Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
Pastor Marc's sermon on the 5th Sunday in Lent (April 7, 2019) on John 12:1-8. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
On Thursday morning, I was sitting in my office in the middle of a conference call when odd messages started popping up. At first, these messages showed up in my email. But then came the texts. And before you know it, I was getting phone calls, asking me weird questions about something I didn’t really understand. Many different people from this church seemed to be responding to an email I never sent. They wanted to know why I, out of the blue, needed them to buy some gift cards. I didn’t and that’s when I realized we were being scammed. Now, as a pastor, I’m used to being scammed. Every few weeks or so, I receive an email or phone call from someone asking for money. Since asking for help is one of the hardest things a person can do, I have a personal policy where I believe every story someone tells me. I believe them when they mention their recent medical trauma. I believe them when they describe the family they’re taking care of. I believe them when they talk about the tank of gas they need to make it to their next job interview. And I believe them when they mention they only need a hotel room for one night because they’ve got a place lined up right after that. I believe them because that’s sometimes true. And when I let them know how I can help, you can hear the tone of their voice change when they suddenly realize they’re being heard. But when a scam is taking place, that’s all pretend. The story we’re told isn’t real no matter how much detail they put into it. A scammer knows how to use our trust, our relationships, and our empathy against us. Someone went to our church website, noticed my contact information, and created a fake gmail account pretending to be me. They then, I think, tried to find email addresses for anyone listed on our website. When they found one, they immediately sent that person a note, hoping you believed it came from me. Once you replied, their ask would follow. All they needed was for you to go buy a few gift cards and send them electronically. At that point, it probably felt weird because I was asking you something I’ve never asked before and the emails I sent you never used your name. But, you’d ask yourself, what if Pastor Marc was really asking for help? And that’s exactly what the scammer hoped you would think. They tried to use the strength of our relationship and your generous nature to make a quick buck for themselves. Once your money was sent, it was as good as spent - and the scammer would go find another faith community to target in the same exact way.
When it comes to scams, if something feels off, it probably is. As your pastor, I would not personally ask you to buy gift cards via email nor act as if I didn’t know who you are. When it comes to emails, phone calls, and anything we see online, we need to approach these situations with the same kind of suspicion we bring to the internet every April Fool’s Day. If it feels weird, it probably is. Our feeling of unease in those moments is not something we should quickly push aside. Instead, we should stay there, knowing that sitting with unease isn’t comfortable but it can be holy. And that kind of holy moment might actually be a gift from God.
Today’s reading from the gospel according to John asks us to sit with a lot of unease. In the verses immediately prior to this one, people wondered if Jesus would risk coming to the Passover festival knowing that the religious and political authorities were planning to arrest him. What they didn’t realize was that he was already on his way. A few days before Passover, Jesus stopped in the village of Bethany, two miles outside of Jerusalem. Jesus’ old friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha lived there and so they invited him to dinner. I imagine their meal was full of the kind of conversation, laughter, and joy that only comes when we dine with old friends. Yet, Jesus was eating with someone that wasn’t only a friend. He was breaking bread with the man that he, a few chapters before, raised from the dead. That dinner party in Bethany was a moment that shouldn’t have happened. Yet because Jesus was at the table, our expectations were replaced by the new thing God was doing. The unease we feel when we realize who was on that guest list is how we notice how holy that moment already was. Without our unease, Mary’s response to Jesus seems a little weird and a bit off. But when we pull up a chair and take our place at His table, Mary’s response to Jesus is the only reasonable response when God shows up.
Because when God shows up, there’s nothing about it that’s pretend. Jesus is never anything but Jesus no matter where he is. He’s Jesus when he’s raising Lazarus from the dead and he’s still Jesus when he’s sitting at Lazarus’ table, chewing on a piece of bread. Jesus is the one who patiently taught his disciples even though they never quite knew who he was. And Jesus is Jesus when he’s welcoming the unwelcomed, offering them seat at the Lord’s table. Jesus was Jesus back then on his final journey to Jerusalem and he’s still Jesus, right now, when he shows up in our lives, in the bread, in the drink, and in the ways we love one another. Jesus never takes a day off from being himself even though he knows the risk being Jesus entails. Not everyone will choose to sit with his guest list nor will we always trust that the gifts of faith, hope, love will transform us into something new. We will, through our own experiences of sin and brokenness, believe that being as wise as serpents means we can never truly be as gentle as doves. We will be scammed and, over time, use that as an excuse to live a life thinking we’re safeguarding ourselves from death but, in reality, we’re denying ourselves true life. In the words of Michael Koppel, “so often we... store up precious resources - whether material, spiritual, or emotional - with the intention to use them eventually, yet the activity of saving can itself consume our lives and limit the opportunity for the outpouring of gifts. Our inclination may be to hold back, [afraid] that sharing the resources means losing them, unaware that some resources can become activated only through wholehearted offering.” When we are in the presence of Jesus, can we truly hold back? Mary couldn’t help but be grateful for God’s presence around and within her even though she knew the kinds of scams people played. Mary refused to let what others do be what defined her. Instead, she leaned on Jesus who never stopped being Jesus to her. As we go about our lives, we will face many situations that feel a little bit off, filling us with unease. But we can trust that unease because that might be how God shows us a new holy moment in our lives and how Jesus is already with us, leading the way.
*Quotes from Feasting on the Gospels: John, Volume 2.
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