Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Perfume and the Poor - a Sermon

A friend and I have been trading jokes on Facebook lately. Here’s his: A Viking goes away to discover the new world. After years he returns, only to discover that there is no record of his ever having existed. He can’t even vote in Viking elections. Indignant, his wife goes to the Viking in charge of records. He searches through everything and finally, embarrassed, says, “I’m sorry. I don’t know how I did this. I must have taken Leif off my census.”

My response. A Mystic at the monastery goes to his spiritual director one days and says he’s leaving the monastery to get a job at a garage. The spiritual director is stunned and says, “But why? You’re a mystic!” He replies, “I know. I want to have an auto body experience.”

Now, I’m not telling you this because I enjoy bad jokes, only because jokes are in the air this week.

Back in1980 on Palm Sunday, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut preached a sermon – as far as I know his only time in the pulpit – at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in New York. But he didn’t like that day’s passage, so he preached on today’s.

Know what he said? He said it was a joke. He said Jesus was joking when he told Judas, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

What kind of joke is that? Well, typical Vonnegut humor, gallows humor. The kind of joke you tell just before facing the executioner. It’s a joke because they have had all their lives to care for the poor, so why start now? But if he’s so interested in the poor, he can always start caring for them after Jesus is dead because there will be a rich supply of them.

Kurt Vonnegut was no theologian, but he was onto something here because humor tends to highlight the distinctions between opposites. Between logic and the absurd, beauty and ugliness, good and evil. And John’s gospel loves opposites. Just look at what he’s put into this little passage.

You’ve got the remarkable smell of this perfume versus the stench of death (both from her now resurrected brother Lazarus and in anticipation of Jesus’ death). You’ve got the extravagance of the perfume – if you judged by today’s minimum wage, it would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $12,000 – versus both the poor and Judas’ stinginess. You’ve got Mary’s disturbingly intimate but true expression of love versus Judas’ seemingly appropriate but false love.

John loves those opposites because in the end, he’s going to lead us to a bigger one: an instrument of hate and death will become a sign of love and eternal life.

But I get ahead of myself.

This is happening shortly after Lazarus is raised from the dead and before Jesus makes his final entry into Jerusalem. He’s maybe a week from being crucified. And in this quiet house, Jesus finds rest before the agony.

It is apparently a rather lavish meal – Passover hasn’t started yet, so there’s no austerity in their meals, and you can imagine Mary, Martha and Lazarus might want to put on a nice spread, given what Lazarus has just experience. By the way, Judas does not seem to be complaining about the food.

But then Mary does something unusual and unseemly. She breaks the jar of perfume over Jesus’ feet and anoints his feet with it before drying his feet with her hair. Talk about engaging the senses! The aroma had to fill the house. The sight of her kneeling there had to evoke emotions. The soft touch of her hair against Jesus feet – how did that feel to him? This is extravagance in every sense, and I can imagine everyone there felt uncomfortable.

Which probably encouraged Judas with his pious outrage. After all, righteous indignation is easy, and it has the side benefit of riling up the crowd. There’s nothing like righteous anger to get people going – and that makes the agitators feel very powerful.

So he says, “How dare she do that?” Perhaps he felt uncomfortable mentioning the intimacy of her act, so he focuses on the only thing he can grasp (or think about?), the money. Either way, he intends to sound righteous and ends up sounding – to us at least – like a jerk. Even if John didn’t go overboard by saying he was really a thief, we would get it. Judas appears as someone who knows the right words but not the heart.

Even if he is being honest, he still mistakes discipline with discipleship. Because Jesus makes it clear that following him does not mean we stop being human. We have senses to use, to enjoy.

More importantly, when something big, something life-changing happens, we employ our extravagance to honor the moment. Could you imagine someone stopping a wedding and saying, “We could have spent this money on the poor!” Yes, there are lots of wedding jokes out there, but the point is, it’s a moment that celebrates life-changing love. So, it’s okay to go a bit overboard.

And if a wedding is an expression of love to celebrate, how much more is Jesus’ love for us, a love that will be put to the biggest test, a love that we are on the verge of seeing at its most powerful. This moment deserves lavish attention.

Besides, if we put ourselves in Judas’ place, we would realize that we probably spend lots of money on ourselves without anything monumental to recognize – just because we want something. A fancy new car, new phones with all the services and apps, a bigger house than necessary, dinner and a show. Not to make anyone feel guilty about it, just to help us see that we spend a lot without a big occasion, so why not let Mary do for Jesus such a beautiful thing?

After all, spending that money on the poor would not have stopped poverty. But it did signal this most crucial moment in humanity where life overcame death – and did so with the cruelest instrument of death.

John loves to contrast those opposites – which makes Jesus’ defense of Mary very serious, but also a pretty good joke. Amen.