Sunday, March 29, 2020

Not a waste — a sermon on the anointing at Bethany

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Not a Waste
Mark 14.1-9 (Common English Bible)
29 March 2020, NL2-31, Lent 5 (letting go: fasting from judgment)

It was two days before Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and legal experts through cunning tricks were searching for a way to arrest Jesus and kill him. But they agreed that it shouldn’t happen during the festival; otherwise, there would be an uproar among the people.
Jesus was at Bethany visiting the house of Simon, who had a skin disease. During dinner, a woman came in with a vase made of alabaster and containing very expensive perfume of pure nard. She broke open the vase and poured the perfume on his head. Some grew angry. They said to each other, “Why waste the perfume? This perfume could have been sold for almost a year’s pay and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.
Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. You always have the poor with you; and whenever you want, you can do something good for them. But you won’t always have me. She has done what she could. She has anointed my body ahead of time for burial. I tell you the truth that, wherever in the whole world the good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.”


Last night I happened upon a Facebook Live video of some musicians, half of a local band called Reely Jiggered, doing a little concert for their neighbourhood, which they called “Live from the Drive” — they set up sound equipment and everything, and had their mum hold the phone camera, and their neighbours came to their windows or doors and listened and clapped along. It was a delightful half hour of traditional music, and I could even hear the neighbours clapping.

And then, in the comments, came one person who said: shouldn’t you be in your house?

And then another: I hope no one is clapping along, you’re supposed to be inside!

Thankfully, the scolding didn’t seem to take hold, just a comment every now and then, here and there. But how easy it is to fall into that were some talented women, providing entertainment for their neighbours in lockdown, no one crowding up into the drive or dancing in the street, just everyone enjoying the show from their own windows or doorways. But someone couldn’t stop themselves from scolding.

Elsewhere in groups of local folks I’ve seen people saying they got dirty looks from fellow shoppers in the supermarket when they bought a cake for their child’s birthday. And I’ve seen discussions about whether whatever someone ordered from Amazon was actually “essential” or if it was some frivolous thing that risked the driver’s life to deliver. Not to mention the people (usually who are out driving somewhere!) commenting on how many people are out for a walk or queuing for the shop or asking for the newspaper....and that doesn’t even get into the sarcastic answers people get to genuine questions. Scolding has become our pandemic pastime.

Jesus was a dinner guest at the home of Simon — sometimes known as “Simon the leper.” Whether or not the disease referred to in the original Greek text was actual leprosy or something else (it could have been eczema, or rosacea, or any number of other things that were not contagious, the word is literally just “skin disease”), Simon was someone that people who cared about appearances would not have associated with.

Jesus was already a target, the leaders of his community were plotting to get rid of him. They were cunning enough to know that they want to do it quietly, not during the most celebrated festival of the year, when the city is full of visitors and people are already wound up. But the plot was underway, nonetheless. 

It isn’t clear who was at that dinner party at Simon’s house. There were obviously several guests, but we don’t know who they were, other than that they were people who were willing to go to dinner at the home of someone who was ritually unclean, just two days before the Passover. Maybe it was Jesus’ disciples. Maybe it was Simon’s family, or some close friends. Maybe it was a gathering from the streets and alleys, like one of Jesus’ parables. Whatever the case, we know they were in the home of an outcast, and so must not have cared overly much about appearances, or social and religious and cultural taboos.

During dinner, a woman came in. Interestingly, as Mark tells it, there’s nothing strange about this, or about the woman herself. Other gospel writers give her a name or an occupation or a status, but not Mark. She’s just a woman with a jar full of pure nard — a costly and beautiful thing, meant for burials, or for celebrations. She would likely have been saving it for an important occasion. Even the jar itself proclaimed that this was special, not just the perfume you spritz on before a night out. Alabaster is fragile, it can be nearly translucent, and in the right light, it seems to glow. Once the top was broken, it could never be used again.

The woman took this special-occasion perfume, in its gorgeous luminous alabaster jar, and she broke it open over Jesus’ head. 

She offered her most precious possession, the most beautiful thing she had, and the most costly. She recognised that the person invited to dinner that night wasn’t just another outcast, not just another person flouting social norms....he was something special, something worth her gift, worth sacrificing her best for. She gave her all to him. 

Imagine how much courage it must have taken, to walk into that room full of men, including the one she recognised as the Messiah, and to anoint him — not just as the prophet, priest, and king we know Jesus to be, but for his death

When the journey to the cross is completed, just a few days after this dinner, there will be no one to anoint his body, and no time for it anyway. But the scent of this perfume will still be in his hair and on his clothes. Her gift will go with him to the cross, and to the tomb...and he says that wherever his story is told, the scent of her gift will waft along there as well, her story will also be told.

And the others...whoever they were, these norm-flouting outcasts...they scolded her.
They scolded her.

She did something beautiful. She offered herself, heart and soul, body and mind, possessions and status. She recognised who Jesus was, and she worshipped him in the clearest way she knew how.

And they scolded her.

