Generous Welcome

Published: Monday, 14 March 2016

woman with perfumeThis sermon was preached by Geoff Pound at the Ashburton Baptist Church on 13 March 2016. It is the fifth in the Lenten Series on the theme of ‘Welcome’. More about this study series can be found at this link. Specific questions for personal and group study for this second study can be found at this link. You can listen to the podcast for this sermon at this link.

Reading: John 12:1-8
Gregory Jones is a Professor of Theology at the Duke Divinity School in Durham. He was invited to preach at an Episcopal church in another city. He decided to preach on today’s passage about the anointing of Jesus by Mary. The church wrote and asked him to send his title, which he did. On the Sunday morning he was sitting ready to preach and reading through the church bulletin he came across the following note:
“This morning we welcome to our pulpit our guest speaker, His Extravagant Holiness, the Rev Dr. Gregory Jones.”[1]

Today’s sermon title, not the preacher’s title, is—the extravagant welcome and Mary’s action that inspires us to give a generous welcome to others.

On our day off this week we watched the movie, Hail Caesar! As we were driving home and reflecting on the film I said: “I enjoyed it but I had the feeling that so many things went over my head.” There were lots of allusions to other movies that I didn’t understand.

You know how when a film comes out on DVD you can get lots of extras? One of those features you can often turn on is the director’s commentary[2]. As you watch the film again the director comments on the scenes, what the characters are up to and how they shot each episode.

This is what we get from John as he tells the story. We’ve got extravagant extras because we can read this story as directed by Matthew [26: 6-13], Mark [14: 3-11], Luke [7:36-50] and John [12:1-8]. They see similar events but they zoom in on different features. Their lighting is different. Even the plot is sometimes different.

For example, Mark says this story took place at the home of Simon, while John says it was the home of Lazarus. Mark has Mary anointing the head of Jesus. John has Mary anointing his feet. Does this make the Gospels factually incorrect? No!

Isn’t this what happens when we attend a family reunion and tell the stories? We all remember different things. The details are sometimes in dispute. We experience it through our lens and our shared storytelling is all the more enriching.

See how John sets the scene in v1:

12:1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.

Six days before. Is this John’s reference to the sixth day of creation? That what is soon to happen will result not in death but in new creation.

Is this meal in Bethany foreshadowing the Last Supper? Is Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet preparing us for Jesus washing the disciples’ feet?

The number six is foreshadowing and incomplete.
Six is the penultimate number in the Bible.
On the sixth day Jesus died (Friday).
This story points toward a bigger story.
John is saying, ‘Big events are ahead!’
If you don’t buy this six technique, John spells it out: ‘before the Passover’[3].

He mentions Lazarus whom Christ raised from the dead. Is this the reason for this Thank You feast for Jesus? Is this why Mary is soon to give her expensive gift?

12:2 There they gave a dinner for him.

So often we see Jesus as the main actor—preaching, teaching, caring, feeding. It must have been so exhausting! Here now is something quite different:
12:2 There they gave a dinner for him.

What a gift! He didn’t have to do anything. All he had to do was show up!

What’s the gift that we can give to Jesus today? The dinner is a gift of love. A gift of our presence. A gift of time. A gift of mutuality.

You’ll have noticed that over the last few Sundays we’ve been opening the WellSpring Chapel at 9.30 and encouraging quiet prayer. Contemplation. Not 30 minutes to come with our shopping list and tell Christ all we want him to do this week but some minutes to be in his presence, to give him our heart, to open our ears to Him.

In the Holy Week readings we’ll hear Jesus say: “Could you not watch with me for one hour?” We realize there’s pain, there are concerns that Jesus wants to share with us, if only we will watch and pray.

As we’re thinking this month in our Welcome Series we’ve heard about so many meals[4]. Last week’s story started with grumbling because Jesus was eating with unsavoury guests.
He tells them a story that ends with killing the fatted calf and a huge celebratory meal.

What is it about welcoming people with a meal?

I love the way we as a church have so many meals—coffee meetings, a cuppa in the middle of our service, the HUB community meal on Thursdays, Men’s Breakfast (next Saturday) and the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday of each month.

John’s camera swivels from Jesus, to Martha serving food (which is the same word from which we get the word deacon). It shifts to Lazarus at the table—a few days ago he was six foot under but now he’s back in circulation. What a scoop to report this story but the camera tilts further. The spotlight now rests on Mary. John wants us to see that There’s Something About Mary.[5]

12:3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

Jhumpa Lahire, the Indian American author, grew up in Rhode Island but her parents ensured that she learnt her Bengali language and cherished her Indian culture.[6]

Now after winning a host of prizes for her books, Lahire has done a surprising thing: She stopped reading anything in English, she started to learn Italian, she’s left behind her entire library, she moved with her family to Rome, she completely immersed herself in Italiano and then declared that she was only going to write now in her new lingo.

What an incredible risk! This could be literary suicide! She said, ‘There’s nothing so dangerous as security.” Moving out of her comfort zone she’s becoming so creative. She’s growing in new directions.

Last year she published her latest book entitled In Alter Parole[7]. It’s been translated into English under the title, In Other Words.

What we see Mary doing is also absolutely risky.

12:3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard,

A pound of perfume! You only need a drop! A dab!
This is no cheap cologne.
Judas, the Chief Financial Officer for the disciples quickly calculates that the cost is equal to an average person’s annual salary.

It’s spikenard that’s grown in the Himalayas and has come all along the Spice Roads. No wonder it’s so costly.

John stacks up the words to show that this is a reckless act:
A pound of perfume!
Costly perfume!
Not watered down nard but pure nard! Neat nard!

