Mary, the Ointment, and Do-Overs

March 13th, 2016

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

So as I read the Gospel today, I’m not finding the Jesus I want to find. Jesus is at a dinner, presumably to be thanked for raising Lazarus from the dead. It seems appropriate.

Martha, the grateful sister, is serving the dinner when Mary enters with a jar of pure nard, a heavily perfumed ointment that is used on people’s bodies after they die. Mary has a pound of it, worth 300 denarii, or the modern equivalent of about $30,000. Clearly she is wealthy. She smashes the jar and rubs all of the ointment on Jesus’ feet. Then she dries them with her hair.

It is a strange scene: a woman at the feet of Jesus, during a party, rubbing an ointment for the dead on his feet, and then wiping it with her hair. Really? The Jesus I want to follow is the one who says: “Oh Mary, enough of that. Stand up, and sit here next to me at the table.” But instead he lets her do it. Her act is even a bit uncomfortable for Judas, who offers commentary on her excesses, maybe as a way of getting her up off that floor, but Jesus shuts him down.

When I meet this uncomfortable Jesus in the Bible it causes me to wonder, get curious, and do some exploration. That is what I did this week. And I want to share what I discovered with you. This is a story about “do-overs,” mulligans, resets; it is about doing the same thing again in a new way, with different intentions, seeking different results.

My mother-in-law often says, “Doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results is the definition of insanity.” I’m not sure why she says that so often to me, but it wouldn’t apply to Mary. The Mary do-over we discover is the movement from what God could do for her to what she could do for God. Her story is the story of going from “It’s all about me” to “It’s all about you, God.”

Which begs the question, does God need anything from us? Of course not. But it is not about God needing us, it is about God wanting us, and we wanting God in return, and sometimes we need a reset for this to happen.

This sermon is about Mary’s do-over. It is her story. But it could be my story or your story. Maybe there is a moment or an encounter or an event you’d like to do over. If so, this sermon is for you, but know this: it takes courage and humility. Those are the traits we see Mary employ.

Let’s talk about Mary. Some of you are familiar with Mary and Martha. You may remember them from the Gospel of Matthew and Mark. In one story Martha complained to Jesus that she had to work in the kitchen while Mary sat at his feet listening to his teachings. He said, “Mary’s was the better way.” But what I find interesting about this story is that Mary is sitting there with a bunch of men. For some reason Mary had the authority to ignore or transcend the social protocol that divided men and women.

In the anointing story from Matthew and Mark I find another interesting thing: Jesus concludes them both by saying: “Whenever the Gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, Mary will be remembered.” (Mk 14:9, Mt 26:13)

Why? Because of her do-over. The Gospel is about our do-over with God. Jesus came into the world to offer humanity a do-over with God. And Mary shows us how.

That is what is happening in today’s Gospel of John, chapter 12. To understand we need to go back a bit to when Mary is first mentioned at the beginning of chapter 11. So let’s start there.

It begins this way (and I quote): “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.”

We find out a lot about Mary in this sentence: that Bethany is her village, not her brother’s or her father’s, but her village. She is clearly pretty important. This is the only time in the Bible that there is this kind of foreshadowing going on. Hear it again: “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume, and wiped his feet with her hair.”

Let’s walk through chapter 11 to get to chapter 12, the do-over, so we can understand what precipitated the do-over in the first place. Here is the story: Lazarus is ill. Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus: “Come quickly and heal your friend.” Jesus was up in Galilee. It says he stalled. He stayed two days longer before coming back. When Mary called he didn’t jump. And by the time he finally got to Bethany, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. He was dead.

Martha hears that Jesus is near, she runs to meet him and they have a conversation.
Then she leaves Jesus and returns to Mary saying, “The Teacher is here and he is calling for you.”

Now this isn’t noted from the conversation. I imagine there is a little sibling something going on here. Martha might have been baiting Mary. Martha tells her Jesus wants to see her, knowing, I suspect, that Mary was pretty upset with Jesus. She had sent for him, after all, and he hadn’t come fast enough, or at least come in time. I suspect Mary wasn’t used to people not showing up when she called.

Martha says Jesus wants to see Mary. I imagine Mary’s response is: “I’d like to see him.” Her actions say it. She gets up and tears out of the house.

When she sees Jesus, no pleasantries are exchanged. She goes right to him, bows down to his feet (a formal gesture) and says straight up: “Lord, had you been here my brother would not have died!” Had YOU been HERE, he would be alive! This is the one time in scripture where Jesus wept. God loves us. God knows us. God cares about us. God gave us everything. And Mary says to God: “You blew it, Jesus.”

He asked: “Where have you laid Lazarus?” He goes to the tomb. They roll away the rock. He calls Lazarus by name, and Lazarus emerges, raised from the dead. And then Jesus leaves. Jesus goes to Ephraim in the Judean desert, because the High Priest has called for his arrest.

Which brings us now to chapter 12. Jesus has returned to Bethany for the party. Jesus comes so Mary can have her do-over. He risks his life for do-overs. He is the guest of honor. Mary comes in the room, drops to her knees, smashes a $30,000 jar of nard and rubs it on his feet. This is her do-over: from accusation to adoration, from blame to blessing; from “do this for me” to “I love you so much.”

Last time she was at his feet. This time she is at his feet again. Last time it was with accusation. This time it is with adoration. Last time she demanded he return a life. This time she gives thanks for her eternal life.

When we realize we are eternal, when we understand our real relationship with God, then we have the courage of Jesus Christ. Mary had the courage of Christ. When did Mary have this insight? It probably had something to do with what Lazarus told her about being dead.

It is the courage of Christ that enables the do-over. This courage is the Good News of the Gospel. And when the Good News is shared, Mary’s name is mentioned, because she accepted God’s offer of a redo. The chance for a do-over is available to all of us as well, but it takes humility. It was humbling for God to take on human form and walk among us. It was humbling for Mary to bow down in her own house, and then to wipe Jesus feet with her hair.

Mary was powerful and influential. Mary ran Bethany, studied with men, was known in Jerusalem, and had a stash of nard worth $30,000 just laying around the house. This Mary wipes Jesus feet with her hair. Trust me, there were rags available, but this wasn’t about getting Jesus’ feet dry. It was about humbling herself before God.

“Long hair on women was a source of pride” (1Cor 11:15), according to the Apostle Paul in his First letter to the Corinthians. Mary used her pride to wipe Jesus feet.

Jesus doesn’t stop her, because Jesus came so we could have do-overs. Jesus gives that to us. He gives us the courage. The humility is our response. What do-overs do you need to consider as we come to the end of this Lenten season?