For almost a month now, each Wednesday afternoon at 1pm, Christa Kelley has been volunteering with The Night Ministry teaching a songwriting class to the homeless youth The Night Ministry serves. I’ve spoken with Pastor Jen Rude about how it’s going, and she says that they’ve never had such good turnout for any of their programs. And while I’m sure the topic is part of the draw, I’m equally sure that it’s Christa herself that brings the kids back week after week. For young people who have been kicked out of their homes or who’ve lost their parents, there’s little in the world that’s more appealing than an adult who shows up consistently and takes an interest in your life.
It wasn’t so long ago that my own Wednesdays were spent with homeless youth. The year before I came to St. Luke’s I was living in Atlanta and doing street outreach to the kids who lived on those streets. Each Wednesday went about the same way: like clockwork, by mid-afternoon my mind would try to convince my conscience that I was coming down with something. Nothing too serious, but the kind of thing I’d be wise to take care of early before it grew into something bad. Something like a migraine, or a sinus infection. I’d look at my reflection in the rear view mirror while driving to see if the symptoms of my emerging illness were visible but, sadly, I was perfectly fine.
Sadder yet, this routine took place almost every Wednesday at exactly the same time: during the drive from my home to the parking garage where I would meet up with the rest of the team I accompanied during our weekly outreach with homeless youth in downtown Atlanta. By the time I took the call to serve St. Luke’s, I had been working with homeless youth in some capacity for almost a decade. I had grown familiar with the frequently crass senses of humor, the rollercoaster of careening from one drama to the next, and the flashes of tenderness from children who’d had very few first hand experiences of mercy to call their own. I loved my kids: Marshawn, Kevin, Tyrone, Mike, Femmi, Bailey.
I loved my kids, but I hated knowing that they were out there on the streets while I was at home. I hated the feeling of powerlessness that saying goodbye stirred up in me each time we were together. That was the source of my Wednesday afternoon headaches, my imagined illnesses. My mind hallucinating, conjuring up a reality that would let me off the hook, allow me to slip out of the commitment I’d made to show up for one night out of the week.
When I was in training for hospital chaplaincy, a supervisor explained it to me like this:
“When you meet an injured person it’s like coming upon a person who has fallen into a pit. You have to decide what to do.
Sometimes you keep walking by the pit, pretending that it isn’t there, that you don’t hear the cries for help from the person at the bottom. This requires the least from you, but isn’t much good to the person in the pit.
Sometimes you lean over the edge of the pit and say things to the person at the bottom. Things like, “I hope you’re not in that pit for too long!” That takes some time on your part, and may be some consolation to the person at the bottom, but doesn’t really change things.
Sometimes you look at the pit and say, “I can’t believe they allow pits like this to stay open! I’m going to do something about this pit situation!” This makes you feel powerful, and can be of great help to people in the future, but doesn’t do much for the person in the pit.
Sometimes you hear the cries for help from the person in the pit and you tell that person to hold on while you look for a rope or a ladder. This means making a commitment on your part to change things, but leaves someone in a pit by themselves which can be pretty scary.
Sometimes you come upon a person who has fallen into a pit and you decide to crawl down into the pit to keep company with the person at the bottom. This is the most inconvenient for you, since you don’t know how long you will be there. It may also feel very foolish, since there are now two of you in the pit and still no idea how to get out. However, in the moment, it may make all the difference in the world to the person who has fallen to discover that he or she is not alone.”
My wise supervisor called this “pit theology.” The gospel lesson appointed for this fifth Sunday of Lent tells the story of another act which, while appearing foolish to many, was a good example of “pit theology” at work.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 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…said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
Before we go any further in our examination of this scene, a couple of questions present themselves that may benefit us to consider.
- First – given that we are in Year C of the three year lectionary cycle – which means that we have been reading predominantly out of the Gospel of Luke – why are we reading this scene from the perspective of the Gospel of John?
- Second – since we are reading from the Gospel of John, what has been happening in the chapters leading up to this scene? In other words, and this is always a good question to ask when reading scriptures, what is the context for this passage?
In response to the first question there are a few clues that might account for why, at this time in the season of Lent, we read this story from the Gospel of John instead of Luke or one of the others. It is interesting to notice that some version of an anointing of Jesus takes place in all four gospels. However, only in John is this woman named as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
This observation leads us to the second question: since we are reading from the Gospel of John, and the story in this gospel is set in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, what has been happening in the chapters leading up to this passage? Well, in the previous chapter Jesus has wrapped up his teaching ministry and has set his sights on Jerusalem, towards his death. He has just escaped from the Jewish authorities who tried to stone him for blasphemy, when he hears that his dear friend Lazarus is gravely ill. Rather than rushing to his side, Jesus lingers an extra two days. “This illness does not lead to death,” he explains to his followers, “rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Jesus heads to Bethany where he is informed of what he already knows, that Lazarus is dead.
Both Mary and Martha greet Jesus with the same words, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” And then he asks her, “do you believe this?” And
she replies, “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Jesus rolls away the stone that blocks entry to the tomb of Lazarus, despite Martha’s warning that the stench of death would be strong, and calls Lazarus out of death and into new life.
The next scene shifts the camera away from Jesus and Lazarus at the tomb and onto the chief priests and the Pharisees who respond to this miracle in contradictory fashion. Seeing that Jesus has just restored life to one who was dead, they hatch a plot to kill him. “What are we to do,” they ask, “if we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy us!” And so it is decided that Jesus must die.
