Extravagant care (John 12.1-8)

Extravagant care (John 12.1-8)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church/Lent 5C (April 7, 2019)
Tom James

What’s the most important thing about human beings? What is it that makes us human? Twentieth-century philosopher Martin Heidegger said that perhaps the most important thing about us is that we care. “Caring” is more than what we do for other people, or for our pets. Caring is the basic pattern of our lives. We care not only for our loved ones, our animals, our friends—we also care for ourselves, for our bodies, for our projects, for our cars, for our yards, for our futures. Why do we care? We care because life is short, Heidegger believed. We care because things in our lives are valuable to us, and they are valuable to us because we know we cannot enjoy them forever. Care is related to our mortality, to the fact that we must die, and to the fact that we know it.
Have you ever had a brush with death? Maybe a bad car accident or a near miss? Perhaps you have struggled with an illness or have been concerned about the results of a medical test? I don’t listen to country music very often, but there was a crossover hit a few years ago about the singer’s wish that everyone could learn to live as if they were dying. Because it is only when we are faced with our mortality that we can truly experience the rare value, the treasure, that even the simplest details of life embody. It is also, perhaps, only when we know that we are dying that we are willing to take the risks that can truly make us alive.
In the movie, “The Bucket List,” two old men from very different situations in life but united by a terminal diagnosis of cancer discover together how they might truly be alive in a way that they had not been before. It involves wild things like sky-diving and mountain-climbing, of course (what would a “bucket list” be without those things, right?), but it also includes much riskier and harder things like mending relationships with estranged family members, and learning how to be open and vulnerable, when they had taught themselves to be invincible, and independent.
In other words, even though it takes terminal illness to do it, they learn how to care. In our gospel text for today, though, we witness an act of care that is inspired by someone else’s impending death. We read this passage during Lent because it is clear in the Gospel of John that Jesus drops by his friends’ house with full knowledge that he is making one of his last stops. Mary, because she seems to know it, too, pours out an amount of expensive perfume that might have cost her the equivalent of a year’s wages. This would have been a kind of burial preparation. She really cares! She cares enough to spend an extravagant amount, some might say a ridiculous amount, an amount all out of proportion with the good that it might do. After all, anointing someone for burial is not going to be able to fend off the stench of death for long when Jesus is killed. These kinds of acts, as impressive as they are, are not going to reverse the processes of nature. She can’t save Jesus by her act of love. So why expend so much of her wealth for the sake of such a futile cause?
Judas is a realist, it seems. Judas knows the value of a dollar. He realizes that extravagant acts of love are not going to save Jesus from his fate; he knows Jesus’ death is inevitable. In fact, a little later in the story, Judas sees no reason not to hasten it by betraying him to the authorities. In light of such inevitability, in light of such futility, wouldn’t it make much better sense to cut your losses and use your resources for something more useful? Couldn’t a year’s wages do a lot more good serving the very pressing needs of the poor? In fact, isn’t that the only sane strategy?
For a follower of Jesus, it’s pretty hard to argue with Judas’ logic. We think of Judas as the bad guy, but here he wasn’t far off from what Jesus had preached hundreds of times. In a world of haves and have-nots, in a world in which the rich regularly trample the poor, how can a Christian, a follower of Jesus, justify using her money on such a hopeless and even trivial cause, when the needs of the people are so screamingly evident? In other words, Judas cared.
But we all remember Jesus’ famous response. “The poor you will always have with you.” Now, we have struggled to understand these words over the centuries. Often, we have used them to justify our own indifference to the presence of the poor in our cities and towns. In that way, we have been probably worse than Judas, who was, apparently, not indifferent. Giving to the poor would not release them from the conditions that have made them poor, but it would make life just a little better, at least for a while. But I worry that we today quote Jesus from this text, and when we as North American Christians use his words to throw up our hands at the inevitability of poverty in our society, we do so in bad faith because it turns out that we have the power to do something about it. In a world where productivity is so high and technology is so advanced, there is no reason why anyone should go hungry, why anyone should not have a roof over their heads. So, when we say that there will always be poor people, I wonder if we are not excusing ourselves for our unwillingness to do something about it?
