Sunday, April 28, 2019

"Knowing Our Place in God's Good Creation." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"Knowing Our Place in God's Good Creation"

Luke 24:36b-48; Genesis 2:4-15

 
Earth Day was this past Monday.  If you turned on the news or gone online this week, you’ve been hearing some challenging ideas about caring for the environment.  So, this Sunday seemed like a good day to celebrate God’s Creation and to ponder our place in it.  It’s a day to reflect on what our faith says to us about how we are called to live on the earth.
In this season of Eastertide, we are celebrating good news:   in raising Jesus from the dead, God has broken the power of sin and evil and delivered us from the way of death-- to life eternal and abundant.   We ponder what it means to live as Easter people… and what it means to live in the ways of God here and now, in a world where hunger, poverty, poor health, fear, violence, and injustice are daily realities for many of God’s people.  And today—this week--we are challenged to reflect on how we are called to live in relationship with God’s good creation.
Those of us who call ourselves Christians need to take seriously what our faith says about Creation.
The Bible is a powerful witness to the sovereignty and providence and creativity of God—the Holy One who is the Source of all life.
In Genesis chapter one, the scriptures tell us that when God created the world, God blessed it and called it very good.[1]  God is revealed through the beauty, power, abundance, and mystery of the natural world.  Through wind and flame, water and wilderness, creatures and seasons, God is continually present and active in the world.
Human beings are endowed with reason   and given the responsibility to celebrate and care for Creation.  God’s first command to humanity was given to Adam in Genesis chapter 2:  to care for the earth.  “Cultivate” and “protect” it.”
Over the years, we allowed the biblical texts to be twisted so that “dominion” came to mean “domination,” and stewardship came to mean “exploitation.” 
Too many Christians think that we are the center of the universe   and have twisted the gospel of Jesus Christ to mean that God is only interested in saving individual human souls-- rather than all of creation. 

We don’t all agree on the environmental problem, or the scope or cause of the problem, much less the solutions.  But there is science and a growing consensus that current trends in growth and consumption are not sustainable.
When it comes to the environment, we need an alternative worldview.  We need alternative, faithful ways to know our place in Creation that are not na├»ve or simplistic.  For instance, recycling is a good thing to do, but recycling and efforts by individual and volunteer organizations to recycle will not save the planet. 
The issue is too global, too political, too economically driven to be resolved by personal piety or individual good intentions.  The issue is ultimately theological—a matter of faith—because it raises the question, “Who owns this place?”[2]  
As persons of faith and as a faith community, our task is to imagine how the world would look if God really is ruling, and then to implement that vision—put it into action.
There was a time when we’d sing some hymns to celebrate the glories of creation on Earth Sunday and maybe give out packets of seeds.  But I agree with Leah Schade when she writes in The Christian Century:
“Now is not the time for feel-good “green” hymns and ecological tokenism in our churches.” Not when the government has been implementing anti-environmental policies, giving coal mining companies free rein to pollute waterways. Not when air pollution, pesticides, poor diets, and radiation have led to a sharp increase in cancer diagnoses among children. Not when fracking and drilling are poisoning the air, water, and land of our communities.”[3] 
And not when people like Waldomiro Costa Pereira are being murdered for trying to protect their land from rapacious corporations and wealthy landowners.
Conflicts over land are common in Brazil, where 1 percent of the population owns nearly half of the nation’s land. According to the Guardian, Brazil saw 61 killings of land rights activists in 2016, and 150 in the several preceding years. Pereira was affiliated with the Landless Workers Movement and had been standing up for the rights for poor farmers, in a heroic act that cost him his life.[4]
Latin America has a long history of struggles over land and resources, with the rural poor trying to eke out a living while those in control of the land extract riches from its bounty. The murder of environmental activists is not a new development. But, as Leah Schade points out, there’s a new layer of urgency in recent years, with the exacerbation of climate change and the increased desperation of people fighting for their communities and their very lives. When people are dying for God’s earth and for indigenous and marginalized communities, we can’t ignore the evil that reigns with impunity against people working for environmental justice.[5]
There is a life-and-death struggle being waged against corrupt governments, corporations, and criminal gangs that are seizing land from people in order to exploit the land for minerals, timber, fossil fuels, or corporate agriculture.
We in developed countries may condemn these injustices, but the demand for many of these products comes from us.  We need to be mindful of how, in the words of our Presbyterian “Brief Statement of Faith,” we have ignored God’s commandments, like the command to be faithful stewards of the earth… We have violated the image of God in others and ourselves, accepted lies as truth, exploited neighbor and nature, and threatened death to the planet entrusted to our care.[6]

