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The Cost of Newness

Sunday, April 7, 2019.  Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21; John 12:1-8

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According to Isaiah 43, written to Jewish exiles who were living in the midst of despair and oppression, God is doing a new thing. To these exiles and refugees, who could very well have assumed that God had no more gifts to give them, that their lives were over, the prophet announces that God is about to do something new – a new exodus, a new liberation that is going to change their lives. The text says even wild animals and ostriches and jackals are going to glorify God, God will give refreshing drink to thirsty people, who in response are going to sing God’s praise.

What would that sort of newness look like among us?  What would liberating newness look like in 2019?  In our time of turbulence, conflict, and violence, what would newness look like?  We’ve got political turbulence, economic turbulence, religious turbulence, social turbulence – around the world, the poor and vulnerable are too often taken advantage of, immigrants and outsiders can be scapegoated, and religious groups are encouraged to see each other as enemies.  What would it look like for God to do a liberating act of newness in our turbulent time?  And perhaps more to the point for us, what would it look like for us to participate in God’s act of newness?

After all, it would be easy for us to want to sit around and wait for God to do something new; to withhold our energies and stay on the sidelines, waiting for some deus ex machina to swoop in at the last minute and rescue us.  But what would it look like for us to participate in God’s newness?

I want to suggest this morning that Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, can serve as a model for us of that participation.  What we see when we look at Mary is whole-hearted devotion.  Mary does not go in for half-measures; she does not hedge her bets with Jesus.  She goes all in, whole-heartedly.

As Lewinsville is in the midst of an important and exciting renovation campaign to update and enhance our ministry facility here, which is going to increase our ability to gather people together to grow in faith so that we can serve the world, we might look to Mary as a guide to keep us on track, someone who has walked the path before us, and whom we might follow as we seek to be faithful to God in this time and place.

This story about Mary is in John 12, just after Jesus has raised Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead in chapter 11.  What is important to observe is that the raising of Lazarus did not become cause for universal rejoicing.  Instead, Jesus’ actions that day plunge him more deeply into conflict with the religious authorities.   “From that day on,” the text says in chapter 11, “they planned to put Jesus to death.  He no longer walked about openly.”  The intimate dinner scene in John 12 takes place in the midst of tremendous threat and conflict, which is a reminder that we are not the first disciples to practice our faith in a context of turbulence.

In that difficult moment, Mary takes a pound of expensive perfume and anoints Jesus’ feet.  A few verses later, Jesus says, “She bought this perfume so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”  Which is to say, Mary is focusing her attention on Jesus, she’s giving herself to Jesus, even though it involves following him into loss and sadness.  The whole-hearted faith to which we are called is not about getting life to go the way we want, but is the practice of keeping our attention on Jesus, listening to him and following him, even into situations of sadness and loss.

Many of you will recall that in John 13, Jesus washes the feet of the disciples and then says, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”  In our text, it is as though Mary anticipates Jesus’ instruction in the next chapter, washing the feet of Jesus with her hair.  In these 2 chapters, Mary and Jesus show us that participating in God’s newness is not some matter of becoming a world champion or of crushing your enemies; it is a matter of becoming a servant leader.  Students and followers of Jesus participate in his life by serving those around us.  And when we serve those around us – in a particular way when we serve the poor – it is as though we are washing the feet of Jesus himself.

That brings us to Judas.  Mary’s whole-hearted act of devotion to Jesus triggers something in Judas, who scolds her, asking why she wasted the perfume in this way, rather than selling it and giving the money to the poor.  Now, Judas’ question is not necessarily a bad one, it’s a legitimate line of inquiry, except that the gospel writer tells us that Judas didn’t mean it.  Rather, Judas seems to have been projecting his own shadow material about money onto Mary.  Judas was the community treasurer and had been embezzling from the community purse.  Jesus steps into Judas’ line of fire and reminds them that his followers will always be living close to the poor, so they will never lack for opportunities to serve the poor, but their time with him is drawing short.

When Jesus says in verse 8 that “the poor will always be with you,” he is referencing the liberation tradition of Deuteronomy 15, of canceling the debts of their fellow Israelites. Unfortunately, this verse is rather notorious for getting used, even in our own times, as an excuse for not trying to help the poor, because it won’t do any good anyway because the poor are always going to be there. But that’s not what Jesus is saying here. Jesus is talking about the social location of his followers. If his disciples are genuinely following him, Jesus is saying, they will always be in close proximity to the poor, because that’s where Jesus spent so much of his time. They will always be with you, because you will always be with them. What Jesus is doing here, as he does elsewhere, is drawing together devotion to him with proximity to those in need.

Judas was not ready to turn his life over to Jesus.  He was not ready to give Jesus his whole heart.  Judas had a divided heart.  Yes, he wanted to follow Jesus, but he also wanted things to go his way. He took from the common purse to feed his own agenda, and soon he would betray Jesus because Jesus was not the kind of Messiah Judas thought he should be. The gospels are quite clear-eyed about the fact that we can be reluctant to follow and trust Jesus whole-heartedly.  The costs of newness can seem too high for us.

And yet, Mary lingers in the text.  She lingers as a witness to what whole-hearted devotion looks like, and she lingers as a witness that such whole-heartedness is not just possible, it is desirable.  God is doing a new thing, a new thing for the poor of the world, a new thing in the midst of the turbulence of the world, and Jesus invites us to follow him into that newness, wherever it leads us. To God be all the glory. Amen.