DID YOU MISS CHURCH?
Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland
Moosup Valley Congregational Church UCC
May 12, 2019
What will people have to show of your love when you die? Will they be hand-sewn quilts or afghans knitted for your children? Or fishing flies that you tied with your grandson? Or a beautiful poem or a scrapbook of family pictures? Maybe people will talk of the wonderful dishes you brought to the church potlucks, or the solo you sang in church. Or how you loved animals and rescued a dog after Katrina.
Or perhaps what you will have to show for your love will be happy and successful children, a beautiful flower garden, a well-maintained church building, or parents well-tended at the end of their lives. Whatever it is, could be as big as an invention that saves lives – or as unassuming as a kind word or a smile or a helping hand. What will people have to show of your love when you die?
In today’s scripture from the Book of Acts, Tabitha has died. She was a church lady, one of those women who serve the church faithfully (and there are church men like that too) who are always there when you need them. Tabitha, as she was known in Aramaic, was that kind of servant in the church in Joppa. She was a widow who worked with other widows, a disciple when women weren’t given the honor of being called disciples.
Yet she was known in the wider community, too, so the writer of Acts tells us that the Greek translation of her name is Dorcas. Tabitha / Dorcas, whose name means “gazelle,” was a seamstress, a strange name for a woman who sat and sewed. Her hands must have flown over the fabric, a stitch here, a tuck there, to clothe her community. For when she dies, the widows come with proof of her love in the garments she has made.
The Book of Acts, which records this story, is a strange little book, sandwiched as it is between the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and the letters from Paul and others that circulated in the early church. My New Testament professor described it as a “romantic novella,” telling the stories of conversions and healings and early missionary activity. In our secular day and age, we might think Acts quaint and magical, to say the least, because, in truth, we are Humpty Dumpty people:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses, And all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!
But God can put Humpty together again! Acts comes to say that God is still working in the church and the world, in the lives of individuals and of society, to restore brokenness and bring wholeness. God is still speaking – in your life and in mine. Tabitha’s community is devastated when she grows ill and dies – just like all of our congregations when we are wracked by illness and loss – whether we are in Joppa or in Foster. We know, because we, too, have lost our saints, pillars of the church, and so Joppa sends for help.
Peter is nearby in Lydda, and he comes at their bidding to restore Tabitha. The importance of the story is not in Tabitha’s healing, for apparently it’s not her time to die, but in the community of faith that cried together and prayed together and acted together. Commentator Stephen Jones notes, “The emphasis of this text is not upon a return from death, but upon the community honing all of its spiritual strength and resources passionately on life and wholeness.”
The Tabitha story is interesting from another perspective, too: Tabitha is worthy. Nowhere else do we read in the Bible, in quite the same way, that someone deserved to be saved, and a woman at that! Women’s lives had little value in that culture, just as they do in some cultures around the world today. Women are born, they serve, they die. Our African friend tells of her husband who kicked her out of her house with nothing. “Go away. I don’t need you any more; I’ve found someone prettier, younger.” But God’s value system is different from the world’s system, and this time, Tabitha is restored to her community – at least for a little longer.
On Mother’s Day we celebrate our mothers, as we should, but our observances tends to be sentimental – flowers and candy, cards and loving words, maybe a dinner out. But our recognitions tend to stop at our front doors. What about other mothers’ life-giving acts in the larger community? How do they carry God’s love out into the world? I think of this poem written by Chenjerai Hove:
If you stay in comfort too long
you will not know
the weight of a water pot
on the bald head of a village woman…
If you stay in comfort too long
you will not know the pain
of childbirth without a nurse in white…
You will forget
the unfeeling bare feet
gripping the warm soil turned by the plow
You will forget
the voice of the season talking to the oxen.
This week at the Interfaith Conference to Reduce Poverty, our keynote speaker raised up Fannie Lou Hamer in Mississippi, a poor black women who picked cotton with her family at the age of six and grew up to be a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. Because she was able to read and write, she was given the job of “time-keeper” in a sharecropper system designed to keep black workers in debt. As an adult, she reached out to her neighbors to help them get ahead by starting a pig bank. She bred pigs and gave the piglets away so other families could breed them, a way out of poverty, a way out of hunger.
