The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
Sermon: Things aren’t what they appear to be in this morning’s Gospel lesson. First: Judas appears to be right. Jesus has been in ministry for three years, and everyone knows he’s on the side of the poor. When Mary came in with that expensive bottle of perfume and washed Jesus’ feet with it and her hair, it was like having Mother Theresa of Calcutta over for dinner and serving her expensive caviar on your best China and silverware. Judas probably said what everyone else was thinking: ‘How embarrassing! How inappropriate.” Judas is right, or at least he appears to be.
It reminds me of one of my favorite episode’s from Garrison Keilor’s “Prairie Home Companion.” It’s midwinter and Pastor Enquist of Lake Woebegone Lutheran Church in the frozen, northern tundra of Minnesota is heading south with his wife on a wonderful trip to the tropical setting of Orlando, Florida. They’re going for a continuing education event, but it’s also the trip of a lifetime. Pastor Enquist has worked very hard for many years for the people of Lake Woebegone Lutheran Church, and he and his wife have never had a trip like this.
They’re all set to leave the next morning after the monthly Church Council meeting. But long-time council member Val Tollefsen speaks up. He notes that it’s really a shame, the pictures they’ve been seeing of all those poor, African children suffering in the drought. He wonders if there isn’t something they could do for them. Maybe they could find some extra money to send them, some deadweight somewhere in the budget, maybe travel or something like that. Silence.
After a long pause, Pastor Enquist says, “Well, the Mrs. and I could give up our trip to Orlando.” Again, there’s a long pause, with 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’ve 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 himself and “the Mrs.” I wonder how long their marriage lasted after that. Haha
On the surface, Val Tollefsen appears to be right. Maybe that money would be better spent helping the poor. But underneath the surface, those of us who know the wonderful characters of Garrison Keilor’s imagination, 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 who’s full of resentment and so tends to make life difficult for others. No. Val Tollefsen didn’t really care for the poor that much. Things aren’t what they appear to be.
Likewise, what Judas says seems right enough. But St. John makes sure that we know his heart, too. “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.)”
And there’s something going on at an even deeper level, too. Jesus’ response to Judas was a surprise. They were probably expecting something more like Pastor Enquist’s capitulation, “Yea, Mary, you’d better save the rest of that and do like Judas says.” But instead, he says, “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” Now that was unexpected. Rather than defend Mary’s actions, he talks about his death. 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 that no one else in the room knows. Jesus knows that he’s about to give much more than three hundred denarii. He’s about to give his life for his friends. 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 I think those scholars are wrong. Jesus 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 of Lake Woebegone and for the rest of us, we live with resentment toward others in ways that need regular venting off somewhere. And he knew that the way we vent off that resentment is through sacrifice, and that he himself would become a Lamb offered to us by God. Yes. You heard me correctly. Jesus himself was a lamb offering to us by God, not the other way round. Only a few verses before our Gospel lesson for today, High Priest Caiaphas had said, “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 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 the occasional venting, 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, I might add, that there just 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’s Lake Woebegone country, alone, produce enough grain to feed the whole world. But we persist in a politics of leaving someone out, of sacrificing someone. No, the problem runs much deeper than whether Pastor Enquist gives up his trip to Orlando or not. It begins with each of us having a conversion to trust in the God of Jesus, a God who provides even when there seems to be only five loaves and two fish.
But, just when we finally see deeper into the darkness and recognize it, we also see the light and life of Jesus Christ. Things are not what they appear to be. First, we can’t even notice the darkness in which we normally sit. Then, as we begin to see the darkness, we also come to see the light which shines in the darkness and will not be overcome by it, can’t even comprehend it.
Next week is Holy Week and we’ll again enter into the darkness of our Lord’s Passion, only to come out on the other side with the bright light of Easter. May we be disciples like Mary, faithful in our worship of the one who came to give us light and life. Amen?!
Sources: NRSV Bible
Sermon by Pr. Paul J. Nuechterlein