March 13, 2016
Once upon a time, I was driving in Iowa. Traffic jams on Iowa roads usually involved farm implements; so when I came to a couple of cars stopped on a route I drove regularly, I figured it was because they were waiting for a tractor or a shredder or some other farm machine to get out of the way. However, the cars were stopped because a state trooper had parked by the side of the road. The trooper was out of his vehicle, hand up and stopping traffic. At first, I couldn’t tell why he was doing this. There were no accidents. No cars were stalled on the road. But then I saw what the trooper saw: a tiny puppy wandering along the shoulder. It was obviously confused, and scared. The trooper kept his hand up for the traffic to stop, then he picked up the puppy and carried him back to his car.
I don’t know what the other drivers were thinking when we were able to go again, but I was incredibly touched by what the trooper did. He took the time to offer care to a creature that I imagine most other folks would not have seen. Even if they did notice the puppy, I doubt many would have stopped. Surely if the trooper hadn’t rescued that puppy, the chances were high it would have been hit and killed. I know that this was just a lost little puppy, and it would have been far more dramatic if the trooper had stopped traffic to rescue another human being. However, I would have expected the trooper to rescue another human being. Even more, I would have been outraged if he hadn’t. But this trooper’s act of kindness was unexpected. This was compassion for the sake of compassion.
This happened a long time ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. I knew I had witnessed a sweet and unexpected moment. As the years go on, moments like these seem to be fewer and far between.
What we have in this story from John’s gospel is a moment of unexpected compassion and kindness. Versions of this story of a woman anointing Jesus are found in all four gospels. In both Matthew and Mark, the woman who anointed Jesus with precious nard did so for the same purpose as in John’s gospel; it was about Jesus’ burial. Yet in Luke’s gospel, the woman who anointed Jesus was a sinner who realized how forgiven she truly was. Anointing Jesus was a response to this forgiveness. The woman’s actions were scorned in each version, and each gospel writer records that Jesus told the people who grumbled about her to leave her alone. But only in John’s gospel did this woman has a name. This woman was Mary, the younger sister of Martha. Her brother was Lazarus. In Luke’s gospel this same Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him while her sister, Martha, worked frantically to prepare the meal and clean the house for the Rabbi.
Jesus was once more a guest in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus; and as we learn in the first verse, it was six days before the Passover. Martha served the meal. Lazarus, who had been dead but was resuscitated, was at table with Jesus and the others. I can well imagine that there was a great deal of activity happening in every corner of the house. In the midst of all this hustle and bustle, Mary took a large amount of perfume made from pure nard and began to anoint Jesus’ feet with it. As she anointed his feet with the nard, she wiped them with her hair. The perfume was expensive. It would have been doled out in precise measure in order to prevent any waste. We don’t know how much nard Mary used, yet I suspect that she wasn’t concerned about waste or extravagance. I envision her pouring it on his feet lavishly and lovingly.
Any of the others watching this would have been shocked by Mary’s behavior, but it was Judas who spoke up. He complained that if Mary had access to such an expensive nard, why wasn’t it sold for a lot of money? That money could have been given to the poor instead of poured out. In an aside, John explains that Judas didn’t give a hoot about the poor. He only wanted the money for himself, because he was a thief and stole from the common purse.
Jesus immediately defended Mary’s actions, but his response is disturbing.
“Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
"You always have the poor with you?" That seems completely contrary to everything Jesus had said about the poor and the weak and the vulnerable to this point. Jesus made it clear over and over again that he came for the poor and the weak and the vulnerable. He came for the others, the forgotten, the lost, the lonely. But in this story, his attitude about the poor seems cavalier at best. “You always have the poor with you.”
Scholars speculate that Jesus wasn’t dismissing the poor in this statement. He was referencing verses in the Old Testament that stated that there would always be poor people and people in great need; therefore they should always be welcomed and cared for. I doubt that Jesus suddenly decided that the poor didn’t matter. But when Mary began to anoint him, he knew that this was a moment of compassion and kindness that was not only nice but necessary. He was still with them, still living, but it would not always be that way. He would soon die a criminal’s death. The rituals and rites of burial would be denied to him before his execution. Mary anointed him for his burial while she could. She showed him love while she could. It was a moment of compassion.
I keep emphasizing the word moment because this was a moment of compassion in the midst of many other moments that were anything but. Knowing the larger context this story is set in, knowing those other moments, is important for understanding what’s happening in this particular moment. As it states at the beginning of the passage, Jesus was at table in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Lazarus had been dead but was now alive and at table with Jesus. It hadn’t been that long since Jesus had raised Lazarus from the tomb. Raising Lazarus caused many people who witnessed this miracle to believe in Jesus. But it had also frightened and worried many more. Once you’re dead, you’re supposed to stay dead. That’s the only decent thing to do. If Jesus had the power to change the order of life and death, then he was too powerful. The chief priests and Pharisees knew that Jesus had to be stopped. If more and more people believed in him, then the Romans would find out and destroy them all. Perhaps he could bring others back from the dead, but surely he could not change that ending for himself. So a plot to kill him was put into motion.
