Mary’s Extravagance & Jesus’ Smelly Feet

sermon for 5th Sunday in Lent (John12:1-8 Philippians3:4b-14)
Last week, we talked about Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal son—maybe talked too much about it! Rest assured, there’s only one sermon today, though you may count it almost as an 8th Prodigal sermon.

By having this Gospel reading back-to-back with last week’s, the similarities are striking. This reading today seems almost like it could be John’s version of, or response to, the prodigal parable. The center of both of these stories is an extravagant action, an unwarranted luxury, reckless devotion. Last week, it was the story of a father welcoming home his wayward son. This week, it is Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, dumping out a ridiculous amount of perfume on Jesus.

Then there is also the skeptical or resistant response, viewing the central behavior as misplaced. Last week, the elder son was in that role of refusing to join the party and today it is one of Jesus’ disciples and closest followers, Judas, who scoffs at the extravagant, even wasteful, devotion.

We’ll focus on the most surprising change between these mirrored stories, the direction of devotion. We usually hear the parable as being about God’s amazing grace and unconditional love and abundant hospitality. In a reversal, here this woman is doing it for God. Now, generally we should hold the extravagance side-by-side and not change the values. As we said last week, we’re apt to evaluate that younger son who runs away as corrupt but simply identify the father as generous, when we could more equally see them both as risky.

Well, today we should make sure we’re not downgrading or writing off Mary’s behavior for being a woman. We shouldn’t see the father as a doting parent, maybe a kindly old man but instead claim Mary’s actions are scandalous, perhaps relying on Judas’s grim appraisal of her. Please notice that she’s not labeled a prostitute or a sinner; that’s not in this story (as if that would allow us to write her off or downgrade her to begin with!). While her wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair is an incredibly intimate deed, we should correspondingly note that the old father inappropriately went running down the driveway to kiss his son. So the distinction in these stories has nothing to do with one being a respectable male and the other a woman of questionable repute.

The difference, then, is the direction of devotion. Almost by default, we hear the parable of the Prodigal Son as a message about God’s forgiveness and welcome for sinners. More even than the love of a parent, we receive it as God the Father whose love really is inexhaustible and eternal. Mary’s action today, then, reverses that direction. If that was God’s love for us, this might be about our love for God.

But that’s a hard category, and in the end I’m not sure it leads us to where we want to be. Last week we cited the small catechism on God’s generosity, which goes on to say that “for all this, I owe it to God to thank, praise, serve, and obey.” It’s a pretty easy view that we ought to return to God gratitude of heart and mind and voice, that we should bring a reciprocal love to God with all our soul’s life.

We could read that in this passage today, that Mary is returning to Jesus and finding a way to pay back what was given to her. There’s a lot of current thought on the nature of gifts, whether they can ever be truly free or if, of necessity, it creates a demand in us, that we indeed “owe” something back. This is easy enough to see in our own lives, like when someone brings a present to your birthday party. Or the obligation in thank you notes or a return invitation for dinner or even—worst of all—being emotionally in debt.

For Mary we could see this in a much larger sense. It mentions being at the table together with Lazarus. The amazing thing is that just a few verses before, Lazarus was dead, rotting in the crypt. Yet because of Jesus’ compassion and love and because of his power over death and his insistence on life, Mary had her brother back, the restoration of the community of family, the wholeness of life as it should be, a glimpse of resurrection. Mary had reason to be enormously grateful to Jesus. So as extravagant as her gift was, it wasn’t out of line.

There’s all kind of precedent for that in our lives, too. Thinking about health and encountering death, paralleling the situation of Lazarus and Mary’s family, we might not be surprised at health care costs and exorbitant bills. When life is on the line, we may find the extravagant expense actually worth it.

Or we could take this as a stewardship story. Then I could tell you that your giving to church is important. What you return as gifts from God to be shared here are crucial (including for my salary!). We might see it historically in ostentatious architecture of glamorous churches representing faith. But overall I don’t believe this story about Mary pouring perfume on Jesus’ feet is just encouraging you to fill your offerings with greater recompense.
In the end, while it doesn’t seem so astonishingly peculiar that God would welcome a sinner like you—the compassion of the prodigal story we may be eager to claim for ourselves—still, this next direction must seem out of place, well more than you’d lavish as your faithful response.

