A sermon, based on John 12.1-8, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday in Lent, April 7, 2019
Jesus returns to Bethany for a festive dinner party among dearest and exceedingly grateful friends. Earlier, Martha and Mary had summoned Jesus to come to the aid of their sick brother, Lazarus. Devastated at his death, perhaps disappointed with Jesus in his delay, once he arrived, they were dumbfounded with joy when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, revealing, as he said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”(1)
At some point during dinner, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. Then, in an act of scandalous impropriety, as a woman in public, she unbinds her hair and, in loving, lowly, slavish service, wipes his feet.
Judas Iscariot, professing concern for the poor, judges Mary and her foolish waste. Jesus, sensing, knowing the inescapable end of his ministry of proclaiming, revealing the kingdom of God of unconditional love and justice for all people and at all times, which confronted the powers-that-be that ever favored the status quo of privilege for the few, recognizes Mary’s anointing as a prophetic witness of his coming death. “Leave her alone,” he declares, honoring Mary and her loving lowliness as reflective of his self-sacrificial life.
Have you ever had an encounter with another who, responding to you in word or deed, clearly, in your eyes, “got” you, understood you, had a real sense of who you were and what mattered to you? If so, then you know how Jesus might have felt. Mary “got” him. She understood him. He had not come to save, preserve, spare his life, but to give it away, even unto death. Thus, in reply to Judas’ challenge to what she did, Jesus declared, “Leave her alone!”
Now, Jesus calls us into his service. Service that rarely is of the massive proportion of public deeds affecting myriad folk. Therefore, service, from a worldly perspective, given voice in Judas’ retort, that is wasteful of our time, attention, and energy.
The service of Jesus mostly is meted out in daily, small deeds of love and justice. A kind word, a sympathetic ear, a tender touch, a warm embrace for a puzzled mind, a broken heart, a discouraged soul, a despondent spirit.
That said, the service of Jesus always must (and infrequently do I employ this word or should and ought; all morally-heavily-weighted words, which, when I use them, and should you happen to disagree with me, bear the necessary implication that I think you are wrong!) involve our care for the poor. For, as Jesus says: “You always have the poor with you.”
I believe it easy (and I have heard preachers do this) to perceive Jesus’ word as a mere statement of fact. Before, during, and after Jesus’ day unto our day and, doubtless, as long as the human race exists, there have been, are, and will be poor people. We always have, do and will have the poor with us.
I digress again…
This is the danger of proof-texting; that is, extracting a biblical verse from its context and pointing to what may appear to be the plain meaning of the words. Jesus’ statement, “You always have the poor with you,” taken alone, can be interpreted, again, as a simple observation of a fact of human existence. However, this declaration comes alongside, again, his recognition of his coming death. Therefore, “You always have the poor with you,” is an implicit commandment for us. As Mary anoints him for burial, Jesus, who also tells us, “you do not always have me,” leaves his life and ministry of care for the poor to us for us to do. Even more, we are to challenge worldly powers and principalities, systems and institutions that live to keep the poor poor.
And in America where over forty-three million people, fifteen million among them children and one-in-seven senior citizens(2) and here in Laurens County where over twenty-five percent, one of every four residents, and over sixty-five percent of children aged six to eleven live in poverty,(3) there is more than enough ministry for us to do.
Therefore, Connie,(4) your steadfast labor, o’er the years and unto this day, calling us to share in the Backpack Ministry to provide, throughout the school year, nutritious foodstuffs for fifty of our local elementary school students who daily face the challenge of food-insecurity is an incarnation of the service of Jesus. In God’s name and in the name of our Epiphany community, I thank you.
(1) See John 11.1-44
(4) Connie Daniels, an Epiphany Church parishioner and a faithful follower of Jesus and a stalwart, selfless servant of God’s people.
Illustration: Mary anoints Jesus’ feet, James Tissot (1836-1902)