Discern Care – Fully

March 13, 2016

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
5th Sunday in Lent 
Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

(Gospel text is provided at the bottom of this post)

Have you ever been out to dinner with a group of friends you’ve known for a long time, or with family, and someone starts telling a story about a shared experience that happened years earlier? You get excited because it was such a special adventure that you’ll never forget! Story sequenceThen, as the story unfolds, there are variations in the storyteller’s version that don’t quite match your memory of what happened. Some of the details seem okay, but other aspects, like who actually did or said certain things, or when it happened in relation to other life-events, seem out of line. And while it isn’t exactly how you remember it, the teller is so sure of their version that there’s really no use in arguing about it. It’s their reality, after all.

We see those same kinds of variations in Biblical stories, including today’s gospel reading from John. While this story about the anointing of Jesus appears in each of the four gospels, they don’t all match up. For many people it can be confusing to have these different versions of the same story. When there are inconsistencies, it can create doubt about the validity of any of it!

It helps to keep in mind that each gospel writer is sharing that community’s experience of the risen Christ. The teller is conveying the events of Jesus life to serve the broader purpose of proclaiming the “good news” message. So, these inconsistencies aren’t meant to confuse us, but have been experienced or interpreted differently by each gospel writer. The stories are told in a particular way to convey their understanding of who Jesus is and what he came into the world to do.

images (5)And as much as all of you would love for me to spend the next half hour dissecting this “anointing story,” expounding on each difference and delving into the possible theological implications – as tempting as that is – for today, we’ll just stick with John’s version. Y’all okay with that?

Now, although the central focus of the story is the anointing of Jesus, it’s often overshadowed by a different message. That last line by Jesus says: “You always have the poor with you…” This tends to be the line most remembered. Unfortunately, this phrase has been used by some to support a “then what’s the use” attitude when it comes to addressing the needs of the poor. But please don’t buy into that. Mark’s version says it more clearly “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.” (Mk 14:7).

You see, the story isn’t intended to be about the poor. It’s a story that leads us toward Jesus’ death. Jesus’ public ministry is coming to an end. He’s going to be leaving this earth and his followers in a matter of days. There are some final lessons that must be taught. And, in John’s telling of the anointing of Jesus, this lesson becomes an illustration of faithful discernment.

All three of the principal characters – Judas, Mary and even Jesus – display evidence of discernment in this story.

Judas collageLet’s look at Judas first. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, ever-since I was a teenager I’ve felt bad for Judas. I know for many Christians that may seem absurd.  And, I’m pretty sure I was influenced by my love of the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” (aka, the gospel according to Andrew Lloyd Weber). The story of Jesus is told in large part through the eyes of Judas. It portrays him as a man confused about who Jesus is and what kind of messiah he would be. It’s this confusion that underpins Judas’ ultimate betrayal of Jesus.

By way of contrast, the writer of John’s gospel doesn’t share my sentiments about Judas. He continuously reminds his audience that Judas was a bad guy. Even while Judas was being a faithful disciple, doing everything the other disciples were doing, John keeps reminding his audience that Judas is ultimately the betrayer. And in today’s story the writer goes even further and implicates Judas as a thief, too. Remember, John’s purpose is to present a case for Jesus as Messiah – like a courtroom drama. So, anyone who stands in the way of that purpose must be discredited.

Even so, Judas’ question after Mary used the expensive perfume is this: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Thievery notwithstanding, this question infers discernment. Perhaps responding to Jesus’ frequent association with, and caring for, the poor. This seems like a pretty legitimate question.

4257-checkbook_edited.630w.tnIt’s a question we still grapple with today. How am I going to use my time and resources? What portion of it should be given purposely toward helping others? What extravagances are okay, and which are too indulgent for a Christian life?

So, Judas’ question carries in it this kind of discernment.

Mary’s action shows evidence of discernment, too.

