April 3: Good Enough – We Are fragile

Scripture Reading (CEB) John 12: 1-8

Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.) Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”

Good Enough – We are Fragile  

Last week’s recap:  The story of the Prodigal Son reminds us that no matter what we’ve done, God’s arms of compassion and forgiveness are wide open – offering Amazing Grace and not amazing fairness – as we all receive more love than we deserve.  But unconditional love does not necessarily mean unconditional acceptance of bad behaviour.  I can imagine the disconnect the younger son felt not long after that embrace.  Sometime after the party, the son awoke to how his relationship with his family had changed. 

And in the slap heard ‘round, that disconnect is often jarring.  (For those blissfully unaware) At the Oscars ceremony last week, actor Will Smith confronted comedian Chris Rock, after a joke was made at the expense of Will’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.  I’m not going to get in the rights and wrongs of that moment since everyone else is choosing sides, but there was an interesting disconnect 20 minutes later after that act of physical violence when Smith won for best actor, and cried through his speech about how he’s called on to love people…that he wants to be a vessel for care and concern.[1]  People struggled connecting one event to the other.  Just like Judas at this dinner with Jesus.

Sometime during a dinner, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume, raising Judas’ anger and disappointment. 

The dinner, in the home of Lazarus – the brother of Mary and Martha – happens just after the raising of Lazarus and was likely a celebration of the restoration of life, not unlike the Prodigal Son’s return and our own anticipation of Easter. In this anointing, Jesus stays on theme and speaks of his own death – and the fragility of life.  This powerful story was so memorable that all four Gospels to highlight it, even though different players feature each time.  In no other retelling is the woman named, other than the Gospel of John.  No other time is Judas named.  It is always a woman anointing Jesus’ feet, and there is always someone upset, be it the Pharisees, or the disciples. 

But here in the Gospel of John, there’s an intimacy to it.  We know Mary and Judas, and we can imagine Martha serving, and Lazarus savouring each morsel of food after his brush with death.  If this is the way the story happened, Jesus would have felt safe here.  He would have let his guard down and experienced the vulnerability of letting someone care for him when he was so used to taking care of others.  It’s humbling to allow that to happen.  Accepting help often is.  Though it’s complicated in this retelling, for rather than some unknown person, having to face Mary the next day would be different, their relationship changed.

But it’s Judas that experiences the bigger disconnect here.  As much as the end of Judas’ story overshadows the rest, Judas was still a follower of Jesus.  He understood Jesus’ mission to those in need: feeding people on the hillside, healing on the Sabbath, loving the unlovable (like he felt himself to be).  Jesus did what he had to do to care for other people.  So to see Mary here caring for Jesus, wasting and squandering what could have cared for many in need – this seems to go against what Judas understands to be Jesus’ ministry.  And it’s less about the money[2] (name all the miracles that Jesus did with money) as much as it is Judas not really understanding Jesus as much as he thought he had. 

Just like Peter’s denial of Jesus’ prediction of death there’s a disconnect that the disciples couldn’t wrap their head around.  If Jesus truly was the Messiah, then he wouldn’t or couldn’t be killed – and if he could, then was he the Anointed one? Was he the one chosen by God?  If not then how did he bear divine gifts?  Where is God, if Jesus is about to be buried?  What good is faith if there is no divine protection?  These questions furthered the disconnect that Judas felt, and at the fork in the road that leads us to Good Friday, Judas walks his path, while Jesus another.

Jesus’s path towards death, and the vulnerability therein is a powerful one.  It challenges our notion of fairness when those younger than us die, it makes us question that same fairness when suffering and lingering is persistent long after someone is ready to die. When someone dies of cancer, we say they gave it a good fight.  Death is no easier to understand now as it was when two hundred years ago the hymn was written to trust in Christ and learn to die (Go to Dark Gethsemane, James Montgomery, 1820). And so, especially here in John 12, learning to die means embracing the fragility and vulnerability of each and every moment.

