Monday, March 9, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Wednesday"

Mark 14:1-9

It was two days before Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and legal experts through cunning tricks were searching for a way to arrest Jesus and kill him. 2 But they agreed that it shouldn’t happen during the festival; otherwise, there would be an uproar among the people. 3 Jesus was at Bethany visiting the house of Simon, who had a skin disease. During dinner, a woman came in with a vase made of alabaster and containing very expensive perfume of pure nard. She broke open the vase and poured the perfume on his head. 4 Some grew angry. They said to each other, “Why waste the perfume? 5 This perfume could have been sold for almost a year’s pay[a] and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. 7 You always have the poor with you; and whenever you want, you can do something good for them. But you won’t always have me. 8 She has done what she could. She has anointed my body ahead of time for burial. 9 I tell you the truth that, wherever in the whole world the good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.” (Common English Bible)

“The Last Week: Mark’s Retelling of the Passion,” Week Three

The words made headlines in newspapers and news sites across the world upon his death: Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow.

With those words, Steve Jobs left the world of the living.  And he was by no means the first to react to the moment of death in such a profound way.  On his deathbed in West Orange, New Jersey, in the year 1931 and at the age of 84, Thomas Edison emerged briefly from a coma to utter out, “It is very beautiful over there” before dying only hours later.

There is a fear I think we culturally have in death…I mean, for *bleep*’s sake, look at cottage industry of second-rate horror movies designed and produced for the express and exclusive purpose of scaring the pants off of us.  While that may be great for the pants industry, because we are continually having to buy new pants to replace the ones that were scared off of us, it isn’t so great for us being able to have a real conversation together about life and death.

And yet, that reality was just as true for the Apostles way back in Biblical Israel, before our era of newfangled things like talking pictures and Technicolor, as it is for us today.  The first person to recognize the impending reality of Jesus’s death is not one of the twelve, but this woman who emerges here today to anoint Jesus and, in so doing, prepare Him for His burial.  And so she, then, becomes our ideal to which we must aspire, even though (at least in Mark’s account) we do not even know her name.

Now that Lent, that 40-day fast in the wilderness alongside Jesus as He is tempted by the devil, has not just begun but can officially be considered to be in full swing, so too does a new sermon series really begin digging in for us as well.  And we’ll continue stretching out Holy Week—that seven-day span of time from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday—by talking about each day in turn, starting with Monday (that way we can discuss Palm Sunday on, you know, Palm Sunday) before wrapping up with Easter Sunday itself on April 5.  For this sermon series, I am using as a template the book “The Last Week,” a commentary on the Gospel of Mark’s telling of Holy Week, co-written by Bible scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.  Professor Borg just passed away a few weeks ago, plus this book is one of a precious few on my list of “it truly changed my life” books, so this series has a lot of added meaning for me as well as, I hope, eventually for you too.

After beginning this series by first reading through Mark’s accounts of Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week, we arrive at Wednesday, and this story of the anointing of Jesus.  This story is repeated in John’s Gospel with Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, playing the role of the anonymous woman here who anoints Jesus, but today, we remain in Mark’s account.  Here is part of what Borg and Crossan have to say about this vignette:

The significance of her action becomes clear.  “She has done what she cold,” says Jesus, she has “anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” (14:8)  She alone, of all those who heard Jesus’s three prophecies of his death and resurrection, believed him and drew the obvious conclusion.  Since (not if) you are going to die and rise, I must anoint you now beforehand, because I will never have a chance to do it afterward.  She is, for Mark, the first believer.  She is, for us, the first Christian.  And she believed from the word of Jesus before any discovery of an empty tomb.

Furthermore, her action was a graphic demonstration of the paradoxical leadership cited by Jesus for Himself and for all His followers on the model of child, servant, and slave…The unnamed woman is not only the first believer; she is also the model leader…Jesus has been telling the Twelve what leadership entails from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem and has gotten nowhere with them.  But this unnamed woman believed Him…For Mark, that unnamed woman is, in our terms, the first Christian, and she believed, again in our terms, even before the first Easter.

