We are Fragile
Sermon Fifth Sunday of Lent
As Jesus neared the end of his time on earth, he shared with his friends the difficult news that no one wants to hear: he was not always going to be around. “Oh, please don’t say that,” so many of us have said to a loved one who speaks the truth about the fragility of life. Perhaps we get uncomfortable because it reveals the precious nature of life, laying bare the beauty and sorrow of having to say goodbye to one we love. The indescribable pain we know we will one day face invades our senses and our hearts and can cause us to want to ignore the reality that we all will one day face. What if we stopped denying the limited nature of our lives and breathed in deeply the fragrance of vulnerability? In this season of Lent, we journey toward Holy Thursday and Good Friday, the night of Jesus’ betrayal by a trusted friend and his subsequent death on the cross. These are difficult reminders for all of us of the fragility of life. Let us pray, O God of immense compassion, we come before you as fragile people with our hurts and our hopes. We pray this day that we may find inspiration and consolation through the life of your Son, Jesus. Be with us now and as we draw near to Holy Week. Amen.
This Gospel passage today occurs just before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem; Bethany is just outside the city, on the eastern side of Mount of Olives. As John shares the story, the joyful “hosannas” of Palm Sunday are about to ring out — and yet Lazarus’ sister, Mary, discerning what everyone else in the story overlooks, tenderly anoints Jesus’ body for burial. It is a very special moment in the life of Jesus. This tender story has also caused debate over time, since on the surface it can sound as if Jesus is condoning the permanence of poverty, as if to say: Don’t worry too much about ending or even alleviating poverty, because after all, “you always have the poor with you” (John 12:8). However, when we put it into context with his many teachings as well as passages on justice and righteousness from Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus is actually saying the opposite, echoing a classic passage in Deuteronomy on the theme of providing help to people in need, including the real goal of building a society in which there will be “no one in need among you” (Deut 15:4).
In John’s story, Mary, Lazarus’ sister, embodies openness and wisdom, lavishing Jesus with precious perfume, effectively anointing his body, as Jesus puts it, “for the day of my burial” (John 12:7). She sees what the disciples either miss or refuse to see: that Jesus, even as he prepares for his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, is also preparing for his death. As one commentator notes, This account echoes several other Gospel stories in which women following Jesus prove to be more discerning and devout than the male disciples — and in this story, both the contrast and the dramatic irony are particularly stark. Mary perceptively and kindly anoints Jesus for burial, and Judas, the one whose betrayal will lead to Jesus’ death in the first place, ignorantly and unkindly attempts to put her to shame. Jesus uses this as a teaching moment and lifts up Mary as an example to others. She seems to have a deeper understanding of what is going on here. She sees Jesus is on the verge of a great trial and a horrific, degrading death — and so she honors him ahead of time, offering him solace and encouragement with almost unbearable tenderness. (Salt commentary)
We know that there are countless Scripture passages which underscore the need of being generous to our neighbors and helping build a world in which there is “no one in great need” but it is also true, whether here in this story, or in our own lives, that there are moments when special acts of generosity and times of extravagant love, are beautiful and necessary. We understand that burying the dead is one of those moments, and Jesus, Mary believes, is nearing death. They have gathered for a special time and she seems to anticipate that this is a farewell to her beloved friend and teacher.
Many years ago when I was in college, my dear cousin Michael died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 21. I was the same age and our family was very close with our cousins so it was a devastating loss. My cousin had been out running for the crew team at college, stopped to rest, and never made it back. He apparently suffered a cardiac event and it was later determined that he had an enlarged heart which no one was aware of. Since that time, we have heard of other young athletes who have died from this condition, but at the time, we had never even heard of it. Our grief was profound; it was like losing a brother and his family and ours still carry that grief from a life gone too soon. I know that it touched his brother and sisters, as well as his parents, in ways that we will never be able to fully appreciate. It was at that time that I began to understand that there can be a fine line between life and death, and that the unimaginable can happen in our lives.
Some years later, a work colleague and her husband, experienced the death of their precious newborn son within moments after he was born. This was their first child and again, the grief and sorrow were raw. I remember that the funeral for this newborn baby was one of the saddest that I have ever attended. There had been no indication that anything was wrong with the baby but apparently he too suffered from an unexpected heart condition.
