A Wideness in God’s Mercy, VI: Do You Know My Name?
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. —John 12:1
Continuing in our sermon series, A Wideness in God’s Mercy, the lectionary reading takes us to the Gospel of John.
The birth narrative in John’s gospel is summed within, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of God’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Grace and truth take life.
Jesus gives us a glimpse of this truth in the first miracle by turning ordinary water into a scandalous amount of wine for a wedding feast. He restores sight to the blind, enables the lame to walk, feeds a multitude, and performs other wonders to persuade followers to believe.
At one point, Jesus says to those who believed in him, “If you continue…you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Just before the seventh and last wonder Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” Then he calls a dead Lazarus from the tomb to live again.
In equal measure to the belief Jesus inspires, his ministry threatens to dismantle the religious authorities grip on the people. Raising Lazarus was the last straw: they now plot to kill Jesus.
Approaching a climax in the gospel story, the tension rings at a fevered pitch. Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem and certain death.
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.”
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
S aturday Night Live hosted a fictitious game show, “What’s That Name,” as contestants “Doug” and “Courtney” compete for money by correctly recalling someone’s name.
In the opening round, each contestant is shown the photo of a celebrity, not to name the celebrity, but to identify the celebrity’s current or past love interest. Both Doug and Courtney are attuned to current dalliances in Hollywood, confidently recall the names, and earn five dollars each.
The second round raises the stakes with “walk on clues.” Doug’s best friend, Todd, appears in-person with his girlfriend of four years. Doug has been to dinner with Todd’s girlfriend more than twenty times and sat with her at numerous weddings. To win $250,000, Doug needs to recall her first name.
Her icy stare is validated when Doug is speechless: He has no idea what her name is. Making matters worse, Doug apologizes to his friend as he walks away, but not to the anonymous girlfriend.
The next question goes to Courtney with another “walk on clue” when one of her co-workers emerges with his wife. Despite interacting with this woman at numerous social events, all Courtney can recall for the $250,000 prize money is having referred to her as “lady” or “mama.”
As the game continues, the host grows increasingly belligerent at the blindness of the contestants because neither seems to value seeing or knowing the people in their lives. The name of the show is most appropriate, not “What’s Someone’s Name, but “What’s That Name,” reinforcing the ways the contestants don’t see people as people, merely objects.
Tensions mount in a final $10 million bridesmaid challenge for Doug. Of three bridesmaids that were in his wedding, he is asked to identify one, and is presented with all but one of the letters of her name. To no surprise: he cannot recall her name.
When Doug asks the host why he pursues such a mean, pointless game, he responds, "In a word? Chaos."
I wonder if the host created chaos for the contestants so they would no longer live without seeing, knowing, or caring for people. Or maybe “chaos” is a nuisance they’ve tolerated by being unmoored to people in their lives, it does not matter.
Both contestants lost and I’m not sure if this game was truly funny or tragic. For many this skit hits close to home.
The values a person holds filters what is seen and consequently how one behaves.
If fame matters, celebrities’ lives and chasing a spotlight will consume one’s focus and diminish any awareness of those hidden in the shadows.
If power is desired, climbing on top of another person is a simple necessity, as is looking past or through those who cannot contribute to the quest, regardless of the damage caused.
And people who spend more time managing up and not down or across in an organization, often are unaware of how exposed they are to those below them.
If seeing the truth matters, your position and any attendant humility or hubris become filters, either sharpening the view or clouding it.
Consistently, those at the bottom of the pyramid or ladder or social standing, however you want to describe the hierarchies of life, often see the truth most clearly.
Your housekeeper is more likely to discern if you stick to a new diet, or not, from what is in the trash and laundry, in ways your nutritionist can never know.
The nerdy kids at school are apt to see through the preening and pretending of the cool kids who work hard to capture attention and be in the right clique.
From my consulting experience, the analyst on a team probably knew more about the quality of work others put into a project, their understanding of the logic behind multiple drafts, data analysis, and of the overall progress than those presenting to the partners or clients.
Always our most successful consulting projects started at the bottom of an organization or front-line where “the rubber meets the road” so to say.
A view from the bottom is honest. Those at the bottom have so much to lose or gain when an event rattles the status quo that they cannot deceive themselves into a false reality. Those at the bottom know what is true and right and enduring.
