perfect. Disciples make mistakes, get things wrong, don’t even have to be particularly loyal.
I struggled a lot to come up with what this sermon would be on the journey towards. But honestly, I think it’s a combination of the Journey to being fully human with the journey to discipleship.
Because the journey to being fully human means getting distracted, getting it wrong, making bad choices, and then learning from those mistakes and bad choices. When we combine the journey to being fully human to the journey to becoming a disciple, then we see that what really matters isn’t the bad choices we may have made, what matters is what we do as a result.
As we sit here today, wherever we are, it’s important to remember that we don’t have to do this work. We don’t have to. Culture says were good. Even I’ve told you this: God loves you, as you are. You don’t have to do anything to earn that love, it’s there.
But, all of us, if we sit still long enough and listen deeply enough, each of us know that we are called to be something more than what this culture says we are supposed to be.
In order to do that, in order to be that, we have to be intentional. We have to look at our lives and our choices, we have to apologize when we hurt people, and we have to not make the same mistake twice if we can help it.
We have to look deeper than what is written on the page. We have to live into these words. And that means more than just reading them. That means living them. Living those words into existence.
It means making decisions based not on cultural expectations but doing what we know is right. Avoiding what is not quite right, in favor of what God is calling us to do. Doing what Jesus has taught us to do.
It’s hard. Faith, at least not the faith taught by Jesus, is not supposed to be easy. This is hard. And it is so easy to fall into the trap of not doing the work, because, at least for us, we don’t have to.
This week, as we approach the end of Lent, as we enter the period of preparation, I invite us all to consider what we’re avoiding doing? Changing? Looking deeply at? What, or where, is our faith calling us that we don’t want to go?
Becoming a Christian, genuinely embodying what these teachings are, they changed me. And made me a much better human. Not a perfect human, but better. And these teaching offer me the courage and support to keep looking at those dark places, to keep looking beyond the red herrings, to embody what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
Choosing to follow Jesus is a choice I make every day.
If you haven’t made that choice I wonder and encourage you to consider what you need in order to be ready? What do you need to go from observer to follower? From member of the crowd, intrigued to see what miracle Jesus might preform next, to disciple, gathered at the table, sitting at the feet of Christ, even as the smell of death begins to fill the air?
What will need to die in 10 days to be resurrected within you in Easter morning?