Lent 5C – Trinity Cathedral. Very poignant story in today’s Gospel: Jesus is invited to an amazing dinner party in the home of his friends Mary and Martha in the village of Bethany, which is not far from Jerusalem. It was actually quite dangerous for Jesus to get this close to Jerusalem. There was already a plot against his life, and undoubtedly that would have been one of the topics discussed at the dinner table that evening.
Death and resurrection would have been very much on their minds since another of the guests was Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus who (John’s Gospel has just told us) Jesus had raised from the dead! The two women are fulfilling their expected and predictable roles – Martha bustling around serving the meal; Mary absolutely focused on Jesus and, no doubt, worrying about his fate and the danger he was in by just being there!
Her love for Jesus leads her to go far beyond the servants’ role of washing his feet, but to anoint them with an expensive perfume — a kind which would have been imported all the way from the Himalayan mountains! Judas takes offense at this extravagant offering, making what is actually a pretty logical argument that this expensive stuff could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Why waste it on someone’s feet?
The Gospel writer, John, interjects himself into the story here, to call Judas’ sincerity into question. Apparently he wasn’t known for his generosity at all, but rather was known to steal from the common fund Jesus and his friends used to live on! In any case, Jesus sees a deeper meaning in Mary’s action (probably because they had been talking about his possible assassination).
He sees the anointing as a kind of symbolic gesture, the kind of “in-acted parable” the prophets used to engage in. He sees it as a solemn warning. Before too long (Mary seems to be saying by her actions) there will be another anointing of his body. But it will be the anointing reserved for his corpse! The traditional anointing of the body before burial. So, Jesus says, “Leave her alone! You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me!” (John 12:8)
Now I don’t think for a minute that Jesus is minimizing the need to give to the poor. He’s not setting up some competition between money used to make an offering to him, and money given to the poor. I think he was saying, “You always have the poor with you (and you can help them whenever you will), but this is a special time, a unique moment in history…and it’s right for Mary to observe it in this way.”
In fact, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that when you make an offering to Jesus, you ARE making an offering to the poor. And when you make an offering to the poor, you’re making an offering to Jesus! After all, didn’t he once say, “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these…you have done it unto me?”
Actually, this is one of the reasons, I like the “unified offering” system we have in The Episcopal Church. Except for emergencies and very rare occasions we try not to take up special offerings for this cause and that, Sunday by Sunday, like some churches are wont to do. Offerings for domestic mission, offerings for overseas mission, special offerings to repair the church heating system…and on and on! Instead, we ask you to tithe…or estimate some percentage of your income…pledge to offer it here on Sunday mornings, and trust us to be good stewards of what you give.
Because good stewardship is not actually “fund raising.” Good stewardship is not paying the light or heating bills for Trinity Cathedral. Good stewardship is certainly not supporting things you approve of, and withholding money from things you disapprove of.
Good stewardship is doing what Mary did in today’s Gospel – offering something to Jesus because you love him. Taking care of the Body of Christ…because the Body of Christ cares of you. That’s why we lift up the offering at God’s altar every Sunday with the words “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee!” We’re giving it to Jesus!
I’ve been a tither for most of my adult life. That means ten per cent of my income given away for purposes that align with the heart of God. A good portion of that tithe comes here. Some of it goes directly to poor and marginalized people. Some of it goes to certain family responsibilities we have. Of the amount we pledge here, some of it goes for institutional concerns – building and grounds, staff salaries, and the like. Some of it goes for children’s and adult education, music, evangelism, and outreach.
Some of it goes to our diocese – to support youth ministry and small congregations, overseas mission in Swaziland and Brechin, St. Paul’s Indian Mission in Sioux City, prison ministry, and much more. Of that, some goes on to The Episcopal Church to support similar initiatives on a national and international level that we could not possibly do by ourselves.
The problem is, of course, at least in this congregation, not nearly enough is offered to make all this possible or even to fulfill our responsibilities as a parish. And I’m not really sure why that is. Whether it’s because people think we can live on our endowments (which we cannot); whether people think we’re not being good stewards of your gifts; whether many of you just do not think this church is a high enough priority in your life. I don’t know…
I don’t think it’s because you lack any love for Jesus! I see that acted out in too many different ways each week to believe that! But somehow, we all need to catch that vision of a “unified offering.” To know that we need to take care of the Body of Christ because the Body of Christ cares for us. To know that what we offer to Jesus, we also offer to the poor, and what we offer to the poor, we also offer to Jesus.
We need to be as sacrificial in our giving as Mary of Bethany was in today’s Gospel. We need to see our tithes and offerings as pure nard…anointing the body of Jesus…so that the fragrance of that perfume (that perfect offering) may…fill…this…house! Amen.