Rev. Benjamin Campbell | 4.3.22

A Vision of Eternity

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” [John 12:1-9]

Nothing we do, and nothing Jesus did, is without historical context. If you go to the places today, they have changed – but the sense that they are real – and that Jesus had a real life – comes through.

When you arrive in 21st Century Jerusalem you see a sparkling city of modern buildings, aluminum and glass. Construction cranes are everywhere. The streets are bustling. The city is expanding into the desert on three sides.

A modern streetcar heads down the long curving boulevard of Jaffa Street, a street filled with pedestrians, and it stops just before the Old City of Jerusalem. Now the surrounding neighborhoods are busy, but not affluent. Street vendors proliferate, and there is a crowded bus station. Ahead and to one side of the Old City is the Mount of Olives. At the foot of the ridge, leading away from the Old City, is the Jericho Road. It winds through older, less affluent neighborhoods, crowded together. Cars are jammed at angles parking on its side. It curves around. And then, as the ridge of the Mount of Olives ends, the road suddenly stops. Across the road is a barren concrete wall thirty feet high, capped with barbed wire.

Directly ahead of you, if you could see through the wall, and up the next hill, is the village of Bethany. It is a short walk. But you cannot get there anymore. To go to Bethany you must leave by car from the other side of modern Jerusalem, take a tunnel through the Mount of Olives, pass through a militarized checkpoint, and drive for miles through the desert down a four-lane highway that links the new, gated suburbs of Jerusalem that are perched on hills in the Palestinian West Bank. Finally, you come to a connecting road and traverse up to Bethany from the back.

Nearly 20 centuries ago, Jesus walked from the Old City of Jerusalem to the village of Bethany – to the house of his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, for dinner. Six days later he was executed at the Old City by Roman authorities.

As I reflected this week on that Dinner in Bethany, three themes persisted in my mind.

The first was the continued reality of uncontrollable, inexplicable war and violence.

The second was the whole question of Jesus’ teaching about the poor.

And the third was the absolute sustaining beauty of that Bethany moment.

And so I’d like to cover these three themes with you this morning: War, poverty, and the beauty of the Bethany moment.

[1. War]

First, War.

The truth is, went to sleep last night and woke up this morning thinking of what is going on right now in Ukraine. It is unspeakable and horrible. I am in constant prayer for those people, and for an ending of the evil impulses of Vladimir Putin – but it is all so massive and out of control.

What I’ve realized this last month is that I have had the privilege of spending my life in a kind of refuge from war and violence. I was born as the Second World War ended. The Ukrainian conflict has a very Second-World-War feel to many – and I have tried, and failed, to imagine what it would be like to be waking up every day for six years to that reality – and to either be engaged in the battle or have family engaged in it.

I will stop the specifics of this – each person here has his or her own relationship to war, many fully related to its trauma. Please forgive me for what memories I may have evoked, — but we all have them.

The Roman Empire was not all that different from Russia under Vladimir Putin. Following the designs of whoever was the Caesar, Rome’s soldiers marched into whatever country they chose. They killed both the soldiers sent against them and the members of the populace who got in the way. Caesar’s goal, like that of Babylon, or Assyria, or Alexander the Great before him, was to expand the power and wealth of his nation and to subjugate the surrounding nations and races. By the evening in Bethany that we are talking about, Rome had been in control of Palestine for nearly a century.

The armed presence was constant, although somewhat stable. But underneath it was uncontestable, vicious power. It seems likely that Jesus saw the destruction of Jerusalem coming. 37 years after his death, tired of harassment by Jewish patriots, Rome’s massive armies conquered Jerusalem and flattened it, killing everyone in their way. Jerusalem was like Mariupol.

That is what Jesus could see that night, as he left the Old City and walked back along the road to Bethany, following the ridge of the Mount of Olives. By the time Jerusalem was reduced to ashes Jesus would be long gone, but the sense of uncontestable power and violence was always in the air. A one-man wooden cross would be like a matchstick to the Roman military machine.

The horrible, inexplicable violence that afflicts humankind then and even today; — the dark shadow of impending war; — that was the fear underlying Jerusalem. That was the monster that Jesus was to poke –virtually guaranteeing his own execution. He brought that foreboding knowledge into the house at Bethany on the night we are describing.

[2. Jesus’ teaching about poverty.]

War – and now poverty.

It seems strange that one of the most lasting discussions coming out of that night in Bethany deals not with the violence of the Roman Empire but with Jesus’ teaching about poverty.

Judas, apparently jealous of the love which Mary was showing Jesus, left the dinner in a huff. But first, he dismissed Mary’s profligate use of a valuable spice to anoint Jesus as an immoral act. The spice could have been sold for a lot of money, he proclaimed, and the money given to the poor.

But Jesus did not let Judas’ comment go without a response. “The poor will always be with you,” he said. “She is anointing me for my burial.”

“The poor will always be with you.” It sounds offhand. As a social teaching, it seems callous. I have had it quoted to me many times – and virtually always by someone who was trying to justify economic and/or racial inequality. That person may well have given money to the poor. But what he or she did not do was to work for the full incorporation of the poor and rich together into the economy and life of the city.

Ironically, I think there are few poor people who would agree with Judas. My experience is that people who don’t have a lot of material wealth generally don’t view it in the same way as the well-off. A celebration, a time of hospitality, and a funeral are genuinely special — times to spend whatever you have, for the sake of joy and honor and meaning. Poor people really get that. Mary knew what she was doing.

But more to the long-term point. Jesus had always made his teaching about the poor very clear, and he had lived what he had taught. In his first teaching at the synagogue at Nazareth, he quoted the prophet Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he said, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” he said. “Repent.”

This was not the beginning of this conversation between Jesus and Judas. For Jesus, the existence of rich and poor was not something to be solved in a one-off violent revolution. Rather, he viewed it as the great human task and opportunity – the coming together of people into a common fabric in which all are fed, and all are satisfied. Once more Jesus named to Judas the long arc toward equity and community, the agenda of human history as he understood it.

The line about poverty has stuck with us over the centuries. The discussion about what Jesus meant has not. In any case, it was a seemingly incidental, but perhaps very important, theme that last night in Bethany.

War and poverty were themes of that evening at Bethany. But they were the backdrop to the most important thing that was going on:

3. The third, and most important theme from that evening in Bethany was the vision of eternity.

There is no more sensuous passage in all of Christian and Hebrew Scripture than this one. They gave a dinner for Jesus. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.

Time stood still.

It is this moment that we remember. The story has been told over and over again all over the world, and for nearly 2000 years. We’re telling it again this morning at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.

We tell it for its meaning; we tell it for its beauty; we tell it for its quality. Time stood still: the quality of eternity was revealed in love, and unself-conscious care. It happened, as such moments often do, in the shortness of time, under the threat of death. It was so powerful that whatever other agendas were present vanished completely, replaced by the aroma of the anointing and the self-giving of the sister.

That dinner was what the poet T. S. Eliot calls “a timeless moment.” In such a moment – and we never know how long it lasts – we know that we ourselves are timeless, held in an aura of truth and beauty we cannot comprehend; – that neither war nor poverty, nor death nor life, nor things present nor things to come, can come between us and the love of God.

That’s the real story of the Dinner at Bethany. And it is why we remember it. AMEN.