John 12: 1-11
5th Sunday of Lent
March 17, 2013
“Six days before Passover.”
Probably a couple of months–though only one chapter–after Lazarus was dead, and then not dead.
Only seven days–and seven chapters–before the crucifixion.
“Six days before Passover.” Wedged between resurrection and death. . . .
“Jesus came to Bethany.”
Just north of Bethlehem, where he was born.
Just east of Jerusalem, where he will die.
Jesus came to Bethany. So close to that legendary manger. So close to that infamous cross. Wedged between his birth and his death.
Jesus is here, in Bethany, six days before Passover, eating a meal with his friends, which he has done many, many times. But never before with this man he raised from the dead. Never before so close in time and place to his own crucifixion.
It must have been a tense time and a holy time around that table. God is there.
I mean, I know God is always there, here, anywhere, everywhere. But the Holy Presence hovers in these liminal spaces, these in-betweens, these thresholds separating life and death. In these spaces, God surrounds and infuses us in ways we do not experience in our everyday lives.
The morning my dad went into Hospice–the day before he died–he told me, “I am with God. As long as you are with God, we are together.”
“I am with God.” It’s something we could all say. Something you might have said. Something my Dad had probably said before. But he didn’t mean it that way. That easy way that we mean when we say, “God be with you.”
He meant that he was really, deeply, already–though not quite yet–fully with God.
I’ve had many holy moments in my life. I’ve known God’s presence through worship, through sharing communion, through giving birth and laughing and listening to music and seeing great art. But I have never known God to be so thick and terrifying and real around me as in that moment.
I can only imagine that God was present around the table in the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus that night. Present in this intense and disorienting way. Because like my dad’s bedside, that table was a place wedged between life and death. You may have experienced a place like this as well–a threshold where you want to linger. Unsatisfied with what has been. Afraid of what will be.
These are tense and holy places.
Imagine the atmosphere in Lazarus’ house that day. Yes, Lazarus is alive. But he has been dead. Wrapped, buried, stinking dead. And because he has been dead, Mary and Martha are acutely aware that he can and will be dead again. They are all the more aware of the preciousness of his life–and of their own. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. . . . Yes indeed.
And then Jesus shows up with his followers. So close to Jerusalem. The headquarters of the oppressive government and the corrupt temple authorities who all seem to have it out for Jesus–especially since he raised Lazarus.
Sitting there in Lazarus’ home, Jesus and his friends are only one and a half miles from Jerusalem, where there is a warrant out for his arrest. Where there are armed soldiers looking for him. Where guards carry whips. Where the vertical beams of crosses already rise from the ground of Golgotha–the “Place of the Skull”–waiting for the condemned who haul their own crossbeams.
It’s hard to say exactly who knows what at this point in the story. Jesus certainly seems to know that his journey into Jerusalem will end (initially) with his death. And if the disciples don’t know, it’s because they are being willfully ignorant. I would imagine Mary and Martha and Lazarus have a pretty good idea where this is headed–if they will let themselves know it.
Their friend, their teacher, their Lord, Jesus, is, as they say, not long for this world. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yes.
And so this meal becomes a sort of death bed scene. Infused with the energy of both life and death. Revealing the hearts of those who surround Jesus.
And it is beautiful.
When we read and tell this story, we pay an awful lot of attention to Mary with her nard and her long silky hair. And no doubt her action is central to this scene. But others are present with Jesus in important ways as well.
It’s easy to miss. The second part of the second verse: “Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with Jesus.”
Here are Jesus’ friends, with him as he approaches death, doing what they do . . . being who they are.
Martha serves. It’s what she did the last time Jesus was at their house. I imagine it’s what she does every day–cooking, cleaning, refilling glasses, wiping up spills, fluffing cushions. Serving is who and how Martha is in the world. Her service is her gift to Jesus–in life and in death.
Lazarus sits with Jesus at the table. Still his friend. And how hard must that have been to remain friends with the One who had raised him from the dead. Lazarus could have so easily become awkward and distant, somehow trying to repay Jesus, or to understand Jesus, or to slink unobtrusively away from that kind of power. But instead Lazarus maintains the friendship. He maintains it through his own death and he maintains it in the face of Jesus’ death. “Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with Jesus.”
And, of course, Mary–giving Jesus the rapt attention she’s always given him; that extravagant attention now shown in the expensive perfume poured over his feet. Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that the nard was originally purchased for Lazarus’ body, which makes sense. That it’s there, almost forgotten in the house. Needed and then not needed. And now, as Mary knows and as others surely suspect, needed again.
Mary pours it all out–not on Jesus’ head, to anoint him as King, but on his feet, to anoint him for burial. And even those who haven’t yet accepted the fact of Jesus’ impending death cannot escape the sharp, minty scent of Mary’s offering.
It seems to me that all three siblings are doing what should be done on that threshold between life and death. Six days before Passover. A mile and a half from Jerusalem.
They are being themselves. They are participating fully in the relationship they have with Jesus. In serving, relaxing, anointing, each one is doing what needs done; they are being present in the moment; they are willing to stay right there with Jesus in that intense, God-thick, death-echoing, life-pulsing place.
It is only Judas who tries to get away. Judas who says, “Why didn’t Mary sell that expensive perfume–worth a year’s wages to a laborer–and we could have given the money to the poor?”
Now John tells us Judas only says this because he stole money from the common purse, not because he cared about the poor. Maybe that’s true. Maybe the early church just found it convenient to heap as many evils as possible on Judas so the story had a proper villain. Either way, I don’t think Judas’ stealing or not stealing money is the point. I don’t think his caring or not caring about the poor is the point.
The point is what Jesus says in response: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
That is what these teetering moments teach us, these places wedged between life and death. Whatever vague cause or concern or job we worry about, it is always there. The poor. The oppressed. The students. The church. The clients.
The masses of nameless, faceless people who need our help–people God calls us to serve. They are always here. We can serve them. We should serve them. But not at the expense of being fully present with a friend or a family member–someone God has given us to love intimately.
We should not begrudge the extravagance of resources or time required to live fully in relationship with the people around us.
Anyone you love could say to you, “You always have the poor–or the hurting, or your students, or the church–with you, but you do not always have me.”
Mary and Martha and Lazarus were keenly aware of how close death was as they shared a meal with Jesus that day in Bethany. My brother, my mom, my sister-in-law, Grace, Jasmine, Ryan, and I knew that our time on earth with my dad was nearing the end as we gathered around his bed in the hospice room.
Mary wasn’t worried about “the poor” when she poured the bottle of oil over Jesus’ feet. Those of us in Dad’s room were not worried about doing homework or writing sermons. The poor, the teachers, the church–they’re all still here. Just like Jesus said.
Sometimes we know how close death is. Because the warrant is out and the stage is set. Because the tests have come back and diagnosis is in.
Sometimes we know, and in those moments–those frightening and holy moments, it can be easy to focus on the person in front of us. Easy to forget about the nameless masses and massage the feet, wipe the brow, of the person we love.
Sometimes, though, we don’t know. God is more hidden. The smell of death is not in the air. Yet still, any moment could be a threshold between life and death. Any moment could be that holy ground. And because it could be, it is. Holy. Every moment. Amen.