Text: John 12
According to Wikipedia, the word “anathema” in common usage means something or someone that is detested or shunned. Its other main usage is in a religious context, referring to formal excommunication. Examples of use:
‘Racial hatred was anathema to her.’
‘The idea that one would voluntarily inject poison Into one’s body was anathema to me’
‘This notion was anathema to most of his countrymen’
Each use of ‘anathema’ assumes gut-level emotional rejection of thing or person such as racial hatred, intravenous drug abuse, or sedition. The Big Idea today asked what was anathematized for us. I said, “some people here wouldn’t say “shit,” if their mouths were full of it” – the room went more silent.
Why is the scatological, the obscene, the carnal, sexual or pornographic more anathema to us than is profanity? In fact those who won’t say “shit” in church to people are quite comfortable saying it about people in private! Surely something or somebody is sacred to us. What threatened the sacred might be anathema, if it profaned and threatened what we held to be sublime.
Biblical use of the Greek word ‘anathema’ is just 6 times in Christian scriptures, referring to those accursed or set apart from our religious community. The Greek translation of Hebrew herem is more frequent, referring to things and people consecrated or set apart, ‘beyond the pale’ of the Exodus camp, or within the temple of Solomon or the Second Temple.
‘Set apart’ lacks the necessary emotional freight, perhaps. What we need for ‘anathema’ is more of a taboo, passion overwhelming reason facing the profane. I used a line from Stephen Leacock’s story “Gertrude the Governess” collected in “Nonsense Novels” (and promised you a longer quote, appended here):
Lord Ronald said nothing
He flung himself from the room,
Flung himself upon his horse
And rode off madly in all directions.
In worship this morning, and online at these websites, we read or heard the ‘Anathemas of the Second Council of Chalcedon’. On this Communion Sunday, we glib liberals proudly ‘above’ and ‘past’ primitive religion won’t ‘fence the table’ or refuse anyone access. No authority imposes creeds or orthodox belief on us! Yet what is left, but pettiness of ‘good girls’ and ‘nice boys’ who won’t say shit?
Trinity, like many United Churches today, suffers from a comical, tragic dynamic. Bitter, hurt people self-righteously absent ourselves from gathered community - 1,000 have gone in a decade, and 200 are left in a bitter endgame, ready to ante enough to stay at table for the big pot, to write the epitaph, mortmain the future disposition of the legacy endowment of the church.
As we enter a lame duck quarter of Transition Ministry at Trinity, a final 90 days, too many people are posturing, waiting it out, absenting themselves not only from the table, but from the chapel. Imagine them all, rehearsing ‘I told you so’ in bathroom mirror soliloquys! “They pulled their money.” “He won’t come till that minister is gone.” “She is so hurt – it’s shameful!”
Ach, give me the good old days of anathema! When we openly ‘set aside’ some things and some people, ‘beyond the pale’, ‘outside the camp’, it was for the public health and safe sanctuary of what we hold sacred. Gossip – God talk – stuff only God should address, belongs in this place, not in petty echo beyond. Leadership is the immune system of a community, protecting us from infectious disease and degeneration. We owe it to our most vulnerable.
Drugs, prison, poverty, mental illness, addiction, crime, fraud, are all things we should be confessing in the first person here, about ourselves and our families! Otherwise we have only the silences and the absences. This congregation is too nice and too good. Why do we only talk about the successful kid elsewhere, and not all of our kids, and our parents, and siblings, and cousins in trouble? Probably we misunderstood what should be anathematized.
The gospel today is John’s version of the anointing. All four gospels have Jesus anointed before he dies. Dom Crossan calls the funerary practice of Palestine in Jesus’ time ‘purification by putrefaction’: a body was put in a tomb till the flesh rotted off, with all the marks of a life, leaving clean bones to box in an ossuary.
Luke gives us the salacious version: a woman of ill repute throws herself at Jesus’ feet, weeping, then wipes off her tears with her hair, then anoints his feet. His host protests, and Jesus scolds his host for being less loving to him.
Matthew and Mark offer the anonymous version: a woman anoints, a person criticizes the waste. Jesus says the woman should never be forgotten, the story always told, as she is the first person to really ‘get it’: apostle to the apostles
This Fourth Gospel elaborates and embellishes characters who we relish, with whom we might identify, from whom we might distinguish ourselves, but none of whom are anathematized or excluded: Martha, Lazarus, Mary – and Judas. Martha yelled at Jesus for being lazy and uncaring in the previous chapter – Lazarus is newly raised from 4 days of rotting in the grave, May really is lazy and wasteful, and as for Judas Iscariot, ‘Jack the Knife’ – well!
