Year C — The Second Sunday of Easter

Commentary for April 7, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast with the Rev. Dr. Glenn Monson as guest

Acts 5:27-32
I love the contrary nature of the gospel. By that, I mean the way that it seems to do exactly what its “enemies” don’t want it to do, which is spread. 

The high priest of Israel — a man whose heart was firmly fixed in what he was sure was a defense of the faith of his fathers — tells Peter and the gang that they MUST NOT preach in the name of Jesus anymore. Of course, they do…

And then we get the wonderfully evocative phrase, “you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” These unlearned fishermen and assorted backward Galileans have overtaken, in the opinion of Caiaphas, the sophisticated imaginations of the faithful of every ilk.

Go figure; go gospel!

Psalm 118:14-29
This continuing reading from Psalm 118 underlines that fact that it is always God who is at work in the midst of God’s people. As previously noted, God’s patient work has a solid source — God’s steadfast love.

Psalm 150
Gotta love the active, clashing, clanging praise of the psalter’s closing act!

Revelation 1:4-8
A fabulous text, only one week removed from Easter triumph. Feel the intensity of John’s, “Look!” 

Despite the enormity of the resurrection event just past — or, perhaps  precisely because of it — the Lord is not finished yet. There is still more to come. The Living Christ, soon to be ascended, is also the Returning Lord who will place the appropriate bookend to all of God’s saving activity all through time (Alpha and Omega — and all that jazz!)

John 20:19-31
Thomas is just being honest. He says what pretty much all of the rest of us would have said, had we been in his sandals.

     “I won’t believe it until I can see it.”
     “You know you can’t believe everything you hear.”
     “Well slap me silly and call me Ginger!” 

Okay, that last one is probably pushing it a little bit…but, you get the idea! 

Nobody but nobody was expecting to see Jesus as anything other than dead. Even a whole week later — and after actually laying their eyeballs upon the Risen Lord — all the other disciples were still quaking in their boots (notice the locked doors.)

So, Thomas may well be forgiven for his healthy dose of skepticism. Yet even he needs no evidence that demands a verdict when he comes face to face with Christ. The response of faith is ever and anon, “My Lord and my God!”

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In today’s Gospel lesson, we read of the man traditionally known was “Doubting Thomas.”
Lutheran Pastor Peter Marty, writing in the Christian Century, pointed out that Thomas was not so much a doubter as he was an empiricist; that is, he was something of a scientific man. Thomas was looking for empirical data; facts, hard and sure evidence, measurable and quantifiable, upon which he could base his decision as to whether or not to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection. In this he is no different than most of us are about most things, most of the time.

Suppose your minister died on a Thursday, the Bishop came and held the funeral on Saturday, and then you missed church on Sunday, just didn’t feel like going. Then on Monday, you went to breakfast at a local diner and ran into someone from church who said, “Boy, the minister really preached a good sermon about heaven yesterday.” Would you believe them? Of course not; if you had seen your minister dead and buried on Saturday, you would empirically know she could not have been in church preaching on Sunday. It would be an “idle tale.” You would respond like Thomas did to the news about Jesus, “I’d have to see it for myself.” 

In our story, Thomas was presented with the necessary evidence, given the opportunity to examine the evidence: the nail prints in the hands and the gaping would in Jesus’ side. Convinced by the evidence, he responded with belief, “My Lord and My God!”

Now, we modern folk, with the same desire for proof and evidence that Thomas had, are in the difficult position of not having the opportunity to examine the evidence. Our text admits this problem in verse 29: Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Those of us who do believe find that trying to figure out how to talk about our faith in a believable way to those who don’t believe is very difficult.

That is mainly because our culture has separated fact from faith. It has given up on the idea that faith is based on “real” or “true” or “factual” things and has relegated religiosity to the category of taste or personal preference. Writing in Christianity Today, Tim Stafford talks about an object lesson a pastor he knows uses with his confirmation classes. He comes into the first class with a jar full of jelly beans and asks the class to guess how many are in the jar. He writes down all their estimates on the board. Then next to the list of estimates they make another list, a list of their favorite songs. Finally, the class counts the beans to measure it against the guesses to see who was closest to being right.