Since the earliest days, the church, has honored the martyrs who have died for their faith. “From Stephen to Perpetua to Ignatius of Antioch, martyrs are models of courage in the face of hatred, fear, and evil.” As Leah Schade points out, martyrs have been models of courage in the face of hatred, fear, and evil. They refuse to cower to violent regimes, and they face their deaths knowing they have fought the good fight.

Theologian Robert Costanza states the stewardship challenge this way: “The creation of a shared vision of a sustainable and desirable society, one that can provide permanent prosperity within the biophysical constraints of the real world in a way that is fair and equitable to all humanity, to other species, and to future generations.”[7]
The key elements here are sustainability and justice.  Sustainability is about recognizing that the earth’s resources are not unlimited, and that any global life-style created on the model of American consumption is suicidal.  Justice demands that we recognize the huge gap—which widens every year—between the haves and have-nots of the earth.

Sally McFague observes that the Greek word for “house” is oikos, which is the root word for “economics” … for “ecology” …and for “ecumenicity.”   Thus, she suggests that caring for the earth is simply a matter of household economics, which leads her to offer three simple rules for our global household.
The first rule, as in any household, is take only your share.  All the cookies are not for you.    My share-- as your share-- is what is needed for a decent life:  food, shelter, medical care, and education.  There is enough for all-- if everybody would share.
Second, clean up after yourself.  The ring in the bathtub is yours.  That’s simple fairness. 
The third rule is:  keep the house in good repair for the children and grandchildren who will come after you.
Take only your share, clean up your own mess, and keep the house in good repair.   It’s a simple vision on a global scale.
But we can’t be simplistic and think this can happen through our good intentions as individuals.  We need a renewed worldview-- because the current one is not working. 
We need a world in which nations have the humility to confer and compromise...  and to sign and honor treaties to work together for global cooperation to work together on environmental and justice issues.  We need national leaders who have a vision for the common good-- in their own nations and beyond their borders…  and who are courageous enough to risk their political popularity for the promise of a viable global future.  We need economists and business leaders who are smart enough to know that it takes more than money to create a harmonious global household. 
We need faith communities—people like us—who know the earth is the Lord’s and that all the earth is holy ground.  We need to commit ourselves to living and proclaiming that alternative vision to our communities and the world.
We live in a broken and fearful world, but we are Easter people who follow the Risen Christ.   We know that we can trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to give us the courage we need to unmask idolatries and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace, for the welfare of all.
So, let us commit ourselves to live more lightly and faithfully on this holy ground, and to care for the earth as a way of worshipping and serving our gracious Creator God!

Amen!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 28, 2019





[1] Genesis 1:1-31
[2] P.C. Enniss, “Holy Ground.” My notes say that I read this at an old website, at  www.goodpreacher.com

[3] Leah D. Schade, “Let’s Make Earth Day about the Earth martyrs,” in The Christian Century. https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/lets-make-earth-day-about-earth-martyrs

[4] “Land rights activist shot dead in Brazilian Amazon hospital.” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/21/brazil-land-rights-activist-shot-dead-amazon-hospital
[5] Schade, in The Christian Century.
[6] Presbyterian Church (USA), “Brief Statement of Faith,” 1990. https://www.presbyterianmission.org/what-we-believe/brief-statement-of-faith/

[7] Robert Costanza et al, An Introduction to Ecological Economics (1979), quoted in Sallie McFague, Life Abundant.



Sunday, April 21, 2019

"Idle Talk or Gospel Truth?" A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Easter Sunday

"Idle Talk or Gospel Truth?"

