If Only- Learning Time for Sunday, April 3, 2022 at Harrow United Church

“If only”

Audio recording of the Learning Time
Video of the Worship Service for April 3, 2022

The video of this worship service will be added to this post when available.

Two of the saddest words in the English language are “if only”. 

In our daily existence with family and friends, and Facebook, we encounter these words all too often. There are so many stories of regret.

If only we’d known Covid was coming. Maybe we wouldn’t have placed Mom in the nursing home, where she was locked down, and we couldn’t get in to see her.

If only we’d known what was really going on with our niece. We would have tried harder, offered her parents more support. 

If only we’d noticed sooner what was happening with our dog. We might have got him into the vet earlier, and maybe they would have caught it.

If only the guy had known when he was or 35, or 40 what he knows now about work/life balance. There were all those moments he missed with the kids. He looks at the photos now, most of which he’s not in, and for what? To help build the company’s bottom line?

“If only” are the first words in many sad stories, many laments. If only we’d known, done, listened, paid closer attention. We could’ve, should’ve done something different.

We are at the tail end of Lent. Next week is Palm Sunday. The Jesus story as we re-tell it is leading us closer and closer to Jerusalem, and what looks to us like the inevitable clash with both the religious authorities, and the Roman rulers. Rome ran Israel as a colony, bleeding it of all the resources, staple foods, and tax revenue it could get.

The Romans, who’d become experts at exploiting colonies, (because that’s exactly what every Empire has ever done, with every colony ever claimed) appointed their own puppet king, who in turn kept the leaders of the Temple in line. Temple leaders were allowed to run their little local religion so long as they discouraged the rabble from challenging the Roman rulers.

Jesus had become a popular teacher and preacher, and drew large crowds from amongst the poor, the slaves, and even some of the well-off locals who collaborated with Rome. His teaching challenged the hard-line legalism of the temple, and encouraged people at the bottom of the economic and social ladders to dare to think more of themselves than the way their culture and religion defined them.

Of course, Jesus was headed on a collision course with trouble. We can see it, partly because the church has had 2000 years to interpret the Gospel stories and read the clues. But did the people in Jesus’ inner circle see it as clearly as we can?

The old saying is hindsight is 20/20. Things are often easier to understand, after the fact.

The four gospels as we have them were all written long after the events they describe. They were edited and arranged by people who’d heard Jesus stories in their communities. They recorded them to make sure they were passed along, but many who would read what was eventually written already knew the broad strokes. They would have heard local versions of the story in the meetings of Jesus followers in their hometowns.

Scholars of the Bible talk about the “oral tradition”. Stories passed along from teller to hearer, in cultures in which the ability to read and write, and the materials needed would be rare. The individual gospels, letters, and other literature of the church did not circulate in written form until at least 75-100 years after the events they describe. That couldn’t happen until enough people with wealth and education became part of the early Jesus movement.

Until then, stories were kept in local communities, and treasured. Most people in that time, unless they were working for the Empire, or traveling to trade commodities or goods, didn’t venture very far at all from where they were born. Stories well known in one place might sound different 3 villages over.

It’s not surprising that the four gospels tell different versions of the Jesus story. The one we heard today from John’s Gospel, about Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing Jesus, is told differently in the other Gospels.

In Mark, and in Matthew, the story has a different cast of characters. It happens not at the home of Lazarus, but that of someone called Simon the Leper. The woman who anoints Jesus does not get a name- but since it’s not at Lazarus’ s house, it’s not likely to be his sister Mary. Mark and Matthew agree with John’s version that this event happened only a few miles outside of Jerusalem, and just days before Passover.

Luke’s Gospel takes the same story but moves it to a much earlier time in Jesus’ ministry, well before his final entry into Jerusalem. It happened at the home of a Pharisee, one of the religious leaders with whom Jesus would later clash. This Pharisee has the same name as Simon the Leper- but there’s no way someone with leprosy could be a Pharisee. Lepers were, according to the laws the Pharisees taught, considered unclean. 

In Luke’s version the woman who did the anointing and foot-washing still doesn’t have a name, but we learn that because of her actions, her many sins have been forgiven. This detail about “many sins” has often led people to speculate she was a prostitute.

