Fifth Sunday in Lent C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
Everybody should know the name Jeannette Pickering Rankin.
Jeannette Rankin was born in 1880 in Montana before the territory became a state. She first found a calling as a social worker but after moving to Washington state, became deeply involved in the women’s suffrage movement.
Moving back to Montana, she ran for office in the 1916 congressional election. She canvassed the state extensively and won enough popular support to not only win the seat in Congress, but to win it by 7500 votes. Thus, Rankin became the first women in the history of the United States to be elected to Congress.
The date that she achieved this feat is important: 1916. Why is this date important? Because it’s 4 years before the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, the amendment that corrected the original Constitution and guaranteed the right to vote for women. 4 years before it was a federal right for women to vote, Jeanette Pickering Rankin won a congressional election. Granted, at the state level, 40 states had finally admitted their faults and ceased obstructing women voters, but at the time Rankin was elected to serve in congress, many women were still prevented from casting a vote. Her rise was unexpected, to say the least.
Expectations are funny things. We all have them, and at least in my experience they don’t get you very far. It’s as if expectations exist to present to us a world we would love to inhabit, only to remind us that we don’t when those expectations aren’t met.
But we also rely on expectations. We expect that when we have a green light at an intersection, the other road has a stop light and people will actually stop. We expect that when we call 911, tireless emergency personnel will respond in our time of need. You expect that when you put money in the offering place this morning, it will be used faithfully for the ministries of this congregation and a portion sent for the ministries of our synod and our national church.
We rely on our expectations to inform our every day decisions based on what we already know. Which is why it’s so infuriating when those expectations are thrown off.
Take the story of Jesus, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. We have here a pretty common scene. Jesus is visiting the siblings, who are some of his closest friends in the whole world. They are having a meal, maybe even a feast, and all of Jesus’s disciples are invited. Everything seems to be going well.
And then Mary… well, she does this really strange thing. She takes a bottle of perfume that was worth about a year’s pay, and just busts it open and pours it all over Jesus’s feet. I’d get in trouble if I busted one of our crystal wine glasses, let alone if I blew a year’s pay by pouring it over someone’s feet!
But Mary’s unexpected act is profoundly revealing. All throughout the Bible, people are anointed. Men are anointed to be kings and prophets, and they are anointed by other men. They are anointed to be strong, to be warriors, to lead and to rule. That was the expectation.
And here’s Mary, a woman, a lowly woman at that, who takes this extremely expensive perfume and just pours it over Jesus’s feet, anointing them. His feet.
Then there’s Judas, who brings up a fine point if he weren’t being a crook in the process: why wasn’t the perfume sold and the money used for the poor? Surely that was the expectation. Thinking of the money, Judas is, and he’s right to do so. But Jesus’s response suggests that maybe there’s something else going on here that has nothing to do with money.
It bothers us when our expectations aren’t met. It bothers us when the unexpected happens that throws off our plans. It bothers us when we read the script of life, the way things have been outlined for us, and watch as the world doesn’t follow it.
Take the church. The script said that the church should be a visible, strong institution in community. It should have a suitable building staffed during business hours with a secretary, a custodian, a pastor, a music director, a youth minister, five boards, numerous committees, and a council. It should have Sunday school every Sunday, other worship every Wednesday, Vacation Bible School in the summer, Confirmation in the Spring, a marvelously intricate Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday worship with extra music and song. It should be -the- place in the community where people go to when they need help, dispensing food, money, and shelter whenever needed out of its vast resources. It is measured by how many people worship on Sunday morning (or possibly Saturday night), it should have a full-time, not part-time pastor, the bigger its budget the better it is, it should be run like any sensible business with customers, consumers, and products, and charter members are the most important people in the entire world.
It is, in short, expected to be the perfect American institution which is able and willing to solve every problem in the community while simultaneously being a pillar of virtue and behavior.
How short the church often falls of its expectations. We know this is true. The church is not the center of community life as it once was. Churches that focus exclusively on their building, their own members, their staff and their programs aren’t able to do the same things they once did and fade away. It doesn’t have the physical resources to be this American institution that perpetuates the American way of life. Most churches can barely function in a multi-point parish, clinging to their separate buildings, programs, and traditions without falling into bankruptcy, let alone be the go-to places for help and aid in their communities.
The expectations set before us were high, and we failed to reach them. And you know what? I’m okay with that.
I’m okay with changing expectations because our story about Jesus, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus seems to suggest that our expectations are not necessarily God’s expectations. It suggests that our own expectations are faulty, misguided, or self-serving, opposed to God’s expectations and what God expects to happen.
Mary was expected to be subservient and lesser, and here she is anointing Jesus like a prophet anoints a king. Money was expected to be the primary way people viewed things in the world—for the perfume was quite expensive, and Judas had a point about that—and yet here Mary is, finding its worth in a different purpose. Jesus was expected to be king and ruler over all in the manner of king David, and yet his anointing foreshadows not his reign, but his death and burial, when he would again be anointed with spices and perfumes.
I’m okay with changing expectations because Jeanette Pickering Rankin should never have been able to serve in Congress while so many of her fellow American women couldn’t have even voted for her, because it was illegal in their state. And yet, she defied expectations, changed the script, threw out the old, and helped to usher in a new era in our country, which her detractors thought surely would spell the end of American life as they knew it.
I’m okay with changing expectations because sometimes–many times–our expectations are just plain wrong. They are hurtful, they are harmful, they are isolating, they are exclusionary, they are backward, they are self-serving. When these are our expectations, they deserve–no, they need to be challenged.
Jesus challenged the expectations of his disciples, of his people, and of a world that wanted something very different than what he had to offer. He ended up dying for that defiance. But in the process, he changed the script, changed our expectations into something bigger, something greater, something different, something different.
And I’m okay with that.