Luke 24:1-12

         During Holy Week, we heard the powerful story of how Jesus offered his life in the ultimate act of sacrificial love and was crucified on the cross.  The women who had followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem had watched as the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross. They watched as Joseph of Arimithea took the body, wrapped it in linen, and placed it in a nearby tomb… and sealed in with a big stone that was rolled against the opening. They went home to prepare spices that would be needed to complete the proper burial of the body.
            There wasn’t time to finish preparing Jesus’ body for burial before the Sabbath began, so in the darkness, just before sunrise on the day after the Sabbath, the women head back to the tomb, bringing the spices and ointments they need to finish preparing Jesus’ body for burial.       
As the grieving women approach the tomb, they’re focused on completing the burial of Jesus’ body. But when they get to the tomb, they find that the stone has been rolled away, and the tomb is empty!  The women stand there, perplexed, not knowing what to make of what they see, when suddenly two men in dazzling white clothes are standing beside them.   They’re  terrified!    They bow down in awe.   But the men say to them, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?  He is not here...  but has risen.  Remember how he told you--while he was still in Galilee-- that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again?”       
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  The women came to the tomb expecting to find the dead.  But this tomb is now empty, transformed by the resurrection.
            Apparently, then, the women do remember. They run back to tell the rest of the disciples what they have seen and heard.   But the other disciples don’t believe them.  The news seems to them an “idle tale.”   Actually, as David Lose points out, that’s a fairly generous translation of the Greek word leros, which is the root of the word “delirious.”  So, it seems they thought what the women were saying was crazy—utter nonsense.[1]
            And, if we’re to be honest, who can blame them? Dead men don’t just get up and walk out of their tombs. Resurrection breaks all the old, familiar rules that help us to understand how things work in the world. Then-- as now-- we often don’t know how to respond to the unexpected… things that don’t fall neatly into our preconceived ways of thinking.  So, Peter gets up and runs to the tomb to check things out for himself.  He stoops down and looks in, and he sees the linen grave cloths lying there empty.  Then he heads for home, amazed at what had happened. 
The first disciples were reeling with grief.  Their beloved friend, their leader-- the one person on whom they had staked everything, had just been tortured and killed.  Now his body had disappeared.   Everything that was happening that first Easter was new… unfamiliar…strange.   It was hard to take it all in.

