Sermon Seeds: The Fragrance of Life

Fifth Sunday in Lent Year C


Lectionary citations:
Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

Worship resources for the Fifth Sunday in Lent Year C are at Worship Ways

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
John 12:1-8
Additional reflection on Isaiah 43:16-21

Focus Theme:
The Fragrance of Life

by Kathryn M. Matthews

Just as we began our Lenten journey by remembering who we are, and then whose we are, by reflecting on the story of Abraham and Sarah, we are brought here, near the end of Lent, to the question of who Jesus is, and who we are as his disciples.

Our teacher in this story is a woman, which happens so often in the Bible, especially the Gospels, where the last and the least seem to hit just the right note while the Apparently Chosen stumble and blunder their way along.

We reach a turning point

This anointing at Bethany, the home of Lazarus, isn’t just a nice little story in the middle of John’s Gospel. It’s set at the turning point of that Gospel, literally and figuratively. Jesus has turned his face toward Jerusalem instead of remaining a popular but mysterious and elusive troublemaker in the outlands, out of the reach of the religious authorities and the Roman Empire.

His raising of Lazarus from the dead, just a few verses before this passage, in chapter 11, has set into motion the wheels of the machinery that will kill him in just a few more days.

Word is spreading

The high priest and the Pharisees hear the reports – from eyewitnesses – that this Jesus has really outdone himself this time, not “just” curing a leper or driving out a demon but bringing back to life a man who had been in the tomb four long days. When the word spreads that Jesus has brought his friend Lazarus back from the dead – such a sign, such a promise of what was to come – the religious leaders panic.

We’ve got to put a stop to this, they say: people will believe in him, and that will provoke the powers that be, the Romans, to come in and destroy our holy place and our nation. We’ll have to raise the terror alert to orange at least, maybe even red! “So,” the text says, “from that day on they planned to put him to death.”

Time for a party?

Right in the midst of all of this anxiety, plotting, and threat, or perhaps in spite of it, Jesus’ friends, Martha the earnest, hard-working hostess and her brother Lazarus, fresh from the tomb, and her sister Mary, the passionate one, throw a dinner party. That’s right. It’s time to have a party, they say.

And who can blame them? For heaven’s sake, Lazarus wasn’t just sort-of dead or metaphorically dead, like the Prodigal Son last week – “This son of mine was dead, and come back to life” – he was dead-dead. Dead long enough to cause a stench, Martha worried, remember?

Long enough to bring the whole family and the town and his good friend Jesus together in grief, but not long enough to deter Jesus and the power of life and love, even if the consequences of all this is Jesus’ own death.

A story of extravagant love

This beautiful story of extravagant love, Mary’s anointing of Jesus with expensive perfume, is set just on the edge of Jerusalem…Jerusalem, soon to be the site of an offering of love, the most extravagant offering of all.

So the family of Lazarus gathers to honor and to try to thank Jesus, and to celebrate the restoration of their loved one. Still, at this party, death itself lingers in the air around them, even here, at a party with friends, in a home that should feel safe, a refuge from controversy and questioning.

Lazarus sits and talks with his friend, Jesus, who will soon be laid in a tomb himself. Can you imagine the conversation between them, one so lately returned from the tomb and the other on his way?

Things get tense

The wonderful preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, says that Jesus must know he’s a marked man, that he’s on “the religious right’s ‘most wanted’ list,” and his days are numbered (Bread of Angels). The establishment, always so easily threatened, even by one single truth-telling prophet, is coming after him.

Everyone else must suspect it, too. All around them are the smell and the feel of death: the tomb outside, probably still open, available for the next occupant, the expensive nard waiting.

Mary and Martha know something about anointing, and nard, and death, having just experienced the death of their brother Lazarus. Things are tense, and you know what happens when people get tense and anxious…they start picking at one another, criticizing one another, they get into scarcity mode and start counting the cost of every little thing, losing sight of the big picture and missing the point. They – we – tighten up, worry, maybe even strike out at others. It happens.

Seeing what others miss

But not Mary. Not Mary the passionate one, the one who loves Jesus with her whole heart, loves to sit at his feet and listen to him, Mary, full of love and gratitude and very little inhibition, even in the face of Judas’ sputtering and self-righteous, not to mention hypocritical, objections.

