Sermon Notes for the 5th Sunday of Lent, Year C, 2013
Scriptures: Isaiah 43:16-21 • Psalm 126 • Philippians 3:4b-14 • John 12:1-8

The big news in the Christian world last week was the election of Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina as Pope Francis. Some have asked why I, as an Episcopal Priest, and we as Anglicans/Episcopalians, should care. Fundamentally, we care because Francis is the newly elected leader of over a billion of the world’s Christians. We also care because, unlike many other non-Roman Catholic Christian traditions, Anglicans have, at least since the time of Queen Elizabeth (see Jewel’s Apology of the Church of England) and certainly in our more recent dialogues, recognized the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, while rejecting universal jurisdiction. All of which means, Anglicans are in the position of honoring the Pope, while simultaneously upholding the principal of autonomy and conciliarism (when we’re at our best).

This is in great contrast to the position of some other traditions, such as the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, and a number of staunchly Reformed denominations, which specifically refer to the Pope–or the office of the papacy, if not the person–as Antichrist. Such language is a vestige of the polemics of the Reformation era and is unsurprising, when you consider the high tensions of the time. Consider how frustrated Martin Luther was with the actions of the papacy, most especially actions such as selling indulgences to finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. Luther was so frustrated with what he viewed as the excesses of the papal court, that he wrote the following in On Christian liberty:

The Church of Rome … has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death and hell; so that not even antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness” (Martin Luther, On Christian Liberty).

In his frustration, Luther both echoed and foreshadowed criticisms of the papacy, and the church more generally.

Many of these criticisms, over finances, buildings and so forth, are familiar to us, not only because they’re regularly hurled at the Roman Catholic Church, but at churches of all denominations. And there are times the accusations are all too true. At other times, they serve as evidence of a sort of miserliness which seeks to avoid responsibility for one’s neighbor by calling from some disembodied and disconnected “church” to provide social services or resources. I’m sure many of us have either heard or even voiced criticisms of the church for spending this or that amount of money on buildings, items for worship, or salaries and so forth. In many cases, these criticisms are overblown, but they are also understandable from the perspective of history.

In this area of concern, Francis has already begun to make a name for himself, as he has done things such as pay his own hotel bill, retrieve his own bags, and ride in the bus with his fellow cardinals, rather than taking one of the papal cars. This is all in keeping with the way he seems to have conducted himself in Argentina, eschewing the Archiepiscopal Palace and instead living in a simple apartment, and refusing a car and driver, to instead ride public transportation. The facts that such actions have been so warmly received indicate a degree of legitimacy to the complaints of the way in which churches have used funds and of the way in which Christians and Christian leaders have conducted themselves.

But as we celebrate simplicity, we need to remind ourselves not to slip over into the easy and selfish mode of being tightfisted with money and other resources. Ours is not a God of scarcity, but plenty. This was the dynamic of the conflict set up in chapter 12 of John’s Gospel. Jesus takes the opportunity to teach the disciples about multiple facets of generosity and appropriate extravagance.

Mary of Bethany

Mary of Bethany

Jesus returns to Bethany to the house of Martha and Mary. While there he and the disciples dine with Martha, Mary and Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. In the course of dinner Mary comes forward to Jesus, takes a pound of perfume or fragrant ointment and anoints Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair.

There is an undeniable oddity and awkwardness to this situation. As one commentator put it, you might think of this as the sort of uncomfortable over-the-top emotional display that puts everyone else on edge. The disciples would have additionally been uncomfortable with this kind of display between a woman and a man. Beyond these elements of discomfort, there is the issue of the value of the ointment. Check the size of any perfumes or colones in your house. Do any of you have 1lbs bottles? This was extravagant; a sign of abundance.

In the midst of this, the contrasting actions of Mary and Judas are held up: Mary, giving far more than would ever be expected or considered appropriate. Judas, voicing the concerns of an overly rigid culture and faith. An uncomfortable part of this lesson is that many of us would likely respond similarly. Not simply because of the amount of perfume, but because of its cost. When the house is filled with the fragrance, Judas blurts out: “why wasn’t this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” John, of course, tells us that Judas wasn’t really concerned for the poor, but he does highlight the bizarre excess of what Mary has done.  300 denarii was a year’s wages for the ordinary laborer. I don’t know about you, but I can’t recall plopping down a year’s wages on a single thing.

Jesus’ response to Judas’ challenge, “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,” serves to highlight the proclamation Mary’s actions constitute. Of all the disciples, it is Mary of Bethany who understands what is about to transpire in Jerusalem, and responds accordingly. On the opposite pole stands Judas, who, of all the disciples, not only can’t understand Jesus’ mission, but comes to actively reject it and betray his Lord.

Jesus’ statement, that she had brought it so that she might keep it for the day of his burial, clears up any confusion about whether this was some act of welcome–such as washing the feet of a traveler–or some other strange form of a normal act. Instead, we are informed that Mary of Bethany is anointing Jesus for burial: the time really is at hand.

In this sense Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene stand as bookends of the passion & resurrection account: Mary of Bethany, who recognizes what is to transpire beforehand and seeks to prepare Jesus for the grave, responding to the extravagance of the gift of his life, with the most open-handed gesture of giving and thanksgiving she could imagine, and Mary Magdalene who becomes the Apostles to the Apostles, proclaiming Christ’s resurrection.1

It is upon this note of extravagant giving that our lesson turns: Jesus’ giving of himself, the dramatic offering it inspires in Mary, and finally, the acts of abundance to which we are all called as Christians.

You see, some have seen in Jesus’ rebuke of Judas, a justification for poverty: You always have the poor with you. The poor are always going to exist, so soothe your conscious and move along.

No. That’s not the message of Christ.

The point of this interlude is to emphasize Christ’s coming work on the cross, but also to emphasize the appropriate type and degree of response from Christ’s people: complete and utter extravagance and giving. In other words: The poor will always be with you, and you will always be called to give beyond what the world finds reasonable. The poor will always be with you. Where Christ’s disciples are, there the poor will gather.  Where the poor are, Christ’s disciples must gather, so that God’s extravagant love can be appropriately proclaimed.

You will always have the poor,

You will always have the sick,

You will always have the grieving,

You will always have the lonely,

You will always have the widow,

the orphan,

the elderly.

You will always have neighbors,

You will always have

people to love,

to pray for,

The need to seek forgiveness

The opportunity to offer it.

You will always have the assurance of salvation.

You will always have Christ with you. And the chance to share the good news with others.

This is the extravagant gift of God, and we are called to respond in kind.

  1. It should be noted that the Latin tradition has conflated Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene and the repentant woman of Luke. Greek tradition maintains they are three distinct individuals and protestants move between two and three. []