The Last Week: Wasteful Wednesday

Scripture: John 12: 1-8
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
March 19, 2017

Since one of our service projects this morning is the children’s bake sale, I thought I would share you a story about a bake sale.

Alice Grayson was to bake a cake for the Baptist Church Ladies’ group bake sale but she forgot to do it until the last minute.
She remembered it the morning of the bake sale and after rummaging through cabinets she found an angel food cake mix and quickly made it while drying her hair and dressing and helping her son pack for Scout camp.
When Alice took the cake out of the oven, she discovered that the center of the cake had dropped flat and the cake was horribly disfigured and she had no time to bake another cake.
This cake was important to Alice because she did so want to fit in at her new church and her new community of friends.  So being inventive, she needed something to put in the center of her cake.  She found it in the bathroom—a roll of toilet paper!   She plunked it in the center of her cake and then covered it with icing.  Not only did the finished product look beautiful, it looked perfect!
Before she left the house to drop the cake by the church and head for work, Alice woke her teenage daughter and gave her some money with specific instructions to be at the bake sale the minute it opened at 9:30 and to buy that cake and bring it home.
When her daughter arrived at the sale, she found that her Mother’s attractive, perfect cake had already been sold.   She grabbed her cell phone and called her Mom.  
Alice was so horrified she was beside herself.  Everyone would know!!  What would they think???  She would be ostracized, talked about, ridiculed.
All night Alice lay awake in bed thinking about people pointing fingers at her and talking behind her back.  The next day, Alice promised herself that she would try not to think about the cake and she would attend the fancy luncheon/bridal shower at the home of another church member.  She really did not want to attend because the hostess was a snob who more than once had looked down her nose at the fact that Alice was a single parent and not from the founding families of the city, but having already RSVP’d she could not think of a believable excuse to stay home.
The meal was elegant, the company was definitely upper crust old South…and to Alice ‘s horror, the CAKE in question was presented for dessert!!!   Alice felt the blood drain from her body when she saw the cake.  She started out of her chair to rush to tell her hostess all about it, but before she could get to her feet, the Mayor’s wife said to the hostess, “What a beautiful cake!”  Alice, who was still stunned, sat back in her chair when she heard the hostess (who was a prominent church member) say, “Thank you.  I baked it myself.”
Alice smiled and thought to herself “God is good.”

I hope that you will support our bake sale today and you can be fairly certain that if you buy a cake, it will be a legitimate cake, not a roll of toilet paper covered with frosting.  The story of Alice, though, does bear some resemblance to our scripture story this morning.  Jesus, too, finds himself at an elegant meal with both the humble and the haughty.  

We are following Jesus through the last week of his life.  On Monday, he stormed into the Temple overturning the tables of the money changers.  As a result, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes try to trap Jesus with questions the very next day.    They want to get rid of Jesus. By the time we reach Wednesday, Jesus is exhausted.  He is ready for a break. Jesus decides to rest and stay in Bethany (2 miles outside of Jerusalem).  The previous days have been draining.  And he will need his rest, for the two days to follow will literally take everything out of him.   And so he rests at the home of his good friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

You may remember the story of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, becomes very sick.  Mary and Martha send for their good friend, Jesus, to come heal him.  Jesus does NOT come right away and by the time he arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has not only died but has been in a tomb for four days.  It is the 4th day. The Jews believed that the soul hovered over the body for three days, but by the 4th day the soul has left.  Death has won.  Jesus finally shows up on the fourth day and says, “It is time to go in.  Remove the stone.”  And Martha, the practical one says, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  Lazarus’ body has started to decompose.  But Jesus insists and the stone is removed.  And we read that Lazarus came out.  The smells of a four day old human corpse is transformed into the sweet aroma of new life and reunion.     

Which brings us to today’s passage.  Martha prepares a dinner for Jesus perhaps to thank him for giving Lazarus new life.  Can you imagine what the feasting and celebration smell like?  Freshly baked bread, a variety of spices enhancing the roasted lamb, desserts baking in the oven.  And she invites all of Jesus’ disciples.  Everyone who has ever hosted a large meal for special guests knows that preparations take many days of planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning, re-planning, organizing.  It is a large endeavor to host a dinner party for Jesus and his disciples.

Mary, then, enters the room and with thanksgiving she pours out her love for Jesus.  She breaks open a jar, some translations call it an “alabaster jar”, and pours the entire contents on Jesus’s feet. The contents of the jar was spikenard.  Spikenard is an oil extracted from the root of a nard plant in India.  Its going rate was 300 denarii, which was equivalent to a year’s salary.  

Mary unfastens Jesus’ sandals and drenches his ankles and feet with this aromatic oil.  With her head bowed in reverence, her body soon followed as she dropped to her knees only inches from Jesus’ feet.  Her hair would have been bound up, according to social custom.  To let her hair down in public would be considered bold, provocative, abhorrent.  But she didn’t care; she was at the feet of Jesus.

Loosening her long hair, she let it fall around her shoulders, then bent over farther still, patting and wiping and caressing his feet as if they were her greatest treasure…using the dark strands like a silken hand towel.  She rubbed his heels, arches, and toes until they were dry once more.   Jesus, a rabbi, did not rebuke her for touching him.  He received her adoration.  And we are told that the entire house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

Then, Judas spoils the intimate moment.  “What a waste.” Judas exclaimed, “The perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor!”  Funny it was Judas of all people.  Judas is the one who was willing to sell out the one he called Lord for a mere 30 silver coins whereas this woman blessed the Lord she loved with a gift worth closer to a year’s salary.

Mary is a prophet.  She comprehends that her brother Lazarus’ death, burial, and resurrection was a foreshadowing of what would happen to Jesus.  She prepares Jesus body for burial.  I wonder whether the scent of that fragrant oil lingered in the air just a few days later when Jesus was on the cross.  I wonder whether that scent brought comfort to his weary soul.  

Yes, Jesus takes a break midway through his week at the home of Mary and Martha.  Mary prepares Jesus body externally with the scent of spikenard, while Martha feeds his body and soul with the aroma of an exquisite meal.   And I would go so far as to say that Mary and Martha served as role models and teachers for Jesus.

At a time when women were decidedly inferior to men considered little more than property, thought to be the “least of these” in society, Jesus uses women as his role models and teachers.  For on Thursday of Holy Week, Jesus sits down with his disciples at a meal.  The meal that Martha served  was called, in Greek, deipnon.  The only other time this particular word, deipnon, is written in this Gospel is when Jesus is gathered for the Passover meal with his disciples in the upper room.   Martha’s meal prompted the chosen context of Jesus’ last night with the Twelve.   Mary’s act of love, bathing Jesus feet with spikenard, served as an example to Jesus as he washed the feet of the Twelve that evening and instructed them to wash one another’s feet, an example of service to one another.  I believe that Jesus learned from Mary and Martha and used the lessons he learned from them to teach others.  (Metier, C., “Extravagant Equality” sermon preached on 3/13/16)

As we go forth to be the Church in the world, may we fill the city of Redlands with wasteful love, with a fragrance like costly perfume, offering the gift of a royal banquet for body and soul.  And in doing so may we learn from those who are considered to be “the least of these” just as Jesus did.