by Rev. Sarah Buteux
Lent 5, Year C, April 3, 2022
Deuteronomy 15:7-11 John 12:1-8
To watch this morning’s service click here. The sermon begins at the 28 minute mark.
I don’t think it was a full year’s wages that went into that one night, 31 years ago, but it was a lot. On December 18, in the year of our Lord, 1990, my best friend Melissa turned 16.
Her older brother Kenneth, who was a highly successful waiter at …(wait for it)… our local Friendly’s, had been saving up for year’s to make her birthday the most spectacular celebration we could imagine.
He told us to pack an overnight bag with nice clothes and be ready for pick up at 1:00 in the afternoon. At 1:00, on the dot, a limo pulled up to the house and I got in along with Melissa, 2 other friends, and her family. An hour later, that limo dropped us off in front of the Waldorf Astoria.
I was agog from the moment we entered the lobby. From the chandeliers that glowed above our heads to the soft hush of the carpets below our feet, I was stoned out of my little gourd by the opulence of it all.
Like Eloise at the Plaza, we went straight to our suite and immediately ordered room service: “Charge it please, and thank you very much.” While the adults popped champagne, slurped oysters, and enjoyed caviar – delicacies that would have been utterly wasted on me – I bit into fresh rolls slathered in butter so rich and creamy, I still think about it.
We jumped on the beds. We rode up and down the elevator pretending to be as sophisticated as the other guests; staring straight ahead with studied nonchalance when people got on. Giggling like mad the moment they got off.
And when that got old, we put on our nicest clothes and went to ‘La Reserve,” where I had the finest meal I’ve ever had in my entire life. From there, the limo took us to see “Gypsy” on broadway, with Tyne Daly. And then we dropped the adults back at the hotel, rolled down the dividing window and got real with Benjamin, our limo driver.
He took us to the Hard Rock Cafe for desert and then drove us around till the wee hours of the morning on a magical mystery tour of Manhattan.
Imagine me, if you would. Fifteen year’s old, hopped up on hot fudge as the lights of the city passed us by, sitting next to the person I cherished most in the whole wide world, loving the fact that she was being celebrated in this way. I felt safe and held in the back of that limo while still on the wildest adventure of my young life.
The next morning we had breakfast at the Waldorf, skated at Rockefeller Center, and slowly but surely watched like Cinderella as the money ran out and the magic faded away. We pooled our change and got hot chocolate from a vending machine and then grabbed some dirty water dogs from a guy on the corner before squeezing into the back of her dad’s Camry to drive all the way home.
The night was over. But the joy, the wonder, the love Kenneth poured out that night for his sister…to this very day, it lingers. The whole thing was a remarkable extravagance. Years and years of $5 and $10 tips that had been squirreled away with care, all blown in one spectacular night. But to this day, I remember every moment of that birthday and the way my best friend was known and held and honored and loved.
I imagine something similar could be said of this dinner we read about in the gospel of John. Jesus and his disciples have gathered once more in the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.
It is the night before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Three years of healing and preaching, suspicion and welcome, belief and rejection, have all led up to this moment.
Tomorrow, the knives will come out. Tomorrow plots will be hatched. Tomorrow the smell of betrayal will hang thick in the air. As palms soften the path beneath his feet, Jesus will enter Jerusalem and begin his fateful walk toward the cross.
But tonight… tonight Jesus is safe and held in this humble home on the outskirts of the city. Tonight he will eat at a table, maybe even sleep in a bed. Tonight there is wine and laughter, candles and bread.
Martha is serving her famous roast lamb. Lazarus, after a long illness and a very short death, is telling stories at the head of the table. And Mary, bless her, Mary is pondering all these things in her heart.
Unlike the other disciples, she has not only been listening to Jesus, but understands the full implications of his words. She knows this journey he has been on is not going to end well. She knows there will be consequences.
And so perhaps her greatest gift to him this night is her ability to see Jesus fully and face the reality of those consequences with him. Mary doesn’t minimize the danger, beg him to turn back, or encourage him to hope for the best.
