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Deuteronomy 15.7-11

John 12.1-8

There’s Something About Mary

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Every time I read this morning’s passage from John, IO find three speed bumps in the way of the story, three places that make me think, wait a minute, did I just really read what I think I read?  I wonder if any of them struck you as you listened to Jennifer tell the story.  First, that is an awful lot of nard, or perfume, to pour over Jesus’ feet, don’t you think?.  The dictionary tells me nard, or spikenard, was a costly aromatic ointment, preserved in alabaster boxes.  It comes from a part of the honeysuckle family that grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, China and India.  So Mary didn’t exactly pick it up at the local Walgreens.  It was expensive and difficult to acquire.  And she poured the entire thing over Jesus’ feet – the Bible says a pound, and as I learned in school lo those many years ago, “a pint’s a pound the world around;” so it was an entire pint, sixteen ounces of perfume.  Imagine what the house must have smelled like - what do you think your house would smell like if you spilled sixteen ounces of perfume on your floor?  You’d have to open the windows, turn on the ceiling fans and get out of the house for a while, I would guess.

So I confess, there’s a part of me that agrees with Judas.  Mary’s anointing Jesus’ feet is a sweet and heartfelt, and a genuinely worshipful gesture, but there are gestures, and then there are gestures.  To put it in perspective, that pint of nard was worth three hundred denarii, or approximately one year’s wages for the average worker.  A year’s salary spilled on the feet and the floor.  Suppose someone gave our church a  gift of a year’s salary, and we decided the best use of it would be to gild the weathervane.  Is that the best use of resources?  Does it further our mission and ministry?  Judas can only imagine the mouths a year’s wages would feed. 

The second thing that struck me was John’s parenthetical attempt to denigrate Judas.  I understand that John didn’t write until nearly seventy years after Jesus’ betrayal and death, and Judas’ role in the Passion is deserving of its ignominy.  History never wants to paint Judas in anything less than villainous hues.  If you followed along as Jennifer read, you noticed that John inserts two parenthetical asides in his story.  He identifies Judas as the one who was going to betray Jesus in verse 4, and then in verse 6 he adds the qualifier that Judas really wanted to steal the money that the ointment could have brought.  If you take out these two parentheses you too might find yourselves agreeing with Judas.  It still doesn’t get rid of the question, What about all those hungry mouths?  I am not defending Judas, but I think in this situation he deserves a little more slack than John cuts him.

And the third thing I want you to explain to me is Jesus’ borderline offhand reply.  “Leave her alone.  She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”  Well maybe she did, but she just spilled the whole thing over your feet; so much for saving it for another day.  And then:  “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  It’s an echo of our Old Testament reading this morning from Deuteronomy, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”  This too is true, but it strikes me as one of those things that you think to yourself but don’t say out loud.

Now you know me.  This is generally the point in the sermon where I would try to find a way to even out these speed bumps and look for the ways they propel the story forward, for what they say about Jesus, for what they can say to us.  But I’m going to leave them out there for you to wrestle with this morning, because I want to focus on Mary.

There sure are a lot of Marys in the Bible, aren’t there!  We know Mary the mother of Jesus; we know Mary Magdalene; we may remember Mary the mother of James, who was among the women who discovered the empty tomb; not as well known is Mary the mother of John Mark, in whose home the earliest Christians worshiped, described in the book of Acts.  And then there is this morning’s Mary, the sister of both Martha and Lazarus – she is usually called Mary of Bethany for distinction.  I mention the different Marys because over the course of church history, Mary of Bethany is sometimes conflated with Mary Magdalene, especially in the Roman Catholic tradition – the late 19th century image of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet on the back of this morning’s bulletin is a case in point – Tissot calls her “The Magdalen,” confusing the two Marys.

