Last week I posted about some of my process regarding preparing to give a message at my meeting. It's still about a week and a half away.
Over the course of the last week I've read commentaries and an article, and read the passage a bunch. In this particular passage, reading it in Greek doesn't seem particularly helpful--there aren't any huge insights that have come to me from it. The message isn't in the words, but in the implications.
Still, I looked at a couple other books that have to do with the words themselves, just to make sure I wasn't missing anything. One is a synoptic parallel, called Synopsis of the Four Gospels (two volumes: one in English and one in Greek), which means that it looks at each passage in the gospels and compares them to other passages telling the same or a similar story. (It also includes anything similar in extra-biblical sources, like the Gospel of Thomas). I can then see what words are exactly the same, what each author has chosen to present slightly differently, and whether or not other authors included that story. (In this case, there are parallels in Mark 14:3-9 and Matthew 26:6-13, and a somewhat similar incident in Luke 7:36-50. It's rare that a story is in all four gospels, so I probably should pay attention to that.) I also used a Greek tool called The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament, also known as Rogers & Rogers (for the authors, father and son). It gives a little more information about words that are difficult to translate, ambiguous or obscure.
Mostly I've just mulled over the passage, both in times set aside for such pondering and at random times. I've paid attention to how it connects with other life events, especially worship services and other events at our meeting. I've also thought a lot about questions I have about the passage, and just let those reverberate around in my brain and spirit, seeing if any sort of clarity comes, and paying attention to other thoughts and questions that rise.
I think in some ways it's kind of hard to wait for a message on a pre-determined passage of scripture. I mean, if I absolutely didn't feel called to speak on this passage and changed to something that wasn't part of the sermon series that would be OK, but at the same time, I trust the discernment of those putting together the worship schedule, and I think it helps us settle in more deeply to be able to listen to Christ when we have a series of messages that relate to one another and draw us to focus on God from a specific perspective. So I trust that the message has/will come.
But usually when I give a prepared message like this (as opposed to standing in open/unprogrammed worship), I start with a topic I feel called to explore, or an idea I read in a book that sparked something in me that I felt called to share, or a passage of scripture that jumped out at me about which I felt compelled to share. But choosing a passage of scripture before a specific message has come to me is somewhat harder for me. I wonder how people do it when they preach from a lectionary every week???
Anyway, about the specific message I'm working on, I chose John 12:1-8, where Mary of Bethany (sister of Lazarus and Martha) anoints Jesus' feet with costly ointment. Although the details are slightly different in the parallel versions, the thing that remains constant in Matthew, Mark and John is the statement, "The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me." My main question is, What does this say to us today? Does it say that since we don't have Jesus we should now make sure that we lavish love on the poor as Mary did on Jesus in this story? What would that look like? Are there still times where we are to pour out our treasure on God and God alone in a way that seems wasteful and ridiculous?
I think I'm kind of like Judas here--hopefully not with the malicious intent, but perhaps it's just as bad to always want to be practical. I think a similar thought--why wouldn't someone sell such an expensive item and give the money to the poor? Or better yet, why would a Christ-follower own something so expensive in the first place? The ointment she poured on him was worth about a year's wages for a day-laborer, so if we imagine it's worth a year of minimum wage, that would be about $17,500 (in my state). That's quite the wad of cash!
So two major things I'm pondering at the moment are: a conversation I had with a few people at a Wednesday night class we had last week, and a question I read yesterday. We're studying the book of John on Wednesday nights, and last week we were talking about ways that we relate to or feel similar to the Pharisees in John. I said I feel like most American Christians right now are more like the Pharisees than the Christ-followers in John: we are more concerned about following the rules of how we're "supposed to" act (most of which are just cultural and aren't in the Bible at all) than we are about actually listening to and following Christ. I talked about our congregation and how it's great in many ways, and yet we're all pretty similar. Would people of a different socio-economic status feel comfortable and welcome if they visited? Would they become part of our congregation?
One of the other people in the group told us she's had several conversations with people in our congregation who speak against the middle class, but she herself grew up without enough, and she's just grateful to be part of the middle class. So she wonders what's so wrong with being middle class?
That really got me thinking. I guess I feel like it's not being middle class that's the problem, it's the attitude. This woman's attitude was like Mary's--one of gratitude, and willingness to do what it is she's called to despite the cost. Many of us who have been comfortably middle class our whole lives have a hard time having this attitude, however--we feel too much of a sense of entitlement. We're not grateful, this is just how life is. It's easy, then, to ignore both "the poor" and any calls we might otherwise tune into that might ask us to impractically expend our resources in an irresponsible way, just for God.
The second thing I've been thinking about is a question I read yesterday. We're also practicing devotional reading of John during the time leading up to Easter, called "Forty Days with the Gospel of John." So yesterday I read about the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, and the query for the day was, "If you knew the gift of God, what would you ask for?" It's talking about Jesus' offer to the woman of living water, but it made me think of the anointing passage as well.
My answer to the question was that I would ask for a release from all the details--all the cleaning and cooking and house repairs and paying bills and....
The woman at the well was asking for a similar thing--she's excited about Jesus giving her living water so she doesn't have to come back to the well all the time to draw more water. She could get rid of that chore!
I want to be like Mary in the story in Luke, where Martha is busily preparing a meal for Jesus and who-knows-how-many other guests, while Mary is sitting around listening to Jesus and not helping. But then what would they eat? Who's going to do all that stuff if I don't?
Mary chooses what is better, and I think in the anointing passage she does the same. She may not know why this anointing is important, but she knows it is. It's totally impractical. It makes a spectacle of herself, going in there where all the men are reclining at the table, letting down her hair to wipe off his feet, spending her family's savings, and yet, maybe she's received the gift Jesus is really offering--living water--and this is the only response she can think of with enough magnitude. She's living beyond the chores and duties, filling the world with the fragrance of pure love for God.
It's so hard to live in that tension, though--how do we know when we're supposed to live life with abandon like Mary, and when we should be practical and take care of the needs of others? How do we receive the gift of living water daily, and yet stay engaged in this world in which we find ourselves?
I guess that's the eternal human question, isn't it?
So I have all these thoughts and they're not coalesced into a sermon yet, but that's where I'm at right now. For part 3 I'll probably post the sermon after I give it--wouldn't want to give it away any more than I already have for those from my meeting who read my blog!