Mary sees the truth of Jesus. She sees the grace and truth of his life.
As a woman in first century Palestine, she was at the bottom of the ladder in every possible respect. Although women in the New Testament were named among Jesus’ followers and are the first at the tomb, they are consistently shoved aside for a more credible witness and disciple—a man.
Mary does not care. She knows Jesus has brought life in every interaction…and he raised her brother from the dead. She has nothing to lose in pouring out her devotion to him. We have everything to gain in witnessing what she does.
Mary holds a clay jar in her hands, worth a year’s wages for a man. Wordlessly she kneels at Jesus' feet, breaks it open, and fragrance fills the house—a sharp scent halfway between mint and ginseng. Everyone in the room watches her do four remarkable things.
First she pours perfume on Jesus' feet which is not done. If part of a body were to be anointed, it would be a king’s head, but never the feet.
She loosens her hair in a room full of men which an honorable woman never does.
She touches him—a single woman rubbing a single man's feet—also not done, not even among friends.
Then she wipes the perfume with her hair. The intimate touch is a gesture of pure gratitude for what he means to her. She is not doing this to gain anything only to give him the very best of what she has.
Mary’s belief in him compelled her generosity. There was no reason to hoard or save but instead give all that was precious.
This event directly precedes Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem and foreshadows the Passover meal when he will strip to the waist, kneel, wash his disciples’ feet, and command them to do so for others.
Whenever we encounter Mary, the sister of Martha of Bethany, she is always at the feet of Jesus. Such a perspective allows her to see what he is doing, hear what he is teaching, and receive what he offers. This humility allows her to behold his divinity and see him for who he is and was—God incarnate. She sat at his feet like one who kneels in prayer.
Mary understands discipleship long before Jesus needs to instruct. If Mary were asked Jesus’ name, she might respond with “savior,” or “grace,” or any of the “I am” statements of eternal life he embodies. “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the vine, you are the branches.” “I am the light of the world.” By knowing him her life takes on a quality that partakes in goodness and joy. She not only wins the great prize in knowing his name, she begins to live right then and there by giving it all away.
Late in the season of Lent, we are to ask ourselves if we have adjusted our point-of-view since Ash Wednesday, to know we are dust made into flesh that will again become dust. Are we willing to get down on the ground and examine our lives? We might see a truth we’ve missed.
Whatever gets in the way of seeing the truth of Jesus in our lives is also what gets in the way of receiving his life-giving gift of grace. When we know Jesus by name we may surprise even ourselves at how we might gladly pour out our precious gifts in gratitude.
Don’t you wonder what might it feel like to be Mary and ensure Jesus knows how deeply you love him?
When author Phillip Simmons was thirty-five, he was diagnosed with ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was forced to view the bare essentials of his life. From his book, Learning to Fall, hear some of his wisdom:
We deal most fruitfully with loss by accepting the fact that we will one day lose everything. When we learn to fall, we learn that only by letting go our grip on all that we ordinarily find most precious—our achievements, our plans, our loved ones, our very selves—can we find, ultimately, the most profound freedom. In the act of letting go of our lives, we return more fully to them.
To accept death is to live with a profound sense of freedom. The freedom, first, from attachment to the things of this life that don’t really matter: fame, material possessions, and even, finally, our own bodies. Acceptance brings the freedom to live fully in the present. The freedom, finally, to act according to our highest nature. . . .
Only when we accept our present condition can we set aside fear and discover the love and compassion that are our highest human endowments. And out of our compassion we deal justly with those about us. Not just on our good days, not just when it’s convenient, but everywhere and at all times we are free to act according to that which is highest in us. And in such action we find peace.
May we not wait for life-threatening illnesses to learn how to live. Learn Jesus’ name. Call him by name. Receive his grace. Follow in his ways. May it be so, my friends. Amen.
 Wes Rendar, “Bill Hader Showed Up to Host Hilarious ‘What’s That Name?’, Thrillist, accessed March 30, 2019, https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/snl-skit-whats-that-name-bill-hader-john-mulaney
 Philip Simmons, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life (Bantam Books: 2000, 2003), x, xi, 20, 21.