A Sermon for Sunday March 13, 2016 (Fifth Sunday of Lent), John 12:1-8
Our scripture reading this morning comes from the Gospel of John. I will be reading the New Revised Standard Version that we are accustomed to hearing. But I’ll be reading from this slightly battered navy blue Bible, which was presented to me during my installation at Colesville Presbyterian in Silver Spring, MD, the first church I served as a newly ordained minister and associate pastor.
This Bible was a gift from the head of staff, the Rev. Mike O’Brien, and his wife Pam. And on the inside cover, they wrote the following inscription:
May God bless you and walk with you in your ministry.
We love you!
Mike and Pam,
In honor of your installation
September 25, 2005
A little over a week ago, Rev. Mike O’Brien died at the age of 64 from the effects of radiation treatments for an aggressive brain tumor that he was diagnosed with in early January. Yesterday, family and friends gathered for a memorial service and burial in Massachusetts (where Mike had recently been serving as an interim pastor) to celebrate Mike’s life and witness God’s love in Christ Jesus. And so it only seems appropriate, as a way of honoring our work together long ago and his life and ministry, that I read the scripture from this Bible that he gave to me:
1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary 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. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(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.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Let us pray… (Prayer of Illumination)
Since learning the news of Mike O’Brien’s death, my mind and heart has been flooded with memories of the three years I served alongside him at Colesville. I learned a lot from Mike about being a pastor in those early years of my ministry (when I was young, naive and didn’t have a clue about what I was doing). And what’s often popped in my mind are the hospital and home visits we made to church members; as the only two pastors in a congregation of 400, we did a lot of tag-team pastoral care.
One of Mike’s greatest strengths was caring for others when they were struggling deeply with something in their lives or when they were ill or even dying. The amount of empathy, mercy and love this large, jovial man showered on them was generous as well as blind to the person’s faults or grievances they may have held for the church or us. It was always a blessing for me to witness such holy encounters.
I also recall snippets of several conversations we had about the meaning of life and death and the importance of serving God in the short time we have on this earth. And I remember the central theme of the sermons he preached during Lent and Holy week: God’s call of us to pour out unconditional love on others in the midst of a broken world where Empire puts Divine love on a cross to die.
In this morning’s story from John’s gospel, Mary—who lives with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus in the town of Bethany—answers this call to pour out love even though it will subject her to much scrutiny.
During dinner with her siblings and Jesus and his disciples, Mary brings out an expensive perfume. She then kneels before Jesus and pours out the entire contents of the bottle onto Jesus’ feet and then wipes them with her hair. The incredible fragrance lingers in the air long after the act is done, a free gift that is freely received by all who breathe in the air and the moment.
But in this act of anointing, Mary has broken four social customs of the day: 1) she has let down her hair in a room full of men, 2) she has poured perfume on the feet 3) she, a single woman, has touched a single man and 4) she wipes his feet with her hair.
Unlike the unnamed women in the gospels of Matthew and Mark who anoint Jesus’ head, and the notoriously sinful woman in Luke’s gospel who weeps over Jesus’ feet, Mary has been friends with Jesus for a long time. She loves him and he loves her like a friend or sibling would cherish one another, which makes the anointing so much more bizarre and excessive and over the top.
The scene bothers Judas so much that he angrily questions Mary’s extravagance; it is the only time he speaks in the gospel: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
Jesus quickly brushes him aside because as everyone was already aware, Judas could care less about giving money to the poor. Judas became angry because he was greedy. He believed the money that Mary spent was wasted on Jesus feet when it could’ve made him a richer man.
Jesus tells Judas that if he truly cares about the poor then he will have plenty of opportunities to care and feed them for the rest of his life. But moments like the one they are currently experiencing are precious and fleeting because soon Jesus will no longer be of this earth.
Mary knows and understands her rabbi’s fate. As soon as Jesus showed his power by raising Lazarus from the dead (in the previous chapter), Mary sensed that the religious authorities would turn him over to the Roman Empire to be killed. (Because in those days, the emperor Caesar, who considered himself to be god-like, didn’t tolerate those who would usurp his power, even Emmanuel.) In a sermon on this text, The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
“Whatever Mary thought about what she did, and whatever else in the room thought about it, Jesus took it as a message from God—not the hysteric ministrations of an old maid gone sweetly mad but the carefully performed act of a prophet. Everything around Mary smacked of significance—Judas, the betrayer, challenging her act; the flask of nard—wasn’t it left over from Lazarus’ funeral?—and out in the yard, a freshly vacated tomb that still smelled of burial spices, waiting for a new occupant. The air was dense with death, and while there may at first have been some doubt whose death it was, Mary’s prophetic act revealed the truth.”
