Word of the Week

A Conversation with Mary

John 12:1-15

Palm Sunday 2011

My name is Mary and I know you’ve heard a lot about me as I have about you.

We need to get a few things straight this morning before we go any further. I need you know who I am, not who many of you think I am.

So first of all, I am not Mary Magdalene, or I never have been. These rumors began in the 6th century with Pope Gregory. He preached a sermon calling my story that of Mary Magdalene, and thus I’ve had a case of mistaken identity ever since.  (You know how it goes when a man in power says something; everyone believes him as if his words were always true . . .) It’s easy to get us confused. Yet, I am merely Mary from Bethany as recorded in John’s Gospel, not the unnamed woman in the other accounts.  

Second of all, you need to know that I am not a woman who works in what you people today like to call the adult entertainment industry.  Though Luke’s account of a woman anointing Jesus adds the phrase twice that this woman was a “sinner” (and we all know what a woman who is a “sinner” does in the Biblical stories—prostitution of course), this is just not me.

Of course I’m not without fault. Of course I’ve made my mistakes throughout my life—which Martha, my overbearing older sister has never allowed me to forget. But, I’ve never been a person who has to sell her body to make money for the family. Lazarus, my brother, has always been a very good protector and provider in this way. He has made sure that my sister and I have what we need and my work has usually kept me close to home.

Yet, what does make me special, I believe, is the relationship that my family and I had with the Galilean Rabbi named Jesus.

If you’ve ever met someone who has to travel a lot for their vocation, you know how taxing this can be both on their body and their spirit. When you are or the  itinerant lifestyle you know that one of the best gifts you can have is the comfort of having a “home away from home” . . . somewhere you can go for a hot meal, some good wine and a share an evening of conversation with people with whom you share a history with.

Such was the role that my brother, sister and I played for Rabbi Jesus.

When he first came to our town of Bethany, we hit it off right away. There was a comfort level between us that let us know that this was the kind of guy that was not only going places in this world—doing really important stuff—but that we were meant to be friends. So, we promised him that anytime he was in town, he just must stay with us!

Over the years, we developed a strong bond with this teacher. Our mutual friendship and love for one another grew. I just was amazed each time Jesus stayed with us, the patience and compassion in which he showed not only me, but everyone. I couldn’t help but want to soak up whatever I could from his stories and ideas.  I was mesmerized by his presence around our table. I just couldn’t learn enough from his wise words. It was a delight for Jesus and his disciples to come into our home when they did.

In general, because I wasn’t married, still going about the business of existing in my childhood home, I often felt like an outsider. Yet, never when Jesus was present among us—though there were, I know, countless others who adored him as much as I did, I always felt like an “insider” around him.

So, the choice for me that evening at dinner was an obvious one. I had to do something to show my appreciation for all that Jesus had done for us, what his presence had meant to us . . . little did I know, though, that what I choose to do would lead  countless centuries of folks to either praise me as a “model of womanhood” or wondering if I had completely lost my mind.  . .

It began like this: I went into the quarters of our home where important things were kept. I grabbed the bottle of pure nard that had been in our family for as long as we can remember, but technically belonged to me, in hopes that I was the sister in the family that would actually get married one day. It was a beautiful jar—I had admired it for as long as I could remember.

And, just before dinner began, I got down on my knees at the foot of the reclining table where Jesus sat and began to pour the nard from the jar . . . not on his hands (just trying to make him smell better) and not on his head (so to anoint him as king as others had done before) but intentionally on his feet.

You might wonder why would I choose to do this. Didn’t I know that Jesus’ feet smelled and that it would not be worth my while to get down there? But furthermore if you are familiar with Jewish customs at this time, you would know that to anoint the feet of another was an act of death.  Anointing feet symbolized preparation for burial.

Seems like a strange way to “welcome” a house guest, doesn’t it?

And so you can imagine the strange looks that I got as soon as I opened the jar and directed it toward Jesus’ feet.

Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, in particular especially objected saying that I could have better used this jar of pure nard as a mission offering for the poor.  Judas was right about one thing—this was a good bottle of fragrance.

It was known to have origins in the mountains of far away regions of the East and so a rare treasure.  If I were to translate this into terms that you folks out there listening to me today would understand, I think that would be over $30,000 US dollars. Truly, a year’s wages for many. . . .

But, while, yes, Judas had a point, this perfume jar could have been used in others—maybe more useful ways in fact in the eyes of others—I had this hunch, this intuition if you will, that this just might be the last time we ever saw Jesus alive.

