My son is
enamored of the Thomas the Tank Engine stories, which center around a mythical
yet very British island where various steam engines and a few newfangled
diesels each work out their place in the railyard. The highest praise for any
train is that they are “really useful” – which might help explain why Thomas
has a tremendous following this side of the Pond.
We’d all like to be useful, wouldn’t we?
Now, I am not one of those pastors who will wax poetic about how wonderful it is that the clergy are paid to have coffee. Personally, I like doing things. I like projects, I like goals, I like having some sense of where my ministry begins and when I can just be a Mom for the day. And in a time when so many people are unemployed and others work at jobs which seem devoid of meaning to them, I relish what Gail Godwin calls the “grace of daily obligation” that being a woman of the cloth provides. I know where I belong – on Sunday mornings, in a crisis, and most days when the needs of the community stretch out before me. It's good work, if you can get it.
But the need to be useful can really trip a person up. After all, as clergy, we are the ones who urge people to show up on Sunday mornings for worship but cannot claim that God is basing the heavenly rewards on our attendance records. We are the people most of the population calls only after the doctor says there is nothing else he can do.
There is an extravagance to this whole affair of Christ's incarnation – evident in John’s gospel from the opening wedding feast to the surreal breakfast on the beach. The accounting books just can’t make sense of it. God’s very son doesn’t just show up and set people straight about The Truth, maintain his dignity and return home. He pours himself into mortal life, and pours it all out in the most undignified way possible.
This story is positioned in Lent just as we might be too eager to account for how much good our Lenten disciplines are doing us. In the daily lectionary, it appears on Holy Monday, that day of best intentions and long to-do lists, as if to warn us that what is about to come won’t fit on a balance sheet, even a really righteous one about feeding the poor (or even writing a really good sermon).
Instead of doing some math, we’re invited to take a deep whiff of nard, the smell of death, beauty, and love.