April 24, 2016
We have been speaking the last few months about what it means for PCC to be a Community of Resistance, Resilience, and Refuge. These three “R’s” embody multitudes of “everyday acts” demonstrating conviction, perseverance, and grace. Over church history, practicing these three words has at times been very costly. We could recount story after story to illustrate this fact. Yet, when this happens, we witness the Sacred Fire of Holy Presence ablaze within communities of faith.
I love today’s story about the anointing of Jesus. It is deeply significant, recalling a moment of profound vulnerability in his life. It is singular in nature, as one person–and one person only–senses his need and ministers to his heart. The importance of this text is further underscored by the fact that it is retold in some form in three of the four Gospels.
Notice the context, or bookends, of this story. They are enormously important. Religious leaders are plotting a targeted assassination of Jesus. He threatens the collectively designed and well established “world order” they have built up in collusion with the Roman occupiers. As with most such assassinations over the course of history, the protagonists discuss the matter thoroughly among themselves. They hedge their bets on the most expedient time to act, the easiest means to accomplish their objective, and the potential political fallout they will face. Our story begins with such debates.
In the conclusion of this story, its other bookend, we see that much of this plotting and scheming has become irrelevant. To their utter surprise, these leaders are offered help pulling off an “inside job” of sorts. Judas, a member of Jesus’ inner circle, approaches them. He agrees to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. They cannot believe their ears!
Between these two bookends, we find this magnificent story about Jesus’ anointing. What an incredible juxtaposition! Earlier, Jesus makes a ruckus in the Temple, challenging the abuse of religion in the name of God (Mark 11:15-18). He is well aware of the history of prophets before him. He knows what awaits him in Jerusalem. Danger is in the air. His disciples don’t get it. Yet, he can feel it. From a human standpoint, he is very alone.
In the midst of all of this, Jesus accepts a dinner invitation in Bethany. When he arrives, we can imagine that guests are making small talk, offering pleasantries, discussing the news of the day. Meanwhile, Jesus’ heart is a million miles away.
In comes a woman with an alabaster jar full of expensive, precious ointment. She has a plan. She has a goal. She is here for Jesus, with her gift. She zeroes in on him, anointing his head with this precious ointment. The smell of perfume fills the air.
Some guests are angry at the waste of such expensive ointment on Jesus. Conflict erupts, yet Jesus stands up for this woman. In this particular moment, he is also standing up for himself, for his own vulnerability and need.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus replies. “She poured perfume on my body to prepare it ahead of time for burial…Wherever the Gospel is preached all over the world, what she has done for me will be told in memory of her” (see Mark 14:6,8,9, GNB).
What an earth-shattering scene! This woman offers refuge to Jesus. She sees past the Jesus presented in public–the teaching, preaching, challenging, healing Jesus. She senses his fears, foreboding, vulnerability, and need. And she is just simply present with her gift. No words. Just enacted love. And, this, truly, absolutely, becomes enough.
Mark does not name the woman in his Gospel, while John does (John 12:1-8). Her anonymity here has a strange beauty to it, because she could be me, you, your neighbor, a perfect stranger, or a whole community of faith.
A wise woman in her late seventies named Jessie Gordon has often told me this: the greatest gift you can ever give another person is found in three simple words: “‘I see you.”
Let’s take a moment for silence and let these words sink into our hearts. “I see you” [Silence]. Now, I invite you to return to the present moment.
Consider the differences in language used in the public square regarding various groups of people. Compare the phrase “illegal aliens” with the phrase “undocumented persons.” Consider the difference in your thinking when you hear the word “migrant” and you hear the word “refugee.” What does it mean to use our language to say, “I see you”?
To the plotters, collaborators, enforcers, and silent witnesses of his execution, Jesus declares, ‘I see you.’ From the agony of a Roman cross, he cries out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). This is his gift of costly love.
We look around PCC, and it is full of people offering refuge every day, through countless ordinary means and unsung acts of grace. Every single time our stance toward another human being simply is, “I see you,” we offer them refuge.
In our Gospel story, some complain about the financial expense of the ointment, that the money can be used for the poor. We don’t need to debate today whether that complaint is genuine or spurious. The more significant point here is that offering refuge can be costly–financially, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. It can be expensive in time, money, and inner resources expended.
Providing refuge can engender conflict, too. “Why this waste?” detractors complain. “Why this waste on this person or that person, or this group or that group of people?” We hear this debate in the public square, but it can happen in churches, too.
“Wherever the Gospel is preached, what this woman has done will be told in memory of her,” Jesus proclaims (Mark 14:9). You and I know that this has not happened. Too often, this story is entirely ignored or relegated to Holy Week once a year.
It is not this woman’s specific act of anointing that needs to be remembered whenever the Gospel is preached. What must be paired with the proclamation of the Gospel is this proclamation of offering refuge to the vulnerable. In Jesus’ mind, the two cannot and must not be separated. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is Good News of concrete, costly love.
Tragically, however, the Christianity of today’s public square in the United States is too often paired with exclusion, hatred, scapegoating, labeling, and more. What a contrast between this and the real Jesus Story! Must Jesus forever continue overturning Tables in the Temple? (Mark 11:15-17)
We don’t know who will seek refuge among the PCC community in the days and years ahead. We don’t know when we ourselves will be in need of refuge. Some of us already are. Yet, everywhere we go, every creature we see, every sunrise we witness, every cloud formation we notice—we can declare, “I see you.” Every person we encounter, every group stereotyped in the media, every group we stereotype ourselves, we can stop and say, “I see you.” We can offer Refuge. We can accept Refuge. We can become Refuge. Amen.