Jesus is about to wash feet with water.
Mary is washing his feet with expensive perfume!

If you think this perfume pouring is outrageous buckle up your seat belts. We’ve seen nothing yet!

One of the gifts of a wonderful meal is that Jesus could just let his hair down as we say. Jewish women never let their hair down in public. It was culturally inappropriate! But Mary did it! The eyebrows are raised! What’s more she touched him. This is a breach of a cultural taboo. It’s openly sensual! So intimate. Some would think even erotic!

Jesus was to wipe the feet of the disciples with a towel.
Mary is wiping (same word) her Lord’s feet with her hair!

What spontaneity!
What abandonment!
What a risk to her reputation!
What costly love!

John highlights a prophetic act in this drama.
Mary was not washing, not pouring, not rubbing but she was anointing his feet. This might be seen as a pre-burial prepping of his body for the tomb. For this ‘dead man walking’ is soon to remark on this. But anointing was also a sign of kingship.

In this International Women’s Week[8] isn’t it revealing to see how John presents this radical view of the role of women? Throughout history, kings and queens have been anointed by male prophets, male popes and males in high position. Here Jesus is anointed by a woman from the countryside, a woman from the working class, a woman from the ranks of the laity.

Just as we’re salivating at the sensational smell wafting from the kitchen, enjoying the fragrant perfume and admiring Mary’s devotion, John says:

But Judas! Here’s the conflict in the movie.
But Judas. Now the soundtrack gets strident. The music moves into the minor key.

12:4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples and now the director’s comment which he puts in brackets (the one who was about to betray him).

Every time John introduces Judas he always mentions that he is the betrayer.

Judas said,

12:5 "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?"

Don’t you hate it when this happens? Someone comes up with a delightful dream, an imaginative idea and then someone like a wet blanket comes up with the financial question that torpedoes everything.

You get this in every organisation. A person says let’s do a really elaborate programme, a building project and when the price tag is given someone quickly pipes up and says: “That’s too expensive. We could use the money to feed hundreds of hungry people for the next few years.”

You get this in every household when we discuss doing a renovation, going on a cruise, buying an expensive painting, splurging out on a new outfit or wondering whether we’ll take to dinner a fine vintage or a $10 bottle of plonk?

This conversation happens in our own minds many times a week. We propose a lovely spontaneous gift in our House of Representatives then we debate it again and it is sabotaged by the Senate of Second Thoughts.[9]

We’re not having a go at treasurers and auditors and CFO’s. We certainly value the treasurers and Finance Committees that have served this church. Treasurers keep us from losing our balance! Mary would soon be bankrupt if she bought perfume for every banquet. But at the same time we’re seeing today that there’s more to life than budgets and bottom lines.

Talk about the Director’s comments. Is there any other verse in the Bible like v6 that’s completely enclosed in brackets?

12:6 (Judas said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

That throws a new light on the story. The dinner guests didn’t know it at the time for John is writing his story years after the event.

Judas is not moved by the poor. He’s motivated by greed.
His smooth words are couched in the language of righteousness and justice.

Jesus reveals his motives, rebukes Judas and sheets Mary’s gift to his impending death:

12:7 Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.

12:8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

Her gesture is appreciated.
What was criticised as waste is affirmed as the greatest gift Mary can give.
She hasn’t just kept the perfume. The cap is off the bottle. It’s already poured out. The aroma is filling the air.

Can you smell the fragrance? Or is the whiff of dollar notes stuck in our nostrils?

Jesus doesn’t diminish the seriousness of poverty (Deuteronomy 15:11) and the importance of giving to the poor. The poor are always to be part of the Christian community. But today we also hear the call to give the extra. To give with over-the-top generosity.

Last week we heard his story about the Prodigal Son who wasted all that he had but we discovered that the story is about the Prodigal father whose welcome is wasteful and whose celebration is excessive.[10]

Today we see a prodigal perfume preacher loving Christ lavishly.
May our lives, our homes and our church be filled with Mary’s fragrance.

Loving God, you’ve created this wonderful world that’s full of colour and richness and everyday we walk knee deep in your blessing.
We’ve come to know you for your amazing grace and your extravagant mercy.

Your Son opened his ministry by serving expensive wine.
He provided meals where there were baskets of food left over.
He spoke about the divine sower scattering seeds with wild abandon.
He pictured your realm as being like a pearl of great price.
He’s urged us to go the extra mile.
We rejoice that Jesus came to give us all abundant life.

So help us to follow you in our worship and our work.
To be more spontaneous in our stewardship.
To be more free in our giving.
To be more generous with our time.
To be more courageous with our living.

Teach us this week to build today’s word into our lives.
Prompt us with the example of Mary’s lavish love.

[1] Alyce M McKenzie, Her Extravagant Holiness, Patheos, 10 March 2013.
[2] This idea of the director’s commentary came from Thomas G Long, ‘Gospel Sound Track’,
      The Christian Century, March 14, 2001 and Elaine Bowen, The Prodigal Daughter, Deacon Sil’s.
[3] John 12: 1-8, Lectionary Greek, 7 March 2016.
[4] This is appropriate as today (13 March 2016) is the last day of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, 4-13 March 2016.
[5] There’s Something About Mary (1998).
[6] Olivia Goldhill, Feeling Secure is “So Dangerous” for Creativity, Quartz, 6 March 2016.
[7] Jhumpa Lahire, In Altre Parole, Amazon; Jhumpa Lahire, In Other Words, Amazon.
[8] International Women’s Day, 8 March.
[9] This thought comes from F W Boreham, Second Thoughts, Amazon.
[10] Geoff Pound, The Welcoming God, ABC, 6 March 2016.