Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent – April 7, 2019
When my wife and I had been dating for one month, I bought her a single rose to mark the occasion. On our two-month anniversary, I bought her two roses. I kept this up for several months, adding a rose for every month.
The first time I met my sister-in-law Amy and I had been together for several months at that point, and Amy told her about the roses I was buying. My sister-in-law looked at me like I was a complete idiot and said, “That’s very sweet, Jeff, but I don’t think you’ve thought this through. What happens if you’re still together in ten years and have to buy her 120 roses? You’re either going to have to break up or win the lottery!”
And she’s right. It wasn’t sustainable. If I’d kept it up, I would have had to buy her 291 roses this month! That’s more than 24 dozen roses! Thankfully, Amy understood that I was lovesick and dopey and terrible at math. But that’s how love is! Love doesn’t count the costs. Love pours itself out for the sake of the beloved. Love does some things that look funny and ridiculous and even shocking to others.
That’s the kind of love we see in our gospel reading for today. Jesus was staying at the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. He had just raised Lazarus from the dead, and now the authorities were plotting in earnest to kill him. “It is better that one man die for the people,” Caiaphas had said – being more right than he knew. The sharks were circling, and so just before our reading for today, St. John tells us that Jesus could no longer walk openly among the people. Now, six days before the Passover, he was laying low at the home of his friends. It was his final stop before his fateful entry into Jerusalem.
In the middle of a dinner party, Mary did something shocking. She went and got a bottle of costly perfume from her room. This was not the cheap stuff from Walgreens – this was the good stuff from Nordstrom’s! This was worth 300 denarii, which was about a year’s worth of wages for a common laborer in that time. This wasn’t a small vial either. This was an entire pound’s worth of the best perfume the ancient world had to offer. This bottle of perfume was probably the most expensive thing Mary owned. She took this perfume and she poured it all out on Jesus’ feet. She used it to anoint Jesus, St. John tells us – and as she did, the fragrance filled the room.
This was all strange enough, but then Mary pulled off her head covering. She let down her long hair. She bent down and tipped her head and began to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair.
It was all so strange: In the ancient world people were anointed on their heads, not their feet! And people either washed their own feet, or a servant would do it – but your friends certainly didn’t do it! And when feet were washed, you didn’t use the most expensive perfume in the house to do it! And the hair? In the ancient world all women wore their hair long. A woman’s long hair was her pride and joy. You certainly didn’t use that beautiful long hair to wipe someone’s feet! None of it made a lick of sense! It didn’t add up! It seemed ridiculous!
You can almost sense the disciples sitting in silence, shifting uncomfortably in their chairs during this very public display of affection. Eventually Judas (of all people) spoke up: “Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor!” he objected. You see, the Passover was near, and it was customary to make an offering for the poor at the Passover. But that’s not what Judas’ concern really was. Judas was virtue signaling. He was saying what seemed virtuous while he didn’t really have any intentions of doing anything about it. In fact, St. John clues us in that Judas was a thief who liked to dip his fingers into the common purse to skim off a little for himself. To Judas, what Mary was doing seemed absurd. It probably seemed absurd to the rest of the disciples too.
But it wasn’t absurd to Jesus. Jesus told Judas to back off. He told him to leave her alone. Jesus understood that Mary was expressing her love for her him. Jesus explained that she was preparing him for his burial, which was now only days away. “You always have the poor with you,” Jesus said, “but you do not always have me.”
Whether she realized how short Jesus’ time on earth with them was or not, Mary was pouring herself out in love for her Lord. And love, real love, doesn’t count the cost. Real love in action sometimes seems ridiculous and even shocking to others. But this extravagant display of love wasn’t strange or ridiculous to Jesus. He received it with joy.
I heard another story from another Mary this past week. At our Wednesday soup supper this week Mary Brock shared with some of us how a friend of hers invited her to see a new movie that is opening soon – not this Friday, but the following Friday. When she was invited Mary looked at her calendar and said, “But that’s Good Friday!” Her friend responded, “So what! You already know what happens! He dies every year! Just come to the movie with me!” Mary’s jaw literally dropped even as she told us the story. Mary respectfully declined, leaving her friend shaking her head. It seemed ridiculous to this friend that Mary would give up a Friday night outing to the movies in order to come to a worship service. It seemed absurd to her.
But Mary of Oak Harbor loves Jesus like Mary of Bethany did. She can’t imagine going to the movies on the night the church commemorates Jesus’ crucifixion. And so she will be here pouring herself out at Jesus’ feet.
This is how the world responds to us who love Jesus. They will often get behind much of our work in the world. They will often admire us when we help the poor. They will often appreciate it when we build hospitals or nursing homes or when we dig wells. They will applaud us when we do something seen as practical in helping others. Oftentimes they’ll even set up their own secular versions of those efforts. We should keep on doing those things. The poor are always with us, Jesus said
But what we do here? Gathering to praise and worship Jesus? That is something the world will always think is ridiculous. Singing songs to Jesus on a weekend morning when you could be sleeping in? Are you crazy? Theologian Marva Dawn once wrote a wonderful book about worship called: “A Royal Waste of Time.” It was a tongue-in-cheek title, pointing to how worship is perceived by many people.
And the practice of setting aside a significant portion of our income as a love offering to Jesus? That seems absurd to many people too. They think: What a waste! Don’t you know you could buy a jet ski or a hot tub with that money? Or, like Judas, they will virtue signal about it, saying: Don’t you know you could do something more practical with that money, something that actually helps people?
Or spending time at Jesus’ feet by coming to Bible study – either by staying a whole extra hour at church, or, even crazier, coming on a Tuesday night? Or spending time in prayer, falling on your knees and pouring your heart out to Jesus? To many people this all seems as absurd as dumping a bucket of Chanel No. 5 on someone’s feet and rubbing it in with your hair.
But when you love Jesus, you don’t count the cost. You don’t tally the time. Real love is willingly sacrificial. It means joyfully pouring yourself out of the sake of the beloved. There is nothing particularly virtuous about us that causes us to act this way and do these things. This is simply what people who love Jesus do, and Jesus receives this love with joy.
We love him because he first loved us. We love him because he poured himself out for us.
The morning after that dinner party with Mary and Martha and Lazarus, Jesus went to Jerusalem. He could probably still smell the perfume on his feet as he made the last leg of his journey. There he was greeted with palm branches and people shouting “Hosanna!” There Jesus showed his love for each of us as he gave himself up for us on the cross. We’ll pick up this part of the story next Sunday as we begin Holy Week.
But we remember even now that on the cross, Jesus poured out more than perfume. He poured out his blood for us. He poured out his life for us. It was a shocking display of love that seemed ridiculous to many. It still seems absurd to a lot of people.
But in his great love for us, Jesus didn’t count the cost. Instead, he poured himself out for the sake of the beloved. He poured himself out for you. He loves you that much.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church