Gracious God, you have called us to live out our faith, not only as individuals, but also in community with others. Help us to be mindful of this call as we reflect upon and deepen our walk of discipleship in this Lenten season. With open hearts, ready to receive, may we hear your word to us this day. Amen.
Today, we continue our Lenten sermon series on maintaining integrity in the midst of conflict. Pastor Dave spoke about those times when we have to stay true to our convictions even if it might disappoint others, as well as those times when we have to stay true to ourselves when others disappoint us.
Today, we are focusing on standing up for others. How do we maintain the courage of our convictions when we see someone else being put down? Sometimes this happens in the middle of an already brewing conflict. Sometimes this is, itself, the source of the conflict.
In today’s story, Jesus finds himself having dinner in Bethany (a little ways outside of Jerusalem) at the home of his good friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It’s a while after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (and obviously he’s doing well – he’s having dinner). His sister, Martha, is serving. And we can assume that some or all of the other disciples were there, even though Judas is the only one named.
And in walks Mary with a huge bottle of expensive perfume. And she proceeds to pour it over Jesus’ feet, anointing him. And then she wipes his feet dry with her hair. And, as you can imagine, the room filled up with the overwhelming smell of perfume.
Right away, Judas jumps in with his criticism: What a waste of money. This perfume cost about year’s salary. That could have gone a long way to feed the poor.
Now, you probably noticed that the gospel writer doesn’t pull any punches when talking about Judas. There are a couple of side commentaries included to tell us first, that Judas is about to betray Jesus; and second, that Judas was a thief who used to steal from the common purse (whether or not this accusation is true, who knows). The writer of John clearly doesn’t think that Judas has any real concern for the poor (again, who knows if that is totally fair). But Judas is being combative in this moment. And Judas is combating Jesus, as well as Mary.
Right away, Jesus defends Mary. Her act of anointing is an act of faith and devotion. She bought this perfume (with her own money) to anoint Jesus for his burial. And she decides that now is the time to do so – when he’s there with her, alive and well, when she can express her love and devotion to him, rather than waiting until after his death.
Clearly Judas doesn’t really understand this. The other disciples probably don’t either. Perhaps none of them are ready to face up to the reality that this is the last week of Jesus’ life. But Mary is. She is the one who meets Jesus where he is in that moment. He knows he’s going to die. He sees where this road is headed. And, as strong and passionate as he his, no doubt he is also grieving. And so Mary meets him in his grief. And cares for him with a loving act of service as she anoints his feet with this perfume she’s saved for him.
Six days later Jesus will wash his disciples’ feet at the Passover meal. And he will tell his disciples to go and do likewise in service to others. But Mary doesn’t need that lesson. She already understands. It’s clear that John is lifting up Mary as the model disciple in this story.
Now, we might be troubled by the fact that Jesus says to Judas “you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Does that mean Jesus doesn’t care about the poor? Of course he does.
But Jesus tells the truth in this moment. They won’t always have him. There will still be poor people in need of care and compassion after he’s gone. That doesn’t mean they’re off the hook. And, actually, I think Jesus is calling out Judas’ hypocrisy in this moment. Judas jumps down Mary’s throat for wasting money on Jesus instead of giving it to the poor. But what has Judas done for the poor today? And very likely Jesus already sees the writing on the wall that Judas is the one who will betray him.
The last week of Jesus’ life was rife with conflict, including conflicts within this group of disciples. And, in the midst of this conflict, Jesus maintains his integrity and stands up for Mary. He understands her actions and motivations. He sees her care and devotion as an act of faith. And he’s not going to let Judas or any of the others get away with picking on her.
And, in the midst of this conflict, Mary also maintains her integrity and stands up for Jesus. She doesn’t care if the others get it, or think this act of anointing Jesus is weird or wasteful. She wants to care for Jesus while she can. Perhaps she sees the toll this is taking on him. Perhaps she understands his grief more deeply than anyone else can at this moment. After all, she thought she lost her brother just a little while ago; she knows grief. And so Mary meets Jesus where he is and cares for him.
Both Jesus and Mary are models for us as we seek to stand up for and stand with others.
And this is challenging. I don’t love conflict. I’d rather avoid it. Obviously, when it comes to violent conflict, I’d rather people work for peaceful resolutions before it descends into violence. And when it comes to interpersonal conflict, I’d rather people try to get along, and listen to each other, and try to find common ground and common goals.
But people don’t always do that. And sometimes it seems really difficult to get to a place where true dialogue and active listening to another’s perspective can actually occur.
So what do we do when times of conflict arise? How do we respond when people act like Judas and snap at others, and judge others, and belittle others? How do we stand up for others and do what’s right?