Indeed, instead of this being about what you owe to God or how you repay a gift, I believe it is rather ridiculous. It’s an action that makes no sense. We begin to see that by having to agree with Judas: This is a foolish waste! The value of that perfume—costing a year’s worth of wages!—could most certainly have been better-used. Caring for those in need is one obvious alternative. Even if Judas were going to steal it, though, he likely would’ve found a better use than what Mary did.

If there’s any question how odd Mary’s action is, we might notice that for all of our cosmetics these days, we still don’t rub deodorant on our feet, much less even spritz them with perfume. It’s meant to be absurd. One person compared it to showing up at a dinner for Mother Teresa with an $800 bottle of wine; it would just be so apparently wrong, unfitting for her goals, and also, then, against the goals and ministry of Jesus.

I’d contend that even his line about “the poor you’ll always have with you, but not me” rightly highlights or intensifies the silliness, how fleeting it is, without accomplishing anything lasting. Then he says she’s anointing him before his death for burial. That alone is shocking. Anointing is a big word for our faith. Messiah and Christ are the Hebrew and Greek words for Anointed. This practice—originally about being chosen by God as a priest or prophet or rule—has come for us to be centrally identified in Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One.

Yet he isn’t chosen to reign over us, to drive out the oppressive empire, to inaugurate a new hierarchy of holiness at the temple. Instead, as Mary understands, Jesus was going to die. Talk about putting your money on a losing horse! Not only is Jesus not going to come out ahead; he’s not going to cross the finish line. Six days before Passover, when he’ll be arrested and crucified, Mary gives him more honor than would be due anybody else. Not just a last chance to express herself before he’s gone, she is showing that in spite of his death or exactly through it, he is indeed the Messiah, the Christ, the chosen one Anointed to do God’s work.
Yet again, somehow this one killed for insurrection, a threat to the political establishment, abandoned and betrayed by his friends, tortured and shamed—this ultimate loser still has the greatest value. As Paul says today, all other gains are a loss. Everything else by comparison is “rubbish.” It’s one of my favorite Greek words: skubala. It’s Greek vulgarity, literally meaning “crap.” Anything else not only pales next to Jesus; it stinks to high heaven. The only thing that matters is the surpassing value of suffering with this dead loser.

But how do you explain that? We’d have to admit, it is ridiculous to put your faith in this wantonly foolish prodigal Jesus. With Mary, you go looking for God in a guy with smelly feet. You risk this intimacy and make yourself vulnerable. It’s impractical that two millennia later you’re still gathering here to keep following him, that you continue in this silly devotion. It’s ludicrous that you’d give of your income, still trying to further his work, to keep this church of his going. Even to keep giving to the poor ignores doing the obvious thing of keeping it for yourself. You persist in striving after justice that’s a long way off. You dare to hope beyond death. You somehow see the world as it isn’t. Clearly, you’re not following cultural trends. It’s weird that you like singing together. Given how much else you have going on, it’s even peculiar that you take the time to be here today. You spend your time on plenty of other good things, and you could even find better ways to waste your time than being here.

And yet…here you are. Gathered around the anointed one with smelly feet who just managed to die. Here you are, still at this ridiculous practice, an extravagant waste.

I can’t explain it; you’ll have to let your faith do that.


a funeral sermon

With thanksgiving for the life of Patricia Josephine Bredeson

13 Oct 1923 + 5 Dec 2014

Hebrews 13; Psalm 23; John 14:1-6


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

It struck me, Pam and Sue, when we were visiting the other day how you kept describing two different sides to your mother, two different experiences.

Now, a lot of how we would describe ourselves is that way: when we were younger and immature versus when we grew up, or workplace demeanor versus when we’re having fun. There’s also the Jekyll and Hyde kinds of distinctions, that we can be so saintly one minute and turn to be obnoxious, terrible sinners the next. Those are true and important and even fit with our theology and view of God’s work.

But it’s not that sort of two sides that you talked about with your mother, not those two types of sides to Pat’s personality. In fact, she seemed to dwell more constantly on the kind and gracious side, as I’ll say more about. To start, though, I want to repeat for others how you talked about how this same mother for two different daughters, exaggerating a bit to make a helpful point. Again, it’s not that she was nice to one and harsh to the other, that she spoiled one while neglecting the other. That may be true for others, but not for Pat. That would still be important for our views of God, but I believe she is even more appropriate as an example for us of God’s love.

