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Wednesday:  The First Christian

Sermon - 3/19/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 14:1-11

We have been journeying through holy week this Lenten season.  Two weeks ago we took a look at Mark's story of the first day, of Monday of that week.  And last Sunday at Tuesday, and the choir has set us up beautifully for the telling of the story on Wednesday, which unlike the story on Tuesday is quite short.  So I will read it in its entirety, and I would invite you to listen for one of the literary devices that Mark uses that I introduced a couple weeks ago, although I didn't warn you that there would be a test J.

Reading from the 14th chapter of Mark:

1It 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; 2for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’

3 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. 4But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. 6But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

10 Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. 11When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.


Alright, did you catch that literary device used by Mark?  Framing!  Great, some people have been paying attention!  Framing, yeah.  See, Wednesday opens with this plot to kill Jesus and then concludes with the plot to kill Jesus.  Thus the anointing of Jesus by the unnamed woman occurs within that context of the plot.  Now that's important, and I want to come back to that, so just hang on to that for a second, and let me make just a couple other notes about this story.

The first one I have to note, because it's such a familiar story for many people, is that this is a different story from Luke's story in the 7th chapter [of Luke].  You may, when you hear this story, think of that woman of ill-repute, who washes the feet of Jesus with her tears, dries them with her hair, anoints them with oil.  That is a different story.  A different woman.  A different place.  A different time.  And most importantly, a different meaning in that story.  So read that story in Luke 7 and compare it this and you can see the differences.  So don't make that confusion of the two.

And secondly to note, that this is the same story that John tells in the 12th chapter, also in the context of the holy week, although it comes a little bit earlier in John's version of the story.  And in John's version, and only in John's version, is the woman named.  And in John it's who?  Mary.  Mary the sister of Martha from Bethany.  Now is that Mary Magdalene?  Most people think not. 

And so the third point is there is no place in the gospels where this woman who anoints Jesus with oil is identified as Mary Magdalene as a woman of ill-repute.  There's no connection there.  And that's important because that connection is made three centuries later and then only to slander the reputation of Mary Magdalene as a means to assert male authority and domination over women.  And it's time we purged the record on that account.

And so there has been a resurgence of interest in this woman, especially among feminist scholars and theologians as a symbol for women in ministry and other leadership roles in the church and society.  And rightfully so, as we will see.

Now whenever I read this story, the image that comes to my mind is the wonderful scene in Jesus Christ Superstar, remember Andrew Lloyd Weber's retelling of the gospel.  And in that scene, Mary sings to Jesus:  "Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to, problems that upset you, Oh don't you know, everything's alright, yes everything's fine."  And then the chorus of women in the background start chanting:  "Everything's alright, yes, everything's alright, yes. . . . . ".  So we can just get you going here, but I dare not try to sing it.

And Mary continues to sing:

Sleep and I shall soothe you
Calm you and anoint you
Myrrh for your hot forehead
oh Then you'll feel
Everything's all right
Yes everything's fine
And it's cool and the ointment's sweet
For the fire in your head and feet
Close your eyes
Close your eyes
And relax
Think of nothing tonight

And then the angry voice of Judas breaks in, complaining about how she's wasted this, and it would be better used for the poor and he says to Jesus:

People who are hungry
People who are starving
Matter more
Than your feet and hair

And Jesus, of course, comes to Mary's defense and Judas leaves in disgust.  And then we hear again Mary's calming, soothing voice:  Everything's all right
Yes everything's fine,
and Jesus falls asleep in the loving and caring arms of Mary.  And then she sings that wonderful love song that's not a love song:  I don't know how to love him.  It's a great scene.

And it's very sensual, as I think the original surely must have been.  And a number of scholars in the last 20 or 30 years have noted that it would be highly unusual for a Jewish woman of that time to touch a Jewish man in this way.  It wouldn't normally happen.  Unless they're married.  And that has caused all kinds of speculation which becomes the central plot in Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code.  But I don't want to go into that, because the movie is coming out in a couple months, don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't read the book.  But just take note this is going to become a big topic once again with lots of discussion in the press and hype over that.  You have to be careful how you read all of that, look at all of that, but don't make too much out of it.

Well, Nancy Anderson gave me a book for my birthday by Margaret Starbird, a Roman Catholic scholar, that makes this argument for the woman of the alabaster jar as the wife of Jesus.  As if I need any more controversy in my life J.  I used to think Nancy liked me and wanted me to keep my job, but now I'm not so sure!  

Bishop John Shelby Spong has made a point out of this, out of claming that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and stirred up all kinds of controversy.  But he's retired, what can anyone do to him?!  And it's not that I'm afraid to go out on a limb.  But I have to honestly say that I'm not convinced by that argument, as fascinating as it is.  But it has one value.  It has one truth.  Namely, that this woman, perhaps not factually but certainly symbolically, is presented in Mark as the bride of Christ.  

Let me tell you what I mean.  She is the first of all around Jesus to take the vow to be joined to him until death do us part.  Three times on the way to Jerusalem, Mark tells us, that Jesus tells the disciples that he must die.  And three times, he tells us, they don't get it.  Peter rebukes Jesus for saying such things.  James and John jockey for the places closest to him, at his right and left.  Others argue over who is the greatest.  They think they are going to Jerusalem for a coronation, not for a crucifixion.

