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Up Close and Personal
A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on March 17, 2013

Christ Church Andover
Lent V, Year C
March 17, 2013

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be always acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer. AMEN.

We have had a lot of great gospel readings this season of Lent, each one replete with way after way of both reading it and preaching it. This week is no different. We enter again the house of Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, preparing for a festive dinner—after all, Lazarus has just been raised from the dead in the previous chapter. Four days in the tomb, and this is the celebration perhaps, for his life, given by his family. Characterizations remaining consistent in this gospel of John, we find Martha, per usual, serving the meal, and Mary, seated at the feet of Jesus. My assumption is that it is festive party or meal, one filled with the light and joy of a returned brother, only recently presumed dead. We only need to think back to last week’s gospel on the prodigal son to remind ourselves of the welcome a returned son can receive. My second assumption is that it also has the less lively shadow of what came after the raising of Lazarus hanging over it—the Pharisees and the chief priests were none too happy about what had occurred with Lazarus. His coming back to life, Jesus’ resurrection of his friend, signaled the beginning of the plots to kill him. Jesus was already laying low in a nearby town, and had stopped moving openly around the area.

And then Mary goes and brings out the perfume. And not just any perfume. The cost of the pound of nard is three hundred denarii, which is a year’s wages for a worker in Judea—in our day, it would be around $25-30,000. Taking, in effect, this liquid gold, she pours it over the feet of Jesus. And going one step further—she wipes it with her hair.

This is a shocking moment of intimacy. It’s risqué, even by biblical standards. One can hear the intake of breath of the guests surrounding them at this moment, unsure whether or not to say something to stop her, or to remark to each other. “My God, woman, what do you think you are doing!” was probably their general interior commentary, though the only person we hear remarking outwardly is Judas.

And if you ignore the asides in the text as to his motive—his concerns are legitimate. There are needs—there are the poor—there are things to do, programs to instigate, people who could have been impacted by that oil—not the oil itself, but the money it could have brought in. Wasteful woman, he implies—where are your priorities? Obviously they are not those of Jesus!

And another surprise in the text happens here—Jesus himself comes to Mary’s defense. And he comes with famous last words: she is preparing him for his burial, and the poor will always be there—but not him.

There are sermons for a month of Sundays here. That last line of our gospel this morning seems especially caustic coming from Jesus: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me”—and it has been used as such throughout history to defend marginalization, oppression, the “blessing” of wealth to some and not to others. It galls us in ways we cannot sit with easily. But only does so if we take those words out of the entirety of Jesus’ ministry over the three years—for if we read the entire gospel, we would find it hard to miss that Jesus preaches about the poor and the marginalized more than almost anything else in scripture. So those words can’t mean that he is denying the poor justice or mercy—it wouldn’t make sense given the scope of his ministry. One has to look at this week’s pericope in the context of what happens next: indeed, the verses find Jesus entering Jerusalem, bedecked with palms on the mule. It’s Palm Sunday, and the inevitable path towards the cross looms large, and very real.

Perhaps this story isn’t about money at all, but about relationship. Specifically, our relationship with Jesus.

Judas couldn’t have missed the fact that things were not looking good for Jesus at this point. He was a wanted man. The defiant act of raising Lazarus from the dead elevated him from wacky, hippie do-gooder to a man who defied death publically, and isolated him out from the others by those who would and could kill him. At this point, there was no such thing as business as usual. Jesus himself said that he was going to die. That it would be soon. And perhaps Mary’s abundant act took the place of any words the disciples could offer Jesus, as he began his journey to the cross. It was a time to suspend what Jesus did—and spend time focusing on who Jesus was.

Years ago, I was a seminarian at the Episcopal Church in Beverly Farms. During Holy Week, it was decided that they would try an all-night vigil at the side altar in the sanctuary, beginning after the Maundy Thursday service and extending overnight until the Good Friday service at noon the next day. People would sign up and take hour-long shifts staying awake with Jesus, as the disciples had attempted to do in the garden of Gethsemane, sitting in our side chapel. To emulate the garden, the parishioners and clergy had created a mini-garden, commonly called the altar of repose, at the side altar, filling it with plants and flowers. Being twenty-three and usually awake in the middle of the night anyway, I signed up for a 2am shift. I arrived shortly before my appointed hour, and glanced at the police cruiser in our church driveway, keeping watch over the unlocked church that evening. I entered in silence, nodded to parishioners who were on their way out, and quietly settled myself into a pew.

