The cherry blossoms and tulips taunt me with the coming season of Easter, but we’re not there yet. Entering this fifth week of Lent, we know we’ve been in the season a while. After a month more likely than not, we’ve either given up on our practices, or they’ve become habit. As any of us know who have had to cut ourselves off of an addiction, at this point if we’ve been off for a month, we’re clean. It doesn’t mean we don’t still struggle with temptation, but after a period of detox, we have a bit more clarity. For those with powerful substance abuse addictions, that period of detox is especially cruel to witness, let alone experience. Addicts will think they’re dying, that they won’t survive, and those who are helping them make it through will offer witness and assurance that while, yes, they feel like they’re dying, they will make it. They will survive, and they will be stronger for it. They’re at a critical moment in their journey–a tipping point, if you will–and now more than ever, as people of faith, we know that God’s grace is needed. Wherever we are in our journey of faith, wherever we are in our wilderness, whether it’s in the throws of painful cleansing/detox/transition or in the lush jungle of joyful, life-giving discernment, there comes a decisive moment of taking that next step into a new chapter and hopefully with a newness of life rooted in Christ.
It sounds like easy words, but we know the process is more complicated. Even if we gave up something simple for Lent, the intent is still to give up something in our lives that makes more room for God’s will to speak to us and guide us on our way, which at our best is God’s way. We do this because we remember that after baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days, was tempted in every way but did not sin. He emerged from the desert, prevailing over evil, and fully lived into his life’s ministry, perfectly living into God’s will. Jesus’ faithfulness prevails in every way. And we remember, too, that God’s faithfulness always prevails. God’s faithfulness is what gives the psalmist hope in Ps. 126: recalling the great things that God has done, from deliverance from Egypt to the restoration of fortunes, whatever it is they lament now, the will of God is to be faithful, to keep promises, and to transform the lives of those who survive the wilderness.
It is this transformation that we hope for when we’re going through difficult times. I don’t want to suffer for nothing. If I’m going to give up sugar, I want to lose weight and be healthier. If I’m going to give up drugs, I want to live a life worth living. If I’m going to do good, I want to know that what I’m sacrificing for is worth it. I want something to look forward to. This is hard for us because we can’t promise that because we’re doing good things that life will be sunshine and roses. We can’t assure there won’t be daily temptation, that our bodies will stay in remission, that there won’t be some senseless tragedy, despite our best efforts in our home or at the capitol. But our remembering God’s faithfulness strengthens our faith in God’s will and fortifies our hope, our imagination of what is to come. Not yet are we transformed ourselves or as a community, but there is hope that it can be.
When we have this faith and hope of what can and will be done through the grace of God and our cooperation, if this is our belief, we can’t help but act upon it. Paul, sitting in prison, writing to the Philippians, couldn’t help but strain toward the future, toward what is to come. Paul wants to know Christ fully, even to the sharing of his suffering. In commentary on The Working Preacher, Edward Pillar suggests three ways that Paul demonstrates how the knowledge of Christ could be obtained. To me they sound like Paul’s three ways of love because they include
- Letting go of status or significance in our culture–value is only rooted in love;
- Being obedient to the values and ethos of God, which is love; and
- Maintaining love and loving even to the death, even if it’s at the hands of the powerful/unjust/corrupt.
We are given how Paul does this, having given up his status as a blameless leader. We know that this is the very model of Jesus in his life and death, which is why by our experiencing these things, we are more inclined to know what it is to live in Christ, to have the Christ-mind, to be Christ-like, to be truly Christian.
In our gospel lesson today, we are given a couple of people through whom we can see how they are orienting their lives toward knowing God through Christ, or not. Martha and Lazarus are there at this dinner party, Martha serving as she does and Lazarus living his resurrected life (wouldn’t we love to hear more of his thoughts?). But it’s Mary and Judas who are the two characters we focus in on today.
We don’t know what Jesus said during the meal, but at some point, Mary gets the perfume and anoints Jesus, filling the room with the scent of nard, a fragrance that takes me back to Jerusalem in a heartbeat. This fragrance, they would know, is the fragrance of a burial anointing. Six days before the Passover . . . maybe Jesus had said something again of his coming death, of going to be with his Father. Maybe Mary is letting go of her attachment to Jesus in recognition of him living into God’s will and is showing her utmost act of love in supporting him, encouraging him, and loving him up to his death. She’s the one who sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him intently. Whatever he says, this is how she responds, acting in faith, hope, and love. Her act is tender and heart-wrenching, if she truly anticipates his death. This isn’t to say it couldn’t also be an impulsive act of adoration, but either way, Mary is giving herself over to Love, offering probably one of the most precious material possessions she has.
Judas, however, I imagine him going from being annoyed at Mary’s affection to disgusted that she would waste the nard. The value of the perfume–I read that it’s about a year’s salary for a laborer–could have filled the disciples’ discretionary fund, providing him with more for his own pockets. Not only are we told here that Judas will be the one to betray Jesus, but he’s also a thief, a dishonest treasurer. How, we might wonder, can Judas be with the disciples all this time, even up to the end, and be so cold-hearted? Quite obviously, the way of love is not Judas’ way of living. There’s something he benefits from being among the disciples, if even it’s the status of treasurer or being among the band of misfits making a ruckus. His values are self-centered, and ultimately he doesn’t show love in his betrayal, even to himself.
Who do we see leaning into God’s grace in their actions in this life? Judas never lets go of his self-interest. In Mary we see repeated acts of her following the guidance of Spirit or love or impulse–whatever we want to call it. In those moments, we can see where her actions reveal something of love made manifest in unexpected ways. There’s something sacramental about it because it is making visible and tangible something invisible and spiritual. Mary’s act demonstrates grace, which is an offering of God’s love. It’s unwarranted, unearned, and unconditional. Grace is always ready to be received.
At the end of our wilderness pilgrimage, or after a long period of struggle, we know that point when we say “I’m done” or “I can’t do this anymore” or “I don’t want to.” Those of us advocating for the rights of the poor and marginalized might feel like it’s an endless uphill battle. What does it mean for us to hear these words of Jesus, spoken to the one who does not embody or understand the importance of love? What does it mean to hear Jesus speaking to cold-heartedness, “Leave her alone,” she’s doing work for what is to come. This is her act of faith and hope, and my receiving her act of love lets my grace be fulfilled with mutual affection. Does it prevent what is to come? No, but it emphasizes the importance of moment to moment actions, the significance of one act of grace, one donation given, one kindness exchanged, one life transformed.
Remembering our stories and promises sustain our faith. Seeking the transformation of nightmarish realities into dreams of God’s will made manifest in the kingdom of heaven speaks to our hope. Above all of what is “almost” and “not yet” is what already is in the prevalence of God’s love for us from beginning to end, through and beyond. How are we leaning into God’s grace, acting in ways of love, especially when we are most ready to give up and walk away? Do we turn away from God’s grace, or can we act in love and take that next step into new life in Christ?