5th Sunday in Lent
Texts: John 12:1-8;
Isa 43:16-21; Phil 3:4b-14
THINGS ARE NOT WHAT THEY APPEAR TO BE
Things are not what they appear to be in this morning’s gospel lesson. First of all, Judas appears to be right. Jesus had been in ministry for three years, and everyone knew him to be on the side of the poor. But Mary comes in with that expensive bottle of perfume and washes Jesus’ feet with it, drying them and her hair. It’s a bit like having Mother Theresa over for dinner — someone who is also known for working with the poor — and then serving her the most expensive caviar, and using expensive china and silverware to boot. Judas was probably only saying what everyone else was thinking: ‘How embarrassing! How out of place for Mary to do that for Jesus!’ Judas is right to say what he said. Or at least he appears to be.
It reminds me of Val Tollefsen in one of my favorite episode’s from Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion radio show. Pastor Enquist of Lake Woebegone Lutheran Church is on the eve of heading on a wonderful and rare trip with his wife, from the frozen tundra of Minnesota in January to the tropical setting of Orlando, Florida. They are going for a rural pastor’s continuing education event, but it is also a trip of a lifetime. Pastor Enquist has worked very hard for many years for the people of Lake Woebegone Lutheran Church, and he’s never had a trip like this to spend with his wife. They are all set to leave the next morning, the morning after the monthly council meeting, when long-time council person Val Tollefsen speaks up. He notes that it is really a shame, the pictures they have been seeing of all those poor children suffering in the drought in Africa. He wonders if there isn’t something they could do for them. Maybe they could find some extra money somewhere to send them . . . some deadweight somewhere in the budget . . . maybe travel or something like that. Silence.
After a long pause, Pastor Enquist finally says, “Well, the Mrs. and I could always give up our trip to Orlando.” Again, there’s a long pause — Pastor Enquist hoping and praying that someone will jump in immediately and say, “Oh no, Pastor Enquist, you and your wife deserve that trip! You have worked so hard for us through all these years. You’ve been there for us whenever we’ve needed you. No, you deserve this trip.” But, instead, after a long pause, Val Tollefsen simply says, “O.K., Pastor, if that’s the way ya feel about it.” And that’s how Pastor Enquist lost his trip to Orlando for he and “the Mrs.”
On the surface, Val Tollefsen appears to be right. That money would better be spent giving it to the poor, right? But under the surface, those of us who know the wonderful characters of Garrison Keillor’s imagination, we know that Val Tollefsen has always been a nemesis of Pastor Enquist. He’s probably been a nemesis for every pastor. He’s the kind of person that lives with a lot of resentment and so tends to make life difficult for others. No, Val Tollefsen didn’t really speak up out of feelings of great charity. Things are not what they appear to be on the surface.
Likewise, Judas. What he says seems right enough. But it’s important here that St. John fills us in on the background. He makes sure that we know Judas’ heart, too, that things aren’t what they appear to be on the surface. And there’s something going on at an even deeper level, isn’t there? Because Jesus’ response to Judas is absolutely off the wall. First on the list of expected responses, might have been something more like Pastor Enquist’s capitulation, ‘Yea, Mary, you’d better save the rest of that and do like Judas says.’ What Jesus does say is what I’m sure no one else in the room expected to hear, not even Mary. It’s not that he defended Mary’s actions. It’s the reason that Jesus gives for defending them: “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” Even Mary’s ears must have perked up at that point: ‘I bought it for what?! For your burial?!’ No, things aren’t what they appear to be in this story. For Jesus knows something. Jesus knows something that no one else in the room knows. Jesus knows that he himself is about to give much more than three hundred denarii. He is about to give himself. Things are definitely not what they appear to be.
In recent years, many biblical scholars have scoffed at the idea that Jesus knew such things, that he made such predictions about his death. But as we come to the last Sunday in Lent, with Holy Week around the corner, I think it is important to challenge that modern idea. I’d like to lift up a time in our more recent history that things weren’t quite what they appeared to be. In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. had already accomplished many things in his long battle for civil rights. Together with so many others, they had already accomplished much, but he knew there was still a long ways to go. The poor and downtrodden of this world weren’t going to go away tomorrow. There was still a long ways to go.
