Sunday, October 31, 2021
|Anointing at Bethany|
This right here is a complicated and bewildering story. The best kind of story. A dinner party at the end of a long journey. A conspiracy of hope, a rabbi and his friends intent on revolution and the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. And then a woman slipping in without an invitation. A jar of wildly expensive perfume—emptied, poured, dumped out on the rabbi’s head. Drenching his beard. Dripping down his chin. Why? What’s she up to? What kind of anointing, what kind of baptism is this? At the hands of a woman without an invitation. Let’s start with the transgressive spirit of her intrusion. She should not be there. She is not named. No one in the room, no one at the table recognizes her. She’s breaking rules. She’s crossing boundaries. It may well be that it’s a men’s club that night, a circle of men gathered by Simon the leper and Jesus his rabbi for conversation, celebration and strategic planning. But she slips in anyway, she approaches the table anyway, she finds Jesus anyway. Ignoring their murmuring. Protecting that alabaster jar. And then pouring it out—every last drop—pouring it out on his head.
I have a hunch that she recognizes in Jesus a fellow transgressor. Right? Jesus too is breaking rules and crossing boundaries. He’s a rabbi, and he shouldn’t be eating at a leper’s table. But it’s not the first time. He’s known for this. He’s built a whole movement around this kind of transgression. Welcoming those others judged harshly. Touching those others wouldn’t touch. Absorbing the wisdom and expertise of the poor and the misunderstood. Maybe she goes to all this trouble—buying the perfume, cradling the alabaster jar, crashing the party—because she knows what he’s up to. Deep in her soul, deep in her bones, she knows what Jesus’s up to. The kingdom, on earth as in heaven. Boundaries erased. Everyone included.
And of course, his disciples, Jesus’ students, miss the point of all this. They complain. They pull her away. “What was the point of this waste?” they ask. “Why must you let her treat you this way?” And this is where the story shifts a bit from transgression to contradiction. “She has prepared my body for burial,” Jesus says. “She has prepared my body for burial.” What’s the point of all this?
In this moment of extraordinary extravagance, in this act of courageous generosity, Jesus is aware of the cost of his practice. Jesus is mindful of the sacrifice love and loving invites. His anointing there, at the table in Bethany, is a baptism of sorts—a promise of love and kindness and grace, even as Jesus faces the significant consequences of his practice. Even as Jesus anticipates the way of the cross. The beloved community will break a whole bunch of rules. And in a sense, it’ll break him too. So she baptizes him that night, at Simon’s table. She pours out all that perfume and watches it slide down his face. And she reminds him that God’s love is stronger than death, that God’s love is stronger than fear, that God’s love will always overcome and outlast human violence.
And this is why I believe she’s such an essential witness to who Jesus is and what Jesus is about and how Jesus moves in the world. In our world. She embraces the paradox of his practice. She bears the joy and the pain at the heart of his ministry. Jesus invites you and me to break the rules that divide and diminish human community. Jesus insists that we erase the borders, that we cross over the boundaries that privilege some over others, that honor status and wealth, yet criminalize poverty and despair. She sees him for who he is and what he’s about. And she knows that to love him, to go with him, to embrace his way is to meet resistance. And to face the consequences. And to take up the cross.
All that, and this too. This baptism. This anointing. This alabaster jar of extremely costly perfume, emptied over his head, poured out at the table that night. When you and I risk everything to do the right thing; when you and I expose our fragile hearts in pursuit of a more inclusive church; when you and I care so much about the good earth that we invest our energies in saving it, or when we care so much about immigrants and refugees that we invest our energies in welcoming them—when we take up the cross, as we take up the cross, we taste the same sweet love on our cheeks. We sense the same extravagance, God’s grace, God’s peace, in our hearts.
You see how this story works. She’s not only an essential witness to who Jesus is, but an essential witness to who we are, and to who we are called to be, and how we bear God’s promise and God’s grace in the world. We’re all sitting at Simon’s table. And she’s anointing the church for extraordinary extravagance and bold and risky service. Calling us to transgression and the kingdom of God. And she reminds us—most importantly, she reminds us—that God’s love is stronger than death, that God’s love is stronger than fear, that God’s love will always overcome and outlast human violence. This is that kind of anointing. This is that kind of baptism.
One of the interesting things about the New Testament, about the gospels themselves, is that they introduce us to Jesus through these other characters, through friends and foes, siblings and students in the narrative. We discover Jesus as we discover them, as we encounter their questions, as we witness their courage and grace and humanity. Biblical faith isn’t as easy as downloading the data. Discipleship means joining the story, living into its questions and contradictions and possibilities. We do that together, as we read these stories, and puzzle over their meanings; we do that together, as we live into the practices of radical generosity and sweet mercy and holy hospitality.
I want to suggest this morning that Jesus isn’t a static figure in an unchanging narrative, but that Jesus is our soul’s companion, our teacher and catalyst on the journey we share together. On the journey we create together in a place like this.
Years ago—in fact, thirty-five years ago—Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza wrote a seminal reflection on Christian history and theology. She entitled that book “In Memory of Her”—after this same story in Matthew’s gospel, the story of the unnamed and uninvited woman who anoints Jesus at Simon’s table. “In Memory of Her.” Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza was a profoundly important and influential feminist theologian in the late 20th century. And her reading of Christian theology (through the eyes of women in the story, sometimes hidden, often unnamed) changed the way many of us experience Jesus’ story and the life of discipleship itself. You might want to track it down and take a look. “In Memory of Her." One of her gifts—just one, but an important one in that work—is the importance of grief in the community of faith. We must make space for grief and loss together. We must acknowledge the sacrifices we face in pursuing justice and peace. We must mourn the losses that diminish us, and the deaths that we bear in every generation. To be human is to grieve. To be human is to mourn. And the woman in this morning’s story reminds that we will be wiser together—as we learn to grieve together. And we will be stronger for one another—as we bear our losses together.
And with this in mind, I want to invite you to participate in the ritual with which we’ll conclude our worship this morning. Either actively, by sharing a name and lighting a candle. Or prayerfully, by holding these names and your friends who speak them aloud in a spirit of mercy and tender care. I’ve noticed over many years that my Jewish friends do something like this just about every Shabbat when they gather for worship and prayer. Those who’ve lost a loved one, or a friend, or a mentor, stand—during Friday services—so the community can see them, can love them, can join them with support and prayer. These losses are shared. These tears are wept together. And in this way, in worship together, the community bears witness to the strange but sacred paradox of life—and loss—in the midst of God’s sweet, sacred and shimmering universe.
After our prayer time, then, I’ll invite those of you who wish to come forward and share a name with us—a loss you grieve, a kind of pain you carry this morning. And then I’ll offer you a candle which you can place in our bowl of remembrance in the middle of the sanctuary this morning—before returning to your pew.
As you do, as you move among us, as you bear witness to your pain, I hope you’ll remember your sister in this morning’s story. I hope you’ll remember her courage, her wisdom and her transgressive spirit. She’s our guide this morning, our guide to the transformative practice of Jesus’ gospel, our guide to the dynamic promise of beloved community. “Wherever in the whole world this good news is proclaimed,” Jesus says in Matthew’s story; “wherever this good news is proclaimed, what she did will be spoken of, so that she’ll be remembered.” And so it so with us today. In Durham, New Hampshire. In 2021. What she did is remembered. In our prayers. In our pain. And in our love for one another. Because God’s love is stronger than death, and God’s love is stronger than fear, and God’s love will always overcome and outlast human violence.
Amen and Ashe.