And so I enjoyed hearing how you, Sue and Pam, each perceived your mother’s care. For the rest of you, Sue talked about her mother teaching her to be a young lady, to dress right and wear make-up, to be prepared and look your best, to be well-behaved and polite and say thank you. And she understood Pam was different, perhaps the more social side. That ended up meaning more time with friends and fewer rules and plenty of enjoyment.

I’ve been reflecting on how both sides of that are fitting for our faith as we live with paradoxes or dichotomies. We would say that God indeed has high expectations for us. We gather to worship in our Sunday best, looking good and behaving as we ought, whether that is phrased in Ten Commandments or in a summary like “love your neighbor as yourself” or “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” We expect that it’s good and right for us to return thankfulness to God, always to be grateful for what we’ve been given. We figure there is a pattern or plan for the good God wants us to accomplish in life. That is the Sue-side of relationship with Pat, and relationship with God.

And then there is the Pam-side, where those all-important expectations and guidelines are not all-important but fall to second place. As much as we ought to strive to live well in relationship with each other and in respect to God, still there is grace and forgiveness. When we fall short and when we fail and when things just turn out differently, that is not the end of the relationship. That is obviously true of a mother’s love, and is even more abundantly true of God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus, whether sinfulness or our lack of love or our forgetfulness or even death.

That also calls to mind another set of those dichotomies or paradoxes, the odd opposites of pairs, as we reflect on Pat’s life and this moment now.

I got to know Pat as always beautifully and immaculately dressed. Her dressed in lovely outfits. Her make-up accented a bright and cheery face, which also was the external sign of a gracious internal demeanor that embodied a stunning hostess. She was always ready to smile and to greet and filled with compliments. So remarkably hospitable, she had an amazing welcome and was always pleased to help. I chose the Hebrews Bible reading because that grace and love and diligent good work and cheerful greeting and blessing and hospitality all seem to have been lived out in Pat. Still as I walk around this space on Sundays in sharing the peace and greeting others, I feel her place in that section near the back, that there’s some of her warmth still there.

Yet it was also there that I first noticed the confusion setting in. Her eyes didn’t have quite the same sparkle as she was beginning to confront the disease of dementia. And in these past years, that had changed some of who Pat was and how you knew her. From being one who could organize a household and planned meals and was a great wife and who could enjoy travels with her sister and would be out and about socializing or meeting new people or shopping, from the vibrancy of life, something indeed was lost. Even in the sign of her always-perfect hairdo something disappeared.

And, as much as we would try to stay positive, we would still very truly and honestly count those as losses in life, not just as transitions but declines. An Old Testament passage that became a well-known song says that there is time for every season, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to seek and a time to lose, a time to laugh and to weep, to dance and mourn. In each of those pairings, we would say there is very definitely one good side and one bad side.

And, indeed, as we gather here today, it is with reasonable lamentation, sorry at losing a mother and grandmother, a friend. There has been sorrow for years, as Pat’s sister Margaret died 20 years ago, and her husband a dozen years ago, as she moved toward death herself in the loss of memory and of mobility.

Yet, in faith, we live with the paradoxes, the dichotomies, the odd opposites that are paired together. Even as we mourn and weep, still we rejoice in a long life well-lived. And even in the face of death, we proclaim we expect something more. In spite of our illness and forgetfulness we are never forgotten. Even when beset by the bad, we trust in God’s goodness. In the midst of a cold, dark season, we enjoy warm, beloved gatherings and bright lights. Even when we fear the end of life, we turn to the birth of a baby, the promise of God with us, an infant who was cradled in his mother’s arms and in his embrace we are guaranteed to remain for eternity. Even at this season, when things are supposed to be happy and we’re supposed to be together, and gifts given, not life taken away, where this could seem like the worst time for death and loss, still we expect it’s good to be in this beautiful place, with the promise of new life in Jesus.

And that’s true even as we face all those opposites of being lady-like versus wild or a tomboy, of high expectations or abundant forgiveness, of great ability or disability, of memory or forgetfulness, of weeping versus laughter, of health versus sickness, of death versus life, we trust it is not just that there is a good side and a bad side, a dark side and a light side. In the promise of Jesus, for Pat and for you, we have one whose embrace holds all together, that nothing can separate you from that love. Even when hospitality fails and love seems to have reached its limit and Pat could no longer welcome people into her home or into her life, still there is the larger welcome, the assurance that Jesus has a place prepared for her and for you, to welcome you into his Father’s household forever, to prepare a table before you. Wherever you are, from birth to death and beyond, through thick and thin, good or bad, in all circumstances of life and for life to come, God is with you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen