Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

Either you’re for us, or you’re against us.  I hear that saying in a bunch of movies and stuff like that, and honestly I always thought that it was kind of confusing off the bat.  I mean, does it have to be one extreme or the other?  Isn’t there room for wishy washy indifference?  Because it sounds like there isn’t, according to the saying.  You have to choose, either be actively for, or by default you are just against, whether actively or passively.

So you can see how this can be a bit confusing.  It can’t be true across the board, can it?  I mean, let’s take sports for example, I can honestly say that I don’t care about the Canucks one bit, but would that mean that I’m against the Canucks?  I don’t feel like I am, like they can win all the games they want, it just wouldn’t affect me at all.  And it’s not my fault that they don’t.  It that has nothing to do with me, it just happens whether I want it to or not.

But then is there any merit to the saying?  Probably.  In areas like politics, social justice, or just actively going against whatever the norm of society is.  It’s like walking the wrong way on an escalator.  You aren’t supposed to do it, but it sure is fun, isn’t it?  At least my kids think so and I know I did it a few times when I was a kid.  But if you aren’t committed to get to the bottom of that escalator that is going up, you will eventually go up.  You have to go in the opposite direction harder and faster than the escalator is going, or then at best you’ll just be staying in the same place but most people would just go for the free ride to the top.

So I guess the saying, “you’re either with us or you’re against us” applies to things that go against the grain, against the flow, against what the masses around us think and believe.  There is another saying that for evil to prevail, it just takes good people to do nothing.  If you aren’t actively participating in battling the corrupt norm, then your inaction is actually hurting the movement.

It’s like when I stand in the way of my kids trying to get to the bottom of that up escalator.  I don’t care if they make it to the bottom or not, but I’m not going to get out of the way for them to do so.  So I am literally standing in their way to achieve their meaningless goal of beating the escalator.

We see today Jesus going against the grain in his acceptance and love for someone that is doing something that seems totally meaningless.  We are familiar with this story, or at least the variations of it as it is presented in the other gospels.  I like John’s account that we get today, because it provides more detail that we just don’t get in the other versions of the story.  And with the familiarity of the story, we also have the familiar interpretations of what is going on.  Mary uses a lot of expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and Judas that thief complains about it.  So be generous like Mary and not a thief like Judas, right?

But as always, if we go a bit deeper into the story, we’ll see a deeper meaning and lesson about Jesus’ love and compassion.  First, where is Jesus here in the story?  We know it’s another “beth” town, but which one?  Not Bethlehem, Bethsaida, Bethel, or Bethharan (all real places, look them up), but Bethany.  And as you imagined, the “beth” part of the name means something, and from what I have read it means “house of”.  So Bethany is house of “any”.  What is “any”?  Many scholars think that it could be an abbreviation of the term for “afflicted”, so Bethany could mean the house of the afflicted.  Also it could mean figs, Bethany could also be the “house of figs”, but I like afflicted.

So Jesus is here in the town called house of the afflicted, a place which some theorize to be the landing place for the sick, the outcast, those on the outskirts of society.  It was found that Bethany had things like shelters for the homeless, food bank type things, even a special hospital of sorts for those with different kinds of diseases and illnesses.  So Bethany in itself wasn’t a place that most of the affluent would go, as religiously it would be all sorts of unclean, so just being there was against the grain.

Also, Bethany was the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  And we all know Lazarus from I think last week when I was on holidays.  He’s the guy who died but didn’t stay dead.  And we also know of Mary and Martha as the sisters that didn’t get along all the time because one was a doer and the other was a not-so-mucher.  This was the family that Jesus loved, the one he cared for, the one that he seems to bend over backward for.  And so Jesus having a meal with them seems to make sense, they’re friends, after all.