And I fidgeted for the next twenty minutes. I was used to doing things in the church, not just sitting there. I prayed on my knees; with my eyes closed, then open. I laid down in the pew. I flipped through the Book of Common Prayer. I rifled through my purse, pretending to look for a journal to write in. Perhaps, I reasoned, I could use this time to get something useful done—like prepping for a class, updating my agenda, organizing my purse, outlining a confirmation class. After all, I am here to be useful.

After those endless first twenty minutes, I realized that no one else might be coming for the shift with me. I decided then that it was fair game for me to move closer to the altar, and I moved to sit on the floor in front of the first pew. I took a hymnal with me for company, and figuring that it was just me and Jesus for the next forty minutes, I started to flip through the hymnal, quietly singing all of the hymns in the ‘Lent’ and ‘Holy Week’ sections. It was surprisingly centering. The words of the songs let me work my way into the story from Jesus’ wandering in the wilderness to those days in Holy Week, each one coming inevitably after one another without respite. At some point, it wasn’t about sitting there or trying to pray, or getting the things done that needed to be done. It was about immersing myself in the story of Jesus. It was about the descent.

It was that moment that I found myself crawling silently forward on hands and knees up the altar steps in that side chapel, and curling up next to the altar, in the midst of the garden we had made. Something drove me to get as close to Jesus—where we imagined he would be—as I could. Wafting perfume; the solid, smooth wood of the floor; the touch of the marble altar; flowers and branches and leaves surrounding me. As I think about it now, it felt, if not as intimate as Mary and the nard, then somewhere in the same category. I lay there until my watch sounded the 3am quiet beep. And in the midst of that garden, I sat up.

To a horrified gasp and yell.

It turns out that the policeman from the cruiser had decided to come in and sit at the back of the church to warm up, or say his prayers, and had not expected a young woman to rise from the dead or from the garden of repose. As I hurriedly got up and started to apologize for startling him, he, looking a bit shocked, just said, “I didn’t think people were allowed to get that close!”

Business as usual in the church, for the faithful, is always a good thing. We proclaim Christ in all that we do, and in all whom we serve. But once in a while, it’s time to remind ourselves of the primary reason we do those things and the person we do them in the name of. It is easy to miss Christ in our efforts to be Christian. We would rather do, earn, prove, in the name of Christ than we would sit with him and immerse ourselves into his story. We are sometimes too much of a motley crew of Marthas. Judas, regardless of his intent, had a very good point—there are things to be done and people to serve and money to conserve and use wisely. But Mary seems to have done something which pleased Jesus—and I believe it has more to do with willing to descend with him into the depths of his story—she knowingly, I believe, anointed him for his burial. The doing could stay still for a few days—because without the story, without the entrance into Jerusalem, the last supper, the prayer in Gethsemane, the betrayal, without the trial and carrying of the cross, and that heartwrenching scene on Calvary; without the silence of death on the Saturday, and the early morning gleam of dawn that Easter morning, none of this would have mattered. It would be good people doing good things, not followers of Jesus proclaiming that God’s grace and love is our hope. I think Mary knew that because her brother had just died. Perhaps she wished that she could have celebrated him as well before his death, looking back during those long four days until Jesus called him from the tomb. Perhaps that oil of nard had been for him.

In a belated answer to that policeman’s question, yes, we are allowed to get up that close and personal to Jesus. He’s not going to try to ‘get’ us while we are there, or make us proclaim ourselves saved. Jesus isn’t out for additional notches on his converting stick or trying to make us feel guilty as we sit next to the Son of God. He wants us to love him, because of the sheer abundance of how much he loved us first. While I think it mildly cheesy to imagine that I have a friend in Jesus, I imagine that it might have been lonely being the Son of God at that moment. And sometimes, as you might know that when friends are hurting, it’s helpful to bring them casseroles or pick up milk for them, but sometimes what they need more than that is someone to sit with them and listen to them and their story.

Next Sunday we enter into Holy Week as we enter into Jerusalem. We will not preach on Sunday, letting the story do the telling. But I invite you to commit yourself to the entirety of the story, or as much of it as you can throughout that week. Be here for the last supper and footwashing. Walk through that Via Dolorosa. Listen to the silence of the cross. It may not be $30,000 perfume you offer Jesus, but it will be even dearer. You will offer yourself.


Last Published: March 26, 2013 12:35 PM