A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
March 25, 2018
The last time we saw this family, Mary and Martha were in deep grief because their brother Lazarus was three days dead. dead. dead. And Mary and Martha make some great affirmations of faith to Jesus as they talk to him outside their brothers’ tomb. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Yet, even now I know that God will give you what ever you ask of him.”
And our text this morning opened with “Jesus came to the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” John is reminding us that this family can talk to us about life after death. Lazarus was buried and three days in the tomb, but is now hosting a dinner party.
And Mary, perhaps in response to this new life Jesus has given her brother Lazarus, takes a pound of Nard and pours it all over his feet. Because this action is so foreign to us, I think we miss out on the extravagance. It isn’t often, I suspect, that someone washes your feet with their hair. With nard.
It was an extravagant gift from Mary to Jesus, an offering of love that was very personal. It was a sign, also, that during all of those times she sat at his feet and listened while he talked—she actually heard what he was saying about “coming that people might have new life and have it abundantly”—she understood when he said he was headed to the cross that he was heading to his death. She understood there is no reason to hoard what we have in this life. We are to pour it all out, as a ridiculous act of generosity that signals our hope is not in earthly possessions but in new life offered by God. Because what we have is enough. And enough is enough.
Nard was a very expensive and concentrated resin that was used to anoint dead bodies. She is giving Jesus the gift that she didn’t have to give her no longer dead brother, Lazarus.
Judas’ comment gets us off track. “Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denari and given to the poor?”, he asks.
And when he puts it like that, thief and traitor that he is, we see his point. A Roman soldier at that time earned a little over 200 denari a year, so this one pound jar of Nard was worth around, what, 40 or 50 thousand dollars? It was a gift of great value.
Judas sets up a false choice for us. It wasn’t that Mary won the lottery, had a lot of cash, and decided to go buy some really expensive perfume as she walked by the homeless people on the street. It would have taken a long time, I suspect, for her family to save up for that pound of Nard so that they could show love, honor, and respect to their loved ones as they died.
This gift she gives Jesus shows that she understands that new life is breaking into the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This man who brought her brother back from the dead is changing everything.
How many of you have received a gift that was so staggering and surprising that it caught you off guard? Mary recognized that they were receiving that kind of gift in the life of Jesus Christ and she responds with the most extravagant gift she can dream up. And while having your feet washed with embalming ointment by someone’s hair may not be what you are asking for on your next birthday, Jesus recognizes the gift.
“Leave her alone,” he tells Judas. “She bought it so she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
In other words, Jesus is letting Judas and the others know that the systems that keep people poor, homeless, and hungry will always be here. He isn’t saying it as a promise, to beat down the dreams of people who want to rise above their situations and those who want to help them. He’s not saying, “don’t worry about the poor, they’ll always be around.”
He says it with some degree of judgment, and causation. “Because of the way you steal from the common purse and pursue your own interests above those of everyone else—you will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
These words from Jesus should call us to renewed purpose for the improvement of the lives of others. Rather than putting down the extravagant gifts that people bring to Jesus, we should all live our lives with Mary’s faith and gratitude.
This new life we recognize in the person of Jesus Christ can change lives, now, not just someday in the future. “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly”, Jesus says in John’s gospel.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus live fully into New Life.
Martha prepares a dinner party with Jesus, even though eating dinner with him is seditious.
Mary openly declares her abundant faith in Jesus’ words by anointing his feet with perfume.
Lazarus walks out of his tomb and into new life with courage and confidence.
Lazarus probably could have told us that the decision to listen to Jesus and to walk out of his tomb gave him new life and also gave him a whole new set of issues. The raising of Lazarus was the final straw for the Jewish leaders about Jesus. They are actively plotting Jesus’ death from this point on.
And religious leaders weren’t big fans of Lazarus either. Everywhere Lazarus went, the people said, “Hey—there’s the guy Jesus brought back from death!” Our text even tells us this, “When the great crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came not only because of Jesus, but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.”
Living into New Life, walking out of the tombs in which we find ourselves is not without risk when the world wants to keep us in our graves. As Jesus watches people threaten to kill his friend, when the only crime he’s guilty of is not being dead—Jesus says enough is enough. And he leads a protest march into Jerusalem.
