Savoring life | Lent 5 | 13 March 2016

Text: John 12:1-8


You know, Judas had a point.

Everybody knew the spikenard in that flask was liquid money.  Rather than being poured out on Jesus’ feet, it could have been sold, the money given to the poor.  Judas declares that it’s worth 300 denarii, nearly a year’s wages for a laborer.  No one contests the estimate.  Spikenard was imported from the Himalayas and was a precious commodity.  It would take the average person a whole year’s worth of work, all the earnings put into savings, to purchase something so valuable, so costly, so prized.  How much do you make in a year for your labors, and how readily could you set that amount aside?  How quickly would you be willing to empty the whole account, poured out and spent, in one fleeting act of extravagance?

This is an intimate scene.  Six days before the Passover, and pilgrims are streaming into Jerusalem from all around.  Jesus has booked his reservation with his dear friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.  They live in the town of Bethany, just up and over the hill from Jerusalem, an inner ring suburb of the holy city.  John has just told the whole Lazarus story in the previous chapter, and reminds us here, in case we’ve forgotten so soon, that Lazarus was the one Jesus raised from the dead.  Now they are sitting down for dinner, and Martha served.  Of course.  That’s what Martha did.  It’s in Luke’s gospel where we’re told of Martha’s inclination toward service, working away while her sister Mary sat at Jesus’ feet.  Doing nothing, except listening.

Now Mary is at Jesus’ feet again.

Previously she had stretched the boundaries prescribed for her gender, a woman sitting at the feet of a rabbi, just like a male student.  Now what she doing is so far beyond the pale it’s uncategorizable.  What is it she’s actually doing?  Taking a pound of high dollar perfume? and anointing Jesus’ feet?  And wiping his feet with her hair?  How does that even work, on a practical and logistical level?  I guess having hair is an important prerequisite.

Was this an act of spontaneous exuberance?  Had she been pondering and plotting this for days, months?  Is she trying to express her overwhelming gratitude for Jesus raising her brother Lazarus from the dead?   Was this perfume left over from anointing his dead body, now resuscitated, breathing in the powerful scent like everyone else in the room?  What does she think she’s doing?

We don’t know what she’s thinking.  The story doesn’t give Mary a speaking part.  We only know what she’s doing.  All we have is that pound of costly perfume, Jesus’ feet, Mary’s hair, and the fragrance filling the entire house, filling noses and lungs.

And Judas.  We have Judas.  We have that voice from Judas about money and the poor and good stewardship.  And Judas has a point.  And Jesus’ response about “the poor you will always have with you,” is so easily misconstrued as to make that voice from Judas seem all the more reasonable.

Those of us eating lunch and discussing this passage had at least this in common:  We know about that voice.  It lives in our heads.  It looks skeptically on extravagance and reminds us of our privilege.  Whenever a purchase amount passes some imaginary and arbitrary threshold, the voice kicks in and reminds us that this money could have been spent on far worthier causes.  We have a mixed relationship with this voice.  It is both the necessary voice of conscience, and the paralyzing voice of guilt.  I would credit the voice to the inescapable ethos of Mennonite frugality, but those around the table were from diverse backgrounds.  It must be a human thing.  Or at least a First World human thing.  Or a white guilt thing.  Or something like that.

This story also shows up in Mark’s gospel, and Mark places the comments about the ointment being sold and money given to the poor in the mouths of “Some (who) were there” – not naming any names – suggesting that more than one person was thinking the same thing – maybe even a group consensus.  But John puts it on the individual lips of Judas Iscariot.  We know Judas is about to betray Jesus, but John goes on to further discredit him with information we don’t get anywhere else.  Judas had served as treasurer of the Jesus movement and had developed a habit of embezzling funds. He’s not a guy you want on your team, John seems to be saying.

But we are on that team, and Judas did have a point.  With privilege and resources comes responsibility – not to be carelessly wasted.

Along with having that voice in our heads, there were ways we could identify with Jesus in this story.  We have been the recipients of extravagant hospitality.  The couple experiences we told about ocurred in poor villages outside the US, and echoed other stories I’ve heard about poor villagers receiving North Americans as guests of honor.  In both cases each person was fed a large meal in the best setting the hosts could offer, including meat from one of the precious few animals a family owns.  It’s a situation in which everything seems backwards.  The wealthy and well-fed are the recipients of the best of what the poor have to offer.  Shouldn’t this be reversed?  How many other poor families could this one meal have fed?

