Sermon for April 7, 2019
Over the years I have officiated at many funerals for veterans. After I give the benediction at the graveside, the VFW or American Legion comes to pay tribute. Sometimes this includes an honor guard with vintage M-1 rifles firing a three-way salute. On a few occasions there have been air-force jets flying over to give a final farewell. Sometimes a chaplain is present to say prayers. What I find most-moving is the presentation of a United States flag to a member of the family. The presentation includes the words “on behalf of grateful nation.” The flag is given in gratitude for sacrifice and service.
Today’s gospel lesson could be titled “Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner”. A dinner was given in thanksgiving for Jesus for what he had done for the family. This was the family of sisters Martha and Mary, and their brother Lazarus. Lazarus, you may recall, spent four days in a tomb. He had died and Jesus missed the funeral, much to the consternation of Martha and Mary. They were upset not so much by Jesus missing the burial, but not showing up when they pleaded for him to come and heal their brother. But Jesus assured Martha that he was resurrection and life, promising life to those who had died. Martha thought that meant the last day, but Jesus was about to bring life in the present. Death troubled Jesus, and he wept when he saw all mourners in tears. But Jesus resolutely headed for the tomb, in spite of Martha’s very down to earth warning of the stench of decomposition. At the tomb Jesus commanded with a loud voice “Lazarus, come out”. As the text said “The dead man came out.” Lazarus was raised from the dead. This was indeed a powerful sign of Jesus’ power. As you would expect, many people believed in Jesus. But Jesus also had enemies, and the religious leadership in Jerusalem called an emergency meeting. They were afraid. More and more people believed in Jesus and this could start a movement they could not control. They feared what the power of Rome, which ruled the land, would do. Even after Jesus revealed power over death, the religious authorities sought to arrest Jesus and have him killed. The threat was real and Jesus went into hiding for a time.
But the great festival of Passover was near and Jesus planned to head to Jerusalem. But on the way he stopped in Bethany where he was honored by a wonderful dinner prepared by his dear friends. Mary, Martha. and Lazarus. They all had a great deal to be thankful for, especially Lazarus. Martha, with a reputation for skill in the kitchen served. Martha could show her gratitude by preparing something special—maybe she knew of a special dish Jesus enjoyed. And what about Lazarus, how did he show gratitude? The dinner was in his honor too, his sisters happy to have him back, and he was seated next to Jesus. Mary showed her gratitude by bringing out a pound of very expensive, imported perfume, and anointed Jesus’ feet. She wiped Jesus’ feet not with a towel, but with her hair. That was unusual, and would have raised some eyebrows. I don’t think Mary cared what others may have thought, she poured out the perfume on Jesus’ feet to reveal her love for Jesus, not romantic love, but love inspired by Jesus’ outpouring of love for her and her family.
The gospel writer John did not say Mary poured out the perfume on Jesus’ feet, but anointed them. Kings were anointed. The very words Messiah and Christ, titles for Jesus, mean “anointed”. But kings were anointed with oil upon their heads. Even the well-known 23rd Psalm, speaking of special guests at a banquet prepared by God, are anointed upon the head with oil. But here Mary anoints the feet. She did so believing Jesus to be the Messiah, the King. She showed her gratitude with service; in ancient times feet were washed by servants or slaves. This focus on feet shows something greater. Soon Jesus will be present at another meal before his arrest and trial. And in the middle of that dinner it is Jesus who rose from the table and washed the disciples’ feet as an act to reveal that Jesus loved his own completely and to the end. The text gave a wonderful, sensual commentary of Mary’s act of gratitude, service, and love: “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” This meant more than the house smelled nice. Acts of service, gratitude, and love are wonderful aroma therapy. This can be quite literal, like bringing a freshly baked pie or a delicious casserole to someone going through a rough time in life. Such simple acts of kindness are remembered. They say the sense of smell can trigger memories, good and bad. An act of kindness, with the emotional aroma of caring, brings up good memories. Years ago the baking of fresh bread and buns was more common. As a young pastor, if I happened to be visiting on baking day, the aroma of bread from the oven was overpowering, it would make your mouth water. Even today, if I smell freshly baked bread, I can think of good times in the past having coffee with supportive people. It would be nice if the church was filled with the wonderful aroma of baked bread for communion. Even if just a wafer is received in communion, may we know we are surrounded by the love of Jesus, love that fills the room, fills the soul, like an inviting aroma of fresh bread. In gratitude may the congregation be known for the fragrance of what Luther called the ‘mutual conversation and consolation among the brothers and sisters in Christ.”
