Sermon 5 Lent, Yr C

5 Lent Yr C, 25/03/2007

Jn 12:1-8

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Mary’s Extravagant Love”

 

It was a bright, sunshiny day and Margie was very happy. It was her birthday. She was seven years old. That afternoon, Margie’s mother gave her a party. All of her friends were there. They played games, and ate lots of cake and ice cream. Margie blew out all of the candles on her cake in one blow. Her friends cheered and urged her to open her presents. She got a bracelet, a new blouse, a baby doll, and a book of adventure stories. But her favourite gift was a friendship ring from her best friend, Helen. It was silver and had a red heart in its center. Margie told Helen that it was the best present she had ever received, and she promised she would wear it everywhere.

The next day a beautiful woman came to Margie’s school to talk to the students about hungry children. The beautiful woman was a famous movie actress who had given a year of her life to traveling as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. She told them about all of the hungry children she had visited in refugee camps around the world.

In Cambodia she had met a hungry boy who told her, “Sometimes I cry, but only when it rains, so the other children will not see.” Then she said, “You and I can help wipe away his tears.”

She told about several refugee camps in Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda and a little country called Djibouti, all on the Horn of Africa. “In one of the refugee camps water is so scarce,” she said, “that the women dig in brown mud, and that’s what they drink.” She told the children that millions of people would soon die in these refugee camps unless the world did something to help them.

In another refugee camp she met a little girl who owned nothing in life but a tiny ring with a red glass stone in it. The little girl had taken off her ring and given it to her to give to some child who needed it more.

When the beautiful woman had finished speaking, all of the students in Margie’s school crowded around her to thank her and to ask for her autograph. When it was Margie’s turn she stepped up to her and took off the silver ring with the red heart in its center, gave it to the beautiful woman, and said, “When you meet a little girl in one of those refugee camps who needs a ring, please give this to her.”

Just then the teacher came up and said, “Oh, no, Margie, you shouldn’t give your ring. What would your parents say?” But the beautiful woman said, “Let her give what she can. She may not always have so much to give or the heart to give it.”1

In today’s gospel, we encounter a similar kind of heart-filled giving. This is one of the most beautiful gospel stories, full-to-overflowing with love and meaning. At the centre of this story are Mary and her extravagant gift of anointing Jesus’ feet.

The story comes right after Jesus raised Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus from the dead. In response to this miraculous act, some of the religious leaders in Jerusalem planned to arrest Jesus and put him to death. It was dangerous for Jesus to travel near or into Jerusalem during the Passover season. Yet, travel there he did, with the knowledge that he was about to face his arrest, trial, sentence and death on the cross. The time now is six days before the Passover. The place is Lazarus’ home at Bethany, where a dinner is served likely in gratitude for Jesus having Lazarus from the dead.

Everything seems to be going along smoothly until Mary enters the room with a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. This was probably a very surprising intrusion into the evening. Why? Well, first of all, Mary’s action went against the proper cultural traditions of the day. Women were not supposed to be the centre of attention in the presence of men, this was a patriarchal society. Moreover, women were especially not supposed to touch a spiritual leader in public like Mary did here in the story. It was customary for women to wear their long locks of hair up. For a woman to wear her hair down in public was a sign that she was not an honourable woman. Mary’s act of extravagant giving seems to have been an uncalculated, spontaneous one. It is a sign of her love and gratitude to Jesus for what he has done for her and her family. Sometimes our hearts are in the right places and we do the right thing out of love, rather than hold back out of fear of what others might think because we may have violated some culturally-conditioned tradition.

A second point of offence was the actual extravagance of Mary’s gift; John tells us that it was a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard. Then, we’re told Judas Iscariot’s complaint that the perfume could have been sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor. Now three hundred denarii were close to one year’s wages for a labourer at that time. Thus Mary’s gift was extravagant alright. Moreover, maybe the perfume was to be saved for the burial anointing of their family members. At any rate, this complaint of Judas is a classic one. Some folks look at life only from a monetary perspective, which blinds them to the proper place for extravagant giving motivated by love. Albert Schweitzer said it well: “If there is something you own that you can’t give away, then you don’t own it, it owns you.” For Mary, extravagant giving based on love goes above and beyond a price tag—indeed, it is priceless.

