March 13, 2016
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Texts: Isaiah 43:16-2, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
Sisters and brothers in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen.
The scent filled the house. Can you imagine the smell? Actually, I’m not sure we can. A pound of nard is a lot of nard; in fact, it’s probably way, way, way too much nard.
If you come to Gloria Dei the morning before Easter, and I hope you will, you’ll notice a scent here, too. You can’t miss it. You’ll catch it when you enter the back doors, and it will only grow stronger as you climb the stairs and approach the sanctuary. If you come, you’ll be invited to help a crew of faithful leaders who will be decorating the church with flowers, with very many potted lilies and azaleas and tulips and daffodils, many more than would technically be necessary. They’ll smell intoxicatingly sweet and wonderful, and will offer us a delightful way to celebrate new life in our world. (Seriously, they’ll need your help getting the church ready. Talk with me if you can join the fun.)
But 300 denarii of nard is way too much ointment. It would probably be worth at least $30,000 in our economy. It’s a luxury item, which surprises us. Were Mary and Martha and their brother wealthy? Where did she get that much nard? And if nard was normally purchased for a burial, wouldn’t Mary have already used it up on Lazarus when he was buried not long before this? Why would she have held on to $30,000 worth of this burial ointment, but then pour all of it out on Jesus while he was still living?
You can smell nard from a long way away. The text tells us that the scent filled the house, like our Easter lilies will. But people familiar with nard say that the scent of that much perfume would actually have filled the whole neighborhood. You can smell it from a half mile away.
And you can’t wash it off very easily, either. The scent of nard sticks to the body for days. Some say that Jesus would have still smelled strongly of perfume while he was hanging on the cross. Mary has literally prepared him for his burial, because he will still carry the scent of her act on him when he is laid in the tomb a few days later.
Here’s what we’re dealing with: Way too much very costly perfume whose scent can’t be denied. I shared with some of you how I was struck yesterday during a walk by how prolific nature can be. I noticed that a pine tree dropped an extraordinary number of pinecones, each packed with a huge number of seeds. Way too many seeds! It seems almost wasteful.
We might remember that Jesus’ ministry started with turning six huge water barrels into way too much wine for a wedding, too. I suspect that the wine in Cana perfumed that wedding hall with a scent no one could have experienced before. And now, just a few days before his death, Jesus is covered with a smell that no one will miss either. It will permeate the stories of the next few days.
On first glance, Judas’ protest makes so much sense. A year’s wages could have done a lot of good, and seemingly is wasted on a pointless act here. What good does it do to have Jesus reeking with perfume when there are people suffering and hungry all around us?
First of all, the text wants us to be sure to recognize that Judas had ulterior motives. He’s called a thief who steals from the common purse. His mentioning of the needs of the poor sound as hollow as our politicians who campaign about the needs of people in whatever community they’re visiting, but who make no effort to stop the causes of poverty or unjust power structures through their work when the caucus or the primary is past. This is political showmanship, not actual compassion for the needs of those who are suffering.
But secondly, Judas misses what Mary recognizes. Jesus is going to die, and soon. His life is threatened. His life is threatened precisely because of the love he has shown, by the risks he took in showing love to her and her family in raising Lazarus from the dead. Mary acts in overwhelming gratitude and love.
And she acts this way before Jesus has told her do so. Even before Jesus teaches his disciples to love one another as he has loved them, even before he has offered them the example of washing feet and wiping them, even before he has died, Mary gets it. Like the prolific God who created her, she acts in extravagant, dramatic, costly love. As Jesus will on the cross, she pours out all she has.
Judas can’t see it. He’s still confused by his own sense of self-righteousness, and can’t imagine that there’s a point to this. Mary models discipleship in a way that Judas misses.
She’s not alone. Like so many of the others in the gospels, Mary acts because she sees that Jesus has changed her life, and there’s no going back. Like the woman at the well who leaves behind her bucket and runs back to the village preaching for Jesus; like the young child who gives all that he has to feed the multitudes; like the man whose sight has been restored, who risks offending his family and his community, and all the leaders of the synagogue, but who still refuses to stay silent; like that other Mary we’ll find on Easter morning, who flies from the garden after encountering the living Jesus, who no longer fears the soldier, but runs back to the others to share the good news, so this Mary of Bethany gives up everything she has, even letting down her hair, and cracks open the whole jar of perfume. Mary spills out her life, making a lavish scene of her affection in costly devotion to Jesus.
Later the followers of Jesus would serve their neighbors as Judas had urged, they would offer all that they had not simply in acts of charity, but because they no longer would see the poor as outsiders. They would come to recognize the life of their neighbors as part of their own community. They would offer all that they had because their lives had been changed by the outpouring, extravagant life of Jesus given to the world, because their lives had been changed by love.
How can we follow Mary’s example? How do we live a life of sacrificial love, pouring out ourselves in love to the world? How do we offer not just self-congratulatory, prudent acts of charity toward the poor, but costly gifts of extravagant grace toward the whole creation?
It starts here in the ways we greet and welcome each other, when we offer way too much forgiveness to those who don’t deserve it, when we proclaim an extravagant and gracious welcome to the table even to those who aren’t sure what it means.
It starts during this month of Minnesota Food Share, and in our gift to ELCA World Hunger Appeal, as we offer food to those who are hungry, without cost or expectation of repayment, not because it’s politically expedient, but because all the vaults of heaven have been opened up in grace to us, and we can’t possibly hold all of what God has given to us in our little hands.
It starts when we make an intentional effort to say that black lives matter, or that trans* people have a place in our family, because they’re the ones who have so often heard something else.
It starts when we sit with each other and take the time to listen, to really listen as if we have all the time in the world. It starts when we actually anoint one another and lift up one another’s concerns in prayer. It starts when we pour out huge barrels of wine to welcome the stranger at this table, when we promise life to those who have given up hope.
And yes it starts when we fill a church with way too many flowers, and pull out all the stops on the organ to celebrate life in abundance. It starts when we recognize that God showers us in extravagant love, and claims us to full community, to everlasting life.
Can you imagine the smell of all that grace? Can you imagine the smell of way too much grace!? — way too much love, way too much hope for a society gone crazy, way too much effort in caring for a broken world, way too much love for those who are dying and in pain?
We could stink up the whole neighborhood with a scent like that! People would smell us from miles away. This is what the church of Christ smells like, like the cross, perfumed in sacrificial love pouring out on the world.
When we discover that we have been loved this extravagantly, we can only respond in kind. Let’s get cracking.