With every breath, the scent of perfume filled their nostrils...but they used that breath for something decidedly less beautiful.

These men who were already breaking all sorts of rules could not stand that this woman had broken not just her jar, but the rules they had just that moment made up.

Why not sell this costly thing and give the money to the poor?

This is the question of someone who has never saved something for a special occasion...never hidden something away for the right moment, when it might be needed....never done the emotional labour of preparing for a future that no one wants to think about. That perfume was at the back of the top shelf of the cupboard waiting for the day of a death or maybe, if they’re lucky, a wedding; not just a trinket brought out on a whim, and not a stash hoarded for a nice holiday. She knew that terrible things happened, and it was her job to be ready. And she was.

And they scolded her.

They did not understand. They made assumptions about why she would have such a beautiful thing, where she got it, what it was for. They made assumptions about her. And they voiced them — called her wasteful. Called her a waste. 

Even as I write those words, I can feel the tears welling up. I hope you can feel it too, the harshness of those assumptions, flooding this woman whose worship was called a waste, whose life was in question, whose dignity was being stripped away by the very people who ought to have been on her side, one team of “outcasts” in the midst of a sea of powerful people’s plots.

They scolded her.

And somehow, she did not run away. She did not drop her jar and rush out of the room in tears. She did not shout at them that she thought they were all in this together, worshipping the Son of God right there in their midst. 

I bet she wanted to, but Jesus stepped in. And in his defence of her, he said something that has been used and twisted throughout the centuries to justify plenty more scolding: “you always have the poor with you,” he said.

Too many have quoted this line and insisted it’s Jesus giving his blessing to an economy of haves and have-nots, that he’s defending the idea of keeping our expensive pretty things to ourselves even if other people starve.

That is not what the woman did, and it is not what Jesus said. 

This sentence is the moment when it becomes clear that at least some of those dinner party guests must have been Jesus’ disciples. Because when he says “you will always have the poor with you,” he is making a statement about his disciples, the Church, who will be his Body on earth. You, followers of Jesus, will always have the poor with you...because you’ll be with them. That is where the Body of Christ is to be found, among the poor, the outcast, the sinner — in other words, the same places where Jesus was found during his ministry. That is where we are to look, if we want to find the Church: Among the poor. Defending the outcast. Bringing healing and wholeness to those who are broken. 

Not scolding. 
Not hoarding.
Not well-actually-ing.
Not imposing standards we don’t even live by.
Building up. 

Each week this Lent we have been practicing letting go of something, giving up something not just for Lent but forever (hopefully). We have tried fasting from being owned by our possessions, from being first, from being right, and from needing recognition. I wonder if this week we could practice fasting from from scolding, from self-righteousness, from allowing our assumptions to guide our reactions. Because let’s be honest for a moment: most of the time, we have no idea whether those five people we saw out walking together live in the same house or not. We have no idea whether the person in the store has a special-needs child who only eats one shape of pasta. We have no idea what’s inside that box being delivered from Amazon, or why the person needs it. So let’s let go of our self-righteous assumptions. And when someone offers something beautiful, whether it’s a live concert from their driveway or a rainbow posted in the window or an offer of picking up the papers and a pint of milk for a neighbour, let’s fast from scolding them (or anyone else!) for it. Shame doesn’t usually lead to a change in behaviour, but love sure can.

Imagine if, instead of judging based on appearances and assumptions, we started from the truth that all of us, every single one, is made in the image of God, and doing the best we can with what resources we have available. Some of us are more or less prepared, physically and emotionally and spiritually. Rather than scolding, which takes up our own energy unproductively and also tears down and saps the energy of the person being shamed, let’s try to build up the Body of Christ, to show our love for one another, and perhaps, as we give up judgment, we’ll find ourself more able to offer compassion instead, no matter the cost.

May it be so. Amen.

The Bible Study for Lent was based on the Greatest Showman. The storyline of the film involves a variety of people considered to be outsiders, misfits, and “freaks,” into a circus show. The performers become like a family, and being together builds their confidence in their own humanity and belovedness. At one point they are again stared at, shamed, and shut out of the wider community, despite all Mr. Barnum’s previous assurances to the contrary. It’s a pivotal moment in the film, when each of them, and all of them together, finally summon up the courage to live out the truth they have been learning: that they are wonderfully made, and loved, and deserving of dignity. Despite all the scoldings they have received, and all the shame they have internalised over the years, they dig deep and discover that they are allowed to be themselves, just like everyone else. Here is the video clip of the workshop of that moment — this is when the actors and director and writers were asking the studio for permission to make the film. 

As you watch, dig deep in yourself too, and feel your belovedness. You are fearfully and wonderfully made, and God’s love is for you...and let it flow through you to others, too. One way we do that is through the spiritual discipline of giving. Consider how you might give of yourself and your resources to build up the Body of Christ, both right now and in the future. If you have a weekly offering envelope, please put it somewhere safe until we are able to worship together again. Please note: no one is going to come to your door to collect your offering! Save those envelopes up until we can gather again, or until your elder is in touch sometime after this health crisis is over.


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