A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 29, 2015
University Baptist Church
Mary of Bethany
I’m Mary, one of many Mary’s in Jesus’ inner circle. There was Mary the mother of Jesus. There was Mary Magdalene. There was “the other Mary” mentioned in the resurrection stories. While I love and admire all of them, I’m a different Mary. You probably have heard of my brother Lazarus and my sister Martha. Yes, I’m that Mary. The one whom Jesus praised for being studious and whom Martha criticized for not doing enough housework. Our house in Bethany was where Jesus often came when he was misunderstood, frustrated and fed up.
We could offer him food, drink, reflection and belly-laughs. I can still hear him and Lazarus laughing into the night, probably about the madness of their calling and the dullness of the disciples. You need a friend with whom you can cut loose and just be yourself. Jesus had me, Martha and Lazarus. He called us the Holy Trinity of Bethany.
One day he came to our house. He was not like he had been. Nothing he did seemed to make much difference. The more good he did, the more enemies he inspired. Even raising Lazarus from the dead was not enough. He knew it was near the end.
So he came to our house, with his entourage. He had that stressed look on his face. His muscles were tense. He looked older than his 33 years. Like he had the weight of heaven and earth on his shoulders.
I took an alabaster jar of costly nard and broke it. We had been saving it, but I don’t know what for. I just wanted to soothe Jesus’ weary soul. I wanted to give him something—he had given us so much. I covered his body with this oil. And I wiped up the residue with my hair. Yes, it was messy and smelly, but it smelled better than those men he traveled with. His face seemed to relax, just a little bit.
Judas the treasurer, objected, saying that the nard could have been sold to help the poor. But Jesus stood up for me. He said, “the poor, you will always have with you, but you won’t always have me…Mary has done something wonderful for me. In fact wherever the Gospel is preached what she has done will be told in memory of her.” He always had a way of looking at the ones who have been criticized and offering them his blessing. I was just trying to do the same for him.
They say that I was anointing him for death. I was, but it was more than that. I was claiming him. Anointing someone is an intimate and holy work. Women have done it for years. I was accused of being too extravagant. They pointed out that Jesus was never extravagant in his body. He only gave extravagant love, extravagant courage, extravagant grace. I hope we can get that too. Don’t you? But you only get what you give. Jesus taught me that. So if you want courage, be courageous. If you want grace, be gracious, and remember that grace is a gift.
Throughout the month of March, we have considered the courageous witness of women. We have heard the enigmatic poetry of a woman known as the Thunder, Perfect Mind, who encouraged us to open our minds and hearts if we want to see God. We have rejoiced at the hospitality of Lydia, the woman in purple. We have marveled at the audacity and courage of Mary Magdalene who refuses to be silenced. We wondered about the apostle Junia and imagined what she did, even though scripture only gives her a portion of one verse in Romans, but still calls her an apostle. And today, we learn of Mary of Bethany, willing to defy the moody dozen disciples and even her own siblings by giving Jesus just what he needs, just when he needs it.
All of these were courageous women and we ought to remember them, not just in women’s history month, but always. They represent the stories of so many other courageous and grace-filled people from which the church has grown and thrived. How might we live our lives rooted in this courage and sustained by this grace? That’s the question we have pondered throughout this worshiping year.
This is a busy day. With full bellies and hearts, and palms in hand we have entered this place. We are here with Peter’s Posse and we’re so glad to celebrate his presence with us. We’ll do our best to teach him what we know. We’ll also be eager to learn what he has to teach us. Isn’t that the way it always goes? Raising a child is courageous work. I know Ben and Laura are up for it and I know that we are all part of his posse and we will help him in whatever way we can.
And so it goes that little Peter comes to this place on this week that his namesake denies Jesus three times and a week from now claims Jesus’ resurrection. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. This is about Palm Sunday. After Jesus had his anointment thing with Mary, he went into Jerusalem for what would be the final week of his life. John 12 says: “A great crowd who had come to the feast (of Passover) heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, “Hosanna! Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel: And Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it; as it is written: “fear not daughter of Zion; behold thy king is coming sitting on an ass’s colt!” (John 12:12-15)
The entrance into Jerusalem was a political act. And act of courage and defiance. The people putting down the palm branches were declaring that they were not afraid of Rome. God was in charge, and those who are so rooted in courage can do audacious things. After all, the Passover feast, which they came to celebrate, was about freeing the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery. The great crowd, with their palm branches waving, expected Jesus, like Moses, to say, “Let my people go.”