She wanted her community to get ahead – which almost cost her her life. She was extorted, threatened, harassed, shot at, and assaulted by white supremacists and police while trying to register for and exercise her right to vote. But she lived and took her story all the way to Congress, attended the National Democratic Convention in 1964 and later co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus to help women of all races who wish to seek election to government office.
Fannie Lou Hamer was a mother of four children, but she also mothered the nation, took responsibility for its future. But we don’t have to go that far away to know that some of our mothers mothered more than their own families. Pat’s mother was active in the larger church community, and I hear that Rose Hawes was “mother” to a lot of kids, not only Cheryl, Kathy, and Brenda. Without our mother’s examples, many of us wouldn’t be here today. And some of our mothers are still making a difference. Look at the comfort that Martha brings to Woodpecker Hill.
Most of the time, except for those who willingly put themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of the greater community – like the mother who intercepted a bullet in the California synagogue a week ago – we are not called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice.
But the community of faith is called on through the ages to make life-giving acts central to its calling. Few of us are called upon to die, but we all are called upon to care for each other – and for the least of these.
This means collecting food for the hungry, blankets for the homeless, and rushing to put a tourniquet around a severed limb in Boston. It means becoming knowledgeable about legislation that helps to lift people out of poverty, cleans up our environment, puts people to work. It means thinking about our shut-ins, taking in a meal, providing transportation, working on church projects, raising money for Foster Human Services, sitting with a friend whose mother is dying. It means acts of courage and kindness and love, acts to lift up the lowly, acts to serve the world.
Tabitha’s church gathered around her, weeping, vulnerable, hopeful, showing Peter what she meant to them – and celebrating her life. What will people have to show of your love, or my love, when we die?
May it be miracle enough!
 Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, page 431.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Breathed On Ones
May 5, 2019
It is still the first day of the week in today’s reading, still the Sunday we call Easter. At dawn, remember, Mary Magdalene, the lead disciple according to recent scholarship, had gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body and found him gone. She had summoned the disciples who confirmed what she already knew before they went back into hiding. But Mary’s grief held her at the tomb, and she was rewarded by meeting with Jesus himself. One of our favorite hymns, “I came to the garden alone,” celebrates Mary’s time with Jesus.
But now it is evening, and the disciples are gathered in a safe house. And then, through locked doors, Jesus comes to them, too, and stands among them. Imagine how afraid they must have been, thinking Jesus a ghost. “Peace be with you,” he says, and proves, by his wounds, who he is. Thomas, who was absent, doesn’t believe it, of course. Would you? Would any of us? We can imagine Thomas’ thinking that his friends have had too much wine or that they have snapped under the stress of the past three days.
There are a lot of unanswered questions in this passage: For example, why don’t Mary and the disciples, in both of these occasions, recognize Jesus as soon as they see him? Is his appearance altered in some way? Is he there, but not there? Their senses must be tricking them. And then, a week later, Jesus returns and stands among them. This time, Thomas is present and can see for himself; he can touch Jesus’ wounds. “Seeing is believing,” it is said, but perhaps it is also, “Touching is believing.” And for Mary, at the tomb, it was “Hearing is believing,” when Jesus spoke her name.
Second, another question: Why does Jesus need to show them his wounds? Do his wounds define him? In the same way, do our wounds define us? Perhaps we are known, at least in part, and shaped by our woundedness, by our suffering, by our life experience. To be human is to suffer, just as Jesus suffered. It is part of our lives: We lose loved ones and livelihoods. We suffer cancer and accidents. We live with regrets and lost opportunities.
Also, think about Thomas: He has been wearing a “doubter” chain around his neck for 2,000 years. But all of the disciples, except for Mary Magdalene, are doubters. Perhaps being a disciple means, at least in part, a readiness to doubt, to question, to get to the bottom of things that matter. We have all been told that we must believe what we are told, in order to be considered faithful. That we will believe by-and-by – a theological idea, for example, like the Virgin Birth, or a creed that was formulated in ages past, or a verse of scripture taken out of context. There’s the story of a cranky old minister who once said to a girl in his confirmation class, “The church is no place for questions, young lady!”