No, Mary doesn’t let anything hold her back, and more than anyone else, even the men who have been following Jesus all this time, hearing his words, watching him in action, even more than these, Mary sees the big picture.

Acting on what she sees

Mary senses who Jesus is, and what lies ahead for him, and she acts on it, embodying her response, her gratitude and her grief, with an extravagant anointing of Jesus’ body. She does things not acceptable in polite company in that culture and time: she unbinds her hair, loosens it as women did only for their husbands or when they were in mourning; she pours expensive balm on the feet of Jesus (his feet, as one would anoint a corpse, not a king; a king would be anointed on the head).

And Mary touches Jesus even though she’s a single woman – again, not “appropriate” – and then she wipes his feet with her hair.

The extravagance of God’s love

No inhibition indeed! Barbara Brown Taylor says that Mary is prophetically witnessing to the extravagance, the lavishness of God’s love and mercy, something Mary had experienced in Jesus himself, just as we can even today.

Just as Jesus began his ministry with an extravagance of excellent wine at a wedding feast, so his ministry comes to a close here in an extravagance of expensive ointment, a passionate display of love and caring that even the woman who offers it does not fully understand (Bread of Angels).

There’s nothing stingy, nothing miserly, about God’s love. Isn’t that the real meaning in what’s about to happen, in Jerusalem, on Calvary?

No ordinary dinner party

What in the world is going on here? It certainly isn’t your everyday run-of-the-mill dinner party, with a man returned from the dead and his sister wiping the guest’s feet with her hair. You and I are accustomed in our generation to having news commentators explain to us what is happening before our eyes.

My mother, however, was often annoyed (even before the age of cable news) by the television commentators who tell us what a president, for example, just said, right after we’ve listened to his speech. But John doesn’t annoy us. He adds only a few words, in parentheses, a few important ones and helpful to us as we look on.

Isn’t this a waste?

Let’s be honest: in all our commitment to the poor, wouldn’t we be tempted to say, “Hey, what are we about here, anyway? Where’s our mission? Didn’t Jesus always express his concern for the poor? Why are we wasting expensive perfume instead of selling it and buying, say, food for the hungry?”

I could almost agree with Judas here, but John pulls us back, whispers in our ear: don’t. You know, he says, Judas doesn’t really care about the poor; he steals from the rest of the disciples; his heart is not in the right place. Watch out.

Pretending to care

Perhaps the only thing worse than not caring about the poor is pretending to care about them. Here, on the edge of his act of betrayal, Judas pretends to know what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus.

However, it’s Mary, not Judas the self-righteous voice of criticism, who teaches us what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. She recognizes, even if only partially, who Jesus is.

Just as importantly, she recognizes who she is as his follower: one who serves, one who anoints, one who gives extravagantly without counting the cost…one whose response to Jesus is an act of love and a gift of life, the fragrance of life.

Setting an example for his followers

Consider this: in the Gospel of John, at his last meal with the disciples, in the very next chapter after this one, Jesus doesn’t take bread and bless and break it and say, Take this and eat…no, actually, the way John tells the story, Jesus gets up and ties a towel around himself and pours water in a basin and washes the disciples’ feet.

That is what he wants his followers to do, but he doesn’t just tell them, he shows them, too. Do as I say, he says, and do as I do. Mary, our teacher for today, anticipates that lesson beautifully, acting from her heart, responding to all that Jesus has been in her life.

Giving from a full and breaking heart

This woman who takes an expensive jar of perfume and lavishes it upon Jesus’ feet is making a gesture, a heartfelt gesture, with a broken-hearted sense of what is to come at the end of the journey to Jerusalem. Perhaps her heart is full, and perhaps it is breaking, too.

When our hearts are full, when our hearts are breaking, we don’t waste time calculating our expenses. When our hearts are full, when our hearts are breaking, when we’re not sure what’s coming but we feel deep down that it may mean loss and grief anew, we don’t waste time computing the cost of our commitment.

