Rev. Teri Peterson
Isaiah 43.16-21, John 12.1-8
17 March 2013, Lent 5C
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.
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.”
Has anyone here ever used the phrase “no pain, no gain”? It’s not one of my favorites, but it sort of sums up why we needed last week’s practice—to look honestly at how we spend our time, energy, and money, and ask whether that spending reflects the gospel and our calling as followers of Jesus. It’s all part of digging around the roots and making room for fertilizer to reach in. What was that experience like?
Last week the prophet Isaiah asked us “why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?” and called us to listen, that we may live. Part of that assessment is about clearing out the things that keep God’s love from entering our root system and bearing fruit on our tree of life. So now that we’ve made that assessment, the prophet calls us to leave the old behind and prepare for the new. In fact, he says, even now this new thing is happening. Even now—at this very moment, God is doing a new thing, right here in our midst and in the world around us.
Do we perceive it?
Perception is a funny thing. What we see, and how we interpret what we see, makes a huge difference in how we respond. For instance, at my very first horseback riding lesson, another person came in just to pet his horse. He stood cheek to cheek with the horse, cooing, and he called it his therapy. Meanwhile, I was standing five feet away from the horse I was supposed to be brushing, crying in fear. He saw happiness, I saw 1600 pounds of danger. That difference in perception changed how we acted toward the same animal.
There is a little three-leafed plant that covers the ground and is a nuisance in our beautiful grass lawns. But in that same little nuisance, St. Patrick saw the presence of God—the Trinity laid out for all to see, covering the ground with reminders of who God is.
One of my friends was out hiking one day and saw a bear in the distance. He froze, trying to decide whether to keep going or wait. After a few minutes he decided he had to keep walking or else stay on the trail forever, and soon discovered that the bear was actually an enormous rock. His perception was a little off, and he had to make a choice about how to respond.
I suspect many of us have had these experiences, seeing a shadow and interpreting it to be something much scarier than it really is. We know this is a common problem when it comes to seeing people—when we see people who look different from us, for example people of different skin colors or different body types or different fashion senses, we make assumptions about them. We may lock our doors as we drive through their neighborhoods, or assume they’re armed even if we have no evidence, or believe we know their morals or their sexuality or their line of work based only on what they wear and how they carry themselves. We live in a world where teenage boys with dark skin have to be taught never to run outdoors and teenage girls believe their self-worth comes from the size of their body.
Perception matters. Sometimes it life-or-death matters.
We have probably all also had the experience of change to familiar routines or spaces—when road construction forces a detour from our regular commute, or the preacher stands in a different place, or our favorite restaurant changes the menu. When change comes, what do we see? Do we see opportunity to experience a wider taste of life, to expand our worldview, to explore? Or do we clam up with fear and frustration? Maybe somewhere in between, depending on the situation! Perception matters.
What do we see, and how do we interpret? God promises some very unlikely things—that there will be water in the desert, a road in the wilderness; that wild animals that normally eat each other will live together; that people who might cause us to lock our doors will be the very neighbors we are called to love. Even now, God is doing a new thing—do we perceive it?
In two stories, in two separate gospels, Mary is the sister who sees. She sees Jesus for who he is—God, right there in the room with her. She doesn’t see just another wandering rabbi, or an eligible bachelor, or just another man demanding dinner. She sees God incarnate, love personified. In both stories, she responds to her perception in ways that upset other people. In Luke’s story, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens with all her being, which Martha can’t handle. And in today’s story from John, Mary again sits at the feet of Jesus, this time with the most valuable thing she has to offer. She pours her wealth out at Jesus’ feet, and Judas can’t handle it.
300 denarii was nearly a year’s wages. Imagine pouring out your salary for the year at the feet of Jesus.
Or are we more likely to be Judas in this situation, criticizing Mary’s extravagant generosity?
Isaiah says that we are “created for God’s praise.” In other words, when we perceive what God is doing, we are to respond with generous praise. Mary does exactly that.
Some in the gospel story respond to Jesus with disdain, others with fear, still others by asserting their own power or authority. Surely this is not what God meant by a new thing? There must be some mistake—we wanted to control it, we wanted it to be our way, we wanted to understand, we wanted God to act on our terms and our time.
Some in the story respond by following. Some respond by giving everything they have. Immanuel—God is with us! We wanted to know God’s presence—here he is. We wanted to see God face to face—here he is. We wanted to hear God’s word—here he is. We listen, we see, we turn and re-turn, and find ourselves with Godvision—with the lenses to see what God sees: a kingdom with so much potential, if only we will open our eyes.
When we perceive God’s new thing, and respond to it with praise and generosity, some will scoff. Prayer and worship and offerings and service rarely produce tangible things after all—so they’re not valued in our culture or economy, though they are the main currency of God’s economy. Some will ask why on earth we would do such a thing. Love, in our culture, is for those who deserve and earn it, not for sharing with everyone. People will wonder if we’ve gone out of our minds or if we’re being wasteful. But King David said it well: “I will not offer to God offerings that cost me nothing.” We cannot help but be generous when we encounter God among us. We cannot help but respond in praise when we see the amazing things God has in store. Every day, God is doing a new thing: in the creation, in our lives, in the life of the church. It springs forth, not just easing its way into our lives but bursting in full of color. Do we perceive it?
One way to enhance our perception is to change our perspective. If we always look at things in the same way, from the same angle, it can be hard to see God’s new thing. When we look from a new angle—from a different pew, for instance, or from the floor at Jesus’ feet rather than the kitchen door, we might find our sight and hearing improves. When we consciously try to approach things or people with a different attitude than usual, we might find our judgments are slower and our empathy grows. How might we change our perspective and see what new thing God is doing right now?
Well, there’s always the option of literally changing your perspective by trying out a different pew. Maybe next week you can choose to sit somewhere different and see how things look and sound and feel from a new place. There’s also the option of choosing to see through a particular lens—honing our Godvision. So for this week’s challenge, I suggest that we all try to look at the world through the lens of gratitude. Each day, make a list of 5-10 things that you are grateful for. Different things each day—no fair just copying the list! Post your gratitude list on the fridge, or the bathroom mirror, or on the steering wheel or the edge of the computer screen. Practice your gratitude lenses throughout the week, and find out if that helps you be more aware of what God is doing in your life. Feel free to share with us on Facebook the things you are grateful for—it helps us all to give thanks together!
And then, because both Isaiah and Mary show us that this is a two-part way of life, this week’s practice will also be two parts. During the week, be praying about how God is calling you to respond to this new enhanced Godvision. Perceiving God’s new thing is amazing and wonderful and important—and should lead to action. How will you embody praise and generosity in response to God’s amazing grace? Think of something concrete that you can put into practice during the Easter season. If you want some accountability, there’s a whole body of Christ here ready to help uphold, encourage, and challenge you to be faithful.
Behold: God is doing a new thing, pouring God’s own self out for us…and asks us to see and hear and partner in making the kingdom a reality. Even now it springs forth: the desert is fed by streams of water, the creation lives together in harmony, and we love our neighbors as we love ourselves—for God is in our midst. Do we perceive?
May it be so.