Sermon: Jesus is all that matters (Lent 5 Year C)
Fifth Sunday in Lent – Year C
St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church, Lodi, CA
Collect: Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God.
This is always such a weird time of year for me. That brief moment between tule fog mornings and triple digit afternoons. It’s spring, so there are flowers and new leaves everywhere. I water the garden beds every day, but we are still a long way from tomatoes and jalapenos. I’m hopeful, but it sometimes feels like I’m watering nothing more than the patch of dirt. It may be spring, but it’s still Lent.
We are still in the period of fasting before Easter. The seasonal death of winter still has its hold on us in late frosts and drought-stricken trees. The threat of death is everywhere. What does it matter if I water the garden or not? What does it matter if I care for the plants when they are probably going to be eaten by bugs, and they are definitely going to wilt in the summer heat? Life is trying so hard to grow, but death is still so present. What does it even matter what we do in life when death is always on the horizon?
Death is definitely on the horizon in the gospel lesson today.
“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany,” We know what happens at this passover. It could have just as easily read “six days before he was killed, Jesus came to Bethany.” Six days before God Incarnate died, he came to Bethany. Jesus is about to die. He knows it, and probably everyone around him does too. The authorities had literally been plotting his death in the verses preceding this passage.
Why does this story even matter when the important event is happening in a week? Why are we pausing here in Bethany when death is lurking around every corner and turn of the page? What does it matter? ….if death is so near?
The story takes place at “the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” I don’t know how long before this dinner Lazarus had been raised from the dead, but it’s literally in the immediately preceding story in John’s gospel. The death of Lazarus might not be present in *our* minds while reading today, but it was clearly on the mind of the gospel writer, and we can probably bet that death was on the minds of Lazarus and Martha and Mary. The crushing grief of the death of a brother is not easily forgotten. The sadness so overwhelming that even Jesus wept for his friend. What does it even matter what came before, when nothing could be the same after that death? When someone dies, it is as if nothing else in the universe matters to those who knew them. What does anything matter in grief, when it seems like the world has stopped spinning?
But it does matter. Lazarus is not dead. A man is alive who had been dead, ….and now he’s eating dinner with his sisters and Jesus. Those who had been overwhelmed by the reality of death are eating dinner. They know another death is on the horizon. To be human is to always be just a missed breath away from death. What does anything matter when death is so close? Why not just eat dinner with friends, making the most of the time we have left, trying to avoid the presence of death?
“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, then Jesus said, “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” Jesus is going to die. The man who can raise the dead is going to die. And Mary has the decency, the foresight, to anoint him for burial. In one sense, this is a really weird thing to do. Jesus is alive at the moment, why prepare his body for death now? It almost seems like Jesus is wanting to attend his own funeral.
When I’ve heard this story told before, people sometimes make the point that using the entire pound of perfume all at once would have been an overwhelming experience. It wasn’t just Jesus and Mary who would be able to smell the perfume that touched them. “The entire house was filled with the fragrance.” Nard was used medicinally in the ancient world, and is still used today in anointing oils. It was also used, as indicated in this story, in the preparation of a body for burial. Mary using this entire jar of perfume was a reminder that death is present even in the normal, happy occasions of life.
Mary interrupts the dinner party with the overwhelming fragrance of perfume, and also with the memory of overwhelming grief at death. Lazarus might have been raised from the dead, but what about all the other friends and family who had died? There are people missing from the dinner table year after year. There are people here this year who won’t be here next year. Death is inevitable.
What does it matter if Mary uses her entire store of perfume on one overwhelming experience? Why have a dinner party at all? What does it matter. Because Jesus is going to die in a week. What does it matter because what does any of this matter?
I want to take a moment to reflect on Jesus’s remark. “You always have the poor with you.” What a thing to say. It seems like a hopeless thing. That no matter what the followers of Jesus do, no matter how much money and time and resources they dedicate, the poor will always be with you. We may see the face of Jesus in every poor person, but we don’t actually alleviate poverty. It seems like an indictment on the church. But it is also a great hope. We do see the face of Jesus in every person, regardless of their wealth. Christianity is not for rich people only. The poor will always be with us. Everyone will always be welcome in the church, regardless of wealth or status. Because we are all created in the image of God. Because we can see the face of Jesus in each person in this church.
What Jesus says is true, “you do not always have me.” God’s incarnation in Jesus was a singular time. We cannot go back to the first century and witness Jesus in the flesh with our own eyes. But we will always have the poor with us. We will always be a place of welcome for everyone who bears the image of God. We always have the poor with us, so we can always see the face of Jesus in others. That’s the thing that matters: that we are treating every person as if they are bearers of God’s image. That we are treating every person as if they are Jesus. Because it is Jesus that matters.
We know Jesus dies, we know death is inevitable. Jesus’s friends are about to witness his death. The memory of overwhelming grief invoked by the fragrance of Mary’s perfume is about to become reality. It is about to become the only thing that matters, when the world stops spinning for the disciples in their grief over the death of Jesus. Because Jesus is all that matters.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul puts it even more strongly. Not only is Jesus all that matters, everything earthly is a loss in comparison to Jesus. What does it matter if you follow every Biblical tenet? What does it matter if you come from a good family or if you’ve gone to the right schools? What does any of that matter if we’re all going to die in the end? If Paul, who boasts that he is blameless under the law, cannot trust in his flesh and is going to die, what does it matter what any of the rest of us do?
“Christ Jesus had made me his own.” Jesus is what matters. It doesn’t matter that we can’t avoid death. It doesn’t matter that people think we are ridiculous for using an entire pound of perfume all at once. It doesn’t matter what family we come from. It doesn’t matter that we are poor. It doesn’t matter. ….It doesn’t matter because Jesus is going to die in a week and then *everything* will change. Like Paul, I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. I want the righteousness that isn’t based on all the things that don’t matter. I want the righteousness that comes from the one thing that does matter: faith in Jesus Christ. That somehow we might attain resurrection from the dead. That somehow in the midst of all the things that don’t matter, in the midst of all the things that seem hopeless, in the midst of all the death in the world, we might press on towards that heavenly call of God. That we might reach the goal, that we might have the only prize that matters. Life in Christ Jesus.