Well, I disagree. In the UCC, remember, we believe that “God is still speaking,” and so it is. Keep in mind that Jesus did not ask for blind obedience of the disciples, only that they carry on his ministry, with the words, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And then Jesus does something that gets lost in the text when we get caught up with too much “believing” and “doubting” and “proving.” He breathes on them. Imagine being breathed on by Jesus. What would his breath have smelled like? Was there something of springtime in his breathe? Of heaven, beyond ordinary experience? Or would it still carry the hint of bread and wine that he shared with his followers in that upper room three days earlier? Or the taste of gall that he had been given to drink on the cross? The heavy odor of spices from his embalming? Or perhaps the disciples smelled the fish and olives and bread they had shared in Galilee, in what must have seemed like a lifetime ago.
A very real Jesus, a human Jesus, breathes something divine into his followers, and, by extension, into you and me: He breathes the Holy Spirit, God’s divine presence, God’s never-ending love or all of God’s creation, into us. Take a breath. We receive that breath to give oxygen to our lungs and life to our flesh, but we are not allowed to keep it for ourselves. Life comes as in the cycle of breathing in and breathing out. We can only hold our breath for so long, and then we must let it go. In the same way, Jesus sends us out to carry his divine life-breathe, God’s Holy Spirit, into all the locked rooms of fear in our world, and to breathe out judgment and forgiveness and peace.
Faithful discipleship is not measured by believing the right words as they have been handed down to us (although words are important). This gospel, with its pressure to believe without real flesh and real breath has been used to fill us with fear, to make us feel guilty, to worry us about the extent of our faithfulness. Doubting is part of using all of our God-given gifts of intellect and experience and reason to create a faith that is our own, that rings true to us, that makes sense in the 21st century.
Faithful discipleship, rather, is about doing: breathing the love of God and Jesus’ resurrection breath into our own lives and then breathing it out into all the wounded people around us, breathing it in and then out into all the dead places in this troubled world of ours, breathing out that divine presence in the halls of government and on the battlefields of war, in our homes and schools and communities.
After meeting the resurrected Jesus and touching his damaged hands and the wounds in his side, Thomas is transformed. Tradition has it that Thomas traveled beyond the limits of the Roman Empire, bringing the good news of Jesus Christ even as far away as southwest India. I hear that there are a number of believers there in that part of India who call themselves “Christians of St. Thomas.” And Thomas is the patron saint of architects because he built so many churches. Not bad for a doubter, I say!
Close your eyes and take a breath. We are the “breathed on ones.” Imagine Jesus’ breathing the Holy Spirit into you. Taste his breath; feel his wounds; see him beckoning you out into the world to preach good news to the poor, to heal the wounded, and to bring peace to the world.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
April 21, 2019 – Easter Sunday
The end of a long week, and the beginning of the rest of their lives. The political forces in Jerusalem had conspired to put an end to this trouble-maker from Nazareth. And they have succeeded: Jesus’ body buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. His followers in hiding. Pilgrims heading home. The religious leaders have kept a lid on things. Zealot uprisings averted for another year. Pilate prepares his legions to go back to the coast. All’s well that ends well. Jerusalem sighs with relief.
The Sabbath is over; the Galilean women who have been traveling with Jesus, are anxious to come to the tomb to anoint his body with spices, the custom after the death of a loved one – one last loving touch. The gospels differ on how many women come. In John’s account, Mary comes alone. How could she not? He was her best friend and she, his closest disciple – until the politics in the early church pushed her to the background, scorned her as a harlot.
And so she comes, broken-hearted, to be near her beloved teacher, to stand at his tomb, to witness to love. Jesus had taught them a new way of being, of caring for one another, of serving the least and the lost. They had had such hope. How can they possibly go back to a life without him? Just hours ago when they celebrated the Passover in that upper room, Jesus had talked about love, demonstrated his love for them by washing their feet, commanded them to love one another. And now it is over.