Instead, while the others are eating and drinking, she steals off and returns with a jar of costly nard in order to honor him and the path he has chosen. It was a perfumed oil that served two purposes in the ancient world. It could be poured over the head to anoint a man as king or poured over the feet to anoint a body for burial. Mary’s extraordinary act of love and devotion invokes both.
While the others are laughing and pouring another round, she kneels down, breaks the top off the jar, and pours the whole thing over his poor, calloused, feet. And then tenderly, one by one, takes them in her hands and rubs the oil into them as a servant would. She then wipes his feet with her hair as a lover might.
The conversation dies down as the smell of love and death fills the room. It is but a moment, but it is so precious because for that moment, Jesus…our Jesus… is known and held and honored and loved.
Judas breaks the silence, his rough accusation calling Mary’s extravagance into question. But Jesus comes to her defense. “Leave her alone,” he says. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
It is an ugly moment in the midst of an otherwise beautiful scene. But let us not make it any uglier then it needs to be. It is important to note then when Jesus says, “you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” he is not blowing off the poor or declaring poverty inevitable or even placing himself above those in need.
He is quoting from Deuteronomy 15. He is reminding them all that God’s people have been called from the time of Moses to care and provide for the poor in their midst.
In fact, this verse can just as easily be translated, “Have the poor with you always.” Care for the poor, always. But friends, you will not always have me, and right now…can you not see what she sees. Can you not see that this thing Mary has done, this remarkably generous over the top act of love and devotion, is exactly what my heart needed in this moment.
Friends sometimes, whether we realize it or not, there are moments in life when our hearts cry out to be seen, to be cherished, to be known. And when that cry is heard and met not just with kindness but with an unexpected act of extravagance, it is never forgotten because it affirms in the most tangible way what we all long for most. It affirms in a way we can see, hear, taste, smell, feel, that we are loved.
I think of that wonderful scene in “Anne of Green Gables,” when Matthew presents Anne with a dress that has what? Puffed sleeves. There are any number of memorable scenes in those books, but everyone remembers the dress with puffed sleeves.
Because here is the thing: Anne didn’t need that dress. Marilla was very conscientious about providing Anne with good, sturdy, practical clothes perfectly suitable for life on Prince Edward Island.
And as an orphan, Anne knew full well just how lucky she was to have a home with Marilla and Matthew and any dresses at all. A dress with puffed sleeves was a needless extravagance to be sure.
But when Matthew presented her with that dress as a gift, he didn’t just give her a really nice present. He let her know that he saw her. He affirms for her, in a most tangible way that, orphan or not, there is someone in the world by whom she is known and held and honored and loved.
In her book, “Entering the Passion of Jesus,” Amy-Jill Levine tells the story of a friend who bought her a massage. A simple gift, perhaps, but listen:
I didn’t ask for it; (writes Levine). I thought it was indulgent; I had an article to finish. But she told me the money had already been spent, and that even if I did not want to go for me, I should go for her. So I went. It as one of the best things I have ever done. On that day, at that time, she knew what I needed, even more than I knew myself. Her generosity revived me. We need to care for our friends, and to do good things for them. The point is not to buy a bottle of Chanel every week; it is to know when and where and with what” (p 102).
The point, if I may, is to live with care and generosity at all times but also to be ready to go above and beyond when the time is right. For love is never wasted when we pour it out over one another.
In fact it is those moments of unexpected largess that stay with us and remind us when we need it most, that we are not alone. In the end it is not the money we spent, but the love we felt that stays with us. It is not the gift itself or the time…the dress or the meal or the massage, but our love…our love that lingers….our love that remains.
That night in Bethany, a moment of extravagant generosity became a memory full of grace.
I think of Jesus, just days later, standing trial with no friend by his side…and yet how the events of that night would have gone with him.
I think of Jesus mocked and beaten, with no one to defend him, remembering that moment when he defended Mary.
I think of Jesus’ feet, and wonder if he remembered the softness of her hands even as they nailed him to the cross.
And I think of that costly perfume and how the scent of it would have lingered on his bruised and broken skin.
I think of that costly perfume and how the scent of it would have mingled with tears in her tangled hair.
How he would have known, even as he hung there…
How she would have known, even as she stood there…
that they were known and held and honored and loved.