This blog has been adapted from the first sermon that Naomi Tice preached in German for the Bammental Mennonite Church in Germany, "Leben mit Spannung" ("Life with Tension"). Read the entire sermon in English or in German.
Whether we like it or not, tension is part of everyday life. Sometimes, tension is good, pushing us to step outside of our comfort zones. But tension can also be destructive, causing so much stress that we struggle to breathe or find it impossible to make simple decisions. Tension stretches us. But it can sometimes cause us to snap.
For more than two years, COVID-19 has increased the tension in our lives. Not only do people deal with tension differently, but due to an ever-evolving virus, guidelines are constantly shifting to address the particularities of each new variant. This tension creates awkwardness as disciples of Jesus try to gather for fellowship. But this is nothing new.
Imagine that you've been invited to a friend's house for a holiday meal. You're sitting around the table, engaging in conversation and enjoying good food. Many of the guests are subversive people who threaten the status quo, so coming here has been risky. But, by some unspoken agreement, everyone is purposely ignoring this elephant in the room.
Suddenly, a woman comes in and crawls under the table! She starts crying, soaking the feet of one the guests with her tears. Then, she pulls some pins out of her hair, so that her long locks flow freely. She uses her hair to dry the guest's feet! If the awkwardness of the situation isn't enough, the shameless woman opens a jar of perfumed oil and starts massaging the guest's feet. The smell of the perfume overwhelms all the food odors in the room, and the atmosphere becomes tense and uncertain. The host and all the guests have lost control!
You feel embarrassed for the guest who is receiving such indecent attention. Though, truth be told, he seems calm. After what seems like an eternity of watching this unusual encounter, you can't handle the awkwardness anymore.
"Enough already," you shout! "Why are you doing this? Why do we need to witness this intimacy? And, woman, why are you wasting your money on such costly oil? Your money could be put to so many other good uses."
Unfortunately, your efforts to bring an end to the awkwardness seem to have created even more tension. You feel the heat rise to your cheeks. The guest calmly explains that this woman has not wasted her money. In fact, she was really doing him a favor, because, although God always calls us to fight against poverty and injustice in the world, the guest's presence is a moment to be cherished.
Now it's not only you who is embarrassed and confused, the tension in the room has increased exponentially. Why, oh why, did you open your mouth? If only you could have dealt with the awkward display of affection in silence!
The story presented to us in John 12:1-8 is not just about a happy dinner party that became uncomfortable. It is also about an extravagant display of love and gratitude among a group of people willing to come together, despite the risks. It takes place after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and the Jewish authorities, at this point, were more than fed up with Jesus and Lazarus, who had been turning the world upside-down.
Jesus could have chosen to not accept the dinner invitation and stayed away from Bethany until things calmed down. But he didn't. Surely, some of his disciples pushed back when Jesus decided to travel towards Bethany again.
And because Jesus takes the risk, Mary also risks displaying her love and gratitude for him in an extravagant way. Remember that Jesus raised her brother from the dead!
When Judas makes the remarks intended to restore normalcy to the dinner party, is he a bit jealous? The writer of the Gospel of John describes Judas as a thief — someone interested in lining his own pockets from the communal purse. But Mary's actions threaten Judas' way of life. Is Mary's extravagance a tipping point for Judas? Is this when Judas realizes that Jesus isn't going to help him attain the power he is striving for?
In the following chapter, John 13, Judas strikes out on his own, leaving Jesus and the other disciples. He turns to the Jewish leaders to gain their approval and earn the reward money promised for the capture of Jesus.
Many of us would have probably spoken out against Mary's actions, like Judas did. We, Mennonites, tend to take a — humble — pride in being thrifty people. We would never spend a fortune on name-brand perfume when we could buy something similar for a tenth of the price. Think of all the good we could have done with the money we saved!
The Bible doesn't fill us in on how the tensions at the Bethany dinner party resolved. But some of the takeaways are:
- There is a tension between thrift and extravagance. Thrift for charitable purposes doesn't always take precedence over extravagant generosity.
- Often things don't go as planned. Tension and awkward situations result. We are invited to sit with tension in emotionally charged times to allow ourselves to be stretched, so that we can grow. The disciples live in the tension that followed the Bethany banquet for seven chapters — one-third of the Gospel of John — before Jesus' resurrection resolves it.
In our day-to-day lives and in our congregations, we are constantly adapting to new guidelines, whether it be COVID-19-related, or whether it is changing church polity. Some people embrace the new reality. Some are wary of it.
Let us have grace with one another through the changes that lie ahead.