(Isaiah 43:16-21 Philippians 3:4-14; John 12:1-8)
V Lent – March 21, 2010
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
How odd, in that wonderful way of gospel oddness, that we should be visited by Mary and Martha on this last Sunday before Holy Week begins.
Indeed, we are witnesses, in this gospel account, of a dinner served in their Bethany home in honor of Jesus and Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha and dear friend of Jesus, who – oh by the way – Jesus has just raised from the dead.
Indeed, some biblical scholars point to the raising of Lazarus from the dead after three days in the spiced tomb as the breaking point for the Pharisees. Mind you, it was not that Jesus actually raised Lazarus from the dead; rather, that he performed this miracle on the Sabbath.
Imagine! How uncouth!
Nevertheless, it was the ‘last straw’ – the one that finally broke the back of the Pharisees and set in motion the events leading up to the betrayal, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus.
That couldn’t have happened, however, without a little help from one of the disciples – namely, one Judas Iscariot – who must have also been feeling a tad anxious about this ‘final straw’.
St. John, our evangelist this morning, is none too kindly in his reporting of Judas. You can practically hear him sneer as he writes, “(Judas) said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief.”
Perhaps this was so. Perhaps it was not.
Here’s what I think: I think Judas was scared. And, overwhelmed.
Scared about the fallout he knew would happen after the raising of Lazarus from the dead.
Overwhelmed by the lavish generosity of Martha – who prepared a banquet in honor of her brother and Jesus, and Mary – who took a pound of costly perfume and, with it, anointed the head and feet of Jesus and then, in an outrageous act of sensuality, wiped his feet with her hair.
Oh, yes, and Judas was envious. Yes, envious.
As Judas considered what Jesus had done for his friend, and watched Mary of Bethany lavish Jesus with expensive perfume, he was filled with envy.
More on this later, but sufficient to say that as I read this gospel account, I see Judas filled with envy – which was his breaking point. And, I see Mary filled with gratitude, which was her turning point.
We all have our breaking points – which can also be turning points. It’s a choice. The miracle of the raising of Lazarus was not what broke Judas Iscariot. I think he had come to expect miracles from Jesus.
What he couldn’t expect, what he couldn’t imagine, was the gratitude that flows from the transformation of the heart when one experiences a miracle in the name of Jesus.
That’s the real oddity – the problem with this morning’s gospel – as we watch gratitude vs. envy as a response to the miracle of the Gospel of Christ Jesus. It is an oddity of human nature – to watch extraordinary human behavior and treat it as odd.
The truth is that we are all capable of extraordinary behavior. It’s a choice we make. Dr. Klein says that when this happens, we either strive to emulate it by being generous in our gratitude or, thinking we can’t possibly attain it, become envious and allow our envy to try to destroy it.
Envy and Gratitude. They are two sides to the same response – two polar opposites of human nature – both of which arise from passions that are stirred deep within us.
One can lead us to prodigal acts of generosity, the other can lead to destructive behavior like gossip or complicity with those in power who can destroy. Both result when our hearts are stirred with passion.
Next week we will observe what the calendar notes as Palm Sunday – but our liturgical calendar notes as “The Sunday of The Passion of our Lord.” It’s not just about palms – those are just the props of the drama.
It’s about passion. The real unfolding drama of the Passion of our Lord.
We often come to equate passion with suffering, and part of that is true. Passion almost always invites sacrifice of some measure. It often doesn’t feel like sacrifice because, well, we’re doing want we’re passionate about – what we love to do.
And that’s the point of the suffering – the passion – of Jesus: Love. Deep love. Love that is forgiving. Love that is reconciling. Love that is willing to sacrifice everything for something more. Something bigger. Something greater than anything we could ask for or imagine for ourselves or others.
We think of these stories as ancient and therefore, not really relevant in our lives. I mean, how do we really know that they are true? Oh, they are good stories. Inspiring stories. But, hardly about things that happen now.
I want to tell you a story which came out of the reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which was established after the end of Apartheid in that country as a way to give both the victims and the perpetrators a chance to be heard so that healing might begin to happen.
One of the accounts is that of an frail, elderly Black South African woman who sat and listened carefully as one, white South African man named Mr. Vanderbrook, confessed to the savage torture and murder of this woman’s son and husband a few years earlier.
It was reported that the elderly woman was summoned – indeed, forced – to witness this torture and murder of her family, who were burned alive.
She also listened to the last words of her dying husband who said, amazingly enough, “Father, forgive them.”
During the Truth and Reconciliation hearings, the woman was asked ‘how do you believe justice should be done to this man who has inflicted such suffering on you and so brutally destroyed your family’?
The old woman replied that she wanted three things. “I want to be taken first to where my husband’s body was burned so that I my gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial,” she said. She stopped, collected herself and then went on.
