sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
The Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C, March 13, 2016
My grandfather’s name was Harold Fremont Smith. He was an American Baptist pastor who moved his family all around the Pacific Northwest—Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho. He helped establish Cascade Meadows, a Baptist camp out on U.S. 2, west of Leavenworth.
I never knew my grandfather. He was killed in a car accident five years before I was born. My mom has always wished that my dad, my brother and I could have known him, because to know someone in the flesh is such a gift. You can never fully express to somebody what it was like to be able to hear, smell, touch a certain person who is now gone.
Mary knew Jesus. And before we say more, let’s get straight that this is not Jesus’ mother Mary we’re talking about here, but Mary of Bethany, who may or may not also have been Mary Magdalene—that’s a topic of considerable scholarly debate. There are so many Marys in the Gospels, you could certainly be forgiven for confusing them.
But Mary of Bethany definitely knew Jesus. This is the Mary who shirked her housekeeping duties (to the dismay of her sister Martha) in order to listen to Jesus’ teachings. This is the Mary who grieved with Martha over the death of their brother Lazarus, and then rejoiced when Jesus frightened death away. It seems that, spiritually, Mary was a step ahead of the game.
Jesus and the disciples have come to Bethany because it is their launching pad. Bethany is a mere two miles from Jerusalem. In the morning, Jesus will ride into the city on a borrowed donkey, and the events of Holy Week will begin. But tonight, Mary surprises everyone. She graces Jesus’ feet with spikenard perfume worth a worker’s wages for a year—a year! And then she scandalously caresses Jesus with her hair and, I imagine, with free-flowing tears.
Mary understands that in the days to come, Jesus is going to give himself away until there’s nothing left. And until he does, Mary intends to stay as close to him as she can. She’s going to anoint his body for burial while he’s still alive, so she can inhale the fragrance that will always remind her of her Lord. Mary knows that Jesus’ days are numbered, and she’s already grieving. Why is this so hard for Judas to understand?
Oh, but I’ve been Judas. I totally get where he’s coming from. When’s the last time you dropped a year’s wages on a bottle of wine, no matter how important the occasion? And if you had, don’t you think some conscientious Christian would have objected on principle to a $20,000 Chateau Lafite?
Now, at this point I want to confess something to you: I don’t actually believe the gospel writer’s aside about Judas being a thief. He may have been stingy, and he may have totally misunderstood Jesus’ mission and purpose. But Judas was so passionate about law and order that he turned Jesus in for incitement, and his conscience wouldn’t even let him keep the blood money. And then he hanged himself over it! No, Judas was a slave to God’s law—he was no thief. It’s a shame that the writer of John’s Gospel felt the need to slander Judas, as if his name weren’t already reviled worldwide. Feel free to side with the Bible over me, though—that’s OK.
So anyway … Mary knew she had one last chance to show Jesus how much she loved him. Have you ever given an extravagant gift, far more extravagant than the situation called for? Whether you’ve had the means to donate a lot of money to a good cause, or you’ve just splurged on a present for your spouse without an occasion, it’s kind of fun, isn’t it? Because deep down, the one receiving the gift knows it’s not about the money. It’s just that you couldn’t pass up the perfect gift.
In Mary’s case, the gift is so perfect it’s prophetic. What’s a year’s wages compared to Jesus? Can you answer that for yourself? Mary knows Jesus well enough to understand that he is worth more than anything money can buy.
Judas, on the other hand, has the mindset we might have when doing last-minute Christmas shopping: Well, she’s only my cousin. Is $25 too much to spend? Twenty? What about a gift for my brother’s girlfriend? Fifteen? If they get engaged first, should I up it to thirty? So I’d like to ask Judas: How much nard would have been an appropriate amount for Jesus? Maybe an eighth of that? Or a month’s wages? Is Jesus worth more than a diamond engagement ring? Where would you draw the line, Judas?
See, Judas is the fun police. He’s well-intentioned, but he’s insufferable. I’ve known people like him, and I’ve got enough bleeding-heart tendencies to slip into that attitude myself occasionally: somewhere in the world right now, someone is suffering. And as long as that’s true, none of us is allowed to have any fun!
But it’s no use, don’t you see? There will be many other opportunities to help the poor. Tonight, Jesus is moving inexorably from life toward death, and Mary knows it. Judas knows it, too. Judas is already wondering, “What if he’s not the Messiah after all? Mary may have thrown away a year’s wages, but I’ve thrown away three years of hard work and passionate hope, and I don’t think Jesus is committed to the cause. He’s not proving himself to be the kind of leader who could successfully carry off a coup against the Romans! In fact, I’m starting to think it’s time to cut my losses. Yes, the only way for me to stay in control of this situation is … to turn Jesus in.” Or maybe Judas is thinking, “All I need to do is set up the right conditions. If I arrange an arrest, Jesus will resist, and the coup will begin! That’s how I can control this situation.” Indeed, maybe that’s at the heart of Judas’s problem: he thinks he can actually be in control of any situation at all.
Mary has a different perspective. She may not know how any good could possibly come from Jesus’ death, but as a woman, she rarely expects to be in control. So she is relinquishing it. Mary knows the words we heard this morning from the Prophet Isaiah:
I am about to do a new thing;
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert.
And today’s psalm—maybe that was on her lips too as she worked to ease the fire in Jesus’ head and feet:
Those who sowed with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed,
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
Mary will go out weeping, carrying the seed of faith that is to be buried in the ground, dead to the world. She doesn’t know how God’s grace will work—just that it will work. It has to work, because it comes from God. As Paul would write decades later:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Paul wrote from the other side of the Resurrection, with a bittersweet longing that he never knew the man Jesus. But Mary did. She heard him and smelled him and clung to his body desperately, knowing that very soon he would be snatched away.
All life eventually leads to death. We know this. We live this reality every day. But as Christians, we also understand the flip side of that coin: All death leads to life. That’s the Good News!
Thirty-six years ago this month, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in San Salvador right in the middle of celebrating the Mass. Just two weeks before he was killed, Romero told a reporter: “I must tell you, as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.”
Several days before his murder, Romero said, “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me … I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish."
And just moments before his death, in his homily, Archbishop Romero said, “Those who surrender to the service of the poor through the love of Christ will live like the grain of wheat that dies. . . The harvest comes because of the grain that dies … We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.” And then he was shot. I have visited that church; I have stood in the very spot where Oscar Romero died.
I wish I had known Archbishop Romero. He understood that justice runs much deeper than politics and much deeper than not spending money on extravagant things. Justice means standing in solidarity with the powerless, something that Jesus specifically instructed us to do time and time again. There is no scarcity in this world short of the scarcity we inflict. God has given us everything we need. Why would we keep it from each other?
I also wish I had known my grandfather—the pastor, the father, the husband that my relatives knew.
As for Jesus … well, in this place, we try to know Jesus a little better every week. Maybe it’s not as easy for us as it was for Mary. Maybe it doesn’t feel as real. But there’s a part of me that understands that Jesus is actually more real now than he was in those thirty years in Palestine. If Jesus doesn’t feel all that real to you, at least rest assured that the journey toward him is ongoing, and that you are real to Jesus. Paul wrote, “I press on to make [the knowledge of Christ] my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
Mary knew Jesus, and thanks be to God, we can know Jesus, too. In this final week before Holy Week, let’s remember the value of knowing people in the flesh, but let’s also remember that faith means trusting that every death leads to new life. And now let’s speak that faith together.