Garrison Keillor’s Saturday evening radio show on National Public Radio is sponsored by Shadee’s powdermilk biscuits. The by-line says ‘they are the biscuits that give shy people the courage to do the job that needs to be done.’ Isn’t that great? They come in the blue tin. I’ve heard that advertisement for over a decade now and more than once I’ve wished I could order a tin of those biscuits. How about you?
Our text this morning turns to look at the destiny of Jesus. Perhaps it is better called his vocation, his calling. It is the work that all the gospel writers tell us that Jesus came to do. It is a story that leads Jesus ultimately towards death, a story that has an approach/avoidance power to it, in part because we also know that we are destined to die. We slow to the story like so many cars slowing for a wreck on the side of the road, curious and fascinated by death, afraid of it too, and ashamed in a strange way of our curiosity.
And the death of Jesus is more than that. We stand in awe of a man who held to his convictions, unwavering in his righteousness, able to withstand torture and death rather than be compromised. At the same time, he is very threatening in the way that he does not stand up for himself in the midst of a mortal challenge from evil men. We stand in awe of someone who appears to be so internally confident, apparently intimately in touch with himself and with God. At the same time, it is unnerving to think that God would let chaos and evil run so rampant in our midst, that the ‘Anointed One’ would so resemble a victim. And it is precisely through this combination of awe and horror that Matthew tells us that God is working, despite the fact that evil men appear to be succeeding in their manipulation, despite the fact that all around the disciples are weak and faithless. Nevertheless, God’s goodness is accomplished and our sinfulness and weakness are healed.
I have done an unusual thing for you this morning. I have given you each a Xerox of the synopsis of the four gospels. Our story occurs in all four and I thought that some of you might appreciate a little lesson in how to read the bible. You can look at the four stories more carefully when you get home. What you will notice immediately is that the story is never told the same way twice and that is because the bible was not written as a simple historical narrative. Each of the gospels use narrative to make specific instruction about who they thought Jesus was, what his mission was about, and what Jesus came to teach us. They all drew on a body of stories about Jesus but they put them together quite differently. They composed these final stories decades after the death of Jesus, probably after a time when there weren’t any eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus left.
For example, in Matthew and Mark this story takes place as one of the last things that happens before Jesus dies. In Luke and John, it happens in the middle of his career. In Matthew and Mark, the woman is unnamed. In Luke, we are told that she is a sinner. In John, she is said to be Mary Magdalene, a woman that tradition tells us was a prostitute. In all of the stories, the disciples complain that the costly anointing was a waste. Only in Luke is the story connected with the forgiveness of sins. Indeed, Luke adds a teaching from Jesus on the nature of forgiveness, the parable of the forgiveness of the two debtors.
In Matthew, our story begins with an ominous turn. The chapter opens, ‘when Jesus finished all these sayings’. That means we are finished with the teaching part of Jesus and now we turn to face the mission that Jesus had set before him, the mission of the cross.
As an editor, Matthew lacks subtlety. In case we might have missed the point, he tells it to us again. Of all the gospels, only Matthew has Jesus saying ‘You know that after two days, the Passover is coming and the Son of man will be delivered up to be crucified.’ Jesus himself is telling us what is going to happen.
And if that is not enough, he adds ‘Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and took counsel together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.’
This whole section is filled with irony. The people that should recognize the authority of Jesus most, recognize it least. The Chief priests, the elders, the disciples, Judas. They were closest to Jesus and through the story each of them deserts Jesus, each betrays him, each contributes to his ultimate death.
There is the irony that they are celebrating the Passover that remembers the liberation of the Jews from slavery to freedom. In the very midst of this celebration of freedom, the principals who will betray Jesus act in the manner of moral bondage. They use deceit, they are evasive, they lie, they curse, they scheme. And all of this plotting is to kill the very one who points the way toward true freedom.
There is irony at this ceremony of anointing. Anointing was a Jewish institution with many positive associations. Kings were anointed upon their inauguration. Anointing signified divine approval and so priests were anointed when they were ordained. Sometimes children were anointed by their parents as a sign of divine approval on their lives. Anointing of each other was done during times of great joy, when the harvest of grapes yielded a new wine, when victory in battle had taken place. Yet, here the anointing is done with great love, to be sure, but it is unmistakably a prelude of death, a kind of living embalming. None of the disciples who have been following Jesus for the past three years have a clue as to what is about to happen. But this woman, who is not part of the inner circle, prepares him to do the job that needs to be done.
And then we are told, at the end of this act, ‘Truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.’ In memory of who? We don’t even have her name. We know the name of each and every disciple who will later betray Jesus and fall away faithless. We know the name of the Chief Priest who will manipulate him. We even know the name of the ordinary criminal, Barabas that will be released instead of Jesus at the very end. But this one example of faithfulness, this one woman, remains anonymous.
She took a simple jar of ointment and anointed him with the courage to do what he had to do. What a simple, yet profound thing. Don’t you need the anointing too?
