A sermon preached for the 5th Sunday in Lent on John 12:1-8 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas. We also dedicated 65 quilts, 65 personal care kits, and 62 baby care kits for Lutheran World Relief made by the women's group and ended the service with a blessing of the new Great Achievers Preschool in our education wing.
My husband’s best friend, Phil, is also a pastor. Several years ago, Phil’s mom was dying, and she was receiving hospice care at home. Phil and his mom had a very challenging relationship—there’s no need to go into detail, but she had problems and just was not the best mom. She could not show up for Phil in the way that most moms could and would.
It was a Friday afternoon and Phil left his work at church to drive home to see how she was doing, arriving about 4:30 in the afternoon. The hospice nurse left at 5 and wouldn’t be back until morning. As happens when one is in the dying process, Phil’s mom soiled herself and the bed. Phil called hospice and asked if they could come back and help him, but they said that unless his mom needed medication, they could not return until the next day. His brother was working; his dad had died. Phil was on his own.
Phil returned to his Mom’s bedside and said, “Well, Mom, it’s just you and me. I guess you wiped my behind 100 times before, and now it’s my turn to wipe yours.” They looked each other in the eye and burst out laughing. And then he cleaned her up.
She died two days later. Phil shared that it was such a healing moment—it stripped everything else away and brought them down to their bare humanity, to forgiveness, and the chance to die receiving deep love.
Mary offers this kind of deep love to Jesus before he faces his own death. Mary pours expensive spikenard on Jesus’s feet and wipes them with her hair—a sign of anointing. Such anointing is an act done only for the coronation of a king, or for someone being prepared for burial.
Jesus of course, is both. He is the king of the Jews, through whom he has come to save all nations, the true Messiah who will begin his reign, not with a display of mighty power to overthrow the Roman oppressor, but rather, by taking on the worst of human violence, and entering death to show us that not even the most evil aspects of our brokenness can separate us from God, nor stop God from loving us.
But before Jesus can endure that kind of deep suffering, before he can enter Jerusalem and be that kind of king who dies to bring life, he needs to be deeply loved. Mary offered him a healing moment of extravagant love that stripped everything else away, and recognized Jesus’s bare humanity in what he had to endure, offering him the chance not just to love others, but to die receiving deep love.
Can you imagine that as he hung dying on the cross, the musky smell of the rich spikenard oil still wafting up into his nostrils, a physical message of deep love in the midst of devastating suffering; a visceral reminder that someone understood, that one disciple gave herself extravagantly to him, that his humanity was embraced, that he was not alone?
That is Mary’s gift to Jesus and to us. Of course, we are on the receiving end of God’s love in Jesus—always, every day, every breath, every flower, each new sunrise, every meal, every kind word, each person who loves us, every morsel of Communion, every loyal pet, each choir anthem and transcendent piece of music, every mistake forgiven—God in Jesus Christ is dying to shower us with love. But Mary shows us that Jesus also needs us and wants us to extravagantly love him back, giving him our best, our all, despite what others might think.
Mary ignores Judas, and Jesus receives her love, helping him prepare for his suffering and death in the days ahead, and sustaining him when he most needs it. Her love enables him to love his disciples even knowing they would betray, deny, and abandon him. Just as she wiped his feet, a few days later, Jesus washed and wiped the disciple’s feet in a similar act of extravagant love, asking them to love others as he has loved them, as Mary has loved him.
Have you ever looked at Mary’s action and wondered what Jesus needs from you? What kind of extravagant love? What service? What devotion does he need from you to do the kingdom work ahead? Mary shows us that your love for Jesus matters, your devotion, your willingness to give and serve, your willingness to seek out and offer what is needed matters to Christ the King—who chooses to work through relationships, through human beings, through Mary, through Phil, through you.
Jesus needed Phil’s extravagant love so his mom could experience forgiveness before she died—not because she deserved it, because none of us do. Phil has received God’s love, and he loved Jesus enough to offer extravagant love to his mom in that moment of uncomfortable need. And the clean, musky smell of forgiveness could waft up into her nostrils in death.
The women of this church stitched, purchased, sewed, and created all these personal care kits, and baby kits, and quilts because Jesus already loves you, and these are signs of your extravagant devotion, service, and love for Jesus in return. Jesus will use them to bless people you will never meet—people in refugee camps and recovering from natural disasters here and around the world. Stripped of everything, our common humanity is recognized in the need for basic supplies. A family will receive a homemade quilt, a hand-stitched baby onesie or crocheted sweater and they will know—they will know that someone loves Jesus extravagantly enough to anoint them with the rich, musky smell of fresh blessings during suffering.
Today we are going to bless Great Achievers Preschool, another way for us to extend the extravagant love of God, by building relationships with the families in our community, anointing children with extravagant love, teaching and loving children who are not our own. And oh, the wiping that needs to be done! Smelly bottoms and runny noses, dirty hands and sticky mouths, sweaty foreheads and teary cheeks, all the while trying to keep up with fast feet, quick minds, and pure hearts. Children help strip us bare—reminding us what is essential in our common humanity. It takes deep love to open a preschool; it takes extravagant patience to teach toddlers; it takes expansive hearts to welcome families with noisy, little ones, but I know you love Jesus extravagantly enough to scoop them up with your whole heart and embrace them with the musky smell of your devotion to the kingdom work at hand.
And the poor. What are we going to do about the poor? Some think this passage gets us off the hook—they will always be here, so apathy and inaction in the face of poverty is okay. But I know you don’t really think that is what Jesus meant! Such bad interpretation sounds just like Judas—only to serve our own ends. The indicative verb for “you will always have” is the same verb form as an imperative. So instead of a description of the state of being (that the poor are always with us), Jesus is more likely to be giving a command, as in, "Keep the poor among you always." Jesus is saying, “I am going away—I am not going to be here much longer, so continue my mission: keep the poor among you always and tend to their needs.”
So, what does Jesus need from you? What extravagant love? What service? What devotion does he need from you to do the kingdom work ahead? Jesus says, “Love me abundantly by taking care of the poor, the children, and those in need. Bring them justice, and make their life better; love them as I have loved you. Help the undeserving. Forgive the unforgiveable. Give me your best, your all, your everything, so that those who suffer might experience the musky, rich fragrance of the God who comes to them through a people who love their Lord with extravagant devotion.”
Image: I Cried for You by Nik Helbig