Saturday, March 20, 2010

Mary of Bethany

John 12:1-8

When Jesus was in the Galilee, he lived in Capernaum, in or near the home of Peter’s mother-in-law. It appears that when he was in Jerusalem, he spent a lot of time in Bethany, at the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, or perhaps at the home of Simon the leper.
Bethany is now a suburb of Jerusalem, in the Palestinian area, with the Wall of Separation preventing easy passage from Bethany and Jerusalem. In Jesus’ time, it was about a 2-mile walk, down a steep hill, then up the next steep hill into the city. The olive grove was – and still is – near the bottom of the hill.
The anointing of Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson is recorded in all four gospels, with some variations. In Matthew and Mark the anointing was done by a nameless woman at Simon the leper’s house. In Luke, the anointing occurred in the home of a Galilean Pharisee, and the woman was a sinner who came in off the street. In John, as we have just read, the anointing was done by Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus, in Lazarus’ home.
In John, chapter 11, immediately prior to this reading, Martha and Mary’s brother dies, and is raised from the dead after four days, when his body has had time to begin to rot and stink. Both sisters berate Jesus for not coming soon enough to prevent Lazarus from dying, but continue to have faith in Jesus. It could be that this meal is a party to celebrate Lazarus’ return to life.
There is another biblical reference to these sisters. In Luke, Jesus visits Mary and Martha. Martha is busy cooking and serving the meal, and Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet. Jesus praises Mary, and suggests that Martha should come and join them. Clearly, this family has a close relationship with Jesus.
Remembering this, I got to wondering what might have been going on in Mary’s mind. Was she so grateful to have her beloved brother back that his life was worth the jar of expensive ointment she opened and spread on Jesus’ feet? Did she believe what he had been saying, that he would die and come back to life as Lazarus had done?
For Mary to have sat in Jesus’ presence, amid the male disciples and any other men gathered around would have been counter-cultural. Women should know and keep their place, and that definitely was NOT as a disciple sitting in the same room with men as an equal. But Jesus encouraged this behavior, treating women as valuable persons in their own right, not objects to be owned by men.
For Mary to have removed her head covering and sat at Jesus’ feet was also counter-cultural. The tradition of women appearing in public with their head covered is ancient, yet contemporary in some parts of the world. In Muslim culture, women still cover their heads in public, in the belief that they should only show their hair to the men in their immediate family. In fact, most Muslim women cover their bodies, exposing only face, hands and feet, because Muslims believe in modesty. Showing too much skin is not modest! By the way, this is true also of Palestinian Christian women.
So, in Jesus’ time, for Mary to have removed her head covering would have been shameful behavior. For her to sit at Jesus’ feet and touch him was even more shameful. These actions were only done by disreputable women. And yet, Jesus recognized this behavior as a gift to him, in preparation for his death and burial. Mary gave up her honor in order to give Jesus this gift. What love must have filled her heart as she touched his feet!
… Not all at the table let her gift be simply given. Judas was concerned with the extravagance of this gift. To be fair to Judas, figured at minimum wage, the price of the perfume would have been $17,400 today. That would sure feed a lot of hungry people.
If someone gave Hope a gift of $17,000, what could we do with it? The usual practice would be to analyze it, using a cost-benefit approach. How much good could we buy with that much money? A new kitchen in the hall? VBS and Sunday school materials? A new copier or phone system? Increased advertising? Extra staff time? Send the money to Dade, to the Worker’s Self-help program? To the synod or the ELCA? To World Hunger Appeal? To Haiti or Chile? It’s easy to find ways to spend extra cash. We’re really not so different from Judas after all!
In reality, if our heart is filled with as much love and trust as Mary’s was, we could afford to do anything we set our mind to, even without the gift of extra cash. God can work wonders with very small amounts. This past Wednesday, we read the Old Testament text of Elisha taking care of a widow. One small jar of oil became an overabundance that she could sell to pay her debts and take good care of her children. And we read the story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fish to feed five thousand men and their families.
God has already given us all we need to do ministry here, if we put our hearts into it. Can you imagine what we might be able to do if we loved Jesus the way Mary of Bethany did? How extravagantly can we give? How extravagantly can we love?
Your challenge for this week is to consider anointing someone’s feet. If Jesus were sitting with you at the dinner table, what would you be willing to spend to anoint his feet? Would you dip into your savings? Cash in a CD or IRA? Would you reprioritize your spending habits to give as much to Jesus as you could, to show how much you love him?
Could you see Jesus in the face of a homeless person and anoint that person’s feet? Would you anoint the feet of someone with whom you have a serious disagreement?
In the chapter after this one, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, showing how much he loved them, and how much he wanted them to pass on such servant love. Are you willing to pass on the favor?
Please pray with me: Dear Jesus, how much we wish you were here with us in person, as you were with the disciples and Mary that evening. Yet, perhaps we would not want to hear what you have to say to us any more than Judas did. We need your forgiveness. Help us to be as generous as Mary was, and as generous as you were, offering your whole life for us. Amen

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Rejoice, the lost has been found!

