The Dinner Party
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 3 April 2022 [Lent 5]:
Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3: 4b-14; John 12:1-8
In this week’s NOW article, I mentioned that the Fifth Sunday of Lent (today) can stand as a kind of “dress rehearsal”, a “dry run” for the events of Holy Week and Easter. I mention this again because at this late point in the season of Lent, -- with one more week until Palm Sunday -- most of us are looking ahead – not just to Easter but to spring, to baseball’s opening day, and – perhaps more pressingly – to the palpable prospect of living our lives liberated from the restrictions of the pandemic. With all that vies for our attention, we can easily look past where we are today, which is the point of this sermon: Can we take the time to pay attention to this gospel story’s moment to remind us of what God has done in Jesus, because the events of Holy Week contain the essence of what it means to keep God at the center. So, let’s enter this “dress rehearsal”.
Rather matter of factly, the players in today’s gospel lesson gather on stage for what St. John tells us is a dinner party. Jesus’ dear friends (Lazarus, Mary, and Martha) have opened their Bethany village house to Jesus once again. Just two or so miles from the city of Jerusalem, their home was a “safe-house” for Jesus, a place where he retreated from the draining public exposure that his life and ministry had created to catch his breath and to receive the caring hospitality of dear friends – all the while still being within “shouting” distance of the Holy City. The timing of this dinner, John tells us, came six days before the Passover, which causes me to wonder about the motivation that lay behind the idea of the soiree in the first place. Is this a harbinger for what in a week’s time would happen at another dinner meal in a Jerusalem Upper Room?
Not only is the timing of the Bethany dinner telling; so is the guest list. I suspect that John’s recording of who was there for dinner is incomplete, but those he does name seem to be for the purpose of his story telling. Even if Jesus’ other disciples were present yet unnamed, St. John has an angle he wishes to convey in his telling. The individuals he does name seem to act as representatives of the kinds of responses that surround Jesus himself. They seem to embody all the swirling reaction to who Jesus is and what he has done, acting as a kind of summation of Jesus’ story – a way to help prepare us for the climactic events of the cross and resurrection.
So, let me focus on the guests who are named in the reading and identify their place in what I regard as a foreshadowing scene, a dress rehearsal for Holy Week itself.
First, there are the hosts: Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. We have previously met these three from earlier gospel encounters. The sisters (Mary and Martha) are linked by their devoted commitment to Jesus, but they are two different sides to one faithful coin. Martha is depicted as the female homemaker of the two, while Mary breaks the cultural norms and responds to Jesus as a male disciple would be expected to do. Tension consequently exists between the two sisters with Martha resenting being stuck in the kitchen by herself, while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet – with the boys, taking notes on his every
As with last Sunday’s gospel of the “Parable of the Prodigal Son”, we are wont to focus on which son or (in today’s case) which sister we are most like. Like a biblical Myers-Briggs Personality Test, are we the wasteful son or the stern eldest son? Are we the “unwoke” Martha or the “liberated” Mary? Or might we remember that the true focus of each story is God and the nature of life with God – whether expressed in the parable’s casting of the forgiving father or in today’s rendition of Jesus on the cusp of his great revelation?
Of course, by cultural law and custom, it is Lazarus’ house. Yet, aside from being identified as the owner of the house and the one whom Jesus brought back from death to life, he plays no other explicit role in the dinner party story. But the truth is, he need no other highlighting: He is the dress rehearsal for all that Jesus embodies. I always wonder what went on in Lazarus’ mind since he had died and was buried, when in the public view Jesus commanded him to “come out!” – “come out” from death back into life. Clearly standing (quite literally, standing from death) as a precursor to what would happen to Jesus, yet unlike Jesus, Lazarus was not resurrected. He was resuscitated unexplainably from four days in the grave. The point being: Lazarus would have to die a second time. How did that sit with him? To what extent did that remarkable, “miraculous” experience affect his living? Moreover, Lazarus’ cameo appearance at Jesus’ dinner (a party Lazarus was sponsoring) – how does his experience of being the beneficiary of Jesus calling him from death to life influence the time Lazarus had remaining before he died a second and presumably final time? As he gazed at his guests, what were his thoughts?
My point is that Lazarus is where you and I are right now. In Jesus, we face our death, all the while considering his call to us to move beyond death into new life. How does this shape the way we live now?
Then there is the third act between the sisters: Martha and Mary, picking up where they left off in the first story, squabbling over their roles. While her sister, Martha, once again cooked the meal, Mary once again gains the story’s focus by spontaneously (and some would say, impetuously) entering the dining area to pour a pound of expensive burial ointment on Jesus’ feet. This is a scandalous action. Not only did she interrupt the men’s’ dinner party; her unexpected actions were scandalously outrageous. In her wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair, she shocks everyone with unabashed wantonness. A wife in that culture would hardly do such a thing in front of guests and in public, not to mention an unmarried woman.
But the beyond the “National Enquirer” scandal sheet, Mary’s actions reflect what other women will do after Jesus is crucified and buried. They generously and courageously came to the tomb to anoint his abused, dead body, providing what little dignity they could to the One they followed. It seems quite reasonable that the nard was available to Mary as a left-over from what she and Martha planned to do for their dead brother, Lazarus; but Jesus made that burial action unnecessary. So, in recognition of his impending death – something Mary evidently knew and accepted, she honored Jesus with a deeply personal and risky “goodbye”.