John’s gospel shows a close friendship between Jesus and Lazarus, and his sisters, Martha and Mary. At this point in the gospel Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, some time has passed, and Lazarus and his sisters are having Jesus over for dinner. That seems reasonable enough – really it’s the least they could do!

Then Mary steps away and finds the expensive ointment. She returns, opens the jar and begins anointing Jesus feet and wiping them with her hair. Mary has been listening to what Jesus’ has been saying – that he will be crucified – and is responding with care. woman_alabaster_perfume_jpg_300x500_q85While the disciples still haven’t quite grasped what’s going on and what is to come, Mary gets it – Jesus is going to die. This ointment is the kind used in preparing a body for burial – an act performed by family or close friends. Mary’s action shows not only a grasp of what Jesus has said, but also discernment that she is called to comfort him.

I wonder, with our lives being pulled in countless directions, are there people in our midst that need care, and we, like the disciples, aren’t able to see it? And if we do see it, like Mary, do we take the time to discern what we might have, or what we might do, to care for and comfort them?

Mary heard Jesus, had the ointment, and chose to use it to take care of his need.

And now we turn to Jesus – he was the one in need. Most of us like to think of Jesus as having it all together. Yet, John’s gospel paints a picture of Jesus that is fully human, and fully divine. At different points along the journey we see Jesus hungry, tired, angry, and even weeping.

He’s now at dinner with his close friends. One of them, Mary, senses that he needs comfort. She responds to that need, and he lets her. anointing-of-the-feet-of-jesusAnd, when Judas challenges this, Jesus claims his need even more fully. Judas says, in effect – hey Jesus, you’re just kickin’ back and takin’ a break when we could be out there helping others by selling this ointment and giving the money to the poor! And Jesus says, there’s time for helping the poor – but you only have a little time left to help me.

Jesus has finally reached a point where he allows his own needs to be met. Taking this break will prepare him for the torturous road into Jerusalem, ending his earthly life on the hard wood of the cross. Jesus discerns what he needs to make himself ready for the difficult task ahead. A meal with friends. A foot massage. Jesus won’t let Judas take that from him.

This part of the discernment made me think of my own experience this past week. Like many of you, on Sunday evening I learned that Nancy Woltersdorf had passed away after her prolonged illness. Although I knew she was very weak and her death was imminent, it still evoked deep sadness. For me, having moved away from my own aging parents, Karl and Nancy remind me of them in a lot of ways. It was always nice to see them together at church. Her sweet smile and feisty spirit will be missed by many, including me.

As a priest, I knew I would be faced with the death of people I care for – a vocational honor and occupational reality. When I was still in seminary, I asked Ceci how she manages through the grief process when a parishioner dies. She said, in part, that it’s important to take some time for yourself, and to “be good to yourself” in some way. Six Feet UnderSo, this past Monday, amid the sadness, I did some good self-care things – I had a massage; then a nice dinner out on a sunny day.

I’m thankful for the example Jesus provides in today’s story, affirming the importance of self-care. Discerning self-care is really important. What’s more, it’s not just for clergy. I see so many of you going ninety-to-nothing in support of your family, your jobs, and even the ministries of this church. All of those things are important, but so are YOU.

When was the last time you had an evening-out with friends, or were intentional about being “good to yourself”? What practice of self care might you embrace so you are able to keep moving forward in a healthy way?  How do the practices of your life serve to strengthen your Christian journey?

These are important questions as we become spiritually mature. Yet, we consider these not only for ourselves as individuals, but we are also discerning them collectively on behalf of the Christ Church community, as a whole.

  • What time, talent and treasure do we have and what’s the best use for these resources right now?
  • Who in our midst is in need of care, and what might we have that could help provide for those needs?
  • What are realistic and healthy limits, and what does self-care look like to ensure sustainability over time?

These are questions we are considering, and they are worthy of our faithful discernment.



Gospel Text:

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. 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.” (Jn 12:1-8)

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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