Saturday, April 6, 2019

A Fragrant Offering and Sacrifice

Mary Anoints Jesus Feet
Oluwaseyi Alade
A sermon for the 5th Sunday of Lent, Year C

My name is Josiah.
I am not particularly important.
But I have seen important and amazing things.
I have come to tell you a story
about an amazing dinner party I attended
years ago when I was young.
It was at the home of my friend, Lazarus. 

You have probably heard of Lazarus.
A couple of weeks before, he had died of a fever.
Dead and buried.
Then, the Rabbi Jesus had come and restored him to life –
after he’d been four days dead!
Many of us had been listening to Jesus whenever we could
and had begun to hope that he might be the Messiah.
This pretty much sealed the deal for me.

Not long after, Lazarus invited me to a dinner party at his home.
Jesus was there along with his twelve disciples.
Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, were there.
And a handful of other close friends and Jesus followers.
After raising Lazarus, Jesus had been laying low
in a small town somewhere.
This was the first time he had come back to Bethany. 

As usual, the food was wonderful.
Martha was a fine cook and hostess.
She understood Jesus when he had said
he came not to be served,
            but to serve
She did the same. 

There was much laughter.
Someone asked Lazarus,
“What was the first thought that came into your mind
when you came back to life? 
“What’s that smell?” was his response.
We all laughed.
I was one of those who had helped to roll away the stone
from the mouth of his tomb.
I can attest to the stench of death it contained.

Amidst all the laughter, I began to notice something.
We were celebrating Lazarus’ coming back to life
and honoring the one who had done it.
But, more and more, it began to have the feel of a funeral dinner.
There was laughter.
There was joking.
There was remembering.
But there was a somber air to it all.
Especially among some of Jesus’ closest disciples.
A couple of them kept glancing at the door or out the windows
as if they suspected someone unwelcome
might crash the party at any time.
Others looked somehow sad – sad or determined, or both –
even when they laughed.

Then I noticed the wistful look on Jesus' face.
He looked like someone who was enjoying a last dinner
with family and friends
before leaving on a long and treacherous journey.

Then, something most shocking happened.
Mary, who had been looking intently at Jesus the whole time,
went to where he was reclining and knelt at his feet.
From somewhere, she pulled out a large jar of expensive perfume –
pure nard!
She began slathering it on Jesus’ feet – a lot of it.
Everyone was stunned to silence.
From where I was, it looked like she was weeping.
The whole house was full of the beautiful fragrance of the stuff. 

Then, ever the impetuous one,
Mary uncovered and undid her hair.
Several in the room gasped.
You, living in a different time and place,
might not realize how scandalous this was.
A woman’s hair was considered quite erotic.
A woman kept her hair covered in public.
Only her husband would ever see it down.
The first undoing of her hair
was a significant part of their wedding night.
And Mary had such hair!
Dark and rich and luxurious.
Hair that could tempt the angels. 

There was another gasp as she began to wipe Jesus’ feet with that hair.
Out of the corner of my eye noticed Martha shrugging her shoulders
and shaking her head with a bemused look on her face as if to say,
“There she goes again.” 

One of Jesus disciples, Judas, broke the silence
with a protest about the extravagant waste.
The money that purchased that perfume could have been given to the poor.
I learned later that some of the disciples
suspected that Judas’ motives were more selfish
and that he had been embezzling some of the funds
from the common purse. 

Whether he had been embezzling
or had been sincerely concerned for the poor,
I have come to think Judas was missing the point either way.
One way or another all of us were.
We all had our own idea of what Jesus should be about
and where he should go and what he should do.
For most of us, that meant Jesus should fit into our ready-made ideas
of what the Messiah should be.
Or that he should do what we would do if we were the Messiah.
We had our idols and were determined to have Jesus on our terms.
We were never quite ready to take him as he was
or follow him all the way. 

Except for Mary. 
Mary got it.
She knew there was need of only one thing.
And she taught us all a lesson that evening.
She poured out her love and devotion to Jesus
with all the extravagance of rich and costly perfume.
And without reservation.
She anointed his feet, signifying that she was prepared
to go wherever those feet went
and she would keep her focus on him to lead her.
She anointed his feet with perfume and wiped them with her hair.
And, now, her hair was soaked with the same fragrance as Jesus. 

Far from being scandalized or offended,
Jesus welcomed the gesture
and said she was preparing him for his death.
In about a week we would understand just how true that was.
Jesus was killed by the powers that be. 

But, like Lazarus, only much more so,
he did not stay dead.
He rose again.

God had done a new thing.
Psalm 126 was in our hearts and on our lips:
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion 
Then we were like those who dream 
Then was our mouth filled with laughter 
And our tongue with shouts of joy. 
The LORD has done great things for us and we are glad indeed!

Mary’s extravagant sacrifice of 300 denarii’s worth of nard
was a prophetic act foreshadowing
the extravagant and costly sacrifice of Jesus.
Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us
a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Jesus, who overcame the stench of sin and death
and filled our lives with the rich fragrance
of his extravagant love.
Mary had anticipated it all.

I have spent the rest of my life trying to catch up to Mary’s faithfulness.
I have tried to sit attentively at the feet of Jesus.
I have wanted to worship him in the beauty of holiness.
I have tried to love him back with the same fragrant
and extravagant love with which he loved me.
I have tried to love others with that same costly love.
I have tried to follow in his footsteps wherever they led.
More often than not, they have led me to the poor who are still always with us –
or at least they are with us if we choose to be with them
as Jesus himself was always with the poor. 

I want to be soaked like Mary’s hair with the love and joy of Jesus.
It is the fragrance of mercy. It is the aroma of heaven.
I want to be that aroma in the world around me.
As another follower of Jesus, Paul, wrote in one of his letters,
I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do:
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Like Mary, I seek to love,
even as Jesus first loved us and gave himself for us – for me! –
a fragrant offering an sacrifice to God.

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