Mary’s Fragrant Love

Sermon Preached for Lent 5C at West Linn Lutheran Church on April 7, 2019. 

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “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.”

– John 12:1-8

This past week I attended a gathering of rostered women that Pastor Donna worked together to host at Central Lutheran. Some of the women in the group who had been clergy in this synod for years, shared about the first women’s clergy gatherings that were hosted in someone’s living room. Well, friends, I’m happy – or, rather – in awe to say that we would not have fit in the living room. We were 41 women strong…41… in a large circle that kept expanding as more trickled in.

Thanks. Be. To God.

One of the first things we were invited to share with one another was a woman (or women) who inspired us to ministry. Reflecting on the size of the memorial service yesterday, I saw that she was a woman who had inspired so many. And so I ask, who would you name as a woman who inspired you to be the person you are today?

Many, like me, named pastors. Others named grandmas, moms, teachers, theologians…some even a fictional character. It was beautiful to hear the great impact that women have had over the years in the formation of these powerful rostered women of the Oregon Synod.

A couple months ago I preached a sermon about the power of women in passing their song of resistance down through generations of people. Many women before Mary teaching her, Mary teaching her child, Jesus his disciples, and so on to us at our Wednesday night, Holden Evening Prayer.

But women showed their resistance in other ways.

So, I think I would add that this Mary in today’s Gospel as one who has inspired me because she shows deep vulnerability and intimate love for Jesus in a way that was so counter-cultural – I mean wiping Jesus’ feet with her own hair. What a beautiful image of vulnerability.

And, even in the face of Judas’ criticism, she persisted. The text never mentions that she looked up from what she was doing or paid any attention to Judas’ inauthentic words. Her deep gratitude for Jesus for the raising of her brother Lazarus inspired her to go out and buy this perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet. Nothing was going to stop her from this plan.

And, I’m kind of angry to say that this passage is just so typical. It happens often in the Bible…

And surely, if you’re a woman in this room, you too have the experience of men questioning your actions, thinking that they know better than you, and trying to stop you in your tracks. I know that I do.

To be fair, I am fully aware that others who do not identify as a woman or femme have experienced this before, as well. Perhaps from a boss or a parent or a child. I do not claim to negate that at all but this story is about a woman – a NAMED woman – and we don’t get many of those. This is a chance to look at where we’ve come from, where we are going, and the reality that women face. So, listen up men, because you need to know what it’s like as a woman.

Though we’ve come so far in the fight for equal rights for women – we are allowed to vote, own property, make many of our own decisions in regards to our healthcare, choose our own spouse or whether to even have one, though we can work in fields in which we’ve previously been banned: like the church; though, at least in this country, it is frowned upon to consider women to be the property of men… get what I mean, we have come so far in the fight for equal rights.

And yet. We have the staggering number of women who experience emotional, physical, and sexual violence. We have trans women of color who are murdered by those who believe their lives are unworthy. We have the #metoo movement and the reality that so many women who break the silence about their abuse are not believed.

We have the counter-stories of their abusers who turn the blame around on the woman and question their actions – what they chose to wear, how much they drank, their “flirty” behavior – and twist the story to convey their own innocence.

I bring this up because this problem that women and femmes face – especially if they are LGBTQ+ or people of color – being treated as second class citizens is not only pervasive in our society, but especially in our Sacred Texts. The accounts of biblical women – most unnamed – facing sexual violence is common in our Scripture and yet ignored.

Our lectionary leaves these stories out because they are unsettling and upsetting. I’m talking about Hagar, Dinah, Tamar, Bathsheba, Lot’s daughter, the Levite concubine, the list goes on and on and on.

I’m wondering how many of these names y’all recognize…

Many won’t because we silence these biblical women who are pleading #metoo because the Church has discerned that it is the right thing to do. And, I think, we do this because the church believes it’s in the best interest of our Scripture and of the people in our pews because to tell these stories would cause us to have to wrestle with them. And wouldn’t it just be easier to ignore them? To tell them to be quiet? To tell them that they’re wrong in how to chose to bear witness?

Men do know best I guess.

Or at least that’s what Judas thinks in today’s gospel. Again, Mary is showing Jesus love, being vulnerable, and he tells her to stop. He tells her that the better way to honor Jesus is not to waste this on him, but to sell it and give the money to the poor. And, to be fair this is actually in line with something that Jesus would have told them to do! But Judas isn’t wanting Mary’s behavior to change for noble reasons, he is selfish. Or at least that’s what the text says.

I wonder for a second, what it would be like to put ourselves in Judas’ shoes. I’m more prone to think that, even if Judas does want this money for himself, that this encounter is more about his discomfort with Mary’s intimate display of affection. He was someone who had already betrayed Jesus by taking from the common purse. And, in the following chapter, we hear Judas, overcome by evil, decides to betray Jesus up to the officials…

I say to put ourselves in Judas’ shoes, the shoes of the “unrighteous” of this story because I do not and cannot believe that Judas is an inherently evil person though he does the wrong thing. I mean how could he be? Jesus chose him to be one of the twelve. Jesus walked with him. Jesus loved him. I must see Judas as beloved. And, I believe, Judas loved Jesus. Just sometimes love is just not enough. But when that love is not enough, there is guilt and shame.

Guilt and shame, my friends, is real. And, though this is speculation, I do wonder if the reason why Judas has such a visceral reaction to Mary’s act of faithfulness, is because he knows he could never offer Jesus the same love. His shame keeps a barrier between him and Jesus. I think he knows he has done wrong but has to keep playing the part to hide the guilt that he feels.

And so, yes, Mary’s act of radical love would indeed be too much for him. And, let’s be honest, the bravery, confidence, and vulnerability of women is often too much for men. It makes them uncomfortable and maybe even threatened.

But Mary, in spite of Judas’ reaction, is speaking her truth, bearing testament to her experience of God’s radical grace through Christ – a grace that literally pulled her brother out of death’s clutches – a grace that is tangible and sensory in this holy fragrant moment of vulnerability and servanthood. It is a moment of healing and of goodbye. As one commentator says, it is an act of “affection as part of a devotion to Jesus that is nothing less than the costly, precious gift of one’s whole self–down to every last strand of hair.” (Matt Skinner, working preacher)

The gift of one’s whole self. Wow, we have much to learn from models of faith such as Mary.

And what’s beautiful, is just as Mary the Mother of Jesus’ song was passed through the generations from woman to woman then from person to person. Mary’s vulnerable action is passed on, too.

Next week we will gather together for Maundy Thursday, we will hear the story of Jesus imitating Mary by washing the feet of his disciples and we will do the same. This was Jesus’ way of giving them one final lesson and a loving goodbye. His way of giving of his entire self symbolically before heading to the Cross to give himself once and for all.

And so, my beloveds, I urge you, especially women, femmes, and members of the LGBTQ+ community – to be faithful in sharing your whole self. Though it is scary, though you may face criticism from men and others…persist. Persist.

Be faithful in sharing your story, your faith, your testimony. The faith of Sarah, Ruth, Mary the mother of Jesus, Elizabeth, Martha and Mary. But also the faith of Hagar, Dinah, Tamar, Bathsheba and all of those who have been silenced by the patriarchy. Speak for them through your radical acts of faithfulness even when questioned, trusting that God Herself intercedes as She did for Mary today, saying “Leave her alone, she is right in her words and in her actions.”

And, finally, men. Please listen to us. Allow us in spaces that have been predominantly male so that, for example, our group of rostered woman is greater than 41. And please, by the grace of God, let our stories and our testimonies of faith be ours and go without being questioned.

That. That is how we see the inbreaking of God’s kingdom in this world.



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