When Jesus and his entourage entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, it was a courageous piece of street theater. It would have not been lost on the Jerusalem citizens that riding to Jerusalem in such a way (on a donkey with people shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David”) that Jesus was being hailed as the Messiah who was to overthrow the leadership in Jerusalem.
The government did what governments do when threatened. It made up stories to discredit the movement, insulted and imprisoned its leaders, and even killed the so-called Messiah. All to make the people forget about Jesus and his little fringe movement.
Rome could squash it like a bug, just like they squashed so many other movements and Messiahs before. But in the end it didn’t work. Again, I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s so next week.
Did Jesus know what was going to happen? Maybe, but I doubt he thought each piece would play out the way it did. He knew he was up for the big final confrontation. He was going to ride in on a donkey, then turn over the tables of the money-changers—the people who made a fortune on the backs of unsuspecting pilgrims. They were like the predatory lenders or the people who jack up the prices at the last minute when you are stuck. But did he know what would happen? All of the denials, betrayals, the trials, the garden kiss of death? The washing of the hands of Pilate? I doubt it. Otherwise he would not have retreated to the garden of Gethsemane to pray nor ask “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” from the cross.
When Moses said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go”, there was an “or else” to it. Pharaoh needed to release the people or God was going to unleash ten plagues. But when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the seat of human and divine power, he came with no threats from God. Instead, he came with a willingness to take on all the insults and all the brutality that religion and government could muster. And through his courage, people saw grace could not help but inspire generations of courageous disciples who follow that path.
It didn’t go as planned, or did it? Either way, Jesus was prepared for it. Maybe it was something that Mary gave him along with the oil. Some soothing words. Some reminder of who he was and whose he was. Some reminder that she would have his back, even when and if the disciples betrayed and fell asleep on him and denied him. She would have the courage to step in and say to his scared and pathetic disciples, “Enough of this belly-aching. Let’s get on with the work. Jesus will not always be here, but the needy people will always be there. And our work is to alleviate suffering. So let’s get on with it. Let’s do some courageous actions. Let’s live out the amazing, sustaining grace that Jesus talked about.”
Jesus knew that a Palm Sunday street demonstration does not a movement make. The demonstrators turned from shouts of “Hosanna” to shouts of “crucify him” within a week. I don’t think they were fickle crowds. Not when Rome was concerned. They had seen Rome’s brutality. They knew that consorting with an enemy of the state could mean a gruesome death for their family. Maybe the people did a calculus and said it was better that one die than all of us. I don’t think it was an enthusiastic “crucify him.” More of a resigned one. Such is a life in a co-opted world.
But we seek a movement better and more sustainable than one that depends on the nameless and faceless crowds. This community that stands up for the Peters of this world, that tells the stories of Mary and the others, that rejoices in stories of hope and tries to make our little dent in the world, is the kind of community that makes a movement.
It’s the kind of community that stands with people in places like Indian and says that religion is about love, mercy and inclusion; not fear, phobias and fiscal agents.
It’s the kind of community that advocates for mental health resources and prays when those not in their right minds take their own and others’ lives.
It’s the community that prays for victims of violence and warfare abroad and even in our city streets.
It’s a community so rooted in courage and inspired by grace that we can imagine a better future.
It’s the community that sticks together through the struggle that is really sustaining and inspiring.
On Palm Sunday, we celebrate courageous actions—that of Jesus, Mary, even the disciples. Inspired by them, think of the courageous action we might take. How much of a difference might it make in the long run?
Try this week to do one act of courage.
What courageous action can you take to leave your mark on the world?
That’s what Jesus wants. And Jesus has promised us that we will receive grace to sustain us in the struggle for hope.
One act of courage in the face of too much hopelessness and violence. Your one act might not seem like much. But imagine 100-plus acts of courage, one for each of us gathered here. That might well be a movement. And isn’t that what Jesus wanted to start? So, be a part of the movement rooted in courage and sustained by grace, taking courageous actions on behalf of that vision of a people who declare “Let my people go.” The little Peter’s of the world are counting on us.