But in the text there is another odor from one of the disciples of Jesus, Judas Iscariot. One could symbolically say an odor of ‘fire and brimstone’ since in John’s gospel Judas has already been called a ‘devil’. Judas criticized Mary’s act of devotion, her anointing of Jesus, by saying “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii—almost a year’s wage for a working person—and the money given to the poor?” Now the gospel writer John said Judas, sounding so righteous, actually did not care at all for the poor. Judas, the treasurer of the disciples, was a thief. He was in charge of the purse strings and would steal. One wonders if Judas was always like that. Maybe at the start, he was honest, but then the temptation was too great. Judas started pilfering small, and maybe grew to even greater amounts of theft. Jesus responded quickly: “Leave her alone”. One gets the impression this command was not just for Judas. Other disciples were upset at Mary’s extravagance.
Now selling the perfume and giving the proceeds to the poor would have been a wonderful act of generosity. But Jesus knew Mary’s heart and this offering of gratitude, service, and love. Then Jesus added, “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” Jesus knew what was ahead. He knew outside the loving confines of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ home, the authorities in nearby Jerusalem were looking for Jesus, to arrest him and have him killed. There would be no attempt on Jesus’ part to hide or flee. He was headed for a death by crucifixion, a death he would accept. Jesus was willing to be the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. And as Jesus would say, three times in the gospel; of John, that when he is lifted up on the cross, he would draw all people to himself. Why would Jesus want us to see him on the cross? There is nothing to be liked about a state sponsored execution in the cruelest fashion. Before the crucifixion Pontius Pilate would have Jesus paraded as a humiliated king, with a crown of thorns placed on his head and soldiers mocking him by saying, “Hail, King of the Jews”, and then striking him on the face. On the cross Jesus would face the powers of sin and death, and would overcome, so that we become beneficiaries of grace, the power of sin and death cannot and will not separate us from the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. As the apostle Paul testified in the second lesson, he can leave his past behind—the good of being a Pharisee, and devoted to the Law of God, but he can leave that behind for something better: declared right with God not by his own righteousness, but by faith trusting Jesus and his love and grace. He can leave behind the bad of his past, of being a zealous persecutor of the church, because the Lord Jesus made Paul his own. So with us, may the love of Jesus be of far surpassing worth than the perishable awards from the world. And the bad of our past, sinful behaviors, left behind with no lingering burden of guilt because Jesus’ forgiveness is total and gives new life. And what a beautiful truth to keep in our hearts, Jesus has made us his own. The condemned powers of sin, death, and devil cannot cancel that good news.
Jesus told his disciples ‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ Believe it or not, that verse has been used to ignore the needs of the poor, as if other priorities take precedence. What Jesus meant was the poor are always with him so faith and devotion must consist of ministry to help those in need, as Jesus said in the gospel of Matthew: “as you help the poor and those in need, you do so to me.” In the book of Deuteronomy it warns not to have mean thoughts toward those who are poor, but “since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, the Lord commands, “Open you hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
May the loving act of Mary for her Lord inspire us to show with our lives what it means to belong to Jesus, deeds of gratitude, service and love for others. May the wonderful fragrance of Jesus: forgiveness instead of guilt, hope instead of despair, everlasting love and life, bless and keep us faithful.