Marked with Oil

5th Sunday of Lent
Rev. Elizabeth Mangham Lott
St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church

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12 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him.Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected,“Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

John 12:1-8

 

Mary was the emotional one
she carried her heart on her sleeve
she got choked up when they said the blessing before a shared meal— when everything smelled so good and was perfectly laid out
with candles glowing and wine flowing
the way Martha always got it just, exactly, beautifully right—
she was a romantic that way
wishing she could climb inside that feeling and live right there
when everything and everyone was just exactly as should be

she was quick to say “I love you” and quick to lose her temper and quick to pick a favorite
quick to get her feelings hurt
quick to protect
quick to fuss
and quick to forgive
everything with Mary was big
it was no different in her relationship with Jesus
in fact, it was all just that much bigger somehow he saw her
she saw him
they got each other
oh, how she loved him
she was overcome with gratitude for what he meant to her the space he made for her
the protection and affection he offered their family

one day she was apologizing all over herself
telling him she knew she should be more like her sister
knew she should be less emotional
and should give more of herself
serve more
sit and talk less
she wanted to try harder to change
to be more in control
should should should
try try try

and he just laughed and looked at her in that way of his
as if to say: “Now why in the world would you want to go and do something foolish like that? I would miss you terribly.”
he smiled and stared at her for awhile before he spoke:
“Oh, Mary, the world needs you just as you are.” [1]
then he told her sister just as much
“She chooses well, with that big heart of hers,
and she’s a gift to the whole world just as she is.
What might this world be like if we all loved
half as big as Mary does! What a gift she is to us all!”
well, that seemed to settle that
at least for a while

She’d fallen apart into a million tiny pieces just days ago— it felt like weeks—
how long had it been since Lazarus died? [2]

they’d sent for Jesus because they knew he would heal him
they knew how he loved them
they knew no one in the world loved Lazarus like Jesus and those sisters
Martha thought it might be too much to ask or expect
but Mary knew he would never let Lazarus remain sick

and then Jesus didn’t come
and her brother died
Martha organized the funeral
and made sure the cloths and spices were just right
she gathered the women to help and quietly went to work taking care of everything and everyone

but Mary was angry—
heartbroken—
her brother lost and her friend nowhere to be found
and then he showed up too late
four days after Lazarus was dead and buried
and she exploded when she heard he was waiting outside for her
angry and grieving with tears and rage flowing altogether
“If you had been here, none of this would have happened!”
oh, how she wept and moaned with disappointment and disbelief
and her heart wishing it had all been a bad dream
she cried so hard that everyone around her was crying, too
even Jesus
he wept right there with her

she would never forget how he wept with her
how his heart broke with hers
how he loved Lazarus just like she did
how he seemed to know that was what she needed
and he met her right where her heart was in the thickness of all that grief

she would never forget how he wiped his own tears away and took a slow, deep breath
she thought maybe that’s when they’d pray together
or share a meal or light a candle
or just sit for a while in the silence that comes after friends have wept until their faces are swollen

but the way he spoke Lazarus back into being
how he screamed for Lazarus to come out
and everything fell silent
and everyone stood still

no, she wasn’t prepared for that
everyone thought maybe he’d finally lost it
all this teaching and healing and blessing and anointing
all this constantly traveling around and taking care of everyone else
and believing he really could make this old world into a new one
he hollered so loud that all of her tears dried up
and Mary began to worry she’d been too hard on her dear friend

but lo and behold
that smell caught the breeze
and Lazarus came out
still wrapped up like the mummy he was supposed to be
and Jesus, weak from weeping and raising that man from the dead, said, “Unbind him. Let him go.”
and unbind him they did

enough had happened in the days since then
that she knew what was coming next
you can’t raise a man from the dead without people talking about it
so naturally, everyone knew what Jesus had done
Jesus could no more lay low and draw less attention to himself
than Mary could stop feeling all the feelings
and so it was
he would be the next one behind that stone
and the cloths and spices would come back out again
and the weeping would start up again

but this time there’d be no one to call him out of that tomb
he’d be gone, and it already made her sick to think of it
and she knew she was powerless to stop any of it
sure, he’d be with them forever
in the way loved ones live on in our hearts
and show up in little cosmic winks and signs
like rainbow shining through stained glass
or a familiar tune humming from a far off place
or the wafting of perfume blowing by in a room with no breeze

