Good Morning, It was an honor to accept Rick’s invitation to preach here at All Saints this morning and I’m thrilled to be here with you. My name is Harry and I am a Candidate for ordination to the priesthood, currently attending the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge Mass, Rick’s alma mater. As one of the far flung members of the Dominican Republic Medical Mission Team, I feel a special connectedness to All Saints and yes, as you can probably figure out by my accent, I’m from Boston.
Our Gospel reading this morning from John is one that you can immerse yourself into, making yourself part of the story. We have the setting, the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. We have the event, a dinner, and a wonderful mix of people, a group that fascinates you with their individual stories. Lazarus who only a few short days ago was dead and buried in a tomb, Mary and Martha, Judas the betrayer, and Jesus the dinner guest. We don’t know who else was at the table, we can assume that the other apostles, those who traveled with Jesus were there also, but like many things in this story, we cannot see them at first. Not long ago, this was a house filled with sadness. Friends and neighbors had gathered to mourn with Mary and Martha at the death of their brother Lazarus. But then Jesus arrived and things dramatically changed.
I imagine the people gathered for this meal are still in a state of shock, that someone they loved and gave up as dead is now sitting with them, celebrating at a meal. During this meal each expresses their thanks to Jesus in their own way, Lazarus offers his house for the meal, Martha, true to her reputation is busy running around doing the cooking and serving, and Mary soon offers what is seen as a most extravagant costly gift, one that raises the anger of Judas.
This must have been Quite a dinner party to attend with so many conflicting emotions among the people that were there. Jesus, knowing there was a warrant for his arrest from the Temple officials. Lazarus, just been raised from the dead a few days before – I have no idea what he must have been feeling! Mary and Martha, who must be in complete shock; they had buried their brother and now here he is back with them. And Judas, in a bad mood, moaning about the lack of money and the way resources are being wasted. So many different agendas and emotions are present in this moment. At the heart of this gathering is the realization among everyone that Jesus’ days are numbered. Everyone knew that he would soon be caught and arrested and there would only be one probable outcome from that, a trial and execution. So, for one night, Lazarus, Mary and Martha offer Jesus a little respite from the worries of those anxious days, an opportunity to feed him, to give him some space to relax, hospitality: A gift of hospitality and compassion when it was needed the most.
This passage by John is one that often gets confused with a similar story in the other Gospels. In Matthew and Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has his head anointed, not his feet, and by an unnamed woman, in the house of Simon the Leper during the last week of his life. In Luke’s Gospel, the event happens earlier in Jesus’ ministry and in the house of Simon the Pharisee, and the woman mentioned in his Gospel is a notorious sinner who rubs oil of myrrh into Jesus’ feet. But here in John’s Gospel today, we have something special, the woman is named: and it is Mary. Mary who has a close relationship with Jesus, she has been part of Jesus’s followers for some time and has a deep love and understanding of him. And there’s something very beautiful in that because she doesn’t need to convince Jesus that she loves him, he already knows, but she wants to tell him anyway, and in this story she chooses to do so in a really public fashion in the middle of a dinner.
While everyone is gathered around the table, Mary takes a jar of spikenard, a costly oil in her hands, opens it, pours the perfumed oil extravagantly on Jesus’ feet and in a very intimate moment, loosens her hair and wipes the oil into his feet with her hair. An extraordinary way for any woman to behave, an incredible and bold display of public affection that transcended so many boundaries and social barriers. She was not concerned at all about what people thought. She was not worried about how much the perfume cost. She cared nothing for the customs or taboo’s of the day: she sat and ate a supper at the table with other men where women were not usually welcome, she let down her hair in public, an unthinkable act in that culture, and she openly expressed her love for Jesus.
John narrative continues engaging our senses, pulling us into the story saying “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume”, beautiful imagery. Judas is angry at this excessive display of extravagance. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” This was a years wages. Jesus responds saying, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” But it wasn’t just a display of extravagance on Mary’s part. Jesus also recognized it as the prophetic act it was meant to be. He understood her actions and considered it a wonderful gift. Mary took the most precious thing she possessed and spent it all on Jesus. Her love gives all and its only regret is that it does not have more to give. Her heart is so filled with joy and thanksgiving that she poured the whole pound on Jesus until the fragrance filled the whole house.
