Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland
In 1985, my first semester in seminary, all the new students were taken on a tour of Holy Apostle’s Soup kitchen, at that time one of the largest soup kitchens in New York City. In those days, there was great debate in the city about money going to the poor. I remember in particular a movement to stop construction on the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, with the idea that money should go instead to help the needy in Harlem, just down the street. At the time, many of us considered that idea to be thoughtful, gospel-centered, and even prophetic. Today, after listening to this morning’s gospel, I am not sure I would agree.
The story we just heard shows up in both the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John. Mark has it occurring with undefined participants for an undefined reason. John has it occurring with his disciples at a celebration in Lazarus’ home, just after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. In this passage, Lazarus is surrounded by friends and family, gathered to celebrate the life of one they all thought was dead. Put yourself in that scene. Imagine the sounds of laughter and stories being told, the clink of glasses and plates, and the sizzling of lamb on a skewer or a grill. You may remember that during the raising of Lazarus people were concerned about the stench of death coming from the tomb. Contrast that with the fragrances of Middle Eastern food and the spices in the perfumed oil that Mary used to anoint Jesus’ feet filled the house. The scene is filled with the sounds and smells of celebration. Everyone was happy… except Judas. Judas complained loudly about Mary’s lavish use of that oil. Spikonard was imported from India and was very expensive. The gospel of Mark says that it was worth a year’s salary. Despite Judas being Judas, he had a point. It was quite an extravagance. The money used could have gone to the poor. What was Mary thinking?
The roots of Mary’s actions can be found in the other Mary and Martha story (Luke 10:38-42) in which Mary sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha did everything else. Like that story, this today’s passage accentuates the tension between being and doing, and between spending time at Jesus’s feet and being Jesus’ hands and feet in the world. As a Martha-type person, I struggle with being still. As a frugal person, and adopted Yankee, I struggle with wasting time or money – particularly when it comes spending these things on myself or when there are things that need to get done. The message of Mary and Martha is that spending resources on ourselves, on our relationships with others, and on our relationship with God, is not a waste. It is actually one of the most important things for us to do. Few people have ever died wishing they worked another day. Yes, there will always be more to do. Even as we worry about Ukrainian refugees, we still haven’t fully responded to refugees from Afghanistan and Central Africa, and have more or less forgotten those coming from Mexico and Latin America or Haiti. Jesus is right. The poor will always be with us. We need to do our part. However, we can’t feed others unless we ourselves are fed. We can’t help others with an oxygen mask unless we put our oxygen mask on first. Even with the oxygen, we can’t fix it all on our own. I recently saw research that described the decline in productivity of those who worked too many hours. Quick summary: If we are too tired we make mistakes. If we get too distracted, we become disconnected from God and from the love and the joy that brought us to this celebration in the first place. We need time with Jesus – and with one another – if we are going to do anyone else or ourselves any good. The costly oil gives us permission to slow down. The costly oil give us permission to lavish love and attention on those who matter the most to us — and who we are also most likely to take for granted and ignore… including God.
That said, the symbolism of the oil goes far beyond its cost. If you have wandered through the Egyptian section of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, you know that the Roman world in the Middle East adapted many Egyptian burial practices. Remember how Lazarus’ body was wrapped mummy-style in bands of cloth? It is likely that the oil Mary used in this morning’s gospel had been purchased to continue his embalming. I am suggesting that, even more than the cost, what bothered the disciples was that in using the oil, Mary was moving from one embalming to another. In using the oil, Mary was preparing Jesus for his death. By anointing Jesus, Mary was recognizing a reality that the disciples did not want to accept – that Jesus’s time with them was coming to an end, that he was going to die, and that their dream of creating a perfect kingdom here on earth was going to die as well. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get beyond their immediate concerns enough to see the big picture, put the pieces together and realize that Jesus’ death would open to a whole new way of life and a kingdom that would never end. They were so busy trying to get the Jesus movement going that they missed seeing that it would happen – was happening – in a completely different way. Despite having experienced the resurrection of Lazarus, they couldn’t image the same for Jesus. They were afraid of the cross, not knowing that it would lead to the empty tomb.
Bill Hybels, former pastor of Willow Creek Church, wrote a book a few years ago called “Too Busy Not to Pray.” It was a reminder that unless we go to the source of love, we will run out of love to offer. Unless we connect with the source of our gifts, we will not have much left to give. Living a Christian life is impossible without Christ. Burnout comes very quickly to those who help others but forget to help themselves along the way. The business and busyness of churches means that churchy people are especially vulnerable to post-Covid syndromes like disconnection, fatigue, and such a loss of a sense of taste and smell that they miss the celebration surrounding them. That’s why things like the upcoming Holy Week worship services are so important. These services offer times where we, like Mary, can sit at the feet of Jesus, be lavish in our love for him, let him lavish his love on us, and let our senses be filled, our spirits revived, and our souls renewed.
Do you remember the Clairol shampoo commercial that said, “It costs a little more but you are worth it”? That’s the way God feels about you. The story of the costly nard tells us that it is OK, more than OK, to spend a little more with and on those who matter the most, with our families and friends. It is more than OK to stop the crazy cycles of our lives and spend some time at the feet of Jesus. If we do that, we may just find discover that those smells of Middle Eastern spices and fragrant oil have filled the house… and death is transformed to life.