and somehow, as she thought about this, she had her answer
she knew what she would do
she couldn’t stop the path
she couldn’t stop the government
she couldn’t make people hear him and understand him and know him like she did
she couldn’t make them see what she saw
or feel what she felt when he was near

but she could bless him
and say thank you
and tell him again that she loved him
and mark this moment that was very well going to be their last and she could do it in a way that they’d all remember
so that every time they caught that fragrance
every time they moved that bottle from one shelf to the next
every time that smell blew through the air
they would remember

they would remember the way it felt to be together around the table
when it was set just so and he looked each one of them straight in the eyes
they would remember the time he made for them
for teaching and laughing and explaining and arguing and telling one more story
and how well he loved them all just as they were
no matter who they were or what their backgrounds were
whether they were men or women, affluent or poor as dirt, powerful or ordinary
they would remember that he loved in ways that didn’t always make sense
in ways that seemed reckless
in ways that were extravagant
and decadent and pure gift

that’s exactly what he was.
they would remember that he was pure gift
they would remember that he made that same space for them to discover
their own light, their own salt
to know their lives for the gifts that they are
they would remember how he invited them to follow his path to give themselves to his way
and, in turn, give their fullest and best selves to the world

for once, she wasn’t worried about what others would think
she knew it was the best she had to offer
she knew it was her last chance
she knew he deserved to know how loved he was
she knew she’d regret it for the rest of her life if she didn’t

and so Mary slipped away from that perfect table
with the candles burning and
the food laid out just so by her sister
and her should-have-been-dead but very-much-alive brother sitting and talking with their closest friend

she walked to the shelf where she’d been keeping the jar of that decadent, fantastic oil...just in case
she went straight to the spot where Jesus was sitting
and she moved alongside him to his feet
as she looked on that scene and at the feet of her friend she remembered that old poem,
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger
who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” [3]

That’s exactly what he had done— brought peace
and goodness
and saved them all
in ways they never knew they even needed
In one swift move she poured that oil right over those
peace bringing, gospel carrying, salvation announcing feet
as the fragrance filled the room she remembered everything
from the first time she met him
to the stories and laughter
to the weeping and grief
to the shouting and resurrecting
to that meal
in that moment
and all the meals that wouldn’t be
and the empty space he would leave forever

without thinking of anyone else in the room
she let down her hair as though they were alone
and she used it to wipe the oil across his skin
it was the least she could do
to thank him
and to bless him
and to show her great love
for the gift that he was to them all

then Judas cleared his throat
lately, Judas was always close by to mess things up
these days he seemed locked in his head
always the cynic and the skeptic
as soon as she heard him,
she knew he’d laugh at this ridiculous gesture,

and sure enough he mocked her for not being rational
for not being practical
for not being frugal
for not acting out of the narrow, literal understanding of what so many thought Jesus was teaching

“This is a bit much, don’t you think?”
his voice dripped about as much as the oil did
“And what about the poor, Jesus? Such a waste.”

this time he didn’t scream
but his voice hit the room with just as much force
“Leave her alone,” Jesus commanded
it was like that time he was out in the wilderness [4]
and the devil himself threw out half-verses and weak interpretation to lure Jesus into selfish dreams
Judas wasn’t getting to the heart of things
and was twisting and contorting his version of truth
so Jesus spoke to them all from the scripture

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” [5]

“Surely we have come to such a time as this, dear Judas,
and Mary is brave enough and bold enough to show us.
She’s marking this moment and calling it holy.
Do you disagree, dear Judas?”

and as that last question hung in the air
alongside the smell of Mary’s gift
they all knew this was almost the end
and each one of them, maybe even old Judas,
remembered how freely he had given to the first and the last of them
how open his heart always was
how his open life had allowed theirs to open in return

the smell of perfume awakened them
to the smell of the half-finished wine sitting before them poured out and shared
and the freshly baked bread on that table
broken and blessed
they remembered
the smell of the grass where so often they’d sat and heard him teach
the fragrance of the dirt roads they’d all walked together
not one of them could tell where the wafting of memories ended
and wafting of Mary’s brave gift began
not one of them would forget the way they felt
as they realized they really wouldn’t always have him, pure gift that he was

Originally preached March 13, 2016 as “The Brave Gift”
© 2016 Rev. Elizabeth Mangham Lott


  1. Luke 10:38-42
  2. John 11:1-44
  3. Isaiah 52:7
  4. Matthew 4:1-11
  5. Deuteronomy 15:7-11
Elizabeth Lott