          Each of the gospels makes it clear that the disciples didn’t come quickly to believe in the resurrection.  They respond with a mixture of emotions:  fear…great joy…amazement…and doubt.   It takes more than an empty tomb for the disciples to understand and to become believers. And yet the disciples do follow Jesus after the resurrection.  Some even follow him to their own deaths. 
            The tomb is empty, and Christ is risen.  Death does not have the final word.  Love and life are stronger than fear and death.   Everything is new.  Anything is possible with God. 
            This was a perplexing new reality.  But they follow in faith--without fully grasping the meaning of it all. 
            Isn’t that what a lot of us do?  You and I may not fully understand what happened on that first Easter Sunday long ago.  That’s why we call it a mystery!   Yet every now and then, if only for a fleeting moment, Jesus is especially alive and real to us.
            In the coming weeks we’ll hear some of the stories about how the Risen Christ appeared to his disciples.  They recognize him as the Risen Christ. Then he vanishes from their sight. It’s a pattern that’s common in the resurrection stories.  Jesus is there.  Then he’s gone.  Though they experience his presence, they can’t grab on to him and keep him there.  But they come to know the Risen Christ in powerful ways in their daily lives and work.
            It was not at the empty tomb that these people came to know the Risen Christ.  It was as they sought to follow him--as they experienced his power and love in their lives and among the community of faith-- that they knew his presence.  As they followed the Risen Christ, they were transformed into Easter people!
            In the days following Jesus’ crucifixion, the first disciples were huddled behind locked doors, trembling in fear.   But over time, they were transformed and empowered to witness to the Gospel.
             In the early days of the church growing numbers of people came together for prayer and to study the scriptures   and became more and more generous and loving in their relationship with others.  People looked at Christians and exclaimed, “See how they love one another!  See how joyful they are!”  And they wanted to be a part of that movement.  Even though, in the earliest centuries of the church, following Christ could bring persecution, the church grew like wildfire and transformed the world.
            Easter is perplexing. But Easter isn’t just about saying we believe in the resurrection. Easter is about saying “no” to the power of death and destruction that surrounds us. It’s about trusting in the sustaining power of God, who brings life out of death…and reconciliation out of conflict, as the scriptures tell us.  It’s about committing ourselves to the gospel claim that opens the door to new life—for ourselves and for acts of love and reconciliation in the world.
            Our Holy Week journey moves us from pain and suffering of Jesus and the pain and suffering in the world-- to hope. We see the continuing open wounds of structural racism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression and injustice. We see Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Nativism, and other forms of hatred practiced more virulently and openly than at any time in recent memory. Every day we get more scientific information that shows us that we’re running out of time to avoid the most catastrophic levels of climate change. We also see crowd-funding campaigns for people trying to pay for medical procedures or even basic maintenance medications like insulin and hear stories of people who died because they couldn’t afford the treatment they needed.[2]
This week, we observed the twentieth anniversary of the Columbine School massacre and mourn that the United States now averages nearly one mass shooting a day.[3]  In one of the richest countries of the world, we don’t seem to have the political will to address the unjust policies that support growing income inequity and cruel immigration policies.
            Easter is a reminder every year that pain and loss and death don’t have the final word. The resurrection of Jesus Christ teaches us that there always is and always will be hope.
            The first disciples went to the tomb that first Easter looking for a dead Messiah.  But what they found was an empty tomb.   They were confused and fearful.  But within a few days, the followers of Jesus were telling the world that Christ, the King of Love, was alive and making all things new.
            We have come to the tomb and found it empty.  Like those first disciples, we have been given a mission and a message to tell the others.  We, too, need to look beyond the empty tomb...  and trust God to show us the risen and living Savior and the new life to which we are called. Like those first disciples, we are witnesses of amazing things.
            So-- what do we do about that?  Tune in-- same time, same place-- next Sunday and the following Sundays, as we discover together more about what it means to be God's Easter people in this new time. Easter isn't over at the end of Easter Sunday.  This is the beginning of Easter-tide, the season when we are led further into God's truth for God's Easter people…further into God’s new creation.
            In this broken and fearful world, “the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”[4]
            Every act of love, every deed done in the name of Christ, by the power of the Spirit… every work of true creativity—healing families, doing justice, making peace, seeking and winning true freedom—is an earthly event in a long history of things that carry the resurrection out into the world and anticipate the final new creation.
            The good news for us today is that when we gather in Christ's name, Christ will be with us, calling us into to hope and wholeness and freedom.
            Christ is risen!
            Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia!


Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 21, 2019


[1] David Lose, “If It’s Not Hard to Believe, You’re Probably Not Paying Attention,” at Working Preacher.   http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2498

 
[2] Jim Wallis, “Moving from Pain to Hope this Holy Week,” from Sojourners. https://sojo.net/articles/moving-pain-hope-holy-week


[3] German Lopez, “20 Years after Columbine, America sees roughly one mass shooting a day.” https://www.vox.com/2019/4/19/18412650/columbine-mass-shootings-gun-violence-map-charts-data


[4] “A Brief Statement of Faith.” Presbyterian Church (USA), 1990.



Sunday, April 14, 2019

"God's Revolution of Love." An Introductory Meditation on the Palm and Passion Sunday scripture texts.



"God's Revolution of Love"

An Introductory Meditation on Palm and Passion Sunday"

