The Fifth Sunday in Lent: March 13, 2016
Preacher: Anne Marie Witchger, sponsored for priestly ordination by St. Michael’s Church
The Gospel reading for today appears to be an interaction between Jesus and Mary and Judas—Mary anoints Jesus with expensive perfume in an intimate and loving way, Judas, who ultimately betrays Jesus, challenges her actions for selfish reasons, and Jesus defends Mary. But one thing I learned in seminary is that sometimes the people at the focus of the passage are just as important as those who are out of focus. I think this story is actually very much about someone who is out of focus.
The scripture reads: “Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.” Remember Lazarus? Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha and in the 11th chapter of the Gospel of John (just one chapter before this passage), Lazarus died and Jesus raised him from the dead.
So Jesus is at the home of this Lazarus and it is six days before the Passover, which means Jesus’ own death on the cross is fast approaching. The scripture tells us that Jesus and Lazarus are sitting at the table having dinner. Can you imagine? Jesus had literally just brought Lazarus back from the dead, out of the grave, and now Jesus is preparing for his own death…and they are just sitting, eating. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for that conversation:
“Jesus, take a seat. By the way, thanks again for raising me from the dead. I really appreciate it.”
“Anytime, Lazarus! That’s what I’m here for. I’d love to hear what death was like for you, seeing as that’s where I’m headed. Could you pass the wine?”
Unfortunately, the scripture does not record anything Lazarus says after his revival. I can’t help but wonder why? Why was this resurrected man just sitting, silent, at the table while one of his sisters served the guests and the other sister anointed Jesus’ feet? Shouldn’t he have been the one on his knees, expressing gratitude and love for the new chance at life he has received?
Maybe coming back from the dead, wasn’t as easy as it seemed on the surface. Today, it is fairly common to know someone who has come back to life after death. In the hospital where I work as a chaplain, we see people brought back to life through CPR and electric shocks every day. I often visit with family members, or sometimes even the patient themselves after they have been revived. Sometimes patients wake up with a new lease on life. But many times, getting a heartbeat back does not mean that the person is “alive” again—at least not in the way their loved ones would hope for. Sometimes the patient never returns to consciousness, or the person is conscious, but family members say they are not quite the same—having lost something of the vitality they once had. I wonder if Lazarus’ resurrection was actually more like that—he had his heartbeat back, but what else did he have? Did he ever really return to full life? We don’t know.
There are other times in our society when people come back from near death or like-death experiences. Instead of physical death, someone may experience a traumatic event, like sexual violence, or come face to face another person’s death, such as in war or after an act of terrorism, or a shooting. Often, victims of extreme violence or witnesses of such violence have to live in the post-traumatic effects of their experiences. In my opinion, surviving a traumatic experience is like being brought back from the dead. The experience is beyond the normal expectations of life; it shakes the very foundation of who we are, of what we know.
I would guess that more of us know what it is like to come back to life from death than we think. If you have survived addiction, sexual abuse, depression, the immense grief of losing a loved one; if you have found a sense of purpose, or faith, after feeling that life was meaningless; you know something of what it means to be brought back from death—and still, just being brought back doesn’t mean life is easy.
I wonder what Lazarus was thinking as he sat and ate with Jesus. Was he grateful for what Jesus had done? Did he think about asking: why me? Why did you save me instead of someone else? How am I supposed to live my life having seen what I have seen? I wonder if he was plagued by flashbacks of whatever it had been like in that cold, dark, tomb? I wonder if he feared dying again, or how it felt knowing that his loved ones would someday suffer the same fate?
While Lazarus is sitting at the table, Mary approaches Jesus and begins to anoint his feet with a pound of costly perfume. As Mary kneels down and pours out the perfume over Jesus’ feet the whole room is filled with the sweetest smell you could ever imagine. Think of the best smell you know—Agatha’s hot crossed buns after the Maundy Thursday service; flowers blooming for the first time after a harsh winter.
Mary’s sweet perfume covered any lingering stench from Lazarus’ once decaying body; and it softened any fear about Jesus’ own impending death. It seems to me that this interaction between Mary and Jesus (and eventually Judas) is just as much about Lazarus. It is about the living dead man who is seated at the table next to Jesus, who watches in silence as his sister pours out the equivalent of a year’s wages over the man who has brought him back to life. It is about how sometimes when we have been brought back from the dead all we can do is sit at the table and watch and listen—we ourselves don’t have the capacity to pour out our feelings, or express our love and gratitude; we can’t find it within ourselves to fill a room with the sweetest things in life because we are still trying to figure out what we are doing here, how we got here, how we will move forward. I wonder how Lazarus felt witnessing that scene; I wonder if anything changed for him, if it was a kind of second resurrection, a reminder that life does not protect any of us from dying and yet it can still be filled with good, sweet things. I wonder if Mary was inviting Lazarus to sit back and smell the sweetness of love that covers death, even if just for a moment.
Perhaps we have had sweet moments like this that we savor—moments that remind us of the goodness of life despite our own death-like experiences.
When a close friend of mine committed suicide when I was a teenager it took me years to feel fully alive again. The sweet perfume that helped pull me out eventually came in the form of a Creative Writing professor in college who encouraged me to write poetry and short stories about my friend. With his support I gave expression to thoughts and feelings that had been bottled up for years; my writing did not change the fact that she had died much too soon, but it gave me something good to hold onto in the midst of my grief.
Perhaps it is the kind gesture of a friend after the loss of loved one, or the achievements of a child, or the wonder of the natural world, seeing familiar faces at church, receiving forgiveness that pulls us out of our death-like funks, even if just for a moment. Perhaps we have provided that sweetness for someone else at some point. When it was not ourselves but someone we know and love sitting at the table like Lazarus—perhaps we have reached out and made a difference, no matter how small, in someone else’s life.
Of course this scene is interrupted by Judas: Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor? At any other moment Jesus might have agreed—after all, he was a champion for the poor and oppressed in his day—but Judas has missed the point this time. Judas could not smell the sweetness of Mary’s perfume; he could not let himself be covered with the love and victory wafting in all corners of the room; he had his own agenda to steal and cheat and betray, to disconnect from those who would have embraced him. “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.” Jesus defends Mary and in doing so he invites all of us to savor those moments of sweetness and goodness; to revel in the luxury of abundant, flamboyant love. He dares us to fill an entire room with love for another even when death looms. In speaking to Mary I think he is also saying to Lazarus: It’s okay. You can sit there as long as you need. Take deep breathes. Enjoy this moment. It is for all of us.