It’s also worth noting that Mary shares her lavish gift in plain view of others while Jesus is living whereas when Jesus dies, two men who are afraid to publicly express their faith will sneak out into the middle of the night to anoint the body for burial.
Mary’s humble act also models discipleship. In the next chapter, Jesus will wash and wipe the feet of his disciples, telling them to care for another in the same way that he has cared for them. Mary comprehends what it means to be a disciple before Jesus even gives verbal instructions to the 12 men who have worked closely with him.
Because Mary knows, she anoints the Anointed. She honors the gift that is Jesus—the God-in-the flesh that comes bearing mercy and hope for a world that desperately needs to be freed from its ruling powers and principalities. She takes care of Jesus just as Jesus has come to take care of humanity. She pours out love on the One who, in life and death, spills out love onto the entirety of creation.
As Holy Week and the events of Christ’s suffering and death quickly approach, there may not be a more appropriate story for us to hear on this Fifth Sunday of Lent than Mary’s anointing of Jesus. And, aside from Christ himself, there may not be a more important figure for us in our current socio-economical and political climate than Mary, who demonstrates what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
What Mary does—pouring out love—is so intuitive and simple, and yet it is extremely difficult for a lot of people to emulate.
Sadly, I don’t need to list examples for you of the awful things human beings say and do to one another in this country alone. Turn on the TV, check our social media feeds or walk down the street. We are constantly surrounded by the deep seeded hate and fear that some have for those who are different because of their economic status, gender, sexual orientation, religion, culture, country of origin and race. And there’s no escape from the vitriol.
But there’s also no way we can ignore what’s happening or become swept up into the bitterness and hostility. Dismissiveness, silence and meeting violence with violence (verbally and physically) is not an option for us as Christians. The only option we have, the one that God bestows on our hearts, is to love one another—the neighbor, the stranger, the broken, the marginalized, the oppressed—just as God has loved us. We are called again and again and again to pour out love.
That call to pour out love reminds us who we are and to whom we belong. That call inspires us to connect our faith with everyday life and it guides us in our ministry of building the beloved community of God.
Sometimes acts of pouring out love are displayed in the same manner as Mary, like in 2013 when Pope Francis went to a detention center in Italy to wash and kissed the feet of young people, including two women one of whom was a Serbian Muslim. 
Others are more modest gestures and random acts of kindness that can be found on at StayHumbleandKind.com, a website inspired by the hit country song Humble and Kind by Tim McGraw—stories like:
Yoel Correa of Atlanta who, despite living paycheck to paycheck, sets aside money every week so that once a month he can buy food from a restaurant and feed the homeless out of his car.
A young man who bought a homeless man named Chris a coffee and a bagel at Dunkin Donuts and then asked him to share his story. They talked for a couple of hours as Chris explained how folks are usually mean to him because he’s homeless, how drugs ruined his life and how he lost his mom to cancer. When the young man had to leave to get to a class, Chris gave him a note on a crumped up receipt, which said: “I wanted to kill myself today. Because of you, I now do not. Thank you beautiful person.”
A man in east Nashville who handed out money at numerous bars, grocery stores and pizza joints. One store employee said, “I know one lady, he put down a $50 before she paid for groceries and she seemed like she was really overwhelmed and a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, it’s just a blessing, this is just like an answered prayer today.” The same employee also received $20 from the man who they said was in a hurry and didn’t have much to say. “He was just like, ‘I’m giving my money away.’”
When we pour out love on another human being like these folks have done, we honor Christ and the gift that is each and every person and life is in this world. When we pour out love, we boldly proclaim that the everlasting, sacrificial and faithful love of God in Christ Jesus can never be overcome by fear, hate and violence.
It is a challenge, of course, to pour out love when we are incessantly worried about the state of our country and world. I’ve been agonizing lately about how we are hell bent on destroying one another and my powerlessness to change it. But last week I saw a quote on social media that assured me that we can overcome this fear and make the world a better place:
“If the state of our nation is terrifying you, PLEASE love your neighbors, befriend someone who you suppose is too different from you, be irrationally friendly to whoever you consider the other.”
Let us be model disciples of Christ like Mary and pour out love, lavishly and abundantly on our neighbors and anyone who is deemed “other.” We won’t always do it perfectly or consistently. There will be mountains to climb. But may always stay humble and kind:
 The Prophet Mary, sermon by The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, Piedmont College and Columbia Seminary. John 12:1-8, 5th Sunday of Lent-Year C, March 21, 2010.
 The ideas in this paragraph and the one preceding come from Encounters With Jesus: Studies In the Gospel of John by Frances Taylor Gench, 2007. Westminster John Knox Press.