Last week the Church Pension Group made a presentation here at CDSP. The Church Pension Group, as you probably know, provides financial securities for employees of the Episcopal Church. It is considered a great success. They are one of the most solvent pension funds in the country and our national Social Security system is modeled on them, as the presenter made sure to remind us. They offered an evening full of solid financial advice. Pay yourself first. Make sure you have good contracts and records. Track credit scores. Invest in your future. Smart, reasonable advice. Of course, Judas’ advice was reasonable as well.
I mention this because, what do we do when there is no time for the power of compound interest to save us? When there are no more tomorrows, when it is time to say goodbye, investing in the future makes little sense. And that’s what I’d like to talk about today: when time becomes short, we stop asking, “How much does this cost?”, and start asking, “What will I miss if I don’t do this right now?” Goodbyes insist on extravagance.
But before I continue, would you please join me in prayer? May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing in your sight O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Does anyone remember the tv show, “Blue’s Clues”? “Blue’s Clues” was a children’s show from about 20 years ago. It had two main characters, an animated dog, “Blue”, and her human companion, Steve. Steve was played for a number of years by Steve Burns and he liked to make charity appearances while he was a member of the cast. One of his favorite causes was the Make a Wish Foundation, where he would show up as a surprise guest at an event for a child with a life-threatening illness. Steve says that all of these appearances had one thing in common: as soon as he arrived, no matter how terrible the situation, both the children and their families, worked desperately hard to take this chance and make each other happy.
When I look at the Gospel reading for today, I see Martha, Mary, and Lazarus doing everything they can to make Jesus happy. The Gospel has been very clear in the last few chapters that many people are looking to do Jesus harm. Just before our reading, John says that Jesus could no longer walk around openly because it was too dangerous and that it was common knowledge that the chief priests and the Pharisees wanted him arrested. In that world, at that time, this was as certain a sentence of death as any
diagnosis of terminal illness.
Martha, Mary, Lazarus, and Jesus are close, more than just disciples and teacher. They are the first people John describes in his Gospel as loved by Jesus. In the shortest verse of the Bible, Jesus weeps after Martha and Mary rush to him following his arrival after their brother’s death. And, of course, Jesus, greatly disturbed, greatly upset, performs a miracle for this family, bringing Lazarus back to life.
Now, in these last moments, understanding what little time is left to them, each in their own way, expresses their indulgent love for Jesus. Living just a scant two miles from Jerusalem, and with the inevitable confrontation with the authorities just days away, they host a dinner for this dearest friend. Martha: exerting a powerful influence through her kitchen. I think of my own grandmother, who made her presence known at family gatherings from the kitchen with her singing, beautiful table arrangements, and little treats with individual guests in mind. Lazarus: literally returned for the dead. He is all smiles at the table, joining in the eating, storytelling, and joking. And Mary: unable to restrain herself, pouring out on Jesus an oil which costs as much as a worker would make in a year. Then, in a culture which demanded modesty from women, she uncovers her hair, unwinds her braid, and wipes his feet with it. It is easy to imagine this cleaning as a mixture of equal parts expensive perfume and precious tears.
A few years ago a teenage boy at church contracted cancer. At first, the doctors gave him a 90% chance to recover. But as the months flew by, his odds slipped lower and lower, until one day, almost 9 months after that initial diagnosis, his doctors recommended him to the Make a Wish Foundation. Just a few weeks later the whole family was on a plane, headed for Disney World. The pictures I saw from that trip are still with me. In each of them some family member poses with this slim, ghost of a young man while they all, frantically, feverishly smile for the camera and each other. When they returned home he quickly became bed ridden. And as he grew ever weaker they crawled right into bed with him, wrapping their arms and legs around him like a blanket. Taking turns soaking up the intimacy of touch.
When I think about this story of Martha, Mary, Lazarus, and Jesus I see an invitation on how to experience this coming week. No clever combination of securities will slow the inevitable, exhausting arrival of death. The Last Supper, the Foot Washing, the Night in the Garden, the Arrest, the Betrayal by Peter, the Stations of the Cross, and the Crucifixion are coming. Embrace them. Let down your hair and be fully present to them. Crawl into bed with them. Cry a little. Pour yourself out until your world is filled with the fragrance of this extravagant goodbye.
In the name of the One who comes not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.