Mary of Bethany appears in three different gospel stories, and we’re probably familiar with them.  In the first, Mary is sitting with Jesus, listening to his instruction, while her sister Martha is busy with domestic tasks:  cleaning the house, doing the dishes, preparing meals.  Martha complains to Jesus that sister Mary is not much help, just sitting there at Jesus’ feet, and Jesus reminds her that both roles have a place in the ministry of Jesus; there is the ministry of hospitality, which engaged Martha, and the ministry of discipleship, which was Mary’s gift.  More memorable is the time when the two sisters’ brother Lazarus died, or at least appeared to die. Mary and Martha both came to Jesus in their grief, “If you had been here, [our] brother would not have died.”  So Jesus went to the tomb, called out to Lazarus, and their brother emerged, alive.  And Jennifer read the third of the three stories this morning, when Mary anointed Jesus with expensive perfume.  Mary of Bethany is a woman with a distinctive role to play in Jesus’ life and ministry.

Last Wednesday’s reflection in the UCC Lent Devotional was written by another Mary, Mary Luti, a retired UCC pastor and educator whom I came to know when she served at First Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Mary Luti wasn’t writing about Mary of Bethany, she was writing about you and me, but I think her words encompass all of us.  She wrote,

“Half the time we don’t even know we’re doing it.  We’re just being our unremarkable Christian selves.  And if someone were to tell us that something we did or said made their soul wiser, their faith stronger, gave them a reason to start again, or conveyed God’s grace to them like a holy sacrament, we’d be flummoxed.  Maybe even embarrassed.  After all, we’re as fallible as the next person, not saints or deep thinkers, [we’re] just us.

“No, half the time we’re not even in on the secret of just how many gifts we have and just how generously we give them away.  Such calculation is rarely on our minds as we routinely encourage each [other] and routinely receive encouragement.  As a colleague noted, it’s a team sport, our life in Christ, a pooling of strengths.  It’s mutual, Paul says, a communion.  We have a single shared heart.”

Mary Luti is right.  Most of us are quick to recognize a when someone does a for us, but don’t always appreciate the difference we’re making in someone else’s life.  In a similar way, I’d guess that Mary of Bethany didn’t know just how far her act of extravagant blessing would travel.  Mary’s simple act of washing Jesus’ feet went along way in creating the beloved community we call the church.

During Holy Week, many churches  include the act of foot-washing in their Maundy Thursday services, as a way of remembering Mary’s blessing.  I wonder, has our church ever offered foot-washing on Maundy Thursday?  The times I’ve done it, I’ve found some people are very reluctant to have their feet washed.  Who wants to take off their shoes and socks on Maundy Thursday, one of the holiest nights of the year, and have the minister on the floor with a washcloth?  Most of the time churches find they have to offer an alternative:  we’ll wash one another’s hands instead – it’s less awkward that way, right?  But that’s the point:  it is such a humbling experience for the footwasher that it uncomfortably elevates, and implicitly exalts, the footwashee, and we’re not sure we are ready to wear that exaltation.

And it is all Mary’s fault.  Well, not fault.  She genuinely wanted to welcome and honor Jesus, and she succeeded beyond imagination.  In the very next chapter of John, Jesus washes the disciple’s feet on the eve of his crucifixion, on Maundy Thursday.  And where did Jesus get the idea to wash the disciples’ feet?   You might say there’s something about Mary’s act that struck and stayed with Jesus.  Remember, in John’s gospel there is no Last Supper, that Thursday night, no communion, only Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet.  The community that we build when we come to the communion table is the same community Mary of Bethany began to build with her extravagant welcome of Jesus her guest.  Footwashing is not a sacrament of the church, but because it takes the place of communion in John, perhaps it could be.  It reminds us of the place of humility in relationships, it expressly values the other, and it is a moment of intimacy that builds a bond between two people.  And then two more, and then four more, until – voilá! - we are a community in Jesus Christ.  With clean feet to boot!

But more to the point, you and I continue to create a community of extravagant welcome.  That’s what Mary of Cambridge was writing about – “Half the time we don’t even know we’re doing it.  We’re just being our unremarkable Christian selves.”  I’m going to guess that Mary of Bethany really did have other plans for the perfume, but in an act of spontaneous generosity sparked by love, she blessed Jesus.  Let our acts of spontaneous generosity, sparked by love, also bless Jesus every time we feed a hungry mouth, every time we ease another’s burden, every time we stand for justice and equality; every time we are a blessing to someone else, we bless Jesus.  May God so bless you.

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