It’s easy for us today to condemn those who spend lavishly and wastefully on celebrations, we see so many displays of excess today in TV reality shows and at times in person that it almost has become the norm. Our society today and even our government seems intent at times on fiscal waste and spending rather than prudent saving or spending on the poor. So it is a bit hard to understand Jesus in today’s gospel. He stands up for Mary telling Judas to leave her alone, and then it almost seems like he discounts the poor, making them unimportant. “You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” How are we to understand this statement? Isn’t the whole gospel about loving and caring for our neighbor, and doesn’t our neighbor include the poor? This is one of those times when we may have a hard time understanding what the real message is. Jesus was right, we will “Always have the poor with us”, In our lives today, as much as in the time of Jesus, the poor are all around us, not simply poor in wealth but also those whose faith has been strained, who feel separated from others and are lost and alone.
The striking thing for me about this text is not Judas’ protest, or even Jesus’ answer. It’s that rather than wait until after his death, Mary recognizes that Jesus won’t be with them much longer and chooses to anoint him while he’s still living. Jesus is seeking to remind those gathered of this important act, you WILL always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me. Mary understands this. By anointing him now, as opposed to after he’s been put to death, Mary is giving the very best that she has to the living Jesus in the moment.
Barbara Brown Taylor in her wonderful book “The Preaching Life”, warns of a danger that churches may become museums for Jesus, that their existence, our existence will reflect more about his death than his life. An Episcopal priest and author, she writes about her vocation and struggles of the Church to hear, respond, and remain faithful to its mission of holy love. In this book she tells a story about coming upon a set of ruins once while she was hiking in Turkey, the ruins of a massive cathedral. In reflecting on what she saw, once an impressive church built to the honor and glory of God, now abandoned and in ruins, she wrote “God has given us good news in human form, Jesus Christ, and has given us the grace to proclaim it, but part of our terrible freedom is the freedom to lose our voices, to forget where we are going and why. If we do not attend to God’s presence in our midst and bring all our gifts to serving that presence in the world, we may find ourselves selling tickets to a museum.”
For me this “bringing all our gifts to serving that presence in the world” is what our gospel this morning is all about. By example we see Mary, attending to Christ present in the moment, offering the most extravagant gift she could offer, an act of devotion that has implications for us today. It challenges us to do the same, to give the best of what we have to the living Jesus we meet in the world today, in the community around us, the people we live with, and in the faces of the people sitting beside us this morning. We are also called to be an example of the living Christ for others to see when they look in our faces. I was privileged to work with the All Saint’s Medical Mission team this past January and there many times I witnessed first hand that living Christ, not only in the people we served, but also in the faces of those serving on our team. In uncountable moments I witnessed examples of extravagant giving in both directions. It was a beautiful example of practicing what Mary did so long ago, giving extravagantly of all we have in the living moment.
Lent is an extravagant gift for me, a time of introspection and renewal, a time of looking within and taking note of the various ways I’ve separated myself from others. As a seminarian heading towards ordination, I find myself using the time for prayer, affirming and reaffirming my call of service. Rather than focus on ways to deny or deprive myself during the Lenten season, I seek instead to reorient myself towards personal change, to open myself to be more like Mary in her example of extravagant giving.
There are moments of opportunity in life that call for utter extravagance and acceptable excess. As we journey together and discern our purpose this Lenten season, our challenge is to rediscover those opportunities that are all around us. We can never know the true outcome of our actions. What we say or do may not have any immediate effect, but it has an affect in the lives of others. When we reach out to people, whether by simple gesture or extravagant act, when we become wholly and fully present for others, we become as Mary showed us, people unafraid to challenge the norm and share all that we have been blessed with in this living moment.
In these final days of Lent, may we take in the extravagance of the gift of love poured out for us by Christ. And may we Walk in love, as he loves us and gives himself for us, a perfect fragrant offering and sacrifice.
To God be the glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN