Jesus talks about money, politics, and religion
Kate Trigger Duffert
Before taking a moment to orient our passage in the larger story of Jesus’ final days, I want to prepare you for what is to come.
I was struck this week by Jesus and his willingness to lay out difficult and perhaps controversial things at the table. While not a table, the pulpit is one place we are often hesitant to hear difficult things from.
But there are times when the situation, like the moment of Mary anointing Jesus, warrants the discussion. Now is one of those times.
During this sermon I will discuss some of these difficult things, including gun violence targeted at children. I know for many of us this is hard to talk to about, brings up some complicated and deep feelings, and can even make us feel things in our bodies we don’t understand.
Please- check in with yourself, make sure you are breathing, and if you need to take a moment to step out or tune out, I will not be offended.
We are in a painful time and while I seek to help you leave here today grounded in some hope, I know the path may be difficult.
One of the challenges of following the whole of Jesus’ life each year is that it can begin to feel unemotional, even detached. We know the story, we know what’s coming, and the people feel like characters long ago and far away.
It makes it easy to lean into the moments of good and pull back from the pain. Today’s passage of Jesus being anointed by Mary is one of those moments within the arch of the story that can seem almost pleasant.
On its own we see Judas’ character being clarified so that he can truly be written off as a “bad guy.” We see Jesus defending an intimate moment where he is anointed and shown love. We can read into this a defense of righteousness and leave it at that. But this moment comes in a much more complicated point in the story.
Just before this passage, an equally long section of the story lays out the ways in which the authorities have chosen to sentence Jesus to death.
This is not secret knowledge that the government tried to kept to themselves, but rather everyone in Jesus’ community knew the authorities were out to kill him. We know this because Jesus is said to have stopped going out in public and instead, he retreats to the wilderness with his disciples, where presumably he can stay safe.
But the government knows he will not stay there for long. Not because it’s too hard to survive in the wilderness, but because they know that all righteous people of the Jewish faith will come together for Passover, which begins in just a few days. Those who seek to kill Jesus, to violently end his life, take advantage of knowing where he will be because they know he will do the “right thing.”
It's a sickening thought. To use someone’s faithfulness to target them for violence. And it can be painful to consider because it’s not distant or unique to this story.
We have seen ICE calculate raids around important cultural, religious, and familial gatherings. We have seen bombings and shootings of churches occur when the perpetrators knew there would be large groups gathered for bible study. And we have seen repeatedly that people have taken advantage of knowing the specific days and times children will be in school to commit mass, school shootings.
This past week we heard of another incident in which adults and children were killed in their school at Covenant Presbyterian Church. I don’t know about you, but hearing the name of the church school deepened my already strong reaction to hearing the news.
While Covenant Presbyterian is from a different branch of the Presbyterian church, it still feels so close. It was not long after the news broke that I learned a colleague’s cousin is the pastor of that congregation and this pastor’s daughter was one of the children killed.
There’s a sick sense of gratitude that this is the closest a school shooting has come to my immediate community. And yet it is a reminder that every school is our school. Every child is our child. And that this repeated pain and violence seems to creep closer and closer until it inevitably will hit our own homes.
In fact, gun violence is the number one of cause of death for children and teens. The number one cause. This seemingly endless violence is such an enormous burden. It’s a weight, a communal trauma, that can make us all feel absolutely helpless.
My guess is that this is something close to how Jesus must have felt.
He knew that he was near to death. And not just near in that he was anticipating his own death, but near in his proximity to Lazarus. Lazarus who had just been dead and brought to life. Lazarus who will be targeted for execution by authorities in the paragraph just after this story.
In looking at the people around him in Lazarus’ home, Jesus would have seen the impact that death can have on people. He would have fresh memories of the grief Martha and Mary expressed over their brother. He would know that his own death could not be avoided. And he would know that these people who were gathered, this small group that wasn’t the general public arriving for a sermon or a stranger seeking a miracle, he would know these people who were his closest friends and family would soon be burdened with grief and trauma at his own execution. I imagine he must have felt helpless.