And so two days before the Passover, Mark tells us, as a way of pointing out it's just 2 days before the crucifixion, this unnamed woman gets it.  Jesus is going to die.  And they're not going to have a chance to prepare his body in the way they should after the crucifixion.  So she spends nearly a year's worth of wages -- 300 denarii -- which would be about $20,000 or so by today's standards.  And note the irony of this gift in the home of Simon the leper -- is he still a leper?  He's got a home in the center of Bethany, but at least at one time was part of the marginalized of society.  It makes the lavishness all the more outrageous.  

And so she anoints Jesus for his imminent burial.  A job normally performed by women -- yes, as we will see, on that Sunday morning, just a few days later.  But a job which specifically and precisely is led by the wife, the widow, if there is one.

So here's the point:  just as we speak of the wife of the President as the "First Lady" of the nation, this unnamed woman, is symbolically presented by Mark as the First Christian.  The one before and above all others, who has united herself to her Lord until death does them part.

Like the widow of the previous day in Mark's gospel, who puts her last 2 coins in the treasury, this woman -- the symbolic widow, if you will -- gives everything to Jesus.  She pours out her life's savings just as Jesus pours out his life.

But it's not out of lawful obedience but from a firm and deep desire of the heart.  She is, therefore, a model for all those who wish to be joined to Christ.  Her actions set the standard for all who follow.  This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  To give our very best from the heart.

William Nichols, when he was general Minister and President of our church, spoke at our general assembly years ago.  And he told this wonderful story that's always stuck with me.  Slim and Betty, celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with all their family and friends gathered in a rented banquet hall.  Lots of speeches and accolades, and finally the time came for Slim to say a few words.  He thanked his family and friends with some simple and sincere words.  Then he tells this story that he had read somewhere:

When Victoria was Queen of the British Empire, she once visited the Punjab in India.  Her empire stretched around the globe.  Britain ruled the seas.  When Queen Victoria spoke, the world listened.  That afternoon in the Punjab, she was told that a young prince of a minor province would like to make a presentation to her.  She said 'show him in'.  The young prince, really just a small child, knelt before the Queen.  And then he stood, reached into his pocket, and held out a small cloth bag.  The Queen's attendant opened the bag.  A large, brilliant, polished diamond fell into his hands.  The audience gasped, each one whispering to the other about the gigantic size of the stone.  Queen Victoria thanked the child and promised him that his generous gift would become a permanent part of the royal treasury of crown jewels in London.  Many, many years later, this prince made a trip to England.  He asked to see the aging Queen.  She was reminded of the young man's earlier gift and granted him an audience.  After proper introductions were made, the prince asked if he might see the diamond he had given to the Queen many years ago.  It was brought to him from the vault and handed to him.  "Your highness", he said, "Years ago when I was a small child I gave this diamond to you.  At that time I had no idea how much this stone was worth.  Now that I am a man, I know how much this stone is really worth.  May I give it to you again, with all my heart?"  

And then Slim turns to Betty, and he says:  "I'm not a fancy stone.  Nobody would give many dollars for this weathered body.  Once I stood at the altar of our church and gave myself to you in marriage.  Like that young child-prince giving his priceless gift, I did not really know at that time what I was giving you.  But now after 50 years, the great Depression, a World War, a chorus of laughter, an ocean of tears, much hard work and countless prayers, two wonderful kids, beautiful grandchildren, I know how much this life means.  Betty, now that I know what it's worth, may I give myself to you again with all my heart?"

I remind you that the apostle Paul refers to the church as the bride of Christ.  We are all called to join ourselves with all our hearts to Jesus.  This unnamed woman is the first to do that.  And therefore, Mark says, wherever the good news is proclaimed, what she did is told in remembrance of her.

Now recall that frame in which this story is set.  Mark wants us to compare and contrast the deeds of this unnamed woman with those of the religious leaders and especially with Judas.  Judas is always identified in Mark up to this point as "one of the twelve".  Not as a traitor, as one of the twelve.  It's a stark reminder that we who think we are on the inside sometimes may find ourselves on the wrong side.  And thus before we criticize others for their waste and lavishness, we should first examine our own motives and our own heart.  

Contrary to our sensibilities on how one should use their resources to benefit others, Mark lifts up this woman, with her gift, as the prime example of Christian discipleship.  Sure, her gift could have been better used in other ways.  But we remember and we praise her for this gift because here at last is one person who does what she can, giving her best not out of duty or guilt or shame or obligation, but out of love.  When that Friday, which hardly seems 'good', comes, and all that is good, which hardly the world recognizes, is gone, when all those around you cry out for blood and revenge, when all abandon our Lord and he hangs there all alone, remember then the home of Simon the leper.  Remember the pain of poverty, the stench of death.  And remember for one glorious, fragrant moment, this woman overcame that odor of death.  

And remember, though you cannot save the world, though you cannot eradicate poverty, though you may not be able to stop war, though you cannot defeat death, you can bring goodness and beauty into our world.  You can witness to another possibility of life.  You can join with others to speak a word of hope and peace as thousands did yesterday across our country.  You can act out of your love.  You can give yourself, with all your heart, to our Lord.

May we all do this.


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