This sermon was offered at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, FL, on Sunday, April 7, 2019
Fifth Sunday in Lent
May I speak in the name of God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our readings this morning are rich.
Isaiah and the Psalm speak of God’s promises.
He provides water in the wilderness.
He gives drink to those who are thirsty.
And those who have sowed with tears
will reap with joy.
In the letter to the Philippians,
Paul speaks of placing all of his
confidence in Christ.
Anything else – including his accomplishments,
his gifts and his privilege –
he counts as rubbish.
For those of us who have experienced a
high degree of security in life:
a nice place to live;
a loving family and community of friends;
meaningful work to do and success
in a chosen profession,
it can be challenging to let go of
our dependence on our ability to create
as our source of security.
Yet Paul understands that reliance on Jesus
is the heart of any true and abiding sense
He alone is the source by which we thrive.
In many Gospel stories, Jesus’ followers are slow
to grasp the reality of who he is and what
this means for their lives.
Remember earlier in the story of Lazarus,
when Mary sent word to Jesus to come
to Bethany because her brother was ill?
Jesus waits at least 4 days, making a
side trip to Judea first.
He tells his disciples that Lazarus is not ill
“I am going there to awaken him.”
When at last he comes, it is Martha who
goes out to meet him, upset that
he missed the opportunity for healing.
She didn’t imagine in a million years
that Jesus would raise him up,
or free him from the tomb.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus tells her.
Raising Lazarus is the great sign Jesus’ followers
need to walk through the passion.
It is the great sign that sustains us
when we are overcome by darkness.
In today’s gospel, we find Lazarus
sitting at table with family and friends,
breaking bread with his cousin Jesus.
An ordinary scene on the heels of an
There is an intimacy in the way Jesus
interacts with those he meets,
whether they are strangers or
well known to him.
He is compassionate yet
doesn’t mince words.
His directness is both unsettling and also
Remember the Samaritan woman at the well?
Jesus is direct with her in such a way that
she freely acknowledges her many marriages.
She is not shamed by this encounter
but instead is set free.
In her conversation with Jesus,
she had nothing to hide behind,
no reason to pretend she was something more.
In our society, we are trained to work hard
to build up ourselves and our lives.
This may serve us for a while,
but, at some point, we need this scaffolding
to be stripped away.
We need to make room to find our true selves
and to honestly connect with and be seen
In today’s Gospel, Mary has seen Jesus in action
and she knows exactly who he is: the Messiah.
The Anointed One sent to make a way
home for all of us.
Jesus tells us she had purchased the
costly perfume made of nard,
anticipating the need to prepare him for burial.
She is motivated by love to pour this perfume
over him, while he is yet with them.
This beautiful, loving gesture
required vulnerability and risk.
Part of her must have wondered:
“Who am I to anoint my savior?
To caress his feet?”
About 20 years ago, a dear friend of mine,
Vincent O’Hara, was nearing the end of his life.
He had been hospitalized for a long time
for a degenerative illness and then,
through a mishap, was deprived of oxygen.
He was no longer conscious, his body kept alive
through feeding tubes and a respirator.
Vincent was a gifted counselor and fiercely
He helped countless adolescents and young
people who struggled with various forms of addiction.
Deeply intuitive, he was a man of few words,
gifted at asking just the right question
at just the right time.
He was gentle yet disarmingly direct —
it was as if he stared into the depths of your soul.
His thick Irish brogue and wicked
sense of humor amplified his gifts.
I was living in California when I received
a call about his deteriorating condition.
On a trip home I had the chance to visit Vincent
for several hours over the course of a week.
I told him stories and sang to him.
I imagined that I could feel his spirit,
speaking to me (still with that Irish brogue).
One interaction will stay with me forever.
His dear friend Philip was at his bedside
when I arrived.
After we chatted a bit, Phillip took out a towel and
small basin and lathered up Vincent for a shave.
It was tender the way he cared for him.
Soon other friends wandered in,
and we began sharing Vincent stories.
After a time, Phillip took a towel and dried
Vincent’s freshly shaven face.
Then he looked up at me:
“Would you like to wash his hair?”
It felt surreal as I rose to go to the bedside,
to stand near Vincent’s head.
Tentative, at first, I wet his salt-and-pepper curls
and then applied the shampoo.
As I washed his hair I felt a level of connection
that is hard to describe.
It was as if I was suspended in this holy,
sacred moment, even as our friends
continued to chat in the background.
In some way, it was as if we were preparing
our friend for burial,
a loving acknowledgement of a life well-lived,
a nod to a great man who poured himself out for
young people, many of whom had been
rejected by their families.
Next Sunday – Palm Sunday –
we will commemorate the passion of Christ.
This will mark the beginning of Holy Week,
as we walk with Jesus through those final days
of betrayal, abandonment and death,
as we prepare to celebrate his
Our work here at St. Mary’s is very much
about caring for the poor.
But I want to invite us to
bring our focus to Jesus –
to abandon ourselves to him
as the center of our lives –
as we conclude our Lenten observance.
On the night before Jesus was handed over,
he said: “Unless I wash you,
you have no part in me.”
I want to invite you to join us on
Thursday of Holy Week as we gather
in the parking lot of St. Phillips church.
We will share fellowship and prayer as
we wash one another’s feet –
and the feet of those who come —
whoever they might be and wherever they might
find themselves on the journey of faith.
This is a holy, sacred space.
It requires mutual vulnerability and
It is a place where Jesus meets us.
And it is a place where we meet him
in the faces of both strangers and friends.