October 23, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Who Taught Jesus How to Wash Feet?
(fifth in the series “Following Jesus through the Fourth Gospel”)
Today we hear the story of Jesus having dinner with the people he loves. The one telling this story in the Bible makes it clear: Judas is supposed to be the villain. It’s after they’ve eaten. Martha is clearing the table, and Mary goes to get something. Before the disciples realize what she’s doing, the fragrance of the perfume fills the house. It would be embarrassing, if only she were embarrassed, but she’s not. Mary is pouring out… all over Jesus’ feet. And kissing them! Right in front of everyone! No boundaries. No shame. Somebody’s got to say something.
Judas shifts in his seat, clears his throat, and musters his voice of authority: “Why was this perfume not sold for, say, an unrealistically exorbitant price and then the money could be given to the poor?” And the one telling the story doesn’t miss a beat. The very next verse clarifies, Judas doesn’t actually care about the poor. He’s mad because he’s the one who keeps the common purse, and he likes to skim a little off the top.
Leaving aside this ulterior motive, the truth is, Judas’ question bothers me because I wonder whether he might be onto something. Sure it’s tempting to dismiss his question because he doesn’t really care about the poor, but I don’t know.
There’s a real tension involved in sitting down to a marvelous dinner. As I take the first bite of mixed greens tossed in raspberry walnut vinaigrette, I remember, right now, somebody else is hungry. There’s a holy tension involved in going to bed in a warm house on a cold night and remembering right now somebody else is trying to find a safe place to sleep. This tension troubles my conscience, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe that’s how we are human.
If we only have so much, shouldn’t we give more to the poor instead of spending it on ourselves? Shouldn’t we give more to the poor…
If you ever find yourself asking this question, thank you. If we only have so much, then how do we make ethical decisions with our resources? Some might argue, the best way to help is to give money to organizations that advocate for issues like expanding SNAP benefits and increasing grants for shelters. Some might argue, the best way to help is to give directly to the people who are hungry or living on the street.
This is a worthy debate, and it’s one that impels us to consider whether our calculations reflect our conscience. As the church, we need to wrestle faithfully with the question of how to allocate our resources in a way that is pleasing to God. Now when this question appears on the meeting agenda, wouldn’t it be helpful if the Bible could provide us with some direction?
In the scripture we hear this morning, what Jesus does not say is this: “Okay Judas, you make a good point about helping the poor. Here’s a useful formula for calculating how much money we should spend helping those in need.” Instead, what happens is when Mary breaks the boundaries of appropriate social behavior, she breaks something else at the same time. She absolutely shatters the premise that goes “If we only have so much…” As it turns out, the kind of giving Mary teaches is not really about allocating resources.
I invite you to imagine being at this dinner. For one thing, Lazarus is here. He’s the brother to Mary and Martha, but more than that, he’s the one who Jesus just raised from the dead. When you see him, you can’t help but remember how he smelled the last time you saw him. Oh Lazarus.
Now while we’re inside eating, the religious leaders are outside meeting, solidifying their plans to arrest Jesus. The dinner feels strange. On the one hand, it’s sort of a celebration. It’s not everyday we’re all together, sitting at the same table, enjoying dinner. On the other hand, death is already creeping into the room. It’s not just a smell lingering on Lazarus, it’s something else, like you can sense they’re going to kill him. Everybody can sense it, but nobody’ll talk about it. Leave it to Mary.
I don’t know what she was thinking. Something in her made her get up from the table, and get the perfume she had purchased, God only knows how. She poured it all out on his feet. The smell was overwhelming. It filled the house and brought tears to our eyes. Mary was already crying, and her tears got mixed in. She kissed his feet and wiped them with her hair. And it was so erotic and so devastating. It wasn’t like she had planned this, like she was trying to put on a show. Instead, she was pouring out the truth of her being all over the floor of that house.
You don’t have to worry about Judas interrupting her so cruelly. Mary couldn’t even hear him ask the question.
