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Lent 5 March 13, 2016 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend

Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
March 13, 2016
The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-18
I take for granted the paved street in front of our house, the sidewalks that border Christ Church, and the city’s vast though unseen sewage system that funnels waste to the treatment plant. Such was not the case, however, in the world in which Jesus lived. Walking on the ancient street where dirt, garbage and sewage mingled freely was nothing less than a threat to one’s health. Indeed, all that street nastiness would follow one into the house at suppertime. So different than our meal practice in which we sit in chairs, Jesus and his friends would recline on couches or straw mats placed on the floor. One’s feet, having walked through the dirt, garbage, and sewage, were in close proximity to one’s meal companions. And thus, the attentive host would ensure that unshod feet were thoroughly washed by servants and if no servants by the women of the household (ah yes, one more cruel gift of patriarchy).
In the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, Jesus should have had his feet washed as he reclined at table with his friends. But instead, as John writes, Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, wiped them with her hair … and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Let us note that the purchase price for a pound of costly perfume was the equivalent of a year’s earnings by a skilled laborer. As Judas points out, this was an extravagant amount of nard: a rare and amber-colored oil that only the wealthy could afford. A good Israelite, Mary should have known that precious oil is not used to anoint or clean feet. No girl, you’ve got it wrong: precious oil is smeared on the forehead alone or on the forehead, over the heart, and on the hands. But, then, maybe I’m too quick in pointing out what appears to be Mary’s mistake. For she may well have known what we miss: that in her society, feet were never just feet, dirty or clean, but also this: they symbolized purposeful action, action that would soon take place. What does Jesus say? She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. But that burial would not take place unless Jesus were engaged in purposeful action: purposeful action that would lead to arrest, torture, and death.
And thus another layer of the story opens before us, for this remarkable meal scene is wedged between two announcements that we do not hear in today’s gospel: one before and one after it. Before it, John writes that those who opposed Jesus were placed on alert should he enter Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover festival. Then, after it, and once news reaches the city that Jesus was staying close by in the home of his friends, the plot to kill Jesus was extended to Lazarus: he, too, must die, for he was the living example of Jesus’ power to create life where death appeared to have had the last word. And thus you and I come to see that Jesus clearly recognized his way of life, his bringing good news to the poor, release to captives, freedom from oppression, and mercy for the sinner, the indebted, would provoke opposition, fierce opposition. I wonder: Do you think it should be any different for us? Are we a people who by our living into the life of Jesus provoke any opposition at all?
No wonder he could say, she has kept it for my burial, for he knew with utter clarity that to live in the kingdom of God rather than in the kingdom of this world, that is, the world of Caesar’s violence, Caesar’s economic oppression, Caesar’s absolute disregard for the poor and the vulnerable, Caesar’s culture of greed, would provoke opposition. For clearly at stake was this for him and for you and me: to live with Jesus is to live with the distinct possibility that our expectations of faith and its purpose may well be turned upside down, something Judas could not grasp. For if you and I imagine that our purpose in being here, participating in this community and its worship is nothing more than the anointing, the blessing of the way things are in the world and in our lives, we may well be surprised to discover that you and I are baptized into a global movement committed to the life, health, and wholeness of this world rather than a pleasant institution of like-minded persons hoping for a happy afterlife. We may well be surprised that we are nourished from this altar with the restless life – the restless life – of the One who has little interest in blessing life as it is in this world but rather in animating our cooperation with his labor to bring a greater measure of life, health, and wholeness to this wounded earth and its many creatures, to the fractured economic and political fabric in which we live; bringing life, health, and wholeness to the many who have no shelter, no bread, no drink, no sense of purpose in our neighborhoods; bringing life, health and wholeness to the lonely and ignored, to the vulnerable and the weak; bringing life, health and wholeness to our beloved city and its growing number of children whose home is a car or a temporary shelter.
The gospel writer places on the lips of Jesus these words: You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me. It is a truncated quotation from the Book of Deuteronomy in which the voice of God actually says this: Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’ Has it ever struck you that in order to receive the living Presence of Jesus you must open your hand to receive a fragment of bread and a taste of the wine cup? Has it ever struck you that to receive this bread, to receive this wine is, in effect, to give your consent to the One you receive, to say: Yes, with my sisters and brothers, I will cooperate with your labor to bring a greater measure of justice and peace, of love and forgiveness to this neighborhood, this city, this world?
Perhaps with me, you are waiting to sing again of Christ’s resurrection into the cosmos and into lives of his followers. But I wonder and ask you to wonder with me: is this not the case, that in the time God’s mercy allots to each of us, is Jesus not waiting for you and for me “to do the work he has given us to do”?
Fr. Samuel Torvend