3.27.22 John 12:1-7
Mary was never stingy with her love for Jesus. She poured it out visibly, not holding back. Maybe you remember a scene in Luke’s gospel when she and her sister Martha also hosted Jesus in their home. Martha is busy “hostessing” and Mary is seated at Jesus’ feet, focused on what he has to say. In our reading this morning, her love is a visible action, again at his feet, anointing him with a very expensive perfume. Mary puts her money where her heart is.
When we want to encourage ourselves or someone else to make more than a verbal a commitment to something, we might say, “put your money where your mouth is”. Talk is cheap. Action is not. In our Lenten focus on repair work between ourselves and others, between ourselves and God, we must recognize that taking meaningful, intentional action to repair the breach between us is expensive. It costs us time and money, it requires an emotional investment, it calls for spiritual reflection and prayer.
This summer our General Assembly will vote on making an apology for our church’s role in slavery, in the devaluing of Black lives for over 400 years, and in the perpetuation of the myth of white supremacy inside and outside of the church. Baltimore Presbytery has already agreed to support this apology, but now it must be voted on by the national body. The apology includes action items and a litany of repentance, intended to be studied and used by our majority white denomination as we seek to take steps toward restorative justice, to do the necessary repair work between whites and Blacks.
The litany is framed with a portion of the passage Vivian read from 1 John this morning:“No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” For God’s love to be perfected in us, we must love one another. That is how we can see God—through love in action. I want to read for you a few segments of the litany in a few moments. But first let us acknowledge that speaking words of repentance is only one step.
This is not our first apology. In 2016 our General Assembly voted to make a public apology to the Native peoples who inhabited the land that is now the United States, including in Alaska and Hawaii. The next year, the apology was personally delivered in Alaska by our Stated Clerk, Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, and others. It was extended especially to those who were victims of the Indian-assimilation movement in this country, the assumption on the part of Europeans that the Native people were less than, in need of education and conversion to Christianity. For years, children were taken from their families and stripped of their own language and cultural practices. The apology is to the former students of Presbyterian sponsored Indian boarding schools, their families, and their communities.
Rev. Irv Porter, a member of the Pima Tribe, pastors a Native congregation in Tacoma, Washington, and serves the denomination as the Associate for Native American Intercultural Support. He highlights the need for healing, for repair work using storytelling.. He says, “I highly recommend the church hear the stories of where people are coming from. Not to rehash what happened, but in telling their stories, there’s healing. An apology is really just the beginning. To hear a national church apologize is one thing. Now Native American people are waiting to see what will be the next result.” He and other Native Americans are looking for actions of love that will follow the spoken apology. Talk is cheap. Actions have a cost. We need to put our resources where our mouths are. Our Baltimore-Dakota partnership is one example of love in action, as Baltimore folks head back to Dakota Presbytery this summer to work as partners with Native leaders in summer learning camps for elementary aged children.
Mary was not hesitant to use the pure nard perfume, an amount that was valued at about one year’s wages, to anoint Jesus’ feet when he and his disciples joined her family for a meal in their home. Mary’s over-the-top gift of adoration and love can not be missed– the fragrance of the perfume permeates the whole house. Maybe kind of like when I bake chocolate chip cookies or fry chicken and you can smell it all through the house. Mary’s act of love and service foreshadows that same kind of action performed by Jesus in the very next chapter of this gospel when he gets down on the floor—not to anoint feet, but to wash the dirty feet of his disciples. It is an act of service, an act of love. Mary’s costly outpouring of love is a kind of mirror to Jesus’ costly outpouring of love when he is crucified. The day of his burial is coming closer and closer. It is like she is anointing him, or preparing him, for his pending burial. While he is still alive. For Jesus, Mary’s act of love, honor, respect, and adoration totally makes sense. For Judas, the betrayer among the disciples, it does not. He thinks it is a waste, unnecessary. The resources spent on the expensive perfume could have been given to the poor, he says. In a side-bar, John tells us that it is not that Judas really cares about the poor, but that he cares more about himself and the ability to stick his hand into the money bag.