Jesus must have been fully aware of this plot, because John states that from that time on Jesus could not move about openly. He went to a town called Ephraim, which was near the wilderness, and he stayed there with his disciples; until this moment when they came to Bethany and the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
Yet this dinner party did not go unnoticed. In the verses following our story, we learn that when people learned where Jesus was, they came in great numbers to see Jesus and to see Lazarus who was raised from the dead. This made the powers that be even more nervous. Lazarus was literally living proof of Jesus’ power. Not only did Jesus need to be silenced, Lazarus must be silenced too. Immediately after our story, a plot to kill Lazarus was hatched.
So this is the context in which this moment – this moment of kindness and compassion – occurred. Murderous schemes were in play both before this moment and after. The tension and fear must have been palpable. Yet in this time of fear and anxiety, Mary, who once sat at Jesus’ feet to listen and learn from him, took a place at his feet once more. And she anointed those dusty, dirty, tired feet with precious perfume. She wiped the perfume away with her hair. It was an intimate act, a loving act. No doubt her actions scandalized everyone watching, because that kind of intimacy between a man and woman would never have been displayed so openly; and it certainly would not have been acceptable in private for anyone except a husband and wife.
Yet however inappropriate her actions might have been, however socially unacceptable and taboo, it was not a time for following social codes or rules. It was a time for compassion. It was a time for kindness. It was a time for unconditional love and tenderness. Somehow Mary knew this. Somehow she got it. Maybe she understood what his disciples could not; that she only had a short time left with her Teacher, her Savior. She had only a short time left, and in that moment the minister needed ministry. He needed compassion. He needed kindness. She responded to that need with her whole being. That moment required compassion, so leave her alone.
In the fall of 2014, NPR aired a story about two men who also filled a moment with compassion. Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez were two workers at an Assisted Living facility in California. Maurice was a cook. Miguel was a janitor. The facility shut down and every other worker left. But shutting down the facility did not mean all of the residents were moved. Many were still there. As unfathomable as it is for me to think that could happen in 2014, it did. Elderly residents, some with dementia, were left to fend for themselves. That alone is a travesty; however it could have become a tragedy except for these two men: Maurice and Miguel. They stayed. They stayed without pay. They stayed for 24 hours at a time, only going home to shower and change clothes. They stayed and took care of the residents. They cooked for them, gave them their medicine, provided for all of their needs. Why? Because as Miguel said, “If we left, they wouldn’t have nobody.”
These two men couldn’t leave these residents alone. They couldn’t live with that. With no other motive than compassion and kindness they did what was right. They filled a moment in time – one that could have become nightmarish – with love. Their love, their compassion transformed that moment into something beautiful.
It seems to me that Mary did the same. In a moment so filled with ugliness and hatred, in a time when tensions were high and murder was in the air, Mary transformed a moment that could have been tainted by hatred into beauty by showing compassion, by being kind, by living love. How many moments do we encounter in our own lives that could be transformed this same way? How would our community or our country look if we acted intentionally, compassionately every moment, every day? These days it seems that the very air around us is as full of murder and hatred and enmity as it was around Jesus. But it doesn’t have to be this way. That is the good news. It doesn’t have to be this way. Mary proved that with her moment of love and compassion for Jesus. Jesus proved that with his life, death and resurrection for the sake of us all. Love and compassion hold the power to transform every moment. Hatred doesn’t have to win. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.”
The illustration at the beginning of the sermon is what was written to be preached. The following is what was actually preached.
I’m going to ask your forgiveness before I even start preaching today, because I’m going to do something I very rarely do. I’m going off script – at least for the first part of this sermon. I have a child who is on his first big school trip, the high school band trip to Florida. He has been in Florida one day. Last night I got a call from him – probably the hardest call he’s ever had to make – to tell me that he lost his wallet with every dime he had with him for the trip. I’m sure you can imagine that I’ve been frantic since then trying to figure out how to get money to him. You can also probably guess that my emotions range from worried, angry, frustrated, disappointed and back again. But thinking about what he’s going through reminds me of a class trip I took a long time ago.
Once upon a time, I was in the school orchestra. I played the cello. We went on an overnight trip. In my memory, I was in 6th grade, but I was probably in 7th. We rode on a big bus to Murray, Kentucky, home of Murray State College. Murray State had a workshop for school orchestras in the region. We went, rehearsed for hours, and then gave on a concert. Because it was overnight, we got to stay in a motel – four girls to a room. Because there was a concert, we had to bring a nice dress. My mother firmly told me to hang up my dress in the motel room as soon as we were able to unpack. That way it wouldn’t be too wrinkled. I did exactly as I was told. The next morning we got packed up, loaded our bags on the bus and went back to Murray State for breakfast and rehearsals. I left my dress hanging in the motel room.
I realized this on the bus to the school and went into a blind panic. While the other kids went into have breakfast, I sat on the steps outside the cafeteria and bawled. A nice man stopped and asked me what was wrong.
Through sobs I told him, “I left my dress for our concert in the motel room and my mom is going to kill me.”
He reassured me that it would be all right. They would be able to retrieve my dress. Then he asked me if I had had breakfast. I shook my head, “no,” and he took me into the cafeteria and told the people working to let me have whatever I wanted – on him. I remembered that the cafeteria folks snapped to attention when he came in. I think it turned out he was the college President. Whoever he was, his compassion turned a moment that was filled with fear and worry into something beautiful.
This happened a long time ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. I knew I had witnessed an unexpected moment of sweetness and kindness….