Plymouth United Church of Christ

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“The Fragrance of Love Dispels Evil’s Stench”
Sermon, Year C, Lent 5, March 17, 2013
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: John 12:1-8 (Mary anoints Jesus’ feet)

In the midst of violence and in the midst of violent potential sits this scene of almost touchable domestic tranquility and love. What could be more homey than friends at their home? Enjoying a meal together. Especially after one of them has been raised from the dead. And yet outside the walls of this house is chaos. There is conspiracy against Jesus. Enough that Jesus has been in hiding and not out in the open places for a few days. Outside the walls is this violent potential, but inside the house one can picture the fireplace crackling. Loaves of bread that Martha has cooking near the fireplace. Stew in the pot. Friends sharing drink and conversation around the table, or more than likely sitting on rugs on the floor and sharing conversation, food, and drink, laughing, talking story. And Lazarus perhaps is getting center stage as they’re talking story here. To talk about being raised from death. He’s had the most extraordinary experience recently, and I imagine they had a lot of questions for him. And I wonder if maybe Jesus was particularly eager and curious to hear about that process of dying and coming back to life since he is just days away from doing the same thing himself.

Outside the walls are people who want to arrest Jesus. Some who want to kill him. There is one, the High Priest Caiaphas, that we read at the end of Chapter 11 who maybe doesn’t necessarily want to kill him but is talking about it. he has made the determination that it is better to kill Jesus because it is going to keep Rome happy, and keep them from coming in and hurting his country.

Going on at the same time.

Inside the house Mary breaks open this costly, costly jar of nard. A perfume, an incense, a food flavoring. It had many uses, and it comes from the Himalayas, and very expensive. Probably a year’s wages in that jar. And she breaks it open and pours it on Jesus’ feet, anointing him. It is a sacred act. An act of consecration. An act of saying, “You are holy”. And then wiping his feet with her hair.

Imagine that.

Wiping his feet with her hair. That is such an intimate act. About as intimate as two people can be. And there is something to it, I think, that is even more intimate than the coupling of lovers. This is an incredibly intimate moment. A moment that goes beyond eros; it is an act of agape love, filial love. Recognition of who Jesus is, and the friendship between Mary and Jesus. The intimate friendship. the kind of love that leads Mary to be willing to waste, in a sense to waste, so much money in this ritual. It is not a casual act. It is not an act that one would expect. This is not an act that Mary is doing every time guests are in her house. It is a unique event, a unique kenosis – a Greek word that shows up a few times in the New Testament. Kenosis is self-emptying in love. To put so much love on another that you empty yourself of who you are on them. This is Mary’s self-emptying, of the highest order of Christian understanding and Christian love. Mary gets Jesus’ message of love. She understands what Jesus is talking about. She understands what he is doing. She gets his message of radical and generous love.

Outside the walls are those who want to kill the man who was talking about love, and inside the walls of the house the man who talks about love is being anointed by a woman with her tears and her hair and a jar of costly perfume in an act of love.

And I don’t think that she’s doing this for Jesus just because he’s raised Lazarus from the dead. I don’t think is just her saying thank you for raising Lazarus. I think that even if Lazarus had not been raised from the dead, Mary would still be doing this. She would still anoint his feet in this way.

And it was just a few days ago that Martha and Mary had summoned Jesus to come because Lazarus was sick. Come help your friend, they said, we know you can make him better. But Jesus dawdles. He hangs out for a few days where he is before he comes to where Lazarus is. And by the time he gets there, Lazarus is already dead, and the body had decomposed enough that it had created a stench. So Jesus raised him from death back to life.

Like the Prodigal Son we read about last who was dead, but is now alive, except that this is a literal death, and a literal coming back to life. And people heard the news of Lazarus coming back from the dead. They heard the news that it was Jesus who had done this. I mean, how do you stop word of such a miracle from going around the community, especially since, as the text says, many had gone out with Mary, Martha, and Jesus to see what Jesus was going to do. So there were a lot of witnesses to this miracle of Lazarus coming out of the tomb. And word got spread around. But not all who spread the word, not all who spread the story, did so with a sense of joy or without a sense of conspiracy.

Some went to the authorities, the religious authorities, the chief priests and the pharisees to complain about what had happened. And the Chief Priests and the Pharisees talked amongst one another and asked, “What should we do?” They said, “This man Jesus is doing many miracles,” which one would think would be a good thing, “If we let him continue, everyone will believe in him.” Which we might also think would be a good thing. But to them it was not, because, as they said, if everyone believes in him then “Rome will come and take away our temple and take away our nation.”

