To Gaze Upon the Beauty of God

Pastor Ingrid’s sermon from March 13, 2016.

The gospel according to John, the twelfth chapter:

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

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Today we head to Bethany, a first-ring suburb of Jerusalem. You know, like Richfield. We’re in the rambler of Jesus’ most beloved friends—Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. We know these siblings and their strengths quite well. Martha is good at organizing and keeping food on the table. Lazarus, by no fault of his own, is good at being in crisis. And Mary is good at sitting around and being spiritual—just like any self-respecting youngest child. [It takes one to know one.]

Just days before, Jesus had raised the very dead Lazarus back to life, the story goes. He was dead; then he wasn’t. Lazarus came out of the tomb bruised and bleary-eyed. One theologian says his “tomb clothes trailed behind him like a used cocoon.” [I love that.] No doubt, his two adoring sisters, who, upon seeing that he was upright and breathing on this own, marched him straight from the cemetery to the bathtub. After all, it had already been four days.

After raising Lazarus, Jesus goes away for a few days on a work trip. Then he returns to his besties’ house with people coming after him—people who didn’t like that he was calling out privilege where he saw it; people who didn’t like that he was so undiscerning about who he healed and where he ate; people who were ticked that he didn’t associate poverty with moral failings. He was being criticized from all sides. There was a lot of ugliness going around, so Jesus returns to Bethany—that quiet suburb—where there were fewer planes flying overhead, so to speak.

Martha prepared comfort food. Lazarus was drowsy, but squeaky clean. Jesus was simply glad to have his phone turned off for a few hours. The chosen disciples were glad that Jesus wasn’t planning on getting them into any more trouble—at least until tomorrow. This scene is a lot like a Thanksgiving table—seated around it are love and devotion, hopes and expectations, memories of death and memories of life. I’m sure there were some mild resentments occupying a chair or two, as well. As the evening wore on, Mary pulled out the pure bottle of perfume that she’d been saving. She breaks every custom when she kneels near to Jesus, and she really messes up when she touches his feet. I think she’s knows exactly what she’s doing. The texts suggests she’s been waiting a long time for this.

In the wake of International Women’s Day this past Tuesday, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that, without much warning, Judas steals the show. We’re drawn to Judas in this story for the same reason that news outlets cover some candidates more than others—he has the loudest voice and says the most divisive things. Despite all of the gospel writer’s warnings that Judas is up to no good, we turn our attention to him. In some ways, I think we’re secretly thankful for Judas’ triumphal entry into the story. Why? Because what Mary is doing but is almost too painful to watch–it’s almost too loving.

In the Pulizer Prize-winning play called Wit, we encounter Vivian Bearing—a successful and single-minded academic who has been diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. Vivian’s life has been devoted to researching the poetry of John Donne. She is confined to a hospital bed. Her aggressive treatment is unsuccessful. Visitors are few; community hadn’t really been her thing. Apart from a nurse, whose compassion spills all over the stage, we cannot ignore the fact that Vivian is dying alone.

Vivian’s college poetry teacher—an elderly woman by that time—comes to see her at the very end of the story. She enters the room of her star student—the student who, at one time, could do it all and now could do nothing for herself. The audience watches as the teacher gently crawls into Vivian’s hospital bed beside her. The moment is moving, not only because all the teacher has to read to Vivian is Runaway Bunny, the children’s book she kept in her purse for her grandson, but also because in that moment she loves Vivian for who she is. The professor’s compassion is painfully full. It bears no moral judgment. The audience watches as this loving act ushers Vivian into death.[i]

Mary’s intimate exchange with Jesus is like the teacher who holds her lonely student and reads to her as death draws near. It’s like the father who takes off running down the gravel road to meet his son who has been lost for years. It’s like the mama hen that always has room to stuff one more chick under her wing. These are moments that are so deeply loving that they make us look away, they make us feel like we ought not watch them.

The late John O’Donohue, an Irish poet and philosopher, loved Pascal’s phrase that one should always “keep something beautiful in your mind.” In times that have been particularly difficult for him, he says that keeping some kind of little picture that he could glimpse sideways at now and again allowed him to endure great bleakness. “Humans who do great things in the face of barbarity,” O’Donohue says, “are able to sustain [their work], because there is in them some kind of sense of beauty that knows the horizon that we are really called to in some way.”[ii]

While Judas cannot bear to look upon the loving exchange, I like to imagine that it’s Lazarus, who never averts his eyes from what is happening in front of him. He’s known suffering, struggle, and loss. All of these experiences have filled him with things like compassion, gentleness, and deep loving concern.[iii] He recognizes beauty when he sees it. He doesn’t need to look away. He’s tucking this gesture—this image—away for a rainy day, which will come sooner than any of them hopes.

Before he died, O’Donohue bodly claimed that beauty is a human calling and a defining aspect of God. He was quick to add that beauty isn’t glamor, and it’s not just nice loveliness. I think he would have said that the perfume, worth a year’s wages, was actually not essential to this story. No, “beauty is an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth,” O’Donohue said. It’s a kind of homecoming. It’s not a luxury. It can emerge in the roughest of places, in the worst situations.

It can also emerge at a suburban dinner table.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


 

[i] A friend pointed me toward this marvelous play. For more information about Wit, see: http://feministspectator.princeton.edu/2012/03/11/wit-3/

[ii] These O’Donohue pieces are from an interview he did, shortly before he died, with Krista Tippett’s program On Being. For the full transcript, see: http://www.onbeing.org/program/inner-landscape-beauty/transcript/1125

[iii] Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said something like this, concluding that “beautiful people don’t just happen.”

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