Scripture John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
Thoughts about an Imperfect Life and Faith
Are there smells that bring you back to certain memories - of places or people that linger in the air? Like grandma’s chocolate chip cookies, or your father’s aftershave or pine trees at Christmas time. Sometimes, smells evoke remembered feelings as opposed to vivid memories - like how our bodies react to the antiseptic smell of hospitals or how repeated use of lavender gets associated with feelings of calm and relaxation.
Smell and memory go hand in hand, so I have to wonder how the disciples came to associate this memory, with the fragrance of this extravagant, expensive perfume wafting through the air - a perfume that would have lingered on his body and that was used both as an incense offering at the Temple…and when anointing a body for burial.
Between the distinctive smell of the nard and Jesus’ words “you don’t always have me” - it highlights a reality that many of us have a hard time grappling with - our time on earth here is short and fleeting. We are fragile creatures. Life is full of beginnings and endings.
Jesus names the elephant in the room. He knows things are coming to an end. He’s well aware of the controversial nature of his teachings, the plots and schemes that must be going on, the attempts to keep peace with the Empire at all costs for some semblance of stability and security. Jesus was rocking the boat too much. I imagine he must have seen the writing on the wall in much the same way I imagine St. Oscar Romero saw his own impending death, or any other martyr who chose to rise against the powers-that-be.
We know, too, that death comes. To people. To organizations. Mortality is a given. Certainly as a society we’ve been living face to face with that reality these past two years, with almost 980,000 deaths due to COVID and the collective grief that comes with that is immense, especially with so many people delaying funerals or memorials because at the time of their loved one’s passing it was unsafe to gather. We know intimately the reality of loss as we all have loved ones who have died. We know the fragility of our circumstances, as life changes with a challenging diagnosis or even everyday endings and goodbyes. Each loss brings a reminder to us of what we value in life - so many times I hear how our seasons of grief and loss invite us to consider what is really important to us - how we spend our time and energy, what matters most and trying to draw straighter lines from our values to our lived reality.
I love how Jesus in this moment is at the house of his friend Lazarus - Lazarus, a dear friend who he had raised from the dead. Perhaps, even, the nard that Mary used to anoint Jesus was originally meant for his burial anointing. During this exchange between Jesus, his disciples, and Mary and Lazarus, we see this unfolding of truth that even as death comes to us all, there is this visible reminder of resurrection with Lazarus at the table. As Jesus talks with the disciples about the path ahead - he does so in the context of resurrection and the promise of new life. Woven through it all is this tender moment of love and devotion - a moment of heart, of extravagant beauty that demonstrates what truly matters in the midst of it all.
Mary’s vulnerability in this action is so moving to me. Her act of love and devotion to Jesus defies argument, no matter how much Judas wants to make it about himself (and his priorities).
Debie Thomas at Journey with Jesus writes, “Mary recognizes the importance of meeting the world’s brokenness, cynicism, and pain with priceless, generous beauty. Even as death looms, she chooses to share what is heartbreakingly fragile and fleeting: a fragrance. A sensory gift. An experience of beauty. Her perfume is her protest. Her scented hands are her declaration. In anointing Jesus in beauty, she declares that the stench of death will not have the last word in our lives — the last word will belong to the sweet and sacred fragrance of love.”
I wonder how much we get caught up in the details and logistics of what we do and making it work and trying to perform and demonstrate commitment to the right things when, in fact, this vulnerable outpouring of love and care is what really matters in the end? How many times have we had a friend in trouble and worried about saying the right thing or wanting to fix the situation - as we have talked about before - when really what matters is what pours out from our heart? How many times have we felt unable to stop and breathe because we’re afraid of what might happen?
The actions, the thoughts, the gestures that come out of that place of compassion within us takes a certain degree of vulnerability and trust and courage.
Many of us are terrified of vulnerability. Of fragility. Of letting the messy ends show - especially when coming to terms with things that are difficult and that we’d rather not face. And yet - having a space to be vulnerable, to talk about the hard things, to give ourselves over in these acts of love and devotion - is so incredibly valuable. We need these spaces in our lives. Church needs to be one of these spaces. Where we turn to face each other in the midst of all life’s fragility - its painful endings, its hesitant new beginnings, its joys, whether tremulous or triumphant, its burdens no matter how heavy. Church needs to be a place where kids can celebrate their missing teeth or the pain of the first breakup, where we can name the challenges of caring for our elders or grieve friends moving away or give thanks for that first sip of a hot drink in the morning, where we can honor the simple joy of knitting with friends or learn how to be at peace with our aging bodies.
I love the question at the end of the “Honest Questions” part of our liturgy - where we are asked: "What if we stopped denying the limited nature of our lives and breathed in deeply the fragrance of vulnerability?
What would that free us to do?
I know I already shared this in our enewsletter from this week, but I can’t resist the chance to share Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day again. I think her poem also gets at the heart of spending time and love and attention on the things that matter most to us - and the fleeting gift of time we have to spend.
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean -
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down -
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
+ Mary Oliver
I wonder if we gave ourselves permission this week for our actions to be lead from our heart -- not our unrealistic expectations, not our well-planned, orchestrated schedules -- and even during the times when we’re at work (for those of us who are employed) -- to let everything flow from here…or even our gut…and not here? To let compassion, heart, love, empathy draw us forward in terms of our service to others, in terms of our care of our spirits…and not just the check-list of things we have to do? What if we lived this week more in line with how we yearn to live our lives - in connection with God, others, and ourselves - and let the rest be….good enough? What if we invested more energy and more of ourselves in the things that matter to us this week and let go of the rest? What if we did so because each moment is valuable and something to be treasured, because there will always be the demands of the job or the house or the schedule…but we won’t always have the companionship of our loved ones? Or the moments that fill our spirits?
Falling in the grass and strolling in the fields. Pouring a jar of expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet. Lingering over a cup of coffee with a dear friend. Holding a child as they fall asleep. Sitting at the bedside of one who is slipping away. Dropping off a meal at the home of an overwhelmed friend. Playing soccer with kids at the schoolyard. Walking along the beach and watching the sunset. Sitting with a friend on the recovery journey. Soaking in the quiet. Moving in the bustle of a protest or demonstration. Watching your kid skateboard.
Like Mary anointing Jesus, may your actions this week anoint others and feed your spirit. May they be witness to a hope and love that never dies, even in the face of our human mortality. May these outpourings of love and devotion be an offering to God and may they bind us together as Christ’s body - and may we as a church learn how to trust the Holy Spirit moving in the midst of these moments…binding us together in these good enough days. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.