In that culture any woman not attached to a man was suspect and seen as a dangerous temptation. If she had the money to buy the expensive perfume to anoint Jesus, people would wonder where she got it. Women couldn’t hold jobs, own property, or do any kind of legitimate business without the protection of a husband or male relative. In law they were not actually people, but property.

Luke saved the characters of Mary and Martha for a story a couple of chapters later. In Luke’s version there is no mention of a brother named Lazarus- that’s only in John’s Gospel. Luke describes Martha complaining that she’s done all the work to host Jesus, while her sister Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching.

In each of these stories, the woman at Jesus’ feet gets in trouble, and in each case Jesus defends them. This is very interesting, provocative even, because the act of a woman sitting at the feet of a man is more than a little scandalous. It is suggestive of something more than listening to a story. It is often a euphemism for intimacy. 

In the Book of Ruth, in the Old Testament, Ruth is a widow, who was counseled by her mother-in-law, her dead husband’s mother, to seek the attention and protection of a distant male relative. During the celebration of a successful harvest, Ruth ends up spending the night “at the feet” of this man, called Boaz, who later takes her as his wife. 

The story in John’s Gospel hints at the discomfort of the male disciples around the incredibly intimate act that appears in these stories, of a woman bathing a man’s feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, and then anointing his feet with perfumed oil. 

Judas condemned Mary’s actions as inappropriate. The reason he gave had to do with the cost of the perfume, which could have gone to help the poor. 

The writer of John’s Gospel steps in here with the editorial comment that Judas was lying, and actually wanted the money for himself. That takes the listener, the reader off in the direction of thinking about Judas the villain. It also distracts from the beauty and the emotional power of the moment.

Mary was in tears, lavishing her attention and an expensive gift on Jesus. We can look back now and see how the anointing is a bit like the preparation done in those days before a dead body was buried. It was washed, and anointed with expensive, aromatic oils, if the family had the means.

Maybe it was easier for the male followers of Jesus to focus on Judas as the bad guy in the story, than to think about how they might all may have acted differently, had they realized how close they all were, to the end of Jesus’ earthly life.

They couldn’t know what we know, reading the story told later, that in less than a week, Jesus would ride into Jerusalem on the donkey, and end up arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to a painful death.

If only these guys had just let Mary do her thing, and not let Judas put her down for showing her love for Jesus.

Judas acted poorly, but Jesus was the only one who called him on it. The rest of just let it happen. 

Since the Oscars, the internet has been full of speculation and judgment about Will Smith running up on stage, and attacking the comedian Chris Rock, because he didn’t appreciate a joke he told. There has been lots of talk about whether Will Smith was justified, or whether he should have let it go. No talk at all about the hundreds of people in the room who acted like nothing was going on, and watched, or took videos, or selfies, while one man beat up on another. 

If only someone had the good sense to intervene, or at least point out it’s not okay to hit someone because they told a bad joke. It’s much easier to pick out the villain in the story, and ignore the inaction, the complicity of everyone else in the room. Interesting that he wasn’t removed from the scene of his assault. Common sense would suggest he be escorted out of the building.

If only someone had stopped Will Smith. If only someone had told Judas to chill out, and let Mary do this very tender thing for her friend Jesus.

If only. There are different morals, or lessons we can draw from the story of Mary, and Jesus, and Judas. One for today is to not shy away from the things in our lives that are hard to deal with, hard to talk about, hard to admit, hard to forgive, hard to get over. If only Jesus’ other friends had been as honest and demonstrative of their feelings as Mary was. It may not have changed the outcome, but it would have mattered.

I think of stories I’ve heard over the years, of people who missed the chance, on the last time they saw someone before they died, to tell them they loved them. 

I mentioned earlier the people who realized only after the time had passed, the moments they’d missed with their kids as they grew up.

 I know of people who go on vacation to a really beautiful, distant locale, and spend their time in front of the tv in their hotel room, or in the bar, and don’t take the opportunity to see or experience anything different or new. You might wonder why they have traveled and realize that in their soul they haven’t. They’ve remained stuck somewhere else in time.

Instead of being where they are, they look back and miss where they were, or gaze ahead to some place they’d rather be. There’s no “here” for them, even when they could be right “here”.

Mary, who was looked down upon, and left undefended, unsupported by everyone in the room except Jesus, was being exactly where she was, and offering a gift of love, with the whole of her body, mind and soul. If only we can be more like her. Amen

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