Firsts in anything often are met with scorn in the present, even if they are revered in the days, years, and centuries that follow.  Rare is a trailblazer like Neil Armstrong who placed humanity’s first footprint on the Moon to worldwide acclaim; far more common is for someone ahead of the pack to be demonized by the pack, to be cast out and punished for their different (albeit correct) way of looking at things: Galileo, Copernicus, and others were persecuted by the church for daring to argue that the world was round and that it revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around.  Martin Luther King, Jr. has a national holiday named after him today, but in his time, many people (including, shamefully, many Christians and Christian clergy) rushed to discredit him as a Communist or an unpatriotic race-baiter.

And this anonymous woman—whether she be Mary of Bethany or someone else entirely—is someone whom Mark proffers to us as an ideal some thirty-ish years after the event, when he finally gets around to writing his Gospel, but in the moment, she is met only with scorn by the closest of Jesus’s male followers, the Twelve.

And perhaps we might well be among them; after all, the guy in me who buys his shower gel at Safeway would think it utter folly to even own a jar of perfume that cost a year’s wages, but that isn’t what this is all about.  I don’t plan on being anointed with Old Spice when I go, because that isn’t a burial custom here.  It was, however, a burial custom in Biblical Israel (and, indeed, in many ancient Near Eastern civilizations) to anoint the body with lots of aloes, myrrh, spices, and other such perfumes in preparing it for burial; it had the practical purpose of mitigating the stench of decay, but it also expressed a person’s reverence, honor, and care for the person they were burying.

Which is precisely what is happening here—a woman appears to express her reverence, honor, and care for Jesus, knowing that if He is to be executed, it would likely be by crucifixion, a method of execution that would often leave no remains that could be buried: it was not uncommon for feral dogs and scavenger birds to pick at a crucified body to such an extent that there was nothing left for a family or friend to anoint and bury.  And since the proverbial noose is growing tighter and tighter (as Mark clearly points out when he begins this chapter and story) this woman likely knows the inning and the score and decides that if she is to prepare Jesus’s body for the inevitable funeral, it must be now.  Who knows when she will be able to tomorrow, or the day after that?

In the midst of that uncertainty, she knew this much: this man, this god, this person nobody else could ever hope to be, was on His way out, and rather than try to deny that reality or bury it deep down where she wouldn’t have to confront it, she accepted it head-on and did what any one of us might do, or want to do but are sometimes too afraid of what it might mean: say goodbye.

That’s why I honestly wonder if this complaint about the expense of the perfume isn’t sort of misdirected anger and denial, anger at this woman for acknowledging what they, the disciples, won’t: that their Lord is about to endure the unendurable, and that they will be there for exactly zero of it.

But this woman will be, because she did not let that fear paralyze her; it did not keep her from honoring the one person in our collective history most worthy of our honor.  She may or may not have been physically present for the crucifixion—the Gospels say that, in contrast to Jesus’s male followers (who have all gone into hiding), several of His female followers did observe the crucifixion.  This woman may well have not only prepared Jesus’s earthen vessel for what it was about to go through, she could have also been there for the final hours of that earthen vessel’s life.

All because she was willing, ready, able, and brave enough to have that honest moment about something that horrifies us, even as we anticipate the heaven that comes afterwards: dying to this world.

And it means that we, as we struggle and strive to shift our perspectives from those of the Apostles to that of this lone woman, we too might end up present at the foot of the cross, maybe no longer physically, but certainly spiritually, emotionally, and religiously.  We can still be present to what our Lord is about to suffer at our hands, and then, rather than wash those hands as Pilate will two days from now, let us use those hands, beaten and bloodied though they may be, to one day embrace the resurrected Christ who shall one day walk amongst us, just as His former self once did two thousand years ago in Galilee.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 8, 2015

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