Luke 19:28-40; Luke 22 & 23


            A few minutes ago, we heard the story how Jesus entered into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey on that first Palm Sunday, in a dramatic act of subversive political theater. Jesus enters into Jerusalem like a king, challenging the authority of every earthly kind and even of Caesar himself.[1]
            Can you imagine what this must have been like for Jesus’ disciples? Jesus had told them what to expect. Three times he had said plainly, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, and spit on him. They will flog him and kill him. On the third day, he will rise again.” But I doubt they understood fully what they would witness later in the week.
            There are layers of subversion in today’s scripture readings. Psalm 118 is a psalm of Passover, of escape from slavery. It’s a psalm of liberation from oppression. It celebrates God’s empowerment of people who were once exploited and dehumanized. It praises the complete upending of power structures that enrich a dominant ruler or class at the expense of those who are exploited and marginalized.[2]
        The crowd comes out joyfully to meet Jesus, strewing their palm branches and spreading their cloaks on the road. They pour into the street to welcome their king, riding on a young donkey—a beast of burden.     
             On the other side of the city there was another parade.  Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the region, was entering the city with his cavalry and foot soldiers, as he did every Passover.   There was often trouble in Jerusalem around the time of the Passover—a festival that celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from an earlier empire, when Moses led them out of Egypt.   So, the governor brought in extra troops to reinforce the troops that were permanently stationed near the Temple, as a show of power and force.          
            The story of Palm Sunday, as Luke tells it, draws on Old Testament prophecies to show Jesus as a messianic king. Six centuries earlier, the prophet Zechariah had proclaimed a messianic vision of a king like David returning to the throne in Jerusalem, and Luke uses this imagery in describing Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem.  Zechariah says, “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.[3]  
            The people would have recognized this imagery. So, when Jesus came riding into Jerusalem, it must have felt to the peasants in the crowd as though they were on the threshold of an exciting new era. By entering Jerusalem in this way, Jesus claims to be the legitimate king.  This is a counter-demonstration that challenges the authority of imperial rule over Jerusalem.
            In Zechariah’s prophecy, the new king would banish war from the land— no more chariots, war-horses, or military weapons.  Jesus’s procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city.
            Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world, the Roman Empire that exercised power through military domination, using the cutting-edge military technologies of the day.
            Jesus’s procession embodied an alternative vision-- the kingdom of God.  His victory will be won through humility and nonviolence and love. Jesus’ humble claim to a peaceful kingship was radically counter-cultural. It was politically subversive. This contrast— between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar— is central to the gospel story--   to the story of Jesus and the early church.
            Jesus enters the city and proceeds to the Temple. Now, in that time, the Temple wasn’t just a religious center, but also the place where Judean society interfaced with the Roman Empire. As Robert Williamson points out, it was the job of the chief priests to collect taxes as tribute for Rome and to keep Judea functioning smoothly as a loyal Roman province.  “Through the Temple, religious elites kept the Empire operating smoothly. They provided a theological rationale for the political and economic domination of the Roman Empire, which enriched the upper classes at the expense of the poor.”[4]
            According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus returned to the Temple on the following day to overturn the tables and cast out the money changers, protesting the Temple’s collaboration with an Empire that enriched the few and oppressed the many.
            In a few moments, we are going to hear the story of Christ's Passion, as told by Luke.  Today and this Holy Week, may we be startled and challenged into seeing God’s Reign afresh, as the subversive, empire-challenging reality that it is.
            Following Jesus on the way of the cross, we need to choose. Will we collaborate with the Empire?  Or will we choose to participate fully in God’s revolution of love, which promises abundant life for all?  If we see injustice and evil in the world around us, will we walk the way of humility and non-violence and love to resist the that injustice, trusting in God’s abundance and faithfulness?
            The good news we hear in the Holy Week story is that God emptied God's self for the sake of every beloved creature, including you and me-- because it's God's very nature to love us that radically.  We know what God's love is like by seeing it in the self-emptying servanthood and humility and self-giving on the cross! 
            So, let us go there and be with our Lord in his suffering and in his triumph.  See his great love for you...   and renew your great love for Him.
            Listen for the good news:
At this point, we heard the story of Christ’s Passion, as told by Luke the Evangelist, in chapters 22 and 23. http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Luke+22


Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 14, 2019



[1] David Lose, Palm / Passion Sunday A.  http://www.davidlose.net/2017/04/palmpassion-sunday-a/

[2] Lindsey Paris-Lopez, “Coronation Before Crucifixion: The Ominious, Subversive Politics of Palm Sunday.” https://www.ravenfoundation.org/coronation-before-crucifixion-the-ominous-subversive-politics-of-palm-sunday-gvbs-year-c/



[3] Zechariah 9:9

Sunday, April 7, 2019

"An Extravagant Love." A Sermon on John 12:1-8 from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the 5th Sunday in Lent.