It is after these events that we arrive at the passage assigned for this morning, with the focus back on Jesus as he shares a dinner with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It is six days before the Passover festival, and the Pharisees had issued orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know so that they might arrest him. Given that the Pharisees had already tried to have Jesus stoned, this was tantamount to a death warrant, and everyone knew it. The atmosphere at this dinner must have been worried and there was confusion about what would happen next. People were expecting great things from Jesus, the long-expected Messiah, but how would his miracles of healing stack up next to the power of the Roman empire?
The irony of the situation is palpable, even painful. Jesus acted to restore life to Lazarus, and because of it he has been marked for death. Even surrounded by his all his disciples (and all their expectations), Jesus must surely have felt somewhat alone, knowing what would come next.
Then someone does something unexpected, even foolish by many standards. Mary climbs down into the pit with Jesus and becomes powerfully present to him in the hour before his death. Knowing well the stench of decay, that only days before had clung to her own brother, she pours out costly perfume – worth a year’s wages – on Jesus’ feet, as if to ward off the smell of the death that comes for him, and then wipes them with her own hair. She wipes his feet now, just as in the very next chapter he will wipe the feet of his disciples. Just as we, next Thursday, will wash one another’s feet.
This is another of the lessons learned in hospital chaplaincy, that there are times when touch is more powerful than words. When holding someone’s hand at their bedside means more than anything you can say.
I remember a young woman I met at Children’s Hospital in Atlanta who suffered from a neurological disorder that caused her to be in extreme pain at all times. Spending time at her bedside we would discuss her pain as if it were another person, “how is your pain today?” “Is the pain coming or going?” I recall nurses coming in and asking her to rate the pain from one to ten, and if she would say calmly, “It’s a ten,” they would respond by saying things like, “oh, but ten is the worst pain imaginable. Are you sure?” Her parents always made a point of commending her for playing down her pain. “She’s such a trooper,” they bragged, “she never complains.” It is so painful to see someone you love suffering. Sometimes we will diminish or deny the suffering of those we love as a way of shielding ourselves from their agony.
But not Mary. She alone among the disciples appears to have learned what Jesus had modeled for them all along, the healing power of touch, of presence, of acknowledging the truth – that we are dying – even when the truth is painful.
My advisor in seminary, Gail O’Day, wrote about this scene from John’s gospel. She says,
“The power of the witness of Mary’s discipleship in this story is that she knows how to respond to Jesus without being told. She fulfills Jesus’ love commandment before he even teaches it; she embraces Jesus’ departure at his hour before he has taught his followers about its true meaning. In the story of the raising of Lazarus, she responded to Jesus’ calling for her, thus showing that she was one of Jesus’ own. In the anointing she shows what it means to be one of Jesus’ own. She gives boldly of herself in love to Jesus at his hour, just as Jesus will give boldly of himself at his hour…
If in the act of raising Lazarus, Jesus is fully revealed, then in Mary’s anointing of Jesus, faithful discipleship is fully revealed…”
All of this is contrasted with the response of Judas Iscariot, who scorns Mary’s lavish act as a waste of resources that could have been spent in caring for the poor. On first examination this seems like a sensible criticism, but then we notice that Judas is not so concerned with the poor as to offer up his own money. In fact we are told that he had been siphoning funds off of the treasury. Like folks who stand at the edge of the pit and criticize the rescue efforts of others, or even condemn those who have fallen in, Judas’ care for the poor had not grown beyond a distant concern. Not like the concern shown by Jesus, who got down in the pit with people, who used mud and touch and messiness to heal a man who was blind, and certainly not like Mary who threw away what others thought precious – a year of wages – in order to mark the most valuable thing in her life: her relationship to this man, Jesus, the Messiah, the revelation of God, the one coming into the world.
This is the essence of discipleship, finding ways in our daily lives to reorder our relationships to those with whom we share this world. I can tell you from personal experience that on Wednesday afternoons I wanted so badly to take the Judas route: to throw money at a problem when what was truly required was relationships. Here’s what the kids told me, “the three hours we get with you guys on Wednesday nights are the only hours during my week when people will talk to us without trying to get something from us. They’re the only time we feel like real people.” Knowing that they were telling the truth made it painful for me to be with them. Some of them are dead now. Listening to the girl in the hospital in Atlanta tell me that her pain was a ten made it painful for me to be with her. I felt as powerless to help her as she felt to help herself, faced with a pain that seemed stronger than both of us.
And yet, to be willing to climb down into the pit and sit with the one who is homeless, hold the hand of the one who is suffering, listen to the one who is despairing, this is the task of love and the mark of discipleship. And the question all who follow Jesus must ask themselves is, “who is waiting for me to join them in the pit?”
I wish there were good words to say, to explain how a betrayal, and a cross, are somehow redeemed, transformed, into resurrection and new life. But every word I reach for sounds hollow when I practice saying it out loud.
So instead, I will say this. The three hours I spent on the streets on Wednesday nights healed me of my headaches, at least until the following week. To be with my kids. To touch them, and feed them, and laugh with them and hug them, to love them reminded me just how big my family really is. And when it is your family that has fallen into the pit you may be able to climb down and sit with them a little longer than you’d expected, because where they are you want to be as well.
And I wonder if this isn’t how it is for God, who sees the pits each of us falls into, the crosses we hang upon, and who joins us even there.
Return to the Lord your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.