Lent 5, Year C Readings: (Isaiah 43:16–21); Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b–14; John 12:1–8
This is the part where I switch on a tape of various soccer announcers shouting the word Goal, and holding it as long as they can at the top of their lungs. You may have heard this phenomenon. It’s fun. And if you’ve never heard it, try to imagine sports as opera or something, the part where the tenor holds the high note to show off. To me, these little sports broadcasting episodes reveal impressive lung capacity, and also a complete lack of balance on the part of the announcer. They switch from describers of the action to fans in those moments. Although, to be fair, maybe they do the same thing for goals scored by both teams.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an announcer present when we did something that took great self-restraint, great love and great sacrifice? Something that represented us at our best, our most faithful? Suddenly a quiet scene is interrupted by Leather Lungs roaring at the top of his voice, Gooooooaaaaaaaaaalllllll!!!! Bullies get attention. Braggarts get attention. Show offs get attention. Finally, attention for the stuff that usually goes unnoticed, important stuff.
OK, sorry I put that image into your head. In my experience, almost the last thing people of faith want is a big production about their faithful actions. You’ve become good at not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing, holding your tongue, going the second mile.
Paul is going to the heart of things talking about his goal. In J. B. Phillips’ translation, Phillips calls it Paul’s ambitions. “For his sake I did in actual fact suffer the loss of everything, but I considered it useless rubbish compared with being able to win Christ. For now my place is in him, and I am not dependent upon any of the self-achieved righteousness of the Law. God has given me that genuine righteousness which comes from faith in Christ. How changed are my ambitions! Now I long to know Christ and the power shown by his resurrection: now I long to share his sufferings, even to die as he died, so that I may perhaps attain as he did, the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:8b-11)
Paul goes on to say that, unlike those strikers on the soccer pitch, he has not actually achieved his goal, his ambitions, but that he presses on toward it. From the teachers in our family I learned the saying, “Direction, not perfection.” Paul is determined to be heading in the right direction, even if he never achieves the death of self that Jesus did.
The goal. What is the goal of our faith? To share Christ’s sufferings so as to share in resurrection from the dead? Could be. Let’s shift our focus for a moment. Leave Paul, and go to the gospel. There’s a tiff going on at supper, in large part about the goal of it all, the goal of the mission, that is. The gang’s all here: disciples, Jesus, Mary, Martha and brother Lazarus, looking and smelling ’way better now that he’s not in the tomb. Martha’s serving, as usual. Mary’s not, as usual. Lazarus is hanging on Jesus’ every word. Mary gets out some skin cream. Where’d she get that? What a great smell! Isn’t that pricey stuff, the really pricey stuff?
Judas can’t stop himself. He’s doing the math in his head. What if that money had gone to the food bank instead? Would have fed a lot of people! Jesus knows this. He’s enjoying Mary’s attention. Or that’s the picture John paints for us. John is actually doing a couple of things in this passage. One is softening the message of Jesus. He’s not the only one who does this. In fact, the farther away in time we get from Jesus himself, the more that writers seem to want to knock the sharp corners off what Jesus said and did. Radical is OK back at the beginning, but once a movement begins to gain more followers, more connected followers, the more that revolutionary stuff begins to be an embarrassment. An embarrassment? An out and out obstacle to growth. John is the last of the four gospels to be composed.
How do we know this, that later writers soften the gospel message? It’s clear something got Jesus killed. It wasn’t his love of top of the line skin products. It was his prophetic activity, his awkward questions. So Judas is actually doing the Jesus thing in this scene. John throws in the slur about Judas stealing funds from the movement to discredit him. Maybe he was, but none of the earlier gospels report this.
The other thing John is doing is setting up the crucifixion. Foreshadowing. Mary’s anointing then, is preparation Jesus’ body for his burial several chapters in advance. The scene is good, though, because it suggests tension within the Jesus movement, either in Jesus’ lifetime, or several decades later. Feeding people or doing extravagant things to honour Jesus? That thorny question keeps coming up, especially when a church goes to set a budget for the coming year. The dinner party story suggests it has to be one or the other. Is that true?
