|Click Here to See this Week's Sermon|
From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada). Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way". Contact Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
"And Love Is Its Name"
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. The front of the unemployment office was all brick. No one ever saw what happened inside. Next to it was a bakery with a plate glass window; and it was never a secret what went on inside it. Every day everybody who passed by could see the baker "doing his thing". And that is why people noticed. The baker everybody liked to watch had taken to doing "unbaker-like" things. Making sandwiches at lunchtime and giving them to people standing next door in the unemployment line. Not charging anybody, just walking down the line and handing them out. Never saying a word. This was news. So the local TV station decided to "scoop" it, sent in the mini-cam crew and a journalist to get the story. "So, why are you doing this?" the young woman asked. The baker just stood in the doorway to his shop like a giant jellyroll. "When I was twenty, I went hungry for a week. Then a man who didn't know me from a hole in the wall took me in until I got on my feet." He said no more. He just smiled as if everything was now accounted for. Whatever happened to that baker when he was twenty, from a Christian point of view he got the message. He not only remembers what was done to him he does it in turn to others. It is what John is intent on telling us this week: that there is a fundamental response to the story of Jesus; and love is its name. + John uses the twelfth chapter of his gospel as a kind of balance sheet. Jesus has returned to the home of his friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus of Bethany; and it is not surprising. Things have not been going well for him. The chief priests and Pharisees are hot on his trail for defying their traditions and challenging their authority. Raising Lazarus from the dead has made them apoplectic with rage. …from that day on they planned to put him to death. (Jn. 11.53) The keepers of power have put Jesus on their "most wanted list" and will pay anybody good money for information leading to his arrest. It is the beginning of the end. But here, in chapter twelve, John gives Jesus a break before what is to come. Here the spotlight is turned on Jesus' supporters. The people who believed in him are highlighted. So the day before he enters Jerusalem for the last time, Jesus is back in Bethany with his old friends. Two sisters, and their brother. The only people named in the gospels as Jesus' "friends", which presumably meant two things: not only did he like to hang out with them, let his hair down and just be "a friend". They also understood what he was all about. They were on the same wavelength. They, of all people, believed in him. The story, which appears in different guises in each of the four gospels, was in all probability a story about a woman who intruded into a male-only dinner party and washed and anointed Jesus feet. In Luke (7.37) the woman was a sinner. She sheds tears on Jesus' feet and then wipes them with her hair, which she has obviously let down (an undignified and, therefore, shocking thing for a woman to do in public). She then anoints his feet with perfume. In that story, you may recall, Jesus reprimands his host, an upstanding Pharisee named Simon, who has neglected the customary courtesy and neither greeted Jesus with a kiss nor anointed him with oil. The author of the Fourth Gospel has taken this original story and set the scene creatively. His favourite characters are there - Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It immediately follows the story of the raising of Lazarus. In John's story, Mary's activities are foreshortened. She anoints Jesus' feet with expensive perfume and then wipes it off with her hair, rather than washing his feet and then anointing them. There are other differences worth noting. Martha isn't the busybody who is reprimanded by Jesus for being so distracted with her chores (Luke 10.40). In John's gospel, she is one of the first to receive the revelation of who Jesus is and she is one of the first to declare her faith in him (John 11.27). The community for which John was writing was a church in which women played a prominent role. As a "beloved disciple" of Jesus, Martha was the spokesperson for that community. She was the one who presided "at table", just as she does here in this story. Her confession "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." parallels that of Peter's for the Matthean community. Martha, in other words, is the one responsible for the primary articulation of faith for John's community. She stands in the centre of the church's life. However, here in this passage, it is her sister Mary who is the centre of the action. Mary, too, played a central role for John's church. She had many followers who came to believe in Jesus because of her, John tells us (John 11.45). But what is it about Mary that inspires faith? That is the focus of John's heavily styled story. She is a longtime friend. He knows she loves him. She knows he loves her. Which makes what she does and the way she does it seem even more awkward. She loosens her hair, then pours balm on his feet, not on his head, as was the custom. A single woman caressing the feet of a rabbi. Even if he was a friend, it was completely out of the ordinary. The fact that the balm she used was the kind that would have cost a small fortune - enough to feed a family for year, for instance - was even more bizarre. It was enough to make at least one of them present, Judas, complain about the extravagance. "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" From