When was the last time that you were really surprised? When was the last time that you were caught by the unexpected? Was it an unannounced guest, or a visitor? Did you get a phone call you didn’t expect? Maybe you were the subject of a “surprise party.” Maybe you received good news…or perhaps bad news…that you weren’t anticipating.
When was the last time that you were surprised?
Just a week ago, Trinity’s mission team returned from Jamaica. It was, a pretty incredible experience. The group worked hard, and we had a great trip. I have made this journey to the orphanage now over 20 times. The children of Westhaven Children’s Home have worked their way deep into my heart.
But even though I’ve been there a bunch, every time I’m there, there is something that catches me off-guard; something that surprises me. This year was no exception.
Our team was split. Some were working at Westhaven with the children and young adults. Others were working about 10 minutes away with a program called J’Abode. J’Abode is the Jamaican equivalent of Habitat for Humanity. A family qualifies, funds are
raised for the materials, and volunteers work alongside the family to build a small, simple home. And when I say small…I mean small. J’abode homes all have the same floor plan. There are two rooms, a rectangular living space that is 12 feet by 16 feet, and a small, attached bathroom, probably 4 by 6 feet.
That’s it. It’s a total of 216 square feet of living space. Probably about the same size as my son’s bedroom. It has enough space for only the very essential things. But these homes are a significant step-up from where the residents are living now.
We were building for Luverne and her eight year old daughter. They currently live in an older and kind of beat up home that was probably twice the size of the one we were building, but was shared with 5 other family members. Luverne is great. She is stoic. She’s a little bit crusty, and has a great, sarcastic sense of humor. I like her!
These homes are built in 3 days. At the end of the third day, we do a home blessing. Now, I’ve done home blessings before, so I knew what to expect.
When we blessed Luverne’s home, I did an invocation and a short opening prayer, and then Abbigail, one of our team members read a section of Psalm 84. The Psalmist writes:
“Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young at your altars…Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.”
Then, I shared some of our group’s hopes for Luverne and her daughter, and then, before we prayed, I got to place the keys to her home in her hand.
And Luverne… stoic Luverne…crusty Luverne…funny Luverne… then did something I didn’t expect. Clutching her keys, she buried her face in her hands, and she burst into tears. I was so surprised, that I didn’t quite know what to do. So, I started crying…and I looked out at our group… and the domino effect was in full force: many of them were crying…and then Luverne came over and gave me a giant hug…and she just held on…like she was holding on for dear life. Crying tears of joy, for her 216 square foot home.
In Luverne’s reaction, I was reminded: Sometimes life, sometimes faith, sometimes grace…it surprises us.
Our Gospel story for this weekend is one that is full of surprises.
Jesus and his disciples traveled to Bethany and went to the home of Lazarus for dinner. Lazarus, you may recall, is the one who had died, and Jesus had brought him back from the dead. And Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, were serving. As usual, Martha was busy taking care of the guests. Mary takes this bottle of perfume… expensive perfume, worth a full year’s wages, and used it to anoint Jesus’ feet. She rubbed it in. And the excess, she wiped away with her own hair. Back to background photo
The disciples were shocked, even angry. This was a surprise. It was very unexpected, even scandalous.
- It was unexpected that Jesus was anointed in this way by Mary. In the culture at the time, it was always men who anointed men. For a woman to even touch Jesus broke Jewish law.
- It was unexpected that someone would use such expensive perfume to clean someone’s feet.
- It was unexpected that when the disciple Judas challenged Mary, Jesus would launch into an argument with him at the dinner table.
- It was unexpected that Jesus would, in the midst of Mary’s act of kindness, dampen the mood of the dinner by talking about his death.
But in this moment, Mary literally lets down her hair, and anoints Jesus. It’s a powerful, and unexpected image.
God regularly loves to do the unexpected. God does this with, for and through unexpected people.
Remember that sometimes life, sometimes faith, sometimes grace…it surprises us.
Look through Biblical history:
- Sarah, in her old age, wasn’t expected to have children, let alone to become the matriarch of God’s chosen people.
- Moses wasn’t expected to lead the Israelites out of captivity.
- Miriam wasn’t expected to become the prophetess of Israel.
- David wasn’t expected to be a king
- And the list goes on….
God regularly loves to do unexpected things with unexpected people.
Look at our own story. In 1919, a small group of determined women…members of a Ladies Aid who wanted their kids to lean the faith in what was their primary language: English, weren’t expected to start a church. But 100 years later, here we sit, over 4,000 members who form a community to welcome all, to connect with each other, to continue learning the faith and to serve our neighbor. If we were able to travel back in time and ask, I don’t think that this small group of feisty women would have expected that their actions would lead to all of this…
And as we approach the culmination of Lent and the celebration of Easter, we are reminded that one would expect death to have had the last word…that is, until the unexpected happened, and Jesus was raised from the dead.
Sometimes life, sometimes faith, sometimes grace…it surprises us.
Are you willing to let God surprise you? Are you able to look around, and to see, and be surprised by the work of God in the world.
Gathered in front of that small, 216 square foot home on the Jamaican mountainside, surrounded by people she’d only known for 3 days, Luverne was willing to let herself be surprised by God’s grace and love. Her tears showed that. The tears of our group showed that. And these signs showed me that within that moment of surprise, we were standing on holy ground.
To let yourself be surprised by God requires a level of vulnerability. It means that we are able to accept the work of God, and to not try to explain-it-away or rationalize it.
In a world where we like to maintain control, this is a challenge for us. At least it is for me. Generally, I don’t like surprises. “Don’t mess with my plans, God!” Surprises mean that I’m not in control. If something surprises me, it means that I’m not managing the circumstances, right? In today’s Gospel text, it can feel like Jesus is speaking right to me. Anyone else?
This Gospel text begins our journey to the cross. From here in Bethany, Jesus and the disciples will proceed to Jerusalem and there he will be arrested.
In the days to come, my friends, as we take this journey with Jesus together, I encourage you to do something a little out of the ordinary.
Open yourself up to the surprise that comes with the gifts of love and grace. When something unexpected happens…something that perhaps might surprise you a bit…wonder if that might be a way that God is at work? Or perhaps even a way that God is communicating with you. Open your eyes to see God in the midst of it. And remember that Jesus did not come simply to meet our expectations. He did not come to give the safe and easy answers. Jesus came to bring life, and love and salvation to all. For many of you who don’t feel like we’re worthy of this gift, this is an unexpected thing. But that doesn’t make it any less real.
Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was unexpected. And when we embrace that Jesus that has entered our lives and accompanies us…life becomes full of surprises.
Remember that sometimes life, sometimes faith, sometimes grace, sometimes love…sometimes Jesus…surprises us.
Thanks be to God.