“My husband and son were my only family. I want secondly, therefore, for Mr. Vanderbrook to become my son. I would like for him to come two times a month to the ghetto where I live and spend a day with me so I can pour out to him whatever love I still have remaining in me.”
“Finally,” she said, “I would like Mr. Vanderbrook to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband."
"So I would like now for someone to lead me across the courtroom so I can take Mr. Vanderbrook in my arms, embrace him and let him know that he is truly forgiven. “
The assistants came to help the elderly woman across the room and, as they approached, it is reported that Mr.Vanderbrook fainted.
Those in the courtroom, all family and friends of those victims and perpetrators of unspeakable violence and oppression, began to sing ‘Amazing Grace’.
That is a true story. It was taken from the reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. The breaking point for the elderly South African woman should have been the brutal death of her husband and son. Instead, it became a turning point – a time when she turned all of her sorrow and grief, her pain and anguish into an act of radical love and forgiveness.
I don’t know what happened to Mr.Vanderbrook after he fainted in that courtroom. He had some choices to make about what he was going to do with his life. How he was going to receive the gift of sacrificial love, fueled and inspired by the sacrificial love of God in Christ Jesus.
I want to suggest that there are parts of each one of us in each of the characters of both of the sacred stories we heard this morning.
There is part of that old South African woman in each of us – we recognize her, but only dimly. Some of us are stunned by her generosity and wonder if, under similar circumstances, we could emulate what she did.
Some of us, inspired by her, seek to do just that.
Others of us want to dismiss this as ‘saintly behavior’.
I want to suggest that if we dismiss the story as something unbelievable – unattainable – we are only doing so because we are envious of her gratitude and generosity, just as envious as Judas was of Jesus and Mary.
Here’s the oddity of the gospel: There is an old South African woman in you and there is an old South African woman in me.
There is that part of each of us that knows that, without someone upon whom we can pour out whatever love we have remaining in us, our entire personhood is so diminished, we might as well be dead from living with the constant pain of grief and sorrow.
And there is a Mr. Vanderbrook in me and an Mr. Vanderbrook in you – so overwhelmed by forgiveness that the only thing to do is collapse into unbelieving while others look on with equal astonishment and sing Amazing Grace.
I pray Mr. Vanderbrook learned to anoint that old South African woman with his tears and allowed her to anoint him with her forgiveness and love.
There is a Martha of Bethany in you and a Martha of Bethany in me – who pour ourselves and whatever little we have into preparing outward and visible sign and symbols of our gratitude – like Babbette’s Eucharistic feast.
There is a Mary of Bethany in you and a Mary of Bethany in me – who is so overcome with gratitude that we become prodigal in our gratitude and perform unspeakable, outrageous, almost scandalous acts of generosity.
There is also a Judas Iscariot in you and a Judas Iscariot in me, whose turning point is a breaking point and we allow ourselves to be consumed with envy. Instead of trying to emulate behavior we admire, we try to diminish it, or discard it or destroy it.
We allow envy, like a thief, to steal our potential for gratitude and acts of kindness, generosity and even potential nobility.
It is a choice we have. It is a choice we make. Every day.
We can choose to be filled with gratitude or we can choose to be consumed by envy. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference, because both come from a place of deep passion. But, we can and do make that choice.
As we prepare for The Passion of our Lord and begin to enter into Holy Week, I have a few questions for us to consider.
What do you do to express your gratitude for the passion of our Lord for you and what God has done in your life?
What have been the ‘last straws’ in your life? What have been the breaking points in your life? Have they also been turning points?
Have you, like Mary, chosen the better portion? Or, have you allowed envy to lead you to destructive behaviors like gossip and slander, rumor and innuendo?
We admire acts of social service – but only from afar, as long as they don’t come to our back yard, and then the NIMBY effect (Not In My Back Yard) kicks in.
Have you – knowingly or unknowingly – participated in an act that caused the destruction of someone else – or the destruction of the potential to help others?
If you have, I want to encourage you to consider the source of your passion and ask you to consider whether or not you are responding in gratitude or envy.
Don't worry about being forgiven. That's already happened for you on 'that old rugged cross'.
Where is the passion for The Passion in your life? Where is the passion – the gospel fire – that lights the path you travel and shows you the way to the reconciling truth of God in Christ Jesus?
Do you allow that passion to be the breaking point or the turning point in your life?
God is about to do a new thing in our lives, as Isaiah foretold. God is always doing a new thing, if we but pay attention.
The Sunday of The Passion of our Lord is upon us – the ‘last straw’ of God’s reconciling love in Christ for us. It is both a breaking point and a turning point in salvation history.
It is a mere seven days away. Easter will follow seven days later.
Odd, this juxtaposition of events. And yet, this Way, this Truth, this Light, this Sacred Story is nothing less than the path of our salvation in Christ Jesus.
We can choose to take it or not.
Judas Iscariot or Mary of Bethany? Envy or gratitude?
What will you choose?