After they have determined whose guess was closest to being right, the minister then turns to the other list, the list of songs, and asks “And which one of these is closest to being right?” And of course, the students protest that there is no right answer; a person’s favorite song is purely a matter of taste and circumstance, personal preference, if you will.

Then the minister asks the real important question: “When you decide what to believe about God, is that more like guessing the number of beans, or more like choosing your favorite song?” Stafford says the minister has done this numerous times over the last 20 years, and always the answer, from teen-agers and from adults, is the same; “Choosing one’s faith is like choosing a favorite song.” We have separated fact from faith, mainly because our culture has limited facts to those things which can be discovered empirically, scientifically; through experimentation and proof; therefore, we are highly skeptical of those things, like Jesus’ death and resurrection, which resist such proof.

The truth is; we are greatly limited in what we can prove about Jesus through applying the rules of scientific historical investigation. The best we can say, with almost 100% certainty, is that a man named Jesus lived, taught, and was crucified by the Roman Government of Jerusalem and that, after his death, many of his followers reported that the tomb was empty and that they had seen him alive. That’s it, historically, scientifically, empirically.

A second important truth is that even the Bible acknowledges that simply knowing the facts does not necessarily lead to faith. At the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, we find a very interesting short verse. The eleven remaining disciples go up on a mountain in Galilee, where they see him for the last time. Then comes this verse, Matthew 29:17.”When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.”

They had left their jobs to follow him, had spent 2-3 years with him, heard him preach, witnessed his miracles saw the Crucifixion, experienced the Resurrection, spent several days and weeks being with the Risen Jesus in a variety of places, but some doubted!

Contrary to both science and traditional wisdom; seeing is not always believing. Something besides an informed, reasonable decision is going on here. Some who saw the risen Christ still doubted, while others, who have never seen him, believe fervently.

The problem is not a lack of information. I think our hesitancy is a more a product of what we do know than what we don’t know. Mark Twain said, “Some people worry about the parts of the Bible they don’t understand. Me, I worry about the parts I DO understand!”

We know that to commit our life to Christ is to commit ourselves to following Christ and the Gospel wherever it might lead. We know that to commit ourselves to following Christ takes a lot of decisions out of our hands and puts them in the hands of God. We know that to put our decisions into the hands of God is to risk being called to do things we would personally rather not do. We know that the one calling us got crucified, got executed in the cruelest way possible. We know that the one calling us revealed himself by showing his wounds and suffering for the world to the world and that we will be called upon to show our love for the world by being wounded and suffering for those the world has hurt and rejected. We know what it means to believe in Jesus, and our hesitancy to believe may be rooted in our hesitancy to shoulder that cross.

A couple of years ago in Winston-Salem, a couple planned a small family wedding in their Baptist Church. The wedding was on Saturday night, there had been an all-day Missions conference at the church, and the family had only an hour or so after the conference ended to clean up the church and decorate for the 7 PM wedding. It was only after the service that the bride noticed one glaring mistake in their preparations. Across the front wall was a huge banner which read WORTH THE RISK!

The question for us today is a simple one: Do we consider the joys of following Christ worth the risk? The witness of Christians for 2000 years, from doubting Thomas to Teresa of Calcutta, is “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Can we, this day, look at the wounds of Christ, hear him calling us to follow him in love and service to the world, and with Thomas, fall on our knees and cry out, “MY LORD, AND MY GOD!”

Christ is Risen. Christ is risen indeed. Amen.

Year C — Easter Sunday

Commentary for March 31, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast featuring The Rev. H. Julian Gordy

Acts 10:34-43
Peter’s sermon is an alternative for the first reading for today. Though Simon could occasionally go on at great length in his exposition (can’t we all?) — this is perhaps one of the most concise accounts of the Easter gospel to be found in all of scripture.

God ‘s message of peace has been preached to God’s people through Christ, who has been anointed with the Holy Spirit, has been busy doing good, was oppressed by the devil, and was put to death on a tree. God has raised him from the dead — we saw him with our own eyes, sat down and ate with him — and now we’re here to tell you he really is the judge of the living and the dead. 