Imagine her shock, her confusion, her disbelief, when she arrives at the tomb and finds the stone rolled away. Has she gone to the wrong tomb? Has his body been moved to another? Even worse, stolen? Does Peter know something she does not? She runs to tell, the first witness to the empty tomb. We can imagine her, breathless, heartsick, “Help me find him!”
Peter and Thomas come running. They enter the tomb but find it empty – except for what Jesus has left behind: The burial linen that had bound Jesus is laid there by itself, alongside the strips of cloth that had bound his head. Grave robbers wouldn’t have taken the time to unwrap the body, surely. What could have happened? Indeed, what on earth has happened? The disciples fail to understand, draw no conclusions, return home. Jesus is not only dead – but now he also is gone.
We call this gospel story a resurrection story – except that it’s not a resurrection story at all, not yet! It’s an empty tomb story. How can this be? William Jones in his imaginative poem titled, “Day One,” writes, of Jesus’ awakening: wondering what next after this, he woke to cave’s pierced-darkness edged by light stone sought to block, but could not this bright morning loosing the wrappings death held close, falling to floor he reaches his hand un-bent, un-bleeding, into cool air and, risking life, begins breathing slowly it dawns it has been undone, bruised yet healing from wounding wondering what next after this, he rises and eases through walls clinging close the still-moist earth, upending the plot tended by mourners stumbling, tripping what they hadn’t sought, newly un-dead, rooting deep seed pulling himself up into the living, harder than dying his hand gripping mine dried blood and cooling the fever his brow, he rises and eases through walls.
How can we understand the resurrection? Surely, not as science, as fact. But what, then?
Perhaps we can understand it as an “unbinding…”. The one who commands his followers to “love one another as I have loved you,” cannot be kept in the grave. Love loosens the bindings and sets him free. The symbolism of the grave cloths appears in the Easter gospels – but it’s not the only place where it appears. Remember the story of the “unbinding” of Lazarus. It was love, was it not, that called Lazarus forth from the tomb? And it was love that commanded the crowd, “Unbind him, let him go free.”
What if the mystics are right? Can we conceive of love as the foundation of the universe? Can we fathom love as the ground of our being? That we are made for love, the ultimate reality? I wonder if we are all so “bound up” that we are blind to the love that surrounds us, that we live in a darkness of our own making and can’t imagine a light to unbind us in that darkness.
Surely, you and I are made for love and light – just as we are made to lead others to the love and light. When Jesus is asked by the Pharisees, “What is the greatest commandment?” he immediately draws on two commandments in the Torah, and makes them his own:
“You shall love the Lord your God….” from Deuteronomy (6:5), and then adds: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge . . . but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” from Leviticus (19:18). He reiterates this in his last words to his disciples: “Love one another as I have loved you.” This is the heart of the gospel.
We think the Easter story is an account of an event that happened on a hill far away, 2000 years ago. But Easter is a story about you and me, and rolling away the stones in our own lives, and loosing the guilt and grief and shame that bind us so that we can really live and love. Easter is a story about unbinding the strips of sorrow, peeling away the layers of anger, loosening the grip of fear, so that we can be free – free of addictions, free of destructive behaviors, free of negative attitudes – free of everything that binds us and walls us up in the tombs of our own making. It’s easy to roll the stones in place, but it’s hard to roll them away. And, let’s be honest: We’re all in need of unbinding and resurrection.
Jesus tells us that he has come that we may have life and have it abundantly. And he demonstrates new life by example: Imagine how he is wounded – the nails in his hands – the spear in his side . . .. Imagine his disappointment in the religious establishment that has orchestrated his execution. Imagine his loneliness when his disciples run and hide to save themselves. Imagine his sorrow when Simon Peter, the one he counts on to build his church, denies him. We all know what it is like to be ignored and misunderstood and betrayed, don’t we? It happens to all of us! Yet, Jesus is fully human in a way that we are not: He was able to be unbound. He was able to embrace the dark side of temptation, the pain of rejection, the despair over what looked like failure, and rise above it.
There is an old story about an aged pious man, rabbi Susya, who became fearful as death drew near. His friends chided him: “What! Are you afraid that you’ll be reproached that you weren’t Moses?” “No,” the rabbi replied, “that I was not Susya,” that I was not whom God had made me to be.
