Monday, March 22, 2010

Jesus says, "Leave her alone!"

[The Reverend Amy Cox graciously shared with me for publication on this blog her sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent 2010. Enjoy!]

Lent 5: March 21, 2010
All Saints Church, Pasadena

Oh God, who is always doing a new thing to put your love for us into action, May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be aligned with that love. Amen.
Happy World Poetry Day, everyone! Did you know that the United Nations had claimed March 21 as World Poetry Day? I love poetry, but I am not a poet. To prove that, I will offer you my summary of today’s lesson in rhyme:
There once was a woman named Mary
Who broke open a jar that smelled—very!
She anointed Jesus with oil
And Judas’ temper did boil
But Jesus said, “Leave her, she’s caring.”
People sometimes spend a lot of time trying to understand the meaning of today’s story from John by trying to understand what Mary’s motives were. The fact is, though, we don’t really know anything about Mary’s motives in this story.

There are other versions of the same story from Matthew and Mark, and one that may be related from Luke, and they don’t give us any more clarity about what exactly moved this woman to break open the costly perfumed oil and anoint Jesus. Perhaps she realized that he was about to die. Jesus points to his impending death and his need for anointing when he tells Judas and the others not to scold her extravagant behavior, but we don’t know if anointing him for burial is what actually moved Mary.

Maybe she’s motivated by gratitude for all that Jesus has done for her and her family—he did bring her brother Lazarus back from the dead, after all; maybe she’s motivated by the desire to worship the one she has come to regard as God’s anointed one, and maybe it’s something else entirely. Or maybe Mary herself doesn’t even know what drove her to break open this incredibly costly jar of scented oil and anoint Jesus with it, maybe she simply felt moved by the Spirit.

But what we DO know is this: Mary takes an action that is both caring and extremely generous. This is the part of the scene that eventually got written down in scripture and that has carried down through the centuries: Mary puts her love for Jesus into action, an action of caring and generosity.

Today’s lesson is very important, especially on this Sunday before Palm Sunday, because it is the summary version of everything that Jesus tries to teach in his last day on earth.

Immediately after this scene with Mary, Jesus and his followers march into Jerusalem, putting in motion the events that lead very quickly to his arrest. Even at this point in the story, right before they march into Jerusalem, Jesus’ ministry of healing and teaching to large groups is over. He is at dinner with Mary and Martha and Lazarus likely because he can no longer move about the countryside easily – the authorities are on the lookout for him to kill him. Jesus knows that he is at the end of his ministry on earth, and any major points that he wants to make sure he gets across—well, now is the time to make them.

Not to be spoiler here, but the central point that Jesus makes in these last days, that he leaves his followers with, according to John, is to love one another. Jesus spends his last night with the apostles stressing and stressing and stressing to them to love one another. He even washes their feet—an act of caring and great generosity since it would usually be done by a servant.

Wait, does something sound familiar here? An action of caring and great generosity? Washing feet? Showing love? You see how great today’s passage is: it is the condensed version, the Twitter version if you will, of what Jesus is calling us to do. And here it is:

Put our love into action: show caring and generosity.

To illustrate this, I want to tell you the story of another Mary who puts her love for Jesus and for one another into action. This Mary lives in the 21st century. She happens to be an Episcopal priest, and she’s been a priest for a pretty long time, 28 years. In the first church where she served as a rector, she did so much putting love into action that the congregation grew from about 50 members to about 150. Mary describes it this way:

For the next seven years I helped the Holy Spirit build up this exciting branch of the Body of Christ while simultaneously dealing with a host of urban issues such as immigration, housing as a right, the four-pronged economic justice plan that came out of General Convention in 1988 and focused on land trusts, cooperative housing, worker-owned businesses and community development credit unions.

What a great example of putting love into action—the love of justice for the broader community and the love of parishioners that strengthened the congregation. Eventually, Mary was called to serve at a very different parish, and she describes that experience this way. A little background here is that Mary is gay, and although the congregation knew that, they really didn’t want to know anything more.

The good people of St. Margaret’s gave me room to be myself without asking explicit questions, and I gave them room to be themselves: (at that time) a relatively conservative, but Jesus-loving parish of untapped potential. This resulted in a mostly joy-filled love affair during which the parish grew by leaps and bounds (St. Margaret’s is now one of the most exciting parishes in this diocese) and I grew profoundly in my knowledge and love of the Lord.