Jesus rocks!

Isaiah 65:17-25
Isaiah’s vision is, in a very real sense, what Easter is all about — because it is what God’s vision for the world has always been about.

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Here we have a repeat (mostly) of the closing Hallel psalm, which was reviewed in last week’s session for the Liturgy of the Palms.

Notably, v.17 ties to the resurrection, which is a concomitant of God’s steadfast love for Israel.

1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Does Paul nail it in this passage, or what?

Our hope in Christ is much bigger than the life we live in “this life.” In fact, as Paul says, if that were it, we would be people who should be pitied. But, those who hope in Christ are no fools!

Lots of enemies that lurk and oppress us in “this life.” But, the Christ has come to tame every enemy — even death, who seems to loom so large (but is really, oh, so small!)

John 20:1-18
All of us who have stood graveside to say goodbye can understand Mary’s tears. Separation hurts — death often brings days of confusion, angst, even desperation.

Facing death, there is so much that we just don’t know!

But, in time, we hear the voice of Jesus as he fulfills his promise — never to leave, never to forsake. Then, it’s all okay. We so often find Christ through our tears.

Luke 24:1-12
Silly women telling idle tales. That’s all the “first” Easter story amounted to in the ears of the first hearers.

Well, fortunately for us all, Peter and the others didn’t stop with their first impressions — notice they got up and went to see for themselves. Ultimately, we all bear the responsibility to go and see for ourselves these Easter tidings we have heard.

Like Peter and the boys, when we do come and see — we will most likely be amazed.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

They put him to death by hanging Him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day. . .“(Acts 10:39b-40a)

They put him to death on a tree, but God raised him. Those words —  but God —  are the church’s only true answer to the death, destruction, and despair the world has for us.

Trying to reason our way through grief and loss, trying to make sense of the senseless, trying to convince a world gone crazy with the desire for more of everything and anything that that desire is deadly of both body and soul; these things are, at the end of the day, pointless.

There is no reason which can assuage our grief, there is no sense to be made of the raging evil we see around us, there is no way to divert the addicted and bloated from seeking their fix, be it oil or drugs.

The only answer we have to offer to these things, which the church has traditionally summed up as “Sin, Death and the Devil,” is these two words, but God! Beginning with Adam and Eve and the Apple: the Devil tempts, people Sin, Death ensues, and God intervenes with another chance.

This story is the golden thread running through the Bible; this story of God’s redeeming and forgiving love, this story of God’s willingness to act in response to the world’s evil, this story summed up in the words; but God.

Today we celebrate the ultimate but God moment, the raising of Jesus from the tomb. It is both the proof and the promise of our faith. It reminds us of what God has done in the past while promising to us what God will do in the future. 

With both Jesus and the world, the evil trilogy of Sin, Death and the Devil did their best to do their worst. Good Friday appeared to be a complete victory for those forces of destruction which assail all of us, 

Evil reared its ugly head and roared; and Good stood by idly and did nothing. When Mary went to the tomb, 
she went in deep sadness and despair,
 she went into a place of coldness and death, she went to a place 
with no happiness and no hope,
 she went to prepare a body for burial, she went to put Jesus in his grave. 

But when she got there, she discovered that things had changed, the tomb was empty, the body was missing, 
and angels were lurking about.
 Mary had come upon the greatest but God moment of them all.

Our lives are full of difficulty. Natural disaster strikes, friends die, relatives get sick, jobs don’t pan out, 
politicians and teachers and yes,
 even preachers, turn out to be less than they seem or should be. All of life is subject to the painful realities of decline and decay.

But Easter reminds us that the church has an answer and that answer is God; God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s power, God’s calling, God’s actions in the world. Easter is more than a promise of life beyond the grave, of happiness in heaven with our loved ones. Easter is a promise that life is good now, that God’s power is active in this moment, in this place, in our lives. Easter tells us that our eternal life begins now and goes with us through death into God’s future. Easter tells us that whatever may happen to us in this world there is an answer, and the answer is but God. 