March 14, 2010
Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32

Every time I read this story, I look at it differently, because different things are going on in my mind and in my life. And I’m different characters in the story each time. As you hear the story today, who are you? Are you the younger son? The older son? Or the father?
Sometimes I’m the younger son, rebellious, wanting to run away and try something new and different. Sometimes I’m the older son, trying to do all the right things, and being resentful when things don’t go the way they’re supposed to. Sometimes I’m the father, loving both sons and wanting only good things for each of them, knowing I have to let them be themselves and learn their own lessons.
I’ve also been the mother of two sons, and wondered why Jesus didn’t mention the mother in the story. What, I’ve wondered did she have to say about the wisdom of giving the younger son the entire amount he was due, instead of only a portion? How did she deal with the sibling rivalry between the boys as they were growing up? Surely, they both grew up knowing the older son would get 2/3 of the estate, and the younger son would get 1/3.
How did she cope with wondering what had happened to the younger son after he left? Did she spend her time looking up and down the road like the father did, watching every single day for the son to return? Did she berate the father for letting him go? Did she console the father when he wondered if he had done the right thing in giving the son his inheritance? How did the parents handle the mixed emotions the older son would have had? Grief at the loss of his brother; anger at being left to do more of the work of the land; joy at the lack of competition; …..
How did the mother react when the younger son showed up? Was she there too, running to hug him? Did she turn to marshal the servants to cook the fixings for the meal? Did she run to make sure the younger son’s room was made ready for him? Certainly, her rejoicing was just as intense as the father’s.
This wondering leads me to wonder about the feelings of the sons. We read that the older brother was resentful that the younger son returned. He always tried to be so perfect. Why were they not expecting perfection from his brother? And yet, was he also overjoyed to see his little brother? Was he secretly relieved to have him back in his life? For sure, he would no longer see his parents constantly looking off in the distance, wondering. In spite of his disrespectful attitude, he still had his parents’ love.
How did the younger son feel at his reception? He expected to be scolded and sent to the servant’s quarters, or even chased away, forever homeless. Instead, he was wined and dined like a hero, and welcomed home with open arms. He wasn’t even allowed to make his speech of apology and pleading. His parents welcomed him home and wrapped their arms around him in spite of the fact that he was probably dirty and smelled like pigs.
We who have heard this story year after year know it’s about the love God has for us. We know God loves us and welcomes us no matter how we have behaved, how dirty and smelly we are. We are reminded God’s love is not dependent upon our actions, but upon our open, repentant heart. When we return after a time away, God rejoices. God also rejoices when we turn to God each and every day of our lives.
There were all sorts of people with Jesus when he told this story. There were tax collectors and sinners, and Pharisees and scribes. Most likely, as Jesus told the story, he intended the “sinners and tax collectors” to hear the warm welcome home as good news for them. And Jesus intended the Pharisees and scribes to hear the warning in his words, yet also the welcome as good news for all. God does not expect perfect behavior; God expects humble hearts open to God’s loving welcome and forgiveness. We don’t hear the response of the Pharisees and scribes; nor do we hear the response of the sinners and tax collectors. We don’t even hear the end of the story – we don’t know if the older brother came to the party or continued to sulk and stay away.
Your challenge for this week or longer is to imagine yourself in the story of your own lives. Look back and find the times when you were the father, the mother, the older son, and the younger son. When have you felt lost, and then found? When have you been the righteous  one, expecting perfection of yourself and those around you? When have you encouraged others in their grief and pain, and sought reconciliation? When have you offered forgiveness and welcome, even after being hurt? When have you known that only God could make your life whole again?
Please pray with me. Gracious Lord, we come to you with our imperfect hearts. Help us to come home when we know we are lost. Help us to see when we have been lost and don’t know it, and bring us home to you. And lead us to seek and find those who are lost, and bring them home to you. In Jesus’ name, amen