Sunday, March 17, 2013

Better Served

"Better Served"
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 17, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 12: 1-8 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” [1] 

It seems that they pack all of Jesus' loaded exchanges in the Lent season, at least this year in the cycle. This week is no different. There is much packed in this little exchange. In this John version of the story there are many distinguishing marks. You have foreshadowing of Judas and his betrayal, you have the recurring characters of Mary, again at the feet of Jesus, while her sister Martha serves. They are the sisters of Lazarus, whom we are reminded that Jesus raised him from the dead, even though it just happened in the previous chapter, so all of this is background to the exchange where Judas questions Mary for annointing Jesus' feet with expensive oil, when that money could have been better  used for the poor, and Jesus admonishes him saying, "Leave her alone. You always have the poor with  you, but you do not always have me." This exchange is also found in Matthew and also in Mark, but in both of those the characters and setting are different. They all three take place in a town called Bethany, but in those versions it is not Lazarus' house, instead is the house of Simon the Leper, there is no Mary, instead it is just an unnamed woman, and it is not Judas in the other versions, but all of the disciples. But in all three the meat of what Jesus says is the same. He says, "you won't always have me, but you will always have the poor," which basically is Jesus saying to them you are wrong, get off her back, she is serving me, which is good, and you are out of order for challenging her. That is the common thread.
And today there is another well known version of the story that includes an even different take. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber's Rock Opera, "Jesus Christ Superstar" immortalizes this exchange in the famous song "Everything's Alright," you know, in this version, Mary is Mary Magdalene, (I know there are so many Marys, so why not conflate them all), and she sings: "Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to, problem's that upset you, don't you know, everything's alright yes everything's fine and we want you to sleep well tonight, let the world turn without you tonight." That is the famous chorus, but then in pipes Judas, much like in this John version, he says:

Woman your fine ointment
Brand new and expensive
Should have been saved for the poor
Why has it been wasted?
We could have raised maybe
Three hundred silver pieces or more
People who are hungry
People who are starving
Matter more
Than your feet and hair

And then Jesus replies:

Surely you're not saying
We have the resources
To save the poor from their lot?
There will be poor always
Pathetically struggling
Look at the good things you've got!
Think while you still have me
Move while you still see me
You'll be lost
You'll be so sorry
When I'm gone

