A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA, March 13, 2016.
It is a story of lavish love and betrayal. The scene is a dinner party at the home of Lazarus on the eve of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem…. just six days before the Passover… six days before the Last Supper, the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas’ betrayal and Jesus’ arrest.
Not long ago the house would have been heavy with the scent of death from Lazarus’ return after a miraculous resuscitation. Lazarus had been dead four days, long enough for the putrification process to have set in, before Jesus called him back to life. On this night, Lazarus was at the table with Jesus. In what condition we cannot know. Judas Iscariot is there and most likely some or all of the other disciples. Martha, the sister of Lazarus and Mary, is serving her guests as she did the time when Jesus had come to her own home, the time when Mary sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha slaved away in the kitchen and Jesus seemed to side with Mary. Here they are together once again. Martha is in the familiar roll of serving while her sister seems to stealing the show.
It must have been quite a sight to see Mary bring a pound jar spikenard and place it at Jesus’ feet. This costly perfume would had travelled all of the way from the Himalayas where the amber- colored oil had been extracted from the roots of a valerian plant growing in the high mountains. This extravagance was worth a full year’s wages for a common laborer. In our time, calculating an hourly wage of a mere $8 per hour, the aromatic nard would have been worth over $16,000, a yearly wage that in our time is near the poverty line. The perfume would have been the equivalent of purchasing nearly a gallon of the costliest version of Chanel No. 5… that goes for $42,000 for a single 30 oz. bottle, slightly less than a quart. Now quadruple that amount. Picture a gallon container of milk filled with “Chanel No. 5 Grand Parfum Extrait.” That is more than a whole lifetime’s worth of wildly expensive fragrance. The perfume that Mary brought to the dinner was more than precious. It was beyond extravagant. It was reckless and it was beautiful. Not to mention the fact that Mary positioned herself at Jesus’ feet, and that she dared to let down her hair in public, and then proceeded to perform an audacious act of intimacy creating an indelible and fragrant memory for all time. The writer Annie Dillard has said of such opulent love: “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place… give it, give it all, give it now.” Mary’s gesture is a sermon without words, a witness of discipleship that lingers and urges us to witness our love ever more boldly.
But you know, not everyone shows their love in the same way. There are different languages of love… and we tend to show our love to others in the same ways that we identify love being given to us. Some people need to hear words of affirmation to feel that they are loved. Their hearts light up when they are told “Thank you,” and “I appreciate what you did” or “you are the best…” “I love you.” A person whose language of love is affirmation will most likely be effusive with verbal affirmations to those whom they love. Others may feel the love more powerfully when they receive a gift, an object, something special picked out just for them, a symbol of affection that can be seen and touched and kept as an ongoing reminder that they have been given love. Those who feel the love in special objects would tend, in turn, to give gifts as a symbol of their love. By now you might see that in relationships partners may not share the same love language. If this difference in love languages is not recognized between partners it can potentially create challenges and friction within a relationship. This is why identifying the language in which we recognize that we are loved, and likewise learning the love language of a partner, can be helpful. We can learn to express love to a partner in ways that truly speak to them. A partner who expresses love in gifts of objects will not feel quite the same glow when an afternoon is carved out by their partner for walking on the beach together. A partner who expresses love in acts of service will not light up when a box of red roses arrives at the door as much as when they are brought breakfast in bed. I know that, for me, the words “I’ll take care of it honey” make my heart go “pitter-patter.” For others the gift of physical touch, the holding of hands or the gift of a gentle embrace speak “love” more loudly than can any spoken words. To recap, the five languages of love that have been identified by the marriage counselor Gary Chapman are:
- Words of affirmation
- Acts of service
- Receiving and giving gifts
- Quality time
- Physical touch
I would argue that in this story Martha’s primary language of love is serving, of being the one in the background who feeds the family and guests. We know from Jesus’ first visit that Martha clearly did not recognize Mary’s love language when she abandoned the kitchen and sat at Jesus’ feet. Martha did not recognize that Mary had a different language from her own. And what was Mary’s language in this story in which she anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume using her own hair to perform an act of intimate caring? Mary spoke love in an act of service, with a gift of time and touch, and in the gift of outrageously expensive perfume that may well have been meant for use at Jesus’ burial, but a gift which she didn’t hesitate to use while Jesus was with her that night… in the present moment… no words… extravagant love.
And what about Judas Iscariot’s role in this story? The gospel writer gives us a lovely little aside when he writes parenthetically, you know, “the one who was about to betray Jesus.” Judas asks a question that attempts to distract from Mary’s generous gift: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” …after which we get another aside “He 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.” In my study for this sermon I came across one commentator’s words that speak bluntly about a common response to Judas’ intrusion, that speaks to the use of this story as justification for not serving the poor. The author said, “Anyone who quotes this verse to dissuade giving to the poor should be slapped. There I said it.” Judas’ words certainly strike a cord in us as a people of privilege, striking occasional notes of guilt. But this larger story of Mary’s act of loves brings us back to Jesus who is the one IN WHOM… IN WHOSE LOVE… we serve others… especially the poorest of the poor. Our relationship with Christ is the heart and source of our response to living our faith in the world and serving in his name. Our language of love as Christians is infused with the love of God known in our Christ… a love that rises up in faithful living, in devotional service and in prayer… Our faithfulness is shown right here, right now in being present to Jesus in worship and in prayer that rises up like fragrant incense that delights the heart of God… and then going forth into the world to live out the love with our gifts of discipleship. Our love shown in service doesn’t end when the last bowl of soup has been served for the week, or our shift at the shelter has ended. Our language of love is written in our lives whether others recognize it or not.
At the end of the story Jesus chastises Judas telling him to leave Mary alone. After all Judas did intrude on Mary’s magnanimous demonstration of love and devotion. At the very end of this story the cross rises up once again in the distance once again as Jesus points to the great possibility that the perfume had originally been purchased for his burial. He is going to die… Mary could not wait until he was gone. He was alive and with her right now in this moment. There will always be poverty, hunger and need and we are obligated to serve Christ in the poor. But right now Jesus is here. Right now we offer ourselves, in the language that we know, to the one who is present with us. Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Being fully present to the God of abundant life and deep compassion is a gift of devotion and is transforming within us, and within this beloved community… fortifying us to go forth into the world to live as faithful witnesses of God’s fierce love for as and for the world. To be fully present here in worship and in sharing Christ’s full offering of himself in the Eucharist is a grand expression of reciprocal love uniting us to Christ and to one another.
This story began with the stench of death and ends with a vision of Good Friday in the distance. There is much to come before that sad day. The evidence of extravagant love, the scent of this evening would linger on Mary’s hands and in her hair even as her beloved Jesus hangs dying on the cross. And for Jesus… perhaps the scent Mary’s gesture, if only in memory, would stay with him through this time of suffering, the fragrance of free flowing love that would fill his last agonizing breath. Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heartstrings crack.” The heartstrings will crack, the curtain will be torn… and our stinging tears will be mixed with the lingering fragrance of divine love.
For now… we offer our gifts of love by being here, by being present with God and with one another, by offering our hearts and focusing our attention on the extravagant gift of love that is with us… right here… right now…