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"Loved Into Being" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer

Loved Into Being

A sermon for Northminster Church

Preached by Rev. Jillian Hankamer

May 5, 2024

John 12:1-11

 

This morning’s story begins immediately after the miracle of Lazarus’ raising that we explored last week. As the text tells us it’s six days before Passover and the siblings are offering Jesus a meal. You’ll remember that Jesus loves Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, and as I mentioned last week some scholars suggest that Lazarus is the “beloved disciple” mentioned throughout John’s gospel. But the siblings aren’t Jesus’ disciples, at least not in a formal sense, they’re his friends and  likely some of the only “people in whose presence he could be a man as well as a Messiah.”[1]


Unfortunately raising Lazarus has moved Jesus from “the category of ‘manageable nuisance’ to ‘serious threat’”[2] in the eyes of the religious authorities. There’s no chance news of Lazarus’ new life hasn’t reached them or Pilate - the Roman Governor of Judea -  he won’t be able to let this latest inflammatory action go thus Jesus’ days are limited.


So this meal with his friends is Jesus’ chance to shut the world out for a night. Barbara Brown Taylor describes the scene around the table beautifully,

 “Lazarus is still clumsy from his four days in the tomb.  He sits and stares while Martha makes a stew.  Mary, meanwhile, has slipped away, gone to find something in her room.  Martha is used to this.  Mary is always disappearing, even when she is sitting right there with everyone else.  She gets this look on her face, like she's listening to music no one else can hear.  Martha knows there is nothing to be done but to work around her, being careful to reel Mary in when she drifts too far.”[3]

 

However as this story continues it becomes clear that Mary realizes something that hasn’t occurred to her siblings, caught up as they are in the remarkable and overwhelming happenings of the day. Mary and Jesus are both aware of the startling tradeoff that’s happened in Bethany: Jesus “has traded his life for the life of his friend.  Funny, huh?  The recently deceased Lazarus of Bethany will outlive the savior Jesus of Nazareth.”[4]


This is why Mary steps away to gather a jar, to anoint Jesus. She comes back and wordlessly kneels at his feet. Breaking the jar’s neck she pours “the costly perfume made of pure nard” filling the room with a “scent halfway between mint and ginseng.”[5] Then as Barbara Brown Taylor points out, Mary does four things the rest of the assembled group will find shocking.


First, she lets her hair down in this room full of men. This isn’t something honorable women do. Second, she pours the perfume over Jesus’ feet rather than his head. Third, this single woman rubs this single man’s feet which isn’t done either even with friends. Finally, she inexplicably wipes the perfume off with her hair.


At this point, we should pause and clarify the differences between John’s version of this story and other gospel accounts. In Matthew and Mark Jesus' head is anointed by an unnamed woman at the house of Simon the Leper.  In Luke, this story takes place much earlier in the narrative at Simon the Pharisee's house by a sinful woman. It’s only John who puts this action in Mary’s hands and hair which is notable because as his long-time friend this makes her actions “all the more peculiar.  He knows she loves him.  He loves her too.  So why this public demonstration, this odd pantomime in front of all their friends?  It's extravagant.  It's excessive.”[6]


Ironically, it’s Judas who says what the rest of the room is thinking, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  And Jesus’ response is almost as odd as Mary’s actions,” Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Suddenly, this “champion of the poor”[7] who’s “always putting their needs ahead of his”[8] is thinking of himself and his friend. “Leave her alone.  Leave me alone.  Just this once, let her look after me because my time is running out.”


            In 1997 Fred Rogers was given a lifetime achievement award at that year’s Emmy Awards. In accepting the award Rogers gave a speech so touching it left many in the room in tears. Here’s what he said,


            “All of us have special ones who’ve loved us into being.” He then asked everyone in the room to take 10 seconds to think about the people who helped them become who they are, those who cared for them and wanted what was best for them in life. Mr. Rogers then timed the 10 seconds and amazingly everyone in the room fell silent. When he continued speaking, Mr. Rogers said this, “Who over you’ve been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they’ve made…” As the camera pans.”[9]around several celebrities can be seen wiping their eyes as Mr. Rogers concludes his speech with humble thanks.


I wonder if at this moment Jesus is aware of being loved into being by Mary.  If he’s aware that he’s “being loved with a grace upon grace kind of love, an abundance of love, a love that you could even smell, with a fragrance that would linger for days…” If he’s reminded of another Mary who loved him into being, his mother, whose love makes it possible for him to “do what he was sent to do.”[10] His mother who “loves Jesus into his future as the Word made flesh.”[11]

The very next thing Jesus will do is enter Jerusalem. We will spend the next several weeks walking with Jesus through the Passion Narrative, but we’re not quite there yet. This morning, with the smell of perfume overwhelming our senses we’re in a moment of transition and in this moment Jesus needs love and encouragement to do what he must.


In this transition, it’s another Mary’s “extravagant love for Jesus [that] makes it possible for [him] to show extravagant love in what follows…”[12] Again it’s a woman named Mary who “loves Jesus into his future as the fulfillment”[13] of God’s love for the world. Said another way, Jesus is loved into his life, into his identity, into his salvific identity, into the coming betrayal, pain, and suffering, even into his own resurrection by these remarkable women.


I agree with commentator and one of my go-to theologians Karoline Lewis when she says of this passage that Jesus takes Mary’s love with him from this point forward. From washing his disciples' feet, particularly Judas who’ll betray him, and Peter who’ll deny him. Jesus carries Mary’s love “with him into Jerusalem,” and holds tight to it during his interactions with Caiaphas and Pilate. He surely feels “Mary’s love, her gentle touch, when [he’s being] beaten”[14], and holds tight to, desperately to it while he hangs on the cross. As Lewis says so well, “I think Jesus t[akes] all of that love into the tomb, all of that love that would then love him into his future as the resurrection and the life.”[15]

My friends, who has loved you into being? If I offered you 10 seconds like Mr. Rogers who might come to mind? Do you have people loving you into your future? What does that feel like? Do you have people who’re loving you into the person and work and passion and gifts you’re supposed to be and share with the world?


More, what does it feel like to “love [another] into their future, even a future that is uncertain, even a future that will mean suffering?”[16] What does it mean to love another without controlling them or limiting them? What does it look like to love another while also understanding that their path might take them in a direction you wouldn’t choose? And what does it look like for a group of believers such as us to love our community into its future?


I don’t have an answer to these questions. But I’m confident that Jesus and these women who helped him become himself are good models for us. I’m confident that love is at the center of Jesus’ story and mission. And I’m sure, even when nothing else makes sense, that God is just as much the source of love in a dining room filled with the scent of expensive perfume as in the still, quiet darkness of a tomb. God is just as much the source of love to John’s community as God is to ours. And God is just as much the source of love for what lies ahead for Jesus and She is for each of us.

 

 

 


[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Karoline Lewis, “Loved Into Future,” April 1, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/loved-into-future.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

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