Our Gospel for today (John 12:1-8) tells the story of a party where things went horribly wrong. In this account, Jesus goes to the house of Mary and Martha of Bethany, the sisters of Lazarus. Lazarus is the man Jesus raised from the dead. His sisters have personalities remarkably different from each other. In the most well-known story (Luke 10:38-42), Martha works slavishly in the kitchen while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his teaching. Surprisingly to many of us, that encounter ends better for Mary than in does for Martha. Jesus says: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41). But that’s another sermon.
In today’s passage, Jesus is attending a dinner at the Bethany house when Mary, seemingly for no reason at all, takes a jar of expensive ointment and uses it to anoint his feet. The fragrance of the perfume fills the room, but the smell does not quiet the attendant passions. Judas—the zealot who will ultimately betray Jesus—loses his temper. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Just as Jesus had admonished Martha in the earlier story when she complained that Mary was not helping her serve the meal, so in this moment Jesus steps in and chastises Judas: “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.” Like the Smothers Brothers’ mom, Jesus always seems to like Mary best.
Let’s try to imagine the dysfunction of this dinner party. Martha is slaving away in the kitchen, her sister Mary is anointing Jesus’ feet, and Judas is pitching a fit because he disagrees with Mary’s fiscal priorities. Then the authority figure steps in and sides with one of them against the other. This is like the worst Thanksgiving dinner you can imagine. I get a stomach ache every time I read this story. Before you know it, the perfect evening has gone all to hell.
So that’s one bad party. I want to talk now about another one where things went even worse. It happened not in Bible times but in 1993 in the Park La Brea section of Los Angeles. Adam Scott, a 27-year old man, had recently graduated from USC Law School and had just begun work at a downtown law firm. He was at a party at a friend’s house when the host invited a group of guests into his bedroom to see his gun collection. The host wanted to show off his new 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun, and he first pointed it at another guest, saying it wasn’t loaded. Then he pointed the shotgun at Adam Scott. The gun went off. The young lawyer, hit once in the head, died within minutes.
According to witnesses, immediately before his shooting, Adam Scott had said “I don’t even think I could fire a gun in self-defense.”[“Slayings Put Educator on Crusade for Gun Control,” Los Angeles Times, November 21, 1993]
I didn’t know Adam Scott, but I did and still do know his parents, Jack and Lacreta, quite well. At the time of his son’s death, Jack was president of Pasadena City College, and the Scotts were active, faithful members of All Saints Church in Pasadena, where I served at the time of Adam’s death. Not long after the shooting, Jack resigned his college job and committed the rest of his working life to curbing gun violence. He spent the next 16 years in the California State Assembly and State Senate working tirelessly in that effort.
The events of the past year—the mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and Aurora, Colorado, the avalanche of daily killings in Chicago and elsewhere—have rightly galvanized the faith community to speak and act in pastoral response to these tragedies. People die daily in America as a result of human malevolence. But today’s Gospel and the story of Adam Scott point us toward another reality: people die not only because of evil intentions. People die because we are not always in control of our own behavior. Despite our best efforts, we are always in danger of finding ourselves at an event where things suddenly and tragically go wrong.
None of us is in control of the actions of others. None of us is entirely in control of our own actions. The problem is what our prayer book calls “the unruly wills and affections of sinners,” and our prayer for today asks that God not only bring order to that seemingly uncontrollable part of us; it also pleads that God grant us grace to love what God commands and desire what God promises.
I don’t know about you, but I recognize myself in that prayer. My wills and affections are unruly. And though I may strive to obey God’s commands, I don’t always love them. And if that’s true for me, it’s probably true for all of us. We’re like the guests at the Bethany dinner with Jesus: we’re out of control, selfish, and prone to make mistakes. In the words of the late Rodney King, “Can we all just get along?”
Here at Washington National Cathedral we have spent the last several days observing a Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend. We are doing this in collaboration with our partner organization, Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence and with more than 200 faith communities across America. Since Thursday night, we have gathered to pray, reflect, listen, learn, and commit ourselves to action that will help bring this epidemic to an end.
Taken together, today’s Gospel and the story of Adam Scott sketch the outlines of gun violence as a religious problem. Like all violence, gun violence will plague us as long as the wills and affections of sinners continue to be unruly. Mary and Martha and Judas turn a dinner with Jesus into a family argument. A young man goes to a party and ends up dead. These things don’t happen only because of human ill-will. They happen because none of us is, finally, in control of ourselves. Our wills and affections are unruly. We neither love what God commands nor desire what God promises. That is the human condition: we may think we’re in charge, but when we’re honest with ourselves we know that much of the time we’re out of control both personally and socially. In the Christian tradition, we call that condition “sin,” and we give over the season of Lent to lamenting it, examining it, and working together to find new ways to live with it even as we move, with Jesus, into God’s future.
Gun violence will continue to be a religious problem as long as people like you and me are sinners. When we say that we’re sinners, we do not say that in a negative or judgmental way. We say it in recognition of the way things are. I don’t always know what’s best for myself. I want what I want, often regardless of the consequences. My judgment is limited and finite and partial. Real spiritual and psychological health begins with an acknowledgement of my situation. “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6). That’s what the Bible means when it calls us sinners: not that we’re bad, merely that we’re cosmically accident-prone. God doesn’t love us in spite of our sinfulness. God loves us in full knowledge of who we are and of what we are capable.
When Martha and Judas complain about Mary’s contemplative attention to Jesus, they are not being evil, merely mistaken. We need to work together to lessen the occurrence of gun deaths not because people are evil but because we’re neither as smart nor invulnerable as we like to think ourselves. We need each other to make our way through life. That’s what society, that’s what the church, is all about. And that’s why we at Washington National Cathedral are in this gun violence work for the long haul. We won’t give up until our streets and our schools and our children are safe. We owe at least that much to our children, our neighbors, ourselves.
As perfect as we try to make them, our dinners, our parties, all our efforts will always contain within them the possibility of going horribly wrong. At first, that may sound like bad news. But there is good news, too. As dysfunctional as our gatherings may be Jesus will still always manage to come to them. We may go astray, but we are not abandoned in our confusion, our sinfulness, our vulnerability. Jesus is here among us now as we gather at his table. He calls us not only to love and forgive and accept ourselves and each other. He calls us also to help him make a world where all God’s precious children will be safe from violence in all its forms. All we like sheep have gone astray, are going astray, will continue to go astray. But we do have a shepherd in Jesus, and for that one’s loving gracious care for each and all of us we gather at his table to give thanks. Amen.