Message: “Settling the Space”
Date: April 7, 2019
Scripture: John 12:1-8
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
“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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ “John 12:1-18, NRSV
This season we have been looking at the Lenten journey as a journey into our own wilderness. We have explored the fact that Jesus found something out in the wilds when he fasted for forty days and we have joined in that journey. We have explored the idea the fact that there are frightening things out in the world when we look at our own hearts and at the world around us. We have looked at how we must sometimes clear out the broken parts of ourselves with God’s help. It has been quite a journey.
Today we continue that journey with an honest question: What happens when we walk into that wilderness and find our home? What does it mean to settle into that land? When the woods are cleared, the crops are planted, and we find a place to lay a foundation for our heart’s home, what does that look like for us today? We’ll take a look at that question through the lens of our passage from John, but first let us pray:
Holy Christ, we are less than two weeks away from Holy Week. Next Sunday the journey towards the cross intensifies as we read how you enter Jerusalem for that final week before the crucifixion. Be with us today as we go into this scripture which is our scripture for this moment. Give us wisdom and clarity. Give us peace and patience. Help us to understand what you might be saying to your church. Amen.
Today is a communion Sunday and we are doing something a bit strange after our sermon. Years ago, Penguin Books put out a version in its “Penguin Classics” series called “Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers” which was edited by Maxwell Staniforth. That work included in the translations of various letters and sermons written in the early church was a document called the Didache.
The Didache was one of the earliest writings and contains, among many things, a picture of how the early church functioned. Most interestingly today, the DIdache included a description of how to go about serving communion in church.
In the early church communion was vital to the community life. It was seen as a commandment of God to embrace this holy meal whenever the church gathered. As you will see, the service is short and straightforward. The responses are far more prevalent after the meal is served than before, some elements we use today are missing, and other elements seem eerily similar to parts of our own service.
Why engage in this service today? There’s a very simple reason. We are gathered towards the end of Lent and Holy Week is coming. We have been seeking our way through this wilderness and we are using this very old service as a way of reminding ourselves of a very important truth: “There’s a place for us at the table.”
Nearly 2,000 years ago the table was prepared for the people. With chalice and bread the church was drawn to God. These truths have not changed. The table has been open for God’s children for nearly 2,000 years. This truth existed long before we were born and will be true long after we have passed on from this world.
The question we have to ask ourselves is whether we see our space at that table. Do we see how we belong to God in this world? Do we have eyes open enough to recognize that place in all of us which belongs with Christ? To use the wilderness analogy, do we open our eyes when we see that clearing besides the still waters of Psalm 23? Do we recognize the gift of the divine in all of our lives: the opportunity to belong without question to and with Christ?
This question is quite serious. It can be very easy to turn our eyes from God and forget our place with Christ. Can we recognize how easy it is to be blinded by the goods and things of this world? Is it possible that even our comfort in this world can blind us to our place with Christ?
In our scriptures we see that temptation. Judas looks at the table before him in Lazarus’ home and sees waste. The scriptures tell us that he is a thief from the common purse, but there’s something even more fiendish going on in this place. Judas’ greed has drawn his eyes to Mary’s gift and in his quest to satisfy his desires Judas tries to come between Mary and Jesus.
Judas’ eyes are not on Mary as a person in grief. He does not see that she is coming from a place of love and possibly of grief. All he sees is what is in front of him. His lust for wealth has blinded him to God’s purposes. While Judas will serve a purpose, he has lost his way.
Strangely, while it appears that the disciples are continually ignorant of what will happen, Mary seemingly understands things are about to go terribly wrong. Mary’s eyes are not on the perfume and her thoughts are not on the cost of the perfume. Mary’s eyes are on Christ, who is right in front of her. Her eyes are focused on Jesus.
In Luke 18 Jesus shares a story of a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. The tax collector prays for forgiveness to God with humility while the Pharisee stands around thanking God that he is better than everyone around him. The Pharisee has his eyes on the world around him, but the tax collector is focused on God and asking for mercy. Jesus says in Luke 18:14: “I tell you that this [tax collector], rather than the [Pharisee], went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
When you read this story, who do you think goes to sleep that night justified? Is it Mary who comes to anoint the feet of Christ with love or Judas who keeps his eyes on the costly perfume? Who do you believe has a place at Christ’s table? In my opinion, Mary definitely has that place at the table.
Mary has suffered more than most. Scriptures tell us that Mary and her sister send a message to Jesus when Lazarus is about to die. They live through the grief when Jesus does not arrive before his death. They live through the shock of Lazarus’ resurrection. For that matter, even before this took place, Mary’s own sister chastises her in front of Jesus for learning from Jesus rather than diving in to help with the housework. Mary and Jesus have a rich history, but here in this place we find Mary understanding the truth that she has a place with Jesus that allows her to be intimate with her savior, she has a place with Jesus that allows her to expect Christ will protect her from those who might see these actions as too intimate (which is really important in a world where an adulteress can be stoned to death), and she has a confidence that she will be welcomed by Christ.
She knows her place. We who wander through the wilderness of Lent can forget that this is a season of practice. In our darkest moments and in our greatest triumphs, we never lose our place in God’s love. The spot at this table, the “bread spread over the hills,” and the juice in this chalice is meant for us. We have a home in the wilderness because when we wander into the wilderness we can find Christ, and once we enter into that love, nothing can separate us from that love in Christ Jesus.
We are using this old liturgy because it reminds us that this table has been open around the world for a very long time. Saints of old gathered to share their praises and eat this bread. The cup has been passed to people of every nation and people. The table is here for us as it has stood for all of God’s children for generation upon generation.
I invite you to prepare your heart for this feast. God comes to share with us again today. As we break bread, as we share the cup, and as we open our arms to each other in love, we do these things as a people who are welcome. Let all who need to ask forgiveness, come before God in the moments ahead. Let all who need to ask for courage, come before God in the moments ahead. I invite you into an attitude of prayer as we approach the throne. Let us enter into silence and then prayer…