Sermon – April 7, 2019
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield

Mary Washes Jesus’ Feet by Soichi Wantanabe

Scripture Reading: John 12:1-8

This is a short Gospel reading, but there’s a lot going on. We have dinner with Lazarus and the casual mention of, oh yeah, Jesus brought him back to life from the dead. We have Martha serving dinner, and Mary doing this very odd anointing of Jesus’ feet with her hair. In the midst of all of this is Judas, our constant villain, our outlet for disdain throughout the Gospels.

And then we have Jesus who, on first glance, says something like, “We don’t need to worry about the poor. They’re never going away. But me, on the other hand…”

It feels like a strange thing for Jesus to be saying. Jesus who healed people indiscriminately. Jesus who, in the very next chapter of this Gospel, says “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” I would guess that this includes loving the poor. So this just doesn’t seem to make sense.

Unless you remember that Jesus was a Jew and trained in the synagogue. He was well versed in his religious texts and quoted from them often. And he quotes here from Deuteronomy: “There will never cease to be some in need on the earth.” Chapter 15, verse 11. Actually, the scripture says, “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.”

Which is immediately preceded by these scriptures:

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 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.”

Deuteronomy 15:7-11

Of course Jesus knew what he was saying to Judas, and I don’t think he was the cherry-picking type when it came to his scriptures. So I don’t think Jesus is telling us that it’s okay to forget about the poor for his sake.

But what I do think is interesting is that he’s talking to Judas when he says this. Judas, who allegedly stole from the common purse for his own benefit. Judas, who betrayed Jesus for a sack of coins.

I think what Jesus is saying has more to with who Judas is than it is an overall decree about engaging with the poor. Because if we all behaved like Judas—only looking out for ourselves, getting as much as we can for ourselves at the expense of others—we will always have the poor with us. It is the Judas mindset that creates poverty.

But Judas is an almost comical villain—a cartoonish caricature of sin and betrayal. It’s easy for us to think, “I’d never take what wasn’t mine like he did. I would never betray Jesus like that.” But the truth is always more complicated than that.

Our country is one in which Judas would have thrived. Our country is one in which three billionaires have as much wealth as the bottom 50% of everyone else. That means those three men have as much wealth as 150 million other people combined. Our country is one in which it has somehow become acceptable to walk past people living on the street and not think twice. Our country is one in which people with diabetes and cancer can’t afford the medicine they need to save their lives.

The Judas mindset is all around us. And so we always have the poor with us.

But the Gospel today offers another way. “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.”

So lavish. So intimate.

In that moment, Mary gave very freely of her resources, but not only that, she made herself completely vulnerable. She not only offered something of great value, she opened herself to being in deep relationship with Jesus.

Generosity and relationship. A powerful, world-changing, Kingdom-of-God bringing combination. Much more powerful than one without the other.

Because relationship without generosity is, well, a transaction. It’s the essence of an employer-employee, customer-salesperson relationship. You might like each other, but the basis of the relationship is transactional, an even trade. When relationship without generosity was going on in the temple, Jesus turned over tables.

Generosity without relationship—that one’s a little trickier. Because honestly, it’s what a lot of our charity looks like. We see an issue, we write a check, and we go about our life. And don’t get me wrong, writing that check is super important. It helps. Believe me, I know—I worked as a fundraiser before I went to seminary. Writing checks feeds children, keeps refugees safe, gets vulnerable people into housing.

And let’s be real, writing checks keeps those red doors open and makes it possible for your rector to pay her rent.

But writing checks does not change the world. Writing checks will not bring the Kingdom of God. Not even a check from one of those billionaires will change the world.

Because we only change through generous relationship. The way we see others, the way we understand others, and the way we can become truly invested in others is through being in generous relationship.

Generous relationship means the willingness to truly know another person and be changed by them. To alter your perspective, your opinion, the way you think because of the way you’ve experienced another person’s life.

This is hard work, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Mary already had a relationship with Jesus before her intimate and vulnerable act of anointing his feet. But the first step is slowing ourselves down enough to really see another human.

The bulk of my ministry as a chaplain on the streets was this: I tried to make eye contact with everyone I encountered. If they saw me, I smiled. If they smiled back, I stopped and asked their name. If they told me their name, I’d try to start a conversation. I never got to the place where I anointed someone’s feet with my hair, but I had a lot of powerful conversations.

But here’s the thing: Not everyone looked up. Not everyone smiled back. And certainly not everyone was excited to start a conversation. When that was the case, I kept moving.

You can’t force generous relationship. But just practicing the willingness to open ourselves to others, over and over again—well, that is always enough.