As we reflect on this story further, there are at least two other noteworthy themes. The first one is the significance of anointing itself. The word Messiah literally means the anointed one. Mary anointing Jesus in public like this may very well, first of all be affirming the truth that Jesus is the true Messiah. “Look,” she may be saying with this action, “the very One I am anointing in front of you right now, this One is God’s Anointed, The Messiah.” That may be one possible meaning of Mary’s anointing of Jesus.

The second significant detail of this anointing is that Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. Why his feet? Well, I think it is for at least two reasons. First of all, it is a foreshadowing of what Jesus himself will do in chapter thirteen, when he washes his disciples’ feet. This is an act of humble service and love, which is exactly what Jesus himself teaches his disciples when he washes their feet. They are to humbly serve and love one another. Mary’s act is foreshadowing that event by anointing the feet of the greatest Loving Servant of them all, Jesus himself. Jesus stressed that the greatest among his disciples are those who humbly love and serve others. Mary’s act of anointing is surely a sign of this humble love and servanthood.

Secondly, the significance of this act of anointing Jesus’ feet is Mary’s way of recognising what is about to happen to Jesus and to prepare him for it. In other words, she realises that Jesus is about to die, and Jesus, in verse seven admits this, when he says in her defence: “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” Or as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in his book The Message: “Let her alone. She’s anticipating and honouring the day of my burial.” It may be Mary’s pledge of faithfulness, to be with Jesus as he faces his cruel suffering and death. This too may be the point of the following words in Mark’s version of this story, when Jesus says, in praise of the anointing: “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (Mk 14:9)

The other noteworthy theme in this wonderful story is found in verse three, where John tells us: “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” For John, who is a deep thinker and expert in working with symbolic, beneath the surface meanings, this is, I think, a symbol of the beautiful, sweetness of all acts done extravagantly and motivated by loving kindness. John’s readers, including us, can be inspired by this detail to go and do likewise, following Mary’s faithful example. Our extravagant, loving acts as faithful followers of Jesus can add sweetness and quality to the lives of others. Listen to the following beautiful, inspirational story about someone right here in our fair city of Medicine Hat.

When discussing women in history who had a definite impact on our community, many Hatters immediately think of Vera Bracken. Bracken served as an elementary school teacher in the Medicine Hat area for decades, being named citizen of the year in 1985. Her positive outlook on life, her volunteerism and generosity as well as her passion for education and life inspired many.

“Vera Bracken is the only person to have a part of the college (the Vera Bracken Library) named after her without a financial number being attached,” said Shelley Chomistek, Coordinator of the Medicine Hat College Foundation. “If you were to see the way she talked about her students, you would know why the library is named after her. She truly believed in life-long learning. She was affectionate towards her students and tried hard to instill in them her passion for learning and reading.”

Bracken gave each one of her grade one students who eventually enrolled in Medicine Hat College a scholarship cheque for $100. After all of Bracken’s former students had reached college age, she began donating the money to students studying to become teachers.

Sheila Drummond, Reference Librarian at Medicine Hat College said, “Vera was a great supporter of education so it’s very fitting that the college honoured her in this way.”2

As we continue our Lenten journey, moving now closer to Holy Week, may we also move closer to the spirit of Mary’s extravagant, loving act of anointing Jesus. May we, like Mary live out our faith ever grateful for what Jesus has done for us on the cross, and act in ways that inspire others, that they too may come closer to Jesus and his all sufficient love for them. Amen.

 

 

1 John E. Sumwalt, Lectionary Stories Cycle C (Lima, OH: C.S.S. Publishing Co., Inc., 1991), pp. 70-71. John Sumwalt notes: This story was inspired by an article about actress Liv Ullman, which appeared in “The Wisconsin State Journal,” Section 7, page 2, May 3, 1981.

2 Kaylynn Hohensinn, “Celebrating influential Alta. women,” The Medicine Hat News, Saturday, September 30, 2006, p. A3.

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About dimlamp
I am, among other things, a sojourner, a sinner-saint, a baptized, life-long learner and follower of Jesus, and Lutheran pastor. Dim Lamp: dimlamp.wordpress.com gwh photos: gwhphotos.wordpress.com

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