April 03, 2022
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC April 3, 2022, the fifth Sunday in Lent. “Roots of Resistance” series.
Text: John 12:1-8
The deepest “root” of resistance is relationship. Sacred resistance begins in relationship with God and is given shape through the example of God’s love for each one of us. It is lived out most fully in our relationship with and for others. Together, with God and other people, we participate in the ongoing work of Christ in the world, resisting evil, injustice, and oppression and seeking to do what is good.
And today, I’m going to do something I rarely do. I’m going to answer the question of the sermon right off the bat. Can good be common? My answer is a resounding “yes.” A follow up question: is identifying and achieving a common good easy? Well… that’s a pretty solid “no.” Because there is so much beautiful diversity in human community. Our cultures, experiences, contexts, and personalities mean that what would be perceived as “good” for some is not at all “good” for others. And discerning any kind of a common good requires skilled communication (honesty and listening), some give and take (aka compromise), and all sorts of other actions that humans often struggle to do well, if at all.
There are, thank God, teachings and stories in scripture that provide guidance for sharing life together that is good for everyone. One basic requirement to achieving a common good is that those involved care about their neighbors and believe that life is about more than just satisfying their own needs and desires. From a Judeo-Christian faith perspective, we are given eyes to see that there really is no “us and them.” There is only “we.” The life together we’re called to isn’t an exclusive, separatist club. As the church, we are with one another in all our diversity and with those all around us in our local community and world. Christians and siblings of other faiths (and none) are “in this thing together.” God’s creative, mending, saving love is present in and extended to the whole world. And within that larger frame we who seek to follow Jesus will, like Jesus, give particular attention and care to those in the human family who are struggling or experiencing pain or injustice.
One could argue—at least in the beginning of our Gospel story today—that Judas was doing just that when he called out Mary’s actions as unfaithful excess. Judas’ attack was a clever diversion from the reality that he was the hypocrite, stealing from funds that would have served a common good. Judas knew that others would easily jump on his bandwagon since, economic justice issues aside, according to the cultural rules of the time Mary was out of bounds. It was customary for a servant of the home to wash a guest’s feet; Mary takes Jesus’s feet into her own hands. For a woman to touch any man other than her husband—and in public!—was simply not done. A woman’s hair was considered a sensual and private part of her appearance to be seen only by her husband and family; Mary not only shows her hair, but uses it for the anointing. And if all this weren’t enough, Mary pours out an extravagant gift—nard, an intensely aromatic, amber-colored essential oil derived from spikenard root—likely costing a years’ wages for a peasant laborer.
Others may have enjoyed Judas’ faux outrage, but Jesus clearly has Mary’s back, publicly recognizing her generous act as a prophetic and brave acknowledgement of his impending death.
What Jesus says next—about the poor and himself—may strike you as confusing and self-centered. But it helps to realize Jesus refers to a teaching from Deuteronomy 15 in which Moses lays out the system of “jubilee” when, every seven years, the nation practices a remission of debts. The goal is “no one in need among you” which will be possible only by “diligently observing this entire commandment.” (15:4-5) The commandment doesn’t envision the people being “tightfisted” every day until the 7th year when they are forced to be generous. Rather, the text says, “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 neighbor in your land.’” (15:11) The economic ethic laid out here includes both a social system that provides a safety net for folks who fall behind over time and personal generosity as a daily discipline because there will always be opportunities—large and small—to care for those in need.
Jesus is conjuring this larger context and commitment of true economic justice that is achieved when people are consistently open-handed and generous in the particular places of need they encounter every day. And he is also acknowledging that Mary has perceptively recognized Jesus’ need—she knows that she and the other disciples “won’t always have Jesus”—and so she generously cares for the urgent need that is before her.
Mary’s act of love, care, and generosity toward Jesus doesn’t mean that others in need don’t matter or don’t deserve generosity and care. But when, like Jesus in this story, there is a body (or a people) that is threatened, whose enemies are well-known, who lives in constant danger of violence both systemic and personal, then that life calls for our particular attention and care in that moment.
