SERMON Lent 5c 2019
Mary of Bethany Anoints the Feet of Jesus
I might call this sermon: Senseless suffering meets senseless love.
Sitting on the edge of her hospital bed, struggling with one of those beautiful gowns they make us all wear, hooked up to umpteen machines and monitors, as anxious for release as a prisoner at Guantanamo, one of our friends said to me this week – said it over and over, about every aspect of the situation – “everything happens for a reason.” It’s an expression I’ve heard thousands of times in my ministry, with reference to every kind of event, problem, tragedy, question, accident, illness … up to and including death. “Everything happens for a reason.”
I have to confess that I have struggled with this expression; being the kind of person I am, if there’s a reason for something, I want to know what that reason is. Mostly we don’t get to know. And too often I have seen this thinking devolve into an assignment of blame. The Hebrew scriptures, for instance, (our Old Testament) is a fountain of blame: anytime something goes wrong – a famine, a defeat in battle, a plague – it’s because of sin. Somebody is sinning and spoiling everything for everybody. This ancient foolishness is still with us: it wasn’t so long ago that the hurricane in New Orleans was blamed by prominent Christian preachers on its tolerance of gay people. But if you happen to be Black or Jewish you know the drill. “Everything happens for a reason” can open up some dark places.
Over the years, however, I have come to realize that for many people who use it this expression is not an invitation to the assignment of blame, but rather is a confession of faith in the power and providence of God, in the face of things that seem to be accidental or senseless. We may not know why things happen, but God knows, and that, at least for the moment, is enough. Everything happens for a reason, and therefore we can trust God and not worry, even though we don’t know yet what that reason is. There’s an old gospel hymn I learned as a child that taught the same lesson: “farther along we’ll know more about it … we’ll understand it all bye-and-bye”.
This particular kind of trust in God is on my mind today as I consider this story of the woman who anoints the feet of Jesus, one of relatively few stories important enough to be included in all four gospels.
In the version from John’s gospel that we have before us today, Jesus has come to share a meal with his beloved friend Lazarus, whom he has raised from the dead a few days before, and Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary. You may remember that Mary is the one who neglected her womanly household chores to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his teaching.
As Jesus sits down at the table that day, he is in mortal danger: he has raised Lazarus from the dead in full view of a crowd of people from Jerusalem. He has demonstrated astonishing divine power. The authorities are plotting to kill him; Jesus knows this and is not going anywhere. How senseless this is! Can it really be that Jesus must die simply because the priests and scribes and Pharisees are jealous, and fearful of losing their authority? That may be the immediate cause, but it is not the reason for Jesus’ death. As we know now, there are other, greater reasons in play: the redemption of creation for a start … She couldn’t know the reason for his impending murder but Mary sees it coming; Jesus sees it coming. (Only the clueless disciples don’t see it coming).
So in the face of this senseless horror, Mary does something equally senseless: she appears at the table with a jar of expensive perfume, pours it on Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. Nobody understands why Mary does this, nobody except Jesus himself who knows what is about to happen to him: Mary is anointing him for burial because in a few days, he will be dead. This is the most intimate moment of personal love in the gospels, which may be the reason why all the gospel writers tell the story.
Everything happens for a reason, and we don’t get to know what that reason is. So our best responses to the senseless, seemingly random tide of human experience good or bad are like Mary’s: equally senseless acts of love, faith and devotion. This is not just a stoic acceptance of inevitable suffering, it is recognizing a precious – perhaps even mysterious – spiritual opportunity to discover and share love. This makes no sense at all, but it is the way God meets us, finds us, grows us. So much human suffering and conflict are utterly senseless; their only meaning for us is in the spiritual opportunity they present to confess our faith, to accept and embody divine love.
As I say this makes no sense, but I will also say that it is hammered into the architecture of our souls, and woven into the seamless garment of our future. It makes no sense, and Mary gets it.