Sunday, April 7, 2019

Lent 5-C, 2019: Vessels of extravagant love

Lectionary: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

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En el nombre del Dios: Creador, Redentor, y Santificador. Amen.

Thirteenth-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?”

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 three of the four 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 plan to kill Lazarus too, to ensure that his resurrection story also dies.

For the sake of the many, this one must die, they say. So they proclaim an edict that anyone who knows where Jesus is must tell the authorities so that he can be arrested. If they don’t they 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 subversive and risky.

After dinner, Mary loosens her hair, which in that culture is the symbol of her feminine sexuality, hence feminine power, 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 and she was unafraid to demonstrate that love and devotion, even when it meant violating the cultural conventions of her time and risking public disapproval.

Mary’s love of and devotion to Jesus somehow led her to know that Jesus needed this anointing now. She may not have even understood why, but she heeded that inner prompting, and Jesus thanked her for it later.

Imagine the faith and courage it took for Mary anoint Jesus in this way. 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… having sat at his feet and received the better part. Mary had integrated Jesus’ message of the extravagance of God’s redeeming love for the world and so she was empowered to reflect that extravagance in her own life.

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.” Here’s the backstory: having already established Christian churches throughout Asia Minor, Greece, and Macedonia, Paul was now in prison and he knew his death was imminent. Writing to the church in Philippi (though it sounds more like to himself), Paul lists his credentials: a faithful Jew… a Pharisee, blameless under the law.

Yet, despite all his spiritual bling, Paul confesses: “I want to know Christ.” Paul is talking about 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 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 and Paul, we are called to listen then act as the Spirit leads us being unafraid to demonstrate our love and devotion to God, even when that is subversive and risky. To know the Christ in this way is to be empowered by his message of the extravagance of God’s redeeming love for the world; to participate with him, to become like him, and to reflect that extravagance by our lives and our service.

As the Episcopal presence in this college community, 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 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. There’s a symbol of that love on the door to our church. That’s what our worship, our website, our Stewardship of the Entirety of our Lives community events, and all of our other ministries communicate to the world.

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

Those little covered cups you were given as you entered our sanctuary today contain organic coconut oil infused with essential oil of myrhh – the scent Mary likely used in her ointment.

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.

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.

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 extravagantly 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 us 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 for your glory and the welfare of your people. Amen.

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