by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
March 13, 2016
When I take my shoes off at night before bed, sometimes, Tracy makes me move my shoes. Sometimes, though, she tells me that I smell good.
I bet you never thought you’d hear a minister start a sermon that way!
Anyway, the good part of my smell, I have to admit, is due entirely to the folks who make Old Spice… deodorant. For those who are really uncomfortable right now, I promise we’ll get off of this topic soon. I just mean that I don’t use cologne. I have just never been a cologne kind of guy.
Most men and women who wear cologne or perfume know how much to use. They know that subtlety is where it’s at. Just a little bit here and there… and maybe a few other places…
Anyway, you know what I mean. You’ve got to be careful not to overdo it with the perfume, or people will be repulsed instead of attracted by your alluring odor…
There are so many aspects of this reading from John that make us very uncomfortable.
First: This woman, Mary of Bethany, opens a huge bottle of perfume and pours it on Jesus’ feet and rubs it in with her hair! And this is Jesus we’re talking about. I am sure none of us missed the very intimate feel of this scene. Feet… Hair… So sexual! So… un-Jesusy.
But second: The amount of perfume! A pound of liquid is a pint. A pint! Picture a beer glass in a bar. Imagine that it’s filled to the top with perfumed oil. Very expensive and very potent perfume. Imagine $50,000 worth, the average year’s wages in the US in today’s economy. Most perfumes come in a tiny little bottle because it’s so expensive. Imagine pouring this entire beer glass of perfume onto someone’s feet! The odor wouldn’t just fill the house, it would fill the entire neighborhood!
The author of John says that Judas complains about Mary’s action. Judas says, We could have sold that perfume for a huge profit and the money could have gone to the poor! I know that the author says that Judas is a bad guy and secretly wants to steal the money the perfume could have raised. Maybe that’s true. It probably is, knowing Judas. But frankly, I would have been right there with Judas on this one. What a waste! An entire pint of perfume! We are a church with lots of practical needs and a strong commitment to helping the poor! What are you doing, Mary?! What a waste!
And that brings me to the third reason that this is such an awkward passage for people like us. We are an outreach church! We have pledged $50,000 of our current year’s budget to our wonderful mission partners on the South Shore and in Boston – organizations that are making a real difference in thousands of hurting people’s lives. We do this because we believe that our leader, our teacher, our center, our savior, Jesus Christ, commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. We do it because we are determined to make the world a better place, and we know that, with God’s help, we can.
Just a few weeks ago, we set aside $100,000 of our capital campaign money (two beer bottles of expensive perfume!) to create a fund to benefit those same mission partners and others for when they have capital needs, like we do right now.
So, how challenging it is, as a church with such a high level of commitment to our impoverished neighbors, to realize that we probably would have agreed with Judas (if only in this situation), agreed with the guy who betrayed Jesus? Super uncomfortable.
The last thing that makes this a challenging story for us is that we here at HCC are not necessarily as into devotion as we are into understanding and celebration and service. Secretly, devotion to anything sounds a little weak to many of us, right? Religious devotion sounds a little too Catholic, a little too evangelical to us. Devotion to God? OK, but as a New Englander, don’t ask me to be very emotional about it.
So, what about this idea of being devoted… to anything? Is it a sign of weakness? Or is it part of our nature as human beings and an opportunity to go deeper spiritually? And to work on our humility?
Even if we are uncomfortable with the idea of being devoted to God, if we think for just a minute, we can come up with many things to which we are indeed very devoted right now.
Some of us are devoted to our personal success… on the playing field, in the classroom, or at work. Some of us are devoted to a particular art form or professional craft. We want to be the best we can be. Some of us have been devoted to our drug of choice or now, to our sobriety. Some of us are devoted to the one we love – or the family we love. Some of us are devoted to avoiding devotion to anyone but ourselves.
Mary, in our story for this morning, is clearly devoted to Jesus.
Mary, and the other two characters in this story (her sister, Martha and their brother, Lazarus) are familiar to many of us. Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus visits the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. Martha is serving them food and doing all the work while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, listening.
In what is the most challenging moment for many of us in the whole of the Gospels, Jesus tells the very busy and responsible and helpful Martha that Mary has chosen the better part. In other words: Martha, there will always be food to cook and dishes to do (just like there will always be the poor). Take some time to listen and learn and pray and devote yourself to your God and to your spiritual life!
This is extremely confusing to those of us who are the cooks and dishwashers and planners and helpers in our families. What about us? Who will do the work and balance the books while all the spiritual people are sitting at Jesus’ feet and wasting expensive perfume?
As someone said to me recently, maybe there’s a lesson here about the Martha and Mary in each of us… and how the busyness and responsibilities of life, however important (and they are), need to be balanced by attention to our souls… and to our God, who is most important.
This story of the anointing of Jesus with perfume is actually one of the few stories that show up in all four of the gospels, but it has a different meaning in each of them.
Mark, Matthew, and Luke set the story in different locations, include a different set of characters, and send different messages through this very poignant scene. Those three gospels writers don’t tell us the woman’s name, though early scholars wrongly named her as Mary Magdalene.
The author of John sets the story at the home of Jesus’ good friends, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary of Bethany (not Magdala). Martha is, once again, slinging hash… Lazarus is enjoying the meal, hanging out with his buddy Jesus… and Mary is wiping perfume on Jesus’ feet with her hair. And just like in the other versions, the symbolism is clear: This is definitely about preparing Jesus for burial.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all the dinner guests criticize the woman who anoints Jesus. In John’s version, though, only Judas Iscariot complains. Why? Because, in the Gospel of John, the crucifixion is everything and Judas is the ultimate bad guy.
So, for the author of John, this story is a celebration of devotion to the One who gives his life for us on the cross so that we might have new life.
So, what do you think about this idea of being devoted to Jesus? I don’t mean instead of theological thoughtfulness and serving our neighbors, but alongside those, underneath those, supporting those?
In these waning days, of Lent, I have an invitation for you. I would never ask you to turn off your brain or to give up your commitment to helping the poor or to come to church simply to emote about how much you love Jesus.
But, if we gotta serve somebody (as Bob Dylan sang), and, if we gotta be devoted to something (which I think we are all hard wired to be), then let’s be devoted to the God of Jesus Christ, the God who is love, and show that love in extravagant and beautiful ways.