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March 23, 2007
Today's eMo is really two different meditations on texts that will be read in many churches this Sunday. The first is the usual sermon preparation eMo. The second, intended for preachers who wish to focus their congregations' attention on the Church's service to the poor and those who suffer from the effects of war or natural disaster, explores the ministry of Episcopal Relief and Development. As with all the eMos, preachers and teachers are welcome to borrow, with the usual attribution. No further permission is necessary.
All Used Up

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair.
John 12:3

Never mind that the author of John may have confused this incident with another one the church told, in which the woman who anoints Jesus is a nameless "woman of the street," setting it instead in Bethany with a well-known cast of characters -- notice that Martha, as usual, is serving the meal, and Lazarus is, well, around. That's part of another interesting and rather annoying discussion about why the gospel writers can't seem to tell their women characters apart.

I am thinking, rather, of the costliness of the ointment. Nothing but the best. Of what will be left of us when our own lives are over -- which is exactly nothing. We're not going to be able to take any of it with us when we go. If we don't use it here, it's gone.

I think of the alabaster jar -- what a museum piece it would be if it had survived. And even more valuable, with ointment still in it! Dried up like clay, now, hard as a rock, its color long gone -- only a chemist could tell us that it was pure nard. First-century jar, carved alabaster, lid intact, containing nard, an ointment used in anointing or perfuming. Gift of Mr and Mrs. John Smith. We could all go and see it.

But we wouldn't give it particular attention. It would be in a room full of pottery -- beautiful, perhaps, but only one of many beautiful things. It would not have had the story it got when it was broken and used. It would have spent these two thousand years just waiting. It would never have gotten to do anything but wait.

Maybe we all have to be broken open in order to be fully used, in order to make sure we're all used up when we leave. Maybe the cruelest thing would be for us to spend our lives waiting for just the right time to serve, and to die still waiting.

Lent V, Year C
Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

And here is the ERD meditation:

Costly Ointment, Clean Water

You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.
John 12:8

Is this a statement straight from Jesus that serving the poor comes second to the deep connection of worship? That, for all time, compassion takes a back seat to contemplation?

I think not. This remark about the poor comes in the days before Jesus' betrayal and death, in response to Mary's symbolic action foretelling these things. Mary anoints Jesus' living body as if for burial; who could miss the meaning of that? It is certain that Judas doesn't; he is the one who protests and tries to set the needs of the poor against devotion to Jesus, hoping that those who were there would forget all about the somber symbolism of Mary's action. But then, maybe Judas already knows what is going to happen.

For us, serving the poor is anointing the body of Christ. They are the same action: an act of honoring, of making clean, of preparing the way.

As Mary washed Jesus' feet with costly ointment and dried them with her hair, Jesus' feet became clean. This cleansing wasn't about her fussy housekeeping or people tracking in mud on her clean floor; Mary doesn't "tsk-tsk" about cleanliness being next to godliness. This cleanliness is life itself.

With what might we symbolize the same love of Christ? Last Thursday was designated by the United Nations as World Water Day, a day upon which Episcopal Relief and Development and others in the communities of service and philanthropy focussed on the 2.6 billion people in the world who suffer from daily shortages of safe water, on the thousands of children who perish each day from waterborne disease. A billion people worldwide don't have a sufficient supply of drinking water.

The digging of wells in Angola. The protection of natural springs and recovery of watersheds in Haiti. Community education about safe water everywhere, and technical help to achieve it, for village after village.
ERD addresses this local problem in partnership with local people, place by place, town by town, so that fewer children die of waterborne disease. Fewer, then fewer, then fewer still. Eventually, none.

First the anointing, pointing straight toward the cross. And then, the resurrection. Both anointing and resurrection speak powerfully of love, one in term of human devotion and one in terms of divine power. We already know which side God is on. Are we ready to break open our costly ointment and begin the anointing?
To make a contribution to Episcopal Relief and Developmentā€™s Clean Water Fund, please visit or call 1-800-334-7626, ext. 5129. Gifts can be mailed to: Episcopal Relief and Development, c/o Clean Water Fund, PO Box 7058, Merrifield, VA 22116-7058.
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