Something Between Mint and Ginseng
A sermon by the Rev. Scott Dalgarno for March 17, 2013
Based on John 12:1-8
The day before he entered Jerusalem for the last time, Jesus stopped in to see his friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Their home in Bethany lay in the heights, near Jerusalem. According to John, Jesus may have visited the home of these two sisters and one brother many times. They acted as an extended family for him. It was a special relationship; one that went beyond friendship. Think of someone like this for you. They called him “Lord,” but with them he could be very much a man. Perhaps there had been many memorable dinners -- full of good food and good humor. Days before this dinner, he performed a CAPITAL “M” miracle – raising Lazarus from the dead. And, it said, Jesus, the man, “wept.” According to this gospel, the act has put Jesus at the top of the religious right’s “most wanted” list in that day. Jesus’ days are numbered and he knows it. Maybe these dear friends pick up on it when he arrives for dinner. Perhaps they see it on his face. So they take Jesus in – shut him away from the world for the night. They make a wonderful supper for him. Martha is in charge, of course; everyone fetching or chopping things, except Lazarus, who is maybe not the man he was before the tomb. We don’t know. True to form, Mary slips away – she’s off looking for something in her room. She comes back in so quietly, ever so slightly secretive. Every one sits down to supper. All of them around low tables; the disciples unable NOT to look at Lazarus Lazarus sits there, perhaps unaware that he and his rising from the dead may be one cause of what is rising to crisis for Jesus. The sense in John’s gospel, different from the others, is that Jesus has, in fact, traded his life for his friend’s life. Unless he can find a way to escape the net that is drawing right now around him After supper Mary produces the thing she fetched earlier; an expensive jar, full of spikenard; something brought all the way from Afghanistan. She breaks the jar’s neck as Martha had broken the bird killed for supper.
And just as the smell of the bird had filled the house, now that smell was overwhelmed by the smell of this costly perfume. One interpreter says it’s something between the smell of mint and ginseng. Then Mary does four remarkable things in a row. First she loosens her hair in a room where there are men, which a respectable woman would never do. Then she pours this balm on the feet of Jesus, which also is not done -- maybe on the head, but not on the feet. The intimacy of the event more than doubles when she touches his feet with her hands. Finally the coup de gras
-- she wipes his feet with strands of her flint black hair. Love and death bound together forever in one picture. The whole thing leaves them all speechless. As the narrative comes to us from John
it is an absolute jewel among the stories in the New Testament If you have maybe forgotten, or never seen the story told this way it is, perhaps, because we have gotten it mixed up with the accounts of this story in the other three gospels. In Matthew and Mark the woman is unnamed. She is merely a woman who interrupts a dinner at Simon the Leper’s house – she pours nard on Jesus’ head there in front of everyone In Luke’s account she is a woman of questionable reputation who washes his feet with her tears and covers them with kisses before rubbing them with myrrh. Only in this account in John’s gospel, does she really have a name. She is not a stranger or a sinner, but Jesus’ long time friend. She loves Jesus. He loves her, and the whole thing seems to be a bit ”over the top,” because the disciples are present. And Judas, scandalized, speaks up. “Why was this ointment not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor?” Now, maybe Judas’ motives are shoddy and he wants the money for himself, as John says, but he does make a point: a day laborer and family could live for a year on such money. “Leave her alone,” says Jesus, “she has this ointment so as to anoint me for my burial. You will always have the poor with you and you can do right by them whenever you want, but you will not always have me.”
I find this one of the most moving and remarkable things he ever says. It’s just beautiful, in the same way that he
is beautiful. You know, there is a time for everything. Judas has no sense of the times or the seasons, and that is exactly what this story is about – knowing what a specific time calls for. Sure, it is better to give than receive. But you need to know how to receive as well as to give. Part of the gorgeous genius of Jesus is he knows this totally. For a lot of people this is a very hard thing. People get mixed up about gifts, and in a thousand different ways. I adore the following page from Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead
. I know a number of you have read it. The protagonist says the following early on in the book: I have a certain acquaintance with a kind of holy poverty. My grandfather never kept anything that was worth giving away, or let us keep it, either, so my mother said. He would take laundry right off the line. She said he was worse than any thief, worse than a house fire. She said she could probably go to any town in the Middle West and see some pair of pants she’d patched walking by in the street. I believe he was a saint of some kind. When someone remarked in his hearing that he had lost an eye in the Civil War, he said, “I prefer to remember that I have kept one.” My mother said it was good to know there was anything he could keep. He told me once he was wounded at Wilson’s Creek, on the day of the death of General Lyon. “Now that,” he said, “was a loss.” When he left us, we all felt his absence bitterly. But he did make things difficult. It was an innocence in him. He lacked patience for anything but the plainest interpretations of the starkest commandments. “To him who asks, give,” in particular. (Gilead p 31).
This is the problem with a lot of people – so literal minded as to be no earthly good. But then, there ARE those who understand the unconventional genius of Jesus. When Dorothy Day was working at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen in New York decades ago, one day someone came in and gave Dorothy a diamond ring as a donation. All the staff and volunteers wondered what Dorothy would do with it. Like Judas and the spikenard, they each calculated how much it might be worth, and then, what could be bought with it.
