Monday, March 22, 2010

A Party in the Midst of Danger

John 11:45, 53-57 and 12:1-9
Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. So from that day on they plotted to take his life.Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the Jews. Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples. When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple courts they asked one another, "What do you think? Isn't he coming to the Festival at all?" But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him.

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (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). Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.

Today's scripture passage from the Gospel of John is a sort of theological sandwich. One story provides the filling for the two pieces of "bread."Just before the dinner-and-anointing passage, we read that the authorities plot to kill Jesus. And afterwards we read of a plot to kill Lazarus.

There is danger on every side now. We begin to sense the gathering clouds of darkness, of intrigue, of sorrow. Jesus "no longer walked openly" but retreated to an out-of-the-way place with his closest followers. Danger lurks there as well, as we see in the parenthetical comments about Judas Iscariot.

Right in the middle of the gathering storm, amidst plotting and imminent betrayal, Mary, Martha and Lazarus invite Jesus and his disciples to a dinner party--a party of celebration for the return of Lazarus from the grave (read about that in John 11).

How could anyone consider a celebration in the midst of all that danger? Maybe it is simple denial. Maybe they just don't understand or are fooling themselves, trying to pretend all is well.

No, it is not denial that allows the celebrating. Jesus has spoken clearly about what is ahead, even talking about his burial. He says that Mary understands that he is about to die. Jesus is not in denial about the danger. He just doesn't fear it.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear... (1 John 4:16b-18a)
In a sermon preached at Duke Divinity School chapel some years ago, homiletics professor Richard Lischer told a story which I have excerpted below.

Our friend had already endured chemotherapy and through it all had somehow managed to complete a doctoral dissertation. To celebrate, she and her husband rented a VFW hall, hired a band, and threw one of the biggest parties I've ever seen--for the whole church and half the community. Two days before graduation, her doctors confirmed that the cancer was back. The experimental treatments would begin the day after graduation. Only a few of us knew it, and my guess is that [if this were happening to us] we would have chosen to limp through the ceremony and cancel the party.

But she had the party. And I tell you, I have never heard the gospel of God's Yes preached more powerfully than I saw it danced on the floor of the VFW. An outsider would have seen only the vintage 1960s, arthritic gyrations that we were all doing, but this was a woman of faith and she danced her Yes in the grip of the No. And that's the way we do it. The best celebrating is done in the face of the enemy, the best dancing on the devil's dance floor.

You can't always separate the Yes from the No but at least one person has done it definitively. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we trust that there is this distinction, and that it holds true for us.

What a phrase, "dancing on the devil's dance floor!" A party to celebrate God's love and power, right in the middle of approaching pain and sorrow--what a statement from Rev. Lischer's friend. In a sense, she was doing what Jesus did at the party in Bethany. Can we do this? In the midst of things we cannot understand, facing the NO, can we say with God, YES? Can we rejoice in the mercy, grace and love that is ours and comes from God?

God, help us to refuse the way of fear. Help us to choose to "dance" in the face of difficulty, to affirm the way of love and to move with confidence as we hold fast to our faith in you. Amen

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