John 12:1-8 “Breaking the Rules”
March 22, 2015
Rev. Diane K. Hooge
In a past life, or at least it feels that long ago, I was in a new program in Gerontology. It was the seventh year of the then new field of study at the University of Oregon. What I appreciated was the innovative design of the program with professors who were deeply engaged and energized by being a part of creating new curriculum.
One of the most power classes was the one on Death and Dying utilizing Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s work…at that time it was considered cutting edge. Before we could be accepted into the class, we had to have references that spoke to our mental health and ability to explore death. We were then divided up into groups…groups that we stayed in within the larger class. We also had the same small group leader, a professor in the department, for the duration of the term.
The culminating piece of the class was a weekend retreat that was built into the curriculum. We spent a weekend on the Oregon Coast. Each of our small groups was divided into different spaces within the retreat setting. And, each of us experienced our own death and funeral service as part of the retreat. It was powerful and felt very sacred. At the time of our own “death” we handed over our obituary to the person who we chose to read it. If there were symbols to be used, they were handed over to be placed in the funeral service. The group then covered us up with a black sheet, and the service began. Following the formal reading of the obituary, our classmates reflected on our lives. It was profound for the one who was considered “dead” under the sheet, and, it was powerful for those of us who sat around reflecting and mourning the loss of life as we shared our memories. At the end of the “service”, the sheet was folded back, and each one was graciously welcomed back to life and to the group.
The retreat ended with a festive party as each class member celebrated a renewed sense of embracing life. Our final class assignment was to write a letter to ourselves to remind us of what we had learned through our death and new life experience. The letters were mailed to us by our professor sometime well after our class was over.
How could Mary, Martha and Lazarus not have had a party to celebrate Lazarus’ return to life? In the happenings leading up to today’s events, Lazarus had been pronounced dead, placed in a tomb, and his sisters, who had sought to get Jesus to their home “in time” to save him, were in great shock and grief, frustrated that Jesus hadn’t arrived. When Jesus did get to their home, he stood outside the grave of Lazarus, and to everyone’s shock starting yelling for him to come forth. His actions left the crowd with gaping mouths just witnessing that bizarre scene, let alone seeing the image of immobilized Lazarus stumbling out of the tomb with the overpowering stench of death, and with his grave clothes beginning to trail behind him.
I suspect that it took a while to recover from the shock. It became clear that a date needed to be set for a formal celebration. It was six days before the Passover and the city of Jerusalem was filling up. Joseph Caiaphas was high priest. He had been in that position for eighteen years. His job depended on how well he cooperated with the Romans. Since the Romans did not tolerate civil disorder, any rioting would have put Caiaphas at risk for losing his position. I believe that he was tired of putting up with no respect from the temple crowd. Jesus was clearly a threat to his system. So, it was his strategy to take Jesus away secretly. He planned on doing so immediately after the festival so that he could prevent a riot. His plan also included getting rid of Lazarus.
It is into this political arena that Jesus entered the home of his friends to celebrate Lazarus’ return from the grave. I imagine that the home was filled with well-wishers along with Jesus and many of his followers. They had come to toast Lazarus’ return to life and to health.
Sometime between passing around the lamb stew and the serving of the desert platter of fruit, Mary disappeared from the table only to return with something wrapped in a scarf. It’s at that point that she began breaking all kinds of societal norms. I’m sure that the table became very, very quiet and a bit squirmy as she first of all did what no proper woman did, which was to untie her hair and let it fall down her back. Her next startling action was to break open the precious jar of nard which immediately sent the message throughout the whole house that this was no cheap bottle of Evening in Paris. This was the kind of fragrance that took one’s breath away. This is when Judas, the money ledger gatekeeper, came to life. It’s easy to hear the disdain in his voice as he declares that this extravagant gift could have been sold for an extraordinary amount of money that could have been given to the poor…not because he authentically believed she should have chosen to give her money to the poor…and not because he cared about the poor, but because he could not skim off his share from such an over the top gift.
In Mary’s prophetic stance, she did not pour the fragrant oil on Jesus’ head, which would have sent the message that he was to be king, she poured it on his feet preparing him for death. She offered him actions based on gratitude. There was no hint of this gift being sacrificial, even though it was worth a year’s salary. It was a gift given out of authentic love from the deepest place within her. Her gift honored Jesus life: his courage, teachings, advocacy and his embrace of all humanity.