What we get before Palm Sunday in John’s gospel is the story of people who are ALL IN, saying enough is enough if a culture of violence wants to keep people in their graves. Enough is enough if generosity and abundance are scorned. Enough is enough if talking about new life is threatening to people in power . They lead us to the parade with the reminder to give it all away for love.
Frederick Buechner once wrote:
The crowd at Palm Sunday is there for Jesus, there to greet a scandalous celebrity. They are not all in, the way Lazarus, Mary, and Martha are. This is the same crowd who will shortly chant “crucify him!”. They want an easy solution, someone to ride in like a king, the way Caesar would, and take on the Roman occupation, to make their lives easier. They want a new life too. They aren’t willing to go all in for it, though.
I was with some friends this past week, and one of them had recently lost a lot of weight. Someone asked him how he did it, and I, somewhat jokingly said, “please tell me it involved bourbon and butter”.
Turns out, it involved exercise, attention to food choices, and making sure that the calories going into his diet were fewer than the calories being expended each day. He was all in for his health. I want the easy solution.
We are often like the crowd—wanting the easy solution—a hero to ride into town and just fix things already.
One of the reasons I think we have had zero legislative action about the gun violence epidemic and public health crisis in this country is because we want an easy solution. We are not ALL IN. Banning 1 style of gun won’t end the crisis. Arming teachers won’t end it either. Yesterday, one of the Parkland, FL youth, Emma Gonzalez marching in DC for a solution to gun violence said this to reporters:
The movement, “is probably gonna be years, and at this point, I don’t know that I mind. Nothing that’s worth it is easy. We’re going against the largest gun lobby. We could very well die trying to do this. But we could very well die not trying to do this, too. So why not die for something rather than nothing?”
Listen again to that quote from Buechner: “The life you clutch, hoard, guard, and play safe with is in the end a life worth little to anybody, including yourself, and only a life given away for love’s sake is a life worth living.”
Insert lots of different words in that sentence where he has “Life”.
The gun you clutch,
the gun ban you clutch,
the self righteousness you clutch,
the judgment of the other you clutch, the reliance on violence you clutch….
On all sides of the debate, we are clinging tightly to the wrong thing. What are we willing to give away for love’s sake?
To be “all in” to solve this problem, we have to let go of demands and be open to conversations. On average, 96 people die each day in the US by gun violence. On average, 200 additional people are injured by guns in the US each day. This crisis doesn’t have an easy solution. We have to be all in. Enough is enough.
What are we willing to give away for love’s sake?
The crowd at the palm sunday parade includes Greeks, or gentiles. It is no longer a family dispute, only an issue for the Jews. As the pharisees observe: “Look, the world has gone after him!” The crowd says to one of the disciples: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. We hear their wish and remember the invitation at the beginning of the gospel as Jesus invites the disciples to “come and see”.
When the disciple tells Jesus the world has showed up in answer to the invitation, Jesus says,
‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
The image of seeds, buried in the earth for a time, cracked open, emptied, as new life emerges, seedlings sprouting from the soil—we understand that part.
The next verse about loving and hating their lives—that is trickier. Listen to it from another translation:
If you love your life, you will lose it. If you give it up in this world, you will be given eternal life. (John 12:25)
The Contemporary English Version translation hearkens back to Mary’s gift of foot washing, giving up the things we value and possess in this life for love, in order to have new life. If we only love earthly values of prosperity, and victory through power, and selfish concern—we lose. If we give up those earthly priorities—we gain new life in Christ.
Today is Palm Sunday, which was a protest march to show the absurdity of military parades our leaders orchestrate for their own glory. Riding past into Jerusalem on a big white Roman horse with tanks and troops in formation, is contrasted to Jesus on a donkey. The Roman leader’s parades were to turn human adulation toward kingship. Jesus’ parades shows that he is marching against human understanding of kingship, revealing God’s glory. As Jesus said after the parade, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified”. The glorification of Jesus will not be the glorification of violence and might we humans lift up. It will be the glorification of peace in the face of violence, and the glorification of love that is all in, committed to give up life in the pursuit of love.
As we journey during this Holy Week toward Easter, I pray that we will be willing, like Lazarus, Martha and Mary, to stay with Jesus when the crowds vanish, when the cheering crowds turn into a mob. May we invite him to our house for dinner when it is not the popular thing to do. May we wash his feet with nard, offering him a gift so extravagant that he sees our gratitude for this gift of New Life that we have been given.