This story about Jesus
getting a therapeutic massage
is one of the few stories about Jesus
that is actually included in all four Gospels.
Isn’t that amazing?
I mean, the idea that his mother, Mary, was a virgin
is not in all four Gospels.
The idea that Jesus was born in a manger
is not in all four Gospels.
Even Jesus appearing to someone else
after the resurrection
is not in all four of the Gospels.
So when a story like this one
appears in all four Gospels
we have to imagine
it is part of the bedrock of Jesus stories
that was told from the very beginning.
BUT…Mark’s version of this story is different
from the one we heard today from John.
Mark’s version is earlier than John’s
by twenty-five years to forty years.
That is a lot of time
for a story to travel and change.
It is instructive to compare the two stories
and ask ourselves some questions
about the differences.
First, in Mark, the massage takes place
in the home of a leper
whereas in John, it is the
relatively well-off domicile
of Lazarus and his sisters.
Secondly, in Mark, the woman remains nameless.
She was not part of the inner circle,
and she does not even get the respect of a name.
That may mean that nobody knew her name.
Ironically though, Mark ends the story by saying
that wherever the gospel is preached
in the whole world,
it will be in memory of HER — the nameless woman.
Third, in Mark,
the authenticity of the outrage expressed
over the cost of pure nard
and how it could have fed many,
is never questioned.
Whoever expressed the outrage
is not named in Mark,
and it is more than one person.
Mark accepts at face value
that there is a legitimate value conflict going on.
It is not explained, as in John,
by a character defect on Judas’ part.
To recap then, in Mark, this story is told
to highlight what the nameless woman
did for Jesus at a moment of despair,
while in John, the story is told
to disparage Judas
and set up an explanation
for his motivation to betray Jesus.
But in both stories
Jesus receives a massage at a low moment
in preparation for the torture and agony
that awaits him.
To which I say:
“In the event of a decompression,
an oxygen mask will automatically appear
in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen,
pull the mask towards you.
Place it firmly over your nose and mouth,
secure the elastic band behind your head,
and breathe normally.
…If you are traveling with a child
or someone who requires assistance,
secure your mask on first,
and then assist the other person.”
Now obviously there is more than one moral
to the massage story,
it greatly depends upon who tells it
and why it is told.
But my take away is this:
sometimes self-care comes first.
I put it in the category of the Great Commandment
to love our neighbor AS ourselves.
For many of us,
that may not be very good loving
because we are often better at loving our neighbors
than we are at loving ourselves.
I mean, we know our neighbor is imperfectoxand we look past it — sometimes with mercy
and sometimes with humor.
But accepting our own imperfections
and actually loving ourselves
in full acknowledgment
AND full acceptance of them? That is hard duty.
So arriving at that place
where we can accept a massage —
whether it is physical,
emotional, or spiritual —
in the presence of so much greater need around us,
is like “securing our mask first first,
and then assisting the other people around us.”
That is all I got on Judas vs massage therapist,
so I am moving on to chapter two.
That poem from Isaiah
is a perfect example of “naming hope,”
which is both a balm and a mission
we have been given
as agents of gospel-wisdom.
Isaiah is one of the greatest
poets and prophets of hope
the world has ever known.
“…Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a NEW thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert…”
Something we need to know
about this prophetic poem
is that it was voiced
at the lowest, darkest moment
in the history of ancient Israel.
Isaiah lights a candle
and refuses to listen
to any more groaning and grief.
In his inimitable poetic style
Isaiah figuratively lifts up his hands
and says to the imagined crowd
of grieving voices encircling him:
“Stop! Just stop! God is about to do a NEW thing.
Stop and listen. “
Very few people then or now
believe God can do a NEW thing.
Most of us don’t even believe
WE can do a new thing.
You and I do not have the capacity
to imagine what could or might be hoped for.
The bandwidth of our imagination
is just not that wide.
We simply do not know what to hope for
and so when we do hope for specific outcomes
they are almost always the wrong ones
or the too-small ones.
Just to put a little flesh on his long dead bones,
let me remind us
what those ancients had been through.