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Were you there? Do you and I show?
The last character to emerge in this dinner party scene is the notorious figure of Judas. In 49 years of formal preaching, I have never preached about Judas beyond the usual indictments; and I am pretty much in line with 2,000 years of Christian tradition. For Judas is the epitome of someone who has been cast out into the realms of outer darkness, to the extent that his very humanness is easily and conveniently dismissed. And I wonder what this says about him and about us. At the very mention of his name, we consign Judas to such an extreme distance that I wonder what the actual reason is for our behavior. Is this what psychology calls a “reaction formation”? Is our expulsion of Judas from the human community some sort of scapegoating on our part? Is his life’s example just too close to our bone? I think so.
Even in this short gospel excerpt where St. John characterizes Judas in condemning, editorial tones – specifically to make sure that we know that Judas doesn’t give a wit about the poor and that he was a thief, stealing from the “Disciples Discretionary Fund” for himself. Yet, is that all there is to Judas and to his example? If so, then why did Jesus keep him around?
I suspect that even raising these questions causes some to wonder if I am trying to exonerate Judas from his profound betrayal of Jesus. I am not. Quite the contrary, I am trying to take what we know of his life and his actions seriously – serious enough to see ourselves in him. So, here is my imaginative speculation about Judas.
I have a sneaky suspicion that among all the disciples Jesus chose to be his cabinet body, Judas may have been the one who took Jesus most seriously in a practical, worldly sense. For instance, the “Beloved Disciple” had a deep spiritual and emotional connection with Jesus. Peter acted like the irrepressible (and sometimes thick-headed) protective brother. In following Jesus, the Zebedee boys got to blow off their childish drives in more responsible ways; but Judas might have been the one who saw the most real and practical possibilities in Jesus. As a result, the things that Jesus said and did got Judas’ motor running – albeit (as it turns out), for mistaken and wrong reasons, which is precisely why I must take Judas more seriously than the general tradition of the church seems to do.
In my imaginative speculation, I see Judas with a plan to run Jesus for “President”. (I am using that term figuratively, of course.). I have a hunch that Judas saw such special leadership qualities in Jesus that Judas functioned as Jesus’ campaign manager. He wanted Jesus to succeed in bringing about the new Israel. He saw how coalescing Jesus’ message and program was and (with the right tending) could be: lower taxes by kicking out the blood-sucking Roman oppressors; a much-needed program of “building back better”, starting with the Temple’s reconstruction and reformation; and most compelling of all, the political and social establishment of “justice for all”. What a platform! What a candidate! And Judas was compelled to make it happen.
What Judas didn’t get is that Jesus was not about political deliverance or social revolution. Jesus’ focus was on something much bigger, much grander, and much more inclusively lasting. Jesus was about proclaiming the presence of life on God’s terms, liberating all God’s people from fear’s puny vision to the reality of the ”Beloved Community”, where no one was left out – not even as result of death. Jesus proclaimed this as an enlargement and a fulfilling of Israel’s heritage, saying that the promised time was now: God was on the move to complete what heretofore had only been hoped for. And Jesus not only proclaimed this message; he demonstrated it in his life and with his life.
Yes, as in any campaign, there were rough moments, especially when candidate Jesus got off script and started riffing on the kingdom of God and, as a result, confusing and even offending the base. But all in all, Judas saw progress, especially as they neared Jerusalem, which is where and when Judas’ campaign strategy began to unravel; and he got desperate.
In Juda’s view, Jesus dangerously and unnecessarily continued to go off script, talking more and more about his impending death at the hands of his enemies. His sagging poll numbers reflected the supporters’ concern over a winning candidate being killed – willingly given over for … what? ... the sins of the world!? “Come on!” It got to the point where Judas himself became so anxious about reigning Jesus in, to force him back on track to be elected and reach the goal, Judas did the unthinkable.
So it was that when push came to shove, for Jesus’ own good and the good of the cause, Judas would trigger a situation that would force Jesus into action, show his real cards, get back to the program and plan. Judas arranged for Jesus’ enemies to act. What looked for all the world as a betrayal was in Judas’ mind a point of no return. Captured and held by his fiercest opponents, Judas hoped -- he believed – that at that tense moment Jesus would take over, exercising his true and unassailable power and storm the citadels of establishment control once and for all. He would lead the great insurrection against the establishment; and nothing would ever be the same.
But as we know, Judas’ plan was not Jesus’ plan, not God’s plan. Crushed at his failure and agonized over his loss, Judas entered the darkness of despair and separation. There was nothing else he could imagine.
How many times have you and I betrayed Jesus, thinking that we were on his side, helping him? How many times have we lacked trust in God as God and in desperate substitution facilitated our own “Plan B” because we didn’t like God’s “Plan A”? “Thy will be done on earth as in heaven…”. How many times have we settled for saying those words but failed to live into them? Despite our best efforts, perhaps Judas is not as far away from us as we’d like to think.
It was supposed to be a nice dinner party for Jesus. Like any dinner party, the hosts wanted everything to be just right; the guests intended to use their best manners. But they should have remembered that in Jesus’ presence, things rarely are just what they seem to be. Jesus had the unsettling habit of uncovering people’s lives and acting like the life-giving host he is, providing each of the characters in his life with what they need but cannot manage for themselves.
So now, knowing our lines and our places on the stage, come to the dinner party next week, and make sure you plan to stay for dessert and coffee. Amen.