3 April 2022 – Lent 5
Isaiah 43.16-21 – Ps 126 – Philippians 3.4b-14 – John 12.1-8
‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me’.
The world has continued to provide its share of depressing news, especially as our screens and news media were filled with images and stories from Ukraine – images so reminiscent of the photographs taken over 80 years ago during the second world war, and in many conflicts since. People displaced, dispossessed, frightened, defiant, trying to continue to live a life in the midst of rubbles or in shelters, protecting their children and the elderly, trying to find a way to survive a trap that for some seems to be closing on them. Its horrifying to watch, as we feel powerless yet so close to the action.
The response to the migrant crisis by neighbouring countries has been remarkable considering the number of people on the move, and it has been heartening to see how people have been welcomed into homes and how the international community has mobilised to help.
Here, we gathered yesterday in a vigil including music played by some of our young musicians, led by Esther-Ruth, and people were very moved as former member Yevgenia said a few words.
This conflict has highlighted how the world has become interdependent, impacting trade and commodity prices worldwide. And it has been frustrating to see that early winners in this conflict are the oil producers who are using this major disturbance in geopolitics to push back the environmental agenda for world sustainability which had been painstakingly and timidly agreed in recent years.
‘You will always have winners and losers with you, but you do not always have me’?
One story that brought some hope this week was the visit of representatives from the First Nations, Inuit and Metis to Rome, where they were able to have lengthy discussions. The Pope finally offered an apology on behalf of the Roman church about the role of the Roman Catholic church in the tragedy of lives destroyed in the Residential Schools as well as in the colonisation effort. Yet the role of a previous Canadian government in allowing the church to not pay its agreed settlement came to light, one of a number of disappointments, including also the display put together for the visitors that showed them exquisite artefacts from their own cultures which had been stored in the Vatican vaults, presumed ‘gifts’ from the past, names of the ‘donors’ not disclosed.
‘You will always have the oppressed with you, but you do not always have me?’
Perhaps Jesus’ statement at Mary and Martha’s table in the story we heard today sounds flippant. But the circumstances of that meal were less than ordinary.
The diners included the good friends of Jesus of course, among them their brother Lazarus whom Jesus had only just brought back to life from the dead.
You may remember that, in the chapter immediately preceding this, Lazarus had been sick and eventually died. By the time Jesus eventually arrives in Bethany, he is told by his sister Mary that it is already too late – Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days already, and there is a stench.
Nevertheless, Jesus calls him out of the tomb, to the amazement of all, and the disgruntlement of those who were seeking to bring down Jesus.
Today’s meal contrasts with Jesus’ last visit. Chaos has been restored, stench is replaced by the pure scent of the perfume used by Mary. However, there is still a cipher that hints that all is not well, and that further grief may come.
Poor Judas is focused, not on the joy of the moment at hand, but at the wastefulness of the perfume, which he says could have been sold to feed the poor. Or, as the aside by the writer tells us, to line his own pockets.
As it happens of course, the perfume is not his, and neither is the moment. Jesus rebukes him – ‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me’.
And this sentence can seem a little callous in the mouth of a Jesus whose purpose so far has been to heal the sick, to bring justice, to proclaim the love of God and bring about a change of heart in all of us.
Really, is Jesus saying that we should be content that the inevitability of poverty is a given, and therefore that we should be content?
Of course, Jesus is not saying that. He is referring to a passage from the book of Deuteronomy, which most would have known at the time, and in which Moses reminds his people about to enter their promised land of their need to care for the vulnerable:
‘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 neighbour in your land.’ (Deut 15.11)
Quite clear, no cop out, and an implicit reminder to Judas – and all of us – of our responsibility. To the poor, yes; to profiting from the poor, no.
What the gospel writer John makes explicit in recalling Jesus’ statement though is that his time is counted, and that soon he will himself be facing a costly sacrifice for the life of the world, his life will be poured out of him.
This is partly symbolised by the purpose of this particular Nard with which Mary is anointing Jesu’s feet – normally used for the dead.
We had known also from the level of opposition to Jesus that there could be no happy outcome from his journey to Jerusalem at the time of this Passover. He has been under scrutiny for a long time already, and has made no friends from those in power – religious or otherwise.
When Jesus says ‘You do not always have me’ in the same breath as reminding us of the importance of looking after the poor, is he also saying that we have limited time to open our hands and our hearts to him?
I wonder, as you imagine the scene, as you place yourself at that table with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, as you eat the food and smell the perfume, what comes to your mind when you hear Jesus say: ‘You do not always have me’?
What does this mean to you? /Pause/ And what do you want to say to Jesus?
There is certainly no doubt that encounters with Jesus do transform people, and Paul in his letter to the Philippians could not be more upfront about the importance his encounter with Jesus had on his life, leading to total transformation.
From a zealot anti-Jesus movement extremis, with a pedigree that would speak of conformism within his own culture and faith tradition, Paul’s life is thrown upside down by his encounter with the risen Christ on the Road to Damascus. All his certainties crumble, and his whole life’s focus becomes this search to become more like Christ, to grow in faith and to be formed by him. In Paul’s mind, this journey surpasses everything, even if it means sharing Christ’s suffering and even his death, because this might also bring resurrection.
This may seem like a rather extreme reaction, from one for of extremism to another. And yet…
Something for us to ponder as we review how our own faith and beliefs can often narrow our lives, instead of opening them up in the ways in which Jesus is calling us to do and to be.
The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God is creative and always ready to open up new horizons and confound our expectations.
There can be a way in the wilderness of our life, and there can be rivers again in the deserts of our own making. Opposites can be in the same place, and drink together in peace.
In the world as we know it, this might seem like a sheer impossibility.
But if only we dream these dreams and make those visions real, if only our lives witness to this in our work for peace, justice and reconciliation, as well as in our desire to be modelled by Christ, then everything is possible.
Jesus never said that this would be easy, and in the coming weeks, we will be with him as he witnesse to this, willingly taking up his cross and losing his life that the world may be saved.
Ultimately we are all creatures of God, made to declare God’s praise and to care for God’s creation.
‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me’.
As we journey towards Easter, let us meditate on finding the balance in our lives, between worship of God that is life giving for us, and service that is life giving for the world.