SAY GOODBYE TO HOLLYWOOD
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ (John 12:1-8, NRSV)
Sometimes good and bad, happy and sad can be all mixed up together. On the same day and in the same hospital, I’ve gone from seeing an elderly man in ICU nearing the end of his life and then visited the maternity ward to meet a newborn girl at the very beginning of her life: good and bad, happy and sad.
Never have I experienced this more intensely than on November 21 and 22, 1982. I was in my first year of college in the thriving metropolis of Starkville, Mississippi. Stark said it all. Eventually students began sarcastically referring to Starkville as Stark Vegas. The Mississippi State campus was three and a half hours from my family and home in Tennessee. On the evening of November 21, my grandparents called to say that they wanted to buy me a new car because they no longer trusted the bright orange 1974 Honda Civic I was currently driving. There were no cell phones and few pay phones on the back roads of north Mississippi in the early 1980’s. My grandparents worried that my current rattle trap would break down in the middle of the night beside some gravel road with a sign saying, “We shoot first and ask questions later.” Someday I’ll tell you about the time I was driving a 1973 AMC Gremlin (the essence of cool) while pulling a trailer full of drums. Following a detour to avoid a washed out bridge, I took a wrong turn and ended up in a muddy cotton field, and yes, of course it was the middle of the night.
I cannot overstate my elation and excitement at the promise of a new car. My 18-year-old self was already dreaming of muscle cars like Camaros and Corvettes. It was a thoroughly unexpected gift and I was on cloud nine. It was my grandmother who told me the big news. I asked to speak with my grandfather whose idea it was to buy the car. He wasn’t feeling well and wasn’t up to it. I found this a little odd because my 72-year-old grandfather seemed fine on my last trip home. The conversation ended with the idea that we could look for a car over the Thanksgiving holidays that were only three days away.
The next morning a family friend called to say that my grandfather had been taken ill and that I should come home. I was told it was not urgent. I needed to take a Spanish test and wrap up a few things before I could leave. I tried to start the ’74 Honda which I discovered was as dead as a doornail due to an alternator issue. I guess my grandparents were right about my needing a more dependable car. A friend showed up with jumper cables to save the day. He advised me not to turn the car off until I got home.
Finally, I was on the road. Fast forward three hours and I’ve almost completed the 150 mile trip home. I saw a beautiful sunset as my Billy Joel cassette tape played, “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.” I got a major lump in my throat when I heard the line, “Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes I guess it’s time for goodbye again.” And so it was. I walked in the door and my parents broke the news that my grandfather had died earlier that day. I had been so happy the night before when my grandparents called with the news of a new car. Now the tables had turned and I was facing the biggest grief of my 18 years. My grandfather’s name was James and I was named after him. He was my hero, the family hero and an important figure in our church and in our town. But now he was gone and I could not even say goodbye.
For me, this was one of those life experiences where there was a definite before and a definite after. The person I had been before was different than the person I became after. My sadness turned into a very complicated grief experience that hung over me for a very long time. My grandmother insisted on buying the car for me anyway because that’s what my grandfather had wanted: good and bad, happy and sad. For a decade, the funeral flower I kept in the glove box of my 1983 Nissan Sentra said it all.
Today’s story of Jesus’ last trip to Bethany for a visit with his close friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus was one such occasion. The dinner took place in the family home six days before Passover, one week before the horrors of Good Friday. Jesus, Judas, and likely other disciples were invited to a meal that was more than a meal. We learn from today’s text that Jesus had recently raised Lazarus from the dead. Everyone gathered to celebrate Lazarus being alive without knowing that Jesus would soon die. So they partied like it was 1999 with steaks on the grill, margaritas in the blender, and a DJ playing REM’s ironic classic, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine).” Only Jesus knew that it was indeed the end of the world and that none of them would feel fine.
On the surface, the party is going well in large part because Martha is working her fingers to the bone in the kitchen. Martha is best known for that other dinner when she chastised her sister, Mary, for talking to Jesus instead of helping in the kitchen. Martha was always practical. Her attention to detail made her the perfect host. Martha showed her devotion to Jesus through practical, hands-on service. Even though she often gets a bum rap, our church and our world need Marthas, those who jump in with both feet and get the job done.
The man of the hour is Lazarus, a guy who had seen it all. Like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, Lazarus has gone where no one has gone before. He had lived death, so to speak, and thanks to Jesus, was alive again. Unfortunately, there is no record that Lazarus told anybody what it was like to die or to be dead, though he was surely peppered with such questions until the day he died…for the second time.
And then there was Mary, who was all heart. In today’s scripture lesson, we find her anointing Jesus’ feet not with a few ounces of Old Spice from the drugstore, but with a $2,000 bottle of Clive Christian from the Americana.
To anoint means to cover an object or part of the body such as the head with oil or ointment as a sign that the person or thing was consecrated or set aside for a holy purpose. Sometimes those in need of healing were anointed and blessed with prayers. After death, bodies were anointed in preparation for burial. Anointing was a common practice of the day. When Mary anointed Jesus however, it was far from the norm. In fact, it was extravagant in two ways. First, there was the cost of the perfumed ointment itself, and second there was the cost of bucking the system. When Mary took Jesus’ feet in her hands and wiped them with her hair, she broke the customs of her day. Women were not allowed to touch a man in public or let their hair down in front of others. But Mary’s devotion to Jesus, her gratefulness for bringing Lazarus back to life, her wonder at the presence of God she sensed in Jesus overwhelmed her to the point of ignoring convention. And while there was nothing unusual about anointing someone’s head as a sign of honor, the fact that Mary anointed Jesus’ feet points to her humility (William Barclay, The Gospel of John Vol. II, p. 110).
At that point, Judas, always the kill-joy, criticizes Mary for buying top shelf perfumed ointment and, without saying it in so many words, Judas criticizes Jesus for letting Mary blow so much money on his feet. “Talk about a waste of money,” Judas pontificates, “they could have sold that perfume and fed the poor”…not that Judas cared about the poor. Jesus deflected the criticism and praised Mary for her extravagant love. In response to Judas, Jesus laid his cards on the table saying, “You’ll always have the poor but you will not always have me.” That last phrase raised eyebrows. What did it mean? Unfortunately, in a week they would find out for themselves: good and bad, happy and sad. “Life is series of hellos and goodbyes. I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again.” AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
April 7, 2019
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
As Jesus entered the lives of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, we ask that you enter our lives as well. Remind us that your Spirit is near on ordinary days when we’re busy with errands and simple tasks. Open our eyes to the eternal in the temporal, to the meaning beyond the moment, to the true significance of life. Remind us of your Spirit’s faithful presence in the best of times too. In times of great sadness and loss, help us find your spiritual sustenance and peace. In times of celebration and joy, help us remember you as the source from whom all blessings flow.