Considering the cost

Can you picture Mary, while Martha (as usual) is doing all the kitchen work, and Lazarus (as usual) is sitting in the living room talking with the other men – Mary, in the storeroom, the one with a lock, I suppose, looking at that last jar of expensive perfume….looking long and hard…thinking about Jesus, who had risked his life to come back and help her and her sister, to grieve with them for a moment and then to bring life out of death…amazing!

What amazing and wonderful thing can she do, what can she say not with words but with her whole self: Mary takes the best she has to give and in an hour of need, as death looms over this little band of disciples, Mary takes the best and breaks it open over the feet of Jesus, the one she loves, the one she is about to lose…even if only for awhile…but we suspect she does not know that, yet.

A great story of stewardship

This is my very favorite stewardship text. Not very many people think about stewardship when they hear this story, because we think stewardship has to do with conserving and saving and using things, especially money, very carefully. I don’t.

Actually, I do think taking care of the earth and appreciating our gifts and not wasting them are all part of being responsible, grateful caretakers of God’s creation. But I also believe that extravagant sharing, extravagant giving, from the heart, is the best stewardship of all.

Choosing to give lavishly

I believe that it’s never a waste to give, lavishly, from the heart and not count the cost. When we love someone, really love someone, it just comes from our heart: we want to give them not just our stuff, whatever it is and however expensive it is, but we want them to know how we feel, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the last jar of expensive nard on our shelf – we want to crack it open, break it open, pour it out…our hearts full to the brim and overflowing….

How do you define “extravagance”? Is there a difference between extravagance and excess? How would your family define it? How would your congregation define it? How would you and your family and your congregation define “waste”? What sorts of limits have you placed on what you spend or give away or use that define what is “reasonable,” and what is “excessive”?

Generosity that transforms

We wonder then about our own hearts and our own giving, our hearts broken open to one another and to the world God loves…those moments when a gesture of love and unexpected generosity transforms a situation: a generous spirit that offers forgiveness and healing, a spirit of kindness that offers healing and hope and speaks words of encouragement, a spirit of freedom that gives out of the abundance we live in so that others have enough to live.

This woman, Mary, even in the face of criticism, held nothing back, not the most expensive gift she could give and not the gift of her own breaking heart, full of love. This woman, so full of love, is our teacher today. She helps us to recognize who Jesus is, and who we are called to be as his faithful followers.

Our hearts, broken open for giving

I can only wonder, then, about our own hearts and our own giving, our hearts broken open to one another and to the world God loves…those moments when a gesture of love and generosity transforms a situation. A generous spirit offers forgiveness and healing, a spirit of kindness offers healing and hope and speaks words of encouragement, a spirit of freedom gives out of the abundance we live in so that others have enough to live.

This woman, Mary, even in the face of criticism, held nothing back, not the most expensive gift she could give and not the gift of her own breaking heart, full of love. This woman, so full of love, is our teacher today. She helps us to recognize who Jesus is, and who we are called to be as his faithful followers.

And then, the next day…

How do you think Mary felt the next day? Did she clean up the remnants of the perfume, changed in any way by her act? She had “seized the day,” sensing she would not have Jesus much longer so close at hand. How are the day and the moment before us in such a way that our acts of extravagant generosity can wait no longer?

Jesus is on the edge of Jerusalem now, waiting to enter the holy city as the King of Peace, even as others – Pontius Pilate and other petty rulers – prepare to enter it in military pomp and power. Though Jesus has no weapons or legions behind him, he strikes fear in the heart of every petty ruler, and he is headed toward an awful confrontation with that fear, with those would-be powers that be.

Time to rest before the trials

But first, he rests for a while with his friends, with the people who love him even if they don’t fully understand him. They are doing what they can, even though the time is short and the hour is at hand to lose the one they love.

They cannot see the suffering that lies ahead, or the resurrection and new life, the possibility, that will come after it. And so, with them, we turn now toward Jerusalem. May our vision be clear and our hope fixed on the one we follow.


The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Nigerian saying
“It is the heart that does the giving; the fingers only let go.”

Bernard Williams, 20th century
“An extravagance is something that your spirit thinks is a necessity.”