It’s only tense if we see life and faith through the lens of scarcity. There’s only so much money to go around, so every nickel not spent on bread is robbing the poor of food. But if we see the story, and our own faith lives from the point of view of abundance, there are always enough resources for both feeding and fragrance. It’s not either/or.
So that hypothetical announcer following us around might be yelling Goal more often than just when we do something good for someone else. Someone’s leaving crocheted hearts on utility poles in the city? Goal! There’s a flash mob in a food court bringing joy and beauty to a somewhat drab scene? Score! Someone starts paying it forward at the coffee shop drive through window in Winnipeg, and a hundred and fifty customers who come afterward do the same thing? Fireworks, please!
One way to hear our scriptures today is as an invitation to look within ourselves, examine our life choices. One of the choices we all made today is to come to church. We come to church for many reasons. We hear and experience things in worship that effect all of us differently. We just went through this congregation’s annual meeting, an opportunity for us to be reflective as a group. We trusted that the Council had been thorough in its examination of the budget, because it reflects our priorities as a church. We’re always trying to figure out how many eggs to put in which baskets. If we had been in that dining room John conjures up for us, would we have sided with Martha or Judas or Mary? Or found ourselves torn?
Pressing on toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus, whatever that means, is not exactly like running a race. There is no racetrack, no walls of cheering fans making it obvious how we press on toward the goal. Thank goodness. What if we only had to do certain things and avoid doing other things to live faithful lives. Remember the old days? Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, don’t swear, don’t cheat, go to church on Sunday and you’re good.
Things are different now. We have more freedom to be the church. We don’t have to fit into preconceived notions of what a congregation is. We don’t have to live up to the expectations of society anymore. Society doesn’t have expectations of churches. We can explore that dinner party tension, wrestle with the meaning of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus to our heart’s content.
It’s true that we can get into ruts, habits, conventions, isn’t it? We’re getting ready to go deeper as a faith community. Council has launched the next phase of our mission redevelopment. You have done so much reflective work as a congregation already over the past few years. Now Council is going to put together a group to lead us deeper into conversation, holy conversation, about our passion, our purpose. What are the faithful ways to follow that annoying, unpredictable Christ who is living like a monk one minute, and lounging around getting the deluxe pedicure the next. Not the faithful way to follow Christ: ways, plural. There are lots of good ways to be the body of Christ at this corner of the world. Can we get past habitual behaviours, patterns, to see how we are needed around here right now and in the days to come?
Is it our role as a group to be Martha and serve, deal with all the casualties of our economic system, or Judas and ask the incisive questions, like why there are so many casualties? Or are we to be Mary, and make this place a centre for beauty, fragrant offerings of music, drama, art to make use of a space that is too big for our present needs? Or some combination of all three?
It’s like you sometimes hear about our transportation system. No one needs to own an internal combustion automobile running on fossil fuel. What people need is a way to get from A to B. It’s transportation we need, not gas-powered cars. In the same way, no one needs a church. They need something to help them get from A to B, so to speak, toward their life goals. They want to be part of a justice-seeking community. Or they want a place to help them survive or get whole again. Or a community that accepts them, authentic friendships. Or a place to express those yearnings to do something beautiful and sacred that lurk just under the surface for many people. If a church can be one or more of those things, people will find it and do their thing. If it were just a church they wanted, they’d be here already. It’s holiness they seek, a mission that gets their blood flowing, acceptance, or a fresh start.
And you? What are your Lenten questions for yourself? How are you doing on that goal stuff? Pressing on, or needing some kind of energy drink right now if you’re going to put one more foot in front of the other? Confident of the path, or searching around, not so certain? No one is going to be announcing your faithful actions, I can assure you. There is no play by play for what brings us here. There are only our friends in faith here, around us, and our mentor, our model to give us the encouraging word along the way.