Fifth Sunday in Lent
Dinner Party, by Pastor Fred
The final volume of the beautiful St John’s Bible was presented to Pope Francis just this last Fall at the Library of Congress. This decade and a half project was “first conceived by St John’s Abbey and University,” says its Mission Statement, “to ignite the spiritual imagination of believers throughout the world by commissioning a work of art that illuminates the Word of God for a new millennium.” It’s the first of its kind, really, since the invention of the printing press, more than 500 years ago. Each of its seven volumes are 2 feet tall, and 3 feet wide, when the book is opened. It took a whole team of artists to create its beautiful illustrations and hand-calligraphed pages, using a mixture of such ancient techniques as, quills on calf-skin vellum, gold and platinum leaf, hand-ground pigments, and Chinese stick ink. It also employed computer technology in planning the layout and line-breaks for the Bible’s text.
When one pastor showed a video to their congregation about the process, and the amazing result, they were spellbound, as any congregation would be. Just the illuminations make you want to lean into the scripture. The Saint John's Bible fosters awe and wonder for our God who gives us, not only the sacred story, but also the artists who make it come alive.
But, when the pastor revealed the cost of the whole St John’s Bible project, which was estimated at $8 million, there was a palpable gasp and shift in perception. And in an instant, the mood in the room shifted from awe at the holiness of the gift, to alarm at the extravagant price tag.
Such is the reaction of Judas, when Mary anoints Jesus with costly perfume, the burial spices of pure nard, costing 300 denarii, which is darn near a year’s salary for the average worker at the time. That’s a lot of dough for one dinner party!
But I can appreciate the concern of Judas, and also sympathize with the congregation’s alarm at the price tag for the St John’s Bible. Maybe you can too. It is not wrong to be wise with our money, whether it’s in a congregation, our institutions, or in our households. And like Judas, here at Unity, we’re concerned about alleviating poverty and serving the least of among us, too. Of course, John suggests that there’s much more than meets the eye in Judas’ expressed concern for the poor. John parenthetically informs all gospel readers, that Judas kept the common purse for the disciples, and used to steal from what was collected – so that, maybe his motivation was really to line his own pockets.
What Jesus tells Judas is, “Leave Mary 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.”
So what starts out as a dinner party to honor Jesus for raising Lazarus from the grave, ends up being a lesson about how we should think about, and interpret Jesus’ death, that will happen in just a few days after this dinner party.
It seems as if Jesus may even have been aware that Mary had already bought the pure nard, and so maybe Mary knew that Jesus’s journey to the cross is soon drawing to a close. In John’s gospel, more than once now, there was talk out there, of eliminating this Messiah, before he got any more popular. But why doesn’t Mary wait till the right and proper time? Why does she choose this dinner party for his anointing?
Mary, once again, was sitting at Jesus’ feet, just like when Jesus earlier praised her for choosing the better part. She wasn’t listening to his preaching this time, but was unbinding her hair, in an act of adoration and worship, to wipe his feet with the costly perfume, and filling the house with strong pungent smells.
This was a risky behavior for the times, letting her hair down, touching Jesus in mixed company, in this way. Martha, took charge, and kept the party rolling in her serving. While Lazarus, who Jesus recently called out of the tomb, sat at table with the disciples. It’s an unconventional, almost preposterous scene really, but can only mean that Jesus accepts this anointing while he is still alive, alive and celebrating life with his closest friends, as an affirmation of life, and hope, and faith, and love – in the face of death. Don’t wait until it’s too late(!) is a strong part of the message. Remember and celebrate the miracle of life you have been given. We don’t always have our loved ones with us!
As the story goes, for a certain man’s 70th birthday, his wife wanted to do something really special, and so she asked friends, colleagues, and loved ones to write him letters of appreciation. Then she bound them in a book, some 100 in all as a keepsake, and wrapped it up as a birthday present – a true gift of love. On one occasion a few years later, his wife asked him about the letters, thinking it would be a nostalgic memory to recall, but the husband paused, and got tears in his eyes, and said, you know, “I’ve never been able to bring myself to read them,” he said. It was so much love – he almost couldn’t bear it.
The anointing at Bethany is Mary’s letter, written in the fragrance of a loving memorial. Jesus reads her meaning loud and clear. In the face life’s most daunting barrier, death, she chose resurrection and new life, and does a good thing. In the face of Jesus’ death and Holy Week to come, she gives all that she has. This is the ultimate gift and act of worship. Yes, it would also make a good gift to help the poor. It’s not that Jesus believed we shouldn’t do anything about the curse of poverty – but in loving and gifting the Messiah, Mary celebrates the gracious gift of life God gives to us.
As Puerto Rican theologian, Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez has said, “Jesus is not eternalizing poverty but eradicating it. Jesus knows that there is extreme poverty, because he’s aware of extreme wealth. Wealth and poverty are but two sides of the same coin.” So, Mary is thinking apocalyptically, here. The world and new realm Jesus proclaimed and promised, considers wealth not a thing to be grasped and controlled, but a resource to serve all people. Just as in Revelation, John’s dream of “a new heaven and a new earth” is where “the streets of the city are pure gold, transparent as glass,” he says. Gold will be as common as concrete, to be walked on by all of us, not hidden away in Fort Knox. Everyone’s bible, will be a St John’s bible!
And perhaps the strangest thing at this rather unconventional dinner party, is the anointing itself. Jesus, the Messiah, which literally means, the Anointed one –ano-inted by God in his baptism- is anointed by this fringe, powerless woman. Mary anoints Jesus, the Messiah, with the extravagance fit for a king, in the humble home of two unmarried sisters, and their smelly, decaying, recently raised-from-the-dead, brother. And they celebrate, in the face of death, the awesome gift of the life God has blessed and anointed, all believers with.
John’s gospel began with a dinner party at a wedding celebration, with the changing of water into wine in extravagantly enormous quantities, a foretaste of the heavenly communion feast to come. John’s last dinner party before Holy Week and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, is a celebration, not only of Jesus’ power to raise Lazarus, but also a joyous memorial of his life while he was still with them, an anointing worthy of a king, to demonstrate, our faith, and hope, and love.
Today, Jesus is our, Word of God, far greater even, than an $8M St John’s Bible. And we gather each week to celebrate his unsurpassed and beautiful gift of life: The strong pungent fragrance, the touch of his healing hands, and the taste of his broken body given and shed for us. Let us celebrate this Word, in the earthy extravagant dinner party, the Lord’s Supper and feast that has no end, and in our lives shared generously with the world.