What does Jesus do in the face of adversity? Does he stay locked in the tomb? No! He rises above tribulation, and suffering, and evil. That’s what Easter is all about. He, and all the love of heaven and earth, unbind the grave cloths and roll back the stone. Jesus brings his woundedness out into the sunlight. He acknowledges and accepts his hurt and, in so doing, is able to transform it and use it for good. The mystics tell us that the way to become enlightened is not to dwell in the light but to carry the light into our own darkness. “O, death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
What happened at the tomb? We don’t know. Had it been a struggle to work his way out of the grave cloths? There is no videotape of a resurrection. No public factual account. No witnesses to the actual event. Jesus is in the tomb one day – and gone the next. Yet, he’s not gone, he’s everywhere. His love is everywhere. After the resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” he says to them. “Look at my hands and feet; see that it is I, myself. Touch me and see;…” And they find him on the road to Emmaus and cooking for the disciples on the beach after they have gone back to fishing.
The real question is not did it happen? How did it happen? The better question is what does the empty tomb mean? Is the resurrection a spectacular miracle, a demonstration of the power of God? Is it proof that Jesus is God’s son? A chance for Jesus to say, “I told you so?” Is it the promise of an afterlife?
When we get hung up on the scientific facts – or the lack of them – we miss the meaning of the resurrection. And the meaning is the same for us as it was for Jesus’ followers. And this is the important part, the part that removes the distance between the first Easter and ours this morning.
For Jesus’ followers continued to experience Jesus in their lives. They knew him in the present, not just in the past. It was not their belief in the resurrection that changed their lives – but the real presence of the living Christ who lived in their midst. “Easter is God’s ‘yes’ to [love] and God’s ‘no’ to the powers that killed him. Easter means “Jesus lives” and “Jesus is Lord of our lives,” just as we proclaim today
So the miracle of resurrection is this: For resurrection we have been created. But first, we have to let love unbind us from the people and the things and the attitudes which we should let go of, from whatever we cling to that does not bring us life. For most of us, it is a struggle to work our way out of the grave cloths. But that’s what Easter is all about: We are called to be God’s resurrection people! Come, Lord Jesus, come….
May it be so!
 William B. Jones, “Day One” (Maren C. Tirabassi & Maria I. Tirabassi, eds., Before the Amen: Creative Resources for Worship, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1989), 80-81.
 Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006) 274.
Moosup Valley Church, UCC
April 14, 2019
People could see the dust kicked up several miles away, and as the procession grew closer, watchers could hear marching feet, the beat of drums, the creak of leather harnesses, the glint of sun on golden eagles and sabers. Riding in from the west, from his garrison on the coast, was Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea, heading a column of cavalry and soldiers.
It was Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year. Pilate rode in like this every year at this time, as did all the governors before him, to keep the peace. They knew these Jews, celebrating liberation from an earlier empire, the Exodus from Egypt, were likely to cause trouble. Some who watched were curious, spellbound by this show of imperial power; others were resentful, surly, fearful.
At the same time, another procession was coming into the city from the east; this was a peasant procession which was making its way down from the Mount of Olives. A lone figure sat on a donkey, and as he passed, watchers spread out their cloaks and laid down palm branches in his path, singing the words of Psalm 118, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
It was the spring of the year 30. Jesus of Nazareth, from Galilee about 100 miles to the north, had pre-arranged this counter-procession, even down to the colt of a donkey he was to ride. He comes to fulfill the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey,…”
This crowd is enthusiastic, wild with joy! Spellbound…. Some Pharisees in the throng call out to Jesus, “Order your disciples to stop!” Are they embarrassed by all this emotion? Do they resent that Jesus identifies himself with the Messiah? Are they afraid Rome will see all this commotion and, fearing an insurrection, retaliate? Jesus retorts, “I tell you, if these [people] were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Now, to understand what is happening on Palm Sunday, we must understand the significance of the City of Jerusalem, this city of the prophets, the city over which Jesus cried and wished he could gather them in like a mother hen gathers her chickens under her wings. Jerusalem had been the capitol of Israel for 1,000 years. King David and his son Solomon had reigned from the city during the greatest period in Israelite history. Particularly under David, it was an era of power and glory, tempered by goodness and justice. It was a golden time, etched in people’s memory.
