Sunday April 07, 2019

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s, Mountain Home

                Have you ever looked at a website that sells church supplies?  I have.  Obviously.  As a matter of fact I’ll confess that I quite enjoy them.  Not that it comes as a surprise to most of you I’m sure.  Ecclesiastical window shopping really.  Perusing the different vestments, clerical wear, chalices, silver and gold sanctuary appointments.  It reminds me of all those years as a child I would be so excited for the arrival of the JC Penney Christmas Catalog.  As soon as I had my hands on it I’d flip straight to the toy section and start circling everything I might want.  But back to the church supplies.  If you’ve never looked at them, you might be surprised at what you find.  Vestments often cost from a couple hundred dollars to several thousand depending on who you buy it from and what it’s made of.  You can easily spend tens of thousands of dollars on just a new chalice alone.  You will find some of the most beautiful and meticulously crafted items in church supplies stores.  But whenever I see a chalice, perhaps hand engraved silver with jewels laid into it, selling for ten or fifteen thousand dollars, while I think of what beauty it could add to the mass, I have to admit that my immediate thought after is how many people could you feed for that amount of money.  Honestly I’m torn.  I find that it is important for the mass to contain visions of transcendent beauty.  Sacred objects should be special.  I think where I find my peace with it is if something is procured because it is coveted, then it isn’t being used to the glory of God.

                So if we didn’t have the parenthetical note from the author of the Gospel of John, I could see where the disciple Judas is coming from.  This ointment is worth an entire year’s wages.  Historians tell us that nard was most likely imported from India, which was part of why it was so expensive.  In the Gospel of John however, the author tells us that Judas is skimming out of the community purse.  He’s not actually concerned with giving the money to the poor, but rather on benefitting himself.  In the words of the great William Shakespeare, “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” 

                We often see that in people who find something to be extremely negative about, very vocal, very zealous.  They themselves are struggling with something internal regarding the issue themselves.  Judas’ jealousy and greed are showing through his false concern.  That might be the exactly why Jesus says to him that the poor will always be with Judas.  Judas’ shame is that with all the poor and suffering around them, and with a community purse that is supposed to in part be for those poor, he is taking from it for himself.  Judas will always be surrounded by the poor because he puts himself before anyone else.

                This ties directly to scripture, which one would assume Jesus is purposefully quoting.  In the book of Deuteronomy, chapter fifteen, verses seven through eleven we have similar words:
“Now if there are some poor persons among you, say one of your fellow Israelites in one of your cities in the land that the LORD your God is giving you, don’t be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward your poor fellow Israelites. To the contrary! Open your hand wide to them. You must generously lend them whatever they need. But watch yourself! Make sure no wicked thought crosses your mind, such as, The seventh year is coming—the year of debt cancellation—so that you resent your poor fellow Israelites and don’t give them anything. If you do that, they will cry out to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin. No, give generously to needy persons. Don’t resent giving to them because it is this very thing that will lead to the LORD your God’s blessing you in all you do and work at. Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.”  This passage points out that in the Promised Land, a land of abundance, no one should suffer.  If they do, it is to the shame of those who do not aid them. 

                Then again, it’s a funny way to justify this moment, don’t you think?  Judas openly complains that Jesus is being covered in this costly ointment, a whole jar of it no less, and Jesus’ response is to say that the poor will always be there?  If you step back from this one moment, in the larger context it makes sense.  But we, reading this a couple thousand years after the fact, have the benefit of knowing how the story goes.  What Jesus is not saying…and I can’t emphasize that ‘not’ enough…is that we shouldn’t help the poor because they will always be there.  Our outreach, our food bank, our assistance that we provide to those in greatest need is important and it is an important fruit of the spiritual journey we are on.  It is not the point of our existence as a religious community.  We are here first and always to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to live out our call to follow God’s way.  But out of that work comes the fruits of helping others, among many other gifts.

                Time is slowing down in our Gospel narrative.  We have been jumping all over Sunday to Sunday hearing about Jesus’ ministry.  But now we are coming to the end.  This passage we heard today comes directly after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.  In the Gospel of John, the next day after Jesus is anointed by Mary with the nard he enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, with palm fronds waving.  We’ll get to that next week, but it should not escape our notice that we are days away from Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, and now we come near Holy Week when every day counts and every day holds special significance for us.  In Christian tradition, the Saturday before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Saturday, as he was raised by Jesus the day before the triumphal entry.

                Will the fruits of the spirit from our faith and discipline show forth into a world in need of help?  That is the question this passage asks us.  Judas couldn’t see Jesus for who and what he was.  Mary did, and that is why she anointed him.  Judas instead was focused on the earthly things, the things that could not let him see Jesus as the messiah, as God incarnate.  Our faith must be what comes first, and the works will follow.  This act of devotion by Mary, even though it seems extravagant, is still a sacrifice.  She is giving everything to a man who owned nothing.  He wandered from village to village proclaiming the Kingdom of God, and this woman gives everything to anoint his feet.  Perhaps we too can live with such generosity and love for God that it raises the ire and provokes complaints from those who cannot see for themselves how incredible such faith can truly be.