"A pound of costly perfume"-Sermon for Lent 5, John 12:1-8
Today's sermon began with a video, which you can view by clicking here.
So…here are some thoughts about this video. First, I want to say that I know it’s a commercial. And that companies like this particular consumer electronics company exist to be profitable. And I am certain that these same companies, even when creating technology that benefits underserved communities, do so, again, in part, to grow their market share. Having acknowledged that…I believe the tears shed by the man who was given this experience of a brief moment in time when he was able to communicate in the language he speaks…that most around him don’t…those tears of wonder and gratitude are entirely genuine. It took a lot of time, a lot of people, a lot of planning and organizing to make this special moment in this one man’s life possible. Whether working for the production company or friends and family members of the person at the center of this experience…I think the genuine intention was to be a blessing to him. And in this context, this experience seems to me to be nothing short of a lavish, generous, incredible, amazing, huge act of love…thoughtfully and lovingly put together by many people over much time. This was a moment in this man’s life of being recognized and cared for…acknowledged as one deserving of the blessing he received…a moment of seeing and being seen…hearing and being heard…an experience that says he belongs, is loved and known.
And this act that required so much…so much time and so many people…an act which says we love you and we see you and we hear you, shared with this one man, reminds me of Mary’s act in our Gospel lesson this morning that likewise overflows with love and grace and generosity…an act that says to Jesus…see how much I love you…I hear you and see you…I know you…and I am grateful for you. An act denigrated by some like Judas…but honored by Jesus and remembered and celebrated by the Church on this day…and really each year during Holy Week…for this story from John is the same Gospel reading assigned for Holy Monday each and every year in the life of the Church.
So to Mary and her act of overflowing love directed toward Jesus. To begin with, who knows how Mary had this perfumed oil in the first place…this valuable possession, as John describes it, this costly pound of perfume made of pure nard that was the equivalent of, at least, an entire year’s worth of work and wages…a possession fit for a king or queen. Perhaps it was a profound gift from a beloved one…perhaps she saved for it over a long period of time or maybe she sold many possessions for it. And who knows how she might have used it otherwise. Perhaps she was intending simply to enjoy it…just a little bit at a time, in measured and incremental ways, so that it could be a pleasure experienced for many, many years to come. Or perhaps she was saving it as the first century equivalent of a retirement plan, a 401K, to be saved and then sold, cashed in at the end of life to support her and those she loved when work was no longer possible. Or perhaps she was saving it as some sort of first century insurance plan…so that it was there and could be sold…if the house burned down or some other tragedy happened that required the need for quick cash. The fact is we don’t know how this item of great worth might have been used by Mary otherwise…but what we do know is that this perfumed oil was, again, very valuable. Judas, of all people, makes sure we know this fact when he points out that it could have been sold for a significant sum of money.
And further we know this fact…that whatever her plans were for this valuable possession that, indeed, represented some sort of financial security, Mary makes a decision…a decision to use it on and for Jesus…all in one go…emptied out all at once…lavishly and lovingly used to anoint Jesus using her own hair to work the perfumed oil into Jesus’ road weary feet…the same feet that carried Jesus across Palestine as he lavishly and lovingly shared the Good News…healed and loved…all those he met in his extensive, itinerant ministry…the very same feet that soon and very soon would be nailed to the hard wood of the violent cross. Perhaps she had been thinking about doing this very thing for some time or perhaps her act of profound generosity was almost instinctual…the decision made in a spilt second…whatever the case may be…she poured it all out in one moment…all of it…it could never be used again…the oil could never serve another purpose…that is…other than the one that said to Jesus, again, see how much I love you…I have seen you and heard you and know you…and I am grateful for you. And her choice…well the Judas in us may, and I would say somewhat understandably, want to question it…at least Judas’ suggestion about serving the poor…seems reasonable. But I think…I really think the use was perfect…more than that…it was breathtakingly beautiful. It was nothing short of an incredible, unexpected, lavish, passionate, amazing, huge act of love…directed toward the great lover of her soul…and the great lover of our souls, as well.
Mary has not only undertaken a profound act of hospitality and, in this case, that might be a bit of an understatement…she has also made a profound confession of faith…a faith in the God she loved and had given her life to…for, in those days, kings and priests were anointed for the ministry and work to which they were called…and the bodies of the dead were also anointed with perfumed oil…a sign and symbol of how much their living meant to us…how much they still mean to us. Thus, in this act, whether she was even aware of it or not, Mary confessed that Jesus is her and our King, the King of all creation no less…that Jesus is our great High Priest, our only mediator and advocate, the one who pours out God’s grace upon grace on each of us in our living and in our dying…and that Jesus is our Savior…the one who willingly submits to the violence of the cross…and there dies…giving his life for the sins of the whole world…that we all might come within God’s loving embrace. Mary makes perhaps the greatest theological affirmation in all of scripture…that Jesus is our King, Priest and Savior. Surly a statement of faith, truth, devotion, and love worthy of her gift…worthy of all the sacrifice and intimacy that her anointing of Jesus demonstrated…demonstrated for Jesus…and demonstrated for each of us, as well. For Mary is our example today. For surely Jesus, the love and grace and provision that God in Christ has poured into our own lives…anointed us with…is worthy of our own acts of reckless adoration, of lavish love, of wholehearted worship, of giving the whole of our lives, the things we possess and more so the people we are…give our time, attention, planning, organizing, resources, our own spur of the moment random acts of kindness and generosity and hospitality…give it all…pour it all out…following Mary’s example…on Jesus.
We come now to very last Sunday of Lent…our own wilderness journey that has been preparing us for what is now to come and, more so, who we are to be. For a week from today we begin, once again, our challenging and hope filled moved through Holy Week, in which we remember both Jesus’ death and resurrection, his passion, the cross and the empty tomb. And, as we enter into this annual remembrance of the wondrous love, a love stronger even than death, that God has poured into our lives and world in the acts of that first Holy Week, we should be moved in some way…changed in some way…to love like Jesus and like Mary…to be more willing to pour our whole selves out for loves sake alone. If the events of Holy Week and Easter don’t inspire us…if Mary’s tremendous act of hospitality and, more so, Jesus giving his whole life for the whole world…don’t inspire us…inspire us to our own moments of radical, lavish and passionate acts of love…then what can…really?
But I for one believe it can…that it has…and will gain. For we are a profoundly loving and generous lot here at St. Julian’s. I have been an eyewitness to how our own experience of God’s overflowing love has inspired and empowered the love that lives in the life we share, and that has moved us to lavishly love so many who have been entrusted to our care. But our work is not done…I believe we have even more to give…more love left to pour out from the fragrant lives we live. For just as Jesus sat before Mary, he still sits before each of us individually and together. He sits before us in the lives of the people who are even now before us…in my life and in yours…in the lives of all those who live and work around us…in both those with much and those with far too little.
Which, in conclusion, takes me back to the video with which we began, as I think can be instructive. For each individual is profoundly worth the lavish love we are capable of providing…taking the time, gathering our resources, to love and care for them with a fragrant love that overflows out of us with generosity and grace…that reminds people that they are loved and belong…that they are seen and heard and known. In doing so, we are loving Jesus as well, and, in doing so we are honoring Mary’s example of what pouring our whole selves out in acts of lavish love can really look like. Amen.