Brené Brown defines vulnerability as

the feeling we get during times of uncertainty, risk, or emotional exposure. This includes times when we’re showing our feelings and we’re not sure what people will think and times when we really care about something and people will know that we’re sad or disappointed when it doesn’t work out.[3]

In this vulnerable moment at dinner, Judas shares his anger and then feels shame. Mary feels gratitude and love and doesn’t let Judas’ criticism stop her.  And Jesus feels the awkwardness of humility, and allows a beautiful thing to happen.  Three reactions to a good enough moment, that goes against that common belief that “being emotional is a sign of vulnerability, and vulnerability is [perceived as] weakness.[4]

If Judas would have listened to Jesus and learned from Mary’s humility, one wonders if he would have grown beyond what he perceived as a win or lose scenario.  In fact, Jesus models it for him.  It’s this moment that transforms Jesus, as long after this meal, Jesus does an act very similar washing for his friends as he washes their feet, just before their celebration of the Passover and what we traditionally have called the Last Supper.  Mary is Jesus’ model for service and love.  Mary models vulnerability and courage.  And Jesus faced the days that were to come with those same gifts because of Mary.  As Brené Brown goes on,

vulnerability—the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome—is the only path to more love, belonging, and joy…[5] Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen…vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.[6]

Vulnerability is key to understanding Jesus and the good enough moments of our lives.  To risk and try, to show up off the street with an alabaster jar not knowing if you’d be turned away from the doorway, to proceed to the table, to Jesus himself, that woman – this Mary, risked everything to show her love.  But let’s not forget that Judas risked too, showing how

vulnerability can lead to hurt. As a result, we turn to self-protecting—choosing certainty over curiosity, armor over vulnerability, and knowing over learning. But shutting down comes with a price —a price we rarely consider when we’re focused on finding our way out of pain[7]

We know where Judas’ shutting down and finding a way out of his pain lead him. 

Ministry is full of vulnerable, painful moments.  Phone calls made only to have the call cut off when someone hangs up the phone on us.  Doors slammed in faces.  Angry emails sent back and forth from behind the safety of our screens.  Tax receipts no longer printed when people disappeared out the back door taking their givings with them.  It is tempting to give up.  Though if we’re stubborn, we try to shield ourselves, to armor up as encouraged by Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, but learning to die is learning to live with disappointment, failure, and even death. Good enough moments, with good enough people, following this good enough God who is able to be killed, is all we’ve got.  And we mustn’t let the risk of failure and the vulnerability therein stop us from trying.  For we will always have the poor among us.  The need of the world will always be great, and we must try to bathe it in beauty even as death looms.  There are those within and beyond these walls that need us to show up, even as we struggle with the fragility and futility of it all.  The poor among us is not an encouragement to retain capitalistic exploitation of people, but a reminder to see the face of Jesus in the poor and suffering.  To anoint them in love.  To comfort them in death.  To walk with them in life.

Maybe the quote from Brené Brown better describes life in Christ:

Ministry – the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome—is the only path to more love, belonging, and joy…[8] Ministry is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen…Ministry is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.[9]

For the day is long, and the work is much…though…do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.  Do justly, now.  Love mercy, now.  Walk humbly, now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.[10]   

Amen.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tbyBlelz_A

[2] What miracle did Jesus do that involved money?  The water was turned into wine, people were fed without buying more food, people were healed by Jesus’ hand, Lazarus was raised without paying for the priests to cure him. 

[3] https://brenebrown.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Integration-Ideas_Courage-and-Vulnerability_092221.pdf

[4] Brown, Brené, Rising Strong, p37.

[5] Brown, Brené, Rising Strong, p8.

[6] Brown, Brené, Rising Strong, p14.

[7] Brown, Brené, Rising Strong, p35.

[8] Brown, Brené, Rising Strong, p8..

[9] Brown, Brené, Rising Strong, p14..

[10] From Pirkei Avot, part of the Mishnah, a collection of wisdom from which Jewish ethical principles and legal discussions originate – from https://twitter.com/delafina777/status/1024317315620294657?lang=en

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