While I suspect that Martha probably opened the windows to help diffuse the intensity of the nard, I’m sure that Judas wasn’t the only one who thought that that display of Mary’s was reckless in terms of its price. And, I’m sure that I’m not the only one that squirms over this part of the story. But Jesus, the greatest advocate for the poor; the one who always stood by those who experienced injustice; the one who ran the money changers out of the temple and overturned the tables of the rip-off artists in the temple; cherished her gift of extravagant love. He cherished the fact that it came from her heart. Anyone else at that table or in this congregation knows that it was a sacrifice, but she saw it as an opportunity to give, and she did it with authentic joy.
It seems to me that it is sometimes out of great loss, or, like Mary, who anticipated great loss, that we often get very clear about our priorities. It is often after the loss of a loved one that I encounter a relative or friend who makes a shift in their lives, or their thinking, based on what they learned from their grief.
Many years ago, I remember attending the funeral of a woman in her 40’s by the name of Donna who had died of cancer. The obituary had suggested where the memorial gifts could be offered. However, I will never forget walking into our church and being overwhelmed by the abundance of various shades of pink flowers that filled the entire front of the large sanctuary. Anyone who knew her was aware that her favorite color was pink. The truth was that it was extravagant. And, it was an extravagance given from the heart for a woman who had touched so many lives in that congregation.
Our pastor wondered why so few folks seemed to be following the instructions regarding memorial gifts. He was clearly baffled and somewhat irritated. The truth was the flowers were to honor her, yes, and they also represented a way in which the congregation took care of themselves because the sight of those masses of blooms helped soften the blow of losing her at such a young age from the community who loved her. They needed to express their love for the sake of her family and for their own sakes. There is something about extravagance that seems to break the rules…the written and the unwritten rules both of families, churches and society.
One of my favorite memories from my time serving a large church in Seattle is the story of several families who mortgaged their homes shortly after the stock market crashed in order to save the new education building that had just been completed. I suspect that there were family members who were appalled as well as terrified by the risks they took.
And, I imagine that this story hits pretty close to home as we sit in this sanctuary that was literally rebuilt by Brad Roupp while the congregation was living in exile attending different churches, and eventually sharing the building with the Havurah community before this building was ready for their return. Every time I tell the story of the matriarchs and patriarchs of this community who determined that they were not interested in the church dying, I am always touched by the fact that with only a congregation of 60 folks, they raised $250,000 ten years ago to rebuild this church and to hire former pastor Rev. Pam Shepherd. It all fits under the title of “extravagant gift.”
Many years ago, theologian Paul Tillich wrote on this text saying, “the history of mankind (I’m sure he meant humankind) is the history of men and women who wasted themselves and were not afraid to do so. They did not fear the waste of themselves in the service of a new creation.”
The decision for Chi Huang to spend a year on the streets of La Paz Bolivia came because he had determined that he needed a break from Harvard Medical School in order to do something meaningful. In his book, When Invisible Children Sing, he tells the story of making his way through the freezing Andean nights with his tackle box filled with the compassionate oils of medicines to treat the illnesses and injuries that are so prevalent. His journey took him through his study-focused childhood and the overwhelming pain of losing his young sister. He tells of administering antibiotics to teenaged prostitutes suffering from sexually transmitted diseases. He lances infected sores, and tends to the cuts that so many Bolivian girls carve into their own skin. It is his Christian commitment that, Like Mary, enables him to offer his extravagant gift to the children who the world refuses to acknowledge, let alone care for.
At the end of today’s Gospel lesson are the words that tend to haunt us: “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. These words of Jesus are not about ignoring the poor or the injustices that create poverty. It is a call to extravagance as a form of love. To understand the poor, to understand poverty, demands that we, like Mary, seek out those who are suffering and be willing to have our eyes opened and our hearts broken opened, which leads to life changes. We’re asked to be hope carriers.
As always, we are invited into the story. What over the top gift or action of love has influenced your life? Did you receive it or give it? How did it make a difference? Some of us in this community have had a near death experience or been shaken awake through some experience that called for us to look at our values and determine to live differently. What is God’s invitation to us as a community? And, what is God’s invitation to you? How are you being invited to live life fully…without reservation and fear?
Grief often has a way of cracking us open. It seems to me that it is sometimes out of great loss, or like Mary, who anticipated profound grief, that we often get very clear on our priorities. I invite us to dare to be extravagant in our giving…even if it means breaking some societal and family norms. And, most of all may our giving come from our hearts. May it be so. Amen.