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Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 13, 2016

Jimmy Carter announced to his Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga, that he was not taking any more treatment for cancer, not because the cancer was spreading too rapidly through his brain, but because the cancer was gone. True Carter had had an aggressive treatment followed by a new drug for his condition, but by any stretch of the imagination, his remission was prayer at work. Carter, a devout Baptist, was undoubtedly very grateful to God and responded in all kinds of ways, from personal thanksgiving and devotion to Sunday school teaching and Bible study and serving God’s children by building a Habitat for Humanity house while he was undergoing treatment. Carter’s thanks for his amazing recovery, I am sure were extravagant and continue to be part of his life.

Mary, Martha and Lazarus were hosting a dinner for Jesus. It was six days before Passover, when Jesus would die in Jerusalem. Jesus was saying his final good-byes. Lazarus had been raised from the dead not too long before and it was the act that prompted the religious officials to decide to kill him. They were afraid too many people would follow him and the Romans would come down on their faith hard, perhaps destroying their temple.

Things were going along as normal when Mary, who had sat at Jesus’ feet and said nothing as she was hungrily taking in his words, now knelt in front of him and anointed his feet with a pound of very expensive perfume – almost a year’s wages for a laborer. Then she wiped his feet with her hair, which was unbound in a way convention said should not happen when a man was present. Mary’s gift was an extravagant thank you for raising her brother Lazarus to life. It was an over the top gesture, a gift from someone who knew she could never give enough to say thank you for all Jesus had done for her. Mary is way past social conventions here. She is into overwhelming love for her Lord and Savior and the smell of perfume – the scent of love – filled the house. It swept through everyone, evoking times of particular sweetness in their lives – perhaps the joys of family life, or the personal satisfaction that came through a calling from Jesus to be a disciple, or even the healings and casting out of demons Jesus did. All those things came out of love, and the attendees were surrounded by its heavenly fragrance.

Mary was anointing Jesus as kings and Messiahs were anointed, but she did not anoint his head as the unnamed woman did in Matthew and Mark; rather she anointed his feet, apparently, given Jesus’ remark, something one had done for one’s burial. Mary’s gift gave thanks for life, but it also pointed toward death. The verb for “wipe” is the same word used when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet at the dinner before he dies. The anointing points toward Jesus entry into Jerusalem just a day later. The ointment also reminded those in attendance of the smell of death. Mary knew, unlike the twelve that Jesus was going to die. She believed in the resurrection at the last day, but had no idea about the first resurrection. She just knew that Jesus’ gift of life would be snuffed out, and before it was, she wanted to offer her thanks and praise.

Then onto the scene comes Judas with the eminently practical suggestion that the money “wasted” on the ointment could have been used for the poor. Throughout Jesus’ ministry the poor had been an important focus and this was what they gave their money for. But the narrator tells us that Judas didn’t really care about the poor; he was just wanting the money so he could steal it for his own selfish use. Between Judas’ stealing of the money and his betrayal of Jesus’, the smell of treachery fills the room when he speaks. It is just the barest hint because at this point no one knows what Judas is doing or is about to do.

Judas and Mary both act like good disciples. Mary wants to honor God, and Judas (at least ostensibly) wants to care for the neighbor, but this time, Jesus commends Mary’s extravagant action, saying that the poor will always be with them but he will not and while he is there, these, generous acts of thanksgiving and praise are entirely appropriate. After all he has less than a week to live.

Jesus’ comment that the poor are always with them seems rather cavalier and out of character for one who had a special affection for the poor and marginalized. But he is quoting from Deuteronomy 15:11, which says, “Since there will never cease to be someone in need on the earth, I therefore command you ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’.” Giving to the poor was a commandment and Jesus wanted it followed, but this money, the money that Mary had spent, had been used for its proper purpose and she was not to be criticized for it.

Smells can evoke so many things – memories, good and bad, hopes, dreams, aspirations, places we feel comfortable, scents of our grandmother’s favorite recipes. In this lesson, we get love and death and treachery – all pieces of God’s plan that lead to the smell of triumphant resurrection – a garden full of earthy smells with an empty tomb. Jesus’ extravagant gift of love to us was the gift of his death, brought about by treachery and topped off with the ultimate gift of love for us – the gift of his resurrection and the promise of eternal life with God.

Jesus is not here with us in bodily form any longer, so we cannot wipe his feet with costly perfume or perform some other act of reverence to a person. But Jesus is here with us in the power of the Holy Spirit and we are called to the same extravagance Mary showed in her ministrations to Jesus. What can we do to tell Jesus how much we love him? We can take Communion. We can receive his body and blood and signal our willingness to be transformed by it. We can be gentle with nature, being good stewards of creation, working hard to do our part to save the earth. We can study the Scriptures, welcoming God’s word in Jesus into our hearts and lives so we can learn what it means to be a Christian. We can listen for God’s call and try to discern the Holy Spirit’s guidance as we are invited to new life in a particular area of our bodies, minds or spirits. We can open our hearts and use our talents to the best of our ability. We can open our wallets to give out of abundance and not scarcity. Extravagance is most of all about taking risks, about be willing to shake up our lives to give more time, more talent, more treasure and more love to Jesus.

Extravagance in a community is risk-taking as well. At St. John’s we are soon going to undertake a visioning process to discover who we are, what God is calling us to be and what the needs are in our context so we can meet them. This study process will involve radical risk taking as we assess all the possibilities for the St. John’s community and become willing to act in different ways than we have done before, so our church can live into the mission to which God calls us. Business as usual will not be enough. Extravagance is the word for the day – extravagant seeking, extravagant growing in discipleship and extravagant acting on behalf of those who are our neighbors.

But be not afraid. The smells of love permeate our church and with God’s help we can do what we are called to do. We can be Mary pouring costly perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiping it with her hair. We can show our devotion to God in all that we do, both inside and outside these walls. And we can know that Jesus receives our gifts gratefully as he did Mary’s.

AMEN

     -- Rev. Ann Barker