One thing that I recently heard about these folk though, coming out of Jean Vanier’s commentary on the gospel of John, looks at how this family of three likely adults, one being a matriarch, one being the youngest and innocent one that wears her heart on her sleeve, and then just Lazarus, who is cared for by his two sisters.  Jean Vanier, who you might recognise as the founder of L’Arche, says that he reads this under the lens of his experience, and he can’t help but see Lazarus as someone with perhaps a disability of sorts, seeing as how he is cared for so much by his two unmarried sisters, and by Jesus.

This blew me away, for a number of reasons.  Here we have Jesus, a homeless guy who wanders the countryside helping folk for no other reason than to help them and show them love.  He is having dinner at the home of his friends that happens to be situated in the “house of the afflicted” city, his friends being an overworked and frustrated sister, a possibly handicapped brother, and another sister who is just bad with money.  And we hear who is also in their company for the meal, Jesus’ disciples, who are mainly uneducated blue collar fishermen, a zealot which could mean a protestor of some kind, a tax collector that would be seen as a traitor, and an actual traitor who is identified as a thief before he even does any of the betraying.  I think it’s pretty safe to say that this was a just a strange mish mash of folk that you wouldn’t imagine ever being friends let alone spending time together eating and smelling perfume.

But that is what happened.  That is the description we’re given.  And at the center of it all was Jesus, opening his arms to all, graciously welcoming and graciously accepting welcome, declaring all members of this motley crew as valuable, loved, and worthy parts of God’s family.

Talk about going against the grain.  I think even in today’s times we tend to avoid people like this.  We might try to be welcoming but we are actually counting the seconds when we can leave and return to our comfort zones.  We like to be open to people of other walks of life but once we hear that they have a criminal record or live without a fixed address, we get uncomfortable.  We want to be loving but often our own stigmas and paradigms of how we should be living gets in the way and we find that we’re aren’t going against the grain like Jesus did.

And if you’re not against the grain, you’re with it.

You’re with those who’d rather marginalize than include.  You’re with those who would prefer to profit off the poor rather than help them.  You’re with those who see injustice and just choose to do nothing about it.

But the good news is that although we might find ourselves going with the grain, not standing up with those oppressed and in need, taking the easy path rather than the one we are called to, we see that Jesus still stands with us.  Just as Jesus broke bread with those on the outskirts of society, those who we might not like to rub elbows with, those who just make us uncomfortable for their life choices or circumstances, Jesus also broke bread with those who will eventually betray him, abandon him, and deny him.

Man, this sounds like the church, doesn’t it?

In Judas’ protest of Mary’s extravagant action of using this very expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet rather than selling it and using the money to help the poor (i.e. himself), Jesus responds that you’ll always have the poor, but you won’t always have me.  You’ll always have the poor.  There will always be less fortunate ones, less cultured perhaps, less privileged, and we will have them.  We will have their backs.  We will care for them and be there for them.  For we are the church, a mish mash of people, forming a motley crew of outsiders and nobodies mixed with insiders and somebodies… with Jesus in the middle.

And Jesus welcomes us all.  Jesus invites us all to the table, all the outsiders and insiders, the nobodies and somebodies, even those who are loyal and those who are not.  Jesus invites us all into the community, all the educated and uneducated, the doers and not-so-muchers, the able and disabled.  Jesus invites and welcomes us all, of every walk, of every tribe, of every thing you can think of.  All are welcome to partake, all are welcome to know the extravagant grace of God, all are welcome to be part of this body of Christ, full of God’s love and joy, where peace surpasses all understanding.

In a world where it is easier to exclude, easier to push away, easier to draw lines between inside and outside, Jesus goes against that grain, against the flow, against all culture and what we think is “knowing better”, and exhilaratingly invites, exuberantly welcomes, and extravagantly loves all people into the eternal arms of a gracious God.  As the saying goes, ether you are with us, or you’re against us, and Jesus most definitely is with us in every sense of the word.

So as we approach the end of Lent and look ahead to Holy Week and the Three Days, may we know the full width and breadth of the love of God, inviting and welcoming us all to join in with God’s action and work in the world, in being community, being church, being the body of Christ for all.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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