Years ago our North Carolina gang gathered for an evening of festivities. I don’t remember if it was any particular occasion or just a get together. It was a pot luck sort of thing, with everybody bringing whatever. As an appetizer, one of our crowd, who leans heavily toward the health food side of things, brought chips and … fill in the blank. No, not salsa. Humus. My friend Eric, who does try to eat healthy but is reasonable about it, agreed with me that if you’re going to bring chips, you are morally obligated to bring salsa. Sure, bring humus if you must, but you really need to include salsa. It’s just the right thing to do.
So now, pretty much every time we get together Eric will send out an email saying, who’s bringing the chips and…salsa? We know not to leave it to chance, or to the health food crazies. Chips and salsa are just the right thing to do.
Today we have a story about an unusual dinner party from the gospel of John. The term “unusual” and the gospel of John almost go hand in hand, because there is a lot in the John’s gospel that could easily be called unusual. For starters, John has little in common with Matthew, Mark, and Luke. All four have John the Baptist. All four tell of his death and resurrection. All four have the story of the feeding of the five thousand. Otherwise, almost everything else in John is unique to that book.
Today’s story from John is like a story that is common to the other three gospels, but different. It’s the story of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet. In the other three Jesus is at the house of a Pharisee named Simon, and the woman is identified only as “a woman in the city, who was a sinner” with no name given. They all say the woman used ointment to anoint his feet. John’s story says Jesus was at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and that it was Mary who did the anointing and that she used perfume. So did John, who probably wrote long after the other gospels were written, rework the story, or is this a second instance of the anointing of Jesus’ feet? We don’t know.
But we know that it makes for a memorable and unusual dinner party. Apparently Jesus’ disciples are present, because Judas comments on what Mary has done. We have to imagine that for years to come the disciples, minus Judas, say to one another, “Remember that time Mary anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair?” And one of the disciples would respond, “I sure do. It was a very unusual dinner party because they had humus instead of salsa to go with the chips. What were they thinking?”
They probably also remembered what Judas said. He says, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii [which was a lot of money] and the money given to the poor?” It’s a decent question. Everyone, then and now, knows that Jesus cares about the down and out. And in fact John adds the parenthetical note, Judas “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’ reply to Judas seems a little strange at first glance. He says, “Leave her alone. She bought it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Strange, huh?
Jesus is probably quoting scripture. Deuteronomy 15.11 reads, “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.’” Makes more sense, doesn’t it? Jesus affirms Mary’s act while still acknowledging that it is up to us who are able to help those in need. One writer notes that Mary’s anointing is “a faithful witness to the even more costly and extravagant act that is about to occur,” meaning Jesus’ death.
So maybe it’s not too much to suggest that this story points to the way in which our life of faith needs to move. First, worship is important. Our faith begins by remembering what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and giving thanks for that amazing gift. That’s the essence of worship.
And the followers of Jesus have always realized that we need to worship together. There is certainly an individual component to our faith, in our life of prayer and devotion. But there is something about being together to sing and pray and hear God’s word and gather at the table. There is something about our faith which says that we need one another, that just as Jesus began his ministry by calling twelve to be his disciples, we too need a community of faith. And the life of the every Christian community begins with worship.
As much as we may become comfortable with our worship practice, we always need to consider how we might do things differently. I’m convinced, for example, that if there are three thousand or however many Disciples of Christ congregations, there are that many different ways to do communion. Just in our two services we have two very different ways to do it.
And if we visit an Orthodox church, or one of the non-denominational churches or a service at a monastery, we’re going to be a part of very different ways to worship the God we know most fully through Jesus Christ. At least in our best moments the church has always said that there is no one right way to conduct worship. The purpose of Christian worship is to attempt to connect us to God through Christ. In worship we try to open ourselves to however God might be speaking to us on a given Sunday. It might be All Saints Sunday, when we are remembering those who have gone before us in the faith. It might be Easter, when we especially rejoice in the resurrection. It might be Pentecost, when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Worship is the center, the focal point, for who we are as Christians. Fortunately, soon we will begin live streaming both of our services, so that those who cannot attend and so wish, and have an internet connected device, can in some sense worship with us from their homes or wherever they might be. Likewise, we have a system to at least take communion to those who are unable to be with us. Worship is so important that we want to do what we can to make it available as widely as possible.
But our faith does not end with worship. Just as we are called to gather for worship, we are called to go out and spread the good news. We are called to live out the life Jesus modeled for us. We are called to carry on his work of providing hope to the downtrodden and food to the hungry. We are called to continue to do our part in bringing the reign of God on earth in its fullness.
To say the least, it’s a challenge. We do Gateway dinners and PCIO backpacks and mission trips and fund raisers and we donate to a long list of organizations. Today we observe Bread for the World Sunday. But is all that enough? Are they the right things? Are we doing what we need to do to be faithful witnesses to the gospel?
It’s important for us to always be looking at our worship practices. And it’s important for us to always be looking at how we witness to our faith in outreach and mission, individually and collectively. Sometimes doing so seems tedious. Sometimes it’s just hard. But it’s important work.
And a lot of that work starts with being able to say who we are. The Elders are meeting today to look at the input we have received about our bedrock beliefs, core values, and mission and vision statements. It will be interesting to see what you have said as we work to affirm our identity as a congregation. I anticipate a lively discussion. It is important that we have these four components so that we are able to say, this is who we are. This is what we believe and what we stand for. It should be a lively discussion.
The vision someone had years ago when we first worked on that piece of the puzzle was the beginning point for our statement which says, “Reflecting the love of God in Christ through welcome, worship, and witness.” Maybe someone has had another vision, or the Elders may want to modify our current statement, which will be fine, but notice how it is reflected in the story from John. Jesus is welcomed into the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Mary engages in an act of worship. Then Jesus reminds those present that they are called to witness to their faith. It fits pretty neatly, doesn’t it?
It’s perhaps a helpful outline or pattern. It says that after we welcome, we worship we serve. Amen.