Characters: P = Preacher; M = Mary
P: Will you pray with me?
God of new things, this morning we ask you to calm the cacophony of our hearts and minds, and make yourself known. Quiet everything but your Word for us today. Quell the distractions. Leave us awestruck. Come as thunder; or come as a still, small voice. Liberate the parts of us stuck in the past, those parts of us rooted in those seven deadly words: but we’ve always done it this way, and show us the new thing that you are doing, the new thing you would have us do. This morning, may the words of our mouths and the thoughts of all of our hearts bring us closer to you. Amen.
P: ‘This perfume could have been sold for three hundred denarii!— a worker’s yearly wage!—and the money given to the poor!’
John deposits us into the midst of this dramatic feet-anointing story. While all four gospels present this scene, John’s version stands alone. Only John tells the woman’s name, which is…? [Mary]. Yes, Mary, Mary of Bethany, Martha and Lazarus’ sister, not a prostitute.
What message would John have us hear?
To help us find answers, I’ve invited Mary of Bethany to join us this morning. Welcome, Mary.
M: Thank you for inviting me. I heard you read John’s story about me anointing Jesus’ feet and figure you might have some questions for me. What are you wondering about?
P: The first question that leaps to my mind is, ‘Why did you do it?’ But, first, there is one detail I am interested in. Where did the nard, the perfume, come from?
M: I bought it with my own money.
P: Let me get this right. Are you saying that this is not left-over burial perfume, ointment, from your brother Lazarus’ death and burial?
M: Correct. It is mine. I have been saving it.
P: That is a lot of savings. Today that perfume would be worth at least thirty thousand pounds. That is no little bottle of Eau de toilette! Why do you do it? What are you thinking as you break open that jar, pour the perfume on Jesus, and wipe his feet with your hair?
M: Jesus keeps telling us all that he is going to die. I want to be prepared. I can see it coming, his death, that is. The disciples do not believe him, but, think about it. Jesus upsets the status quo so much that people want him dead. Lessons like turning cheeks and forgiving others do not go over well with the Romans.
Then the miracles – healing sinners, raising my brother from the dead – the folks at the temple are none too happy about all that. Jesus’s new things are not popular with the old guard.
P: Okay, Mary, you actually believe Jesus when he says he is going to die soon. But why anoint him before he dies?
M: I know, I know, it does sound strange. But I wanted to do something really special, like a gift, my way of saying ‘thank you’. Thank you to Jesus for liberating us from being stuck. Over and over again, I hear people say: ‘But we’ve always done it this way’, or: ‘We’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work’. That’s something I like about Jesus, he does strange things, new things, and he teaches that God is doing a new thing. I take my most precious possession and use it to say ‘Thank you.’ Thank you for raising my brother Lazarus from the dead, for including women and children, for leaving no one out when he teaches about God’s mercy, forgiveness, grace and love. That is why I do something new and anoint Jesus while he is still alive.
P: Mary, as you say, you do a new thing, when you anoint Jesus before his death. Often when people try something new there is backlash. Were you not worried about the consequences of your actions?
M: Well, I knew Judas was not going to be happy – always worried about where the money for the next meal is going to come from.
But, really, I did not worry about the consequences. I believe that is what Jesus has been telling us all along, with his talk about dying …. If what you are doing is right, do not worry about the consequences. We must, like Jesus, speak and act as our faith dictates, and leave the results to God. When we are doing a new thing, we must trust that the consequences are in God’s hands. It is a lesson as old as time.
P: What do you mean?
M: Take Sarah and Abraham. When they decide to extend hospitality to those strangers, they do not know the strangers will turn out to be angels. And with that act of welcome, God does a new thing and blesses Sarah and Abraham, and through them all of humanity.
P: That type of story, of unexpected consequences, of God
doing a new thing, is a frequent theme in the history of our faith.
M: Absolutely! There are a multitude of stories about faithful people making kind of crazy decisions, like mine, and God taking the pieces of those decisions and doing something wonderful and new as a result. Ruth deciding to stay with Naomi, Joseph deciding to use his wisdom to save Egypt during the famines, Samuel choosing little David to be king, Noah building that crazy ark!
P: Mary, you have me thinking. There are also many examples of this happening to faithful followers of Jesus. People who did what they thought God wanted them to do, even when other people said they were crazy. For some the personal consequences have been grave, for their decisions have led to their death. Others have, like you and Sarah and Abraham, extended incredible generosity and changed the world, at least their little corner of it.
M: Remember, God is always ready to use us to do something new!
P: How true. Mary, there is one question still lurking at the back of my mind. As you mentioned, Judas was none too pleased by your extravagant gift, as he watched a year’s wages wiped with your hair onto Jesus’ feet. The story goes that Judas points out the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. What do you say to that?
M: This is important. For when Jesus replies saying, ‘The poor you will always have with you’, he is not condoning poverty or even resigning himself to it, as some might say. As Jesus often does, he starts a quote from the Holy Book expecting everyone to be familiar with the verse. This time he quotes Deuteronomy.
P: Ah, the same book he quotes to reply to Satan when Satan tempts him in the wilderness.
M: Yes, Jesus knows and uses his Bible. I see you know the Bible, too. Then you should know that the verse in Deuteronomy, ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ continues with ‘…therefore open your hand to the poor and the needy neighbour in your land.’ Jesus is always going on about taking action to make things better for others.
P: Hmmm, maybe Judas was right? Maybe it would have been better if rather than use up this expensive nard perfume on Jesus, you should have sold it and given the money to your poor and needy neighbours…?
M: You don’t get it. It is not a choice between loving Jesus and helping my neighbour; it is both, … and. Actually, it is learning that Jesus lives in my neighbour and by loving and helping them, I am actually loving and helping Jesus.
P: Mary, you have just summarised our faith in a nutshell! Both. … And. This is how Jesus wants us to live out our faith, how to follow him.
M: Exactly. Which means I also give extravagant gifts to poor and needy neighbours, without counting the cost. And when we do act with welcome and generosity, God continues to do a new thing, using us! A war creates refugees, and we open our homes to the displaced. A blind evangelist needs an audio Bible, and a generous donation purchases one. Someone dies, and the family presents a gift to the church in memory. The hungry poor need potatoes, and someone donates potatoes — and perfume — to the food pantry. We must speak and act as our faith dictates and leave the consequences, leave the results to God.
P: Which brings us back to Jesus whose gift of making faithful choices results in his death.
M: I see that you have the Remember Meal set out today, where you share bread and juice and remember Jesus. There is one other story about welcome and generosity I would like to remember with you this morning.
Shortly after Jesus dies, two of our group of disciples, walk the Emmaus Road, not far from Jerusalem. They encounter a fellow traveller and invite him to rest and eat with them. That meal of hospitality and welcome becomes the sacrament that you celebrate today.
P: Their eyes open and they know Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
M: Once again, God does something new! And wonderful!
P: Indeed! Mary, thank you so much for joining us this morning.
M: It has been a pleasure.
P: You have given us much to think about. Pray with me. God, sometimes it is difficult for us to see you working in our world. It is confusing when we try to figure out what we should do – when to play it safe and when to proceed at any cost. Help us love you and love our neighbour, both…and. It can be scary to go in a new direction, and yet we know in our hearts that following your call to be the people we are meant to be, as Mary did, is the brave and faithful thing. Open our hearts and minds to the welcome and generosity you ask of us. When we finally realize we are in the wrong place, grant us the strength to change paths. Be a lamp unto our feet. Guide our decisions, our words and our actions, that they may be faithful, whatever the cost. Amen.