Rev. Beth Hoffman Faeth
April 3, 2022
Scripture: John 12:1–8
Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.)
Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”
Let us pray:
Holy One, grant us grace this morning that we would be both hearers and doers of the Word. Open our hearts to new understandings, particularly in this Lenten Season. Amen.
Five years ago, on this very day, at almost this very time, I was banging on the door of my children’s father’s home. The ink barely dry on our dissolution of marriage papers, and me still struggling to even use the word “divorced”—John and I were in that tenuous phase of figuring out who we were to each other after a 21-year marriage. I was still his person: his first responder, his go-to in times of distress. He was dad to our beloved daughters, undeniably the best gifts of our union. And no one had heard from him in 48 hours, which had never happened before in our new understanding of family. With no response to my pleading and pounding, I called the police. I am still unsure if their presence was meant to humiliate or help, and after a lengthy interrogation they finally gained entry to the home. Minutes felt like hours as I was told to stay where I was—outside on the front lawn—and then an officer quickly exited the house to tell me matter of factly and with no empathy that he was sorry, but John was dead. What happened next remains both surreal and etched in my memory, this cacophony of hysteria and practicality and utter disbelief. The police chaplain arrived and I remember saying to him: “I usually do what you are doing” and then confided that I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do next.
And then love began to show up. My dear friend and neighbor arrived and enfolded me into the first consoling embrace. His wife, a close friend, left her workplace in Minneapolis and the two of them drove me to the schools where I had to tell my beautiful girls the most devastating news they will ever have to hear. My sister dropped everything and flew to Minneapolis that same day and kept propping me up when I felt I could not bear another moment. Over and over again love was poured out for us in extraordinary ways, even when we were too numb to receive it. Two weeks later, a few friends arrived to help me with the thankless job of clearing out John’s home, and when that horrible task was complete, the place emptied yet still smelling of death and grief and heartbreak, my friend Sarah took me inside and offered me a ritual of saying goodbye, granting John peace, blessing his final abode and acknowledging how hard it was to let him go. She burned incense and herbs and we walked through each room, giving thanks for John’s life, inviting him into the wholeness God offers, and to finally rest in peace. This was John’s anointing . . . through the wetness of my tears and the aroma of the oils and the release of the emotion and the beginning of the letting go. And while it was not extravagant, it was love in abundance.
When Jesus arrived at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, he wasn’t expecting to be anointed, but he knew his death was imminent. Shortly before this biblical scene Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and that particular miracle was all the chief priests and Pharisees needed to seal Jesus’ fate. With peoples’ allegiance to Jesus rather than the Empire, the powers that be felt an enormous threat and began to put a tangible plan into action for Jesus’ arrest. Jesus had begun to take a low profile and seeks respite in the home of his friends. At a dinner in Jesus’ honor, served in gratitude for Lazarus’ restoration to life, Mary takes an extremely expensive and large amount of perfume and washes with it Jesus’ feet, anointing him with extravagance, heady aroma and abundant love. As one commentator writes, “This is grace upon grace kind of love. . . . The kind of love that has to be shown, not just said.”
This ritual act is not lost on the gathered, and has tremendous impact on Jesus, but is criticized by Judas. Rather than receiving Mary’s gift of abundance and allowing the overwhelming fragrance to stir his own feelings of love, Judas condemns the rite and suggests malfeasance in money management.
Jesus’ response is what really matters here, and he accepts Mary’s lavish attention, her ritual of anointing, her expression of love. Jesus receives Mary’s abundance in a moment he could absolutely use a reminder of grace and compassion. He is a dead man walking and he is walking alone. Mary’s actions call forth Jesus’ worth, his significance, and the necessity of his presence: a simple yet extravagant act that reminds us that love extends so much farther than death’s grip . . . at exactly the moment Jesus needed it the most.
The question that this pericope stirs within me is a wondering: How do you receive abundance? For me, the weight of this day, this dreaded anniversary when my family’s life tilted forever off its axis, is also a reminder of how the gift of abundance saved us. Beloved Community became real to Ellie, Hannah, and me as people fed and held us, sat with us in the ash heap of our grief, comforted us with words and witness. And all we could do was receive, because we were bereft empty vessels with nothing to give in return. That did not matter because abundant love was extended without expectation. Like the pungent fragrance of costly perfume, all we could do was soak it up, inhale it, and keep breathing—and accept the extravagance as the gift that loved us back into life.
Yet there have been other times when abundance was not well received. Offers of help and other assistance rejected or ignored, an outreach of caring pushed away with defensiveness, pain, or deflection that someone else might be better deserving. Karoline Lewis, professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, writes, “This is what we do with abundant love. We think it untrue. We don’t imagine ourselves worthy of such love, and we make excuses that deem us unlovable. And, we allow ourselves to think that others do not deserve God’s love. We put boundaries around love. Set up stipulations for love. We control love. Confine, contain, and detain love.”
How do you receive abundance given with love? Jesus offers us one example: acceptance, gratitude, grace ready to reciprocate. Judas shows us another way: suspicion, criticism, fists clenched in fear.
This is not just an individual question but a collective one. How do we, the beloved community of Plymouth Church, receive abundance? Look around us, friends. We are dripping in plenty. Our beautifully large building, the benefit of multiple clergy and staff, the organizations that are our tenants, the multitalented, generous individuals that make up our congregation. How might our future actions be shaped by our acknowledgement and acceptance of abundance? We have been sculpted by those who have gone before us, by those who as their final earthly acts gifted this church with their bequests and gifts and endowments so generously loving it takes my breath away. With all that has shifted in our world in the last two years, perhaps the way we receive abundance should change as well. I know that this is the emphasis of our newly formed Campus Task Force and its various subcommittees: How will we steward what we have inherited? How do we receive such lavish abundance? How does our use of resources proclaim our values and show our love for our neighbors?
In this budget-building season, I have been asking how we might live from a place of abundance rather than scarcity and how that might direct our actions of allocations. As I contemplated this week’s scripture text and read various points of view from a number of biblical scholars, I was intrigued that so many connected Mary’s extravagant gift to a theology of money and church finances. Justo González, a Cuban American historical theologian, author, and Methodist elder, in a response to this passage from John, writes, “In the midst of a pragmatic society, we wish to be efficient, to make certain that everything counts and that there is no waste. In the church we look for responsible budgets that make the best possible use of every cent. This is a requirement of responsible stewardship. However, for this to be true Christian stewardship it must be founded not primarily on efficiency but on an overwhelming love that leads to what others may consider mere waste.”
“An overwhelming love that leads to what others may consider mere waste.” As a church, may we be committed to never consider an offering of love mere waste. Lent is a season during which we are invited to examine our hearts so as to make them increasingly open to all that Jesus offers: mercy, compassion, grace, forgiveness, hope. And then we are invited into the world to anoint others with a love so extravagant one can smell, taste, see, hear and feel it. As recipients of abundance, may it indeed be so.
Karoline Lewis, “Grace Upon Grace Love,” Day 1, April 07, 2019 (accessed April 8, 2022).
Justo L. González, “April 7, Fifth Sunday in Lent (John 12:1–8),” The Christian Century, March 5, 2019 (accessed April 8, 2022).