Kahlil Gibran, 20th century
“Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”

Gabriel García Márquez, 20th century
“Perhaps this is what the stories meant when they called somebody heartsick. Your heart and your stomach and your whole insides felt empty and hollow and aching.”

Anne Lamott, 21st century
“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up.”

José N. Harris, MI VIDA: A Story of Faith, Hope and Love, 21st century
“Tears shed for another person are not a sign of weakness. They are a sign of a pure heart.”

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 20th century
“The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

Additional reflection on Isaiah 43:16-21:

We may have to get past a common misconception about prophets in order to better appreciate the depth of beauty in the words of this text from Isaiah. Perhaps we think of prophets as people who somehow, magically or miraculously, predict future events. Even our supposedly sophisticated, scientific culture shows a remarkable level of interest in “prophecies” that predict the end of the world, whatever their source, including the Bible itself.

I confess that it requires willpower on my part not to get caught up in such conversations (in person or on Facebook) even though, or perhaps, because most of my childhood was spent dreading the end of the world that was supposed to arrive with the year 2000. This “prophecy” came from vaguely religious sources, long before secular ones stirred up anxiety over Y2K or a little-known Mayan prophecy twelve years later.

Such talk captured my imagination and held it hostage for far too many years. What the world needs now and always, however, is a word of hope, not self-proclaimed “prophets” who claim to predict future events beyond our control and full of doom.

Words of comfort in exile

This prophet Isaiah, however, is full of anything but doom. As we recall from our reading two weeks ago, the voice we hear in this part of the book of Isaiah is often called “Second Isaiah,” and many scholars believe he addressed the people of Israel not to warn them with words of judgment (as First Isaiah seems to do, before the exile, in chapters 1-39), but to comfort them during their years of exile in Babylon, far from home, cut off from their homeland, from who they are and from how God wants them to live.

Walter Brueggemann speaks about the role and timing of these poetic voices in the life of Israel, when the people thought they had brought this calamity upon themselves by their faithlessness, or needed to be reminded about God’s own faithfulness throughout their long history.

A community of hope

When things seemed to be the worst they had ever been, God sent these prophets to sing a new song, to lift the spirits, expand the imagination, and solidify the hope of the people. “From the bottom of loss and guilt arose in Israel a series of new, imaginative poetic voices,” Brueggemann writes, “…who took the loss with deep seriousness but who shrewdly reinterpreted old faith traditions to turn exilic Israel in hope toward the future.”

This is a key point, because we are called to be like Israel, “a buoyant community of hope that believed and trusted” (Reverberations of Faith). In other words, this message was not just for one place and time, but a word for the future as well.

Can we trust this text?

Brueggemann often writes in general about poet/prophets, but he also writes specifically about this week’s passage in the same spirit as Gerhard von Rad did, calling it “that most remarkable of all texts that we should not speak until we decide if we trust it.” Considering how many texts Brueggemann has studied over the years, we can begin to sense the significance of this week’s short reading.

He describes the weighty consequences for Israel of Isaiah’s words but certainly for us as well, because “they will have no personal joy, no public justice, no corporate repentance, and no family humaneness until the community received a newness it cannot generate for itself” (The Prophetic Imagination).

Could it be that we fail so miserably at transforming our communities because we think, deep down, that we can do it all on our own, that it’s all about us and our own cleverness and resourcefulness?

Exodus and Exile

The two most momentous experiences in ancient Israel’s life as recorded in the Old Testament, of course, were the Exodus and the Exile. In each situation, God heard the cry of the people and sent prophets in their hour of need: Moses, to the people in Egypt, and prophets like Isaiah to the people in Babylon.

God led the people home in both situations, to the Promised Land in the first, and Back Home Again in the second. But there are differences between the two captivities as well, because the time in Egypt was formative for the Hebrew people: it’s where they became a people as well as a nation.

A people dear to God’s heart

Elizabeth Achtemeier writes about the way God shaped a people out of “a ragtag bunch of seminomadic Semites,” slaving away under Pharaoh’s cruel regime and crying out for help. We know that God did indeed hear them, took pity on them, and, Achtemeier writes, “set his love upon them.”