Well, for one, before we even get to that, I think we always have to start with ourselves. It can be a little tempting when reading stories like this one to think, “I’d never do that; I’d never be like Judas.”
But is that true? If we’re honest with ourselves, have there been times where we’ve been too quick to judge? Have we misread another’s intentions and actions and judged them for it? Have we snapped at someone or belittled someone unintentionally? We want to be like Mary and Jesus. But haven’t we sometimes acted like Judas?
In those times, perhaps we have to check ourselves. And apologize. And work to repair the relationship. And help work toward an environment where better mutual communication can occur. That’s not always easy.
And what about those times when we find ourselves witnessing someone else being put down? Or what if we find ourselves at the receiving end of someone else’s belittling comment? How do we respond? How do we stand up, in that moment, for others or for ourselves? How do we take a stand for respect and better treatment of people?
It seems to me like there are two things that are important in any response.
One, I think we have to speak the truth in love and call out bad behavior for what it is without belittling the person in return. I don’t think being combative or disrespectful in response is usually very helpful or effective. If we want respectful treatment of others, we have to practice it.
Two, I think we ought to at least try to model an alternative way of communicating and try to keep the conversation going. Growth, and transformation, and better relationships might be possible if we can stay in conversation without enduring or dishing out further harm.
It’s not always possible, of course. And sometimes we have to walk away in order to maintain our integrity or to help protect another or ourselves from further harm. People don’t always want to grow and change. And we certainly can’t force them.
I also find it helpful to remember that most people who bully or belittle people were not born that way. More often than not, they were bullied or belittled themselves. Some people are able to work through that, perhaps with the help of a good therapist, and break the cycle, and find a deeper sense of self-worth and integrity. Others, sadly, are not able to do that and carry forward damaging behaviors that were inflicted upon them.
But boy, is it hard to navigate all of this sometimes, isn’t it? And if it’s hard for us adults, think of how hard it is for kids sometimes. Think back to the experiences of your own childhood and adolescence. And then add in Facebook, and Twitter, and so on… Social media can make it pretty easy to bully and pretty hard to escape from bullies. When a girl called me fat on the playground and said some other awful, mean things to other girls, we just stopped hanging out with her. But I didn’t have to un-friend or block her on social media. We’ve all heard the stories about how isolated and alone kids can feel and how serious and tragic this become.
Bullying of any kind can do great damage to people. And, as people of faith, we are called to build others up and affirm each person’s worth and dignity as children of God. And sometimes that means standing up for others when we find ourselves in a situation where we can do so.
And that takes courage. It’s not always easy. We risk being bullied or belittled ourselves. And we can’t necessarily predict the outcome. All we can do is speak up and offer a witness to a different way of being and acting.
Sometimes we’re thrown into situations where we feel called, in the moment, to stand up on another’s behalf, just as Jesus stood up for Mary.
But what about times when we intentionally take on another’s struggle as our own? I think that is part of what Mary did for Jesus. When she offered her act of devotion, she was saying to him, “I see you; I see your struggle; I care about you; and I’m here with you and for you; you’re not alone.” And, of course, she also understood that his struggle wasn’t his alone, anyway. It was much bigger than that.
And wow, can that ever be powerful for all involved… when we intentionally build relationships and community and stand up with and for each other – especially in the midst of conflict, especially when there are powerful forces attacking, belittling, or dismissing certain individuals or groups of people.
We all need to be seen, and to be known, and to have our humanity and worth affirmed. And so we stand up. Jesus modeled this for us, as did Mary of Bethany. So did Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., and Sojourner Truth, and so many others who stood up for people and spoke truth to power. It matters. And it makes a difference.
It matters when people who are financially secure say I care about those who are not.
It matters when people who are white say I care about the lives of people of color.
It matters when people who are born into citizenship say I care about those who are immigrants.
It matters when men say I care about women’s lives and experiences.
It matters when adults say I care about the wellbeing of children.
It matters when we humans say I care about endangered species and their habitats.
I could keep going… but you get the picture. You can continue with your own list.
It matters when people say they care about us and whatever it is we might be dealing with. We know that. We’ve experienced that.
And the truth is that the struggles of others really are our own as well. We are all interconnected and interdependent.
And so, when we stand up with and for others, we are choosing to affirm this interconnectedness. We are choosing to build up communities and deepen relationships, and work toward more just and peaceful future for all.
Standing up for and with others is an act of faithfulness to our call to discipleship. For we proclaim our faith in our Creator whose entire creation and whose many and diverse children are beloved, precious, and worthy of dignity and respect. Amen.