If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. If we love one another, we will show it with actions that cost and not just talk that does not. Apologies issued from our church do not cost much until we pay close attention to the words and begin to do the actions that are connected to them.
First of all, the apology for slavery must come out of the mouths of white Presbyterians. The blacks in our congregation and across the PCUSA do not need to apologize. Here is the beginning of the litany for repentance. If you are white, can these words be your words? Can you say them to people you know right here in this church family? If you are not white, if you have come here from another land and still face discrimination in this one, can you hear these words?
Listen: As white Christians we repent of our complicity in the belief in white supremacy: the belief that people of European descent are superior in intelligence, skills, imagination, and perseverance. We acknowledge that this belief in white supremacy has been the foundation of, and an excuse for, atrocities against people of African descent in the United States and in the world.
We repent of the injustice, pain, humiliation, and suffering imposed on African Americans by our ancestors and ourselves through actions and inaction. We repent of our complicity in failing to act in mutual loving relationship.
We repent of closing our eyes to the degradation and injustice forced upon African Americans who were enslaved, segregated, terrorized, and imprisoned.
It is true that we, people who call ourselves white, have failed to act in mutual loving relationship with people of color. We have created a breach that has existed for centuries. But it is not just past actions. It is action and inaction in our lifetimes, action and inaction today. We can’t repent, seeking forgiveness from God and from our brothers and sisters and still keep on with the status quo. We can’t repent and be fine with the inequities in government policies, treatment in the criminal justice system, the glaring gaps in wealth, health care and employment or housing options between whites and people of color. We can’t be horrified at the attack on the Ukraine while ignoring the unequal treatment of people of color living in Ukraine who have been pushed aside so that Europeans can flee the country first. How can not be fine with the way a competent, experienced, brilliant judge was treated this past week by senators in our Capitol building as she underwent confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court!
Thankfully, the request of our General Assembly is more than spoken repentance. It is action, action that has a cost to it. Here are some of the actions tied to the apology:
- creating curriculum about slavery and its legacy with the help of a consultant, studies to be used across our denomination to guide children, youth and adults toward the spiritual change that leads to acts of restorative justice, including reparations;
- asking local congregations to spend the time to dig into their own past, learning how slavery and the exploitation of people with dark skin has benefited Hunting Ridge Presbyterian Church—this is an action we can begin now. Who wants to join me in reading the minutes of our church mothers and fathers to learn together from our past?
- actively refuting arguments and speaking out against any new laws that prohibit the teaching of a fully inclusive history of the United States, following God’s command that we must remember the difficult times in our history, the mistakes we would rather forget.
Yes, love in action requires thought, intention, and a willingness to put our money where our mouth is. Love in action was discussed this past Friday by our Creating Community group. When asked about showing love to neighbors, most in the group focused on our nearest neighbors, literally those who live right around us. Perhaps it is because those are the neighbors we see on a regular basis. Those are the ones who go through the same power outage or snowstorm, the ones who compliment you on your garden and vice versa. We have the most opportunities to physically help and support and show love to those who are in closest proximity. They are the ones who help take out or bring in your heavy trash or recycling bins. As part of a neighborhood, out of respect for neighbors, you make sure to pick up after the dog when you are out for a walk. We acknowledged that we can also find ways to show love to neighbors who are farther away, our global neighbors. To do so will cost—taking time to learn about what is happening in any given part of the world, making financial contributions, taking time to write a note of encouragement and hope. Love in action means asking the questions: where are people hurting? Who is involved in helping and how can I support that work?
Another example of love in action is your support of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance which provides on the ground support in all kinds of disasters- those caused by nature and those caused by humans: from tornadoes to war, from earthquakes to mass shootings. About 30% of our One Great Hour of Sharing Offering goes to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. Funds are going right now for humanitarian aid, shelter, medical items, food, diapers, hygiene items as a result of the war on Ukraine. We are supporting our partner organizations who are on the ground in Ukraine and in neighboring countries who are meeting immediate needs of families fleeing the fighting. Love in action.
Where can you show love in action? How can you put your money where your mouth is? Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another….if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us. Repair work calls for costly acts of love—actions that will cost our time or money, our emotional investment, our spiritual reflection, and more. Amen.