She calls that Israel’s “founding story,” and we know that they repeated it to one another, generation upon generation, reminding themselves of where they came from, and who called them into being the people they became. Over and over again, they told themselves the beautiful story of God setting God’s love upon them (The Lectionary Commentary: OT/Acts).

(I’ve always loved that story-telling process being described as necessary for “un-forgetting.”)

A different kind of captivity

On the other hand, the Jewish people did not necessarily suffer in Babylon in quite the same way that they suffered in Egypt. There were no bricks to make (with or without straw), no whips, no prison walls. It was a different kind of captivity, but perhaps just as wounding to their soul, especially if they forgot who they were and bought into the values and ways of the empire that had carried them off.

Brueggemann has written often of this tension between Israel’s identity and the pressures of empire, a tension that translates well into our own life, thousands of years later and thousands of miles away, facing different but still formidable powers that be. He describes the problem of exile in Babylon as severe displacement, alienation “from the place that gave identity and security…[and] the shapes and forms that gave power to faith and life” (The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith).

Lost and homesick

For Israel, exile was being lost, homesick, divided, unmoored, rootless except for memory. It must have been challenging to resist settling into Babylon ways, Babylon beliefs, Babylon values. It must have been hard to resist the temptation to settle down, fit in, sell out, and forget the story that had held them together.

After all, what good had all that done them? (An ancient version of “How’s that working out for you?”) Into that emptiness stepped a poet-prophet to sing a new song about ancient things, about the new thing that the God of old was about to do. Maybe that’s why we use the words, “ever ancient, ever new.”

Be sure to take the artists

I remember learning long ago that ancient empires knew how to eradicate a people. They didn’t just defeat their army and take their king captive. They also carried off the “flower” of the nation, including the artists, the poets, the musicians, those voices that sustain the people. They knew that they had to defeat more than armies, that they had to destroy the vision, the dream, the spirit of the people as well.

Babylon was doing a pretty good job at that when Isaiah stepped forward and reminded the people of Israel that they hadn’t seen it all, not yet. Certainly, the saying “It ain’t over till it’s over” fits here, for God was going to step in and do something truly amazing.

David Bartlett puts it this way: “Anything God can do, God can do better, and backwards and upside down as well….Isaiah predicts different performances by the same actors, different dramas by the same author” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2).

Never mind what’s come before

It may be paradoxical, it may be ironic, but it’s definitely surprising: right after describing God’s actions in the past (and they were glorious, no question about it), the prophet says that we should “not remember the former things, or consider the things of old” (v. 18). What better way to get the attention of people who think that their glory days are over, that their story has run out?

Maybe “the former things” are God’s judgment and anger at the people’s faithlessness in the past. Maybe. Or maybe “the things of old” are great works that are about to be outdone, as Bartlett puts it, by a God who can outdo anything God has done in the past. Does it matter? Both meanings are wonderful (full of wonder), and they hold true for us today as well.

Where you are matters when you’re reading these texts

When any group of faithful people turns to the poet-prophet Isaiah for a word of hope, no matter which empire has its heel on their throat, Brueggemann says that “Scripture is ‘thick’ with many meanings that leave open many possible readings,” and he assures us “that the text itself authorizes these many new acts of imagination” (An Introduction to the Old Testament).

Elsewhere, he inspires us to think of examples of people who read a text like this one “from below,” like women, people of color, and the poor. After centuries of such texts being appropriated like property by those with power and authority (again, irony), he calls these marginalized voices “rereaders” who grasp more readily “the radical quality” of this prophetic text and the lessons it teaches us about God and about the way God wants us to live (Texts that Linger, Words that Explode).

Reading from above, or below

Surely the world would be a better place if all of us – whether reading from above or below – became “re-readers” of these poems, and let the poetry transform us, let it turn our hearts and minds in hope toward the future God has promised and the great wonders God will work.

Brueggemann quotes another great scholar, Claus Westermann, whose words sound like they are just as much addressed to the church today as they are a reflection upon the situation of the Jewish people long ago: “Israel requires to be shaken out of a faith that has nothing to learn about God’s activity, and therefore nothing to learn about what is possible with him, the great danger which threatens any faith that is hidebound in dogmatism, faith that has ceased to be able to expect anything really new from him.”