The crowds following him were growing by the day. The word on the street was that the religious leaders of the day had it out to make sure the upcoming Passover would indeed be his last. And, there was something inside of my spirit that said, “Now is your time Mary. God is calling you to this. Don’t hold back. Show with your extravagant gift who this man really is to you.”

But, it is not what you think. I didn’t love Jesus in the way that many of you in this room love your boyfriends or your girlfriends or your partners.

Sure, I let down my hair and wiped his feet it, but what else was I suppose to do.  It wasn’t like Martha was approving enough of this act that she’d willing go and get me a towel.  . . .

Truly, I loved Jesus because he was the greatest teacher I’d ever met. I knew that he was God, though countless contemporaries of mine and even some of you would debate me on this point.  And so because he was God in the flesh, I needed to show to the world who Jesus truly was and I needed him to know that I saw what the future held for him.

Was I scared you might wonder? Sure I was. Taking down your hair as an honorable woman was just not something that you did in a room full of men.  I wasn’t expecting praise.

Others would later tell me that  I was following in the tradition of the prophets from the Hebrew scriptures who had often been asked of God to do things that seemed laughable too--- prophets like Ezekiel who was asked by God to each the scroll of the law as a sign of the Word of the Lord inside of him, or like Jeremiah who smashed clay jars to show God’s judgment on Judah and Jerusalem or Isaiah who worst of all, was asked by the Lord to walk around naked and barefoot (ouch !) as a sign of judgment against the nations.[i]  Yet, for me, I wasn’t thinking about getting famous or being compared to a man of greatness right then.

What mattered to me most in those moments were for all eyes to be on my Lord. I desired for him to get the recognition and support he needed to face all the challenges that lie ahead of him, that would quickly find him soon after he left the ease of life as a guest in our home.

And, looking back on that day, and the criticism I took from my family later—relatives coming up to me saying, “Why did you waste your perfume on him? What were you thinking Mary?”-- I don’t regret what I did. Because soon after he left our home the next day, the Lord found himself nearing Jerusalem—the city that would praise him as king at the beginning of the week by laying down palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna, Hosanna!” would by the end of the week would be shouting, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”

As hard as it was that day to get down on my knees and risk the chance of deeply felt rejection and humiliation, I am so thankful I shared my moment with Jesus that evening. He needed that perfume more than any other worthy cause ever did. Soon he would be taken from us too quickly and it was right and good to join not the majority who praised him when it was easy, but the few of us who stuck with him even when the outlook seemed grim.

For on that day:

The Spirit of God asked me to love Jesus, even though the answers to all of the “big picture” questions weren’t clear . . .

The Spirit of God asked me to sacrifice the best of what I had to offer even when others would automatically disapprove . . .

The Spirit of God asked me to posture myself on a journey of service at the foot of Jesus even though there were countless “Martha” types in my life that kept begging me to control things through busyness to things that didn’t really amount to much of anything in the end . . .

The Spirit of God asked me to be with Jesus in the unknowns of this thing called the Road to Calvary especially because we knew that death happened there  . . .

And in the same way, I can imagine that the Spirit of the Lord is asking you the same things as you enter into this Holy Week observance this year.

It’s true, as a pastor from this pulpit has been telling you each week about other characters (You wonder how I know: I’ve been listening to her sermons on the worship section of the church’s webpage), God didn’t and doesn’t love me anymore or any less because I gave him this gift of love found in a cracked bottle of nard.

Nothing I did that evening “earned” the love or grace Jesus had for me. But, yet, it was in the experience of following Jesus past my comfort zone and being led by faith in service that I found myself in the amazing encounter of participating in the divine life.

For just as that jar was broken and spill out before my eyes, I got a glimpse of what Jesus would soon do for me in just days when he would push through the crowds, carrying his cross and willingly allow his own body to be broken for me and all of you.  Yeah, I lost a bottle of good perfume but Jesus lost his very life: an act of love unprecedented before or since.

So, today, I can imagine that some of you will hear my story and still go home and think this Mary from Bethany was a little bit crazy (and that’s alright), but may you really remember that if you find yourselves in this journey of following Jesus, on the floor in tears with broken pieces your hands of a life you thought you wanted but is now unrecognizable that this, yes, this, is exactly where Christ can welcome you—all of you—the most.

Thanks be to God for broken jars, broken pieces and the fragrance of lives fully committed to Christ in our midst.


[i] Idea taken from Barbara Brown Taylor. “The Prophet Mary” http://day1.org/1760-the_prophet_mary