The stakes are pretty high here. And Caiaphas the High Priest – this is all taking place a the end of chapter 11 – Caiaphas lays down the gauntlet when he says to them, “You don’t know anything! It is far better for one man to die for the people, then for a whole nation to be destroyed.” He says that we have to kill Jesus to preserve the nation. To keep Rome from getting angry at us.

And so Jesus no longer traveled openly and went to Ephraim with his followers for a few days. And while he did that the leading priests and Pharisees are also now waiting in Jerusalem because Passover is coming soon and they are pretty sure that Jesus will come to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. And they want to arrest him when he shows up. Then Jesus goes to Bethany for this meal with his friends, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus and his disciples.

There is another time that Jesus was with Martha and Mary back in the Gospel of Luke, and in that story Martha serves. Martha cleans. You may remember that is the one where Martha gets upset with Mary for not helping enough, because Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet learning from him. And in this one, Martha again is serving. And Mary again is at Jesus’ feet. But this time not to learn. She is there to anoint. She is there to teach us. She is there to act, to show that she understood who Jesus was and who Jesus is, that she understood what he was going to do in a few days. And so she anoints him as though for a burial.

Imagine if we took the time to anoint our loved ones before they died. If we took the time to show them the love that they deserve before they died, while they are still with us.

And contrast Mary’s act with peter from some time before when Jesus asked Peter “Who do people say that I am” and then asked Peter, “Who do YOU say that I am?” And Peter says, “You are the Christ. The Messiah.” Peter got that. He knew that. And then Jesus talked about his coming death that he was going to have to die and be raised, and Peter says, “No, you can’t do that!” And that’s when Jesus says to Peter, “Get away from me, Satan! Don’t tempt me! Stand back. Don’t try to thwart me from my mission.”

Peter didn’t want Jesus to do what he needed to do. But here, Mary anoints him as in his funeral or burial rite. She knows his path, and she is preparing him for it. And the nard perfumes the whole house. We had with Lazarus the stench of death, and now the house is filled with this perfume of nard, removing the stench of Lazarus’ death, even while announcing Jesus’ coming death. It removes the stench of violence, making a moment of calm, of safety in the storm here in this home.

And Mary comes up from this anointing with the nard also in her hair. She shares this with Jesus. His anointing becomes partly her anointing. She carries it with her. The fragrance of Jesus’ anointing is stored in the memory of her hair. And this is a lot of perfume, so maybe this stayed with her long past Jesus’ resurrection, and as they gathered in those days later on, they might say, “Do you remember, Mary, do you remember that night when we and you and Jesus...” and Mary says, “Yes, smell my hair. Remember that night.”

But Judas rebukes her. He rebukes her act as a waste that hurts the poor. It could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Then Jesus rebukes him. He says, “Leave her alone! Leave her alone. She is right to do this because today is my day to be prepared for burial. You will always have the poor, but you will not always have me.”

I think Jesus is saying, “You will not have a chance to prepare my body later in the normal way that you would prepare a dead body, because I am not going to be there. My body is not going to be there when you go to anoint it in the proper way. This is no longer about anointing a dead body, a ritual for the dead, but anointing the living. Not a ritual of the dead, but a ritual of life. And Mary knows that, so leave her alone. You can help the poor after I am gone. And you must. Absolutely you must help the poor. But until you can see me in them, until you see them as me, your motivations may not be quite right.

And Jesus is saying, in effect, that his Way – his Way – transcends merely giving money to the poor; his Way is to be first rooted in the transcendent generous love like Mary is showing here.

I think that if I were to make a movie of these two chapters (chapters 11 and 12), I would overlay these scenes with a constant heartbeat, the sound of a heartbeat, or the sound of a war drum, something beating constantly with a sense of urgency. A sense that something else is coming.

The raising of Lazarus, and then the violent talk of the Pharisees and the Priests, with this beating, beating, beating. And this scene of Mary’s intimate love would be overscored by the incessant beating of urgency of what is going to happen later. And then the next scene, after the passage we read, the next couple of verses talk about people coming to the house because they want to talk to Lazarus and they want to talk to Jesus. And we also hear then that the Chief Priests want to kill Lazarus as well, because on his account more people are believing in Jesus. And so the beating continues. Then right after that, Jesus enters into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday with the Hosannahs, and the prayers, and the singing, and all of the triumph. And then he reverses what Mary did.

He gathers with his disciples for a meal, and he washes their feet with his robe. He washes his disciples’ feet. He says, “This is what love looks like. This is what it’s about. This is my Way. My Way. My Way of love. Beyond giving to the poor, it’s about anointing, and loving, and being intimate with them and with my people and with one another. It’s about anointing, loving, and being intimate in a way that perfumes us with the fragrance of love that overcomes all stench of evil.”

Even as the threat of violence beats faster in the background.


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