Sermon: "Extra Yarn” & Jesus’ Anointing: Gifts of Place July 28, 2019

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3 While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,[a] as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. 4 But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii,[b] and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the good news[c] is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
— Mark 14: 3-9 (NRSV)

“Extra Yarn” and Jesus’ Anointing[1]

Gifts of Place

Mark 14: 3-9

 

Holy God,

allow us your wisdom.

By the power of your Holy Spirit

open the Scriptures to us today,

that in the Word read and proclaimed

we might know your truth.

In Jesus’ name we ask it. Amen.

 

This might seem like a strange choice of Scripture for today – for at least two reasons (though you may have more): 1 - how does this even go with the children’s story?  And 2 – isn’t this part of the passion narrative?  The story of Jesus’ last things before he is crucified? 

 

I promise I will get to 1 – how this works with “Extra Yarn,” shortly.  And yes, this story is oddly timed for in the Summer; typically we hear these words in Lent, or even on Good Friday, because they detail the moments leading up to Jesus’ death.  And the reason we do that is because these Scriptures are so tied to the time and place in which they are located – this story doesn’t make sense unless it comes just before the Crucifixion.  Which is why I have called this sermon “Gifts of Place”. 

 

First, let’s dive into a little background and context, so we can get the fullness of the details here, and then we will begin to pull it apart.

 

Like I said, timing is key here.  In the Scripture, it is just about Passover – one of three Jewish pilgrimage festivals, and Jesus and the others are in Jerusalem, along with thousands of other Jews who have travelled from far and wide for this Holy occasion.  Now, because of this influx of Jews, the city was crawling with soldiers – troops in place to keep order and peace.  It is a strained situation: a hot, dusty city – bustling all year, but absolutely teeming with people at Passover.  The tension palpable in the streets, as the authorities attempt to put a lid on what is an escalating situation. 

 

This story takes place on a Wednesday, and the days leading up are important to note: Jesus had just, on Sunday, ridden into town on his donkey to the shouts of “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” while palm leaves were laid on his path (11:8-10), Palm Sunday.  And then on Monday, he went into the Temple and freaked out, flipping tables over and calling people out for their behaviour.  Tuesday, he had crowds of people all around as he was confronted by the Scribes and Pharisees, the religious elites, and they challenged each other’s authority – the crowds swelling in support of Jesus, “delighting” (12:37) in his teaching as he denounced the leaders.

 

Our Scripture for today comes the very next morning – just as the “chief priests and scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him” (14:1), fully aware that if they did it in the open, there would surely be a riot (14:2).  So, this is the place we are in with this woman today – build and build and build and build and…pause.  The writing here is beautiful, because it is like time slows for this moment.

 

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Jesus is at Simon’s house, a leper, hanging out with the undesirables (as usual), and onto the scene walks this woman.  We never know her name, or even who she is, but, as Jesus later states, the whole world would know her by her actions. 

 

She walks in with an alabaster jar – this would be an ancient version of those beautiful hand-blown glass perfume bottles of the 1920s, 30s, 40s.  A piece of art – recognizable at once for holding costly ointment, or oil.  The contents: made from the spikenard plant, native to the Himalayan region of India – so it is not only a luxury item, it has travelled a great distance before landing in this woman’s possession.  The jar is sealed – to keep the precious contents safe until they are to be used. 

And she CRACKS it open…and pours the entire contents on Jesus’ head.  The thick oil creeping down his face, soaking his hair and beard, (inhale!) the musky, sweet, earthy, rich fragrance filling the space, overpowering all else.

This moment of love, of bliss, of generosity, of recognition by the woman of who Jesus is.

 

A Holy moment…shattered: “why was the ointment wasted in this way?”

“we could’ve sold it for the poor!”

 

They are, of course, correct in a certain way – this imported luxury was costly – roughly the annual wage of a day-labourer in this time.  Could’ve fed a lot of poor people with that.

 

But Jesus defends the woman’s prophetic action to those who were denigrating her in the name of the poor: her expansive gesture – breaking and pouring the entire vial when she could use just a few drops – highlights for us the depth of her understanding of the costliness of what is about to happen.  Especially as its contrasts to the apparent cheapness of Jesus’ life in the eyes of those who seek to betray and destroy him.  Remember, Judas sells him out for a few meager coins.