The world says; “Seek success and glory and material well-being above all else.” But God says; “Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven and all these things shall be added unto you.”

The world says; It’s a dog eat dog world, it’s a rat race. It’s every man (person) for himself. But God says; “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The world says, “Find your self, your bliss. Do that thing which makes you feel most fulfilled.” But God says; You shall love the LORD your God, with all your heart, mind and soul; and the second is just like it; love your neighbor as yourself.”

The world says, “Stave off death at whatever cost. The worst thing that can happen is to die and any action that you take to avoid it is good.” But God says, “Those who would save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will save it.”

The world’s way leads to the death of the soul and eventually the death of the body, with no hope for tomorrow and no joy for today. But God’s way leads first to death and then to life; life both now and forever; life full of the joy of loving and serving God and neighbor with reckless abandon and total trust in God’s will and way.

That is why we are so full of joy as we cry out today: Christ is risen! CHRIST IS RISEN INDEED!

Spam and the Blogosphere

Well, gentle readers, one of our fondest hopes upon the commencement of the Lectionary Lab more than two years ago was that we would be a place where folks could share their thoughts, reactions, questions, etc., by means of commenting and posting here — freely.

We do enjoy the occasional input from you, and have tried to keep posting and replying a fairly easy thing to do. However, we have been beset by spammers lately, to the point that Bubba #2 has been spending more time eliminating spurious comments than he has been writing the commentary on the lections.

So, as of today, we have restricted posting to “registered users” — which means you will have to have a genuine online identity such as Google or OpenID in order to post.

PLEASE continue to respond. If anything, we’d like to open even more channels of communication with and amongst you. We genuinely believe that the Word, dwelling in our midst, is best understood in community.

John and Delmer

Year C — Palm/Passion Sunday

Commentary for March 24, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for Liturgy of the Palms
Click here for Liturgy of the Passion

Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast with guest preacher The Rev. Eric Corbin!

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 (Palms)
Psalm 118 is the final hymn in the sequence known as “Hallel” (or, “Praise of G-d”) in Jewish prayer. Aside from its reference to entering the gates of righteousness (very appropriate for the Liturgy of the Palms,) it is also significant for its attachment to the celebration of Passover.

There is a nice overview of the Hallel psalms available here from the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations in America.

Luke 19:28-40 (Palms)
“The Lord needs it.”

I love the brevity of this explanation given for the two disciples to use when asked why they were purloining a colt to take to Jesus. The coolest thing is — it worked! The owner of the colt obviously didn’t need any further explanation for loaning it out on Palm Sunday.

Oh, that we might be so flexible in turning loose of our possessions when it becomes obvious that “the Lord needs it!”

Isaiah 50:4-9a (Passion)
The prophet may be read poignantly during this week of the Passion; our Christian ears are “opened” to hear the sound of the whip cutting the back of Christ. Our eyes see Jesus as his beard is pulled and as the spittle of the soldiers runs down his face.

Ultimately, the statement of faith for Christ and all who would follow the way of trust in God is found in v.9: “It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?”

Psalm 31:9-16 (Passion)
Whispering, betrayal, plotting to take one’s life. The psalm adds to the background as we consider the Passion of our Lord. There is also the continuing theme of absolute trust in God. (v.14)

Philippians 2:5-11 (Passion)
To have the mind of Christ!

Most likely, Philippians 2:6-11 is a hymn of the early church, recorded and incorporated here by Paul to make a theological point. (Our hymns and songs teach us more theology than our sermons and lessons, for the most part, despite what most pastors want to believe. All the more reason to be sure we are using good hymns!!)

This Holy Week, let us lean into the vision of every knee bending and every tongue confessing. Lord, make it so!

Luke 22:14-23:56 (Passion — alternatively, Luke 23:1-49)
There is very little point in offering commentary for the gospel reading on this Sunday. It is designed simply to be read and heard. The story IS the commentary.

In my pulpit, I end the reading each week with, “May God bless the reading and hearing of God’s holy word.” That is my prayer for each of you and in each of your churches on this Sunday. 

