A Sermon for Lent V, Year C

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector, on April 7, 2019

A couple of days into the Season of Lent, I met with my friend, Stephen McHale, Rector of Christ Church Alameda to plan my Mom’s memorial service. Afterwards, Stephen said, “Well, Beth, you are certainly living Lent.”

Stephen was right.  The penitential season of Lent approached me on its terms this year rather my approaching it on my own terms. I’m thankful to have been here at All Saints’ and be learning the rich tradition of Anglo-Catholic worship, as we moved through the Lenten season together, and I am thankful that I had last Sunday off to celebrate the life of my mother, Dorothy Lind, with a beautiful liturgy and reception.

Our Wednesday night Lenten program has been a highlight of Lent for me and I hope it’s been positive for those who’ve attended. During the 6:00 Mass we’ve had a group reflection on the Gospel for the following Sunday. Afterwards, we’ve shared a bowl of homemade soup and an hour’s formation program together.  Next Wednesday is our last program, and we will reflect on the Gospel story of Jesus entering Jerusalem. Please join us if you can.

Last Wednesday’s Mass brought us into dialogue with our text for today from the Gospel of John: Mary’s anointing of Jesus. 

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus host a dinner party for their friend, Jesus. All three family members have shown us models of discipleship:  Mary was praised by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke for sitting at his feet and learning; Martha confessed her faith in Jesus as the Messiah when Lazarus was in the tomb; and Lazarus himself was called out of the tomb by Jesus.  The disciples were there, too, including Judas.

In the midst of the party, John says, “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.  The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

We get the sense that time stood still for a moment, and the people at the party thought, “wow, what just happened?”

The perfume Mary used to anoint Jesus’ feet was probably made from spikenard, a plant grown high in the Himalayas and used in Ayervedic medicine of India.  It was a precious commodity that must have been transported by camel along the ancient silk road. A pound of it was a lot of nard.  It probably cost about a year’s wages. Using nard was over the top.  The gesture was meant to make us sit up and say “whoa.”  What just happened?

Mary’s extravagant gesture is in line with the extravagant miracles we see in the Gospel of John:  The Wedding at Cana, when Jesus turns the water in the towering jars into 180 gallons of wine, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and the amazing catch of fish that just about swamps Peter’s boat. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is an agent of joy and overflowing abundance.

Mary’s anointing is an extravagant act from the heart and makes no “sense” if we look at it from the perspective of “the head.”  In a world of scarcity and poverty, why would she do such a thing?  Judas, though he’s portrayed by John as a thief, speaks some common sense here.  Why not give that money to the poor?  What’s going on here?

Mary’s anointing is intimate—Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair—this is no arms-length offering.  We almost want to avert our eyes, it is so…beyond words.

Like Mary’s anointing of nard, the incense at 10:00 “fills the house with the fragrance” of prayer. When I open the front door on Sunday morning before the 8:00 service, I encounter that distinctive aroma of incense that has permeated the interior of the church.  I like to think that over a century of prayer has permeated the church as well.

In that very sense of being “beyond words,” Mary’s anointing feels sacramental to me. Sacraments are “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace,” and the outward and visible signs are multi-sensory, including taste, smell, visual beauty, as well as words.  Our use of incense and sprinkling with holy water every Sunday at All Saints’ plays into this aspect of worship being “beyond words.” 

Sacraments speak to us in ways that words cannot, though our Episcopal liturgy is full of beautiful words.  In our Eucharistic Liturgy, we hear the words “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, which always strikes me as a paradox.  Sacrifice seems like something difficult, while praise and thanksgiving are celebratory.

But our relationship with Christ requires sacrifice on our part to respond to the great love that Christ offered to us when he gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice of love.

One of the things that stood out for us on Wednesday night about this passage was the word, “costly.”  The nard was costly, just as love is costly.  Mary’s purchase of nard to anoint Jesus’ feet tries to express the depth of love she feels for Jesus. 

I’m realizing in my own life how costly love really is, by the way grief breaks over me in unexpected times and places, like the Apple Store, and crossing the Bay Bridge, and when I want to call my Mom.  Mary was wise to the costliness of love and tried to express it in the most extravagant way she could imagine. 

Mary poured out the nard onto Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair just as Jesus was about to pour out his life in the ultimate costly sacrifice for the whole world.  We see it foretold in the reading from Isaiah, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

Jesus’ costly offering of himself is “beyond words,” and an intimate act of generosity.  Mary’s anointing presages Jesus’ washing of feet on Maundy Thursday, and shows us what faithful, “costly” servant discipleship looks like. Mary’s anointing shows us how we can respond to Jesus’ love with an outpouring of love in the form of giving of ourselves in service and love of God.

And in a world where women were considered property, we see Jesus defend and honor Mary’s ministry and love.  Let’s remember that Mary was with Jesus to the end, at the foot of the Cross.

Next Sunday we will process into Palm Sunday saying “Hosanna” and we will exit having said, “Crucify him.”  In that clashing of emotions, we can see both the generosity of Mary and the betrayal of Judas.  We see human imperfection.

What else strikes me about today’s reading is that Jesus loved both Mary and Judas unconditionally. Jesus loves us in all our distinctiveness, and all our brokenness, as well.  Jesus loves us in our loving, generous moments, and our snarky, selfish moments, too.

Jesus loves us with an extravagance beyond words, and he continues to pour himself out to us in the Eucharist, making all things new through his love, including All Saints’, you and me. Amen.