A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

By: David H. May, Rector


We are closing in on the last days of the season of Lent, which you probably know. Although, it’s possible to lose track of where we are. It’s been known to happen. But maybe you know right where we are. Maybe these past few weeks have been times that have brought you closer to your own heart, or someone else’s, and that when that happened it was like the Good Shepherd had come and found you and carried you home. Maybe that realization came when you saw someone take someone else’s hand into theirs, and with bright clear eyes say to this person you’re pretty sure they’d never seen before, ‘oh sweetie, you’re precious, precious. That’s what I think.’ Or maybe something you’d decided to do for Lent – forgo a luxury, make sure you say your prayers each morning and each night, lay your hand on someone’s shoulder while prayers were said for their healing one Wednesday – something you gave yourself to do in these past weeks, opened a window in you to God that you didn’t even know was closed.

Or maybe it’s been a flop. You’ve missed the whole thing, like arriving at the platform for a train that left an hour ago. And then said to yourself, ‘well I never wanted to get on that train anyway!’

Or maybe you started off pretty good, but, well, life happens and this and that, you know. Maybe, honestly, the best you could pull off was getting you and your family to church one Sunday in Lent, mostly in one piece and with a minimum of tears, all things considered. Whatever it has been is what you have to offer. And so, whatever it has been, trust in the slow workings of God’s grace and give thanks.

Next Sunday, Palm Sunday, begins the final stretch. On Palm Sunday, we hear the story of how all of our best hopes and intentions, and our dearest loves turn into a train wreck of betrayal and cowardice and finger-pointing. Like a huge, all-out family screaming match, that spirals and spirals out of control til words are said that should never have been said and can’t ever be taken back and that ends with the sound of doors slamming, ringing throughout the household in an awful silence that no one knows how to break now.

There won’t be a sermon next Sunday, only the reading of the long, long story of the train wreck of what Jesus’ last days with us were like. That long story at least shows that there’s plenty of truth-telling that needs to happen, plenty of ‘coming home to Jesus’ and carrying our tattered and frayed lives to him. And given grace that’s what we’ll be able to do. But going into Holy Week, there’s probably some wisdom in the truth-telling starting in the pulpit of your own heart. So we’ll just let the long, long story leads us on its own.

The gospel reading from John this morning gives us a candle to carry in case it gets dark and to light our way to bring our lives to come home to Jesus. Today, we’re in Jesus’ home away from home. We’re in Martha and Mary’s home in Bethany just a mile or two outside of Jerusalem. They share their home with their miracle boy, their brother Lazarus who they thought they’d lost forever. Just days ago, they had laid him in a tomb. And there he lay in death til the voice of Jesus found him and called him home to the land of the living.

Martha is serving dinner. Of course. Jesus and Lazarus and some others are sitting at table waiting for the meal to be served. But waiting for something else too. Maybe that’s why it’s so quiet in the room. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the important people – whether they really believed it had happened or not – saw the whole world turning towards Jesus and against them. So they let it be known that Jesus now had a price on his head that they intend to make him pay in full. They’ve said, ‘he’s a dead man’.

So the smell of fear and even death is in the air.
And then something happens. There is Mary holding a little box she has brought out from her room. A popular dictionary of the bible says simply that what she was holding was “a scented ointment or perfume imported from the Himalayas in alabaster boxes and opened on special occasions”.

I wonder if Mary really knew what she was doing with her treasured alabaster box as she knelt at Jesus’ feet and anointed them. Was she thinking of the common practice of washing a stranger’s feet to welcome them and to say you’re not a stranger anymore but have a place at my table? Was she thinking about the old sacred stories where kings and prophets of God were anointed? Or was she simply doing what she could do, all she knew to do, all she had left in the little time that was left?

Jesus says simply that she has anointed his body for burial. But I think Mary was just doing what you do for someone you love: you keep loving them, anyway you know how, even when the worst is coming and it would be easier just to turn away. Mary doesn’t do that. She gives him one beautiful thing to carry with him wherever it is he is going.

What she did lights a candle in the dark that shows us something true about who we are. Oh yes, we are as capable of turning on one another and our own poor selves and slamming the doors on each other with the same ferocious fear as the adoring crowds turn on Jesus in his last days. Oh yes, we are just as capable of taking a secret delight in someone else’s misfortune or feeling searing envy when someone already well-off prospers. But surely we also have love in us that will gladly, whole-heartedly, without a second thought give everything if we can turn someone’s darkness to light.

That is true of you too, each and everyone of you. In fact, it is what is most true about you. And it is why Jesus lays down his life for you.

In these last days of Lent, whether a window was opened in you to God that you didn’t know was shut, or feel like you missed the train, let what our sister Mary did for the Lord show you what is most true about you too. And trust in the slow workings of God’s grace to open a window in you to him, to have words to call a poor soul ‘precious’ when they need it most, to lay a hand of healing on someone who is fearful of heart, or to use that one Sunday out of the whole season, as your own offering to light your way, to come home to Jesus and to be changed from glory to glory. Amen.