Summit Presbyterian Church
March 21, 2010
John 12: 1-8
While We're Here
I'm going to begin on a somber note. Alone among creatures, all human societies - in the past, present and everywhere in the the world - have ways to take care of those who have died.* Public rituals, burials and cremations, are very different, but, unlike animals, we don't let the dead lie where they fall. Except when we have to, such as in a war. Or after earthquakes. Or in plane crashes over the sea. And when such disasters occur, the inability of survivors to care for their loved ones makes those events especially tragic or evil. Caring for the body of one who has died, or arranging for its care, no matter how simple or elaborate, is an important way we show respect, honor, and love.
Mary and Martha showed that care for their brother Lazarus when he died. They had his face and hands and feet bound with strips of cloth. They placed him in a tomb - a cave - and rolled a stone in front of it. They mourned, and many came to their home to console them. Jesus also came. Mary and Martha had sent for him days earlier, when Lazarus was ill, but he delayed, so Jesus came to Bethany four days after Lazarus was laid in the tomb. When Martha heard he had arrived, she went out to meet him; she then went back and called her sister Mary, telling her that Jesus was there, and calling for her. When Mary saw Jesus she knelt at his feet and said the same thing that Martha had said to him: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." She wept, those who came with her wept, and Jesus also began to weep, for he loved Lazarus, as he loved Mary and Martha. Then Jesus asked where they had laid him, and they brought him to the tomb. He told them, "Take away the stone." But Martha, who knew the care that had been taken with his body, and also knew what would happen if the tomb were opened, said, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." But Jesus insisted, so they rolled away the stone. Then Jesus called for Lazarus and the dead man came out, still bound in strips of cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."
And there he now was - alive, sitting at the dinner table. Back from the dead because of Jesus, who was also at table with them, the guest of honor. Martha served - we can only imagine the kind of feast they must have made - and then Mary got up. She took a pound of costly perfume, made of nard, nard that had come all the way from Nepal or Kashmir. She knelt down and anointed his feet, and wiped them with her hair, as Jesus would wipe the feet of his disciples with a towel days later. A bold move, yes. Extravagant, yes. And loving. Mary would have known about the threat on Jesus's head. She knew that after Jesus had raised Lazarus some of the leaders wanted to put him to death and had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so they might arrest him. Instead, Mary and Martha took him into their home and Mary annointed him with precious and costly oil. A perfume that would fill the house ---- stronger - maybe - than the stench that would fill the tomb. She showed him honor, respect, love. A passion strong as the grave.
But Judas didn't get it, or didn't want to get it, or didn't want to show that he got it -- that Jesus would soon be gone and Mary's anointing would be one of the last things she could do for him. Judas would betray Jesus, he'd tell the authorities where he was. So he said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor?" It's a good question. It's a question John knew others would ask, for he makes haste to tell us that Judas didn't really care for the poor, that he was just asking because he wanted to steal the money from the common purse. But the motives of Judas aside, it remains a good question, a question we still ask in all kinds of circumstances: Why spend so much money on wedding, or a funeral, when that money could go to the poor? Why restore the windows or the organ when there is so much suffering in the world? Why costly perfume or luxury of any kind when others do not have enough food?
Jesus answered him, "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." You always have the poor with you --- How often those words have been remembered! With these words, many luxury-loving people, ordinary but preoccupied people, and people who want to hold on to their privilege, have breathed a sigh of relief. See -- even Jesus says it. We'll always have the poor with us. There's not that much we can do. It may even be God's will. At the very least there's no rush -- they'll still be there tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. We can spend money on other things -- costly perfume, luxuries, beautiful things, especially when they're used for God's house.
The trouble is, none of those people, and they include us at least some of the time, knew their Bible. They didn't know that Jesus is quoting Moses. That while he was telling them to leave Mary alone, as he accepted her gift, he was also reminding them of God's commandment regarding the poor. Just before they were to enter the promised land, Moses gave instructions to the people on behalf of the Lord. Every seventh year, he said, you are to grant a remission of debts. You're to wipe the slate clean with anyone in your community who owes you money. And then he says this (Deuteronomy, 15: 7-11).
"If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking "The seventh year, the year of remission, is near," and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never case to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, "Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land."
So the words of Jesus to Judas are not as simple as they seem. He wasn't taking sides on some eternal debate on giving to the poor vs. expensive gifts. Yes, he was gratefully accepting Mary's costly and extravagant gift of love. He was acknowledging her silent prophesy -- that he would soon die, that it was the time for his anointing. He affirmed that Mary had made the right choice; But he was also reminding them, and us, that as long as there are people in need on the earth, as long as the poor are with us, God calls us to be open-hearted and open-handed. It's a double commandment: to love God through extravagant gifts of beauty and love: in worship, and in the way we love and care for one another. But to also obey God's commandment to be generous and open-hearted with all who are in need, all of the time. We can do both.
And both are urgent. They are urgent because this is the time we have been given: our time, on this earth. This is the time we've been given to love God with all our heart and mind and strength; and also to love our neighbor. Mary understood the urgency of the hour. She had just known the loss of her brother and although he was back, she knew it was only a reprieve. So she didn't hold back.
Phil Ochs was a songwriter who wrote folk and protest ballads in the 60s and 70s. He died at a young age, by suicide. I believe he was an atheist. But he wrote what I think is a faithful song on the urgency of loving and singing and giving during our time on this earth. In matters of love, and beauty and justice. He begins:
There's no place in this world where I'll belong when I'm gone
And I won't know the right from the wrong when I'm gone
And you won't find me singin' on this song when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here . . . . .
In the song he lists the things that he guesses he'll have to do while he's here: the pleasures of love, breathing the bracing air, seeing the golden of the sun and dancing with delight; but also doing his share, adding his name to the fight, singing louder than the guns.
We believe that when we're gone, we'll be united with God in Christ: but while we're here, Christ calls us to love and to give, to God and to neighbor. Generously. Extravagantly. And with no time to waste.
Please join me in prayer:
*McCann, "Burial" in the New Interpreter's Bible.