Fifth Sunday in Lent
I don’t usually hear people shouting during our calls to worship, even though the clear and biblical instruction from within some of them is to do exactly that. In our psalm this morning, when it was my turn to shout, I intentionally disobeyed. I’ll not ask how you felt about that, there are probably lots of answers. But one of them isn’t covid.
I am old now, but when my daughters were in school, I would sometimes come home from their sports games completely exhausted. And anyone who has ever attended a child’s sports game, knows exactly why. It is perfectly OK to lose oneself in the excitement of a sports game, and to jump up and down, and to stomp ones feet, and to yell cheers and jeers at the top of one’s lungs, but it is not OK to get caught up in the wonder and in the awe of God’s majesty and glory, and to shout out a few praises for joy, even when we are clearly instructed to do so.
For instance, next Sunday, near the beginning of the service, we’ll hopefully have some palm branches in our hands, and I’ll invite all of us to proclaim these words in a heartfelt covid voice: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” And if history is a teacher of any kind, that will make some of us very nervous and very uncomfortable. Some of us won’t be able to wave our palm branches at all, and some of us will give them a bit of a halfhearted flip, and some of us won’t be able to say any words at all, even if we attempt to do just a little bit of covid mumbling.
And none of us are alone in this. At our last pastors’ retreat, before the world of covid, a part of one of our worship services included the opportunity to wash one another’s feet, as Mary does in this passage, and as Jesus did for his disciples on the night that he was betrayed. It was all voluntary, of course, but you know something? I couldn’t do it; I just couldn’t do it. My Puritan heritage over-ruled what I knew to be biblically and theologically true. Our Hebrew heritage is full of noise and life and participation, and the early followers of Jesus continued that Hebrew tradition. Our Puritan heritage on the other hand, is still, and stern and serious and gloomy.
And that may be the reason that Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarous is on the hot-seat of our minds this morning. In that, we join Judas, who is shocked and dismayed by what he observes. And maybe because of our own Puritan heritage, so are we. I suspect that most of us prefer a predictable, less sensual experience of worship than what is portrayed in this passage. Worship for us has become rather mundane. It is not usually something that we participate in actively, but rather it is something that we have come to observe, and sometimes rather passively.
Now I’m not advocating that we repeat Mary’s performance, but I am advocating a change in our hearts, and with it, I’m issuing a bit of a challenge. I believe that we ought to arrive at worship prepared to participate fully with all of our hearts, and with all of our souls, and with all of our minds, and with all of our bodies. Worship should be something that we participate in by engaging our whole selves. Worship is, after all, an offering of ourselves to God. It is neither a spectator event to be evaluated later on, nor is it something out of which supposed blessings are to be extracted. Worship is the giving of ourselves to God, nothing more, nothing less. Everything else that happens here on a Sunday morning is merely secondary activity. Nothing is to be anticipated other than the giving of ourselves fully to God. Mary’s offering of herself to Jesus is wonderfully illustrative of this truth.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarous lived near Jerusalem, and it is quite likely that Jesus and his disciples spent the last few nights of his life staying with these three friends. And on this particular night, the three friends have hosted a dinner in honor of Jesus.
Probably some time after dinner, Mary took a pound of some very expensive perfume, and either poured it or rubbed it on Jesus’ feet. And then, she let down her long hair and she dried Jesus’ feet with it, and the whole house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. And because of the overwhelming and overpowering aroma of the perfume, everyone in the house became a co-participant in Mary’s offering of worship. In fact, there was no escaping it.
Similar stories to this one appear in all four of the Gospels, in various forms and in various settings. Some of us might remember the story of a woman of less than stellar repute who arrived at a dinner hosted by a Pharisee. Jesus was a guest at this meal, and the woman, who was seeking forgiveness and a changed life, wept over Jesus’ feet, and kissed them continuously. And, as she did this, she also wiped them with her long hair. Jesus was so moved by her offering of devotion that he immediately forgave her. These are important stories. And next Sunday, we will be looking at yet another one of those similar stories that will appear in our Passion Pageant from Mark’s Gospel.
