Sunday, March 17, 2013

Lent 5, 2013: Extravagant love

Lectionary: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo y Espiritu Santo. Amen. (I would say it in Gaelic, but I don’t know how :)

13th century mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg was a prolific writer of poems and hymns that vividly describe the nature of an intimate relationship with God. Mechthild wrote:

“Great is the overflow of Divine Love which is never still but ever ceaselessly and tirelessly pours forth, so that our little vessel is filled to the brim and overflows. If we do not choke the channel with self-will, God’s gifts continue to flow and overflow. Lord! Thou art full, and fillest us also with Thy gifts. Thou art great and we are small, how then shall we become like Thee?” (69)

How shall we? Judging from our readings today, we might imitate Mary of Bethany and St. Paul of Tarsus.

The story of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet is found in 3 of the 4 gospels, though it is only in the Gospel of John that the woman is identified as Mary of Bethany. By identifying her in that way, John brings the issue of intimate friendship into the story. Jesus and Mary of Bethany were friends… dear friends.

John also makes an important point about the way Mary anoints Jesus. Anyone who knows anything about Jesus knows that he was not interested in personal glory. And Mary does know Jesus, so she anoints his feet, which is a sign of repentance, not his head, which is how a King is anointed. Mary anointed the Messiah, not the next king of Israel.

The timing of this story is important too. Jesus, his disciples and some friends are gathered at the home of Mary and Martha of Bethany. Their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus has recently raised from the dead, is also there.

Meanwhile, Caiaphas and the other religious leaders, upon hearing that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, have decided that Jesus must die and they begin to plot how to make that happen. They also plan to kill Lazarus, to ensure that the story of his resurrection from the dead by Jesus should also die.

For the sake of the many, this one must die, they say. They also proclaim an edict that anyone who knows where Jesus is must tell them so that he can be arrested.

It is in this context that Martha, Mary, and Lazarus Jesus and the others have gathered for dinner. The gathering itself is risky and subversive.

After dinner, Mary loosens her hair (which in that cultural is the symbol of her feminine sexuality), takes out a jar of expensive perfumed nard (which would be worth about $15,000 per pound today) and anoints Jesus feet.

Mary loved Jesus deeply, honestly, completely. And she was unafraid to demonstrate that love and devotion, even when it meant violating the cultural conventions of her time… even when it meant bearing the public disapproval of others.

I think the point John is making is that Mary’s love and devotion, somehow she was led to know that Jesus needed this anointing now. She many not have even understood why herself, but she obeyed that inner prompting.

Imagine the faith and courage it took Mary to do that. How did she know Jesus wouldn’t respond like a typical Jewish man and rebuff for her touching him? How did she know that Jesus wouldn’t agree with Judas and be disappointed by her extravagance? How did she know that Jesus needed to be prepared for his burial the day before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem?

She knew. She knew because she knew Jesus… not just the man who was her friend and rabbi, but the one who was the Messiah, the Christ. Mary had integrated and been empowered by Jesus’ message of the extravagance of God’s redeeming love for the world, and so she could reflect that extravagance in her own life.

Mary knew Christ, and it is this kind of knowing that St. Paul is talking about when he writes, “I want to know Christ. I want to know the power of his resurrection.” Having already established Christian churches throughout Asia Minor, Greece, and Macedonia, Paul was now in prison and he knew his death was imminent.

With all of his credentials: a faithful Jew… a Pharisee, blameless under the law, Paul still says, “I want to know Christ” because what Paul is talking about is a deeply integrated, transforming way of knowing – the way Mary of Bethany knew him.

The lives of Mary and Paul make clear that living the reality of new life in Christ takes courage. As the world continues to be transformed by the power of Jesus’ resurrection, some people, some groups will cling to long-held customs out of fear: fear of change, fear of losing power, fortune, or importance, fear of being wrong or cast out from the group that matters to them.

Like Mary of Bethany, however, we are called to listen then act as the Spirit leads us. If we know Jesus like Mary did… deeply, honestly, and completely, then we will be unafraid to demonstrate our love and devotion to him, even when it means violating the cultural conventions of our time… knowing that it might bring disapproval.

To know Christ as Mary of Bethany did is to be empowered by Christ’s message of the extravagance of God’s redeeming love for the world. It is to live our relationship with Christ into the world, knowing that it might mean bring disapproval. To know Christ like St. Paul desired to is to participate with him, to become like him, to reflect the extravagance of God’s love by our lives and our service.

We are the Episcopal presence in this part of NC. That means our message will be out of step with other churches, friends, and business associates in our area because we are unafraid to include everyone just as God made them. That may be a bit uncomfortable for some of us at times, but it is comforting to those who are being judged, excluded, and dismissed. By our life together as a community of faith in the Episcopal tradition, we will demonstrate to them that they matter to us and to God, that they are beloved of God and welcome to be members of our family.

We will demonstrate the extravagant love of God, by showing them that God is waiting to shower that love on them if they will draw near one more time because, unfortunately, too often their experience of drawing near to church hasn’t been a healing one. That is what our worship, our website, our Shepherd’s Table, our Easter baskets, our Rosaries, our gardens, and all of our other ministries communicate to the world.

We care about those who suffer from any lack whether it’s food, friendship, or spiritual vitality. And we do our best to provide at least some of that and to help them find their way to the Source of all of it.

Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with a perfumed nard as a sign of her repentance and dependence on her Savior. The gospel writer said the fragrance of it filled the room. I hope it will do the same for us today.

(Instructions to the ushers, acolytes, etc.)

I have made up a similar ointment for us today and we’re going to pass it out now. The ointment is made from pure coconut oil and essential oil of myrrh – the scent likely used by Mary that day. I invite everyone to scrape some of this ointment into their hands and rub it in. The coconut oil will liquefy when it meets the warmth of your hands and you will smell the myrrh.

(Pause while the community receives the ointment…)

This fragrance that’s on our hands will be an outward sign to remind us of our inner call. It will follow us from this worship into the world, where we will carry the extravagant love of God in Christ to all we meet.

(Note: If you decide you want more afterwards, just let me know… An outward sign of our inward call…)

Let us pray…

Fill us, O Lord, until your love overflows from us and nourishes the souls of all you draw near to us. Help us to recognize them as treasures of your kingdom, that we may give to them as freely as you give to us. Grant us the courage to know you as Mary of Bethany did, to participate in you as St. Paul did, and to serve you, doing your will as you reveal it to us each day. Bless each one in our family as we discern the gifts you have given us, individually and as your community of love. Show us how to nurture those gifts, and motivate us to use them extravagantly for your glory and the welfare of your people. Amen.

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