Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 13, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
In the first Sherlock Holmes short story, the detective tricks another character into showing him where she was hiding her most prized possession. He used a simple ruse: he had Watson ignite a smoke bomb in her house and shout, “Fire!” As her home filled with smoke, she ran to retrieve the item from its hiding place as Holmes watched.
Most of us will never need to make such a decision, but all of us should be ready, and think about what we would take with us before a crisis forces us to choose. For those of us who have children or pets, the choice is obvious. But for the rest of us, unless we are hiding a photograph that could be used to blackmail a monarch, the question is more difficult. Would we retrieve the most valuable object we could carry? The most valuable information, perhaps financial documents or some of our creative work? Family photographs, or other items of irreplaceable sentimental value? Or the obvious choice: cell phone, wallet, car keys.
Just as interesting are the things we insist on holding on to, but would never consider taking with us in case of emergency. Office supplies and other things we only use for work. Unwanted gifts we only keep out of a sense of obligation. All the junk that piles up, things we plan to fix or give away, or things we’ve simply forgotten about, we’ve been holding on to them so long.
This doesn’t just happen in our homes, and not just in the physical world. Our hearts and minds and souls are cluttered and distracted, too. Just like with the objects we hold on to, a good case can be made for most of the things that compete for our concern, attention, and devotion. Constantly sorting, evaluating, and ranking these things requires an enormous effort. And so we slack off, and allow less important things to exercise unwarranted influence on us, and we become anxious and frustrated, yet persist in clinging to less important things, until we realize that we have lost sight of something more important, and our neglect has put us at risk of damaging it forever.
Judas was absolutely right about the value of the perfume and the noble causes for which it could have been sacrificed. Yet he was blind to what was in plain sight: the giver of life itself, and one who had received and demonstrated that gift while he still lay in the tomb. He was right, but it didn’t matter because he had no conception of what was truly important for himself, let alone for the world.
Sharing the dinner table with a formerly dead man is bound to be awkward, but not nearly as awkward as what Mary did. Lazarus and Martha’s sister broke the strict code of social propriety that governed hospitality and relationships. Showing her hair and touching a man who was not family was much more transgressive than a breach of etiquette; these sorts of things could end marriages and bring enduring shame on a whole family. Everyone knew society was strict and unforgiving, but Jesus and Mary also knew that social norms weren’t created for her benefit, and society wasn’t about to reward her for obeying them. Society imposes conditions, but never loves us — it’s not even a being, let alone a sentient being — but God does love us, unconditionally.
So it was abundantly clear to them that letting go of those rules was totally worth it. Jesus always wants to bring everyone to himself, no matter the cost. That’s kind of the point of his ministry, as well as his incarnation, death, and resurrection. And Mary, for her part, stepped out of the subservient role society prescribed for her, and into a role of the greatest authority, dignity, and prestige, that of anointing a king.
Only one week remains before Holy Week, and the game’s afoot. Now is the time to take stock, and if we can’t let go of everything unimportant, just yet, we can at least be honest about what is most worth holding on to, and keep it within easy reach. For while most of us will never lose our houses to fire, all of us will meet God face to face, and not always at the time we expect.
That is why our spiritual preparations for Easter are so important. Not only because they promise to heighten the experience of the feast, but also because they prepare us for the greater feast that Jesus has prepared for us in heaven. There is no need to hide him away, nor to hide anything from him. Keeping Jesus close now, in our hearts, on our lips, and in our minds, is the best use of our finite energies, not because he will turn anyone away, but because we deserve to have the strongest possible relationship with the source of our life, our joy, and our peace. Let nothing come between you and your God.