5th Sunday in Lent

March 25, 2007
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 43:16-21
Reading 2: 
Psalm 126
Reading 3: 
Philippians 3:4b-14
Reading 4: 
John 12:1-8
By Ignacio Castuera

There are so many themes that jump at us from the texts this Sunday that one might be tempted to preach a very long sermon taking each text as the point of departure for “mini-sermons.” That, by the way, is one model that could be tried. Have a lay person, a woman preferably since this is Women’s History Month, comment briefly and sing a hymn. Repeat the process four times and you will find that several people will like the pattern and might want you to repeat it. You might consider just a “triptych” selecting three out of the four texts for this Sunday.

Whatever preachers do, my hope is that in addition to Women’s History Month the 26th anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador be remembered and included in the sermon. Monsignor Romero was killed on March 24 but he was not the only martyr in El Salvador and many women, some whose names we will never know, were also sacrificed there. The four that one should mention are Ita Ford and Maura Clark who were Maryknoll sisters, the Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel and the lay missioner Jean Donovan. The words of the psalm Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

Paul in Philippiansis also full of extravagance and exaggeration, bragging about his credentials first only to dramatize the incredible change that came into his life as he became someone who wanted to conform his life totally to Jesus in mission, suffering and resurrection. Here (as in the Gospel text) the body reference is bold but unfortunately veiled in the more modern translations into English. Here the KJV was, strangely enough, closer to the Greek as it translates skobola into “dung.” Few of us would say “shit” from the pulpit, but some might want to say that Paul did say that all the parchment of his credentials he considered to be not more than “toilet paper” now that he had decided to follow Jesus 100%.

The theme of tears turning into laughter and pain into joy is underlying the rich text from John 8. A most sensuous pericope and the sensuality of the scene must be underscored since so much of Christianity has run away from sex and sensuality.  The extravagant gesture of anointing the feet of Jesus and then wiping them, (the word in Greek is the same as the one used during the foot washing by Jesus who lovingly washes and wipes the feet of his disciples before confronting those who will arrest him and conduct him to his trial and death.

If one decides not to do a triptych or tetraptych with the texts, he or she might consider underscoring the theme of the extravagance of love. It is God’s extravagant love that promises highways in the wilderness and gardens in the desert in the Isaiah text, a theme that is also addressed in the Psalm as it refers to the Negeb. Mary—and please emphasize that this is Mary the sister of Lazarus and not Mary Magdalene as the tradition has insisted, ignoring the texts—is also extravagant in using such expensive unguent to anoint Jesus.

Finally the statement the poor you shall always have with you has been used many times as an excuse not to do significant, systemic social change to end hunger and poverty. Jesus was quoting from Deuteronomy where there is the strange juxtaposition of There will, however, be no one in need among you (15:4) and  . . . there will never cease to be some in need on the earth . . . (15:11). These two texts are quoted partially in an article from the Journal of the Market and Morality where it is implied that the poor have an obligation to help themselves and the best we can do is to bring them to the Gospel and once they are changed by the power of the Christ, and then they will stop being poor. In contrast, and I will say, quite correctly a Unitarian pastor, Rev. David Bumbaugh, states:

I have known the poor; I have lived among the poor; I have been numbered among the poor and this I know: What separates you and me from them is not our skill, our intelligence, our hard work so much as it is luck* – the families into which we happen to be born, the door that opened at just the right moment, the gift that came to us without our asking. Jesus of Nazareth is reputed to have said, “The poor you will have with you always.” The question implicit in that statement is, “How will you respond to the need?” The very soul of this nation will be shaped by how we answer.

Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan responded to the poor without concern for borders, for dangers or for fate. We remember their faith and hope to imitate their example.

*Warren Buffet has been using the expression “the ovarian roulette” to refer to the same fact.

Ignacio Castuera, a United Methodist minister, is currently serving Trinity United Methodist Church in Pomona, California, and also serves as the national chaplain for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Rev. Castuera has served churches in Mexico, Hawaii, and California. In 1980, he became the first Latino District Superintendent of the Los Angeles District of the California Pacific Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.