To join with us by watching our online worship, please click here.
One night back in September I was just getting ready to crawl into bed when my phone rang. It was the night nurse calling from the care home where my mother has lived for the past several years. He wanted me to know that Mum was struggling with her breathing. They thought she might have pneumonia so they had given her oxygen and called the doctor who he said would be in to see her the next day. She had settled down and was conversant, he told me, but given the fact that she was approaching her 97th birthday he thought I might want to come in and see her “just in case.” I quickly changed out of my pyjamas, got into the car and drove over to see her. When I walked into her room, sure enough there she was lying in her bed with an oxygen mask over her face. She was quite surprised to see me. I sat down on the bed beside her, leaned over so she could hear me and asked “how are you doing, Mum?” “I’m fine” she replied. “You don’t look so fine.” I said. “I am perfectly fine” she insisted. I waited a moment then I asked “what do you think is the worst thing that could happen to you if you weren’t fine?” With wide eyes she replied “Well, I could die!” “Yes” I said “you could die and some day you will die. Someday I will die. We are all going to die.” I can’t remember if I said out loud or just thought to myself “and there are a lot worse ways for someone who is 97 to die than from pneumonia.”
One of the things I can clearly remember from my training for ministry is that when it comes to death and dying we were told we should always use the correct terminology. Mary is dead. She died on Tuesday. We offer our prayers for Mary’s family who are grieving this death. Don’t say “she passed away” or “she’s gone home” we were taught. Say she died. She’s dead. It helps people appropriate the reality of the situation.
I try to use those words but I confess that even for me from time to time the sound of those words seems too harsh, too real to speak.
In the story of the anointing at Bethany Jesus doesn’t actually say “I’m going to die” but he may as well have. When Judas is critical of the money Mary has wasted on the oil she lavishly pours out on Jesus feet Jesus responds “it’s for my burial” the subtext being, she is preparing my body for death.
Anticipatory grief, the grieving we experience when we know that death is close at hand is very present in this scene. One of the things we often do when death comes close is deny that it is there, as if ignoring it will keep it at bay. I have seen this happen countless times when death becomes the elephant in the room. Sometimes it’s the person who is dying that doesn’t want to talk about it. Sometimes it’s their loved ones. Immortality is not easy to face.
In today’s reading, Judas’ discomfort with Mary’s embrace of Jesus impending death could be because he knows he is going to have a hand it in. He will be the betrayer.
Few if any of us are ever going to knowingly hand someone over to their death but sometimes when someone we love is dying, we can feel a sense of guilt or betrayal for not being able to stop them from dying. We think to ourselves and sometimes say out loud surely we could have done more.
The first year after I was ordained one of the members of my former congregation took her own life. She was in her 40’s. I remember watching her doctor and her family struggle greatly with their inability to stop that death from happening. I’ve also watched families with a loved one in the critical care unit at the hospital insist that procedure after procedure be done for a patient when the medical team knows there is no hope for survival.
When death comes close it can evoke feelings of guilt and betrayal and for some of us denying death protects us from those feelings.
Surely something else that is in the air in this scene with Jesus, Judas, Mary and her lavish gift of oil is an overall sense of failure and defeat. Despite Jesus best efforts to confront the religious and political leaders of the day, to be a voice for peace and justice, his vision of shalom is not going to be realized in his earthly lifetime and on some level they know it. The ship is sinking. The hope that his people had for his reign of peace is not going to materialize in the way they had thought it would. With his opponents circling closer and closer he is staring down defeat. Hopes are dissolving right before their eyes.
It’s what’s been unfolding in Ukraine right now but we also experience failed dreams in our personal lives. Dashed hopes can be very hard to acknowledge when they are close to home.
A couple I once knew had three children, two daughters and a son. The daughters were highly successful in their chosen profession and their parents spoke of them often. Their son struggled with joblessness. He had a learning disability and some other challenges that made it hard for him to keep a job. One day, completely out of the blue, he paid me a visit. You can imagine my surprise when he walked in my office and introduced himself. It was the first time I’d ever heard of him.
After he left, I contacted his parents. When they told me all they had done to help him over the years and how none of it seemed to make a difference their pain was palpable. It was a very private pain something they rarely if ever talked about in public.
How often do we hide our pain especially when we associate it with failure? How often do we ignore the failure we perceive in the lives of others? Don’t mention the son-in-law, he’s in jail. Don’t ask her if she wants drink she’s trying to quit. Whatever you do, don’t bring up her granddaughter, apparently she came home from university mid-term and everybody is afraid to ask what’s going on.
Sometimes when we are trying to appropriate those challenges, those hopes that have been dashed, we don’t want to talk about it. But sometimes having our pain and our defeats ignored can make us feel the failure or the loss even more. It’s isolating.
Early in my ministry I met a mother whose daughter died from an asthma attack while at a skating party when she was just 12 years old. She had begged her mother to go to the party and her mother had reluctantly agreed. After she died, the mother and a group of her friends engaged in an annual ritual on the anniversary of her daughter’s death. But after three or four years, she started doing the ritual on her own. “Everyone thinks I should be over it by now” she told me. “No one wants to hear me talk about it anymore.”
I’ve been driving up and down the Mount Seymour Parkway for almost 20 years now. The flowers at the corner of Berkley and the Parkway are an ever present reminder that you never get over the death of child or grandchild.
When the pandemic started and we were all sent home and within weeks there was mass shooting in Nova Scotia and then George Floyd was killed and it seemed like our world was coming apart at the seams and all of that before stabbings in Lynn Valley and heat domes and the discovery of unmarked graves in Kamloops and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I remember thinking that if our faith couldn’t withstand all of this, if we couldn’t look this pain, suffering and failure straight in the eye and acknowledge the reality of it all, what good was our faith? What purpose does our gathering and praying and singing and reflecting together serve if we can’t embrace all of this?
Mary pours out the contents of her costly jar of nard upon the feet of Jesus to anoint him for his burial. She acknowledges and honours the truth, the truth that we are fragile, the truth that life is full of disappointment and failure, the truth that when we pour out our love on the world’s suffering and pain we declare it worthy. We declare it good enough.
There’s a detail in the story of the anointing at Bethany that is easy to overlook and that is the presence at this gathering of Lazarus, Martha and Mary’s brother, the one who Jesus has recently raised from the dead. His presence is a reminder that when death is in the room, resurrection is also close at hand. It’s that truth that allows us as followers of Jesus to acknowledge death, loss and failure and know it is not the final word. Our hope is only ever as deep as the pain we acknowledge.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the way this story about human fragility and the depth and beauty of love that is strong enough to embrace it is showing up for us on the day we are holding our Annual General Meeting. What’s true about the church right now is that churches are in a state of decline. They have been for years. The pandemic has only made it worse. Despite our very best efforts, it’s our reality.
But if death is in the room for the church then resurrection is also close at hand. There will be a future for the church it might just not be the church as we have known it. In the meantime, like Mary, we are called to pour out our love on one another and on our broken world, to give the best we have to give and to trust that God is to be found, sowing seeds of new life, even in the midst of all that is fragile.