Saturday, April 11, 2015

Sermon: Holy Monday, John 12:1-11 (March 30, 2015)


Do you ever feel like the Revised Common Lectionary gives us the most difficult texts to wrestle with over Holy Week? I’ve found that my faith is never challenged quite as much as it is during Lent, and especially during Holy Week. I suppose if you passively let the scripture wash over you without making an effort to actively engage it, you could downgrade this classification from “difficult” texts to merely “confusing,” but I think that approaching Scripture in this way, especially during Holy Week, is doing ourselves and our faith a great disservice. I think we’re supposed to struggle with it.

I mean, it makes sense. This week, every year, we descend into the deepest parts of the mystery of our faith. Any Buddhist or Muslim or Atheist can agree with the social principles that Jesus teaches over the course of his ministry; it’s only when we embrace the mystery of faith that we particularly celebrate during Holy Week and Easter—that Christ has died, that Christ is risen, and that Christ will come again—that our beliefs set us apart.

So that’s why it’s so important for us to engage with Scripture this week, even when it’s hard, even when it makes us uncomfortable. I’ll be the first to own up: today’s reading, this passage from John’s gospel, has always been one of the most difficult ones for me to wrestle with. To me—and, I would venture to guess, to some of you—this passage seems to portray Jesus as an egotistical, self-centered leader who values his own honor above the importance of caring for the poor. This isn’t the Jesus that I have come to know and love from elsewhere in the gospels, and certainly not an attitude that I would ascribe to God. It’s tempting to chalk this up to poor Biblical editing or our own theological deficiency or something getting lost in translation and move past it, but that makes it far too easy for us to dismiss this scripture after nothing more than a cursory reading when we should be challenging ourselves to hear what the Holy Spirit is telling us. Maybe, like me, you’ll find upon further inspection that your discomfort with how this passage portrays Jesus pales in comparison to what it tells us about ourselves.

I always assumed that this passage was about Jesus and Jesus only. After all, Holy Week is about Jesus, Easter is about Jesus, Christianity itself is about Jesus. And to a certain extent, it is. That’s the comfortable, easy reading, because who Jesus is doesn’t change no matter how we interpret the passage; he’ll always make the right choice and point to the right path and it’s just a question of us understanding that. But if that’s the only lens through which we ever read scripture, then we’re going to miss a whole lot. What if this passage is also about us? What if it’s confronting us with our own choices and priorities in the face of the crucifixion, and we don’t like what we see?

It’s a bit easier to understand the passage this way if we read it in context, as is the case with most readings. At the end of chapter 11, immediately before this dinner at Lazarus’ home, the high priests have decided to put Jesus to death, essentially because his teachings and miracles threatened to upend the status quo. What’s more, John 11:57, the verse immediately preceding today’s reading, tells us, “…the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.” It was common knowledge that these men were after Jesus, to the point that Jesus no longer walked out in the open, but spent his last days out of the public eye.

So now when we read chapter 12, it’s with the understanding that Jesus’ friends knew that the authorities were after him, even if they didn’t really understand the full implications of this fact. In this context, we’re observing the reactions of Jesus’ followers to a profound shift in the story. They’re forced into an unexpected, perhaps even unperceived, transition and we’re watching their responses.

Of course, each of the disciples, as well as Martha and Lazarus, must have had their own emotions and related responses to the unfolding drama, but in this passage our attention is directed at Mary and Judas in particular. As is the case with many stories where Jesus’ followers have opposing reactions, we often find ourselves relating to one approach or the other. The human tendency here is to relate to Mary, the one who obviously got it and did the right thing, or, at the very least, to recognize a desire within ourselves to be like Mary while rejecting Judas as a cautionary tale of what NOT to do.

But this is the point at which I want Scripture to challenge us. I want each and every one of us to feel uncomfortable: we are not Mary. We are Judas.

Certainly, we should all WANT to be Mary, but I want us to operate under the assumption that none of us—not you, or me, or Mother Theresa, or the Pope—instinctually respond to the impending crucifixion as a Mary.

I don’t say this because I believe we all have evil intentions (John makes it clear that Judas is a thief, and I’m not trying to imply that all humans necessarily like him in that particular respect). What I’m saying is that, like Judas, we’re consistently missing the urgency of the situation, the fact that we’re living in the midst of change right now. We tend to live our lives with the motto of “business as usual” when the very nature of our faith tells us that we’re transformed through Christ and are called to transform the world—a perpetual transition.

We are Judas.
I doubt very much that any of you have spent Lent looking for ways to embezzle money from the church like Judas did. But have we spent the past forty days responding to the immediate needs around us, preparing ourselves, our building, our parish family, for the charge that God has given us, or have we been brushing this responsibility aside, preferring instead to look past what needs to be done here and now in favor of some grandiose vision of fixing the world?

We are Judas.

Have we spent too much of our energy on external efforts at the expense of the needs right in front of our eyes, forgetting that we can’t build God’s kingdom outside of our doors without first nourishing it from within? Have we neglected our own personal spiritual growth because we value the “big picture” more?

We are Judas.

In this passage, Jesus isn’t telling Judas that the poor are unimportant. He’s saying that there will never come a point that we will be able to eliminate poverty and finally address those “less important” things, like preparing for the next step. These tasks mustn’t be brushed aside like Scripture that’s too difficult to understand, they mustn’t be put off until later. Change is always coming. That’s the nature of being Christian, of joyfully celebrating Christ’s dying and rising as we continually await the day of his coming.

You are Judas. I am Judas. We inadvertently ignore Jesus as he prepares for his death, completely missing the fact that we’re standing at a crossroads, and that there are things that need to be done on our own front steps to prepare.

Easter comes every year, and we assume there will always be a tomorrow to address these responsibilities that nag at us. But what about when there isn’t tomorrow? When our kids grow into adults with no interest in God? When our property crumbles? When our leadership burns out? When Jesus is on the cross, and there are no more chances to anoint him as he deserves?

If we look carefully, we can see that this standard of taking care of the “little things” and getting our own house in order isn’t one that Jesus expects only of his followers. True, Jesus does spend a huge proportion of his ministry with the poor, the outsiders, the “other”. Jesus feeds, heals, and loves the marginalized every day of his life. But his final hours are not spent out dispersing alms among the needy; they’re spent among his friends, the ones who have been there from the very beginning. And not just socializing and enjoying their company—but serving them. On Thursday, we’ll remember Christ the servant by washing one another’s feet just as Jesus did for his disciples and friends. Mary, as we read here, gets the importance of this act. Judas doesn’t.

I’ve suggested a few ways that we might be like Judas, but this wasn’t intended to be a condemnation or a definitive judgment; I’m not trying to point fingers. In fact, St. Thomas’ is well on its way to taking care of some of the responsibilities that we’ve put off in the past, most notably in the successful Capital Campaign this past fall. I have no way of knowing exactly what it is that you personally have put off, how you have reacted like Judas, just as you have no way of knowing what I’ve neglected (and make no mistake, I’m just as guilty as anyone else). My intention is to knock us all off-balance, to shake up our default perception that we’re on the right track and just need to keep doing what we’re doing. We need to acknowledge and own our sins so that we can begin Holy Week with an attitude of humility and repentance—the only attitude that will truly keep us on the right track. I challenge you to think about how you’re preparing, both for the death and resurrection of Christ as well as the transformation that we face every day, whether we expect it or not.

Today, we begin our journey to the cross. We remember, once again, the transitional life that we have been called to as Christians. We remember our own sin that has brought us here. And we pray that God will give us the wisdom and strength to prepare our community, our families, and ourselves for whatever comes next. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment