Photograph by Lindsey Kramer
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 12:1-8
Many of you are aware that our oldest dog, Naomi, has been experiencing inappetence for the past several months. She’s undergone a variety of tests. At one point, an abdominal ultrasound revealed slow digestion. There is a signal from the brain that communicates to our intestines the pace at which food should move through our digestive system. And, if food moves too slowly, all kinds of problems can develop. About 15 years ago, when I was pastoring in Gary, I had an elderly church member who experienced a bowel obstruction. On my way out of town, I stopped at the hospital to pray with her expecting her Monday morning surgery to be a fairly straight forward procedure. I called her husband the next day to inquire how she was doing. “She’s dying,” he said, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He proceeded to explain that the obstruction had shut off blood flow causing her colon to become gangrenous. The surgeon sewed her back up, told the husband they would do their best to make her comfortable, and that they estimated she would pass away in about 48 hours.
It isn’t often that we think about the fact that life requires emptying. Life is about more than acquisition; it’s about relinquishment as well. Life is about flow. We breathe in oxygen, we exhale carbon dioxide. Food and water enter our bodies. What is needed is absorbed and waste and toxins pass through. If the movement, the flow, the process of emptying is impeded, death is inevitable.
In fact, Christianity is an emptying faith. St. Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Philippi, inserts an early Christian hymn in praise of Christ, writing “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be clutched, but emptied himself… humbled himself.”[i]
This essential flow, this rhythm of filling and emptying is reflected in our Methodist tradition in the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer we pray on the first Sunday in January nearly every year with its line: “let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing.”[ii] This life-essential “emptying” is represented by the Greek word kenosis, a “mutual self-surrendering love.”[iii]
But it is a counter-cultural idea. All around us we are encouraged to store up, to hoard and save. Our wider culture distrusts this flow. Ours is a culture where the flow of giving is endangered; disrupted and crimped by a thousand cautions to look out for number one and painstakingly measure if we are getting as much as we are giving. When I visited my parishioner in Gary, as I sat beside her bed and we chatted, there was absolutely no visible, outward sign that she was dying within; her colon necrotic, dying tissue because the blood flow had been stopped by the obstruction. Likewise, spiritually, we suffer an ugly death when we cannot release those things to which we cling out of a false hope for security. We crowd so much into our lives, we stuff in as much as we can – as much money, as much food, as many experiences, as many social interactions, as much activity as we possibly can. We stuff it all in so tightly there is no longer any space for flow; like the closet in the spare bedroom; we have crammed so much in there, we can no longer get in and move about and find and access what it is we really need. We need to empty out and relinquish.
The gospel of John is a gospel filled with this sense of flow, this sort of free flow, this “pouring out.” Even before Jesus’ public ministry begins, he, his mother and his disciples are attending a wedding celebration in Nazareth. The wine runs out and Jesus’ mother implores him to do something. So Jesus turns water into wine of a quality so remarkable that the head caterer is completely baffled. By now, the guests are drunk. Why bother pouring out such high quality wine on such undiscriminating palates. Why offer so much? In the sixth chapter of John, Jesus feeds a hungry multitude in the wilderness by multiplying the lunch of a boy (just a little bread and fish); multiplying it into such abundance that 12 baskets of leftovers are collected. Why offer so much? What on earth can be done with leftovers in the middle of a wilderness? And who enjoys the taste of leftover fish? It’s not vegetable soup; it doesn’t get better the second day. Why offer so much? Yet Jesus is never one to offer the bare minimum.
And so, we should probably not be surprised that Jesus praises Mary for her extravagant gesture of hospitality in this morning’s scripture. Mary has anointed Jesus’ feet with some very expensive ointment – and quite a lot of it. Why offer so much? There’s a pound of this stuff – way more than is necessary for one pair of feet and its monetary worth is estimated at three hundred denarii. Now the average laborer back then earned about a denarii a day. So that gives you some sense of what this ointment would be worth. Today, the current federal minimum wage in America is $7.25/hour.[iv] Using that wage at 40 hours a week of work means that this ointment would have cost about 12,500 USD. No wonder Judas was so worked up. That’s a lot of money to slather on someone’s feet. Judas’ objections sound logical and prudent. Yet, according to our gospel writer, Judas’ objections don’t convey his true intentions. Judas, our gospel writer assures us, does not begrudge Jesus this lavish gesture of love for the sake of the poor. He begrudges Jesus this gesture of love for the sake of his own gain. Apparently Judas fulfilled the role of treasurer for Jesus and these disciples he’d gathered into what must have appeared like a traveling rabbinical school. And, as treasurer, Judas enjoyed dipping into the pot.
So, one might wonder why Jesus responds as he does. Why not call Judas out; why not address his theft or at least his hypocrisy? Surely Jesus knew what was happening. In the gospel of John, there’s nothing Jesus doesn’t know. And yet, Jesus’ words are not so much directed at calling out Judas as they are at honoring and defending Mary. “Leave her alone,” Jesus says.
Jesus understands that this extravagant outpouring of ointment is really an extravagant outpouring of love and gratitude. The introductory words of this chapter tell us that Jesus was at the home of Lazarus. And that this is the Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead. And this Mary is one of his two sisters: one of two sisters who grieved deeply when her beloved brother died; one of two sisters who cried out to Jesus “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”; one of two sisters to whom Jesus appealed to trust in him and have faith; one of two sisters who witnessed her brother called forth from the tomb when Jesus called his name; one of two sisters who – in a primitive world where women had no rights of their own – would have been completely lost and vulnerable without the protection and provision of her brother. And so Mary lovingly massages this expensive ointment onto Jesus’ feet; a gesture so intimate, so loving, so extravagant.
It is preparation for his death, Jesus says. Mary is preparing him to do what he has come to earth to do: to empty out his life on the cross. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”[v]
What an extravagant gift; what an extravagant pouring out of oneself.
Yet, even before Jesus lays down his life, Mary has poured out her love, oblivious to the cost perhaps because, in John’s gospel, it is the raising of Lazarus from the dead that puts the final nail in Jesus’ coffin, so to speak. Many mourners are gathered round Lazarus’ tomb when Jesus calls him forth from death to life and, seeing such a miracle, they believe. Jesus has become a rock star and his popularity is peaking at a dangerous time. It is nearly Passover. You see, Passover and other Jewish holidays were times of tremendous tension in Jerusalem. They were pilgrimage holidays. Jews from across the Roman Empire would pour into the Holy City of Jerusalem. The crowds were enormous and we all know that large, enthusiastic crowds are hard to control. On many an occasion – historically – some over-zealous, charismatic Jewish patriot had turned the crowd of pious pilgrims into dangerous, deadly dissidents. Those Jewish holy festivals aroused a deep anxiety in Roman and Jewish leaders. And so it is with fear and trepidation that the Pharisees notice Jesus’ sky-rocketing popularity following Lazarus’ resurrection. “Look,” they say, “the world has gone after him.”[vi] Or, as even Herod notes in that rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, “You are all we talk about; the wonder of the year.”[vii] So something must be done and Caiaphas, ever practical, lays it out for the Jewish council: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed;”[viii] better to have Jesus put to death than to jeopardize the entire Jewish nation.
And so, there is this beautiful cycle of “mutual self-surrendering love.” Jesus places his own life at risk to restore the life of Lazarus. Mary pours out this insanely expensive ointment over the feet of Jesus knowing that in doing so others will judge her actions as excessive, embarrassing, overly intimate. And yet, judging by his words, Jesus gathers strength from Mary’s extravagant outpouring. It is, by his own admission, preparing him to face his death; a death he is not attempting to defy or escape; a death he embraces, a beautiful death because it is an emptying out, an outpouring of his life and his love.
This morning’s artwork is a photograph taken by Melissa Kramer’s sister, Lindsey, of the Sahara Desert. If you, like me, were raised in an environment of lush fields and woods and have ever visited a desert, you were likely impacted by that vivid sensation of starkness. It elicits something deep within; a guttural feeling of vulnerability and emptiness. I remember visiting Masada National Park in Israel. Standing atop a rock formation, looking out with nothing but sand and rock for as far as the eye can see; the horizon stretches long and monotonous, rock and sand of the same hue blending into one; knowing that the sand is nothing but the rock ground down over the centuries. To be in a place of such barrenness, such emptiness is a powerful feeling.
Friends: ours is an emptying faith. Christianity is a culture of kenosis, “mutual self-surrendering love” that stands in stark contrast to our broader culture that encourages hoarding and acquisition and gluttonous consumption. The world instructs us in score-keeping, fairness, a strict reciprocity that often cultivates feelings of insecurity, fear, envy, even bitterness. When we seek to keep taking in without ever releasing, we stop the flow and death becomes inevitable; an ugly, slow and agonizing death. But when we willingly enter the flow of extravagant giving and receiving, taking in and pouring out, it is a beautiful death that becomes the path to new life.
Jesus places his life at risk to restore life to Lazarus. Mary pours $12,500 out upon the feet of Jesus knowing that others will judge her actions as excessive and shameful. Yet Jesus gathers strength from Mary’s extravagant outpouring as it prepares him to face the death that will be our life.
[i] Philippians 2:5-8. NRSV.
[ii] See https://blog.umcdiscipleship.org/the-wesley-covenant-prayer-and-the-baptismal-covenant/
[iii] Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology by Daniel Migliore; Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1991, p. 151.
[v] John 10:11, 17-18. NRSV.
[vi] John 12:19b
[vii] King Herod’s Song from Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber
[viii] John 11:50. NRSV
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