But it’s a useless argument, and even insulting to reject such hospitality. There’s a different kind of math at work.  As someone at our table commented, it’s a situation in which the poor have agency – not merely passive recipients, but active givers of what they have.  It’s not about the money or the balance sheet calculations.  It’s about a gift, generously given, and the appropriate response is gratitude, generously expressed.

We could imagine ourselves in the place of Judas, and Jesus, and also Mary.  A couple at the table reflected on their choice to pursue an international adoption.  It cost significantly more money than a domestic adoption.  It involved two long round trip flights for the couple – time and energy invested in the process.  Other priorities rearranged in order to see this one through, until all the papers were signed, all the fees paid, and this one precious life now a part of the family.  And there’s that voice again.  Maybe from within, maybe from outside.  Is this really the best use of resources?  When there is so much need close to home?  Does Judas have a point or is he entirely missing the point?

This couple found in Jesus’ response to Mary’s action a nonjudgmental Christ, an affirmation of a prayerful choice made out of love.

There’s a certain heaviness to this conversation we’re having about anti-racism, white privilege, and Black Lives Matter.  And rightly so.  The more history one learns, the more horror one encounters.  For example, when I spoke with Regina Shands Stolzfus about presenting in the Exodus Bible Study class last Sunday, she encouraged us to watch in advance the PBS documentary “Slavery by Another Name,” available for streaming online.  It’s about the convict leasing system in the south in the decades after the Civil War.  Since the 13th amendment forbade slavery and involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime, there arose a whole system of arresting blacks on minor charges and leasing them, as convicts, to planters and industrialists who used their unpaid labor to build their businesses.  The documentary notes that conditions in this era after the Civil War were often worse than slavery because there was no longer even the incentive to treat the slave as one’s own property and thus ensure their general well-being to maximize your investment.  Work them to death, and then sign another lease for the next one available.  I either hadn’t heard this before, or had forgotten it.  This history you will always have with you.

Without diminishing any of the gravity of this history, there’s a certain freedom and even lightness that comes from this gospel story.  It’s a wisdom that goes deeper than the logic of Judas.  It has to do with what’s happening between Mary and Jesus, during that meal, in that home, with the fragrance of their encounter wafting and filling the whole house.

This wisdom is captured really well in a piece put out about three weeks ago by the Alban Institute.  It features the Jesuit, Father Gregory Boyle, founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries in LA.  The organization has transformed the lives of thousands of former gang members through its rehab and reentry program.  A great success story.  But this is what Father Boyle says about his work.  He says, “I used to think my job was saving lives.  But now I think saving lives is for the Coast Guard.  Our choice always is the same: save the world or savor it. And I vote for savoring it. And, just because everything is about something else, if you savor the world, somehow — go figure — it’s getting saved.”

These words from a seasoned practitioner of love-in-action help me see this gospel story and our own world in a fresh way.  Judas had a point, but he was missing a greater point.  Saving the world, saving the poor, saving the ______ (fill in the blank) is a lofty goal.  Ending racism is a worthy goal that we must all be committed to on the systemic and personal levels.  Hopefully it can be one of our core congregational commitments, which we can name more directly and publicly this year.  But Jesus, whom we call Savior, points away from the voice of Judas and toward the perfume of Mary as a model for doing this.

We have the joyful responsibility – to savor.  To savor people and relationships, even as we are enmeshed in systems that oppress.  We have the joyful responsibility to savor the truthful and soulful expressions of persons of color – the jazz, the blues, the hip-hop, the yet to be categorized.  We have the joyful responsibility to savor sacred moments that come our way, fleeting as they are, when so life is filled and overflowing with too much to take in at once.

Breathe in it and open the windows and let the sweet fragrance waft through the neighborhood.

The wise Jesuit tells us: “Our choice always is the same: save the world or savor it. And I vote for savoring it. And, just because everything is about something else, if you savor the world, somehow — go figure — it’s getting saved.”