Fast and Loose



“Fast and Loose” by Rosanna McFadden

Good morning!  We are further along our Lenten journey toward the cross and who we believe Jesus Christ to be.  This is the fourth Sunday of Lent, and for those of you who are counting, that means there is just one more Sunday before Easter.  That Sunday is familiar to us as Palm Sunday.  For this week, we have moved to the gospel of John, and the events at the dinner which Lodema just read for us happen the day before that fateful entry into Jerusalem, so less than a week before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion and death. We won’t observe Palm Sunday until next Sunday, but in the gospel of John, it is imminent.

This account from John’s gospel is full of people whom we have met, or at least heard about, before, but I want to review this cast of characters in part so we don’t simply revert to the simple stereotypes we may carry about them.  The setting is in Bethany, a short walk from Jerusalem, at the home of Lazarus, who lives with his sisters, Mary and Martha.  At least some of the disciples, likely all of them, are there with Jesus.  The family was “giving a dinner” for Jesus and his disciples, probably in recognition of the service which Jesus had recently done for their family.  If you have your Bible, you can see the account of that service in John chapter 11.

Lazarus had fallen ill, and his sisters sent word to Jesus, “The one whom you love is ill.”  This was certainly an indication of their faith in Jesus as a healer, but I’m sure it was manipulative, too: come quickly if you want to save your friend.  Jesus does not come immediately, and by the time he arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has died and been in the tomb for four days.  This give Jesus the opportunity to make a statement freighted with foreshadowing.  It’s a statement I share often at funeral and memorial services; it’s engraved on a stone on the Creekside property.  “I am the resurrection and the life.”  Jesus goes on to say, “Those who believe in me, even though they die will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  And then, in front of Mary and Martha and a whole bunch of other people, Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb and raises him from the dead.

This would seem to be a good thing for Lazarus and his sisters, but the reality is more complicated than that.  Surely, Lazarus is going to have to die again — we don’t know what his first death was like, but who wants to have to die again?  If the Jewish leaders have their way, the second time around won’t be a natural death — they begin almost immediately, and within six days have made plans to kill Lazarus, because his resuscitation has gotten so much attention. What was Lazarus’ life like after Jesus raised him from the dead?  We don’t know, of course, but I thought about this in a different way when I heard, years ago, a song by Indiana songwriter and folksinger Carrie Newcomer.  It’s from her 2008 album The Geography of Light.  The song is titled “Lazarus”; I’ll read you a bit of the lyrics, but it’s a haunting melody as well.  You can listen to the entire thing on YouTube. I’ve listed details at the end of this sermon for your reference.

Since he called my name nothings the same

As my sister cried

He said, “Lazarus rise.” To love and anoint

Or just prove a point

I’m the one that he saved

I’m the one that he raised

From a dark quiet sleep from peace of the grave

I’m the one who owes much but that no one will touch

Mothers see me and cry

Dogs bare teeth as I walk by

In the days following Lazarus being raised from the dead, Lazarus has become a sensation, the guy who was dead, and it isn’t safe for Jesus to appear in public. Bringing Lazarus to life has sealed Jesus’ death: the Jews are now determined to kill Lazarus and Jesus, too.  Any public appearance — especially a big parade with waving palms through the streets of Jerusalem — is an invitation to arrest and trial.  And Jesus has no illusions about how that trial will go.  He’s been warning his disciples about it from the beginning of his ministry.

That is the dynamic which Jesus is brings to the table at this family dinner: Lazarus’ death and life, and that the only way Lazarus will survive is if Jesus lets himself be tortured and killed.  And in the middle of this tension, Lazarus’ sister Mary gives a lavish, expensive, prodigal gift.  She anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume.  The kind which is sealed in a container you have to break in order to use it — once you’re committed, there’s no going back.  It costs about 300 denarii, which is roughly a year’s wages.  It’s a reckless, extravagant gift, and Judas, who is in charge of the disciples’ money, is furious.  If Mary had just given them the perfume, instead of using it, they could have sold it and given that money to the poor.

It’s ironic, but generous gifts, even when given the best of intentions, can stir up a lot of trouble.  If they are too narrowly designated, we may not be able to use them as the donor specified, if they are not designated at all, we may end up arguing about the best way to use them: do we save them for future needs, or use them for people who have needs right now?  There are folks who have strong conviction and a strong case to make for either view.  Theologian William Carter tells a story about a stewardship conference he attended on the subject of generosity.  The presenter was talking about gifts given directly to God, and attention was wandering, until the presenter took a $100 bill out of his wallet, and prayed, “Lord, I offer this gift to you and you alone.” And then he put the bill in an ashtray and lit it on fire.  The reaction was electric.  The point was, we can’t give something to God and keep it for ourselves at the same time[1]

While the fragrance of perfume is still hanging in the air, and Judas is still fuming about the extravagance of the gift, Jesus says, “Leave Mary alone.  She bought that for the day of my burial.  Judas, there’s always going to be a need to serve the poor, but I am not going to be with you much longer.”  Jesus knows the time of his death is near, and has acknowledged his resolution to go through with whatever lies before him.  Of course, we know that resurrection awaits Jesus on the third day after his death — Jesus knows that too.  Not only will he BE resurrected, he IS the resurrection and the life.  But as we saw from Lazarus, resurrection doesn’t solve everything.  There are people who won’t believe it, there are crowds who will follow and then run away at the first sign of trouble. Jesus’ closest friends will run away at the first sign of trouble.  There are even disciples who, for misguided or evil reasons, will betray Jesus.  Despite all of these things, and others, Jesus will stay the course, and hold fast to the course before him.  It is Jesus resolve to stay the course which gives Mary the opportunity to give that gift which she does.

I want to say a few words in praise of things that don’t last — which is frankly, anything which belongs to us.  The most significant legacy we have, and the only gifts which will be remembered are the things we give away.  For Mary, it was the devotion and gratitude which she gave to Jesus to anoint his feet, and the fragrance which lingered after she was done.  For Martha, it may have been the meal she prepared and the service she gave to her brother’s friend and the 12 guys who traveled with him, at least one of whom was not grateful.  We give our gifts to Jesus, not the nay-sayers who sometimes hang out at church with him. Maybe your gift is a heartfelt prayer, or a card to raise someone’s spirits, or an act of kindness which changes the day of someone whom you will never see again.  Maybe it’s a song which is never recorded, but that you sing because you love to sing.  Maybe it’s planning a garden or planting seeds or weeding.  As I had conversation with the New Life Sunday School class and have read notes from other classes about the people who have exemplified what Creekside is about, generosity and sharing have come up again and again.  Not monetary gifts, but gifts of who you are and what you are good at and what you love.  We can release the best we have as offerings to God, because we can trust that we are held in God’s care.  Jesus affirmed that reckless, wasteful gift from Mary because he understood her motivation — that it was a gift of love.  And no gift which is given with love — however modest, fleeting, or extravagant — is ever rejected by Jesus.

Jesus is worthy of the best we have.  His love holds as tight — holds us fast, so that we can offer our gifts, our love, and ultimately ourselves for his kingdom.  Next week we celebrate Palm Sunday, and the fateful parade which set into motion the events of Jesus’ death.  In this story, that happens tomorrow, and events accelerate from there.  Jesus is on the threshold of the future he knew was coming.  Are we willing to go with him? Are we willing to give the best we have to honor Jesus’ love for us?  Our Lord and Savior has gone before us, and holds us fast.  Amen.

Song: Carrie Newcomer “Lazarus”

[1] William G. Carter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 2. Westminster, John Knox 2009, p 142.