So we have all these different versions and different takes, but the statement of Jesus still stands there looking us in the face and challenges us, challenging our notions of the truth, right and wrong, ethics, justice, etc. Here is why, we seem to feel sympathy for Judas here. It seems like his intentions are good. Helping the poor is good. It's all part of the Jesus mission right. I have come to bring good news to the poor. What could be better news to the poor than, hey you are not poor any more. We've taken our money and given it to you, so you don't have to be poor any more. Poverty is over, the cycle has been broken, take this money, go and be rich, be prosperous, fix yourself, money is the key, money is what you lack, therefore money should fix the problem, right. . . sure, if that is not what we are about, Jesus, what are we about? Aren't we about making the poor not poor anymore? But here we get out of Jesus' mouth saying, "you will always have the poor with you?" Really, Jesus. .  . why?
This right here is why the version in John's Gospel is so interesting because Judas is the disciple singled out as this voice for justice for the poor, and not only that, throughout you get all these parenthetical reminders about Judas. Look at verse 4, it says, " But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him)". . . there it is "the one who was about to betray him" there as a parenthetical addition. Then in verse 6 you get another one, "(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)" It seems like John's gospel is trying to downplay Jesus' rebuke by having it singled out to Judas, the easy blame worthy scapegoat, as if Jesus really didn't mean to say that the money could not have been used better in helping the poor, but just that Judas' intentions weren't to help the poor, but to help himself. It is quite an interesting take, and if that is the case, though,  why do the other gospels not do the same? And why all the additional naming of characters, tying it to the Lazarus raising, Mary and Martha, and the rest? Were the disciples, especially the Gospel writer John, just as uncomfortable with Jesus' proclamation about the poor as we are?
Did they think that Jesus' words could be misunderstood? As I was doing my research, the history of the use of this text is not great. It has been used to excuse Christians not caring for the poor, that Jesus gives us an out, an excuse, saying that caring for the poor is a waste because you can never fix the problem, so why bother? Many churches have used such an interpretation throughout the history to gild over a selfish stewardship of funds, like building huge cathedrals on the backs of the poor, or expanding the building while ignoring the needs of people around them. Somehow I think this is irresponsible and that Jesus would offer to that thinking a similar rebuke as he gives Judas.
There must be more. I want to forget that it's Judas for a second, which isn't hard to do since in the other versions of the story it isn't Judas. The reason I want to is because of all the parenthetical baggage that the character of Judas seems to bring to the table. I want to instead look at what is done and what is said, to get at the bottom of what Jesus is actually saying and responding to. Now look at the situation. You have a woman who has spent money on really expensive, luxurious anointing oil. The text says that it cost, or could have earned them "300 denarii" which a footnote in my Bible says was equal to an entire year's salary for a wage laborer of the time, so it is pretty expensive stuff, certainly a luxury item, extravagant. . . wasteful? Do the disciples have a point? Ok hold off, more details.
The woman uses her extravagant oil not for herself, but to anoint and wash the feet of Jesus, there she sits in a humble place of personal service. Now the disciples chime in, "why was this perfume not sold and given to the poor?" Think about it though, whose perfume was it? Theirs? No hers. What right do they have to decide what her offering and her gift should be? Is this the place of the rebuke? How arrogant of them to tell her what she should do? Is this what Jesus gets upset with? Or is it more? Keep that in mind. . .
Now I want to get to our troublesome line. Jesus says, "Leave her alone, you will always have the poor with you." Where is Jesus really going with this? I don't think that it is that we should forget about the problem of the poor because there is nothing we can do, that just doesn't sound in line with the rest of Jesus' teachings. So what is it? I keep coming back to the idea that Jesus seems to be saying it is not enough. Is it that the 300 denarii isn't enough? Maybe, though a lot of money for one person it wouldn't cure the complete concept of poverty, but you can hear the disciples coming back with, yeah but you gotta start somewhere right. . . or as my dad told me yesterday when he saw the overwhelming state of mess in our basement, that I had said was such a big job to clean we just can't get started, he said, "Well you know the only way to eat an elephant right, one bite at a time." Sure isn't this a start? Jesus, isn't this something? To which Jesus I think would respond, as he does often to the disciples, you just don't get it, I don't mean the amount of money being enough, I mean your overall attitude. This ain't no elephant, and you can't eat it all, you can't afford it, there will never be enough money, you don't have enough yourself, and even commandeering other people's money, as you are trying to do here just isn't enough. . . but don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it's hopeless, it just takes more than money.
Wait, more than money? I thought being poor means, one without funds, empty pockets, empty stomachs, not enough money. . . how can the solution be more than money, if they don't have money, wouldn't giving them money be the answer then Jesus?
Now let's bring Judas back. Many believe that Judas betrays, not necessarily out of greed, but out of a sense of disillusionment over Jesus' mission. Is it that Judas saw things in these literal practical ways. Think about it, problem with the poor is that they don't have money, solution give them some. Problem with Israel is that it is occupied by Rome, as it had been previously by Greece, Persia, and Babylon, all since the kingdom and dynasty fell, solution Messiah, whose job it would be to solve the problem, ie, get rid of the Romans, how by war, the only earthly practical solution. In both of these Jesus seems to say no, neither is enough. To get back to Jesus Christ Superstar, it is this type of thinking that the Judas character says, "Your follower's are blind, too much heaven on their minds, no talk of God then, we called you a man." In other words, Jesus haven't you gotten off mission? Let's be helping the poor and let's be getting rid of the Romans.
Do you ever think like Judas, wouldn't it have been better if Jesus had over thrown Rome and set up a benevolent government, a kingdom, a Utopia, a kingdom of God on Earth, Legislating Justice for all, decreeing goodness, and mandating that we love each other. Wouldn't that be easier and more practically effective, more immediate? But there is that problem. . . can you mandate love? Isn't that the issue, part of the whole free will thing? That love by definition must be free? What is necessary for goodness in the world is changing hearts, and you just can't legislate a heart to be changed.  
So it takes more, it takes sacrifice, it takes example, it takes the gift of love, in other words it takes the cross. Why would the problem of poverty be cheaper? If the problem of oppression took sacrifice and the cross? Why would the problem of poverty be able to solve with anything less? Taxes, welfare, socialism, capitalism, more jobs, a better economy, those are the solutions we hear thrown around for poverty, but history shows that none of them work. They all ignore the need of personal sacrifice and changing of hearts. They allow that love to be outsourced to others, like saying hey, Mary, you should give your oil up so we can give it to the poor. Jesus says, "no" more is needed.
A change of heart is necessary, not just of the poor but of the rich, not just of the recipient of the love, but in the giver. . . you can't take someone else's sacrifice, claim it as your own and demand that they give it in a different way. No you have to give of yourself and give of yourself completely. Mary symbolically does this, there prostrate washing the feet of Jesus, what could be a more humble and intimate gift. Foreshadowing of Jesus doing the same for each of the disciples. True change, true solution takes everything you are, intimately and personally, not just everything you have. It needs to be personal and it needs to be sacrifice, and you only have a short time to learn this from me, because I'm not going to be around forever, I'm heading to the cross, this anointing oil is symbolic of that which will be put on with me after death, I'm going away soon, so pay attention now.
It is extra cool that today is St. Patrick's day because Patrick is an example of this kind of love. Patrick was not a green beer swilling excuse for a party. Patrick was a missionary, and one to a rough part of the world, especially there and then in the 5th century. Ireland was rough and Ireland was brutal. Patrick saw poverty, saw violence, saw resistance, saw hatred, but he went into it and he sowed love. He was all in. . . and being all in made a difference. History remembers such people, the Mother Teresa's, the Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, those who give their lives completely, they do not solve the problem of poverty completely, but they give all, as Jesus does, certainly not enough, but all, inspiring those changes of heart, and then faith is there that the kingdom of God is in that giving of all, and that overall future is in God's loving hands. . .and in that is real and true and frankly our only hope.
I want to conclude this sermon this morning with the end of Patrick's Prayer, his breast plate his armor; after going through binding to him the amazing protecting power of Christ and of God, recounting the wonders of them shown in the Bible he ends with:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

Patrick saw the idea of giving all, knowing and protecting himself with the wonderful power of God, understanding the amazing power of love, and the infinite hope it brings, even in the darkest most seeming hopeless places in the world, where all is all you can give, but such is one of the names of Christ, All in All, truly enough. Amen.


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 12:1-8). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.