Would you go to supper, or ‘for a bite’, with these folks? Are they good or nice? This story is about zombies, ‘the undead’, exploring what is ‘really alive’ and what is living death. It’s close to the satirical movies I’ve recommended, like ‘Sean of the Dead’ or ‘A Zombie Christmas’. In the long run, we’re all dead, and in the meantime, there’s so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, it’s hard to tell which of us should reform the rest of us!
Martha starred in chapter 11, and here has a supporting role. We already know she is ready to challenge Jesus, and to confess him as Messiah. We see her again in a practical role, the one who gets things done. She embodies the incarnational Christology of John: God with us, in us, for us, here and now.
Other gospels say ‘the kingdom of heaven is like’, but John’s Jesus says ‘I am’.
Canadian professional engineers wear an iron ring on their small finger. They get the ring in a ceremony recognizing them as ‘sons of Martha’ from a Kipling poem, (appended to the bottom of these notes online). The poet celebrates the engineers who make things work for other people, though ‘sons of Mary’ take their work for granted, but rely upon the engineers nonetheless.
Some Christians, and all of us sometimes, are Marthas and sons of Martha, our roles and identities ‘here and now’: pragmatic, critical, not just ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda’, or ‘pie in the sky’, but firmly ‘here and now’. Somebody makes the toilets flush and the sewers work, keeps the water and electricity flowing, the buildings standing, the food on the table and the kitchens clean. That’s often us.
Lazarus was one of those at the table with him
That one’s easy to skip over, like ‘Martha served.’ Just days ago, ‘behold, he stinketh’. He has been revived, renewed, unbound, given another chance at purification by means other than ‘putrefaction’. He will die again, by tradition after he’s 80. For now, he’s at table with Jesus, with another chance to make something of life.
Some, like me, have had a near-death experience. We have been to a boundary and back. There is a dominant culture visualization of a ‘white light at the end of a tunnel’. I prefer to construe my experience as more fully populated by those who have ‘gone before’, and those being ‘left behind’, as I imagine our Christian ancestors have done in terms of heavenly visions.
Anointing is associated with scents applied to dead bodies in that culture in that century. It’s a bit like a whiff of formaldehyde under a layer of pungent lily scent in the old funeral homes. (‘No more lilies at Easter’, says Laurie Gilmore.) The power of olfactory senses to trigger memories. What does death smell like to you – nursing homes or hospitals, or homes with shut-ins?
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre produced “Lazarus” for their 60th anniversary, and we showed the YouTube before worship, and link it here. Lazarus was raised, to a second chance at life, kicking off the premature funeral binding that threatened to keep him in the tomb. As Northrop Frye points out,
the narrative requires Lazarus to die again – like us. What does he do with his gift of another chance, on another day? What do we do with ours?
Mary came in with a jar…
Don’t conflate 4 evangelists’ versions of this anointing. Luke had the salacious version, and Matthew and Mark the anonymous one, but this Fourth Gospel is representing the distinction between Mary and Martha. Martha is busy being of some earthly use, while Mary is heavenly minded, said to have chosen the better part. Affirmation of spiritual type, each sister an apostle to the apostles, this story is descriptive, not prescriptive.
These spiritual types are not mutually exclusive, and we have no need to anathematize the other, but to celebrate complementarity within a bigger frame. Hosts, patrons, and benefactors were all necessary in Jesus and John’s generations: Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea tomb, and this household of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. If you’ve got some material gifts, what’s it for?
I used to condemn people who sent kids to fee-paying private schools – like Burtynsky the filmmaker of ‘Manufactured Landscapes’. If you’ve got wealth, and love your child, does giving them the best necessarily deny public schools? While I object to expensive private palliative nursing care, why would we not spend every nickle of our parents’ savings on their end of days, even while public geriatric care is underfunded?
How we treat the vulnerable in our own households identifies and shapes us, and informs how we approach our wider community, nation, and common humanity. How we approach mortality, finitude, not anathematizing the weak, nor euthanizing them, is a pretty fundamental spiritual and religious issue. Mary’s choice was to waste all she had on the Jesus she loved.
Judas Iscariot objected…
We know Judas Iscariot. Some scholars see a play on the word Sicarii, the partisan insurrectionists promoting violent rebellion against Rome. Thus, the name of this disciple is like ‘Mack the Knife’. Here only, in the Fourth Gospel, is Judas named as the critic of the anointing, posturing as the righteous one.