Why did Jesus say it, then? Perhaps he wasn’t making a prediction about what kinds of macro-economic conditions we should expect in the future so much as making a more fundamental point about the kind of world we live in. In fact, in Greek, he doesn’t say, “You will always have the poor with you.” Rather, he says, “The poor you always have with you.” Not a prediction, but a present statement of fact.
But what does it mean? In a zero-sum world, a world of scarcity, you have to act fast, or forever have missed your opportunity. But the real world, Jesus seems to be saying, isn’t scarce in that way. The real world is abundant and full. Mary’s offering of expensive perfume, her extravagant outpouring, gives witness to an abundance, a grace, that Jesus himself has been announcing and enacting in his three years of public ministry. And, though it may seem odd to say it, the poor themselves are abundant, too. That is to say, the poverty of the poor cannot be dispensed with by means of a year’s wages. Selling the perfume and giving it to the poor would not have changed anything. Judas seems to forget that the calling to faithfulness issued by the realities of poverty and other kinds of human need is constant and persistent. We cannot escape the moral and spiritual claims the poor put on us. We can’t hide from their presence. We can’t get around the fact that they are here, with us in the world, in our communities. Poverty is not necessary—we really could end it—but as long as we have it, the poor are always with us. Philanthropy like the kind Judas is trying to advocate is often a way to separate ourselves from the poor, to satisfy our conscience that we have done what we can. Philanthropy can be of making ourselves feel better, of shifting responsibility for a society that allows poverty away from ourselves. Jesus wasn’t going to let Judas do that—and I don’t believe he will let us do that, either. The poor are always with us.
In contrast to Judas’ carefully measured philanthropy, in contrast to his desire to be useful and pragmatic, Mary’s gift is extravagant. But it is only an echo of the extravagant love of God, poured out in the life of Jesus, flowing out to embrace her. This kind of extravagance is not a sign of carelessness, but of care with no bounds, a care that believes in God’s abundance, a care that is not afraid of death, a care that is prepared to give everything. This kind of care is not the anxious, fearful care that Heidegger found when examined human experience, but a kind of care that joyfully believes in the kingdom of God—a kingdom in which community is possible among enemies, in which togetherness and care between all kinds of people begins to take shape, in which being a neighbor is not something you are because of where you happen to live but is instead something you do.
We live in a time in which anxieties over scarcity are probably higher than Judas’. We hear it in political debates of all kinds at the national level. We hear it in conversations about the fate of our congregation and its assets here. We care. But scarcity is not the truth. The truth is that our lives are filled with treasure just because we are embraced by a love that is insistent and persistent. We are graced with abundance because we are connected with God and with each other, and the resources of energy, imagination, and love that are available to us are therefore almost unending. The truth is that we are wealthy, not because of our bank accounts, but because of each other, because of our relationships that have lasted decades or even generations, because of the persistent calling of the poor among us, because of those who walk the sidewalks of East Toledo, because of the ceaseless presence of those who invite us to faithfulness in our midst, because of the endless capacity to be neighbor.
Judas is not the realist of the story, actually. Judas lives in a fantasy world, a world that isn’t real at all, a world of separation and segregation, a world of alienation and distance, a world where relationships are optional and easily dismissed. It turns out that Mary, with her extravagant gift, is the true realist. And not because Mary knows that Jesus is going to die—Judas knows that, too. No, Mary is a realist because Mary knows what it means for Jesus to live. Mary is in touch with the deepest reality of Jesus’ life, and ours; and that reality is grace, the grace of expensive perfume, the grace of costly time, the grace of insistent love. And so may we be also. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

Lost (Luke 15)

Lost (Luke 15)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, Lent 4C (March 31, 2019)

Tom James
What is it like to be lost? Coins don’t have any feelings, and so they’re not bothered by it, but I’m guessing sheep are. Animals that are accustomed to being in flocks like to be in flocks. There’s security in being part of a flock—when wolves are around, there’s “safety in numbers” of a more than metaphorical kind. Jesus tells these three parables about lost coins, lost sheep, and a lost son from the perspective of the one who has lost them. But what is it like to be lost?
