In the 1970’s Rock Opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Mary Magdalene sings, “I don’t know how to love him; what to do, how to move him. I’ve been changed, yes really changed, in these past few days when I’ve seen myself, it seems like someone else.”
It’s a different Mary whose actions take central stage in the Gospel story we read this morning, another Mary who has been changed, really changed; but this Mary could also sing that song about life being transformed by Jesus, for who could be more changed than one whose own brother has been raised from the dead?
It strikes me that this Mary’s response to the change and transformation Jesus has created in her life could easily be turned into a great stewardship message this morning. Because in this gospel passage Mary shows us what it is like to be so filled with gratitude to Jesus for the grace and mercy she has experienced through him, that out of sheer gratitude and devotion she is willing to give ridiculously, generously, and extravagantly to thank Jesus for all that he has done for her life.
Mary is so changed through the mercy of Jesus that she shows what it is like to give to Jesus first from her resources, but then to give more - she gives her whole self, her worship, her love, her body, her heart, and demonstrates that she is willing to give all that is hers without reservation to the one she calls “Lord”. Might we learn from Mary how to give so passionately and completely in gratitude for all that God gives us?
The Gospel today takes place at a dinner party. We might remember a similar dinner party that we heard about last week in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a feast actually, where, when the prodigal son returns from virtual death, in gratitude and joy, his father kills the fatted calf and throws a great feast to celebrate the miraculous return to life and restoration of the son he had given up for lost.
The dinner in our Gospel today is also a celebration of life over death. The guest of honor is Jesus, who has raised Lazarus not from virtual death, but from real, bonafide death – Lazarus had been in the tomb for days before Jesus raised him.
In great joy Martha and Mary invite their friends and the other disciples, to share a thanksgiving meal that celebrates the miraculous deed of Jesus, who brought back to life the brother they had given up for dead.As the details emerge of this dinner party, we are faced with the wholly unexpected and surprising details that make this story so intriguing.
Look! There is Lazarus, sitting at the table, playing the part of host, something no one thought possible when they sealed him up in his tomb not so long ago.
As we read this story we take notice of its sensual nature, for every one of our senses are engaged with the details that emerge:
There is the aroma and the taste of delicious food and the finest wine;
There is the sound of conversation shared, dinnerware passed, laughter;
There is the sight of Mary pouring out her love and devotion through an intimate and solemn act as she anoints Jesus’ feet –
There is the sense of touch engaged as Mary smooths the oil over the skin of the feet of Jesus – a ritual she will be denied when she goes to the tomb on Easter morning and discovers there is no body to anoint.
As we picture this scene, we take in the emotion of it – the reverence of it.
Mary anointing the feet of Jesus with this costly perfume provides an undeniable interruption and surprise in this scene. We’re not sure how to react – what to think. Should we be offended on the part of the rest of the dinner guests for the intimate scene they have just witnessed; or should we feel chastised because next to Mary’s extravagance our own offerings of gratitude to God just seem – woefully inadequate?
Mary reacts with love and devotion to the mercy and grace that God has spread lavishly on her through Jesus. After he raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will ever die.”
Perhaps Mary remembered these words. Along with her remembrance, perhaps Mary understood, as well, what the other disciples simply could not understand:
That he was King but not just a king;
That he was Priest but not just a priest;
That he would die but not just die.
That he was the Messiah, Lord of All, and that was worthy of all thanks and praise.
That he was God, enfleshed before her.
Mary seemed to understand and believe so much more about who Jesus was and what he was teaching them than the rest of the disciples seemed to comprehend, and given this opportunity, she did the only thing that she could imagine doing to demonstrate the full extent of her love, belief, and gratitude: she worshiped Jesus by pouring our herself in full devotion to him.
Jesus has three times predicted his upcoming arrest, passion, death, and resurrection. Perhaps Mary alone, among all these friends and disciples, understands that time is short and that all we truly have is today in which to show our Lord our gratitude and love.
Of course there is the dissenting voice – Judas – the one who will betray Jesus points out (whatever his motivations) that with the money this oil could have brought them they could certainly have fed the poor. What a noble act that would have been, rather than pouring it all out on someone’s – anyone’s feet!
But here, Jesus speaks – “you will always have the poor to feed and care for. You will not always have me. Therefore, let her be. Leave her alone with her extravagance, leave it to her to show her love and devotion to me while I am with you”. We could all add, “it may seem reckless – but it is a worthy sacrifice to make, to serve the Lord of Lords”.
There is a song that we’ve been learning in the second service called “Reckless Love.” It speaks of the reckless love of God that interrupts our complacency and pours itself out for us through the grace of Jesus Christ, a love that lifts us up and changes us forever.
Mary’s reckless devotion, poured out in response to the reckless love of God, shows that she gets it. She gets what Jesus is saying, and she gets that there is nothing more or better or wiser that she can do than to worship and love Jesus in return, and she does so, with all she has to give.
Mary, Martha and the other disciples experienced God in the flesh, God in the room, God at the table with them. I wonder for us, today, what does it mean to experience God in the same way – or can we? What does it mean for us to experience God’s reckless love that pours itself out on us through the cross of Jesus Christ?
As we approach the single most important and pivotal week of our faith, what moves you today, what brings to you to the kind of gratitude that Mary demonstrated with smelly oil and a reckless pouring out of herself?
Is it that God interrupted the powers of evil in the world through the incarnation of Jesus Christ? Is it that God interrupts our tendencies toward self-destruction by showing us what forgiveness and mercy look like?
Is it that God interrupts the power of fear and death by sending Jesus and teaching us how to love our neighbors – whoever they might be – and then commands us to do the same?
When Judas offers his trumped-up objection to Mary’s over-the-top devotion and Jesus pleads on her behalf, the Great Interrupter intercedes again. “Leave her be,” he says. “She’s got it right.”
The thing is, my friends, we do indeed still have the poor among us, and every time we feed the poor in his name, we are in fact anointing the feet of Jesus.
Every time we reach out to the vulnerable without judging their poverty or despair, but simply loving them because Jesus has loved us, we are in fact wiping Jesus’ feet with our hair.
Every time we refuse to fall for the “wisdom” of the world’s sense of economic justice and instead cling to Jesus’ never-failing compassion and care, we make an offering of gratitude for all that God has given us.
Every time we risk having the Judas’ of the world judging our good works or our advocacy of those who suffer injustice, or our love of the poor, hungry, lonely and rejected ones we are loving Jesus with our whole being.
As the aroma of the perfume wafted through the room, it interrupted the dinner. It interrupted the flow of conversation. Mary’s show of worship and devotion to Jesus interrupted the status quo. In a sense, it interrupted time.
There is so much story packed into what really amounts to just a few verses in this Gospel story. As Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and we with him, will we be like Mary of the Rock Opera, unsure of how to show our love to Jesus? Will we be like Judas who is more concerned about self-preservation than about serving the God before him?
Will we choose measured risk to be with Jesus, or will we extravagantly offer the best we have to give to thank Jesus for transforming our hearts and our lives?
Pastor Debi Thomas phrases the questions this way: “In the presence of an overflowing heart, will we honor ‘useless gestures’ as sacred to God, or hold back in contempt and suspicion? What will guide us as we contemplate the cross? That very fragrant and important jar we’re hanging onto at all costs – when and for whom will we break it?
“The time is short. The cross awaits. Here is Jesus, asking the hard question one more time: What are you going to do, while you still have me?”