The Poor of the World are My Body

2018 Maundy Thursday Message

John 12:1-8

The smell of an evening campfire wafts through the air, and suddenly, you recall a childhood memory of summers spent camping with your family. Or perhaps it’s a whiff of apple pie or the scent of the perfume your grandmother wore or maybe the smell of an old church takes you back to your childhood, and memories come flooding in. Is this an experience you’ve ever had?

Scientists say that while words go to the thinking part of the brain, smells-fragrances–go to the emotional part. That’s why a whiff of Grandma’s perfume produces an emotional response. And the narrative that we have before us this evening was also intended to touch the emotional part of our brain; it’s a “fragrant” text.

Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, takes a container of very expensive perfume and with it she anoints the feet of Jesus. Mary then wipes the perfume into his feet with her long, flowing hair. Now, if we remain in the thinking part of our brains, this can become an odd, if not awkward, scene. If we stay in our heads, we might become concerned about boundries, or how outside the norm this behavior would have been.  If we approach this narrative with our heads instead of our hearts, I fear we’ll miss the point of John’s emphasis on the fragrance that filled the room; I fear we might miss the emotional experience, the touching, emotional recollection captured in Mary’s sacred act of compassion.

So, how do we, the rational western thinkers that we are, get out of our heads here? Well, I think this is a place where Matthew might help us out a bit.  In his version of this event, he recalls an additional remark from Jesus: “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to those gathered that evening, “wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what [Mary] has done will be told in memory of her.”

Incredible! Jesus said that whenever the Gospel story is told–wherever it is told–the thing that Mary did will always be remembered. and sure enough, two thousand years later, in a place half way around the world, as part of a communion service in Cable Wisconsin, Mary’s compassionate act hasn’t been forgotten. The emotional echo of the Anointing of Christ lingers somewhere deep within us.

Let me explain.  I think Mary wanted to demonstrate that she loved her close friend Jesus and that she understood, as he set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross, the pain he was about to bear. So, she broke open that perfume knowing that the fragrance of that moment would endure and become an everlasting reminder of the Anointing of Jesus, and by extension, the love of God that would be poured out upon the cross. And that “the smell of perfume amid the stench of betrayal, jealousy, and looming violence provided a sweet moment of stillness amid a gathering storm; an outpouring of homage amid the onslaught of hatred.”[i]  Am I reaching a bit here? Perhaps. But only if we’re in our heads.

You know, someone once said, “Love expressed is not sufficient; it needs to be heard to have any meaning.” In other words, it’s not adequate for you to say you love your wife or your husband or your partner or your children; although that’s a good start. You must get into the mind of your beloved and find out what’s most meaningful to them; how they recognize and receiving love and then love them in that way. Love expressed is not sufficient; it must be heard and then acted upon to have deeper meaning. Mary expressed her love this way and we are invited to do the same. This evening we are invited to express our love for God in this deeper, emotive sense as well. We are invited to close our eyes and breath in the fragrance of Christ.

But the anointing isn’t the only reason we need to be in heart mode this evening.  There’s the exchange between Jesus and Judas to consider.  Judas states that all this perfume pouring and foot wiping is a waste of money. Money that could have been used to feed the hungry. And rational thinking would most likely agree with Judas. Did he have an ulterior motive here? Probably. After all he did go on to betray Jesus. But regardless of the underlying motive, I could see our rational selves seeing this as a waste of resources when so many were in need.

But this is where a heartfelt understand of Jesus’ response to Judas becomes important.  He said, “the poor will always be with you.” Now, this statement has been misused across time to minimize the importance of our calling as people of faith to care for the poor and outcast.  I say “misused” because it’s important to note that Jesus’ response here is a quotation from Deuteronomy 15:11, the entirety of which reads, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

So, rather than minimize our obligation to care for the poor, Jesus quotes a verse which explicitly commands it.”[iii] He seems to be saying here that we can, at the same time, “opening our hand to the poor” and affirm Mary’s anointing. Because, in the end, the two are not mutually exclusive. Mary’s act of compassion and Christ’s compassion for the poor and oppressed are intrinsically intertwined. Or, as it’s so wonderfully expressed by Sydney Carter in the hymn Said Judas to Mary, “The poor of the world are my body, he said, to the end of the world they should be. The bread and the blankets you give to the poor you will know you have given to me.”[ii]

One final thought this evening. The symbol of God’s love, whether it’s being poured out on the feet of Christ or radiating forth from the hang’in tree on summit of Golgotha; the love of God extends across the boundries that human create.  God’s love reaches people from all nations and stations in life, all races and skin colors; God’s love transcends gender and religion, and it doesn’t discriminate by age or ability; God’s love is finally, as the prophet said, “engraved upon the hearts of humanity.”

So, as we continue our holy week journey, and as we partake of the sacred meal this evening, may we turn off the rational part of our selves, if just for a little while, and invite the grace, the compassion; the very Love of God to touch our hearts.  And may we all, experience the fragrance of that Divine Presence deep within our being.  May it be so. Amen.

[i]  Alyce McKenzie. Extravagant Holiness (www.patheos.com) 2013

[ii]  Sydney Carter. Said Judas to Mary. (New Century Hymnal: Pilgrim Press, 1995) 210

[iii] Lee Koontz. First Look (www.reflectious.com) 2010.

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