Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA
April 7, 2019
Pastor Robert McCarty
Preaching Texts: John 12: 1-8
Are you offended by this story of Mary anointing Jesus' feet and using her hair? The moment has a certain awkwardness to it. I suppose it might be different if Lazarus came up to Jesus with an expensive bottle of whiskey and raised a few fingers saying, “To your glory.” Believe it or not we have scriptural justification for this. Proverbs 31:6 (NRSV) states, “Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,” or more clearly from the New Living Translation, “Liquor is for the dying.”
If Lazarus came up to Jesus with a bottle of whiskey worth a year’s wages, we would read that as an extreme gesture of thanksgiving. After all, Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead. A year's wages gets you a top-shelf bottle of whiskey aged fifty years. You can picture Lazarus sitting down and pouring two glasses to toast Jesus, “To your glory.” Of course, if Jesus just pulled you out of the grave, what could ever repay such a gift. But then what if Lazarus then took the bottle and filled Jesus' glass to overflowing so that the expensive whiskey anointed Jesus' hands and fingers, and all those present could smell the aroma, and Lazarus kept on pouring. As he approached those final drops he lifted the bottle to Jesus' head and poured it on him, anointing him. Whiskey, by the way, has the Gaelic meaning of “water of life.” To those who do not know that Jesus is going to die, they may be offended. You might be offended by a description that mixes Jesus and whiskey. The Pharisees, those Pharisees present, would wink at each other, “See, he came eating and drinking, Look a glutton and a drunkard.” Again, biblical, that paraphrase comes from Matthew 11:19, when Jesus quotes what the religious elite say about him. If Lazarus had given Jesus a moment of brotherhood, it might slip by with less scrutiny. It would still be scrutinized, but less so than Mary anointing Jesus' feet with costly nard and using her hair to care for him before his death.
Today we have this description of generosity taken to extravagance. Today you hear a story of generosity that seems slightly uncomfortable. You witness intimacy and love, a public display of affection, between a man and a woman not married. At first people suspect it as an extravagant gift of thanksgiving, but Jesus explains the true intent. Mary anoints Jesus for his death. Truth be told, we are more comfortable with smaller gifts and tokens—like mugs. How many mugs have you received over the years? How many mugs have you given over the years?
My favorite mug—I have had it for twenty years, give or take—was given to me by my Uncle Tom for Christmas one year. I forget one detail, whether he gave it to me the year before he died from colon cancer or on the Christmas day on which he died from colon cancer. The doctor diagnosed my uncle early in the spring with stage four colon cancer that had metastasized to his liver. The first thing Tom did after his diagnosis was take a week vacation with his girlfriend, who was the mother of his youngest child. They went down to Florida. Then he returned to Vermont and fought like hell.
You have probably heard similar stories of people, who diagnosed with a terminal or near terminal disease, their first response is to take a trip of a lifetime— Make*A*Wish for adults. Sometimes they even splurge and go first class, though that doesn’t sound like my uncle.
Make*A*Wish has had some extravagant requests over the years. You may remember that five years ago, a large portion of San Francisco turned out to watch “Batkid” fight crime on the streets. Batkid aka Miles Scott, who had leukemia, hit the magical five year anniversary of being cancer free. He is now ten years old living the life of a normal boy in Northern California
Sometimes, Make*A*Wish takes a simple request and goes all out. In 2006, doctors diagnosed Sam Farris with neuroblastoma, stage 4. He fought it for a year. Then, in the summer of 2007, oncologists scheduled Sam for a stem cell transplant. Sam loved playing baseball with his friends. When Make*A*Wish reached out to Sam before his stem cell transplant, Sam knew he could not play baseball, but he wished that his friends could play baseball in his backyard.
That is how Sam Farris ended up with a regulation Little League field in his backyard, complete with irrigation system and scoreboard. Make*A*Wish, and the Town of Mantachie, Mississippi, and ground crews from University of Mississippi and the local community college built Sam a regulation baseball field. They got donations of sod for the field, backstop, chain link fence, an irrigation system, and a scoreboard. Opening Day for Farris Field, Sam coached 18 of his friends against a junior varsity team. A neighbor sang the Star Spangled Banner; a local sports announcer called the game. (wish.org)
Eight to ten years later, John Lassiter made a short documentary about Farris Field, and Sam Farris, still living, also cancer free, had a chance to relive the experience of his town building him a ball field. Make*A*Wish loves these stories of the dying pulled back to life. Not just Make*A*Wish, we love these stories too.
These stories of life and dying and generosity give us the best avenue to understand Mary’s generosity. How much would you do for a dying friend or family member? What extremes would you go to, if someone you knew had maybe only six months or six days to live? Mary gives Jesus an extravagant gift; also a rather intimate gift; deeply, deeply personal; love to an embarrassing extent. Probably more people besides Judas felt uncomfortable by what was taking place between Mary and Jesus. But Mary understands. She sees what Jesus has shown his followers. She gets it. Jesus will die and he has already done so much, healed the sick, fed the multitudes, raised her brother. Mary gets it.
Tom, my uncle, went Christmas shopping with his grown daughter. He wanted to pick out gifts with meaning. While shopping outside of Dartmouth, New Hampshire, they found a designer-labeled cotton men’s dress shirt that cost 130 dollars. Tom and daughter joked about what kind of guy needs a dress shirt that costs 130 dollars. This was twenty years ago—that same shirt probably costs 200 dollars today. Daughter’s Christmas gift to her father was that expensive dress shirt. I mentioned Tom died on Christmas day. When we went to Vermont for the funeral, she gave that shirt to my father. He still has it hanging in his closet.
It is a fine line between extravagance and generosity, and Jesus crosses that line full throttle.
Jesus gets it. You are dying. We are dying, maybe not like my uncle. Death serves both as metaphor, for he we are mired in sin, but also as literal truth. For everyone of us, our days are numbered. We want to live and play ball with our friends and make the world a better place, but we just do not know the number. We do not know how many days or months we have to live.
And so Jesus does something extravagant for you, and deeply personal, for you. Jesus does something--love to an embarrassing extent--for you. He dies, for you, for us. In doing so, Jesus lives in Mary’s generosity. Imagine if Jesus hoarded of himself and went back to Galilee and lived the somewhat normal life of a prophet. Imagine if he healed the multitudes that came to him, dazzled with wisdom those who tried to trick him up. If from this moment Jesus runs back to Galilee just to live out his days, then Mary has the pinnacle moment of the Gospel of John and it goes for nothing. And Mary gives the greater gift.
Instead, here is what happens six days later after Mary anoints Jesus: Jesus anoints you. You are anointed in Jesus death and resurrection. It is not nard. It is not whiskey. It is something more, something greater, something eternal. Jesus has pulled you up out of the grave and anointed you with this water of life, your baptism.
So we live in this story that begins anew next week. The story of a people who were dying and were given new life by Christ Jesus. Come next Sunday and hear the story of a holy week and three days where death gives way to Holy life.