Sunday sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 17, 2013
Text: John 12:1-8
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa
It's an odd thing, to lead worship in the morning and then get ordained in the afternoon. It's a big day. And in part because I won't actually get the chance to say much at this afternoon's service, let me take one moment to thank everybody here who has worked to help put it together. Thank you.
That being said, just to be honest, I kinda thought that it wasn't going to happen. I kinda thought they were going to ask me to be Pope. I had a sneaking suspicion. Just a bit of gut feeling. Would I have done it? I don't know; I mean, on one hand, it's an incredible honor, and you get to travel all around the world; on the other hand -- well, you think I'm going to say that I wouldn't do it because I'm not even Catholic, and I suppose that's part of it, though I did go to a Jesuit college, so I've got that in my corner. But what jumps to mind right now is that I really just don't like the smell of incense. It's so overpowering; there's no such thing as something that smells just a bit like incense. And it's so unnatural; like, why can't the room just smell like the room? But I suppose that's just part of the Papal package: the incense, the gold, the jewelry, the lavish decor of everything: I've been to St. Peter's; it's all very beautiful, it's all incredibly ornate, you can hardly see any of it without trying to calculate the cost in hours and riches, and then they let that incense burn on top of everything and it just seems a bit excessive. I like to think of myself as a man of somewhat simpler tastes.
So you can imagine my surprise when, by all accounts, the Conclave of Cardinals did in fact choose a Pope of similar disposition. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergalio, now known of course as Pope Francis I, has made headlines over the past few days not only for his election but for his simplicity. As the archbishop of Argentina, Bergalio famously refused to live in the palace, choosing instead a modest apartment where he could cook his own meals and ride the bus to work. Upon assuming the Papal office, he appeared in public wearing only a simple robe and cross, and refused to be seated above his fellow cardinals in the traditional throne. A cousin of his told one reporter that "the last time he visited, he arrived [on one of those discount airlines]. He always travels like that. No waste." And so the news coverage has run with the story of the new, simpler, more ordinary, more down-to-earth Pope, a real man of the people, a real man who can somehow cut through all of the ritual, all of the ceremony, all of the excess. I don't know for a fact how he feels about incense, but you can begin to paint a picture.
And I think for us it is a very attractive picture. Given the scandal and intrigue that have hounded the upper floors of the Catholic church in recent memory, and given the cloud of secrecy that has accompanied it, there is no question that we are inclined to see the new Pope's simplicity as something of an antidote. But Francis' aura of modesty doesn't just dovetail with the needs of the modern catholic church. It also brings up long-standing cultural, liturgical, and even theological debates, many of them dating back to the Reformation, about what church was supposed to be like. Look around this sanctuary. Does it seem lavish? Does it seem excessive? Of course, there are objects here that we hold sacred: the table, the font. Bibles and Hymnals given in memory of the dearly departed. But there's very little here to compete with the gold and the jewels of St. Peter's. There's very little here that we would call extravagant. Those of us in the Reformed church, and Presbyterians in particular; well, we tend to be a people of white walls and wooden pews and simpler tastes, a people of ordinary things, and I would wager that very few of us like the smell of incense.
Which means that today's Gospel lesson should challenge us to the core, because John's account of the anointing at Bethany is nothing but a celebration of excess and lavishness. Jesus and the disciples have returned to the home of Mary and Martha - and Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead in the previous chapter. A great dinner is thrown, during which Mary takes a entire bottle of expensive perfume and pours it, every drop, onto Jesus' feet. With her hair she rubs it into the skin and cleans off the dust and dirt of the road, and the house is filled with the sweet overpowering fragrance. Now, there's an argument to be made that using an entire bottle of the perfume is undoubtedly excessive. There's an argument to be made that to wash Jesus's feet Mary would have needed but a few drops. And there's an argument to be made that neither Mary nor Martha are in a financial position to afford to use such an expensive bottle all at once. And in John's telling of that story, that argument is made by no less a Biblical figure than Judas himself.
"Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?," Judas asks. It is not an unreasonable question. Jesus has commanded them to love and serve the poor, to give up all that they had, to sell their possessions. Jesus has called them to a simpler life of ordinary things; you can hear the wheels turn in Judas's head: Why did she even have such a nice bottle? I didn't think Jesus associated with the sort of people who own such expensive stuff. And then just to pour it out, all at once, on his feet? It's not just absurd; I tell you what it is: it's poor stewardship. It's too easy to picture the session meeting, or Presbytery meeting, or finance committee meeting where Judas would stand up and take Mary to task for the selfishness, the irresponsibility, the failure of Christian witness and discipleship involved in spending such an outrageous sum on a simple foot washing. Did you not even consult the rest of the budget? Are you not aware of how close we are every day to financial ruin? Have you even paid attention to how much it costs us just to do the ordinary things that we do? John tells us that Judas himself was the keeper of the common purse, meaning that he, certainly, would be the one to know, and one to chide: Do you have any idea what we could have done with that money? It is not an unreasonable question.