And, quite frankly, he was tired. On Saturday night, April 3, 1968, he had arrived in Memphis, TN, for another big showdown, to fight for the rights of sanitation workers on strike in that city. He was not only tired; he was also feeling under the weather. So, at first, he decided to stay in the motel that night from the planned rally at Mason Temple, Church of God in Christ. He began listening to rally speaker Ralph Abernathy on the radio. But as he listened to the overflow crowd that had come out on a night despite severe storm warnings, he changed his mind and moved over to the Temple.
When he finally took his turn, to the great delight of the crowd, and with thunder and lightning crashing in the background, he gave a rousing speech about the importance of their work in God’s plan, and that he was thankful to be a part of this 20th century work of God’s liberating power. “And I see,” he said, “God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today…, the cry is always the same — ‘We want to be free.’” And then Dr. King went on with what they needed to do there in Memphis.
But there was a different tone in his voice, a somewhat different look in his eyes, if you’ve seen the tapes of this speech. We probably only notice these things watching in retrospect, knowing what happened. Looking back, we can better see that things weren’t quite what they appeared to be — not just another civil rights rally. Because after beginning his speech about being glad he had been part of this time in history, he ended it with a foreshadowing of his death:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. . . . And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
The next morning, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot to death by James Earl Ray. Did he know?
Did Jesus know he was going to die? More surely than Martin Luther King, Jr. And it’s because Jesus knew something else. He knew the truth about us. He knew that things aren’t what they appear to be with us. He knew that our problems with sin run deeper than it appears on the surface. He knew that for Val Tollefsen and the rest of us, that we live with resentment toward others in ways that need a regular venting off somewhere. And he knew that that process of venting off is represented in practices of bloody sacrifice, and that he himself would become a Lamb offered to us by God. He knew what Caiaphas the high priest had said only a few verses earlier in John’s Gospel: “It is better for one person to die than the whole nation.” In other words, instead of our resentments boiling over into a bloodbath, it’s better to let it out on one person. That’s what the old form of blood sacrifice is all about.
But things aren’t what they appear to be with us, and Jesus knew that the logic of sacrifice runs even deeper than those occasional events of venting resentment, important as they are. Jesus knew that the logic of sacrifice had woven its way into the very fabric of our societies. We operate, for example, as if the poor will always be with us. In fact, we count on it. We believe falsely that there isn’t enough to go around, so that somebody will always be left out. I say falsely because we know today, for example, that the Great Plains of Val Tollefsen produce enough grain themselves to feed the whole world. But we persist in a politics of leaving someone out. No, the problem runs much deeper than whether Pastor Enquist gives up his trip to Orlando so that a few more dollars can be given to the poor. It begins with each of us having a conversion to trust in the God of Jesus, a God who provides an abundance even when there’s only apparently five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand.
And Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in that same God of Jesus. He was a disciple. And that’s how he could believe in someday seeing the promised land, even though he could very well see the sacrificial darkness of present things, things like systemic racism and poverty. He knew that that darkness was no longer what it appeared to be, either, because he had also come to know the grace of Jesus Christ, the beginning of a new creation. Things are not what they appear to be. There is light shining in the darkness. We can see abundance where we used to see scarcity. There is the grace and forgiveness to work on dismantling the old sacrificial structures — the structures of racism and poverty which leave people out — in favor of new structures built on self-sacrificial practices of inviting everyone in. Even now, we come to partake in the very first of those self-sacrificial structures, the institution of the Lord’s Supper, a Holy Communion, a new way to organize ourselves as human beings. Come to the table of mercy, where things no longer have to be as they appear. Come to the table of a new reality, a new creation begun in Jesus Christ. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Faith Lutheran, Saginaw, MI
March 12-13, 2016