It’s not that Judas cares, but that that he won’t get his cut, habitually skimmed off the top of the ‘helping’ budget, as the evangelist editorializes. Look out for the guy like me who is part of the ‘do-gooder’ industries, taking a living from helping. ‘The helping hand strikes again’ we often say of the frailties of charities.
‘Leave her alone. She bought it so she might keep it, for the day of my burial.’ Jesus takes Mary’s side, as she took his. She anticipated and prepared for his death and burial, and she didn’t wait till he died to use the anointing perfumes on him. She ‘gets it’: that this is about more than doing good, but about living fully, and dying well.
Too many of us know the tag line about ‘the poor are always with you’ as a justification for selfish insensitivity – and ironically, share the sin editorially attributed to Judas. Too few of us linger at the taboo reference to death and burial, mortality, and finitude. We risk ending up with Judas – but in this gospel, as Mary Edith pointed out at the beginning of worship, he is not anathematized but plays his role, belonging in the story as do Martha, Lazarus, and Mary do.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany,
home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.
There they gave a dinner for him.
Last week we got a dinner party and a fatted calf. Next week, we tell of a parade of palm branches and a last Passover supper in an upper room. For now, who and what does our come-back serve? ‘I wish God would take me’ moans a sick one. Given another day, ‘now what’ ask Christians with a Lazarus role and identity. We are that church, too, of those revived, raised, unbound from tombs and ties and premature ‘purification by putrefaction’. What will we make of a second, or next-to-last chance? God knows – she gave it to us!
A partial truth, a little knowledge, is a dangerous thing. We try on roles and identities offered to us as Christians: Martha, Lazarus, Mary, or Judas. God has given us another day, another chance, another opportunity to play a role in a story that belongs to each of us, to all of us, to God.
Each story is unique, like the gifts we bring, and the roles and identities we assume. We don’t need to anathematize others or boil them down to crude caricatures. We are simply called to make the next choice, as if it mattered, as it may. What are we made to do, and called to be? Give us ears to hear.
Gertrude the Governess,
Lord Nosh stood upon the hearthrug of the library. Trained diplomat and statesman as he was,
his stern aristocratic face was upside down with fury.
"Boy," he said, "you shall marry this girl
or I disinherit you. You are no son of mine."
Young Lord Ronald, erect before him,
flung back a glance as defiant as his own.
"I defy you," he said.
"Henceforth you are no father of mine.
I will get another.
I will marry none but a woman I can love.
This girl that we have never seen----"
"Fool," said the Earl,
"would you throw aside our estate
and name of a thousand years?
The girl, I am told, is beautiful;
her aunt is willing; they are French;
pah! they understand such things in France."
"But your reason----"
"I give no reason," said the Earl.
"Listen, Ronald, I give one month.
For that time you remain here.
If at the end of it you refuse me,
I cut you off with a shilling."
Lord Ronald said nothing;
he flung himself from the room,
flung himself upon his horse
and rode madly off in all directions.
The Sons of Mary –
The Sons of Mary seldom bother,
for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother
of the careful soul & the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once,
& because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary's Sons,
world without end, reprieve, or rest.
It is their care in all the ages
to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages;
it is their care that the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly;
it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly
the Sons of Mary by land and main.
They say to mountains ``Be ye removèd.''
They say to the lesser floods ``Be dry.''
Under their rods are the rocks reprovèd---
they are not afraid of that which is high.
Then do the hill-tops shake to the summit---
then is the bed of the deep laid bare,
That the Sons of Mary may overcome it,
pleasantly sleeping and unaware.
They finger Death at their gloves' end
where they piece and repiece the living wires.
He rears against the gates they tend:
they feed him hungry behind their fires.
Early at dawn, ere men see clear,
they stumble into his terrible stall,
And hale him forth like a haltered steer,
and goad and turn him till evenfall.
To these from birth is Belief forbidden;
from these till death is Relief afar.
They are concerned with matters hidden---
under the earthline their altars are---
The secret fountains to follow up,
waters withdrawn to restore to the mouth,
And gather the floods as in a cup,
and pour them again at a city's drouth.
They do not preach that their God will rouse them
a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not preach that His Pity allows them
to drop their job when they damn-well choose.
As in the thronged and the lighted ways,
so in the dark and the desert they stand,
Wary and watchful all their days
that their brethren's ways may be long in the land.
Raise ye the stone or cleave the wood
to make a path more fair or flat;
Lo, it is black already with the blood
some Son of Martha spilled for that!
Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven,
not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given
to his own kind in their common need.
And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessèd---
they know the Angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confessèd,
and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the feet---they hear the Word---
they see how truly the Promise runs.
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and---
the Lord He lays it on Martha's Sons!