I grew up in the Great Plains, which are often dry, and where there is constant anxiety about whether there will be enough rain for the crops to grow well. Last week I was in Albuquerque for a conference, and the landscape is, in a word, desolate out there: flat and brown as far as the eye can see. It makes me thankful to live in green, lush Maryland.
Isaiah uses these images in his prophetic proclamation. The Hebrews had been exiled in Babylon for 50 years – a land that for them was dry and desolate. Isaiah declares that God is doing a new thing: there are springing up rivers in the desert! Wild animals will flourish there. God will give drink to God’s chosen people. If you live in chronic anxiety about enough rain, that’s great good news!
Anxiety about whether there will be enough is part and parcel of the human condition. Certainly we need to have our basic needs met – food, water, shelter. But sometimes we long for more – an extravagant expression of love, a thing of great beauty.
In the scene from John’s Gospel, Judas expresses this anxiety that there is not enough – what we call a scarcity mentality. Mary anoints Jesus with costly ointment of nard, and Judas immediately complains about it. It could have been sold to help the poor…which is true. But Mary has a sense that she has Jesus just a little longer, that he is facing the greatest challenge of all: human suffering and death. So she is lavish in her act of love – a beautiful healing balm, in anticipation of the embalming of his body after death. It is a beautiful act – its fragrance fills the whole house! Sometimes, extravagance is appropriate, even needed. God does not wish for us stingy, joyless lives. Rather, we are all meant to share in the great abundance of the earth.
In my 19 years as your rector, I have tried to emphasize God’s Kingdom – God’s Economy – as a realm where abundance is the prevailing reality and attitude, not scarcity. God created a very abundant earth, and there truly is enough for everybody if we share it. Over the years, St. Dunstan’s has done well in sharing our resources of money. We have given hundreds of thousands of dollars away to many wonderful projects around the world. We have also managed to live within the means of our budget over the years. Ten years ago, our congregation went the extra mile on a fiftieth anniversary capital campaign – for facilities improvements here at home, and for outreach in the world. We accomplished a beautiful renovation of this space, and many generous outreach projects – to help found the Bishop Walker School, provide a building for Samaritan Ministry, expand the microfinance work of Five Talents, and many more. This was, in a way, a lavish act of generosity, akin to Mary of Bethany when she anointed Jesus with that precious, fragrant perfume of nard.
But even if Mary had had no money to buy the scented ointment, her presence with Jesus would have been enough. She showed up. She was there, she showed her love and devotion. She did not avoid the reality of death that he was facing. She must have been a great comfort to him in his fear of the violence of the coming days.
Mary showed up, and that made all the difference. Showing up is a huge part of our spiritual lives, and our offering to God. Writing checks is fine, lip-service is fine, but it’s not enough to change hearts, and it’s not enough to sustain a congregation – a community of Christians. That requires showing up.
As I move toward retirement one month from now, I hope that you will “show up” for your new rector when he or she arrives. No matter how talented the new rector is, she cannot do the work of the church alone. He will need you. It’s all about community, and community requires showing up, participating, putting your hand up to help, and spreading the word about St. Dunstan’s in the neighborhoods around us.
I hope you’ll rally around, get to know this new leader in your midst, and take an active role in making St. Dunstan’s work. Share in the excitement of a new beginning: building of a new vision with your new rector, and then offering your self to help make it happen. Do not hang back and “wait and see.” That’s a recipe for disaster.
We have a golden opportunity coming up to really give St. Dunstan’s a boost. It’s called Easter. It’s a beautiful time in church, with special music, joyful familiar hymns, and of course the fun of the Easter Egg Hunt between the services. I remember fondly my first Easters at St. Dunstan’s – especially the children: girls in pastel smocked dresses and boys in tiny seersucker jackets and madras bow ties! These days we don’t dress up quite as much, but the children are still beautiful. So: Whom can you invite to come to church with you on Easter? Think about it now. You have two weeks to act…and your actions can help strengthen St. Dunstan’s. Our church is very appealing at Easter, so please share it with some people you know. If you don’t do it, who will?
Actually, we have a second golden opportunity to invite people in – that’s the next justice forum on Monday, April 29, at 7 p.m. It’s about affordable housing in Montgomery County – a bit of a contradiction in terms! It’s actually one of the very biggest challenges facing our county. Even if you have a home, your adult children likely can’t afford to live here. Students, police officers, teachers, and shopkeepers can’t afford to live here. That’s not healthy, and it’s not just. Hans Riemer, County Council member at large, will be here, and he has some creative – and controversial – proposals on the table.
We do these things because we are applying the teachings of Jesus to our everyday lives in this community. We worked for a $15 minimum wage, because Jesus abhors poverty…and we won! It’s coming. We work for housing affordability because all of God’s children deserve a decent place to live, within a reasonable distance of their work, at a cost they can afford on their wages.
This is a meaningful way to do the work of the Gospel of Jesus, and neighborhood people appreciate it – they’ve told me that. This is something that St. Dunstan’s stands for. But we have to show up for it. I hope you will. And don’t come alone. Bring a neighbor or friend who is interested.
I have always been touched by Mary of Bethany, as well as her very strong sister Martha. They were both true friends to Jesus, in good times and hard times. They knew what sorrow was when their brother Lazarus died. And they rejoiced in amazement when Jesus raised him from the grave – a preview of Jesus’ own resurrection. In today’s story, Mary does a beautiful, extravagant thing – she anoints Jesus’ tired feet with fragrant oil – what a gift. She showed up for Jesus, and served him humbly, in anticipation of his own suffering and death. Let us go and do likewise. AMEN.