Lent 5 • 13 Mar 2016

Isaiah 43:16-21
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

Rev. Bruce Roy

“The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others.
He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches
and showed the seams underneath,
and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out
to string bead necklaces.
He was wise,
for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive
to boast and swagger,
and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away,
and he knew that they were only toys,
and would never turn into anything else.
For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful,
and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced
like the Skin Horse
understand all about it.

"What is REAL?" asked the Velveteen Rabbit one day,
when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender,
before Nana came to tidy the room.
"Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse.
"It's a thing that happens to you.
When a child loves you for a long, long time,
not just to play with,
but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

“Does it hurt? asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful.
"When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked,
"or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse.
"You become. It takes a long time.
That's why it doesn't often happen to people who break easily,
or have sharp edges,
or who have to be carefully kept.
Generally, by the time you are Real,
most of you hair has been loved off,
and your eyes drop out
and you get loose in the joints
and very shabby.
But these things don’t matter at all,
because once you are Real you can't be ugly,
except to people who don't understand.”

(From The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams)

Jesus saw people as real
regardless of their social status or gender,
or wealth or poverty.
He loved them regardless of who they were,
what status they had,
whether they agreed with him
or whether they understood him.
Just as well, for few did understand at the time.
This is made even more clear
in the accounts in the other three gospels.

In John, the incident takes place at the home of Lazarus
and Martha and Mary are present.
But in the other gospels the meal was in the house]
of a Pharisee (Mark and Luke)
or of Simon the Leper (Matthew),
and the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet
is a prostitute and intruder.
That’s quite a cast of outsiders!
In John, it is Judas who objects
that the perfume could have been sold
and the money given to the poor.
In the other gospels it is either
the disciples (Matthew)
or those who sat at the meal (Mark), or
the Pharisee host (Luke).
In the telling and retelling of stories
there are common elements that form the core of the story.
The rest of the story is determined by context and the art of the storyteller.
An example of this comes when you tell a small child
the story of Little Red Riding Hood.
They love it when you embellish the plot
with little bits of details like
whether Little Red Riding Hood was wearing pretty shoes or joggers,
whether Grandma’s house was red or green,
BUT deviate from the core elements in the story
and you will be in deep trouble.

So if we take the four variations of the story
of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume,
there are five key elements common to all four versions:
1. Jesus was a guest at a meal,
2. a woman anointed Jesus’ feet,
3. the perfume was very expensive,
4. there was a protest that this could have been sold and given to the poor
5. Jesus’s response was that
“The poor you always have with you but you do not always have me.”

This last point is the key to the story in all of the gospel accounts:
In response to the challenge that
the money could have been given to the poor
(surely a noble purpose!)
Jesus says, “The poor you always have with you
but you do not always have me.”

Jesus’ ministry is adequate testimony
that he cared deeply for the poor and outcast,
so it is safe to assume that he did not mean
that the poor should be neglected or taken for granted.
I think the gospel writers want us
to be extravagant in love and devotion to Jesus.

It is sometimes said of churches that they could sell their churches
and use the money for the disadvantaged.
Some churches have done that
but not without taking into account how to provide ongoing nurture
for the community’s membership
and its need for sacred space
to nurture and grow their community.

You need a nurturing community to be a church,
and your ministry to the disadvantaged is not just about handouts -
it’s about building some level of community with them.
Have you noticed that when our society attempts to deal with issues like
asylum seekers
domestic violence
male suicide
we tend to define this as a problem to be solved
and the solution is a budget item in government policy.
It would help if the debate focussed on REAL people.

So I return to the Velveteen Rabbit’s question
“What is real?”
and the Skin Horse’s reply
“When you are loved, really loved, you become real.”
You can say that for the woman who anointed Jesus feet with devotion.
And we can deduce
that her actions came from a sense
that she had become a Real person
through the way Jesus’ related to her,
ignoring her social status and occupation.
To be real is to be loved and accepted,
it is to feel that you are a person of worth.
You cannot do that on your own -
you need at least one other Real person
to love you extravagantly and genuinely.
Even when the rest of the world views you as someone of little value,
being accepted and loved gives you
integrity and value and worth -
not least in your own eyes!
You feel Real.