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St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Amarillo, TX

"Extravagant Devotion," a sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent, Year C

IN THE NAME OF GOD: FATHER, SON, & HOLY SPIRIT.

Today’s gospel reading is all about extravagant love & lavish devotion.

The setting for today’s reading from the Gospel of John is the home of Jesus’ dear friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus - three siblings who live in Bethany, about 2 miles east of Jerusalem. The friendship Jesus shares with these sisters & brother is both tender and honest. This friendship is the most fully portrayed instance of Jesus’ friendships within the Gospels.

Jesus has recently raised Lazarus from the dead, from being very dead - 4 days dead, to be precise. With Lazarus’ resurrection, Jesus enacted a central truth of resurrection: Resurrection to new life is not only or even primarily about life on the other side death. Resurrection to fullness of life is emphatically what Jesus offers us, seeks for us, and brings to us now, in this life, in the midst of messy circumstances.

Today we encounter Jesus and his sibling friends as they host him for dinner in their home. Disciples & friends have gathered together to celebrate Lazarus’ gift of resurrected life and to celebrate the Lord of Life who walks through their days with them.

Mary shows her devotion to Jesus in a truly unexpected & even somewhat embarrassing way - embarrassing because it is so over-the-top. In a world where a woman would not have routinely taken such initiative even in her own home, Mary takes a pound of pure nard — a highly valued spice grown in the mountains of India, this nard may even be her inheritance — Mary uses every bit of this precious spice & as she anoints Jesus’ feet, rubbing his feet with her hair & filling the house with the spice’s fragrance.

Just as a house may be filled with the smell of yeast after baking bread, the home in Bethany is filled with the perfume of nard. The scent of nard is everywhere - in every nook & cranny, filling everyone’s nostrils.

Mary’s extravagant devotion to Jesus is there for all to see & smell. Everyone present is enveloped by it. Her devotion cannot be ignored or side-lined. Such extravagance is in keeping with John’s gospel in which the Creator of everything that is comes into this world as a human being, pitches a tent to live among us, and pours out his life for us, showing the way to & offering abundant, over-the-top fullness of life.

Mary’s outlandish, free, unfettered devotion does not sit well with at least one other disciple - Judas.

Judas grumbles about the utilitarian value of the nard being wasted on Jesus. The gospel writer is clear that Judas grumbles not because he cares for the poor, but because he is a thief - someone who cannot be trusted either to interpret the good news of God in Jesus Christ or to understand Mary’s extravagant devotion.

It’s important to take a moment here to look at Jesus’ response to Judas. Jesus’ says two things,
“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Jesus here is surely NOT saying ignore the poor. Jesus is essentially quoting verses from Deuteronomy which he knows well. The relevant portion of Deuteronomy 15 concludes, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” Such generosity would be lost on one who is a thief.
Jesus also says to Judas, “Leave her alone.” This rebuke is important. Jesus values, cherishes, perhaps even needs Mary’s extravagant devotion as he faces his final days on earth, carrying out God’s mission.

Mary’s lavish devotion, along with Jesus’ rebuke of Judas, and Jesus’ valuing of what Mary has done shows us something crucial about life with Jesus.

Life with Jesus is intensely relational. It is intimate, perhaps even embarrassingly so. It is reciprocal. It is not always a tidy, one-way street from Jesus to us. Jesus needs & values human devotion, even if our devotion may look over-the-top to others who also follow Jesus as the Way.

It is possible that such intense relationality, such necessary reciprocity is one of Isaiah’s “New Things” that springs forth through God in Jesus Christ. Judas cannot perceive this new thing. Judas wants to hang on to one-way relationships: always on the receiving end in relation to Jesus, and always on the giving end in relation to the poor.

Mary of Bethany’s unrestrained, almost reckless, act of devotion in anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume, wiping them with her hair, and filling the house with the fragrance of lavish love is a kind of icon.

Icons are windows onto the holy. Icons are openings into the divine reality: the truth of God with us, among us, behind-before-beneath-above-and-throughout us.

Icons begin to reveal their truth when we pause & behold them… in this case, as we live with & chew on this extravagant act of devotion by Mary of Bethany.

And like relationship with Jesus, the work of icons is two-way. As we behold icons with active & expectant attention, they simultaneously behold us - their truth does not leave us untouched or unchanged.

What does Mary’s act of devotion reveal to you?
Where do you find your devotion skewed or distracted?
Where do you find your own acts of devotion affirmed & refreshed?
Sit with Mary of Bethany, and discover your own devotion to our Lord & Savior, and your devotion to the people Jesus gives to you in your daily lives,
renewed, strengthened, and set free.

AMEN.

 

RESOURCES
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Fully Revised 4th edition.
The HarperCollins Study Bible, revised edition.
Karoline M. Lewis, “The Raising of Lazarus, the Anointing, and the Last Public Discourse,” in John, a volume in the series Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries, 2014.

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