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

A few years ago one of my parishioners, a young woman who had recently moved to Nashville from somewhere in the Midwest, dropped by my office for a chat about her love life, or rather about the lack thereof. She brought along a personal ad she had seen in the Nashville Scene, a free weekly newspaper.

She wanted to know what I thought. She was planning to write one like it. Why she asked me, I don’t know. The last time I had a date with someone I was not married to, I was still too young to buy beer. I got married when I was 20 years old. Anyway, the ad read like this:
VERY WANTED: 30-ish drummer in rockabilly band like the Billygoats, with a romantic spirit, professional career, blue eyes, Episcopal. 

Is it just me, or does that seem a bit too specific?

As I was meditating on the events of Palm Sunday and Holy week, I began to think about how much those folks who welcomed Jesus with shouts of Hosanna resemble folk who place overly specific and optimistic ads in the personals.

They are setting themselves up for a fall. The romantic ones because their dreamed of “knight in shining armor” (or rockabilly Episcopal drummer with blue eyes) is unlikely to exist; and the religious ones because the messiah they’re looking for isn’t the messiah they are likely to get.

When the folk welcomed Jesus that long ago morning, they gave him a hero’s welcome, they cheered him in the same way they would a military leader. They saw him as someone who could remove the heavy Roman boot from the backs of their necks, they applauded him as someone who could lead a revolt against the Evil Empire, someone who would lead them to freedom.

And Jesus disappointed them. He was not 6 feet plus, with abs of steel. He rode into town on a baby donkey, not a warhorse. He went to pray at the temple; not to protest at the palace. Jesus did not turn out to be their idea of a savior.

And by Friday, the joyous shouts of “Hosanna, Hosanna,” had turned into derisive and blood thirsty cries of “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!” What happened? As the week wore on and Jesus taught day after day in the temple, it became more and more clear, first to Judas, and then to many others, that Jesus was not the messiah they had been looking for. They failed to realize that he was the messiah they needed. In their expectation of a messiah, I think the people of Jesus’ time were a bit like the folk in a small Danish village a man at a retreat told me about a few years ago.

It seems an American was vacationing in a small fishing village. On Sunday, he attended services in the ancient church, which dated back almost a thousand years. He went early so as to see everything. There was one thing that stood out. During the prelude, everyone who came in stopped halfway down the aisle and, turning to the right, bowed in the direction of the blank wall. Everybody, no exceptions. When the choir and the pastor came in, they too stopped and bowed to the blank wall. After the service, the visitor stood outside and talked to a few folks who knew English and eventually he asked them about the practice of bowing to the blank wall.
And they all said, “We don’t know, we’ve always done that.’’ he asked the pastor. He said, “I don’t know. They were doing that when I came and I saw no reason to stop them” The pastor did promise to find out and write the visitor.

A few months later he received a letter from the Danish pastor. When the church was built, around the year 1150 AD, there had been a mural of the Madonna and Child painted on that spot on the wall. At the time of the Reformation, when the Danish church went from Catholic to Lutheran, the mural was painted over and the people were instructed to stop bowing to the wall. But the people of the village ignored a long line of ministers telling them to stop bowing to the wall, until the clergy gave up, and eventually the people and the pastors all bowed to the wall and all forgot why.

As I said, the people of Jesus’ time were a lot like those villagers. They believed in and hoped for a messiah. They also were bowing to a blank wall, not sure what they were waiting for or worshiping.

We modern Christians are sometimes like that too. The image of the real Jesus has been obscured by time and cultural shifts and preacherly reinterpretation. Over the years we’ve been told Jesus is this, Jesus is that, Jesus is the other thing, until the real Jesus is hard to see and almost impossible to know.

Sometimes, we’re not sure who this Jesus really is, but there is something about his life and teaching and witness and death and promise of life again that keeps drawing us back to the wall of worship, back to the place where we bow and pray and hope and look hard to see God in our lives.

That is what Holy Week is all about. It is a time to look for Jesus. To look for Jesus in the Scriptures, to look for Jesus in the events of the last week of his life, to look and see what he was all about. To get shed of our preconceived notions of what a messiah, a savior, a Christ, is supposed to be like so that we can see and receive Jesus as he is.

