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?’ 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.’
I once met a man at a rummage sale being held at a church where I was pastoring, and we got into the most extraordinary conversation. This was a few years ago, and he was about eighty years old at the time, and he told me about how he had turned 18 and been drafted right at the end of World War II. After his boot camp training he was shipped out to an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. There were thousands of soldiers on this boat, just sitting there for months, and the rumor was that there were lots of boats like theirs, spread out in the ocean.
Communication from their superiors wasn’t super-clear, but they all knew that they were waiting to be part of the ground invasion of Japan. And all these 18-year-old young men believed they were going to die, very soon.
Historians agree that if there had ever been ever been an invasion of Japan, it would have involved the greatest carnage of any battle in human history. Millions, probably, would have died in the battle. But the invasion never happened. One day, all the troops were assembled on deck, and their commander told them that they were going home, because a new super-weapon had been designed and used against Japan – twice actually. Something called an atom bomb, so powerful that it could wipe out a whole city at once. And Japan was about to surrender.
At the time the soldiers couldn’t really grasp the magnitude of what was being described. It was only in the months and years that followed that they comprehended the force and the destruction of the weapon that had brought the war to such a horrifying conclusion. And so this guy that I met at the rummage sale was talking to me about the fact that he got to come home and go to college and get married and have kids and work different jobs and grow to be an old man, all because of the atom bomb. He got to have a life, because hundreds of thousands of non-combatant Japanese citizens were obliterated by a super-weapon.
In the years since then, World War II was widely regarded in this country, as ‘The Good War’. And this man I talked to told me that people had been thanking him for sixty years for what he did for our nation, even calling him part of the greatest generation. He didn’t feel like he did anything great, or that he was a person of greater value than all the people in Japan who didn’t get to have the life that he did. It wasn’t a matter of thinking his nation was right or wrong, but he didn’t feel good about the good war.
This is by far the most interesting conversation I’ve ever had at a rummage sale.
It really illustrates the fact that sometimes we think there should be some meaning, but we can’t perceive it. Sometimes we’re engaged in things that everybody agrees are purposeful, but we don’t feel it. Sometimes we wish we could be inspired, but we’re not.
It doesn’t have to be something as enormous as war, either
We all have times when we feel deeply in touch with the meaning of life. We’ve got direction, we know why we’re getting up in the morning! There are times in a relationship, times in a career, times in an educational journey, when everything that you’re doing is in sync with a deep sense of purpose. It’s a spiritual alignment, and it feels great, it’s invigorating.
But then something happens that throws that alignment out of whack. It might be something specific and momentous, a radical change in circumstances, or it might be that you just wake up one day things feel radically different. The meaning and purpose that you’d been living by up until yesterday, seems to be missing, today. The physical and practical things are still there, your responsibilities and obligations are still there, but you feel adrift.
I’ve got a lot to do, but what, exactly, am I doing, here?
For Christians, Jesus Christ is at the center of our faith. Christians vary in terms of what they literally believe about Jesus, and that’s a good thing. But all of us look to Jesus throughout our journey, we count on him to provide orientation, direction, wisdom, strength, help, depending on what season of life we’re journeying through.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus actually calls himself the Way, the Truth and the Life. And in different ways in different seasons we’re looking for Truth, we’re looking for Life, we’re looking for The Way, and we look to Jesus and ask for it:
Jesus, what is the Way that I should be following?
Jesus, what is the Truth that I need to see right now?
Jesus, show me what Life looks like. What is life all about?
And there are times when feel like Jesus is guiding us on our way, and showing us the truth and giving us life, we feel like we’re in touch with the meaning and purpose of everything. And it’s great, we know who are, we know who’s we are, we know what we’re doing in this thing! It all makes sense.
But in the scripture passage we read a few moments ago, Jesus says something truly disturbing. It’s enough to send chills down your spine. He says to his disciples, “you will not always have me.”
There will be times of real darkness and despair in your life. There will be times when you feel utterly discouraged and weak. And you’ll look to your center, you’ll look to the place that I’ve always been, connecting you with purpose and meaning and value, and for one reason or another, you won’t see me there.
You’ll always have the poor, he says. You’ll always have the poor, but you won’t always have me. That’s kind of a famous saying of Jesus, and vexing to many of us. When Jesus said this, the first half of the sentence was quoting the Torah (Deuteronomy 15:11 – since you will always have the poor, you should open your hands to them) You’ll always have your responsibilities to the vulnerable at the disenfranchised – that’s not going to change. Your life will always be full of important things for you to do. But you will not always be inspired. You’ll not always feel connected, you’ll seek orientation and direction and you’ll look to the center of your being, and you will not be able to see the Way. You will not be able to see the Truth or the Life at the center of it all.
Now, when Jesus said these words, “You will always have the poor, but you will not always have me”, he was actually saying them to Judas, who was acting upset because Jesus’ friend Mary was anointing his feet with a very expensive perfume and wiping them with her hair, in an act of deep devotion. (This was not Jesus’ mother Mary, but his friend Mary, who had a sister named Martha and a brother named Lazarus.) Judas was criticizing her, but it seems that she was the one who truly understood what Jesus was talking about.
Knowing that there would be a time, very soon, when she would be cut off from him, she chose to draw near to him while she could, to hold on to him and to express her love for him in the most generous and intimate way that she knew. And Jesus understood what she was offering to him. He understood it deeply, so deeply, in fact, that very soon he followed her lead.
I wonder if someone in the room with them that day would have noted the similarity, when just a few days later, in a different room with all of his disciples, Jesus got down on the floor. He didn’t have perfume, he just had a bowl of water, but he took on the same posture as Mary, and tenderly cared for the feet of his friends.
It was the night before they were separated from each other. The night before they stepped into the darkest days of their lives – Jesus was taken from them, and it felt like all hope and meaning in their lives had been blown away like dust.
If you feel like hope and meaning have become like dust to you, if you feel like the you’ve lost the Way, the Truth and the Life, that you don’t feel Christ’s presence or God’s calling, like you think you should, it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you, or that you’re doing a bad job at faith. You’re living through a part of faith that everyone goes through.
Faith is all about tender and extravagant devotion, when we’re close enough to the Lord to touch his feet, like Mary with her expensive perfume.
Faith is also about separation, getting lost, feeling incomprehensibly distant from God.
But you know what else? Faith is also about restoration, reconnection, and finding your way back to the Way.
I look forward to talking with you about that, on Easter Sunday. Amen.