Fr. Tim’s sermon for Lent 5 – April 7th, 2019
Readings for this week are:
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Last week we heard the story of the prodigal son. We heard how a young man, having squandered his father’s inheritance, is welcomed home by that same father. I preached on the joy that this father must have felt, that sense of unbelievable joy and sense of wholeness at the return of the beloved. And this week I want to talk a little bit about joy as well, though a different sort. For this week we have the story of Mary washing Jesus’ feet with perfume and wiping it with her hair. These two joys are a sort of bookend to one another, or two different sides of the same coin. These two stories tell both of joy exuberant and joy in sorrow, something that I alluded to at the end of my sermon last week.
Now, this week’s gospel reading is one of complete, unguarded love. You see, all along, Jesus has been telling people that he’s about to die, that he’ll go to Jerusalem and be killed, and that this is necessary for his work here on earth. But no one believes him. Everyone doubts him, tells him he’s crazy, or tries to shut him up. Jesus is alone; no one will listen to him. No one, that is, except for Mary. Mary gets it. Mary hears him. Perhaps the death of Lazarus shocked her into having a more open ear. Perhaps Mary has heard Jesus all along. Whatever the case, in this moment, she knows that Jesus will soon die – in six days he will die. And she wants to do something to show her love for him.
And so she anoints him, not beginning with his head, where you would anoint a king, but starting with his feet, where you would begin to clean a corpse. For what Mary does here in anointing Jesus, and in the words that St. John uses when he describes the scene, show that Jesus is being marked for death. And marking him in this way, Mary gives up (she sacrifices) something extremely valuable and precious. Mary has lavished this costly gift on someone who, very soon, she knows will die. Why? Because she loves him, and she wants to show him that before he goes.
And this act alone, this act of abject love, is a beautiful one, and one that we ought to sit with and pray with for a long time. This act is, though, in a very complex and complicated scene. A lot is going on here. On the one side is Judas, who, if he cares at all, thinks the best way to solve problems is to throw money at them. There is also Jesus’ comment that “the poor will always be with you”, a comment that’s often taken to saying that the poor don’t really matter, or that we can’t end poverty. But Jesus’ comment, instead, looks back to the fifteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, where laws are given for jubilee, and forgiveness, and the promises of peace and safety being extended to everyone, not just a few. The scene is actually a culmination of Jesus’ dedication to help the poor, the lonely, and the downtrodden.
And all of this is important, but, first, I want to start with Mary’s love. Because this act of love, I think, says something very, very deep, and it says something that Jesus was trying to get everyone around him to understand: and that is that everything must begin in love.
I think, often, we hide our hearts away. We see our hearts, and our love, as a bottle of pure nard, of something precious that we need to protect. “I can’t let this go,” we think. “It’s too important, it’s too fragile.” And so we hide it away. We keep it locked down deep. And we do this, probably, for good reasons. We’ve been hurt. Our love has been abused, and we want to protect our hearts from being battered, or misused, or ignored.
But Jesus says: let it out. Don’t hide it like a candle under a bushel; let it out! And the image of love that he gives us here is of a woman pouring expensive perfume on a dead man. Will doing this save Jesus? No. Will is add one day, even one hour to his life? Probably not. It is pointless, perhaps, and certainly wasteful of good perfume, but often love is pointless. Love doesn’t always make a big splash in this world. But love isn’t always about doing something; love is about being, about not just being in love but about being love.
I think about this when I think about the pets I’ve grown up with. I grew up with dogs, and the love they gave didn’t have a goal or a point. They didn’t love to get something (except food sometimes, but we can forgive them for that!). They didn’t love to prove themselves, or even to be loved back. They just simply loved because loving is the perfect way of being. And it’s an image of that same kind of love that we see in Mary at Jesus’ feet. And each of these images of love is a small part of the love that Jesus had for us on Good Friday two thousand years ago, when he hung on the cross, and the love he has for us now, each and every day.
And Jesus says that this outpouring of love, this is actually what will heal the world. Not fix it, not tweak it like it’s some machine and not a group of human beings trying to figure out how to live together. No, not fix the world, but heal the world. We can’t “fix” humanity. Grief is a natural part of life, and, even though I really enjoy science fiction about the future, I really don’t think that science will get so good that we humans won’t need to worry about death. And while we can certainly alleviate the pain of the poor, there is no perfect form of government or society where everyone is happy.
We can’t fix humanity to be perfect – but we can heal them. And we do this with the sort of outpouring of love that Mary shows us in our gospel story today and that Jesus spends his whole ministry preaching. Because that outpouring of love bonds people together much more deeply than our society, or our government, or even our families. This outpouring of love that Mary shows in washing Jesus’ feet, it bonds us together in God, who is love, and there is nothing stronger and more joyful than that.
And it is from here, from this deep and all-encompassing love, that we can do great things. Jesus is dedicated to the poor, to the hungry, to the sorrowful, and to the lost, but he is dedicated to them not just in fixing their problems and sending them out, but loving them into the fullness of being. And that is the sort of love that we Christians are called to as well. This love, though, is not an easy love. It is the love of a man who has seen his son waste everything he is and yet is filled with joy when that son returns. It is the love of a woman who wastes something incredibly previous just to show her love for a man about to die. And it is the love of a man, who was not a man, but who was also God, who came into this world and died on a cross, just so that he could heal – fully heal – a wayward and lonely humanity. It is the love of God in Jesus Christ breathed by the Holy Spirit. And it is a love that is yours and ours and everyone’s for evermore.