Every service of worship should begin with a warning. Instead of a welcome and a few announcements before the hand bell choir, the congregation needs to be forewarned, put on alert, and be advised to proceed with caution.
Because every time invoke the presence of the living Christ to join us around this table, things are likely to get little crazy! When Jesus comes to the table, things are going to get out of hand. Things with happen that will surprise, even shock us. Things will mysteriously break open, break loose, change, shift, and spill out. Because when Jesus comes to the table, things are not always as we expect them to be, nor even as they appear to be. When Jesus is at the table, there is always more going on than meets the eye.
To illustrate what I am trying to say, allow me to share a story.
Jesus has come to the end of his ministry. There has always been a sense of foreboding, of gathering gloom throughout much of his ministry. And now there is a sense that things are coming to a head. The enemies of Jesus, the religious leaders who already had everything in life figured out, those who believed they had all the answers, those for whom life holds no mystery, those who have been lurking in the shadows plotting against him, may be at last ready to entrap him.
But before all of that, before Jesus takes his disciples on that final journey into Jerusalem, they gather with Jesus’ good friends, Mary and Martha, for dinner. And oh-my-word, what dinner it was!
First of all, John opens the story by saying, “Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.”
Now, can you imagine standing behind your chair at the table getting ready to sit down when someone introduces you to the one standing at the head of the table by saying, “You know our host, Mr. Lazarus, don’t you? Yeah, we didn’t know he was going to be able to graciously host this lovely dinner party tonight, because, a couple of weeks ago he was very ill. And about a week ago, he was dead and buried.”
As you pull out your chair to sit down at the table, you’re thinking: “This is going to be one crazy night!”
Well, not long after the cornbread and butter made its way around the table, Mary comes in acting as if she has already had too much wine and falls all over Jesus! She shocks everyone when she lets down her hair right there at the dinner table! She then takes a bottle of very expensive perfume, gets down on her knees under the table and anoints the feet of Jesus! Pouring the perfume all over his feet and wiping his feet with her hair!
This is certainly not a scene one would expect at the dining room table, especially with a young rabbi over as the guest! The fragrance, almost overbearing, fills the entire house. So much commotion. Perfume and hair everywhere! At the dinner table!
John mentions only one other guest at the table that evening. He is one of Jesus’ students. He is the follower whose reputation precedes him: Judas Iscariot—The very disciple who will betray Jesus just a few days later. Now, let me ask you this, can things possibly get any more crazy?
Shaking his head at Mary making a spectacle of herself under the table, Judas, being the good committed liberal that he is, asks a great ethical question. “Why wasn’t this expensive perfume sold and the money given to the poor rather than wasting it by pouring it all over Jesus’ feet?”
It is rather shocking that it comes from Judas, for it’s the type of question that one can easily imagine Jesus asking, especially knowing how he feels about the poor.
Well, surprise, surprise, Judas! You have been paying attention! You didn’t sleep through all of Jesus’ sermons! Way to go, Judas!”
But then, just when you thought things could not become more shocking, comes the surprise of all surprises: Jesus responds: “The poor you will have with you always, but you will not always have me.” Whaaaaaaaaaat????? Why would Jesus say something like that?
But then we begin to get it. When Jesus first mentioned burial, at first we thought he was talking about Lazarus. But this is not about Lazarus. And this is not about the poor. This is about what is going to take place in Jerusalem during the next couple of weeks.
This meal that should have been a happy gathering of good friends enjoying a lovely dinner was actually a prelude to the crucifixion. Jesus is at the table with both friends and betrayer. Sweet smelling perfume is not the only thing in the air. Disloyalty and disappointment and death are also in the air on this night.
And Jesus still eats and drinks with them. Love, grace and mercy is also in the air on this night.
What a night this has turned out to be—a night of seemingly endless surprises. So much more is going on beyond the senses.
