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Grace Beyond Explanation

Lent 5C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

She took a pound of costly perfume, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair (John 12:3). This sensual and surprising story ushers us into the room where it happened among awkward feeling guests.  Judas and Mary are both eye-witnesses to Jesus and the gospel. Yet they have come to very different, even opposite, conclusions about its meaning.

Our gospel offers a tale of two disciples.  What they see is more important for what it reveals about what’s in their hearts, than for what it says about the event itself. You’ll notice this Sunday, we have stepped out from the gospel of Luke, who has been our companion and guide this liturgical year, and into the gospel of John.  Two meals display prodigal and extravagant generosity mark the beginning and end of what scholars call the Book of Signs in John’s gospel (chaps. 2–12).  The wedding at Cana (2:1-22) and this dinner party in Bethany (12:1-8) involving Mary.  Each occasion focuses our attention on the abundance of God’s love and the human responses to it. The critical question for faith is: What do you see?

To the analytical observer, extravagance without price, indulgence without upside, hospitality without reason, is called foolish and wasteful.  But to one who considers these events through the eyes of faith sees evidence of the kingdom of God.  Our scripture implies it is better to see with the eyes of faith.

The difference between the gospel and snake oil; between a con and authentic religion is that authentic religion ushers us into communion with the unconditional love of God. Grace is a gift without expectation of return.  True mercy is forgiveness without condition for forgiveness.  As the 13thcentury mystics said, “It is without the why.”   We in the Church pervert this gospel whenever we treat grace as if it were a product to be provided only by priests, sacraments, or the ecclesial machinery of our chosen faith tradition.

Those with eyes of faith come to regard all this talk of exclusion as mere rubbish.  As St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi in our second reading, “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ…because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”(Philippians 3:7-8a)  Authentic religion invites all people to find their footing upon sacred ground and to build community upon the firm foundation of prodigal compassion, abundant grace, and radical hospitality that is without price, or explanation, or reward.

Mary, whom we read about in John’s gospel today, is among the first flowers to break free from the earth in Jesus’ garden.  She is among the first of Jesus’ true disciples, a fragrant inspiration to us and to people of faith throughout the centuries.

Our dinner party takes place after Jesus had raised Lazarus, Mary’s brother, from the grave.  After raising Lazarus, Jesus could no longer walk freely in public but instead had gone north to a little town called Ephraim where he stayed with the disciples.  At that time, Jerusalem was swollen with Passover pilgrims a-buzz with talk about Jesus. They were looking for Jesus and saying to one another as they stood in the Temple, “Surely he will not come here to the festival, will he?”  The Chief of Priests gave orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let him know so that they might arrest him (John 11:56, 57).

Just six days before the Passover, Jesus returned to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha –just a couple of miles outside of Jerusalem.  Jesus was a marked man and he knew it.  Yet, instead of withdrawing –instead of retreating further north—say to Damascus, or Tyre where he and the disciples might have profited from their notoriety—Jesus returned to the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.  They prepared for him a great dinner party where Mary washed Jesus’ feet with her hair and anointed him with costly, fragrant perfume. It was extravagant.  It was sensual. It was an act of utter devotion.  It was in public.  It was beautiful.  It was something people never forgot.

Judas asked, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:5).  Indeed, the oil Mary used was very expensive.  300 denarii were roughly equivalent to a year’s salary. But here, Jesus gives us a new way to measure the value of how we invest our time and resources.  We take their true measure not in their utility for ourselves, but by their legacy of grace.  We measure our actions according to whether they inspire others to acts of faith, hope, and love.  Things worth doing linger in hearts and minds like blossoms of an apple tree or a fragrant perfume.

Mary’s gift is extravagant.  Judas is merely greedy.  Mary illustrates faith with loving actions.  Judas talks piously of ‘giving to the poor,’ but we know he is not sincere. Both Mary and Judas ‘prepare’ Jesus for burial –she by anointing him; he by betraying him.

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new (2 Cor. 8:17). Out of the death of the old the new arises. Friends in Christ, our walk with Jesus will change us.  Life with Jesus will open us to new behaviors.  We do not act just like we used to.  You might not even recognize yourself anymore. Our Lenten journey with Jesus will open us to new dreams.  We shall become more like Mary and less like Judas.

Through the eyes of faith, we see the world differently. We see history is not just stuff that happens by accident. “We are the products of the history our ancestors chose –if we’re white. If we are black, we are products of a history our ancestors most likely did not choose.” Yet here we are all together, the products of that set of choices. And we have to understand that in order to escape from it.” (Kevin Gannon, the 13th)

Authentic religion reveals itself in what is true for all people, in all times, and places: Love of the stranger, care of a friend, compassion for those who are suffering. It is found in those simple things that offer their own reward and open hearts and minds. We find God waiting for us in these things that offer healing and give us joy and make life worth living. This is how we shed our fear and leave behind all the things that divide and separate us today. This is how we become one human family again.  Follow Mary. She knows the way.

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