Casey Hawley tells a story about flying on an ordinary routine flight coming back from a business trip. Only this flight began jerking shortly after take off. Folks tried to remain blasé. ‘We didn’t remain blasé for long. The pilot soon gave the grave announcement ‘We are having some difficulties,’ he said. ‘At this time, it appears we have no nose-wheel steering. Our indicators show that our hydraulic system has failed. We will be returning to the Orlando airport at this time. Because of the lack of hydraulics, we are not sure our landing gear will lock, so the flight attendants will prepare you for a bumpy landing. Also, if you look out the windows, you will see that we are dumping fuel from the airplane. We want to have as little on board as possible in the event of a rough touchdown.’”
“In other words, we were about to crash. No sight has ever been so sobering as seeing that fuel, hundreds of gallons of it, streaming past my window out of the plane’s tanks. The flight attendants helped people get in to position and comforted those who were already hysterical.”
“As I looked at the faces of my fellow business travelers, I was stunned at the changes I saw in their faces. Many looked visibly frightened now. Even the most stoic looked grim and ashen. There was not one exception. No one faces death without fear, I thought.
“I began searching the crowd for one person who felt the peace and calm that true courage or great faith gives people in these events. I saw no one.
“Then a couple of rows to my left, I heard a still, calm voice, a woman’s voice, speaking in an absolutely normal conversational tone. There was no tremor or tension. It was a lovely, even tone. I had to find the source of this voice.
“All around, people cried. Many wailed and screamed. A few of the men held onto their composure by gripping the arm rests and clenching teeth, but their fear was written all over them.
“In the midst of all the chaos, a mother was talking, just talking to her child. The woman, in her mid-30’s and unremarkable, was staring full into the face of her daughter, who looked to be four years old. The child listened closely, sensing the importance of her mother’s words. The mother’s gaze held the child so fixed and intent that she seemed untouched by the sounds of grief and fear around her.
“I strained to her what this mother was saying to her child. I was compelled to hear. I needed to hear.
“Finally, I leaned over and by some miracle could hear this soft, sure voice with the tone of assurance. Over and over again, the mother said, “I love you so much. Do you know for sure that I love you more than anything?”
“Yes, mommy,” the little girl said.
“And remember, no matter what happens, that I love you always. And that you are a good girl. Sometimes things happen that are not your fault. You are still a good girl and my love will always be with you.”
“Then the mother put her body over her daughter’s, strapped the seat belt over both of them and prepared to crash.
[She had done as much as she could do in that moment to release her daughter from the future bondage that traps survivors in the feelings of guilt and unworthiness.]
“For no earthly reason, our landing gear held and our touchdown was over in seconds.
“The voice I heard that day never wavered, never acknowledged doubt, and maintained an evenness that seemed emotionally and physically impossible. Not one of us hardened business travelers could have spoken without a tremoring voice. I heard the voice of courage, undergirded by love that bore that mother up and lifted her above the chaos around her.” [i]
When the church is working, we are like that. We are anointing one another with love and courage, telling each other that we can do it, giving each other the power to overcome those things which bind us, freeing us to new heights.
When I was a 22 year old chaplain in the ER, I walked up on to one of our open floors that held probably 75 patients in one big room. The hospital in Louisville, Kentucky had been built during the Civil War and they still just used sheet screens to separate patients that needed to be examined.
It was Saturday night, we had homeless guys drying out that were tied to the bed with towels to keep them from hurting themselves; we had prisoners that were chained to the beds with a cop nearby to watch them; we had people with broken bones. The nurses were dispensing medication, so critical on the weekend when there weren’t as many staff.
One guy that was in serious pain asked me for communion. I explained that I wasn’t Catholic. He said he didn’t care, so I got the elements in the chaplains office came back, said the eucharistic prayers, consecrated the elements, gave this guy communion.
I’m getting ready to go and I hear this prisoner ask plaintively, “Can I get some of that?” So I brought communion over to him. The guy next to him said, “How about me?” So I brought it to him.
Hands started going up all around me. I hoofed it to the cafeteria, got a big loaf, emptied all of the wine we had in a goblet, went back to the ward communed hardened criminal after world weary homeless guy after recovering alcoholic… “Can I get some of that? Can I get some of that?”
And we need encouragement in our moral and spiritual lives as well.
John Kennedy once said ‘The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best, if he wins, knows the thrills of high achievement, and if he fails, at least fails daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.’
We need to be blessed with the courage to do the right thing. Claire Booth Luce once said that “courage is the ladder on which all other virtues mount.
May you be blessed with the transcendent power of the Holy Spirit as you face the really difficult challenges that are before you right now. May God lift you up like eagles wings. May you find strength and not be faint. And may you renew those around you that they can keep on and not be weary. God’s anointing upon you this day. Amen.
[i] Canfield, Jack and Mark Hansen, A Third Helping of Chicken Soup (Deerfield Beach: Health Communications, 1996), pp. 323-325.