There was a cartoon circulated when the “all lives matter” response to the Black Lives Matter movement was at a fever pitch. The opening two frames are of a person saying, “Well, I believe all lives matter. We should care exactly equally at all times about everything.” In the third frame, you see this person holding a firehose and spraying a house that is not on fire while the house next door is burning. The person says, “All houses matter.” Then another person shows up and says, “I agree, all houses DO matter—but at the moment, the one on FIRE should get more attention.” The back and forth continues: “But by saying that a burning house needs attention aren’t you saying all other houses DON’T matter?” “No!” “My house isn’t on fire, but I have dry rot, are you saying it shouldn’t be fixed?” “It should! But the fire is very pressing.” “Let’s say I put that house fire out, but MY house catches on fire. Aren’t I entitled to water then?” “Of course! But it’s not the one on fire right now.” “My house is near the one on fire. If I wet it down, embers won’t catch. Sensible.” “That is completely outside the analogy.” “Where’s that house’s owner anyway? Why do I gotta hose down his house for him?” “He died in the fire.”[i]
You may have heard the statement, “Equal rights for others doesn’t mean less rights for you. It’s not pie.” I don’t know why it’s so easy to slide into this zero-sum thinking as if a focused commitment to one group will diminish the dignity, worth, or care assigned to those outside that group—though I imagine it has to do with fear, fear of not having enough or of losing something that we do have. Such a perspective betrays the belief that there is a limited supply of dignity, worth, or care available. This is not true. God’s love and grace are eternal and unlimited. And there are also enough resources to provide for all if only we all practiced the ethic of Deuteronomy 15 and were committed to a common good that is grounded in love of neighbor. Hoarding resources and legislatively denying some people access to financial stability and education is a pernicious way that human fear and selfishness gets played out as if that will ultimately benefit those “at the top.”
In our current climate with so many groups crying out for long-denied justice, and in a time of dangerously solidified polarization, it becomes difficult to keep “a common good” in view. Even those working for justice can lose sight of the larger picture. When the perception is that one group’s need for justice is more important than another group’s need for justice, we’ve begun to tear rather than mend. When distinct advocacy groups fighting for support and resources begin to lose sight of the larger vision of a truly common good, the cause of justice is undermined. When the “enemy” becomes a stereotype, a faceless “other” upon whom it is easy to apply labels like “monster” or “satan,” it is time to pause and recalibrate. What affects one, affects all. A common good can get lost in manipulated, charged political polarization and in the struggle between competing needs, competing goods, competing sufferings.
But on this eve of the anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I want us to recall his well-known teaching that “We must all learn to live together as [siblings] or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”[ii]
This profound, biblically grounded statement is critically important for the work of sacred resistance. At one and the same time, it affirms the wholeness of the human family and acknowledges that the experience of one affects the lives of all. In his first letter to the Corinthian churches, Paul described life together saying, “Just as the body is one and has many members…so it is with Christ…If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” (1 Cor. 12:12, 26b)
As followers of Jesus, we turn toward the places of pain and suffering because that is what Jesus did, it’s what Jesus affirms in Mary, and because it is the way of lovingly mending the broken creation of which we are a part. It is the truly human thing to do. Even as we focus our attention on the causes of pain and injustice, take responsibility for our own part in those causes, and seek to care for and be in solidarity with those who suffer, our faith always reminds us that God’s saving love is for the whole world and that God has “structured” the world to work together for the good of all. As one poet writes:
“…so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together
toward a common good,
we can think to ourselves:
ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.”[iii]
[ii] Martin Luther King, Jr., from speech at Mount Holyoke College on October 20, 1963, https://alumnae.mtholyoke.edu/blog/dr-kings-words-at-mhc-inspire-50-years-later/; and speech at St. Louis University, March 22, 1964.
[iii] Julie Cadwallader Staub, “Blackbirds” (excerpt), http://www.juliecspoetry.com/poems/blackbirds/