Sermon; Lent 5C; John 12:1-8
Today's gospel begins with a dinner party for Jesus. Exactly one chapter earlier we have the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. So it's not that far-fetched to think this dinner is given in Jesus' honor as a nice way of saying, “Thank you for bringing Lazarus back to life.” I mean, Joelene and I have invited people to dinner or sent them cookies as payment for any number of things we are not equipped to do – electrical work, for instance. How does one say thank you for raising someone from the dead? Apparently with a dinner. And also, apparently, by anointing with oil the feet of the person who brought your brother back to life.
There are any number of commentaries about this episode as prefiguring Jesus' death. Jesus himself says that Mary bought this perfume for the day of his burial, so they aren't wrong. There are also any number of interpretations stating that we should focus on God, or Jesus, or the Church, and ignore the poor because Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you.” They would be wrong.
But as I read this story, three things came to mind. First, what did Mary do? Most obviously she anointed Jesus' feet with costly oil and wiped them with her hair. But what was it that she really did?
If we piece together the various stories of Mary, we can begin to get a glimpse of who she was. In Luke we see Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus as he taught while her sister Martha worked in the kitchen. We know that Lazarus is her brother. We know that both Mary and Martha believed Jesus to be their Lord and Messiah. Based on these glimpses, we can say that Mary had a deep love for Jesus and she may have seen today's act as a last opportunity to do something significant for him before he was finally arrested and executed.
What Mary did today was to offer her whole self to Christ in a form of worship. Our translation says she bought the perfume (which, according to Judas, at $300 denarii was close to a years' wages) for this specific purpose. She recognized Jesus as Lord and Messiah, and this gift was worthy of his status. Like the myrrh and frankincense prefigured his burial and his union with God, the oil of this perfume anointed his body in a myrrh-like preparation for his burial as its scent rose to heaven. The act of wiping his feet with her hair signified her complete submission to Christ Jesus.
As we worship our Lord and Messiah, are we willing to worship as Mary did, without counting the cost and with the willingness to completely involve body, mind, and soul?
A second thing that came to mind was to wonder about the risk she took in performing this act. She would be ridiculed for wasting money (see Judas), and I'm willing to bet she would've been ridiculed for her physical actions had not Jesus shut down Judas, thereby silencing others. Offering too much of our wealth or of ourselves is often seen as foolishness by others. But that is seeing through worldly eyes.
Paul addresses this very thing in the First Letter to the Corinthians. He says the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. It is through the foolishness of our proclamation that people are saved. We should become fools so that we may become wise.
Following Christ is risky. It's risky for us to publicly proclaim our allegiance to Christ over nation. It's risky for us to publicly proclaim Christ's resurrection with no other proof than a few stories in the bible. It's risky for us to spend our money feeding, clothing, sheltering, and caring for the poor who are always there. It's risky to turn down events or proposals that might benefit us in favor of spending time worshiping God. What risk are we willing to take as followers of Christ?
The final thing that came to mind was this: What if we were the nard? What if we allowed ourselves to be broken open and poured out? What if we allowed ourselves to be emptied out for the sake of Christ? What if, in that emptying, we filled the air with the fragrance of God's love? These are all rhetorical questions; but what if?
We all have gifts within us. Maybe it's a desire to serve in the church in some capacity. Maybe we can see ourselves serving on the altar guild, as a lector, or as a Eucharistic Minister. Maybe we have the gift of music and can sing in the choir. Maybe we have the gift of gardening, maybe you have a gift to serve the homeless. Or maybe you don't know what your gifts are but other people do. It is in the using of our gifts, the giving away of our talents, that we begin to empty ourselves.
As we empty ourselves the gifts and talents within us begin to permeate the air around us like that fragrant perfume of Mary's. This place, this house of God, is filled with the holy scent of love and giving and service in such a way that people walking in here know it is a holy place. The scent of love and giving and service is the holy incense of our lives which not only fills this place but billows outward and upward. That billowing cloud of incense is able to reach far and wide because we allow ourselves to be emptied in the name of Christ.
A full jar of perfume cannot be filled – only an empty jar can be filled again. Emptying ourselves makes room for us to be filled again, and we must remember to be filled again. We don't do ourselves or anyone around us any good if we allow ourselves to run on empty. If we use Jesus as our example, we see that he emptied himself on many occasions, but he also spent time filling up through prayer and time away. When we feel empty, take time to be refilled by God.
In closing, I think these are the three things things we can take away from this story. First, offer our whole selves – body, mind, and spirit – as a living sacrifice to the Lord. Second, be willing to risk all we have and all we are for the Lord. And third, empty ourselves of the gifts we have been given as a fragrant offering in a way that the incense of love permeates everything and everyone around us.
These things are not done lightly or as simple public displays of affection, but they are done intentionally, reverently, and passionately. Most importantly, they are done not to draw attention to ourselves but to point others to Christ. May these things we do deepen our devotion, draw others into his holy presence, and be pleasing to him who is our Lord and Savior.