the standpoint of discipleship, in particular service to someone who championed the plight of the poor, it was a response that made a lot of sense then and still does today. How often do we waste money on extravagant luxuries while turning an indifferent eye upon those who would have benefited from the expenditure? We all know the answer to that. Even Jesus' response makes us do a double take. "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You have the poor with you always, but you do not always have me." It was about as odd as what Mary did. John wants us to believe that this one who was always thinking of others before himself was letting his needs come first. Whatever he meant by it, whatever he didn't mean, there is no doubt that John wants us to look favourably on Mary's act, to see it as the act of a true disciple rather than a false one. Not only John's deliberate criticism of Judas, suggesting he was a traitor (for whatever reason) and Jesus' uncharacteristic defense of a good work done to him - all of it is intended to state one simple fact: what Mary does is a sign of true discipleship. Her actions reveal that she understands and believes. "She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial." + It is not the sermons we preach or don't preach that matter. It is not the words that we get to say or that we don't. It is neither the theological formulations that we manage to articulate nor the scientific explanations that we provide. It is not the confessions of faith with which we manage to impress others. Nor is it the reasonably cautious, perfectly sensible, eminently logical rationalizations we provide for the ways we are not prepared to stand by those who suffer in this world simply for being who they are. In the end, my friends, it does come down to that. Whether or not we are prepared to demonstrate our love for and fidelity to the people who need to know that they do not go to their Jerusalems alone. When that kind of prospect lies threateningly over such victims, when it becomes crystal clear what the world is capable of doing, it makes perfect sense to lock up our hearts and head for the cellar. What doesn't make sense is to make ourselves look just as extravagant, just as vulnerable and just as generous as he was. From the gospel's point of view it is the only response that counts and love is its name. + Isaiah 43.16-21 - The fact that Second Isaiah returns to this theme - a second Exodus, this time from Babylonian exile - so frequently tells us that it was a hard sell. At the time he kept repeating the message the people had not seen any signs of deliverance and were far from hopeful. "Don't remember the past! Look ahead!" the messenger seems to be saying. "Can't you feel it?" The God of old, the God who once redeemed you is about to do it again. 1. In what ways do three religious communities - Jews, Christians and Muslims - legitimately claim to be the fullness of the people Israel in exile? 2. What wilderness now needs to be traversed before people's misery can be relieved? 3. In what sense do we need to stop remembering "the former things" and considering "the things of old" before deliverance can happen? Philippians 3.4b-14 - The passage is both a confession and a diary. We can guess that the opponents to whom it was addressed were Jewish Christians who insisted on keeping the laws of Torah, especially the law of circumcision. Paul is adamant. Trying to establish our identity and to find our security in such things as family background, social and religious status, and legal rectitude is an unfaithful and useless exercise. All of these advantages that Paul could claim in spades finally became of no consequence. What we see here is a spiritual consciousness turned inside out. Ironically, having given up the quest for status, privilege and moral superiority, Paul, as a result of his encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, finds himself on a new quest. Only this time it is for something he can neither get nor own. It is only something that can be given to him as a result of complete surrender. John 12.1-8 - It is likely that there was a single, original story from which all four gospel writers penned their own version. The different interpretations each of them gives to the story are significant. John places his story immediately after the story of the raising of Lazarus and before Jesus' final entry into Jerusalem. It takes place in Bethany, both the place where Jesus' closest friends live and where the single most important event happens that Jesus enemies will use against him. It is also during the time of Passover, which for this Evangelist is death time. The friends of Jesus preside at table, including Martha, which is possibly a reference to her prominent status in John's church. But the focus of the story is on Mary and what she does that is so important. Little explanation for the event is given, leaving us to draw our own conclusions about what John is saying about "true discipleship". 1. Why do you think Mary did what she did? 2. Why would it have been so important to Jesus? 3. Do you think Mary thought about what she was doing or not? Why or why not? 4. Tell someone about a time when you did something spontaneously for someone else or had something done for you - that had a life and a power far beyond any intention or expectation that may have prompted it? HYMN A Prophet-Woman Broke a Jar (Voices United 590)
copyright - Barry Robinson 2004 page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2004 please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.
Further information on this ministry and the history of "Sermons & Sermon - Lectionary Resources" can be found at our Site FAQ. This site is now associated with christianglobe.com