John 12:1-8; Delivered April 7, 2019; Godly Play

At the first church I served, I devoted a lot of my time to youth ministry. Our church was crawling with young people—one year we actually confirmed 26 8th graders, isn’t that something?!
I’m not sure now how this came to pass, but under my direction, the senior high youth began presenting bi-annual youth dramas. These were either for our yearly youth Sunday service, or for fundraisers. We raised money to support our Habitat for Humanity summer mission trips. And that’s all you need to know about that. I do want to share with you, though, one of the things the youth did when they rehearsed for their drama productions. They started their rehearsals by engaging in a few improvisation exercises. As a for instance, we’d all be in the sanctuary. The youth are leaning on pews, maybe, and trading “What’s ups?” Or they are sitting and hanging over the backs of pews, chatting. Then, I would suggest a setting, a scenario to everyone, and they would take it from there. So for instance, I would say, “Oh my goodness! The sanctuary floor is ankle deep in peanut butter!” Then, everyone would look down and imagine peanut butter.
Think for a minute. What would you do if right now, you were suddenly ankle deep in peanut butter? Peanut butter has suction power. Probably you have to raise your feet way up to release them from the peanut butter’s hold. What if you are there, sitting in your pews, wearing new shoes? Are you going to take them off and then walk out of here today barefoot? Maybe you love, love, love peanut butter. You reach down, scoop it up in your hands and then lick it off your fingers. Maybe you love it soooo much, though, that you decide to hoard it. Right away, you put some of it in a handbag, in a pocket. Now, what do you do if the sanctuary is ankle deep in peanut butter and you are ALLERGIC to peanuts? Oh no! You’ve got to quick, put your feet up, and you will have to convince your nearest neighbor to carry you out of church when the service is over, or risk being contaminated!
After the exercises, we’d all have a good laugh and explain what in the world each of us was doing and why. Just so you know, there was a good reason for it all, besides getting the youth focused, besides the pure fun of it.
Any good dramatist knows that in order to act, as in a play, you have to get in touch with your creative genius. That genius is in each of us. Most times, we keep it behind a locked door in a dark corner of our brains, where it’s collecting cobwebs and layers of dust. We keep it there because we know. The creative side of our brains can get us in trouble. You say something that is creative, that is, untested, it might be considered off-color, rude, or just ridiculous. You only do that creative thing in a SAFE environment, when the rule of thumb is, nothing you do or say will be considered stupid; or out of bounds. Everything and Anything is possible.
I won’t get into the technical language, mainly because I don’t know it, but apparently there is a section of our brains that handles creativity, and self-expression—scientists have actually identified it on MRI scans. Scientists have scanned the brains of people while they are doing creative things, like composing music. When a musician is composing, he’s using that side of the brain. There is this other part of our brains that handles self-monitoring, and self-consciousness. So when that same musician just reads and plays the notes of a piece, the self-monitoring, self-conscious side fires up. He’s worrying whether he’s getting the notes right. The two sides of our brains are at war a lot of the time, and, maybe most of the time, the self-monitoring, self-conscious side wins. If, though, we can engage the creative side of our brains and quiet the self-monitoring side, like the youth did in that peanut butter exercise, we can be freed up to act with boldness, and freedom. Hold onto that word, free. We will be coming back to that. Improvisation frees us.
Improvisations don’t just happen in drama rehearsals. There are practical applications to improvising. Maybe you saw the movie, Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks? It was based on the real life events of our nation’s aborted lunar landing. The three men of the Apollo 13 crew became stranded in space when one of their space vehicle’s oxygen tanks exploded. The tank spewed precious oxygen into space. It was up to Houston Mission Control back on Earth to find a work-around, using the meager supplies and personal items on board the space craft—including a sock, as I recall. That’s improvisation. In that case, the improvisation wasn’t fun—it was real work; round the clock work. To fail, meant that three of our nation’s astronauts would die. As you know, Mission Control was successful. They created a work-around which they relayed to the space crew, who then took appropriate action. The three Apollo crew members were able to splash down in Earth’s ocean, to cheers from US citizens watching it all play out on their black and white TV screens. I mention this because improvisation has everything to do with today’s story. Jesus has just a little while ago, brought Lazarus back to life. We don’t know what happened right after. Probably it was a time of shock and amazement for friends and family members followed by hugs and kisses, followed by dancing. After that, it was back to Lazarus’ house to continue the party with of course, food! You can’t have a party without food!