Look toward the future

Brueggemann himself writes that “biblical faith is geared to the future. It moves always to God’s coming miracle that pushes past old treasured miracles and old suffered judgments” (Isaiah 40-60, Westminster Bible Companion).

Consider our hymns and creeds and Bible studies and doctrines and church history: are we so focused on the past that we have forgotten to expect the unexpected? Have we forgotten that we worship, and listen for, a God who is still speaking, and still acting, today, and that we cannot even begin to imagine the great things that God is about to do?

Waters of creation, waters of life

Because he is a poet, the images Isaiah uses are both beautiful and compelling. They evoke primal human experiences, like profound thirst.

In fact, the most powerful image in this week’s reading is water, and many commentators take note of the waters of creation, the waters of the Red Sea, and, of course, waters in the desert: for the people wandering on the way to the Promised Land, the people on their way Back Home, and for all of us who thirst for justice and wholeness and peace.

God surprises us

Water can bring life, but it can also block it (think of floods), as Michael E. Williams notes, and both of these meanings are present in this passage: it’s because of God doing a new thing that water brings us life instead of keeping us from it. Williams asks about the barriers in the life of the congregation that keep it from experiencing God at work in new and surprising ways, including “the seven last words of the church”: “We’ve never done it that way before.”

He also takes note of the easy-to-miss mention of “jackals and ostriches” in verse 20, the “most dangerous and outlandish of God’s creatures” that will be included in these great works, and will have sense enough to honor God for the great gift of water that sustains their lives even in the wilderness: Williams suggests that we learn from them (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2). Amen to that!

Letting go of past pain

For preachers, Margaret Aymer suggests several ways to approach this text, lifting up God as the “way-maker” who cuts paths for us when it seems that all we face are obstacles and hopelessness, and telling the story again and again, especially to those most in need of hearing it.

She also suggests that our Lenten discipline might be one of letting go of the past and its pain, a most difficult thing for us to do. For example, how might such a movement transform our families?

A community that lets go of its pain

For the larger community, Aymer presents a specific challenge when she asks us to consider letting go of our shared pain and outrage over the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, which, in many ways, have shaped our national life for almost fifteen years.

Is memory in this case something we hold on to in order to justify what we do and feel today, or are we willing to open ourselves up to “a relinquishment of past pain” (New Proclamation Year C 2010)?

A world of trouble and beauty

We live in a world filled with both trouble and beauty, a world that finds it hard to let go of pain. We hear the cries of anguish and desperation of those who suffer. What is our response?

Have we ourselves forgotten the story of God’s great love and works of love and justice, compassion and restoration? Have we also forgotten to open ourselves to the new and amazing things God is about to do? Have we contained our dream too closely, and practiced a meager economy of expectations? Have we forgotten how to hope?

For further reflection:

Plato, 4th century b.c.e.
“Poets utter great and wise things which they do not themselves understand.”

James Baldwin, 20th century
“The poet or the revolutionary is there to articulate the necessity, but until the people themselves apprehend it, nothing can happen.”

Jesse Jackson, 20th century
“Our dreams must be stronger than our memories. We must be pulled by our dreams, rather than pushed by our memories.”

Houssaye, 19th century
“We must always have old memories and young hopes.”

John Keats, 19th century
“Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity–it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.”

Alice Walker, 21st century
“Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.”

Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, 20th century Hungarian biochemist
“Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.”

Lectionary texts

Isaiah 43:16-21

Thus says the Lord,
   who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
   who brings out chariot and horse,
      army and warrior;
they lie down,
   they cannot rise,
they are extinguished,
   quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth,
do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness
   and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
   the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
   rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
   the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

Psalm 126

When God restored the fortunes
   of Zion,
we were like those
   who dream.

Then our mouth was filled
   with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts
   of joy;
then it was said
   among the nations,
“God has done great things
   for them.”

God has done great things
   for us,
and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes,
   O God,
like the watercourses
   in the Negeb.

May those who sow
   in tears
reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out
bearing the seed
   for sowing,
shall come home
   with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

John 12:1-8

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.”

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.

Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”