Sermon, April 7, 2019
Excuse Me Did You Know Him – “A Pennies Worth of Thanks”
I hope you are enjoying the people we have met on the road to Jerusalem. This Sunday we meet a woman who by all appearances had only life and bread for which to be thankful. The old woman or any woman, often, isn’t given a name which is common in scripture. So, let’s name her Matilda.
The ravages of time and widowhood had taken their toll on her appearance. Her home was small, the law of the Hebrew scriptures was that families ought to care for their widows, so a cousin allowed her live in this abandoned home. She gathered flowers to sell and gleaned the fields for grain to make porridge and bread. Another cousin arrived at her door with a gift of cheese and meat and other foods for the Rabbi said they ought to make sure their widows had food for the Passover. Matilda was thankful for the kindness of her relatives. To we rich North Americans these gifts seem minute as compared to her need in life. Matilda, however, was thankful for the wild flowers she picked to sell on the hillside. She was thankful for her life and breath. She thanked God when she watched children playing. She thanked God for the beauty of the day and she even thanked God for the tattered basket she carried to put her flowers into. She sold the flowers for a half penny a bunch or a penny for three bunches. Now she could buy rice and bread. Now she would have an offering for the temple service. Now she didn’t have to pretend to place an offering. The morning found her up and present at the temple, standing with the others who had something to offer at the service. As the rabbi began to read the scripture and the men began to sing the psalm, she placed her two half-penny coins on the plate, all that she had. A pennies’ worth of thanks doesn’t seem like much by the standards of the rich people present.
As she looked up, she saw the new Rabbi standing with a group of his disciples.
She liked him even though her family saw him as a trouble-maker. He was too something and they would probably get rid of him. She smiled at him. Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury: for they put in out of their surplus, but she put in out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.” A pennies worth of thanks.
Another story of thankfulness is situated with Jesus at Bethany, we are still on the road to Jerusalem, just further along; Jesus is at a banquet in the company of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. This anointing at Bethany, the home of Lazarus, isn’t just a nice little story in the middle of John’s Gospel. It’s set at the turning point of that Gospel, literally and figuratively. Jesus has turned his face toward Jerusalem instead of remaining a popular but mysterious and elusive troublemaker in the outlands, out of the reach of the religious authorities and the Roman Empire. His raising of Lazarus from the dead, just a few verses before this passage, in chapter 11, has set into motion the wheels of the machinery that will kill him in just a few more days. The high priest and the Pharisees hear the reports – from eyewitnesses – that this Jesus has really outdone himself this time, not “just” curing a leper or driving out a demon but bringing back to life a man who had been in the tomb four long days. When the word spreads that Jesus has brought his friend Lazarus back from the dead – such a sign, such a promise of what was to come – the religious leaders panic.
We’ve got to put a stop to this, they say, people will believe in him, and that will provoke the powers that be, the Romans, to come in and destroy our holy place and our nation. “So,” the text says, “from that day on they planned to put him to death.”
Right in the midst of all of this anxiety, plotting, and threat, or perhaps in spite of it, Jesus’ friends, Martha the earnest, hard-working hostess and her brother Lazarus, fresh from the tomb, and her sister Mary, the passionate one, throw a dinner party. That’s right. It’s time to have a party, they say. And who can blame them? Lazarus wasn’t just sort-of dead or metaphorically dead, like the Prodigal Son last week – “This son of mine was dead and come back to life” – he was dead-dead. Dead long enough to cause a stench, Martha worried, remember? Long enough to bring the whole family and the town and his good friend Jesus together in grief, but not long enough to deter Jesus and the power of life and love, even if the consequences of all this is Jesus’ own death.
This beautiful story of extravagant love, Mary’s anointing of Jesus with expensive perfume, is set just on the edge of Jerusalem…Jerusalem, soon to be the site of an offering of love, the most extravagant offering of all. So, the family of Lazarus gathers to honor and to try to thank Jesus, and to celebrate the restoration of their loved one. Still, at this party, death itself lingers in the air around them, even here, at a party with friends, in a home that should feel safe, a refuge from controversy and questioning. Lazarus sits and talks with his friend, Jesus, who will soon be laid in a tomb himself. Can you imagine the conversation between them, one so lately returned from the tomb and the other on his way?
Mary’s anoints Jesus’ feet with costly ointment. In turn, Judas objects. The story hits on Judas’ hypocritical dishonesty and Jesus has the last word. Jesus’ words take the focus off Mary’s extravagance, and onto Judas’ malodorous character. Jesus’ declaration that the poor will always be with us is so true. This declaration exposes the hypocrisy of Judas’ objection and points to the cross and resurrection. The difficult reference to the poor surely means that if we are truly grateful to God like Matilda, for the joy we find in our relationship with God then we have a relation with the poor, a clear opportunity to express our own gratitude. Perhaps even like Mary did, that is with extravagance; thus, we are called to take seriously again the real needs of others. A penny worth of thanks from all that we have.