Here’s someone who acted on her love for those she served in such a way that she could actually describe their relationship as a “joy-filled love affair.”

Mary then went on to work at her diocese, and I could share more examples of how she put love into action there. But instead, I want to share one more wonderful example of putting love into action from a different person. This one comes from someone named Diane who described her first job at a bank:

I was the supervisor of a group in which I was the only Anglo, female, native English-speaking Christian. No one spoke to each other—in fact they hated each other—and everyone worked on their own. I re-divided the work load and created teams of people who had to learn to work together to keep from failing. Monthly potlucks where people were to bring typical dishes from their country of origin proved to be a great “ice breaker” with this group. By the end of my few years there, not only did the individuals in the group get along with each other and perform their jobs well, they were frequently looked at as management material because of their ability to work cooperatively. I felt at home in this diverse group of people, and was enriched by the experience of learning about their languages and customs.

Wow, isn’t that awesome? Can you imagine if Congress worked together with that kind of caring and generosity?

Like the Mary we read about in the gospel story today, these stories from a modern-day Mary and Diane show the power of love that is put into action. It enables people, relationships, and communities to flourish. It “turns the human race into the human family.”

Now fortunately or unfortunately, this is not the end of the sermon, because the parallels with the Gospel story don’t end there. There’s one more point. Remember how Judas jumped all over Mary as she anointed Jesus? There’s always somebody quick to jump all over you, telling you you’re doing it wrong, even when you’re being kind, right? Well, there are also people today who are quick to jump all over Mary and Diane as they continue to put their love into action. You see, Mary and Diane are Mary Douglas Glasspool and Diane Jardine Bruce, the two women who will be consecrated as bishops here in the Diocese of Los Angeles this coming May 15.

This past week, the final i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed in the Church’s process of approving new bishops-to-be. And while many people are thrilled that Mary and Diane, who gave us such mighty examples of how to put love into action, are now going to be bishops, others are indignant that they will be bishops—both because they are women and because Mary is an open lesbian.

Those opposed to Diane and Mary becoming bishops say, among many things, that their ordination, especially Mary’s, will split the Church and that we shouldn’t be spending so much of our energy on gay people, especially as candidates for bishop, because it’s just going to fragment the Church further over gender and sexuality. There are people in the Church who won’t take communion from or even with Mary or Diane, just like there are people who won’t take communion from our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, because they are women and because Mary is a lesbian. I heard those opposed to their ordination saying that we’ve spent more than 300 denarii—I mean—that we’ve spent a lot of time and energy on an openly gay candidate for bishop—now a bishop-elect—that should have been spent on other people and other things, certainly on other candidates for bishop.

Yet when Judas scolded that other Mary for doing the “wrong thing,” Jesus said, “Leave her alone.” I think this is why Jesus directly takes on Judas’ false claim that he cares about the poor. Judas is trying to stop actions of love, and he does so by splitting our loyalties. Jesus says, “No, they’re all important, loving me/loving the poor, they’re all loving actions. You should know that I’m leaving, so your time to show me love is very short.”

To those who say we should interrupt the stream of loving action that come out of Diane Jardine Bruce or Mary Douglas Glasspool by limiting their roles in the Church, I say, “Leave her alone.”

And to those who say we should interrupt the stream of loving actions that come out of you or that come out of me or that come out of anyone, I say, “Leave her alone. Leave him alone. Leave me alone.” Because, like Judas, those protests that claim to be about justice but that pit people against each other are not about justice because they are not about love. They’re about fear or approval-seeking or self-centeredness, but they’re certainly not about love.

So don’t wait for Maundy Thursday—wash someone’s feet today! Put your love into action as soon as you can—show up for that friend who is sick, send that money to Haiti, take time to really listen to that child in your life. If your action is done with generosity and caring, if it brings you into a deeper love of God, if it’s about others and not about you, then keep on going, keep on loving. And don’t stop just because someone says you’re doing it wrong. Today, we are the body of Christ, and we’ll see what you’re doing and say, “Leave ’em alone.”


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