April 3, 2022

“Letting Go” (John 12:1-8) — Rev. Chelsea Page

A few years ago when I lived and worked at the Catholic Worker Farm in California, we came to an interesting crossroads in our ministry. We had inherited a wonderful program of leading retreats for people living with HIV/AIDS in San Francisco. But when it came time for us to move on, we discovered that this retreat ministry, which meant so much to us and our guests from the city, was not tenable for our new leaders. You see, San Francisco was an eight-hour roundtrip drive from our remote mountain farm, and even with the gas prices of those days, this conflicted with the ecological consciousness of the group that was taking over the farm. They felt called to stay put in the countryside and focus more on the land. It was a painful right-turn to cancel this long-standing flagship program and disappoint our guests. And yet, since then we have seen how the farm has flourished with this renewed attention on tending to the land.

Jesus surprised Judas and the rest of the disciples with a sudden right-turn in his ministry in our story today. Mary does this extravagant, funny thing with the perfume, and all of a sudden Jesus is like, you know what, forget the poor. But Jesus was all about giving to the poor – there’s another passage in the gospel of John that shows that Jesus regularly instructed for their coin purse to be distributed to the poor. Now, it’s important to clarify that Jesus did not intend to say that no one needs to worry about helping the poor anymore. Rather, Jesus’ comment was reminding his disciples of the commandment in Deuteronomy 15:11—“Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’.” Jesus was saying that helping the poor is a perpetual requirement for all of the Jewish people to be practicing – but it would no longer be the focus of his particular ministry.

Still, for the disciples it must have felt like a sudden right turn pretty late in the game to say, hey forget all the good ministry with the poor that we’ve done together. Remember, they didn’t know that this dinner party was marking the beginning of the last week of Jesus’s life. They didn’t know that it was time for Jesus to be “letting go.” No one was ready to see that – except for Mary. Sure, they knew he was in trouble with the authorities for raising Lazarus from the dead. But the plan in everyone’s minds was for him to win this power struggle – not for him to die. He was going to lead their nonviolent revolution to victory – not fail.

I’ve recently been watching a TV show called the Dropout, about Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO of Theranos, which was a biomedical company that defrauded investors of millions of dollars. At the beginning of the show when she is just starting her company, she gets a paperweight made that says, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” Because failure was not an option to her, she continually lied to cover up her failures rather than coming clean and asking for help. We get into big trouble when we hold ourselves to a strict linear version of how our lives should go, rather than letting go of our plans and embracing new directions when needed. Elizabeth Holmes is an extreme example, but many of us double down and resist when we see a big change coming. I probably stayed at the Catholic Worker Farm a few years longer than necessary just to keep the legacy retreats going.

I wonder how Mary was able to acknowledge the big change in Jesus’s ministry that was coming, even when no one else did? Well, Lazarus was her brother. He was dead, and now he is sitting at the table with her, alive again – because Jesus did a new thing. Jesus brought him back to life and restored his normal lifespan. No one knew he could do that. But Mary is not going to forget it soon. And in her shock over this dramatic intervention into the course of her family’s life, she is keeping her eyes open for what new thing Jesus is doing next. She senses he is up to something and just needs an opening to show them what that new thing might be.

What if, rather than a spontaneous outpouring of emotion, Mary is using her stunt strategically to create space for Jesus to chart the new path for their movement? She is encouraging the disciples through her example to break their habits in ministry. This might very well be his final, most important days. This is not the time to plan out his next steps for him. After the miracle of raising Lazarus, this is the time to open one’s eyes and get ready to be surprised by what he might do next.

And surprised they will be. Resurrection to eternal life was even more amazing than the resuscitation of Lazarus. It’s easy to forget that even Jesus, in facing his own death, did not know for sure that he would be resurrected. In his Lenten wilderness retreat, he rejected the temptation to throw his body off a cliff and test God into rescuing him. In this passion and death, he begged God to take the cup of suffering away from him. Yet somehow Jesus finds the strength to look ahead, trusting in the God who is always getting ready to do a new thing. Like Mary, he still believes that God can surprise him. I hope that the scent of that great quantity of perfume lingered all throughout the coming week on his skin, reminding him of Mary’s trust in him, and his trust in God. In this way Mary prepared his body not just for death, but for new life.

Friends, what can we do to prepare for new life? This Lent we have been practicing the great art of “letting go.” In these two years of transition, COVID has forced us to let go of some of our assumptions about church and make a sharp right-turn in some of our ministries. It is tempting to look only to what was done in the past to figure out how we can succeed in the future. But what if we decided to just forget everything we think we know, and instead pay attention to the things that surprise us? What are the new and unexpected things that God is doing in our midst?

Well, God is bringing a lot of new visitors to our church, people I have never met before. I’m surprised that there are still people out there who are interested in religion, and I’m surprised when I hear what they are looking for in a church. I’m also surprised by the people who have decided to move on from our church and the people who no longer come to worship in-person. COVID has caused them to make a change in their routines and fill their time with something new. What is God leading them toward in their lives? In my own life, I notice that God is inviting me to let go of the way I judge success and failure in ministry. What if succeeding with the tried and true is not even the point anymore? What if we are called to try more new things and fail at them so that we can learn? Half of the plans I embark on these days end up in a different place from what I had envisioned. Instead of being disappointed, I’m calling it a blessing. How else can we be open to the new thing that wants to happen now?

God says, “See, I am doing a new thing.” God’s unknown, wonderful surprise is not up ahead and around the corner, but is trying to be born in our midst now. It’s still time to open one’s eyes and be surprised. And maybe even pull off a few Mary-style stunts, just to see what happens.