Dorothy thought about that diamond all morning, and then in one wild gesture she gave it to a dear woman who had been taking a meal a day at the soup kitchen for years. Well Dorothy’s staff came unglued. “We could have bought enough rice and beans and bread to feed the people here for a month!” one of them said with great indignation. In response Dorothy said one little thing: “Do you suppose God only made diamonds for the rich?” I doubt that Mary had much of an idea of what she was doing with that ointment. She was following what she knew in her heart was absolutely right. What the moment cried out for. Jesus, with his impeccable judgement knew, too, that it was a holy act. A gift of woman gives a man maybe once in a lifetime. It was something from God And those who stand around watching, either write them off as crazy or fall silent before something they don’t understand, but DO sense is an act of courage that rings with holiness. It’s interesting to pause and note this week, that the college of Roman Cardinals who met to elect a pope this week, picked one amongst themselves who does much more than believe that the poor should be treated with a preferential love. Pope Francis – Pope FRANCIS, has lived it. I wish him well. It is a difficult time to be a pope. --- Barbara Brown Taylor has said that when Mary stood before Jesus with that pound of pure spikenard it could have gone either way. Mary could have anointed his head and everyone could have proclaimed him king. But she didn’t do that.
When she approached him she dropped to her knees and poured the balm on his feet, as if anointing a dead man. And to any who would object, Jesus’ words were simply, “Let her alone.”
There will be nothing prudent or economical about his life. One interpreter has said, in Jesus “the extravagance of God is made flesh. In him the excessiveness of God’s mercy is made manifest.” As Catherine was telling us in last week’s excellent sermon, Jesus could be deemed prodigal – meaning literally, wasteful, but wasteful in a most wonderful and generous way.
The flask will not be held back like some bottle of expensive rare vintage wine from the days of Napoleon bought as an investment No, it will be opened, offered, used up, and poured out for all. It will be emptied to the last drop. That is the way with the things of God. But life comes from it. Life spins out of it and it is beautiful, just as life will spin out of Jesus’ deliberate death on the cross. Of his giving up his life Jesus, in this gospel says, “No one takes it from me, I give it up of my own accord.” His actions are entirely deliberate. And you know, the supreme fact about our lives is this: no life is rich unless it is poured out. The key is finding something worth pouring your life out for. I had a friend who lived around the block from me in 8th grade. We compared our lives for five years until we both graduated from high school and went our separate ways. He went to Stanford in Palo Alto. I remember him staying home from school for a week before he took the SAT test in high school, I didn’t know you were supposed to study for that. I figured he was just sick. But then his mother had gone to Stanford. My mother hadn’t finished high school. So, I went to little Whitworth College in Spokane; a school that took just about everyone who applied, at the time. My friend said he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. All he said was this: “I only know that I want to make a lot of money.” He was always focused on trophies – trophy cars, trophy girl friends. I was envious. I wonder how he made out. I have no idea. I wonder if he found any real meaning, any real joy. I’m guessing he probably did since we usually have decades to make the changes we want to as we mature. I’m guessing acquiring things got to be too easy for him after a while. I hope so. I love something Viktor Frankl, survivor of the holocaust once said: “Live as if you were living a second life, and as though you had squandered the first.” That’s how Mary was living in the gospel story this morning. That’s probably why she made the grand gesture she made with the jar of nard. Oswald Goltier was a Presbyterian missionary to China in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. I know his granddaughter and she told me the following story about him. After serving there for twenty years without a break the Presbyterian Mission headquarters insisted he take a furlough. He had never had so much as a weekend break. He got on a freighter and headed west. The ship docked in Bombay and he disembarked.
Now, it’s important for you to know that the time was 1946. Wandering the docks Goltier stumbled upon a warehouse full of Jews. They were huddled there because no one anywhere was willing to make room for them. They had survived the Holocaust but the question was, would they survive their survival. The world was saying – “For you, there is no room.” And, as it happened, it was Christmas Eve. Goltier was deeply moved by their plight. He took pity on them. He sold back his ticket to the United States – bought a ticket back to China and used the balance of the money to buy the 100 or so stranded Jews, German pastry he found there in Bombay. Where he got it, I don’t know, but his granddaughter confirmed the story.
When he told someone he had traveled with what he had done the person was incredulous. The woman said, “They’re Jews. They don’t even BELIEVE in Christmas.” And Oswald Goltier said, “I know, but I do.” We live four score years on this planet, and maybe a few more. What does it mean to have lived a full life? It means knowing who you are, like Oswald Goltier knew who he was. It means knowing the times and the seasons and in that, knowing that certain moments in our lives come along and call for extraordinary things. It means asking yourself important questions – like, ARE diamonds ONLY for the rich? It means wondering, maybe even out loud, whether there is more to life than making money. And it means being there for another human being, as Mary was there for Jesus, when he needed someone to not run away when she saw a loneliness in his eyes like no one ever showed another before. And remember, the key is this: “Live as if you were living a second life, and as though you had squandered the first.” Amen
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