April 3, 2022
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
I went to bed too early on Sunday night. I missed the most dramatic moment of the Oscars when an angry Will Smith stormed up on stage from his front row seat and struck Chris Rock because he had made an offensive joke about Jada Pinkett Smith. On one hand, it seemed so shocking, but on the other it’s no surprise for the world right now that even someone known as the “nicest guy in Hollywood” resorts to violence and incivility at the perception of insult or threat.
Yet it was another moment in the Oscars, also unscripted and surprising, that I hope can be the story that’s told into the future. Lady Gaga was presenting the best picture award with Liza Minelli. Liza was in a wheelchair and seemed confused about what was happening. She said out loud that the cards were confusing her. Lady Gaga deftly and lovingly took over. Later, Liza seemed unsure about what was next. Lady Gaga leaned over and said, “I got you.” To which Liza responded, “I know.” I don’t think Lada Gaga meant for those words to be heard, but the mic caught them. And they broke over the moment with an extravagance of care, respect, and grace that made many of us into forever fans of Lady Gaga.
It was the tale of two stories on the road to Jerusalem, too. Ironically, as Lazarus stepped out of the tomb, the plot to slap the life out of Jesus takes shape in earnest. When Jesus stopped at his friends’ house, Martha once again at work making all the arrangements, Lazarus freshly unbound yet perhaps not quite scrubbed enough to remove the scent of those four days in the tomb. They must have talked of the threat of violence that was most certainly palpable. In this same world where death seems so ready to pick its next victim, Mary pours out a pound of pure nard, a perfume imported from the Himalayas, so extravagant that it fills the house, and probably the whole block with its scent. She wipes it up with her hair, taking on the scent of the world to come, the story of resurrection, Easter, by wiping feet.
There is only one other in the gospel of John who wipes feet. It is Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed. He washes the disciples’ feet as the quintessential symbol of what the way, the truth, and the life looks like. It’s this life of vulnerable and sacrificial love that is God’s word to a cosmos on the edge of violence and death: I got you.
I like to speculate about scripture. Perhaps it is exactly this moment–this gotcha moment—provided to him by Mary, that gives Jesus the idea to wash feet as a sign of the world to come. Or maybe it’s where he got the courage to make a triumphal entry into Jerusalem and face a death that would bring God’s glory breaking forth in such abundance that every sin would be forgiven, every wrong righted, every injustice healed, every life raised up to love and service. God’s voice from the cross, “’It is finished. I got you”
And may the church say, “I know.”
Now, it would be nice to finish there but the story goes on with Judas. There’s the last verse: The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me. It’s almost as shocking as an unscripted moment at the Oscars, a diversion in an otherwise beautifully staged spectacle, a slap in the face of the poor. It was the first question at the Monday morning Bible study, “Why would Jesus say such a thing?” Does he mean we shouldn’t care about the poor?
Did he say this simply to silence Judas, who uses care of the poor as a mere talking point to be critical of Mary’s generous and astounding gift? Or was he pointing us to the heart of the matter, namely what kind of heart do we have? The extravagance of Mary or the stinginess of Judas, unctuously poured out in pious and sanctimonious gospel language.
Is John placing before the church the issue of how extravagant worship relates to the care of the poor? An important and uncomfortable struggle that we dare not settle or walk away from? What is the relationship between beauty and justice? What is wasteful and what serves life and abundance?
Here’s why I don’t think Jesus is suggesting that we ignore the poor. In a few chapters, as I’ve noted Jesus will pick up a basin and a towel and he will wash feet. He will say to his disciples unless you love like this, you will not know what I am finally about. To love the least, even the betrayer, to become a servant of all is what Jesus is pouring out into the world.
My hunch about Mary is that the kind of generosity and extravagance that she demonstrated in this act was no one-time event. People whose hearts overflow with that kind of love pour it out again and again. Their lives are patterned by compassion and care. She understands that the care of the poor, or whoever is in front of you, is more than sending money but about restoring dignity. Likely she set into motion more acts of mercy and justice than did the grumbly contributions to Judas.
Generosity begets generosity. This is the mystery of the gospel. Jesus gives his whole life. And a cosmos is saved. Abundance doesn’t’ run out; it produces more.
To live in the extravagant love of the moment, from the outpouring of God’s love, means that there will be unending ways to care for the poor. There will always be opportunities for us to pour ourselves out in service and the work of justice. This morning, we luxuriate in the baptismal oil of grace. And then you will have this afternoon, and tomorrow, and the next day, and then the next, until the day when God finally wipes away all tears and the new world comes.
In the meantime, we probably should hear the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: If you have seen the thirsty, or the hungry, or the naked, you have seen me
The voice of Jesus: You still have me. I’m right in front of you, just like I was with Mary. Yet, this time, in the eyes and face and feet of the poor. Now, now, you have your chance to do what Mary did. To anoint the world with tender dignity, care and justice. You, too, have the moment to fall on your knees to announce, “I got you.”
And I suspect when that heart has been revealed, the answer back will be, “I know.”
I got you.
And let the church say: I know.