Drew’s Sermon from March 17th, 2013. The text for this sermon is John 12:1-8, and it’s about how sometimes we do not have the words for our actions even when we know that they are the right thing to do.
When We Do Not Have Words
Our Gospel story for today concerns some good friends of Jesus’, according to the book of John, Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus, the one whom Jesus raised from the dead. This is the same Martha that Luke reports had to do all of the work to host the disciples, and the same Mary who is accosted for sitting at Jesus’ feet. And here Mary is, sitting at Jesus feet once again.
The first time she sat at Jesus’ feet, she listened and received the teachings from his lips. This time, she has something to give. She takes a bottle of very expensive perfume, and pours it all out on Jesus’ feet. The perfume cascades down his ankles and forms a puddle around his toes. She reaches down to his feet, and she works the perfume into them with her hands. And as the liquid drips from his toes, she wipes his feet dry with her hair. The room was full of the scent of the perfume. It is an extravagant gesture. We later hear that the perfume which she poured all over Jesus feet was worth 300 denarii, nearly a year’s salary.
I have to admit, I have a lot of trouble identifying with Mary. I don’t tend to be extravagant. I tend to be cautious, and careful. I want to know what will deliver the best results, where can I get the most bang for my buck, how can a little change make a big difference. I like to buy things on sale and then leave the original price tag on what I buy. This the kind of thing that I understand. If it were my perfume, and believe me, it is unlikely that I will be investing in a 20 or 30 thousand dollar bottle of perfume, I would at least have been sparing in my anointing. Perhaps pour a little bit on my hand and then rub it in, rather than letting it spill all over and wiping it up with my hair.
But Mary is not careful. She isn’t afraid of being wasteful, or brash or indecent. One can imagine the scene in Bethany, the many dinner guests who had come from Jerusalem to see Lazarus, the man Jesus had raised from the dead, all wondering what Jesus might do next, when this woman comes out of nowhere with this perfume. You know the movie the Sandlot? When the boys playing baseball in the neighborhood lose their ball over the fence, and one boy says, “Oh, I’ve got one,” and it turns out that it was signed by Babe Ruth? Imagine if he had come back with a Fabergé egg. You can imagine the stunned looks on their faces when she pours the perfume out on Jesus’ face. You can see the questions forming on their lips, “Woman, do you even know what you have done?”
Last week, we studied a different version of this story, the one found in Mark, and this exact question came up. Did even she understand what she was doing, when she washed his feet with her perfume? Did she know that a few days later, Jesus would wash the feet of each of his disciples, including the one who would betray him, and tell them, “I, your Lord and Teacher, have just washed your feet. You, then, should wash one another’s feet.” Did she know that the day after that he would die? Did she save nothing for later because she knew that the hour had come and there would be no later, for him until he came again in glory? Could she have known that she was saying goodbye?
John gives us no answers to the question of what was going on in her head. Perhaps she alone had put together what was to happen, that the power over death that Jesus had shown in raising Lazarus would again be on display in a much greater form. Or perhaps she did not know. Maybe she just felt so strongly that she had to do something. He had returned her brother to her, given her this great gift of life, should she not in return give whatever she had to him?
Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever done something without any reason, only later to realize that it was exactly the right thing to do? I haven’t talked about this a whole lot, but when I was 18, my grandmother attempted suicide. She suffered from severe depression, and had for quite a while. It wasn’t as shocking, as it was painful. We all experience different emotions at times like that, but for me, I was deeply and personally offended, and I was angry with her. Didn’t she realize how devastated we would all be? How could she act as if all my love for her meant nothing to her?
She survived. She went through Electro-Shock Therapy, and came out better, much much better than she had been in years. I don’t know if she even remembered what had happened, but I did. For the next two years, I didn’t speak to her unless I absolutely had to. When we had to interact, I would be polite, but I was boiling inside. I couldn’t get over this thing that she had done, that I had felt so personally.
I don’t know what changed, but one evening in my senior year of college, I had the urge to call my grandparents. And we talked, for a little while, and I was okay. This turned into a habit. About once a week, I would call on my way to the library. It was a short walk, and it gave me an excuse to leave if it became too much. But instead, slowly, I got to know my grandmother again. We talked about school, and books, and television (she liked the show Reba), and I’d find myself standing outside of the library in the snow instead of making an excuse to hang up. This had only been going on a couple of months when she passed away. I didn’t realize how important those phone calls would be. I didn’t understand that they would be the difference between remembering a grandmother who couldn’t get out of bed to see her grandchildren when they came and a grandmother who loved to read and cared deeply about the world and made excellent French Toast. I didn’t understand that it would be the difference between clinging to anger or holding on to love. But it did.
So maybe Mary didn’t understand what she was doing. Maybe she did not understand that she should anoint him now, because after he died it would be too late. Maybe she did not know that this was the greatest act of faith possible, because in one moment she acknowledges his imminent death, and at the same time proclaims his resurrection. Perhaps she didn’t know that she would be the first, the only one, to acknowledge Jesus’ fate, even if she still didn’t understand it. Maybe she had some vague premonitions about this feeling like the right thing to do, but no way to explain it to those who stood stunned as she lay her head down at Jesus’ feet.
I think sometimes we get a little too caught up in doctrinal purity. We have to know that someone believes all the right things before they can be a part of our community. We are afraid, if we acknowledge that we don’t fully understand or agree with something, that people will call us out and belittle or humiliate us. And we are often much more willing to forgive someone who believes the right things but does not act, than someone whose acts show great faith, but whose words don’t live up to our standards.
But in Mary’s story, we see something different. We see someone who acted in faith, perhaps without really knowing what she was doing. Certainly without having the words to express what her action meant. She wanted to express the extravagant love Jesus had inspired in her. She may not have known where he was going, but she wanted to be there with him, because she knew, from what she had experienced, that being at his feet was the right place for her to be. She acted in faith, without having the words to explain what she had done.
But Jesus did. The words that she doesn’t seem to have, he does. When Judas tries to push his agenda, to gain control over someone else’s act of faith, Jesus stops him. “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” He understands what she has done. The words that she does not have, he gives to her.
I think we’ve all had a time in our lives when we did not have the words to express what we were feeling, or a time when we’ve acted without understanding, only to later realize what our actions meant.
But the good news is that we do not have to be perfect. When we act with trust in God and extravagant love in our hearts, our Lord will understand. The words we do not have, He will, and our muddled replies to the extravagant love that he offers us will be taken and cherished for what they are. Acts of great faith.