But by Jesus’ day, Jerusalem has become the seat of political oppression. The religious leaders in the temple have colluded with the Roman occupiers to preserve their own position of wealth and power. Peasants have lost their ancestral land and are taxed heavily to support Rome. The elite live in luxury; the poor are hungry.
The pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem to observe the Passover yearned for the Jerusalem of memory, for justice and peace, for God’s restoration. Even now, as our friends and neighbors sit down to their Seder meals, they will recite the hope, “Next year in Jerusalem” (which is not the same as saying, “Next year in Florida.”)
Into this city, then, the City of David, come two processions, two parades – one from the west representing the power of empire; one from the east representing the power of God. The question then and now, for all of us, is – in which parade are we marching?
Church and state have often colluded, over land and property, over ideology and special interests. Consider the Crusades in France; the Inquisition in Spain; the church’s acquiescence to Hitler’s persecution of the Jews and gays in Germany; even our witch hunts in Massachusetts. Which parade are we marching in? The parade of empire or the parade of justice?
These days with our global economy, it’s difficult to tell. When I was serving Edgewood Congregational Church 10 years ago, one of our members who was vacationing out-of-state had fallen and broken her wrist. I telephoned her in Florida to see how she was managing with a broken wrist. She told me that her splint was designed in England, made in China, packaged in Mexico, and distributed from California. When we purchase a shirt made in Guatemala, or a computer with parts made in Malaysia, do we know if workers were exploited, oppressed? Difficult to tell.
And some countries, today, still mirror the oppression of Jesus’ day: North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Somalia – you know who they are…. How can the world respond? It’s difficult to tell. And countries are stressed by refugees fleeing violence in their homelands, fleeing natural disasters fueled by climate change, fleeing hunger due to loss of ancestral lands. How to help? It’s difficult to tell. But it’s important to pay attention, to see oppression, to speak up, to do something – when and where we can.
Which parade are we marching in? In one parade, coming in on the west side of the city, the peace is kept by those who sweep in on chariots, with swords ready to maintain power and control. Today we would understand that kind of peace as governments that promise reform, then rule with oppression; institutions that cover up abuse of children; corporations that pay exorbitant income to top executives while workers struggle to make ends meet or people are dropped from health insurance because they get sick.
In the other parade, the one coming in on the east side of the city, the peace is kept by one who comes alone and vulnerable and who brings the peace of healing and hope. Today, we might understand that kind of peace as aid workers building clinics and schools in Haiti; churches digging wells in villages in Ghana; people like us collecting canned goods for food pantries or walking on Good Friday to help the hungry.
“Order your disciples to stop!” Jesus protests, “The very stones will cry out….” The truth is too good to be silenced. If these disciples fall away, God will raise up others. We saw it happen in Gandhi’s non-violent freedom movement in India and in our own Civil Rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King, in Mandela’s South Africa, and in Egypt and Libya, and Syria.
What parade are we marching in? It’s difficult to know for sure: We live in a complicated world. We can be spellbound by pomp and circumstance, lulled by smooth talk, blindsided by prejudice. Just turn on your TV and watch Congress in action!
But for those of us who pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth,..” there is nothing to do but to call out, “Blessed is he who comes….” and to wave our palms and to lay down our priorities and to sing not only for the peace of power and glory, but also for the peace of goodness and justice!
Hosanna! Save us!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
The Ache of Love
April 7, 2019
There are few stories in the gospels that are more beautiful than this one: Jesus’ coming to the home of his beloved friends, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, perhaps for comfort, perhaps to say goodbye, and perhaps because Bethany is on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to the cross.
We can only imagine the atmosphere. Surely everyone knows that Jesus is in danger. In the previous chapter of John’s gospel, days earlier, he had raised Lazarus from the tomb, an outrageous demonstration of his power. So it is that Jesus’ love for this family, these friends, has aroused and intimidated the powers-that-be in Jerusalem. Lazarus is the last straw. The Jewish leaders call a meeting of the Council. High priest, Caiaphas, leads the plot to kill Jesus.
