Sermons That Work

As We Turn Our Faces, Lent 5 (C) – 2010

March 21, 2010

As we turn our faces now toward Palm Sunday and Holy Week, we are given this last Sunday in Lent to ponder God’s gift of generosity and what that generosity means in our lives with Him and one another.

We may start by looking at the family of Mary and Martha of Bethany, with their brother Lazarus, as portrayed in today’s reading from John’s gospel. Jesus came to their home and they gave a dinner for him – a fine example of generous hospitality in the context of a small, close-knit Jewish community of the time.

Further on in Chapter Twelve we find that all sorts of people coming to Jerusalem for Passover stop by the house to see Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, and to see Jesus himself. So many people went to visit the Bethany household on this occasion that the Jerusalem authorities who were hunting for Jesus decided to find and arrest Lazarus too, since, we are told, “it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.”

The generosity of his friends at Bethany had unintended consequences. More than any other gospel, the Gospel of John is crafted to show how very unwelcome Jesus was among his own Galilean Jewish neighbors, and how he became the focus of suspicion and growing hostility on the part of a small but powerful segment of the Jerusalem leadership. The story today of the dinner at Bethany points us toward the events of Holy Week that will result in Jesus’ crucifixion right in the heart of the annual Passover celebration.

But to return to the dinner itself: In the midst of this meal, Mary of Bethany comes into the dining area with a bottle of expensive oil, the sort that was customarily used to anoint the dead before burial. She pours it lavishly over Jesus’ feet and then dries his feet with her hair. It is a costly gift, a generous gift, one that comes from her head, heart, and soul – quite unasked for, quite unexpected. This is Jesus the Lord of Life, who had raised her brother Lazarus from the dead only weeks before, and Mary treats the Lord of Life as if he were already a dead body.

We do not know how anyone in the house interpreted this extravagant gesture except for Judas. Judas asked the money question: would it not have been better to spend all that money on the poor and needy? Questioning Mary’s generosity in this way was surely valid. Jesus had built much of his reputation on the way he accepted, fed, and healed people who were outside the socio-economic safety zones – men without status in the eyes of the temple and court authorities, widows who were unable to stand on their own two feet, and children who were unable to make choices for themselves.

Jesus’ response to Judas is interesting, therefore. He tells Judas to let Mary be; she had bought the oil for the day of Jesus’ burial. Jesus’ death comes into view on the horizon as he continues, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” The admonition seems gentle, but perhaps there is a note of sharpness and certainly of poignancy.

In the house at Bethany, the poverty of the human Jesus becomes visible. Mary’s extravagant gift of anointing is given to one for whom there was no room at the inn at his birth, for whom there was precious little hospitality given during his lifetime, and for whom, in the end, there will be a borrowed tomb.

The notes of generosity in this gospel reading prompt us to consider our own attitudes toward giving, especially the ways in which we offer ourselves and what used to be called “our substance,” to God.

The God who appears in Isaiah today is the one who gives life to the world, the God of the Exodus, the extraordinary God whom we see across the whole span of scripture. In the words of Walter Brueggemann in his prayer “On Generosity”:

You come giving bread in the wilderness,
You come giving children at the eleventh hour,
You come giving homes to exiles,
You come giving futures to the shut-down,
You come giving Easter joy to the dead.

The world is full of earthquakes and disasters. Week in and week out our parishes and the charitable agencies around us are bombarded with the real needs of hurting, starving, wounded people in famine and war, flood and hurricane. The poor we have always with us, always with claims on our compassion and generosity.

We do not always make time or use our imaginations for risky, generous offerings, like Mary who poured out an abundance of oil on Jesus’ feet. These are the tokens of a deep-seated generosity in our souls that mirror and honor the generosity of God our Creator, who gives us life by bringing us out of error into truth, our of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.

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Christopher Sikkema


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