I’m sometimes asked what the difference is between Christians who are out there serving people in the world and regular, ordinary people, who are out there serving.
So many of our businesses here in Des Moines are great proponents of volunteerism. Every time we go to a Meals from the Heartland event, or collect stuff for the food pantries or the schools I hear about Wells Fargo or Principal or Hy-Vee doing the same sort of thing.
Is there anything different about the character or the content of what we do as people of faith?
Most days, if we are honest, probably not.
Should there be?
But what is it?
Mother Teresa was once showing a bishop the community she served. It is said that she asked the bishop, “Would you like to see Jesus?” She then took him around a few corners to a man laying on a leather pallet who had clearly visible things crawling on his body. The bishop stood there in shock, but Mother Teresa knelt down and wrapped her arms around him, holding him like a baby in her arms.
“Here he is,” she said. To which the bishop replied – “Who?”
“Jesus” was her answer. “Didn’t he say you’d find me in the least person on earth? Isn’t this Jesus challenging us to reach out and love?” (wright-house.com/religions/Christianity/mother-teresa.html)
Seek and you will find.
That is what our gospel reading says.
Or as Michael Slaughter reminds us in “Renegade Gospel” – the passage uses the present continuous tense… Ask and keep on asking… Seek and keep on seeking…
The bishop wasn’t looking for Jesus and couldn’t see him in the suffering of the man on the pallet. But Mother Teresa was. She was looking for him every day. She was seeking Jesus every day. She knew that in every moment she was serving, she was doing it to Jesus.
Seek and keep on seeking and you will find.
The problem is, we aren’t always paying attention to Jesus.
I think one of the fundamental differences between Judas Iscariot and Mary in our other gospel text this morning is that the first was focused on himself and the second was seeking Jesus.
As _________ shared with us this morning, Jesus and the disciples were with Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. And in the midst of the gathering, Mary takes this extravagantly expensive bottle of nard and anoints Jesus feet with the ointment.
This story itself appears in different ways in different texts.
In some cases the woman is unnamed, in another she is Mary Magdelene, and here she is identified as a different Mary.
In Matthew and Mark, the story comes earlier in the timeline and the woman anoints his head – a prophetic act that symbolizes his kingship.
But here, H. Stephen Shoemaker points out, that she anoints his feet, which would signal instead his imminent death. She, unlike the disciples, unlike Judas or Peter, had already accepted the true meaning of his teaching- that he was about to die. (Feasting on the Word)
There Jesus was, in the flesh, right in front of both of them.
Seek and keep on seeking and you will find.
But the gospel of John points out that Judas was so focused on that bag of money and his own selfish interests that he wasn’t even paying attention to Jesus.
Mary, on the other hand…
Mary sees Jesus in front of her, plain as day. She sees the suffering he is about to undergo. She sees his fear and pain. She sees his holiness.
Mary knew that this might be the last time she saw Jesus before he made the final trip to Jerusalem.
She knew their time together was short.
And she knew she could do this one thing for him. She anoints his feet in an act of worship showing her love and reverence for him. That was all that mattered.
When I heard that story about Mother Teresa, embracing the man who was suffering, I thought of Mary and Jesus. The tenderness of the physical touch. The dignity bestowed. The compassion and love that were offered through the embrace.
Love is costly.
Whether it is expensive perfume or the risk of embracing a diseased stranger, love is costly.
To use a word we shared last week – love is prodigal.
It is extravagant and sometimes appears wasteful. It is overwhelming and too much. And sometimes, by its very nature, it is immensely temporary.
In his reflection on this text, William Carter notes:
“Lots of extravagant gifts are put into the air, where they soon evaporate. A church choir labors to prepare and intricate anthem, and three minutes later it is gone. The teacher prepares the lesson, stands to deliver, and then the class is adjourned. Mourners provide large arrangements of flowers to honor those whom they grieve. Saints donate large sums of money for their congregations to spend. Why do they do this? Love has its reasons.” (Feasting on the Word)
Where Judas saw wastefulness and a hit on his personal pocketbook, Mary saw an opportunity to pour out extravagant love to her Lord and Savior.
Even his excuse – Hey! We could have spent this money on the poor – comes off as a limited perspective. For Jesus, in turn, quotes from Deuteronomy 15:
“Give generously to needy persons. Don’t resent giving to them because it is this very thing that will lead to the Lord your God’s blessing you in all you do and work at. Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.”
And what I can’t help but hear in his response is the reminder that while Mary had the opportunity to pour out extravagant, generous love to Jesus in that moment, in just a few weeks, he would be gone.
And then, their responsibility, OUR responsibility, is to pour out that same extravagant love to the poor in our midst.
But you see, Jesus changes the dynamics of that exchange.
Because, now, it is not simply because it is a command from God on high.
Now, we do so, now we give and love and get down on our hands and knees to serve because whatever we do for the least of these, our brothers and sisters, we are doing it for Jesus.
That, friends, is the fundamental difference that we can offer the world.
We can love our neighbors as we would love Jesus, himself, present in front of us.
As we serve the homeless here in Des Moines – and a group is going out to do just that with Joppa this afternoon – you can serve them as you would serve Jesus.
As Slaughter writes in chapter four, “When Jesus walked Planet Earth, everyone could see him in the flesh – friends, followers, and foes. We no longer have that opportunity. Now that Jesus’ physical presence is removed, the world can no longer see him, but we can. Those who are born of the Spirit are able to experience and see him today. When we ask, seek, and knock in expectation, we find what we are looking for.” (p. 82)
Seek and keep on seeking and you will find Jesus right in front of you.
Too often, we miss out on the opportunity to truly love extravagantly because we are too focused on ourselves.
Or because we are going through the motions.
Or because we simply aren’t paying attention… because we don’t realize Jesus is right in front of us.
The world can no longer see him… so they do good deeds and they serve their neighbors and think nothing of it.
But friends, the essential character of HOW we serve is different, because when we look into the eyes of someone who is sick or dying or struggling, we don’t see an opportunity to do good… we can see Jesus.
When did you see Jesus?
When did YOU last see Jesus Christ?
When did you interact with him?
When did you hold his hand?
When did you share a meal with him?
When did you visit him?
When did you offer him a cup of water?
And when you saw him… how did you show your gratitude and love to him?