This is how it always is with Jesus. With Jesus, things are never as they appear to be. With Jesus, there is always more meaning beyond the moment, more reality beyond the senses. The truth is that this very morning, more is going on here in this place than we can possibly imagine. There is more happening here than the saying of a few prayers, the singing of a few hymns and the mere preaching of a simple sermon.
Whether it be at the table with his good friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus or here in this place, at the table with us, Jesus, the incarnate deity, is present, communing with us, giving himself to us, revealing himself for us. And as fragmented human beings, we can always count on being surprised and even shocked.
So, this morning, I am asking you to hold on to your pews, for anytime Christ comes among us, things are liable to break out, break open, change, shift and spill out.
To our absolute amazement a brief moment in prayer gives us strength that is beyond measure.
To our complete bewilderment, the singing of a hymn gives us peace outside all our expectations.
To our pure wonderment, each Sunday morning, gathering around this table with Jesus, some of us friends of Jesus, all of us his betrayers, envelops us with grace which is greater that our understanding.
To our utter befuddlement, a tiny cracker and sip of juice fills us with immeasurable sustenance, giving a sacrificial offering fills us with untold riches.
And it is not only during this service of worship that things are breaking open, breaking loose and spilling out. Because the good news is, if we open our eyes and our hearts to it, we can experience the Spirit of Christ everywhere.
We visit a sick man, dying in the hospital, and we are amazed to discover that he is experiencing more life than the healthiest person we know.
We include someone who is usually excluded, and we are stunned when we realize that we are the ones who have been included in something larger than we could imagine.
A child speaks to us, and we are taken aback when she imparts wisdom deeper than any great philosopher.
We grant unearned, undeserved forgiveness to others and we are astounded to find ourselves forgiven.
We offer a handshake, a hug, a kiss on the cheek (physical, temporal expressions of love), and are astonished when it is revealed that those expressions have spiritual, eternal significance.
And here, right now, because a church in Western Arkansas has made the commitment to invoke the presence of the living Christ to the table every week, because we’ve have made the decision to not only believe in Jesus, worship Jesus, but to actually follow Jesus, to welcome others like Jesus, to serve like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus and to love like Jesus, you know what’s gonna happen!
Like perfume and hair everywhere, the Holy Spirit of God is going to break open, break loose and spill out!
This morning, when you got up, you thought you chose to get dressed and come to church, but you are now stunned to discover that some mysterious Divine Other has chosen you.
You thought that you had things all figured out, had all the answers, knew what was going on and what was not going on in this world, only to be flabbergasted to discover that you did not have a clue.
This morning, you thought you were going to go to church, go through the motions, and go back home as complacent as ever, but to your startling surprise it has been revealed that you have been summoned, you have been called to do something that is bigger than you and to go on a journey that is far from home.
And here is the real shock: in saying yes to this summons, saying yes to giving your life away and to leaving a place of comfort and security, you have never felt more alive, more you, and more at home.
This morning, you thought you were going to come to this place and see a few friends, but you were dumbfounded when you came and saw Jesus.
And Jesus is not finished! No, he’s not finished with you yet. Some of you have tuned out everything that has been going on and is going on here. You think you are going to leave here in a few minutes to go have a little dinner, unsurprised, untouched, unmoved, unchanged. Well, guess who’s coming to dinner? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not Sidney Poitier.
Let us pray together.
O God, surprise us, overwhelm us, bowl us over, render us speechless, take our breath away, with your love and your grace, your mystery and your glory, as we follow you wherever you may lead us.
INVITATION TO THE TABLE
As you prepare share this meal from this table, know that you have been forewarned. You have been put on alert. You have been advised to proceed with caution. You will be surprised to discover that objects in the rear view mirror may not be what they appear to be. And you will be shocked to discover that the road ahead may not go where you expect it to go, or even where you may want it to go. So, remain pliable, keep your heart completely accessible and your life totally available. And may the ever present God, the unpredictable Christ, and the Holy Spirit like hair and perfume everywhere, surprise, shock and startle you from all immovable complacency.