A sermon preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson at Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in Saint Paul, MN
Lent 5, Year C
April 3, 2022
Yesterday, some of us were a part of a Lenten Retreat given by Saint Johns for our Older Wiser Laity, our OWLs, wherein several members made presentations in art, and song, and poetry on the Seven Last Words of Christ. One of those presentations we were privileged to hear, by our own Dr. Paula Cooey, drew from her decades of experience teaching an ethics course at Macalester College, called “Love and Death”. Oh how I wish I could have taken that class. Dr. Cooey told us yesterday,
“For all that I learned from the course, what I didn’t learn, at least not at that experiential, gut level, was the fundamental and most often ignored role played by need, one’s own need that often goes unacknowledged, denied, and when denial and self-deception fail, one that is feared, a need that marks the intersection of love with death.”
I went to the retreat yesterday already thinking about death, not in any deep or contemplative sort of way, but in response to having recently rewatched two corny disaster movies – Independence Day, and The Day After Tomorrow. It should come as no surprise if we’ve talked movies, or if you have listened to sermons where I bring up cinema, that I have a predilection for epic action movies, the kinds where the director and story teller want you to believe the stakes are high, where the world or the universe is in peril, and often where mass destruction and death are an inevitable side effect of the story’s arc. Invading aliens, global extinction level events, wars, tsunamis, asteroids crashing to earth, and all the while, as the story unfolds, the death toll mounts, collateral damage to the director’s need to make the danger real. But, these kinds of stories are inevitably unreal, especially in the way they treat death and dying. In these movies, major losses, the death of friends, of loved ones, of whole communities, produce either a kind of gentle sadness that adds texture to the story, or serve as a catalyst to mobilize the hero of the story to action, galvanizing her to do the work necessary to save the day.
But, in reality, death is far more profound, far more visceral, and is rarely something we can just move past in order to “do what needs to be done.” If you have ever been at the bedside of someone who has just died, then you know that grief is almost always overwhelming. When someone we love has died, we do not brush ourselves off, wipe the tears from our eyes, and turn to face the world. No, more often than not, we will crawl into bed next to the body of our beloved, cradling them, caressing their hair, breathing deeply the scent of their skin, tracing with reverence one last time, the contours of their body with our hands, gently, lovingly, intimately soaking in their physical presence. Such is the power that death has, to evoke from us responses that we might have been too reserved, too afraid, too conditioned to withhold in life; to express intimacies and yearning in front of others that would, in life, have been kept completely in private. As Dr. Cooey’s talk reminded us yesterday, such a yearning marks a specific and deeply human neediness, and sheds light on the profound intersection of love and death.
Such is the kind of intimacy on display this morning in the story of Mary and her pound of pure nard. Jesus is at a meal in the home of Lazarus, whom he raised, still fresh from his experience of death, and the disciples are probably trying to lay low, to avoid the eye of the authorities. After all, raising someone from the dead elevated Jesus from nuisance to threat – he was likely attracting a lot more attention, the crowd might be out to crown him king. The world as they knew it, hung in the balance. Lives were at stake. So we’re here, in Bethany, away from the crowds and the authorities, at table, a group of friends and disciples, breaking bread and likely laughing and telling stories. And, Mary slips away, the party hardly noticing that she is gone until the spicy fragrance of nard precedes her and her pot of perfume as she reenters the room. In a sermon from over a decade ago, Barbara Brown Taylor points out that Mary does four remarkable things in succession:
“First she loosens her hair in a room full of men, which an honorable woman never does. Then she pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which is also not done. The head, maybe–people do that to kings–but not the feet. Then she touches him–a single woman rubbing a single man’s feet–also not done, not even among friends. Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair–totally inexplicable–the bizarre end to an all around bizarre act.”
But, it is only bizarre, I suppose, if we do not see it through the interpretive lens Jesus uses. This is perfume, he says, which Mary must have purchased and kept for the day of his burial. This is the intersection of love and death. Again, as Brown Taylor says,
“When Mary stood before Jesus with that pound of pure nard in her hand, it could have gone either way. She could have anointed his head and everyone there could have proclaimed him a king. But she did not do that. When she moved toward him, she dropped to her knees instead and poured the perfume on his feet, which could only mean one thing. The only man who got his feet anointed was a dead man, and Jesus knew it.”
What Mary is performing here in life, is the kind of intimacy often only expressed in death, the kind of tenderness and touch that is otherwise taboo. Yet, it is this kind of intimacy that Jesus calls forth from those who love him – an intimacy that we might be called to even in the church, across all the lines of difference that keep us bound and separate from one another.
In his profound book After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, theologian Willie Jennings takes up the work of describing how the true purpose of Christianity, the work of the Spirit in and through God’s Beloved Community, is the work of witnessing to the love and intimacy God created us for – that our being is intrinsically connected to our need for touch, that our souls have no meaning without a body. In one of his pseudo-biographical stories, a compilation of memory and allegory and a life of lived experience in the church and the academy, Jennings describes having shared such ideas at a dinner gathering, about how the Christian life implies a need to bear witness to and live out intimacy with our siblings in Christ, how one man interrupted him to say “Intimacy…is what I share with my wife, not the church.” Jennings asked him, “if he thought holding someone’s hand in prayer was an intimate act. No response” or what about hearing week after week, “this is my body, this is my blood, take and eat”, wasn’t this also intimate? Again the man said nothing. “Then”, says Jennings, “I asked the most crucial question… ‘To whom do you belong?’” And the man responded “I belong to myself and to God.” Jennings concludes, “This theologically trained gentleman needed a better vision of belonging”.
And, so do we. That Mary’s act is, as Brown Taylor argues, bizarre and taboo, is not only to observe that it was so when it happened. The power of this story is that we are still startled by it today, so much so that preachers will often gloss over it and try to tackle Judas’ response. But, we can neither avoid nor deny that we were made for intimacy with each other. That we were made to belong to each other. That such belonging, unlike Judas’ response, cannot be to control or to dominate, but to lean in to one another, to hold hands, cry on shoulders, anoint and bless, to wash each other’s feet, to express care, reciprocity and tenderness, to be with one another, breaking bread, taking and receiving, to give ourselves for one another, as Jesus did, even unto death. This is love. This is what we were created for.