"An Extravagant Love"

John 12:1-8


         In the previous chapter of John’s gospel, Lazarus was very ill, and his sisters Mary and Martha had sent a message to Jesus.  Though Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was, before he headed to Bethany.  When he got there, Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days, and the mourners were there to console Mary and Martha. 
         Jesus went to the tomb and said, “Take away the stone.”  Martha—always a practical woman—said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  But they took away the stone that closed the tomb, and Jesus prayed and then called, “Lazarus, come out!” 
         Imagine the scene, as Lazarus came out of the tomb, his hands and feet bound with strips of grave cloths, and his face wrapped in a cloth.  Jesus told the people, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
            So, that’s the context. Now, six days before the Passover, Jesus comes to Bethany, to the home of Lazarus.  Once again, the house is filled with family and friends, and the table is covered with food.  Martha is hard at work serving.  Lazarus is reclining with Jesus-- Lazarus who was in the tomb until Jesus called him out.          
         Mary slips away and comes back, holding a clay jar in her hands.  Without a word she kneels at Jesus' feet and breaks it open, and the sharp smell of nard fills the room.  She does a series of remarkable things: 
         In a room full of men, Mary loosens her hair-- which is something a respectable woman never did in that culture.  She pours balm on Jesus' feet, which also is not done.   Then she touches him-- a single woman caressing the feet of a rabbi.   Also, not done, not even among friends.  Then she wipes the salve off again-- with her hair.  It is totally inexplicable-- the bizarre end to an all-around bizarre act.       
         Judas is quick to point out how extravagant Mary’s action is.  "Why wasn't this ointment sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?"  That's what Judas wants to know.  A day laborer and his family could live on that much money for a year, and here she has poured it all out on your feet!"
         But Jesus doesn’t see it that way.  "Leave her alone,” Jesus says, brushing all objections aside.  "She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
         Now, that is about as odd a thing to say as anything Mary did.  Jesus, who was always concerned about the needs of the poor and marginalized and putting their needs ahead of his own, suddenly pulling rank.  Leave her alone.  You will have the poor to look after until the end of time.  Just this once, let her look after me, because my time is running out.
            The poor you always have with you. These words of Jesus have often been interpreted to mean that Jesus believed poverty is inevitable. As the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis suggested in the book we read for our Lenten study last year, some people see poverty as an individual issue. Some believe that poverty is a matter of individual sin or moral failure—that people are poor because they don’t work hard enough…or have made bad choices.[1]
            In her book, Liz seeks to show that--far from giving Christian reason to ignore calls for economic justice, the passage we heard today actually makes “one of the strongest statements of the biblical mandate to end poverty.”[1] She says the passage has been twisted out of context to justify the belief that poverty as inevitable. 
            “The poor you always have with you, but you will not always have me.”  Some people would argue from this that we should attend to spiritual needs over, or instead of, tangible human needs. “Just a closer walk thee,” instead of a march on Washington. Thoughts and prayers, rather than votes and legislation. Individual acts of kindness, but keep the church out of the realm of policy-making and community activism. But there are problems with this interpretation.  
            As biblical scholar Lindsey Trozzo writes, we can’t separate Jesus from the poor.  Jesus brought good news in tangible ways to those who were oppressed and vulnerable, and in his actions and teaching he challenged the oppressive political system of his day.[2]
            “The poor you will always have with you.” Dr. Trozzo suggests that we may be reading this wrong. In the Greek, the present indicative form of a word, which states something, such as “you always have the poor with you,” is similar to the present imperative form of the word, which commands you to do something. So, another way to translate this passage would be as a command: “Keep the poor among you always.”
            Going back to the story:  Jesus and the disciples and some close friends are eating dinner, when Mary brings in a pound of expensive perfume and pours the perfume on Jesus’ feet. This is an anointing scene. In ancient Palestine, there were two events that would call for an anointing: a coronation and a burial. Jesus is about to die. He is going away, but the poor are always with you. Keep the poor among you always.            
            So, could it be, as Trozzo suggests, that this passage that has been used to justify disregard for the poor is actually a direct command to always have Jesus’ mission for and among the poor at the center of our mission?