That’s where we are when we enter today’s story. Who’s at Lazarus’ house? Jesus and Lazarus and Judas are the men who are mentioned. But what do you think? Certainly Jesus didn’t leave his other disciples behind and don’t you think there were other friends and family members there, too? So at least these three, and presumably many more are reclining on couches, or maybe on floor mats. That’s the way people often ate back then and in that part of the world—reclining. They reclined and the slaves or in this case, the women, brought the food to them. Mary and Martha, are serving and maybe some slaves, too or other female family members.
In this improbable moment, when Lazarus is back from the dead, a grateful Mary acts impulsively, freely. She improvises in this new Kingdom of God scenario. It’s a scenario in which the sick and lame are healed, people burdened by guilt and shame are forgiven and made whole, and a dead man breathes again. Mary smooths expensive Indian Nard onto Jesus’ feet. Then she wipes Jesus’ feet dry with her long black hair. Hers is an action of creative genius. She feels safe and free in Jesus’ presence to do that.
The scent, we are told, fills the entire house. Just so you get an idea of the fragrance that Mary so liberally applied to Jesus’ feet, we are going to relive that experience now. This is Indian incense, the same kind of aroma that Mary would have used. I hope you think this is wonderful. In a small way we are reliving this ancient tale. But we aren’t done yet. In today’s story, that Judas doesn’t understand what Mary is up to. He makes the snide comment, “That perfume was worth a small fortune. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor!” Spoil Sport. Poor Judas. He is using the side of his brain that has to do with self-monitoring and self-consciousness. He is NOT free.
That evening, as we said earlier, no doubt there were others lying on THEIR couches and mats. Don’t you think it is odd that all these others are silent? Why do they wait for Jesus to respond? Why don’t don’t THEY come to Mary’s defense? Have they not understood this new reality? Are they so stuck in the self-monitoring side of their brains? That’s it, right? They are mired in thoughts of what would it LOOK like if they responded to the Kingdom of God. Maybe they don’t yet even truly believe that the Kingdom of God even exists. Or, they just don’t yet feel safe enough to act. Poor souls. Like Judas, THEY are not yet free. Of course, this story begs the question, if YOU had been there with Jesus and the rest that evening, what would YOU have done. Would YOU have defended Mary? Would you have improvised, too, singing at the top of your lungs maybe, or running around the room like a crazed person shouting, ”The Kingdom of God has arrived!” Or would you have just laid on your couch waiting to be served, the way you always have and maybe always will, world without end. Amen. (Look around). This story then, convicts US.
We’re talking about the Kingdom of God, and I thought I would end this sermon, with a true story told by Brian McLaren. Brian McLaren, is the author of We Make the Road by Walking, if you participate in our monthly book study.
Brian and his wife are traveling in Australia. It’s summer time and they stop at a café. Their café table is in front of a central square. In that central square is a stage and on that stage is a band. There are other couples, families, and groups of people seated at tables, listening to the music, too. As the rhythm picks up, some of them begin to tap their feet; moving with the music. Brian spies a couple sitting near them. He can’t hear what’s being said, but he reads their body language. She’s saying something like, “Come on, let’s dance. It’s ok. I love this music!” Reluctantly, he stands, and holds out his hand. Together they move into the space between the stage and the café tables. Soon they are dancing, lost in the music. Free. Then Brian sees a little boy, around 10? He’s got binoculars hanging on a cord around his neck. It is obvious by HIS body language, that he has some physical and maybe mental challenges. He wants to stand up in front, too. His mother tries to prevent him, but he insists. Soon HE is up near the stage. Pretending his binoculars are a saxophone, he pretend-plays along with the band. His eyes are closed. He’s lost in the music. Free. Ok. You have that scene in your head?
So, a musician on stage, sees the boy. He steps off the stage with HIS REAL saxophone, and stands by the boy, while he continues to play. The boy’s eyes are still closed. He doesn’t notice a thing. Then a second musician on stage, this one with a guitar, sees what’s happening. He joins the first musician and the boy. The three of them are up in front of the stage lost in the music. Free. Finally, the boy opens his eyes. He sees the musicians on either side. What, will freak out? He looks from one to the other, and then he jumps up and down, throwing his head back, smiling broadly. He’s thrilled at what he has just participated in, indeed, instigated.
Brian says that as he watched the scenario unfold, he began to weep at the beauty of it all. His wife, seeing the tears, patted his hand and said simply: “The Kingdom of God.” Amen