Stories Seldom Heard – September 2016
Stories Seldom Heard
September, 2016 206th Edition
John 12 1:11 2016
By Sister Patricia Bruno, OP
Welcome to Stories Seldom Heard. I would especially like to welcome the 4th Gospel Community of Marin and Sonoma Counties, CA; the Religious Education Teachers of St James Parish, Petaluma, CA; and the parishioners of St. Joseph’s Parish, Harlem, New York.
Over this last year I’ve been teaching a poetry class in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco. It’s a very poor section of the city. The women and men writers with whom I work live on the edge of homelessness. Most of them live in single room occupancy hotels. Some have jobs as clerks in those hotels; others are attendants at homeless shelters or work in food pantries. They’re very talented people and they are much better poets than I am. That’s the truth! But death is constantly knocking at their doors.
We always begin our class with a brief meditation followed by a “check in.” Last week Darleen, a woman who is 47 years old, said that exactly thirty years before, on Aug 11, 1986, she made a decision that turned her life around. She walked away from the death-dealing drugs and a life style that were destroying her life. The change was extremely hard, but she began a new life. She has been able to keep her promise “by the grace of God and the support of good friends.” But what happened next was quite unexpected. Jack, another member in the class, looked directly at Darleen and said to her, “That decision was not just good for you. It was good for us, too, because otherwise you wouldn’t be here with us now. We would never have gotten to know you.” Death and resurrection come in a variety of ways throughout our lives. Sometimes they’re small deaths and resurrections and sometimes they’re major.
In the Gospel today we hear of an extraordinary life-giving event. The celebration at Martha’s, Mary’s and Lazarus’ house is a celebration of life overcoming death. As we read the gospel, however, we are aware that there are two stories running parallel to each other. One story is straight forward. The friends and neighbors of Lazarus have come to celebrate his being raised from the dead. There is also a second story of which we are aware. We hear the innuendos. We know the end of the story.
The Gospel says it was six days before Passover. We know it is the final week of Jesus’ life. We also know that the chief priests are plotting to kill Lazarus. They are afraid that too many Jews will hear about Lazarus being raised from the dead and will come to believe in Jesus. So a plot is building not only to kill Jesus, but also to get rid of Lazarus – the unflinching witness to Jesus’ life-giving power. The Pharisees were right. Many people came to the house that day to see Lazarus. His story had begun to circulate throughout the area. Publicity like that could cause major problems for the Jewish authorities. Any sign of Jewish power that threatened the Roman officials who were in control would mean heavy punishment of the whole Jewish community.
However, most of the friends who came to celebrate that day had no idea of the rising plots.
They were there to celebrate a friend who had been dead and now had come back to life. What more could anyone ask for? After experiencing a miracle like that, it was easy that day to hope for almost anything. It was easy to imagine a world in which children had enough to eat and sick people got well. In that house of mercy it was easy to remember the stories of the lepers who were cured and welcomed back by their families and communities. In that house around those tables filled with food and drink, it was possible to imagine a world in which women like Martha and Mary were not only known as Jesus’ disciples, but also treasured as intimate friends of Jesus.
The conversations must have been filled with energy and laughter and fresh memories of bandages unwrapped as a dear friend was set free: set free from the powers of death. There was no gloom in that house, only stories of mercy, friendship and new life.
We’ve all had moments like that. Times when we’ve celebrated new life not just of new born babies, but the new life that sets family members or dear friends free, like Darleen, from death-dealing situations. We all have experienced times when new life has been offered and accepted.
But in the middle of the celebration the conversation changed abruptly. Mary anointed Jesus’ feet. What was Mary thinking? Did Mary know something that the others had not yet come to recognize or refused to accept? In those days heads were anointed with oil as a sign of honor, respect and royalty, but the custom of anointing feet was associated with preparing a body for burial.
Mary was a dear friend of Jesus which meant that she knew him well. She was also a true disciple: a disciple who knew how dangerous his teachings were, a disciple, as we hear in Luke’s Gospel, who sat at the feet of her rabbi and teacher. She listened well and she remembered Jesus’ words. “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Love changes everything, doesn’t it, especially our hearts. When we truly love someone their joys are our joys. Their pain is our pain. Often we can’t do anything to relieve the pain of a loved one except to stand with them. A while back when Pope Francis was in the Philippines a teenage girl with tears in her eyes asked the Pope why there was so much suffering and pain in the world. The pope had no answer, no words of comfort for her. Rather in silence he put his arms around her and he too cried. “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Mary had learned well Jesus’ teachings. They were lodged deeply in her heart. To be in solidarity with a friend who is suffering is to share their pain. That day, Mary met Jesus in a new way. She met a suffering Jesus, a Jesus who was in need of understanding and comfort. They both knew that his death was imminent. Jesus welcomed Mary’s anointing and the strength that came with it. No human wants to meet death alone. Mary’s anointing was her pledge to stand with him even to his death. It was also an expression of her faith. She met in Jesus that day the one who was both truly human and divine in a way she had never experienced before.
This story of friendship and mercy is not just for those who were present that day Bethany. It’s for us, too, for we are also called to be disciples of mercy. Not just as individuals, but as a church community, a parish community. When we gather in church, the house where we have received mercy over and over again, we are called to be Jesus’ beloved community, a community that stands with one another in times of joy and pain, in times of unity and fear. We are called to be a beloved community that is not afraid to face the inevitable deaths in our lives. We are called to be a community that recognizes God in those who suffer and those who rejoice, a community that has experienced the compassion of God and practices it towards all those we meet. We are called to be disciples of Mercy: communities of mercy that touch even those who at first glance might not seem to need our concern. We are called to be a give and receive community based on God’s mercy towards us and lived by faith.
This story of mercy and friendship, of discipleship and courage didn’t begin or end in Martha’s, Mary’s and Lazarus’ home. We celebrate the God of Mercy every time we join together for Eucharist. Our very first words ask for mercy and Mercy is given to us in word and sacrament. This Year of Mercy helps us to be more conscious of the mercy we have received. It also helps us develop a deeper sense of being people of mercy and communities founded on mercy. If we haven’t done it already, it is time for us to commit ourselves to specific acts of mercy that will hold true for the rest of our lives. Darleen’s story reminds us how life-giving for the whole community our graced decisions can be.
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green and Maria Hetherton who have helped in editing this article.
“Stories Seldom Heard” is a monthly article written by Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P. Sister is a Dominican Sister of San Rafael, California. This service is offered to the Christian community to enrich one’s personal and spiritual life. The articles can be used for individual or group reflection. If you would like “Stories Seldom Heard” sent to a friend, please send a note to “email@example.com.”