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Let Your Hair Down and Let Go
Read John 12:1-8
When we journey through the season of Lent, the weeks leading up to Christ’s death and resurrection, we are on a journey with Jesus to the cross. And in our story today, we’re not far from Jerusalem. We’re not far from Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city and the beginning of the end which is not an end at all but a beginning for us all. Before we get to Jerusalem, though, we find ourselves in Bethany observing a family meal in the home of the ones Jesus called his friends. If Jesus had any earthly home at all it was here in Bethany with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. This was a place he could lay his head. This was a place he could find nourishment and friendship. This was home. And six days before the Passover in a place he called home, Jesus’ friends made him dinner. There was Martha who confessed Jesus as Messiah in the chapter prior to this one. Lazarus fresh from the grave. Remember that it was Lazarus over whom Jesus wept, whom Jesus raised from the dead. And, of course, Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet to learn from him. Noteworthy things happen during meals in Scripture. When Jesus sits down to eat with anyone we should pay attention. It is at table that we often see the inbreaking of God’s kingdom…worthy and unworthy, sinners and saints, greedy and generous, clean and unclean sharing a meal, breaking bread together. Perhaps this meal gives us a preview of what will come when Jesus sits down later on with his disciples for one Last Supper.
We are told that after this particular dinner Mary got up, took a pound of expensive aromatic oils, anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. The fragrance of the perfume filled the house. What do you think that smell recalled? This was oil typically used for burial. Do you think it brought to mind a funeral? Lazarus’ funeral perhaps? Our sense of smell can bring back memories faster than just about anything else. When I smell motor oil, I think of my grandfather who was a mechanic and I’m taken back to his shop. When I smell pine straw, I’m taken back to college in the piney woods of East Texas. That happens pretty often around here. When I smell chlorine, I’m taken back to summer nights in the backyard of the house where I grew up. Smells forever link moments in our memories. I can’t say for sure what the fragrance of nard brought about for those present at this dinner but I know that it will now forever be linked with this moment, this sacred, extravagant act of Mary’s. And for Mary as she wipes Christ’s feet with her hair, she’ll carry the scent with her for days and weeks to come.
Hers was an act of worship, of sacrifice, of extravagance and there was an urgency about it. These oils were not only costly they were intended for burial. But Mary couldn’t wait. She couldn’t wait until Jesus was dead. She would anoint him here and now while he was still alive and in their presence. She broke every rule in doing so. A woman touching his feet? Using her hair? At great expense? In the company of others? That’s not what the oil was for, that’s not what she should have been doing, that’s not decently and in order to borrow a very Presbyterian phrase. This was a deeply personal, intimate act. She anointed Jesus’ feet and Jesus received it as pure gift. Just as she wiped his feet with her hair, Jesus would soon wipe the disciples’ feet with a towel. This holy moment illustrates for us the life of a disciple, washing and being washed, giving and receiving, worship and service inextricably linked.
I wonder how often propriety stops us from serving others? How often do rules and guidelines and prudence? We are good Presbyterians who do things decently and in order. We like to have checklists and we like to make smart decisions. We like to spend our resources wisely. We like to know where our money is going and how it will be used. If we can’t know, for certain, we’ll just hold onto it until that certainty comes. We don’t want to waste our time on lost causes or give gifts that will evaporate in the air. To do otherwise would be foolish.
I wonder how often our busyness stops us from seeing others and building relationships and meeting needs? We think we have all the time in the world. We know the needs will always be there, Jesus confirms it for us and use that as an excuse to do nothing. We save for a rainy day for ourselves while it’s raining on our neighbors every day. We walk past those in need or try to avoid them altogether. We get upset that our benches are used for sleeping and we complain about the state of the folks who knock on our doors. We don’t see acts of service as acts of worship though they are one and the same. We might even think that the love of Jesus is for us and for us alone. We can be stingy and greedy with that love just as we can be stingy and greedy with everything else.
There is nothing proper, though, about the way Jesus does things. Jesus upends every expectation, breaks every rule, crosses all boundaries, and gives of himself extravagantly. When we read the gospel stories we come to understand that the love of God is indiscriminate because we see the way that Jesus lives and loves. We see the way that Jesus serves. We see the way that Jesus pays attention and reaches out. We see the way that Jesus takes time for other people and for himself and God. Jesus doesn’t check to see if someone is worthy before healing them. Jesus doesn’t check to see if someone is clean before touching them. Jesus doesn’t check to see if someone believes in him before serving them. Jesus doesn’t check to see if someone is deemed good before sitting down to a meal with them.
And in our story, Jesus has no objection whatsoever to Mary’s gift, her act of worship, her rash perhaps foolish demonstration of love. The objection in the story comes from Judas, of course. He wasn’t the only disciple to betray Jesus but he is the one forever marked as betrayer. He wants to know why this expensive oil wasn’t sold and the proceeds given to the poor. It’s a practical question no matter his motives. Why wouldn’t something so valuable be used in a different way? Why would something so valuable be wasted in this way? Jesus is the one who tells us why Mary had the oil in the first place that it was for his burial. He defends her choice her act of worship and her act of service and he reminds those present that he won’t always be with them. Mary knew something the others didn’t. She knew she had no time to waste and she knew that using this oil to anoint Jesus was not a waste. Perhaps Judas really is as greedy as he is portrayed. Perhaps he simply doesn’t understand what he’s witnessed.
Why would someone waste expensive oil on one person? Why would someone buy a meal for a stranger who is hungry? Why would someone use their vacation days to help clean up after a natural disaster? Why would someone shakes hands with a person who stinks to high heaven?Why would someone share their most intimate prayers with a faith community they don’t know? Why would that faith community pray for strangers? Why would a Christian stand in front of a mosque to watch over those in prayer? Why would someone spend an hour getting to know a person of a different faith/background/belief system? Why would a child use the contents of their piggy bank to buy socks for the homeless? Why would an innocent man die on a cross for the sake of the world? I suspect it has something to do with love.
It is because the love of God that we give of ourselves to others. It is because of the love of God that we let our hair down and let go of all that would hinder us from worship and service. It is because of the love of God that we can loosen our grip on all that we believe belongs to us alone. It is because of the love of God that holy moments of discipleship are forever etched in our minds and on our hearts. It is because of the love of God that we pour ourselves out as a fragrant offering and do not count the cost.
We have no time to waste. It is always the right time to worship and serve. It is always the right time to pay attention and reach out. It is always the right time to see another as a beloved child of God. It is always the right time to love and to give extravagantly.