Winning, Dying & Knowing Christ

If you were alive in the late 80s, you likely recall the slogan on the backs of cars that emerged during that time. No, not the “Baby On Board” placards and all of their various caution sign iterations, but the bumper stickers with the phrase, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” It summed up in an instant the desire of the driver: to accumulate as much stuff as they could. It defined the capitalistic American good life, to achieve financial success so you could buy all that your heart desired and then some. Excess was the point, and, of course, keeping up with the Joneses and the Smiths and the McGillicuddys. If you had enough gadgets, your life would be meaningful. Besides achieving “winner” status when you died, you also left all that stuff for your kids to sort through and dispose of.

Because that still happens, right? Death. I mean even the bumper sticker philosophy itself claims that it’s coming. You don’t seemingly win the game until you die. This realization dawned on others, of course, because soon after another bumper sticker emerged, “The one who dies with the most toys still dies.” The end result is still the same: you’re no longer on this side of the ground.

The reality of death is hanging in the air in our reading this morning. It’s just six days before the Passover, John tells us, and it’s the evening before Jesus’ triumphal entry when the crowd will shout their hosannas and waves their palm branches. Jesus is in Bethany at the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, and we’re reminded that it has only been a short time since Martha and Mary were weeping over their brother’s death. They’re gathered with Jesus for a meal when Mary opens up a jar of perfumed ointment and begins to anoint his feet with it. The scent of it fills the entire house. Even when Judas complains, Jesus says to him, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” We didn’t read it this morning, but in the verses preceding these, we’re told that the religious leaders have begun to consider doing away with Jesus. One of them says, “It’s better to have one man die than for the whole nation to be destroyed,” and, we’re told, they began plotting to kill Jesus. Even with the joy of Lazarus being raised from the dead, we can’t escape it. The starkness of the finality of life is present. And with it being there so blatantly, we’re forced to contemplate what’s important in this life.

In our gospel lesson, Judas’s question seems at first blush like an appropriate response to where we should focus our energies. He sees the extravagance of this gift of perfumed ointment, and asks why it wasn’t sold for a year’s wages and the money given to care for the poor. (Just an aside here that in Matthew’s retelling of this story, it’s all of the disciples who collectively ask this question. John works hard to designate Judas as the villain in his text, and so he throws Judas under the bus every chance he gets.) The question isn’t really about caring for others and their needs as much as it is about greed. Which makes sense. If you saw someone taking a $35,000 bottle of perfume and pouring the entire thing on someone else’s feet, you might be wondering about better ways to use that money too. What you’d likely be imagining isn’t how you can serve others with that money, but what you could get if you had it at your disposal. What things you might buy if you had that kind of cash just lying around to burn.

The recent Netflix film “Don’t Look Up” takes a satirical look at what happens when a comet heading toward earth means certain death for all of humanity. Two astronomers, a grad student named Kate Dibiasky played by Jennifer Lawrence, and her professor Dr. Randall Mindy played by Leonardo DiCaprio, make the discovery and try to warn the world of the impending doom before it’s too late. Hoping the government or the media will influence action to save the planet, instead we see the vast majority of people refusing to believe their discovery, while the powerful seek to both politicize and monetize it. Dr. Mindy himself becomes a viral media sensation because of the attention, and tries to make the news more palatable. The title of the film comes from the mantra cried out by those who refuse to acknowledge the potential end of life, choosing instead to look down at their phones. Seeking after money, power, influence, and fame become the choice for many even with a catastrophic event on the horizon. It still seems to be about accumulating.

St. Paul himself is quick to deal with the ideas of success within a society in his letter to the Philippians this morning. He starts listing all his bonafides which could be seen as a point of pride. He was part of the elite, getting into the right schools and rising through the ranks to become a prestigious leader, in addition to being blameless along the way. If you were to pull out his resume, you’d be impressed. And yet when he considers all those things—all of those achievements and awards that he pursued—Paul simply says he regards them as rubbish, waste fit for the trash heap. He’s realized that all those pursuits are nothing when compared to knowing Jesus. He writes, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” And then he goes one step further, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” I want to become like Jesus in his death. 

Which is strange to our ears no matter how you slice it. I think because what we really want on that bumper sticker is “The one who gets the most toys never dies.” We’re afraid of death, you and I. We don’t want it to come creeping into our thoughts, so we avoid it by filling up our lives with things. That’s why the beginning of Lent is so disorienting when a cross of ashes is imposed on our foreheads and we’re told, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We somehow believe the lie of our society that we can have all the toys and avoid the grave too. That if we just do enough and get enough and be enough that we will somehow finally win, and our prize is that we can just keep going on forever. That we can cheat death. That we can chase after all the things our society holds out to us, and avoid any sort of reckoning. 

It’s Jesus’ odd response to Judas’ question that puts this all in sharp relief. When Judas inquires about why they hadn’t sold the ointment and given it to the poor, Jesus responds, “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.” His first listeners would have instantly recalled words from the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy. God declares, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” While holding the reality of death firmly in one hand, Jesus points to what’s really important with the other. And it was John himself who gives us the clue when he opens this scene. Jesus comes to this home of beloved friends and they gather for dinner. And John writes, “Lazarus was one of those at the table with him” to ensure that we get it. It’s not death that gets the final say, but rather building the beloved community.

These dear friends of Jesus’ gather at a table and share a meal. They enjoy laughter and stories and recall memories and engage in deep conversation. They have an amazing dinner together epitomized less by the goodness of the food and more about each other’s company. Mary spends the time anointing Jesus’ feet simply because he is there, alive in front of them. She’s heard the rumblings about what the religious leaders are up to, and she’s seen all too recently the impact of an early death. And while her brother Lazarus is there at the table once more, it’s shown her that it won’t always be like this. That this life won’t go on forever. That the important thing is sharing love and connection and relationships and making time for others. It’s about opening ourselves up so we can fully connect. 

Yes, we will always have the poor among us so we should open up our hands to them and make sure that they too are fed and cared for. And we will not always have each other. Kids will leave our tables for college or jobs, loved ones will move away, dear relatives or friends will die. The question is what do we do now with the time and resources that we have. Death is inevitable—we are indeed only dust and to the dust we will certainly return—so can we accept that reality and choose the way of love? Can we move our focus from chasing after things and wealth and success to cherishing relationships, memories, and joy? Can we live our lives to emphatically show that it’s not death that gets the last word, but love?

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