Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA
Nard—or more specifically spike-nard—was truly precious stuff. It comes from oil in the fibre-covered root-stock of a tall pink flower that grows in the Himalaya and Hindu Kush Mountains. I guess global economy has been around for a while! Because that’s a long walk from Nepal to Israel. (It’s 2900 miles, actually, as the crow flies.) What a fascinating thought that oil harvested from a plant on the mountainous border of China and India anointed the feet of the Son of God.
There is quite a bit of interesting lore about spike-nard and it’s fragrant and musky aroma. It was worn in the belts of Persian tradesman; used as an aphrodisiac and a medicine in ancient India; and known to ancient Greek herdsman as a funerary oil—to be used strictly for the dead.
When we hear about Nard in other places in Hebrew Scripture, it comes as a symbol of love and intimacy in that famous love-poem The Song of Solomon.
But here, in the Gospel of John, Mary pours a whole pound of this foreign oil over Jesus’ feet. And she spreads it with her hair.
Judas reveals just how expensive this costly perfume was: 300 denarii is a year of laborers’ wages. Maybe—25,000 dollars? If I proposed to you that we spend $25,000 on oil and then poured it on the ground you all would say the very same words as Judas: “Why this waste?”
Judas begs the question (even though John says he’s a thief) what are things really worth? Determining exchange value is difficult. Is oil from the Himalayas on God’s feet to be measured in economic terms?
It’s kinda of like asking: What are the tears of a child worth? What was your first date with your future spouse worth? Just the cost of the meal? Are the thousands and thousands of dollars that you give faithfully to St. Andrew’s each year just meeting budgets and anticipating costs, or are your precious gifts transformed by God’s mission in our world?
Some things are given value and meaning by God beyond our ability to measure or comprehend. And Judas reveals how our scales of exchange are so often broken.
As you might know: John’s Gospel is distributed throughout all three Lectionary years. So this morning, we pivot from Luke. So, here’s some context: just before this foot-anointing, in John’s telling, Jesus has raised Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s brother, from the dead.
These two stories form a couplet.
Mary had already fallen at Jesus’ feet. Weeping, she asked why hadn’t Jesus saved her brother, Lazarus. A very human Jesus wept too, moved by her grief. Then Jesus came to Lazarus’ tomb, you’ll remember, and Martha says, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” They ground the stone away, the weepers wailing and shouting as was their custom, Jesus cried with a loud voice beyond the grave, and out stumbled Lazarus.
A vivid scene revealing the sights and sounds and smells of death and grief.
Now, in John, Lazarus rising is Jesus’ final “sign.” (John does not call them miracles). And this “sign” pushes the Judean authorities over the edge. They feared that the belief that Jesus was the Messiah would cause a revolution, and that would bring the wrath of the Roman occupying forces down upon them. In sum, the religious authorities say, “…it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
So, before Mary’s great extravagant act we have heard of this morning, Word had gotten out that Jesus was wanted for execution, to be removed to re-establish order. So Jesus, John writes, “no longer walked about openly.”
Then we arrive at Mary. Who, foreseeing that Jesus was about to enter Jerusalem, to be killed and to fulfill his purpose on the cross to reveal God to all—in an act of great Prophecy and love she empties a pound of nard onto his feet. In place of the stench of Lazarus’ corpse, here rises another smell of death, but transformed.The reek of death is transfigured into an odor of love, of medicine, of the globe, of mountains and flowers… John writes, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
And something like this, Jesus teaches us, cannot be reckoned with only monetary value.
You know, another ancient word used for this spike-nard plant also means the same as flowing and hanging, as of hair; or hot, as of an oven; or swelling, as of a river—fullness, richness, readiness. Mary’s hair is loosened and moves over Jesus’ feet. Jesus is now full and ready, like a Spring-river, like a heated-oven, to reveal to the world who God is.
But Judas doesn’t understand. Yet another pointer to the global economy of ancient Israel and the Far East—Judas sees the great sensual act of Mary only as a waste of resources. Is it really worth it to waste a year of wages to pour out one pound of essential oil from the Himalayas onto God’s feet? Jesus says yes.
As Kira and Brian and Barrett are going to experience soon: is a little bit of water, and a dab of olive oil only worth the heat spent to warm it; or the salary of the pastor using it? Or do we believe in baptism that God takes our lives—our pain and our joy—and imbues us with infinite meaning and value?
Isaiah said it well today. God spoke through Isaiah, to the people of Israel, who—500 years before Jesus’ foot-bath—were an exiled and desolated people. God says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth… Do you not perceive it?” Do you not smell it? “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
John’s Gospel today tells us of this new thing that God is doing. As the odor of decay changes to the perfume of nard, the noses of God’s people are the first to perceive. Just as Jesus’ feet were saturated in oil, all of creation is now anointed with Christ. In Jesus’ perfumed anointing, in his violent death, in his mysterious rising God was reveal to the senses.
For us, especially, in the water of baptism, and in the ordinary bread and wine of communion, God is continually revealed to our senses, over and over. Revealed as the foundation of the cosmos, as self-emptying love.
Sometimes this love seems wasteful. It is wasteful.It flows soft and slowly like expensive oil over the stone floor of Lazarus’ house. Sometimes this love seems too precious for us.We would rather exchange it, and give it to the poor. Sometimes this love might seem sad and pitiful, especially as we will remember this Holy Week, how an innocent man was killed.
But the love is there—it will never fail. Despite the pain of death we experience, despite the gnawing guilt of poverty and the upside down values of our world—this love is just there—flowing for those who perceive it. Like water in the desert—it is flowing against all odds, against all logic.“I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert,” God says, “to give drink to my chosen people”
We do nothing to earn it. Just like Barrett who comes to the water, we, too, have been bathed in God’s eternal love. Just like Mary’s perfume, this love is a fragrant and full mixture of near and far, love and medicine, death and life.
We are washed in baptism and God is revealed to all our senses: as a fountain of love beyond measure, beyond price.