First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
Date: April 7, 2019
Scripture: African Traditional Religion, Kipsigis Saying (Kenya), John 12:1-8
Sermon: “What are You Wearing?”
I have flashbacks anytime I attend a service at church when it is encouraged to where anything but a suit and tie. Wear your Compassion t-shirt, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. Or, everyone where their favorite sports team shirt, or Hawaiian shirt, or other causal apparel. I have flash backs, not because I think any of those things are bad, we should be comfortable where what we have to celebrate the community of faith together.
It is just for me, I have flashbacks and can still hear my mom say something to the effect of, “Um, you’re not wearing that to church are you?” Mom thought one should wear their Sunday Best, so to speak, to church on Sunday morning. That notion has changed over the years and decades, changed for the better I think.
Sometimes what we wear as a community of faith can be off putting to those who may not have a suit and tie, or even a tie for that matter, or a dress suit or nice outfit, everyone should be welcome regardless of what they do or do not have to wear to join the community of faith! Though I am still a little hesitant, if I have an event to attend, I often ask TruDee…“So, I’m going to such and such… do you think I should wear jeans and a sport coat, slacks, suit and tie?” Often it is the last question I ask her before we turn in on Saturday night, “Does this go with this?” I have gotten better over the years, but I still do not trust my fashion choices very well.
In Edward Hayes book, The Lenten Labyrinth, this fifth Sunday week of Lent carries us into the depth of the labyrinth – down into the catacombs, “littered with bones and the stench of death,” he says. It in essence he goes on to write, a confrontation with our own mortality. Something some of us may be more comfortable facing and talking about than others. However, here we are, creeping closer to the end of Lent and approaching the Palm Sunday of next week, and the Holy Week of last meals and the finitude of our life.
In the midst of this considering the depths to which we travel in this tomb-like labyrinth, Hayes asks an interesting question, or better, he says we need to ask an interesting question…“What shall I wear today?” What shall I put on to help carry me through this time of reflection and meditation and preparation for the journey? What kind of garb is best suited to elicit the kind of courage the Kipsigis saying suggests…”the courage to face life as it is, to go through sorrows and always sacrifice oneself for the sake of others?” What are the traveling clothes we don as we trek deeper into the labyrinth of life?
I think about this whole “What shall I wear” question as I read the story from John for this week’s continued journey though the labyrinth. I always get a bit of a tic when we jump out of the particular gospel of the lectionary and include a reading from John. Not that I do not like John, I think often his writing has a lofty, rhythmic, poetic sense to it. Sometimes his writing can take me to another place, sometimes his writing can cause my eyes to roll back in my head and say, “Come on John, get on with it!” Anyway, another reason is I do not understand why the lectionary creators need to jump around…just stick with the assigned gospel! And there is the literary and cultural reason, it was written as much as 100 years after the death of Jesus. How accurate of a picture can it give us of the life and ministry of Jesus? I have one colleague who “almost” refuses to use readings from John for just that reason.
There are two such anointing stories in the gospels, one in Mark where an unnamed woman anoints Jesus head with a bottle of spikenard.
And this story in the Gospel of John, while they appear to be very similar, and perhaps have the same origins, they should not be confused or assumed to be the same story from different perspectives. They are very different stories. In John, Mary the sister of Martha and Lazurus anoints Jesus’ feet with a bottle of nard, or spikenard. Judas gets a little indignant for the obvious waste of money as the nard could have been sold to care for the poor. I think it is interesting how the author quickly helped us understand this was not about helping the poor but that Judas was a thief, as if betraying Jesus wasn’t enough for the memory of Judas to bear. Judas is a whole other sermon.
However, he had a point. The nard, or spikenard, was a popular perfume, a popular very expensive perfume of Jesus’ day. It got its name from the spike-like shape of the root and spiny stem of the herb plant which was found high up in the Himalayan mountains of India. In the time of Jesus it would have sold for three hundred denarii, or approximately a laborer’s yearly wage…in today’s terms, the Median Household income in Nebraska is about $56,000. That is an expense bottle of perfume. Judas had a point. What was Mary thinking?
Leonard Sweet in his book, Soul Café, speaks of anointing and the extravagance of this gift. Here was Mary… a woman… in the company of a patriarchal gathering, not cooking in the kitchen…. Again! …breaking boundaries, tearing down walls, and comes out with one of, if not the, most expensive perfume of the ancient world.
Here was Mary, who took it upon herself to break open the flask and anoint Jesus feet during the meal.
Here was Mary, who was so caught up in the moment of Jesus presence showed a gift of extravagant love.
Here was Mary, who believed Jesus when he said his death was impending when the other disciples did not.
Here was Mary, who understood Jesus teaching about living incarnation-ally in the moment and facing the fear of the unknown.
Here was Mary, while surely knowing this act might draw scrutiny risked expending an extravagant expression of devotion to one she loved.1
Here was Mary, in the midst of the criticism of some of the scribes and Pharisees, threw caution and confidence to the wind and emptied her heart and wallet, allowing herself to become a fool for love.
As I have considered this story again, for the first time, as Marcus Borg might say, what struck me most was the servant posture of Mary. Whether this story is factual some 100 years after the death of Jesus or not, or if it is a modified telling of Mark’s tale, what does it have to say to us on the morning of April 7th, 2019? Here is what I hear…
Jesus was right… The poor are still with us, however, we should never use this passage to neglect the care and empowerment of the poor. Judas was right, the perfume could have been used to help the poor, regardless of his so-called intentions. And, Mary did a good thing in preparing not just Jesus for his death… but pointing the whole gathering in that direction… & the fragrance of what she did said… “We are going there, we are all going there, whether we want to or not.”
I would also say, Mary took this opportunity to put Jesus, put the community, which I think could have been the author’s ultimate purpose…And the fragrance… Mary took this opportunity to put the Community of Faith before her own wants and needs. This story and Mary’s act, is a metaphor, a story pointing, not unlike last week’s story… pointing to the extravagance of the love of God.
And…this story and Mary’s act is an example of serving the other, setting our own agenda’s, desires, wants, aside for the good of the community. We look to Mary in this story to quell our own greed, to stifle our own selfishness, to suppress our own agenda, to subdue our own wants and to clothe ourselves in the common good of all. As I pondered last evening at home this story I was drawn to the text from Colossians…
“As children of the Divine, sacred and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other… Above all else, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
And if we are able to clothe ourselves in and live out such humility and grace…the fragrance of love might fill the whole of our space and release the extravagance of the Love of God for all. May it be so. Amen.
1 Sweet. Leonard, (1998). A Cup of Coffee at the Soul Café, Broadman and Holman Publishers, Nashville, TN
Wisdom Readings –
African Traditional Religion, Kipsigis Saying (Kenya)
It is not always physical bravery that counts. One must have the courage to face life as it is, to go through sorrows and always sacrifice oneself for the sake of others.
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.’