Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm Sunday: The Alabaster Jar

Thanks to Kathryn Matthews Huey, whose work informed this sermon, and to Jace Foster, whose advice helped this sermon stay reasonably on-target. This sermon also (once again) benefited from Jimmy Spencer Jr,'s incredible book, "Love Without Agenda." Seriously, go buy the book. Now. I'll wait.

The audio from the sermon:

Check this out on Chirbit

This song was playing in my head while I wrote the first part of this sermon...

Philippians 2:5-11
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

John 12:12-16
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord — the King of Israel!”
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.

This is the Word of the Lord.

They shouted for a savior. They shouted for a king. They shouted because they hoped to see a miracle. They shouted because everyone else was shouting.

But, of course, none of them understood. None of them grasped that, by the end of the week, this man they had lauded as the King of Israel would be writhing in agony, gasping for breath, dying the excruciatingly gruesome, horribly slow, loathsomely humiliating slave’s death of the Roman cross.

I take that back. I think one person besides Jesus understood.

In the crowd that day, listening as Jesus spoke to the Greek visitors we met last week, was a woman. As is so often the case, we do not know her name. Perhaps she was one of the women who had joined with the group early on, perhaps she had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, or perhaps she herself had received healing from his hands. In any case, when she heard Jesus say, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,” and felt the shock and irritation of the crowd around her, she reacted differently.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan call this woman “the first Christian,” because she was the first person to take Jesus seriously when he talked about his suffering and death.

While everyone around her was arguing that, if Jesus was the Messiah they had just acclaimed him as, he couldn’t ever die, she somehow understood that this death, this being “lifted up,” was the whole point.

And as the storm clouds gathered, she was the first person to take action. I’m picking up the narrative in the Gospel of Mark, the 14th chapter, first verse through the 15th chapter, 47th verse.

“It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’

“While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

“Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.”

We often focus on the argument that takes place surrounding this woman’s actions, and – like the disciples who were there with Jesus – miss the profound beauty, and deep truth, of what this woman is doing.

On the one hand, the Temple elite were brainstorming ways to have Jesus arrested and killed, while on the other, the disciples were still consumed with questions and power plays. Into this steps this unknown woman, offering Jesus love and attention, and lavishing him with generosity. While the criticism over her gift swirls, (“the money could have been given to the poor!”) writer Megan McKenna points out that Jesus was the poor! She writes, “He is the poorest man in that house.”

He is an innocent man facing a brutal execution, and before too much longer, most of his friends will abandon him. He will be left alone, naked, and bleeding, on display for the ridicule and mockery of all. This woman brings a gift equal in value to a year’s wages, an offering of breathtaking splendor, a luxurious indulgence… a gift of preparation for his coming burial.

Jesus was the poorest man in that house. He had given up so much, for so great a need…

“…though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Imagine the extravagance of going out, seemingly on the spur of the moment, and spending an entire year’s income on perfume. Imagine the reckless abandon of bursting into someone’s home, breaking open the precious vessel that holds the perfume, and emptying every ounce of it on the head of another person. Imagine caring that much. Imagine loving that much.

Now, think of this: Jesus Christ emptied himself. Every ounce.

Please understand: nothing, at any point in the life of Jesus, was forced on him. Jesus poured himself out on purpose. Jesus became a servant on purpose. Jesus became a human being on purpose.

Oh, and those priests and scribes, running around with their plans and their plots and their bags of silver? The Roman governor, Pilate? They may think they have the skills and the authority to force this travelling street preacher from the middle of nowhere into an early grave, but even that – even death – is something that Jesus will do on purpose.

What is more, all of this – God taking the form of man, living the life of a mortal, sacrificing himself for the sake of God’s creation, all of this was settled before anything was, in fact, created at all!

And despite this fact, the pain, the abandonment, the horror that Jesus Christ will feel, the cold and all-too-permanent reality of death, none of this is contrived. It is all very real. Imagine caring that much. Imagine loving that much.

All of our theological studies, all of our creedal affirmations, all of our doctrinal discussions and apologetic arguments boil down to one word, a central, burning truth which has forever changed the course of history, the trajectory of the universe itself: love.

One of the easiest phrases in all of Christianity is the phrase, “Jesus did this for us.” It’s easy, and it’s true… but it doesn’t go far enough.

It would be easy for Jesus to love the woman with the alabaster jar. It would be easy for Jesus to love the Apostle John, who stayed at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother all through that horrible afternoon.

But what about Judas? What about Peter, who denied him three times? What about the priests and scribes who dragged him before Pilate? And what about Pilate, who was too cowardly, in the end, to do what he knew was right? What about the Roman soldiers, who gambled away his clothing? Or that one particular soldier, who shoved a spear through Jesus’ heart after he died?

It’s easy to imagine God loving the people like us, dying for our friends and our family. But what about “them:” people who are not like us? People who look different than us, think differently, act differently, believe differently?

Imagine that year’s salary, spent on perfume, is your year’s salary. And imagine yourself  being able to choose anyone on earth to empty that incredibly precious perfume on… and choosing the vilest, most frightening and despicable human being on earth to receive that gift. A sworn enemy. A bloodthirsty rival. And imagine doing it with no assurance that this monster of a human being will in any way change?

That is exactly – exactly – what Jesus did. Romans 5:8 confirms this: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

And who is “us?” Every human being.

That’s right. There is no “them.” Jesus poured his life out for every person: the Trayvon Martins and the George Zimmermans, the death row inmates and their victims, the Mother Theresas and the Joseph Konys, the Fred Phelpses and the Billy Grahams…

As followers of the risen Christ, as people who know about this all-encompassing love, as the beneficiaries of that love, as the recipients of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into our hearts, will we stand around like the disciples did when that alabaster jar was broken, shaking our heads at the waste, or will we instead shout “Hosannah!” in celebration of the gift?

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