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getting it right

sermon on John 12:1-8

"Getting it Right, Getting it Wrong"

Once upon a time, this guy Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead.
It wasn’t something you saw every day, kind of stuck in your memory.
And later on, this guy Jesus went back to his friends’ house,
the home of Lazarus, and his sisters Mary and Martha, for dinner.
Martha cooked and served the dinner like she always did
and Lazarus sat at the table and ate with him which he’d always done.
And which just underscored the point that not only was he alive again,
but he was Really Alive, eating and spilling the condiments
and everything.

And then Mary did an odd thing, which was what she always did
—she had bought a beautiful jar of what amounts to Chanel #5
or maybe some amazing perfume that’s so rare and hip
that none of us have ever heard of it.
Back then, it was Spikenard.
Mary sat at Jesus’ feet where she was used to sitting
to listen to his wisdom and his jokes.
She sat at his feet and she opened this jar of Spikenard
and poured it all out on Jesus’ feet to clean and scent them
and then she wiped away the excess oil with her hair.
What a bizarre and intimate and tender and extravagant gesture.
What could it mean?

And it seems Judas was there—
Judas Iscariot who would betray Jesus,
Judas who the Gospel writer cannot help but comment on
every time he comes onscreen—
Judas says “wait, that Nard cost a lot of money, shouldn’t we have sold it
and given the money to the local soup kitchen or something?”

And I the reader think,
“yeah, Judas, right on!
Jesus is all about the marginalized and poor and all. You got it, brother!”

John, the gospel writer says,
“well, actually, Judas the Very Very Evil had hoped to skim off the top
of the group’s money which he kept account of,
so, really, he’s not being so generous or wise after all.”

And I the reader think,
“seriously, John? Matthew, Mark, and Luke didn’t say that.
Are you letting the fact that you know the ending of Judas’ story
color your understanding of the past?
Was Judas really so bad as to need parenthetical reminders
of his evilness after every single appearance?
Couldn’t he have had some good in his heart?”

Meanwhile, the story has continued with Jesus replying to Judas saying,
“Dude, leave her alone.
Mary bought that perfume with her own money
because she is the only one who gets what I’ve been laying down.
She gets that I’m going to die soon for all y’all
and she wants to honor that death appropriately.
Judas, brother, the poor are always here, but I’m about to die.
Focus on this.”

And I the reader think,
“the poor are always with us, true. But what?
We’re supposed to be okay with that state of affairs?
Particularly now in the 21st century
—what are we supposed to do with Jesus’ statement—
since we don’t, in fact, have Jesus with us
in the same way that Lazarus and Mary and Martha and Judas did.”

[pause for reflection]

I think it’s fair to say that I struggled with this text this week. A lot.
Maybe you know what I mean.
It would seem that Judas got it right in this story
in ways that Peter never did.
Maybe I’m unhealthily obsessed with Judas Iscariot—
I find John’s parenthetical commentary not just excessive
but verging on the ridiculous.
Read further in the Passion story to see what I mean—
when it comes to the actual betrayal, Judas seems to be simply a puppet,
a slave of destiny who MUST betray Jesus.
He is a black-hat villain, baddy-bad-bad.
Scripture says Satan entered into him and he ran out to do his evil deed.

But at the beginning of the story,
he was called to be a disciple just like the rest of them.
Judas was in the circle, intimate with Peter and John and James and Jesus
and because he was close to them,
he was able to betray them so powerfully.
Betrayal requires intimacy—
a stranger cannot betray you but your sister or spouse can.
Judas is a man we all revile—
his name, like Adolf, is not one we’ll be naming our kids anytime soon.
And his betrayal of Jesus was very real.
But was he a one-dimensional villain?
And was he, in essence, wrong about helping the poor?
And what are we supposed to make of Jesus’ statement
that the poor will always be with us?

This past week, I had an extensive Facebook discussion
with a couple of my friends about this.
One friend is what you call Very Catholic—
she teaches catechism to adults
and knows orthodox theology back to front.
The other friend was on my discernment committee
when I was dreaming of seminary
and now she, too, is dreaming of seminary—
she loves the church with an unmatched passion
and is as liberal as they come.
And both of them, when I shared with them
my frustrations with Jesus and Judas in this passage
said, “you missed it.”

I, like Peter, like Judas, have missed the point. Again.
Are you there with me?
Jesus is stealthy like that, maybe you’ve noticed.
He tends to be about the surprising answer, the unexpected plot twist.
Just when we think we’ve got a handle on things,
just when we’re comfortable with how the world works,
Jesus pops in and says, “you missed it.”

In this Gospel lesson, Jesus is calling Judas
and, by extension all of us, to being present.
He’s calling us to pay attention to what’s happening here and now,
to being aware of the depth of the moment.
We are so busy in our lives and in our heads,
worrying about what might happen,
and wallowing in all the things on our to do lists,
and assuming we know what the mission is
that we miss what’s actually happening in the moment.
For many of us in 2013, that’s because we have our noses
in our smartphones all the time.
But we don’t need devices to keep us from paying attention
to the world and people around us.
We were just as good at escapism and self-interest
back in the 1950s as we are today.

Look, of course we should be concerned for the poor and downtrodden,
whether they are us or someone far away.
Of course we should question how we spend our money.
Of course we should examine our motives when we offer to do something nice.
My friends, we are Judas,
we betray Jesus every day.
Every time we betray a confidence or profit from someone else’s pain,
every time we ignore the Christ shining in another’s eyes
we turn Jesus over to death.
The story we tell with our lives is that of Judas trying and failing,
of the disciples not understanding.
And Jesus says gently,
“Dude, leave it alone. I’m here right now. Focus on this.”

This coming week, some of the Edge House students and I
are hoping to do just that.
We are heading out to the Good Earth Farm in Athens, Ohio—
it’s a 5-acre organic farm run by an intentional Christian community.
Their days begin and end with prayer and, while the work is hard, it is focused.
The work is simply the work—
whether chopping vegetables to can or weeding
or helping build a firewood shed,
distractions are minimal.
Each time I have worked at the farm,
I have come away refreshed and centered.
The students this week are longing for that sense of presence.

Practicing presence is, of course,
one of the most difficult things we can attempt.
I want to invite you to try it for a moment.
Close your eyes or simply look down.
Put your feet flat on the floor and uncross your arms.
Breathe in deeply. Breathe out deeply.
Breathe in the breath of God, breathe out the struggles and joys of your week.
Notice the temperature in the room, the feel of the pew beneath you.
Notice your boredom or your brain refusing to slow down.
Breathe in the breath of God. Breathe out your anxiety about next week or the next five minutes.
Notice why you’re here this morning, notice who you’re here for this morning.
Breathe in deeply. Breathe out deeply.
May we recognize God’s presence in the ordinary and extraordinary moments of our days.
May we pause and experience God’s Creation.
May we begin to see clearly our own wrongness, our own rightness, and God’s call in every moment.