sermons, songs, etceteras
This sermon was originally preached on 4/3/2022 at Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield, MN. The service may be viewed here.
Fifth Sunday in Lent Lectionary Texts:
Isaiah 43:16-21 | Psalm 126 | Philippians 3:4b-14
Gospel Text (included below ): John 12:1-8
Hope is a Woman Who Has Lost Her Fear.
Alice Walker, acclaimed poet and author of The Color Purple, wrote that, in a poem by the same title about an Iraqi mother of five who lost everything during the US invasion -- everything, Walker writes, except her kids.
Hope is a Woman who has lost her fear
Along with her home, her employment, her parents,
her olive trees, her grapes. The peace of independence;
the reassuring noises of ordinary neighbors.
And yet, Walker continues,
Hope rises, She always does,
did we fail to notice this in all the stories we’ve tried to suppress?
and she puts on her same
unfashionable threadbare cloak
and, penniless, flings herself
against the cold, polished, protective chain mail
of the very powerful...
Hope is a Woman Who Has Lost Her Fear.
When I read this poem, I cannot help but think of Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha, and of the dead-and-raised and probably still stinking Lazarus.
Mary and her sister are disciples of Jesus, so close with him that in the story of Lazarus’s death immediately preceding this scene, both of the sisters, full of grief, confront Jesus’s lateness and wail that had he just come sooner, their brother would still live. And Jesus loved them so much that, in the shortest and arguably most powerful verse in all of Scripture, Jesus wept. And then, proclaiming that he, himself, is the resurrection and the life, he raised Lazarus from the dead.
That is the context of today’s text: Mary is a woman who has witnessed death, grieved it wholly, and seen it defeated in her own blood. Her hope is now unassailable, itself immortal in a way, and it has made her a woman without fear, brazen in her boldness at this celebration where Jesus is feted among his closest friends and chosen family. As Lazarus feasts and Martha serves the meal, Mary gets down on her hands and knees, breaks open a jar of pure nard worth an entire year’s wages, and dumps it on Jesus’s bare feet as he reclines at the table.
Now, I would love to get into the significance of this pure nard, but it is best saved for its own lesson, so I will just say this: The only other place in Scripture where pure nard is specifically named is in the Song of Songs, where it is spent by the lover on her beloved. I am not suggesting nor do I want to entertain any conspiracy theories about Mary and Jesus being married; it is just to say, Mary’s anointing of Jesus is not only extreme economically; it is profoundly, awkwardly intimate.
Hope is a woman who has lost her fear.
Given the naked intimacy of this encounter between Jesus and Mary in front of other guests, I think I understand why Judas was so disturbed by what he was witnessing and responded how he did. When he reacted in shock at her breaking open this expensive oil, I don’t think it was necessarily the cost that rankled him, nor even, despite John’s intervening commentary, that he would have rather sold the oil to keep the money for the poor or for himself.
Instead, I suspect that his equilibrium was so completely thrown off in witnessing such an intimate act of Love that he, and probably the rest of them, went into a fight/flight/freeze kind of mode, scrambling to find his feet, and turning to a thing he did understand -- money -- to recover from this thing he didn’t understand.
I imagine they were all downright scandalized watching Mary step into the role of anointer, which only men were supposed to do. Yet here she was, on her hands and knees, touching the Lord’s bare feet with her own bare hands, dumping this obscenely expensive perfume all over them, and then wiping him off with her long hair, which really ought to have been covered in the presence of men.
I imagine the room going totally quiet, conversation screeching to a halt, as every small movement and sound of Mary’s became amplified among a group stunned to silence.
I imagine a nervous energy filling some of their chests or spoiling their stomachs; maybe some hands got sweaty, some cheeks turned red, the hair on some of their arms prickled up.
I imagine that the fragrance, pure and powerful enough, it says, to fill and pervade the entire space, also filled their nostrils, could be tasted on their tongues. Settled on their skin. And stirred their souls.
Some of them may have felt they were witnessing and experiencing something so profoundly sacred and intimate it should have been done in private -- if at all.
And yet Jesus says leave her be. What she’s doing is holy. He doesn’t shame or condemn Judas, but reminds him that his time with them is limited, and so invites him to get out of his plotting head and be fully in his body, experiencing the visceral reality of what Mary’s doing in this private sanctum at the Beginning of the End. Because rather than witnessing a waste of expensive oil, Judas and the others have been made attendants to Christ's anointing -- the kind reserved for the coronation of kings…. and for burial of the dead. This was not a thing to be explained, but to be experienced. And it was the kind of experience that marks time as before and after, shapes memory, and transforms the future through the senses.
It can be no coincidence that the next time Jesus gathers like this with his 12 closest friends, it will be their last night together in the upper room on the night of his betrayal. And the first thing he will do is wash their feet the way Mary washed his. Even as they resist, he will get on his hands and knees, take their dirty feet in his hands, and show them that to be like him, and to understand his New Commandment to love one another as he loves them -- is to be like Her: A woman so full of resurrection hope that she’s lost her fear, abandoned decorum and any sense of propriety, and kneels unashamed to make an extraordinary, expensive, even embarrassing sacrifice to show unspeakable Love.
As Mary spared no expense to lavish Love on Jesus, so Jesus spares no expense -- giving even his own body and blood -- to lavish Love on us, and to show us how to love others.
I think that is the point here: For Jesus, and for the disciples who bore witness, what Mary did was not logical, it was visceral. It was extreme, radical, and fearless. She was so full of resurrection hope that she gave of her money and her body to honor and Love Jesus in a way she knew would provoke the men’s scorn, and she did it anyway: She anointed God.
Hope is a woman who has lost her fear.
Like Mary, Hope is bold, brazen, and scandalous. It moves from a Deep Knowing against which logic and responsibility crumble. Like the fragrance of her poured out perfume, this fearless hope is inescapable; pervasive; it seeps into corners and crawls up cracks the way smoke yellows walls and sinks into floors; it settles on our clothes and in our hair and on our skin, burning our noses and watering our eyes, transforming our imaginations, and activating our memory in a way no other sense can. The fragrance of Hope goes with us wherever we go, wafting and floating, emanating from us, announcing and re-membering us before we enter a room, the way Christ is announced and remembered in us each time we bite down on the bread and taste the bittersweet wine on our tongues.
People, what I’m saying is that the Embodied Hope of Mary echoed in the footwashing, blood spilling Love of Christ is not intellectual or logical or responsible. It does not concern itself with optics, or worry about how its expressions might be perceived by the judging public. It does not answer to anyone who would keep us from anointing Christ among us with oil and water that might be better off sold to fund this program or that event. Hope and Love do not make sense mathematically or on paper.
They live in our bodies and pump through our veins and saturate our senses, so that mysteries which can never be explained or even spoken can nevertheless be known and shared, the way lovers know and share, the way the Spirit is known and shared. They compel us to behave irrationally and move radically, in ways that draw scorn and condemnation…
But our hope is a woman who has lost her fear, and so we do not care about that. We pour out what we have because we have it, and because Christ is in front of us to be anointed.
This is Mary to Christ, this is Christ to you. Amen.
GOSPEL TEXT: JOHN 12:1-8
1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it[c] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”