It’s hardly worth asking the question, in a way, because we all know very much what it feels like. We’ve been lost in stores as children, lost in unfamiliar cities. We’ve felt lost in the middle of the night sleeping in unfamiliar places. We’ve been lost in our thoughts. Lost in our anger. Lost in our grief. We have many experiences of lots of ways of being lost. You might say that it is the most familiar thing in the world, one of the commonest feelings that human beings have.
Sigmund Freud taught that our feelings of anxiety are rooted in earliest childhood memories. As infants and small children, we feared separation from our mothers because they provided for our comfort and our nourishment, and we felt utterly helpless without them. If Freud was right, feeling lost goes back to our earliest days, and is one of the deepest, most abiding sources of the anxiety we feel today.
So, at a very deep level, we know what it feels like to be lost. Does the shepherd know, then, what it is like for the lost sheep? Can the shepherd empathize? Part of what makes the shepherd want to go after the lost sheep, maybe most of it, is purely economic: a lot of time, energy, and money are invested in the sheep, and so the shepherd doesn’t want it to fall into danger because it would mean a loss of investment. But part of it, I’m sure, is that the shepherd knows that a sheep is anxious; the shepherd knows that it feels helpless when it is alone. We mammals are equipped with the ability to feel and experience another’s pain, or joy, or grief. Have you ever had a dog nestle up to you a little bit closer after a bad day? Every pet owner knows that compassion across the species barrier is real. And so perhaps the shepherd knows what it is like for the sheep to feel isolated and alone, and maybe that is at least of part of why they leave the ninety-nine and go and search for the lost one.
We don’t know whether Jesus told these parables together or not, or whether he told them in the setting described by Luke or in some other. Perhaps he told them many times. The gospels collect Jesus’ sayings from several sources, and we often don’t know where they originally come from. But Luke situates these parables of lost things, as he often does, in a conflict with Jesus’ critics. The critics are denouncing Jesus for hanging around bad types: “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax collectors were really collectors of tolls or tributes that didn’t go to provide services for the people but to pay for the military occupation of their country. And those who collected to the tolls were not government officials, but private contractors who made their living by skimming a little off the top of their collections. Most often, these toll collectors were fellow Jews who therefore profited from their country’s oppression so you might imagine that there we viewed very negatively. “Sinners” is a word that could have meant lots of things. For a lot of reasons having to do with our Western culture, we tend to think of sexual sin when we hear the word “sinners”—or at least some kind of moral offense. But the word “sinners” could have been meant simply to indicate people in a permanently unclean condition—perhaps because of what they did to earn a living, handling unclean animals or dealing with materials that caused ritual defilement—these were the kinds of jobs that nobody wanted, the kinds that today only immigrants with limited opportunities will take. Whatever these words, toll-collectors and sinners, referred to, it is obvious that they are the ones who bear shame. They are those who are outcast from polite company. They didn’t belong to their communities. They are the ones who are “lost.”
These parables teach us that God has compassion of just such people—that God empathizes with them, that God rejoices when they are gathered into the fold. A question for us might be, do we feel anything for those who are the outcast, the despised, today? Can we empathize with them; can we feel their pain? Or, are we so caught up in our anger at them or the in the offense that they cause us, are we so focused on the stigma that is attached to them, that they are no longer people we can feel any empathy for? Have they become something less than persons—objects to be scorned, rejected, mocked, but certainly not people with whom we might share things in common, like a meal, or a home, or a life.