Give me Jesus. Oh give me Jesus. You can have the whole wide world. But give me Jesus.
And so it is that today’s scripture is not about making an ethical calculation. Mary does not purchase perfume that she got on sale with a coupon and then present it to Jesus explaining how she used the savings to set up a foundation for sisters whose brothers were raised from the dead.
What happens is that Mary gives everything to Jesus. And when all the perfume is poured out, she pours out her tears, as though her giving keeps going and going.
If we only have so much, we need to give more to the poor instead…
Except maybe the truth is: We have so much; we need to give more to the poor… We need to give more…
It’s no secret that one of our thriving ministries at Church of Peace is the Food Pantry. I give thanks to Kevin for his longstanding leadership, to George for taking it over and renewing its life, and to everyone who volunteers and supports this critical mission.
It’s also no secret that the Food Pantry stirs up important questions. For example, the rules say a family can come once a month, but what are we actually going to do if they show up twice? It could be tempting to give somebody two bags of potatoes if they want two bags of potatoes, even though the deal is one per household, but then how is that fair to the next person? When our church is struggling to pay our bills, how can we ensure that the Pantry is something we can afford?
Some of these questions can be answered with developing policies and doing the math. Then there are the ones that go: Is the Food Pantry actually ending hunger in this neighborhood? Or this question: What if we are being taken advantage of by people who just enjoy getting free groceries?
It is not wrong to assess the risks, and clarify the rules, and actually run the numbers; this kind of work is going on. It is not wrong, and it is not all. It might also be the case that the Food Pantry is doing something more than what we measure…
A week ago Saturday when the Elliotts were working, I stopped by the lounge and saw the kingdom of heaven. Several families were talking to each other and eating plates of sweet potato casserole. Children were going through the basket of books. The Food Pantry lets our church proclaim: “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” We are teaching children in the neighborhood that Church of Peace is a safe place to come. You walk through that door, you will be greeted with kindness and treated like a person, not a problem.
The Food Pantry gives us the chance to connect with our deepest authenticity, with the generosity that comes from God. You know, we find out who we are by what we give. And there’s no way to get involved with this giving and not come back to life. Maybe the real risk is not, “What if that person is taking advantage of us?” When you connect with the generosity of God, you won’t even be able to hear that question, like Mary couldn’t hear Judas. Maybe the real risk is our own resurrection.
In a few weeks, please expect to receive the Two Thousand Seventeen Estimate of Giving Form. The church is asking for your pledge to finance our budget for next year. I am asking you to please take a minute and don’t just write down the number you wrote down last year, don’t just recycle the form with the junk mail. Instead, please pray about this invitation.
For all of us, the amount we’ll pledge is a question of conscience and calculation, but it is also something more. Connecting with our deepest generosity is the work of being who we really are then coming back to life. No wonder it’s terrifying! Allocating resources is allocating resources. Giving from generosity is a thrill-seeking endeavor. This year, if you write down a number on the pledge form and you feel a rush of exhilaration, that’s a sure sign that you’re doing it right. Giving will wake us up from the dead, and push us out of the tomb; did you even know we could be this alive?
And so Mary washes Jesus’ feet in order to prepare him for burial. By her calculation, he was counting the hours before his death. Now you’d think Jesus would lay down in her arms and die right there. Instead, this story keeps breaking the limits of responsible calculation. Jesus doesn’t lay down and die. He gets up, and a few days later, Jesus gets on his knees in front of the disciples. He remembers the power of the gift poured out so he can’t even keep it to himself. He still smells like her perfume.
Here Jesus is helping the disciples get ready, but not for death. Mary’s gift has become something more. Jesus is washing their feet to prepare them for the work of getting up from the dead, then helping others do the same. Generosity spills into greater generosity and the giving keeps going…
We have so much to give, then even more, and did you even know we could be this alive?
Thanks be to God. Amen.