We all know of moments like these in life, whether they have affected family members or friends, sometimes life can be very sad and death can come too soon. We often take for granted the privilege of good health, the privilege of having good eyesight or the ability to walk or other aspects of our bodily well being until something goes wrong or we find ourselves sitting across from a doctor who shares some very hard news for us or a beloved family member or friend…and then, at that moment, we realize once again that we are fragile. Our bodies can be fragile and yes, our hearts and souls can be fragile too.
The cross is the ultimate symbol of suffering for Christians and we know that it represents the humanity of Jesus joining us in our suffering. I have shared before that when I traveled to Central America, many of those living in impoverished conditions had beautiful crosses on their walls which depicted their daily lives alongside the suffering Christ. They fully embraced the idea that in Jesus’ suffering, he embraced our human suffering as well. As Rev. Dawn Christenson writes, “God understands suffering. Christ Jesus – the divine in human form, shared our lot in life, by experiencing the suffering of our broken world first-hand. He faced the very personal pain and anguish of betrayal, of abandonment and denial, of humiliation, and of profound physical trauma. And through his death, God knows what it is like to lose a son. But that’s not the end of the story, right? The rest of the story is found in the brilliant light of the resurrection. Sadly, it seems that we can’t have one without the other. In order to be raised from the dead, Christ had to suffer and die first. Darkness always precedes the dawn of a new day. One cannot heal, if one has never been wounded. One cannot understand suffering, if one has never suffered. In the midst of suffering, God is not some distant, nebulous entity. God is with me. God suffers and weeps with me, with us. And by the grace of God, a light shines through the darkness to give us comfort and hope. That light is found in each of us, in our broken places. And we need to pay that light forward to facilitate healing. “
In his book, The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen said that from our “own woundedness, we can become a source of life for others.” Nouwen explained that our woundedness can serve as “an act of discipleship in which we follow the hard road of Christ, who entered death with nothing but bare hope.” It is walking in faith into unknown and fearful territory. How often have we said: “But I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say.” But that is precisely what we are called to embrace, as disciples imitating Jesus; we are called to enter into the suffering of others and accompany our brothers and sisters. And, they in turn, are called to accompany us as Jesus does. Nouwen wrote, our “imitation of Christ does not mean that we need to live [just] like Christ”. That would require perfection and is simply unrealistic. Our imitation of Christ means that we need to live our lives “as authentically as Christ lived.” Our unique gifts, as well as our empathy, allows us to serve one another in love and in compassion.
The road to healing is born out of courage – “courage to enter where life is experienced [with all its pain and sorrow, in those] unique and private places”. If we can find the courage, we have the capacity to touch the very soul of the other. And we know that we often cannot fix the problem or make it better, but what we can do is to enter that intimate place of suffering with another and walk with them through the dark, lonely, painful valley. It is simply a matter of being – being with someone and allowing that person to be as they are. Words are optional.”
We have all known suffering; we have all known loneliness; we have all been heartbroken at the suffering or loss of one we love. Suffering is an essential part of the human condition, as difficult as that it is to accept, but if you live long enough, you discover that it is true. One of my former professors, a dear man and UCC Pastor, wrote about our fragility as human beings. He said that we all have what he called ‘a tender vulnerable core,’ a place deep within our souls that is tender and yes, vulnerable, the place where we may feel the deepest hurts, and a place that we often cover up or protect at all costs. And yet, when suffering happens, we do feel it deeply and if we are able to embrace the suffering and recognize that it is part of our essential humanity and that in suffering, we may find strength and courage, then we can move forward. We can also take heart in the knowledge that God is there in the suffering, that Jesus suffered so many of the kinds of suffering life holds and understood what it felt like to suffer deeply. That may give us the hope we need to emerge into the light.
Jesus once said “Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” We can trust in that and lay our burdens down. Each of us is essential to helping make the world a place of compassion. In our own brokenness, we can touch the brokenness of others. In our own wounded places, the light of Christ may shine through to bring much needed comfort and love and hope to others. Our fragility is certainly what makes us deeply human and if we take seriously the belief that we are created in God’s own image, then we must believe that in some sense, God too knows fragility and God knows suffering. That may seem a radical thought, but in my heart, I do believe that Jesus chose to embrace the fullness of human suffering. We may be consoled in the knowledge that it is our deepest fragility that binds us most closely to the One who suffers with us.
Woundedness— Dawn Christenson
The Wounded Healer- Rev. Henri Nouwen