It is a time to look for Jesus in prayer. To meditate upon his call to follow him in giving up self to serve the needs of others, especially the least and the most despised.

It is a time to look for Jesus in worship, to join the community on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, to receive again his command that we love one another, to witness once again his death upon the cross.

Most of all, Holy Week is a time for us to look for Jesus in our lives. To see the real Jesus, Luther said, we must look to the Cross. For there, Jesus died for us. There Jesus revealed what God is really like. There we discover the God who suffers and dies for a sinful but beloved humanity. There on the Cross, Christ calls us to follow, Calls us to take up our cross and serve and suffer for the world, Calls us to trust God’s love now and forever.

Amen and amen.

Year C — The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Commentary for March 17, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s texts

Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast for this session.

Isaiah 43:16-21
“Well, it’s as plain as the nose on your face.”

I was always a bit curious about that phrase from my childhood; I could never figure out how anyone could see their own nose on their face! And, of course, that’s the point, I suppose; my nose is obvious to you, but not to me. And vice versa, I reckon.

Isaiah has God asking us, essentially, “Can’t you see the new thing I’m doing? It’s right there — just like a spring in the middle of the desert!” Not quite the same as the nose on our face, but still fairly obvious. But, oblivious humans that we are, we still miss it. 

Perhaps we need to be a bit more like the animals — jackals and ostriches and such. They can see it, smell it, feel it. When we are thirsty enough for the righteousness of God, I suppose we will then find the refreshing water God offers. 

Psalm 126
More water in the desert here in Psalm 126.

The “watercourses” in the Negev remind me of what we always called “gulleys” where I grew up in West Tennessee. Most of the time, they were empty ditches where children could play. But, wait for a good rain — particularly in the spring time — and suddenly they were full of raging water.

Trees, grass, and plants of all kinds flourish near such a watercourse; even if the coming of the water is uncertain, it is always life-giving when it happens. The prayer of the psalmist is that God’s mercy will come like the rains that replenish the growth and quench the thirst of all who dwell nearby.

And not uncertainly, but regularly. (Anybody else but me know the old gospel song, “Showers of Blessing?”)

Philippians 3:4b-14
“Pressing on toward the goal” is a great theme in this text. We all like to set and achieve goals, don’t we? Stewardship goals, attendance goals, ministry goals…on and on, the list of programmatic goals can be endless in the life of the church.

But, this “goal” is something entirely different, according to the Apostle; this is about “knowing Christ” in the power of his resurrection — which path leads through suffering and death! How does one break that down into a plan, a program? Can we chart our way into suffering? Is there a catchy slogan for that?

May we forget what is behind, and strain forward to what lies ahead…gain or loss, glory or suffering. Thanks be to God!

John 12:1-8
Waste and worship.

I can hardly wrap my mind around the juxtapositions in this text. We have Lazarus, he that had stunk up the joint after dwelling in the tomb for several days just a couple of chapters earlier — could that have been the reason Mary brought a pound of perfume into the room, ostensibly to wash the feet of Jesus?

Of course, her act is seen both as extravagance and as tenderness. Judas can only see dollar signs, while Jesus sees her devotion. 

There is the foreshadowing of his impending death and burial — even as we prepare to celebrate resurrection in just two more weeks. What is an impatient congregation to do? The pageantry and the pomp of Easter are calling us — but we must wait — AGAIN — to process through the dark passion of Holy Week.

It seems that so much of the church’s liturgical time is spent in hurry-up-and-wait mode. But, then, perhaps that is precisely because we are such a hurried people living such hurried lives. Are we Judases constantly afraid that we might just be wasting time sitting here at the Lord’s feet?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In an odd sort of way, today is a day of mixed emotions, of conflicted feelings. As the world emerges from the dark and cold of winter into the light and warmth of spring, our religious tradition calls us deeper into the darkness and gloom of Jesus’ suffering and death. Sadness and celebration; darkness and light; the cold of winter and the warmth of spring, the death of Christ and the birth of new hope, all mixed up together in one day.