The interesting thing about these “lost” stories in the fifteenth chapter of the gospel of Luke is that if we read them often enough, over time we begin to envy those who are lost. Why? Because so much attention is paid to them. Those who already found, we begin to suspect, are, like the older brother, those who set themselves against Jesus’ mission—indeed, they seem to set themselves against everything that Jesus stands for. They are the ones who are judgmental and overly confident in their own goodness. We may even begin to feel a little judged if we are among the found. We may get the idea that Jesus is searching us out in these stories, and finding that our foundness is actually a problem. We may not ever stop to ask, what is it like to be among these lost, but we perhaps we may wish a little that we were among them, because they are the ones that inspire so much effort, and, when they are finally found, so much rejoicing.
Michelle and I have become fascinated with British cop shows. I don’t know how this came to be exactly, but we are sure that the British are just better than us at that particular type of show. One of the ones we binge-watched a year or two ago is called “Happy Valley,” and it follows the late stages of a policewoman’s career while she battles her grief over the death of her daughter. The drama is that the person whom she believes murdered her daughter is just out of prison and is wreaking further havoc in her town. At any rate, we find that her life has really been torn apart by her grief. Her marriage fell apart, and she has been on barely speaking terms with her son. In a particularly emotional scene, her son confronts her with the way she has idealized her daughter’s memory, and it is only then that we find out that her daughter had been a troubled young woman with a long history of bad behavior, while her son had been a model citizen. Sound familiar? Somehow, in spite of this, perhaps because of this, this troubled young woman was her mother’s favorite, and we learn that the reason the policewoman fell out with her son after her daughter’s death is because she had said aloud to him that she wished he could have been the one to die instead of her.
It’s a dark twist of the same dramatic arc that we find in the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Somehow the lost are favored, somehow they evoke empathy from us, or at least from some of us, like mothers, like Jesus, like the prodigal father, though in real life it seems that it does not always turn out that they are found in the end.
But I wonder if we have got this right, we who have divided up the world between the lost and the found. Are there really people who are found? Are there people who are secure and stable, self-sufficient and responsible, worthy of admiration and respect? By outward appearances, of course, there are. From what I can tell, most of us in this sanctuary fit that description. But are outward appearances all there are to the matter? Freud’s researches suggested that all of us are plagued from time to time with separation anxiety. We have deep fears of being isolated and alone because we know in the end that we are helpless creatures, all. No matter how self-sufficient we have become, no matter how successful; no matter what empires we have built, deep down we are vulnerable, and perhaps a little fearful. And you don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to see Freud’s point. All you have to do is be a reader of Scripture, and you will learn that all of us are fragile, weak, limited in our capacities to sustain ourselves. All of us are sinners, worthy of scorn to the scornful, worthy to be judged to the judgmental. But where are the judges, in the end?
In these stories, the kingdom of God seems to be made up of the lost, not of the found. But the good news is that none of us is really among the found. We pretend to be all the time, and sometimes in our pretending we separate ourselves from those who don’t make the grade, who are judged to be bad company, people we should shun, avoid, perhaps lock up, or somehow punish. And in our pretense we bring these stories from the Gospel down on ourselves; we invite judgment on our self-righteousness. But the good news is that the lost coin and the lost sheep are not representations of the bad behaving daughter who gets all the attention, but of all of us. The lost sheep, the lost coin, is humanity itself. God’s love is like the grieving cop, the mother whose heart went out to her wayward daughter, but the truth is that all of us are the wayward daughter. If you have ever been lost, you know that you don’t always know that you are lost. So, just because we sometimes forget our fragility, just because, like Jesus’ critics, we forget that we are judged with the same judgment that we sometimes put on others, doesn’t mean that God isn’t still seeking to gather us in, ending judgment once and for all.
The reign of God means the solidarity of all God’s creatures, all God’s children. Solidarity as beloved creatures of God, solidarity in vulnerability, solidarity in sin, and solidarity in grace. We all belong to a God of grace, and thus we share in the destiny of being found in the end. In the name of God, our creator, and our redeemer. Amen.