In this week’s story, in this visit to Bethany, Judas is there and perhaps other disciples, too. The family is giving a dinner for Jesus, probably inviting friends and neighbors; Lazarus is sitting at the table, though the text doesn’t tell us how ragged he may be after three days dead. And Martha is serving – as usual.
During the meal, Mary takes “a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard” and anoints Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. It was common in those days to anoint the head of a guest as a sign of respect, but in those cases only a few drops of oil normally would be used. But to lavish the oil the way Mary did, was the kind of sacred anointing usually reserved for designating someone as a king or priest – marking that person for divine service.
Judas is outraged by her extravagance and says, “Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor?” Three hundred denarii was a lot of money, perhaps an entire year’s wages; it might have done a lot of good. Where would Mary could have gotten it? And why? What had she been planning? Perhaps it had been purchased for her brother’s anointing after his death – or for Jesus’ anointing after the crucifixion, if they suspected that’s what was coming. But Judas thought Mary’s act wildly extravagant – and wasteful.
Jesus comes to her defense, speaking sharply. “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” Surely by then, if he continues to Jerusalem, Jesus knows he’s a “dead man walking.” What must Mary’s anointing have meant to him? A bit of tenderness? A chance to receive a loving touch? A confirmation of his ministry and mission? The fragrance of perfume to remember when the only stink he will have soon enough is the smell of blood?
He loved Mary; and she, in turn, is loving him in the only way she can – with an outrageously extravagant act. Would that we be so comfortable reaching out, touching, going out of our way, making time, saying “I love you,” with those who matter. We don’t know what Mary is thinking, and why she is doing what she does. Why the rush to use her precious oil while he is still alive? Perhaps she anoints his feet – not for burial, but for his short, resolute walk toward death.
Perhaps Mary had bought the oil for her brother Lazarus, and then never had a chance to use it. This time she is hesitant to wait. What do we do when the time grows short? Writer Annie Dillard offers this advice to other writers:
“Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.
Do not hoard what seems good for a later place …
give it, give it all, give it now.”
This is good advice for life, to be present to what each moment requires. And this moment requires of Mary a reckless act of beauty. We only witness, through the gospel, her non-verbal act of love. She is a disciple, not by what she says, but by what she does.
In an article in this month’s The Christian Century, the Reverend MaryAnn McKibben Dana tells the story of a man who, on his 70th birthday, was presented with letters of appreciation from his friends, colleagues, and loved ones. His wife bound them into a book, all 100 of them. Sometime later, when he was asked what was in the letters, he paused and got tears in his eyes. “I’ve never been able to bring myself to read them,” he said. It was too much love; he couldn’t bear it.
The anointing at Bethany is Mary’s “letter,” written in the fragrance of death. Jesus reads her meaning loud and clear. And we can hear the ache of love in her act of anointing. And we know it as our own – from worrying ourselves sick over our children, even grown ones, when we’ve hugged a brother or son or daughter off to war, while we watch a once vibrant spouse die in pain, as we’ve anguished over loving someone we’re not supposed to love. We know about loving and anguish and grief – and helplessness.
And Judas. Who is this Judas? He is us, you and me, when we criticize, when we are too practical, when we are lost, when we are too wrapped up in ourselves, when we operate out of a mentality of scarcity rather than abundance.
And who is this Mary? She is you and me when we cannot be generous enough, when we cannot find an adequate way to express our gratitude, when we long for a different outcome, when we cannot say a word in our own defense, when our world is collapsing in front of our eyes, when our sorrow is almost more than we can bear.
It is for both of them – and for all of us – that Jesus is going up to Jerusalem, a place of treachery and betrayal, to make a gift of himself for the world, as an extravagant act of compassion to make all things new. We think of Lent as a time of self-reflection and atonement, a time to prepare ourselves for betrayal and terror and death. But Lent is also a time, as this Gospel reminds us, to take the time to grieve beloved ones wrenched from us, to acknowledge the ache of love, and to act without delay – because life is too short and the world, too treacherous!
Perhaps the anointing gives Jesus the courage he needs, and Mary, the strength to face what she must face. Strength we need as well.
May it be so!