 

And another level of understanding is revealed in this story with Jesus’ response to those who attempt to rebuke the woman for her apparent wastefulness. “‘Leave her alone,’ said Jesus, ‘why are you bothering her?  She has done a beautiful [kalos] thing to me.’” (14:6, NIV).  The Greek kalos, translated as “beautiful” or “a good service” has a richer meaning than we can understand in English.  It can mean good, as in morally right, or, it can mean beautiful, as in aesthetically pleasing, but in this context it means more than either one of those.

To give to the poor – what the followers are calling for – is right, but the woman’s deed is of a different order of rightness. 

To anoint the head with perfume is aesthetically pleasing, but the woman’s act is of a higher order of beauty. 

Her action is greater than these simple meanings – though it is both a good service and beautiful, it is elevated because it is timely.  The beauty of her extravagant and apparently wasteful gesture is due to the particular time and particular situation: Jesus is about to die.

 

This understanding is magnified further by Jesus’ next words: “she has done what she could” (14:8a), which literally translated reads “what she had.”  The expression suggests that what she had, she gave – or, what she had it in her power to do, she did.  Her act is so powerful because she invested herself in it.  She gave what she had to him who was about to give his life for her.

 

And he makes this even clearer with his next words, “She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial” (14:8b).  She alone, of all those who heard Jesus’ three prophecies of his death and resurrection, she alone believed him – is she the very first believer?  Before even, the tangible empty tomb and left-behind grave-clothes of Easter?

 

Her actions, and Jesus’ recognition of their significance (and the legacy they hold to this day) lay before us a tremendous model of the possible response to Jesus’ presence in our lives.  She left no name, but rather the lasting memory of a beautiful and generous deed.

In any other context, perhaps this un-named woman’s action would’ve been wasteful, would’ve been over-the-top extravagant – maybe in a different time and place, the followers’ rebuke would’ve been warranted – a years wages poured out.  But for this woman, in this moment, it was kalos, a good and beautiful thing, magnified by the enormity of her love.

 

Remember Annabelle?  From the storybook?  She had a precious box, and used what was inside with a generosity of spirit, even for those who teased her.  And the significance of her actions carried on far beyond her – in the story we are told that “news spread of this remarkable girl…and people came to visit from around the world.”[2]

 

And what of her box?  Maybe it was only full because the little girl’s heart was full too. Maybe the box was only full because she was giving away what was inside instead of keeping the treasure for her own gain.  Maybe it was only full because of where it was: the box of yarn only worked in one place, and only for the sharing with others.

 

So then, what is the alabaster jar we are holding?  What box of unending yarn is here at St. George’s to use to give?  What precious, good, beautiful, kalos thing are we being called to – as individuals, and as a community of faith, that is particular to this time, particular to this place, and maybe doesn’t make sense anywhere or any-when else?

 

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This anonymous woman’s response to Jesus opens us up to what being a disciple really means.  Her deed sprung from a personal love for Jesus.  A love which, on occasion, breaks all patterns, defies common sense, and simply gives.  Spontaneous, un-calculating, selfless, and timely, her gift calls us to love Jesus in this way too.  What is extra beautiful about this is her boldness – she is likely aware that the others will judge her for her generosity, but she decides to be reckless in her discipleship, in her love of Jesus.

 

Annabelle, the girl, her actions, too, sprung from a place of abundance, of love, defying common sense (she knit for trucks and mailboxes, you’ll recall).  Spontaneous, un-calculating, selfless, and timely.  She, too, was mocked, teased for her bold generosity, but she decided to be reckless in her giving to the community.

 

And maybe the way we respond to the love of God known to us through Jesus Christ is unconventional.  Maybe it doesn’t fit into what is expected, maybe others will judge us – but we too can be BOLD in our response to this costly love.

There is a generosity inside of each of us, waiting for the pot to be shattered open.  The jar is precious, yes, but not more precious than the oil inside.  The oil is costly, yes, but cheap in comparison to the one we yearn to pour ourselves out for. 

 

So knit your sweaters.  Break open your jars – break patterns, defy common sense, and give LOVE: spontaneously, un-caluclatingly, selflessly: now is the time, and this surely is the place.  God is here, Jesus is calling, and love and generosity abound. 

 

Can I get an Amen?


 


[1] Inspiration, exegesis, and great ideas from Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week; Pheme Perkins, “Gospel of Mark,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VIII; Amy-Jill Levine, The Jewish Annotated New Testament; Lamar Williamson Jr, Interpretation Bible Commentary: Mark.

[2] Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, “Extra Yarn,” p.21.