Mary on the other hand, is not troubled with issues of reputation.
She is a rather virtuous woman, and she has learned much about the kingdom of God by sitting near Jesus and listening to him teach. She does, however, share the same sensuous nature of this other woman, and not even the most chaste among us can deny the absolute sensuality of her act of worship. But this is sensuality that is pure and holy. It is sacred worship. Mary’s heart, soul, mind and body is fully engaged in this act of adoration of her Lord. She is offering her entire being to Jesus. She is no observer in this drama, she is a full participant, and she has drawn everyone else in the house into her act of worship.
That is, with the exception of one person, who in stark contrast to Mary, exhibits a horrendously unholy sensuality. Judas is outraged by the apparent waste of this expensive perfume. He is offended by the fragrance. It is an absolute stench in his nostrils. And he’s absolutely right. The perfume has been wasted. The money could have been given to the poor. It might have done much good. But in this instance, Judas is so right that he’s actually in league with the devil. I do not fully understand this, but it is possible to be absolutely right, and dead wrong at the same time. Sometimes things can be so reasonable and so proper that their source can only be the fiery pits of hell.
And John the evangelist spells this out quite clearly. Judas cares for no one but himself. Judas will do nothing unless it benefits him personally. Judas will take and receive at every opportunity that he can, but he will never give. He is totally self-serving, and stands in stark contrast to Mary’s self-sacrificing devotion. His anger is completely unholy, but his greed tops even that. Greed is the most unholy and misdirected kind of sensuality that there is. It is auto-eroticism.
At this time of year, when we think of Judas, we usually think of his dastardly act of betrayal. Betrayal, especially for money, is a terrible sin that even further betrays Judas’ self-serving greed. But it may be that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus is not his most horrendous sin. We often say that it is, and I have probably said that it is. But perhaps Judas’ greatest sin is his refusal to worship. It grates against his own sense of self-importance and his self-serving attitude. Judas is his own God, he worships himself.
The holiness and the purity of Mary’s devotion was not lost on Judas. He understood it fully. He could clearly see her sacrificial love for Jesus, he knew that she was worshiping Jesus with her whole heart, soul, mind and body. And this he also knew: he would never bend the knee in worship like that. He would never humiliate himself like that. Mary was making a fool of herself, and he would never do that.
And so in reaction, he played the role of the devil’s advocate, and he denigrated the worship. He made himself into the righteous one, and he suddenly became an advocate for ministry to the poor, and how so very right and proper that is.
It is curious to me that Jesus does not chastise or rebuke Judas for his unloving, self-seeking spirit. Instead, Jesus defends Mary. And in defending Mary, Jesus adds even more significance to her act of worship. Jesus intimates that Mary, in her adoration, has prepared him for burial; that her worship has set in motion the inevitable march to the cross.
But I also believe that Jesus does not chastise or rebuke Judas because he has a very deep and profound love for this wayward disciple of his. We are all familiar with the parable of the prodigal son. In that parable, there is a father who deeply and equally loves both of his sons. One of the sons, however, is wayward, and the other is faithful. The wayward son runs away, and wastes his inheritance, while the other son stays dutifully and faithfully at home.
But near the end of that story there is a terrible and horrifying reversal of roles. The wayward son has a change of heart, and becomes faithful, and the faithful son rejects the love of his father and becomes the prodigal.
By excluding himself from the sacredness and the joy that Mary’s act of worship and adoration has created, Judas becomes even more the prodigal. What is glory for others, is a stench for him. But like the father, who will not give up on either of his sons, Jesus will not give up on Judas. Jesus wants Judas to know that there is still time to repent. It is not yet too late for Judas to find forgiveness, and to experience the beauty of worship into which Mary has immersed herself and all of the others present. The lesson is obvious. It is not yet too late for us to repent of our self-seeking ways, and to repent of our desires to always receive and never to give. And it is not too late for us to bend the knee in lavish abandonment, and to engage our whole hearts, minds, bodies and souls in worship.
“Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, a righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.