The Sunday Sermon: Pure Nard

Lent 5/Year C 
Isaiah 43:16-21 
Philippians 3:4b-14 
John 12:1-8 

Pure Nard 
Today’s Gospel reading from John paints an uncomfortable picture. To begin with, in the context of our 21st century minds, touching someone else’s feet is something many of us are uncomfortable with. For those of you who have participated in the foot washing we do here each year on Maundy Thursday, you know it often begins somewhat tenuously. At first a few brave souls come up and then eventually more people participate.

Still, not everyone chooses to. Some are uncomfortable with how their feet look, or smell. Others are simply uncomfortable touching someone else’s feet; uncomfortable touching someone they might not know in such an intimate way.

However, even in the context of Jesus’ time, when foot washing was considered an act of hospitality, a host would provide water for guests to wash their feet or even have a servant wash the guests’ feet, in the words of today’s Gospel, Mary’s anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and then drying them with her hair would be a deeply uncomfortable sight.

Judas Iscariot may not have had the purest of motives in rebuking Mary for her actions, but he probably was voicing what others at the dinner were thinking—what in the world was Mary doing and why was Jesus allowing it?

First off the perfume was terribly expensive. To cover someone’s feet with it was an unfathomable extravagance, especially in a culture where need was so very real. Plus Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher, a man of some esteem, at least among those present, and such a man would never allow a woman to touch him publically in this way. It just wasn’t done.

But we see throughout the Gospels, Mary had a way of seeing, of knowing what was important in ways others didn’t understand, at least initially. Her greatest joy seemed to be in spending time with Jesus and deeply taking in his presence.

Thus in her quiet, observant way she may very well had been able to perceive what was going on with Jesus and his sense of what the future held. That by coming to Bethany and healing Lazarus, his death warrant was sealed. Those interested in maintaining the status quo, for whatever reason, would never allow him to leave Jerusalem alive.

Commentators on this passage often write how it portends the anointing of Jesus’ body upon his death and certainly we see the symbolism in play here. But this passage also has much to tell us about the cost of faith and begs the question of what would any of us do, or give, in order to simply spend time with Jesus. What is our relationship with Jesus worth to us?

Could we be as extravagant as Mary? She not only spent a considerable amount of money in purchasing the perfume, but very likely put her reputation and social standing on the line as well, in order to have those few intimate minutes with him. She would never be looked at the same.

What would you do, or give, in order to simply spend time with Jesus?

One of the advantages to having a living God who loves us, one who desires, actually craves to be in relationship with us, is God is always present. Certainly we all have times of doubt, it would be kind of crazy if we didn’t. But we can also count on times of being, if not easy with, at least conscious, of God’s presence.

But ironically this can lead to, and I don’t know how to put it otherwise, our taking God for granted. And from there, really having no sense of urgency of feeling like we have to give anything up or do anything differently because God is always there. As a result, often without even thinking about it, we end up using the expensive perfume so to speak, for any number of other people or things, or even ourselves, and end up giving God whatever is left over.

It is a trap we can fall into when we lose sight of the relational nature of God’s love. A spiritual director I had several years ago once remarked on how we tend to spend a whole lot of time thinking about and wondering how much God loves us, and in comparison almost no time thinking about and wondering how much, or even how, we love God back.

I can’t tell you the number of times his words have come back to me over the years when I realize, even working in a church, I don’t spend enough time with God.

Thank heavens for the season of Lent because it forces me to really think about Jesus and what he went through in order to be faithful to his, our, Abba.

A faithfulness born out of love for which he paid the ultimate price —no amount of perfume, no matter how expensive, can ever come close to the price of his life, and yet he paid it. And because he did, we now have this most incredible, precious life.

There are times I lose sight of this. Over the summer while on vacation, I ducked inside a church, it might have been in Copenhagen as the architecture was very different from what I am used to and I wanted to see what it looked like on the inside. It was a large sanctuary, very spare and light and someone was playing a violin. It was beautiful, so I decided to sit down and close my eyes for a few minutes in order to listen to the music and take advantage of a few moments of solitude.

Or so I thought, because almost immediately I felt the presence of God enfold me and I heard these words, “I’ve missed you. Come back to me.”

“I’ve missed you. Come back to me.”

I’d been so absorbed in other things I hadn’t even realized I had been gone. Certainly I’d prayed, worshipped, and believed.

But in the press of all that was going on in my life and the fact my husband Skip was facing his third open heart surgery almost immediately upon our return was weighing heavily on me. And I realized in the beauty of that simple, sacred moment for whatever reason, I had been gone.

There was no guilt attached to these words, only desire.

If Jesus had been sitting before me and I had a bottle of fine perfume, I’d like to think I would have knelt to anoint him as Mary had. To show the courage she did and bless him for loving me back to him. As we enter this fifth week of Lent, and begin the final journey with Jesus into Jerusalem, and everything that ensues from it, we are called to examine our hearts and think deeply about what we would do, what will we do, or give, to spend time with Jesus. Or put another way, how will we anoint or bless him?

–The Rev Canon Allisyn Thomas

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