Precious Ointment

(Sermon given at Grace St. John’s UCC, Sunday, March 17, 2013, on the occasion of the Annual Congregational Meeting where discussion about the future of the church was to be discussed.)
Someone once said, “Friends may come and go, but enemies accumulate,” and that is certainly true about this morning’s Gospel reading. A first century Gallop poll would have revealed a large decrease in support for Jesus among the religious right—mostly because this Jesus isn’t following the time-honored rules of our religious tradition. And certainly everyone should have known the rules:
• Rule #1: Never talk or be seen next to a Samaritan woman.
• Rule #2: Do not heal on the Sabbath. But worse than all of the other rules Jesus seemed to flaunt, he had had the audacity to break.
• Rule #3: Do not raise anyone from the dead.”
Jesus was thinking and living outside the box, that much was obvious. They were annoyed when he broke the first two rules, but when he dared to raise Lazarus from the dead a week earlier, they knew it was time to get him out of the picture permanently.
Like I said, enemies are accumulating in Jerusalem, but Jesus still has some loyal friends as well. In our gospel reading a family of three had formed a rare and lasting bond, a deep friendship with Jesus. azarus, Martha, and Mary are not among the Twelve apostles, but they are friends. Even Jesus needs close friends, so whenever he was in town, he knew he was always welcome at their home. He could share lamb-loaf and Hebrew National all beef franks on holidays and weekends. We don’t know how they met, but it’s clear that they love each other. Jesus was no doubt grateful beyond words that he had these friends, that he could just be himself without having to “do” anything for them.
Of course, he is more than “friend” he is also “Messiah.” And just a few days ago, they’d sent Jesus a note telling him that Lazarus was dying. But Jesus was away on a ministry tour, and he wasn’t able to be there to be helpful. Lazarus was dead-four days dead-by the time Jesus closed up his revival and arrived at his friend’s home.
John’s Gospel says that “Jesus wept” because he was a man who had lost someone dear. But then Jesus the Messiah called out in a loud voice that reached beyond the silence of death and called Lazarus back to life. This is one of the unspoken parts of the story that has led to the relaxation of this particular evening.
But something else unspoken is going on: a trade off had occurred. As long as Jesus stayed on the other side of the Jordan, his enemies in Jerusalem would not pursue him. But when he returned to resuscitate his friend, Lazarus, that was the last straw. Jesus had signed his own death warrant—effectively trading his own life for the life of his friend.
So as Jesus enters their home on this particular evening, we can well imagine some of the concern and foreboding he carries deep in his soul. He knows his enemies are closing in on him and he isn’t sleeping as well as he once did. But in the gentle glow of the lamps as evening falls, Jesus is simply grateful to be with his loving friends one last time. So tonight Jesus will relax and laugh; he’ll tell stories he’s picked up on the revival circuit. He’ll report some humorous things that Peter has inadvertently blurted out; he’ll enjoy good food, good wine and great conversation.
As Mary comes into the room with dessert, she puts her plates and forks down and does something shocking. She loosens her hair in the presence of men, something only a certain type of woman would do. Then she pours an entire bottle of expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet–and touches him. Rule #4: Rabbis do not allow single women to caress their feet. Not even among friends. And to end an already strange story, Mary uses her hair instead of a paper towel to wipe the extraneous perfume from his feet. And no one knows how to react!
“Well, let me just say that I’ve never in all my life seen such a thing. What a complete waste of Chanel #5! Shame on you, Mary,” Judas scolds. “Haven’t you looked around and seen all of the poor people we’re trying to help? And you go and waste this top of the line perfume on Jesus—I will pray for you!”
Judas is right: Chanel is very expensive. In fact, this quantity is more than some families annual income. “Leave her alone,” Jesus says. “She bought that perfume to be ready for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
That response is as bizarre as Mary’s behavior. Jesus is the friend of the poor; he champions their cause, he preaches against hoarding and greed. But instead of Jesus’ usual sermon on sharing, loving our neighbor, etc.. he says, “Leave her alone, leave me alone. You’ll be caring for the poor until the end of time. But just this once let her be, my time is running out.”
Jesus has taken a situation and turned it into another parable. All the elements are there: Judas the friend that comes and goes, enemies lurking nearby, the expensive perfume used for burying the dead. In fact, death seems to be everywhere, and Jesus sees Mary’s gesture as a profound prophetic parable. No one told Mary about the impending danger, but something in her heart revealed to her the necessity of doing this one last thing for her friend.
Mary’s actions, her parable could have taken two different endings. If she had anointed his head, for instance, then Mary would have been proclaiming Jesus as a king. Everyone present would associate the anointing of the head with costly oil as a king-making action. Right then and there they could have joined in shouting, “Hail, King Jesus!” and “Long live the King!” and they would have taken up violence on his behalf. But instead, Mary got on her knees and began to pour this expensive burial ointment on his feet. The only man to be anointed in this way was someone who was already dead. Mary’s worship was extravagant and costly, and it allowed Jesus the man a clear picture of what awaited him in the near future. That’s why he says simply, “Leave her alone. Leave her alone.”
Annie Dillard writes that like Mary, OUR worship needs to become extraordinary. It needs to become extravagant and costly:
Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we Christians so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleep god may awake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.**
Unfortunately, “we no longer need ‘fasten your seatbelt’ signs in our pews because we no longer fly.”

There is nothing skimpy or frugal about Jesus: as we said last week, he is the Prodigal Son in this regard. In him God’s extravagant and costly love has been made flesh. In him, the excessiveness of God’s grace is made manifest.
Our bottle of costly worship isn’t something to be held back and admired from a distance; this costly worship will not be reserved for a rainy day. God is calling this community RIGHT NOW to open up, to offer, to use, to pour out to the last drop a passionate form of worship that costs us something. A worship that overflows and runs out into the streets of our world, filling it with life, filling it with the fragrance of hope. Mary clearly heard the message in her heart, and she acted on it. The rest stayed safely locked inside the four walls of the box that held them, thinking Mary was wasteful and weird.
This congregation is, right now, holding in its hands a bottle of precious ointment at the feet of Jesus. Like the crowd perhaps, we have been comfortable in our own box, unable to see a larger parable. But today is our opportunity to enter into this parable with Mary. It doesn’t matter what has come before, all that matters now is what shall we do with our precious ointment? How will we follow Jesus lavishly, extravagantly??
Hear the Good News! Our God is lavish and extravagant so we need never fear that we will run out of perfume or opportunities for serving others—provided our worship is honest, inspiring and energizing. When God is present, there is always more–more than we can ever ask or imagine–gifts from our lavish, extravagant Lord. Amen.

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About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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