As they understood their own history,
they had been saved from slavery in Egypt
They had been lost in the wilderness
for 40 years and then saved
They had survived the wilderness
and been given a legal constitution
It was a constitution that showed them
precisely how to create
a just and equitable society authorized
So they had been given a land
flowing with milk and honey
and the opportunity
to build a society for former slaves
that was merciful and just.
All of it given
But eventually their revolution
became a dictatorship
and their sovereign nation
was torn by civil war and divided
north and south.
Diminished in size and stature
they were invaded and occupied.
Finally, they were destroyed
and taken away in exile
to live in servitude
as captives in Babylon.
In slavery once again,
they lost hope
because clearly they had been abandoned
They could not be Israel
in a foreign country,
they could not be Israel
without the beloved Temple or the Holy City.
They could not be Israel
without the Promise Land.
Into the dark of that total despair
“God is about to do a new thing
and bring us home.”
Those exiles would have believed Isaiah
about as much as the grievous and scared disciples
hiding in the upper room would have ever
believed that Jesus would come to be known
all around the entire world.
Even in the best of times
we do not know what to hope for —
and the courage of our hope
is not powerful enough
to hope for what can happen.
But here is an odd thing.
What Isaiah told them to hope for
actually came to pass.
I am not making any bold claim
about God doing the new thing
I’m just observing history.
which would have seemed ludicrous before,
a poetic vision
that sounded utterly naive came true.
For the moment let’s just reject
the idea that God manipulates armies
and historical forces
so that some people are winners and some are losers.
Let’s just accept that such an idea
may have seemed a splendid explanation
in the ancient world
but is a bucket with holes in it in our world.
Instead let’s just think about Isaiah
sitting in the bowels of the Babylonian Empire –
which was one of the more ruthless Empires
in human history.
There he was, surrounded
by those who had contracted
an all-consuming grief.
He must have been at risk of getting it himself
with misery and hopelessness enveloping him.
And yet he could somehow still see hope.
Like an aperture letting in light
hope gave him vision,
allowed him to see something
his contemporaries could not see.
So even if we say,
from our perch on history
that it was not God
that brought the Persians to power
who then allowed the captives to return
to the Promise Land and rebuild,
we can still see something amazing.
Even if we acknowledge
that it wasn’t God,
still Isaiah was able to see
historical forces at work
that would create a new opportunity
and bring about a new day.
How did he see the new
that was coming into the world
when everyone else just saw a grim
and growing darkness?
He saw it.
He spoke to it.
He held it up. He fed it.
So here is chapter three,
and the conclusion.
I know a lot of people
who follow our brand of Christianity
are focused like a laser on outreach:
measurable acts of goodness
like feeding, clothing, and housing people in need.
I am not going to argue against that — obviously.
But I am going to argue
that is not our primary mission.
In fact, it is at least third
on the list of mission items
for us agents of gospel-wisdom.
First on our list,
is that our communities of faith
and those of us in it
are to be an oxygen mask.
First and foremost, we are
to be a people and a place
in which we can breathe
and receive life
that enables us to live more abundantly —
which includes caring for other people.
But first it includes
and learning to allow ourselves to be loved
so that we can learn to love others well also.
The clash of values
that took place with bitterness
between Jesus and Judas in John’s story
is still a hot flame today in most congregations.
I say it is not either/or
but both/and —
and yet, there is a first place
and a third place
in this order.
Second place goes to hope.
Our mission is to be agents of hope
in which we see possibilities
when everyone else sees only despair.
It is not necessarily the ability to see and know
what is going to happen
or even what should happen.
Rather, it is the courage
and imagination to see light
piercing the dark
and to know
that a new possibility
that hasn’t even been thought of yet
is coming our way.
To be agents of hope in our world
is tough duty to be sure,
but our communities of faith
must be places we can practice it
and develop hearts
that host that kind of courageous hope.
So, first we need to be an oxygen mask
to one another.
Secondly, we need to be a Petri dish for hope.
Third, we need to sell some of the pure nard
and fund Family Promise or Center of Concern
or whatever other acts of goodness
we wish to support.
Would you look at that —
a three point sermon.