Just like in our Gospel Lesson. Here we find Jesus at a meal celebrating the raising of Lazarus, a feast in honor of the fact that Lazarus has been returned from the dead. Into the midst of this party, Mary comes and anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume and wipes them with her hair; an act that symbolically prepares him for death and burial, an act which also upsets everyone present.

This story is in the beginning of chapter 12 in John. In chapter 11 Jesus is out preaching and teaching when he gets word that Lazarus, his dear friend, is ill. Later he learns that he has died. The rest of chapter 11 is about Jesus’ delay in going to Lazarus and about how Martha fussed at Jesus for not coming sooner and how when Jesus saw Mary and all the others weeping, he started weeping too, and finally, Jesus went to the tomb and cried out, “Lazarus, come out.” And Lazarus came out, bound up like a Mummy in a bad horror movie; stumbling and smelly but alive.

Chapter 12 opens with the story of a dinner that took place a few weeks later to celebrate Lazarus’ amazing return from the dead. Make no mistake about it; this was a party, a fiesta, a banquet. Where I come from we would have had a pig-picking, a fish-fry, a keg party with fireworks. Or maybe a South Carolina Low Country shrimp boil: out on the deck, beach music playing, couples dancing “the shag,” little kids running around under the boardwalk chasing fireflies, old people sitting in corners talking and watching young people.

And into the midst of this joyous frivolity Mary comes with a gallon of perfume, expensive stuff, worth thirty or forty thousand dollars. And she plops down in front of Jesus and pours this rich and costly perfume all over his feet and then wipes his feet with her hair.

And the music stops, and the dancers freeze and the old people hush talking and the children stand with their fingers in their mouths and stare while Jesus smiles and lifts Mary up and thanks her for her generosity and her love. There are a couple of reasons for the stunned reaction on the part of the group, one that is spoken of in the text and one that is not.

In the text, Judas says that which everyone else is thinking, “My God, woman, what are you doing? You could have sold that and given the money to the poor.”Jesus reply here is very important. Many times people have used his words, “the poor you always have with you,” as an excuse for not helping the poor. That is definitely not what Jesus meant.

Jesus meant that Mary understands his immediate present and near future better than any of them. She bought the perfume, the nard, for a specific purpose; to anoint his body when he died, and she more than anyone else, knows that Jesus is soon to die. 

Her anointing his body at this time shows that she recognizes that by coming to Jerusalem and raising her brother from the dead, he has angered the people who run things and they intend to kill him. She knows, even if the others don’t, that by coming here to this place, at this time, and working this miracle, he has sealed his fate, he has signed his own execution order. In giving Lazarus life he has assured his own death. Mary pours out both her gratitude and her grief when she pours the perfume on Jesus’ feet. 

And when Jesus reminds them that they always have the poor with them, he is reminding them, and us, of our ongoing call and duty to serve the needs of what he calls elsewhere “the least of these my brothers and sisters.” Indeed what he says elsewhere is that when we serve “the least of these,” we are personally and directly serving Christ. Rather than being the end of our duty to the poor, this moment with Mary at his feet is really the beginning of a higher call and a wider duty for all of us.

The second reason people reacted with shock and dismay is not spoken of in this text, but is easily understood. Jesus was a single man and a rabbi; “decent women,” and “decent rabbis” just didn’t touch each other like that. But in her gratitude and her sorrow, Mary had thrown caution to the wind and gave vent to her deepest and most honest feelings about Jesus, her savior and her Lord.

This text calls us to do the same. It calls us to a deep, deep grief for the death of Jesus; a profound and abiding sorrow for our faults and failures, our evil deeds and iniquitous acts; in a word, our sins, that put him on the cross to bleed and die to save us from ourselves. 

It also calls us to a full and rich and sober joy and gratitude for the new life that Christ won for us there. Martin Luther called it a “sacred exchange,” a “divine trade.” On the cross Jesus took on our sins and gave us his holiness. Upon the cross Jesus died our death and gave us his life. There on that tree, Jesus accepted our fate and gave us his future.

And in response we are called to weep for our sins and his death and then to pour out our lives in service of Christ through service to the poor and needy of this world.

Amen and amen.