But in the Gospel-writer's hands, we are left with no choice but to reject Judas's question and take Mary's perspective. Of course we are predisposed to reject Judas himself, knowing as we do what fate awaits him in the days to come, and John reminds us even here in this text that Judas is "the one who is about to betray" Jesus. But in John's Gospel, Satan has already "entered into Judas", and John even gives us a particular detail about Judas's own stewardship, namely that he has been stealing from the common pot for his own benefit. So by this point the reader can have no ambiguity about whose perspective - Mary's or Judas' - we are encouraged to occupy, almost as if the question itself -- "why was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?" -- almost as if the question is so reasonable, so seductively reasonable, that it becomes necessary to discredit the one who asks it. And so we are forced to join with Mary in pouring the perfume on Jesus's feet; John leaves us no choice but to invert the bottle ourselves until every last expensive drop has been spilled out; John leaves us no choice at all but to revel in this moment of unbridled and unreasonable excess.
So how are you feeling now about these white walls and our simple wooden pews? But more than that: how are you feeling about the very reasonable questions that make up so much of the bulk of our congregational life, like "how do we make this work within our budget?" or "doesn't the church already have something like this that we could just reuse" or "can we really afford to be so extravagant when we have to think about the next generation?" It is central to our sense of Christian stewardship that we do not go around indulging ourselves on splendor; it is central to our sense of Christian discipleship that we answer God's call to the ordinary, to the church boiler, to the parking lot, to the very regular and routine deeds of community service woven into our own self-understanding - "you will always have the poor with you." Surely, we tell ourselves, surely it is there that God calls us, into the discipleship of the everyday and the stewardship of the ordinary - surely we are never meant to find room in our theological budgets for something as extravagant as an entire bottle of perfume only to be spilled on the floor. It's not an unreasonable conviction for the everyday work of ordinary people living together as the church of God.
But Jesus' trip to Bethany is no everyday trip. Remember that the last time he was here, his friend Lazarus, their friend Lazarus had turned sick and died, and Jesus had raised him from the grave. It was a formidable demonstration of his power, but it also evoked the wrath of the Jewish authorities. So they have been searching for him high and low, and so this time, when Jesus comes to Bethany, it's like returning the scene of his crime. The last time he was here, he was a wandering prophet, the sort of figure that was not unfamiliar to Roman-occupied Israel; this time, he's something far more dangerous; this time, six days before Passover, six days before Jesus will ride into Jerusalem and begin the final chapter of his earthly ministry, this time is no ordinary time; this time Jesus who raised Lazarus from the grave is preparing for his own death. That's what he finally says to Judas: that's why she bought the perfume, Judas: she bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. Last time he was here, nobody would have seen this coming. This time, Mary can see all too clearly where the story ends: if he came back to Bethany, he's ready to die. If he rides to Jerusalem, the story can't end any other way.
What's more: the last time he was here, the house smelled like death. That's what Martha said when Jesus proposed to roll away Lazarus' stone: He has been dead four days; Lord there is already a stench. But this time, Mary covers over the stench of death the only way she can: with the whole jar of the richest perfume, with the sweet smell of excess. That's so important we have to say it again: the last time, Mary's house smelled like death, and it's one of those smells that you can't just wash away. But this time, for this one moment, on the precipice of Jerusalem, on the brink of the cross, Mary fills the house with the sweetest fragrance she has, obliterating - if only for one passing hour - the lingering stench of death and decay. In so doing she anticipates the very extra-ordinary, the very immodest, the very extravagant event yet to come: that Jesus himself will overcome the grave, that Jesus himself will break free of the everyday bonds of life and death, that the very event upon which God's house has been built, the very event upon which this church and this congregation have been built, is the very definition of unreasonable and the very heart of lavish.
We sit here on the precipice of Jerusalem. Our Lenten journey is nearing its end: next week, we will march in to the city, and the clock will wind its way towards betrayal in the Garden and death on the cross, and before we know it Easter will pass, and Pentecost with it, and we will find ourselves once again in the season of Ordinary Time, and we will turn to the business of ordinary things, of simple white walls and wooden pews. Surely there is great room in our shared Christian journey for the ordinary, for the modest; more than that: surely we are in fact called to be reasonable stewards of our Christian inheritance: our families, our congregation, this church, this community. Surely we are called to make prudent decisions within budgeted amounts, to safeguard what we have for the generations yet to come. And yet this reasonable work, in this ordinary time, is everywhere marked by the stench of death. This ordinary time, this very human time, is nothing but the occupation of our fleeting lives, and the stench of death attends us at every turn. It soaks into the fabric of our relationships. It gets under the skin of our own bodies. Even down into the foundation of who we are and what we believe, and every one of us this morning has come into worship bearing that stench of death. It smells like heartache and desperation. It smells like grief. It smells like loneliness and fear. It smells like pain and despair. It smells like the brokenness of the world laid bare in very ordinary ways.
But here on the precipice of Jerusalem. Here in the climax of our Lenten journey; here in this time outside of ordinary time, here as we draw near to the cross, the promise of the Gospel of Jesus triumphant over the grave pours down upon us like the sweetest perfume. Not just a single drop, though a single drop would do; no, the promise of God comes with abundance. It comes with abandon. And it fills the whole household of God with the smell of the sweetest perfume. It seeps into the pews. It soaks into the walls. It smells like the lavish grace that attends God's forgiveness. It smells like the extravagant love that attends God's faithfulness. It smells like the promise of a kingdom excessively far beyond this ordinary time. It's so overpowering that the stench of death, if only for a moment, if only for a passing hour, is nowhere to be found. Amen.