Lent 5 March 21, 2010

Isaiah 43:16-21                                                                  

Philippians 3:4b-14                                                            

John 12:1-8

 “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” – John 12:8

I am tired. The other day I was visiting with an old friend, a man my age. How are you, he asked. I’m exhausted, I said. And I began to cry.

Well, part of that exhaustion is that we’re coming up to Holy Week and Easter, and clergy are always exhausted getting ready for the string of demanding liturgies at this time of year. Part of it is also that on top of all those services we’ve added the whole Come and See evangelism project for Easter. And, of course, God has seen fit, as he does most years, to put the Crucifixion and Resurrection right in the middle of income tax time and cleaning up the garden for spring. So, exhaustion is to be expected. As Anne reminds me, it’s an annual thing.

But part of my exhaustion is also a participation in your exhaustion. Someone said to me recently, “You get around in your job, don’t you.” And indeed I do. You might say that “getting around” is my job. The old word for the parish priest was parson, which comes from person. The parson was the “person” of the village, who got around and visited everyone and gathered up their thoughts and prayers and lives on his heart, to offer them to God. The other part of his job was carrying God on his heart to offer God to his people – equally important, and something that can get lost in a priest’s daily busyness.

 

And so I gather up your exhaustion and it becomes mine. The exhaustion of families holding multiple jobs, struggling to make ends meet. The exhaustion of over-programmed childhoods with sports and dance and lessons and long bus rides and homework and tests. The exhaustion of navigating the health

care system, serving on committees in the schools and community. The exhaustion simply of living in this world of multiple crises and problems, politicians who can’t come together to get things done, a future full of global threats and tectonic shifts beyond our control. To be exhausted is not, then, a failure in “self care.” It is inherent in the vocation of a priest of the Church.

But here is this gospel reading for today. And it’s a strange one, really. Six days before the Passover – coming up on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, in other words – and in Bethany, a village just across the Kidron valley from Jerusalem, Jesus is visiting the home of his friends, the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. Mary and Martha we may remember from the story in Luke (10:38-42) where Martha plays the role of the active, anxious sister, bustling about to serve Jesus, while Mary takes what Jesus calls the “better part,” the contemplative role of sitting, listening at Jesus’s feet.

Today’s story is sort of an echo of that earlier episode. Again, Martha is serving the meal, Mary is at Jesus’s feet. But there is an added dimension: that of death. For one thing, Lazarus is there, and Jesus had just raised him from death. For another, Mary anoints Jesus’s feet with a costly perfumed ointment used to anoint bodies at their burial – a look forward at what is to come on Easter morning, when Mary is among the women who go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body. And then there is Judas, criticizing Mary for not using the money for the poor. St. John tells us in an aside that Judas has a self-interest in this, since he was accustomed to steal from the common purse. But there are hints elsewhere in the gospels that Judas became disillusioned with his Master because Jesus failed to embrace the revolution of social activism that he desired.

So this reading speaks to what underlies our exhaustion today, the exhaustion of our world, of our times. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Jesus is not criticizing concern for the poor or social action to improve their lot. A “preferential option for the poor,” as it’s come to be called, is central to the Gospel Jesus came to proclaim. Rather, I think, his words point to the fact that if we try to take on the world’s burdens – or even our own burdens – all by ourselves, starting with ourselves, as things to be solved on our own terms and through our own control, then we will fail, exhausting and despairing, in our efforts.

Whereas if we start with Jesus, with a simple, deep and contemplative love for him, union with him, then our service and love of others, of “the poor,” will follow in a way that does not exhaust us, that leads not to failure but to the kingdom of God. I say these words to you because I think they are what this reading points to, not because I’m very good at heeding them myself. We are all terribly caught up in a world of doing. We are most of us no good at all at contemplating. Even in our churches, we have all these projects and activities, we’re always whipping up more, but whom do we ever see simply spending time in contemplative prayer before the icon of Jesus the Teacher, before the tabernacle of the Blessed Sacrament? We had a workshop that lots of people turned out for to make Anglican rosaries. But who just sits any more, praying the rosary?

“You always have the poor with you,” and yes, we need to do something about them. But especially as we enter this holiest time of the year, Jesus invites us just to sit with him — but you do not always have me – to anoint his feet with our love, to let him take our burdens on his heart. As Holy Week and Easter will remind us, Christianity at its center is not about our actions or even our intentions. It is about Jesus and his love for us. Jesus who died for us, and rose again to open to us the way of everlasting life.

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