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Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent - April 7 2019

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C
April 7, 2019
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

“Leave her alone.”

When I was in seminary we received some really good advice from my instructors:  We were cautioned of the danger of pulling just one verse out of the Scriptures and building an entire theology on it; and we were cautioned about pulling several verses from all over the Bible that happen to support one particular point of view.  But we were also encouraged, when settling down to write our sermons to keep them simple, and relatively short – at least within our denominational guidelines (in most white mainstream churches that meant no more than 12 minutes, and preferably no more than ten) – and to focus in on just one, two, or at most three thoughts.

Which seems to go against the idea that we should not just build on one or a few verses.

Let alone (ahem) a verse with three words in it:  “Leave her alone.”

But that is my choice of text today. 

Now as you realize, this verse is not isolated from the rest of the story in John’s Gospel that we heard today.  In point of fact, it is Jesus’ response to a specific situation and a specific problem, because what Mary was doing had a specific purpose that was necessary to the events that followed – and, indeed, the whole Christian good news.

Jesus was to die on the cross, and for that to be accepted as a reality that must be faced, not just by Jesus but by his disciples, then the reality of preparing the body for burial also had to be accepted.

Which as we know, was not something the disciples felt to be right and proper for the Messiah, the Anointed of God.

Just this once, Jesus told them, the mission to the poor and the outcast is less important.  Something else is more important even than that.

When my aunt lay dying in the hospital from cancer, in the late 70s, no one told her she was dying.  The medical people talked about treatment options; the family talked about what they would do when she was better and able to come home.  My mom, her sister, was horrified by this – she thought Eve had the right to know what she was facing, but she did not interfere; she just railed and raged and grieved when she was with Dad and me.  It was so hard for her to have to hide the truth from her sister.

I later found out – in fact probably in the last year or so; I’m not sure exactly when – that my aunt had told her family she did not want to know if she were dying.

My mom was sure she would want to know; but her family had her own word that she did not.

Leave her alone.

Jesus is in a different place:  he wanted the disciples to know he was going to be killed, and they did not want to even think about it.

So when Mary came with her expensive spice from the Himalayas, that cost more than a laborer could make in a year; Judas went after her with all the venom he could command.

Mary and Martha and Lazarus were among the disciples; Mary was the one who sat at Jesus’ feet when Martha was fussed about getting dinner on the table; Lazarus was the one Jesus raised from the dead; and to treat Jesus as though he were dying was just too much for them all to take in.

And Judas, poor lost Judas, the betrayer, perhaps a thief, the one with dirty hands and a selfish bent, is the one who accuses her.

And Jesus said, “Leave her alone.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience, but sometimes I am distressed to realize that the thing I might least like about someone else is a thing I don’t much like about myself.  I think the psychological term for this is “projection.”

Judas saw Mary as wasting money; money he could steal, as it happens.  And in the end, he was the one who took money to betray Jesus; whom he may have thought in this moment at least that he was protecting from death – and after all, if Jesus died, who would be attracting alms for the poor?

It wasn’t about the poor, and it wasn’t about Jesus; it was about Judas.

Leave her alone.

When we criticize people we disagree with, we need to consider whether we are criticizing them for themselves, or because they disagree with us.

The people who rely on 6 or 7 verses in the whole of Scripture – all 32,000-plus verses of it - to criticize and condemn LGBTQ people … they are violating one of the first precepts of theological work: to not pick and choose verses that support a pre-existing idea.  Ironically, the only sensible response is to use one, much shorter verse:  “Leave them alone.”

No one ever said that all theology is logical.

They tell themselves they are trying to save such people from themselves; and that this is a kind of love.

I don’t know what Judas told himself about Mary using the nard to wash Jesus’ feet; he said it was to help the poor, even though John says he had a different motive. 

So I wonder, when we criticize and condemn others who disagree with us, what is our motive?  Is it to protect the poor, as Judas claimed (even though we know in his case it was a cover story), or is it to show we are right, or better, or to prove we are more in tune with God?

We’re going to say it anyway; I think that’s understandable; but let’s at least be honest about why.

Jesus spoke up in order to protect Mary.  What she was doing was necessary and right. 

I think it is frequently necessary and right to speak up against injustice, against oppression, and against hatred and bigotry.  Sometimes it is necessary to echo Jesus’ words here:  Leave them alone.

When an old man in a Florida public park is arrested for feeding the homeless: Leave him alone.  When Texans and Arizonans leave water out along desert trails for migrants:  Leave them alone.  Arrest the migrants if you must, but don’t be cruel about it: Leave the children alone.  When a student refuses to stand for the pledge of allegiance, leave him alone.

And when children walk out of school as a sign of protest against gun violence or the lack of action on tackling climate change: leave them alone.

Some conversations are hard to have; some views are hard to take, some choices are hard to live with, some challenges are hard to solve.  That’s not an excuse for castigating those who are willing to have the conversations, those who challenge the status quo, those who question the answers society has offered.  Leave them alone.

Or better yet, hear them.  Love them.  Honor them.  And join the conversation, ask the questions, challenge your own assumptions and desires; build a bridge, seek remedies that don’t depend on dehumanizing other human beings.

Even Judas, had he been willing to look within himself, might have made a different choice; I am sure Jesus would have been happy to see that.

There will always be those who can’t or won’t see what the mirror shows them.  Pity them.  Perhaps their misery will not be endless after all, if they know they are loved. 

Because I think that’s the root problem: too few of us know that we are loved.  And we are all loved – beyond measure, beyond life, beyond death – by the one holy God who created us all.