But Mary shakes the story up. She brings spikenard, which is a valuable perfume similar to lavender and, like lavender, is also an oil used for healing.
Mary, who has gone through grief and feels its impending return, takes the spikenard and anoints Jesus. While Judas takes issue with the lavish expense, the act and smell of that healing oil must have shaken Jesus from his helplessness and inspired him.
He says, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” Jesus can see what is ahead for his disciples, he knows that they are about to be burdened with both the great trauma of having their beloved friend killed in front of them and the weight of having to continue his work.
There will always be poor, there will always be fights for justice that these disciples must be ready to wage. But Jesus knows all too well that he will soon not be there to guide them, to ground them, to keep them going. They will need to find some way to carry on. To keep up the good fight when it feels like there is no goodness to be found. To speak out and act when they feel helpless.
There are a few different names that people give this feeling. Those who work in healing fields like nurses, therapists, pastors, and others can begin to take on the trauma they hear from others as their own in something known as “compassion fatigue.”
In 2006, doctors began documenting symptoms of something they called “activist burnout.” Where those who sought social justice were so pained by the marathon of the work that they experienced: emotional and physical exhaustion, cynicism about the work they felt was so important, and a sense of doubt about the ability of any of it to make a difference. In other words, feeling helpless.
But Jesus’ statement about what is to come, about the burnout and fatigue that his disciples surely would soon encounter, is not isolated. It is said in defense of what Mary is doing. Mary is doing the work of actively preventing those exact feelings by centering this gathering of disciples not only in their love of God, but in generosity and care of one another.
Often when we talk about the types of trauma and pain the disciples would have faced or about the pain and helplessness we feel in our own struggles against violence, we offer individualistic solutions. We encourage people to practice self-care. This idea that we need to do our own work in therapy, take time out of our schedules for personal relaxation and joy, and maybe indulge in something that we typically would call a guilty pleasure.
And yes, these are important things. But, when we experience communal trauma, when we face helplessness, we cannot go it alone.
Jesus uplifts Mary’s actions as an example of what we can do together to sustain ourselves as a community. We must show generosity to one another. We must offer healing to one another. We must be together with those whom we love to support each other even in, if not especially in, the moments when it feels like we are helpless. Because the antidote to helplessness is community. It is having those who offer help, offer hope, offer support so that we can share stamina and resistance for the long haul.
There are people in our Presbyterian community who are doing incredible work against gun violence. The Guns to Gardens movement has taken the biblical call to turn our swords into plowshares to modern communities. Many Presbyterian churches have partnered with this movement to host “buy back” events, where they offer gift cards in exchange for guns which are then dismantled and turned into community garden tools and art projects that promote peace. In 2022, La Mesa Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico collected and dismantled 240 guns at their event. They are one of many.
Writer and pastor, Mark Yaconelli offers “story spaces” in response to traumatic community events. Recently, after a shooting in Columbus, Ohio, he worked with others in the community to help victims to tell their stories to motivate their neighbors to support gun restrictions.
These spaces allow for the transformation of some by hearing a story, and of others by having the opportunity to share their own words, feelings, and experiences with their community. In other words, they build spaces of generosity and love.
If the antidote to helplessness is community, if the way through trauma that tears us apart is to heal together- then we can take hope in knowing we are not alone.
We do not have to be the only voice at the table crying out. We do not only have to pray alone in our homes, but we can lament and march with others. We can take our pain, which is absolutely valid and should be felt, and bring it to one another to transform it with healing oil into a way forward.
I admit, I’m not quite there. Maybe you aren’t either.
But that’s the beauty of the community Jesus calls us into- someone is ready to do the work. And that means someone else can rest until they’re ready to take up the mantle. And so on and so on as all of us lean on one another.
We have been shown in Mary’s anointing of Jesus that in our own gathering we have been anointed and called to both speak out loudly against violence and also be a generous, healing community of care.
May the world hear our cries for peace. May violence come to an end. May we all be upheld by a loving community as we struggle towards God’s peaceable kin-dom.