            Jesus’ words about the poor echo Deuteronomy 15:11: “There will never cease to be some in need on the earth. 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.’” The 15th chapter of Deuteronomy outlines the practice of a Sabbatical year in Israel’s tradition. Every seventh year, the people were instructed to forgive all debts. They were also instructed to give generously to the poor in other years.
Also, every 50th year, they were to have a year of Jubilee, which called for even greater generosity and debt forgiveness, and release for those who were enslaved. The context reminds us that Jesus’ teachings about the poor is a charge to live according to a different value system, and to work toward systematic change that would include all persons in a community of justice and abundance. We live in the tension between the reality that poverty is part of the way our world works today—and the hope of God’s beloved community, where no one suffers from poverty.  
         While Mary’s behavior may have seemed strange to those who were gathered in the house that night, it was no stranger than that of the prophets who went before her.  Ezekiel, who ate the scroll of the Lord as a sign that he carried the word of God around inside of him.  Jeremiah, who smashed the clay jar to show God's judgment on Judah and Jerusalem.  Isaiah, who walked around Jerusalem naked and barefoot as an oracle against the nations.            
         Prophets do these things.  They act out the truth that no one else can see.  Those who stand around watching either write them off as crazy...  or fall silent before the disturbing news they bring from God.
         When Mary stood before Jesus with that pound of pure nard, it probably could have gone either way.  She could have anointed his head and everyone there could have proclaimed him a king.  But she didn't do that.  When she moved toward him, she dropped to her knees and poured the salve on his feet, anointing him for his death. 
         This was the action of a faithful disciple.  Jesus received from Mary what he would soon offer to his disciples, wiping his feet with her hair, as Jesus will wipe his disciples’ feet with a towel. 
         Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment so precious that its sale might have fed a poor family for a year.   Mary’s act was an extravagant act of love, a model of faithful discipleship—in contrast to Judas’s unfaithful response.  In the story, Judas represents the voice of reason and practicality.
         I think this story invites us to identify not just with Mary or Judas. In the figure of Mary, Christian discipleship is an act of adoration and gratitude to the One who is holy.  In her silent, prophetic act, she draws our attention not to herself--but to Jesus.
The good news is the grace of Jesus Christ includes them both, both the faithful and the unfaithful.  Both are included within the bright, transforming light the cross casts in a dark world.
         How do we respond to Jesus’ self-emptying, extravagant love?  With a calculating, practical, careful way of life, like Judas? Or does Christ call us to live lives of extravagant love?    
         The heroes in the scriptures are at their best when they live out their faith abundantly, extravagantly.  Noah building an ark when there isn’t a cloud in the sky.   Abraham and Sarah packing up everything they owned and heading for God only knows where.  Joseph marrying a woman who is pregnant with a child who is not his.  Peter and John announcing to those who imprisoned them, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”   As Paul said, “We are fools for Christ’s sake.”
         Over history there have been other fools for Christ:  Saint Francis, giving up his material wealth, living among the poor.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer returning to Germany and witnessing to his faith, eventually dying for it, rather than staying safely in New York. Desmond Tutu, challenging the powers that be, when he knew it could cost him.   Fools for Christ do not live a careful, calculating life-- but an abundant, extravagantly loving life.
         Mary’s love was uncalculating.  She was too caught up in her love and gratitude for Jesus to be concerned with her own scandalous behavior and extravagance. 
         Jesus said, I came that they might have life—life abundant.  We are called to a life of extravagant faithfulness. If we follow Christ, we will not calculate what is easiest or what will look best.  If we follow Christ, we will not be stingy or calculating.
         Mary showed us that she was beginning to understand that we don't need to hold back, out of fear.  Whatever we need, there will be enough to go around, for there is nothing frugal about the love of God, or about the lives of those who are devoted to him.
         Where God is concerned, there is always more-- more than we can either ask or imagine-- gifts from our gracious, extravagant Lord."
            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 7, 2019



[1] Liz Theoharis, Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017.  
[2] Lindsey Trozzo, “Commentary on John 12:1-8 at Working Preacher.     http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3993