April 3, 2022: Sermon Preached by The Rev. Mary Lee Wile
I want to get this out of the way right up front. When Jesus responds to Judas’s snarky criticism with, “You always have the poor,” he’s referencing a passage in Deuteronomy: “There will never cease to be poor people on the earth. I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to your poor and needy neighbor.’” Of course the call to care for the poor is ongoing. Jesus isn’t denying that; his whole life and teaching show tender and immediate care for the poor and the marginalized.
But in THIS moment, when Mary blesses Jesus in this scandalously intimate and beautiful way, she’s caring for the one in front of her now: she’s caring for a poor man born in a barn, with no place even now to lay his head, whose tortured body soon will lie in a borrowed tomb. He’s also a friend she loves; he is the one who restored her dead brother to life and made the family whole again. He is the “neighbor” God has put in front of her today. What she does is an act of gratitude, of love, of compassion, of beauty. In this telling, in this gospel, Mary sheds no tears, only offers her astonishing hospitality.
Fifteen years ago when I first began leading preordination retreats for deacons, on the last morning of the retreat I would wash and anoint the ordinands’ feet. Traditionally during the ordination of a priest, the bishop anoints the hands that will break bread and pronounce God’s blessing. Deacons don’t consecrate; ours isn’t a sacramental calling, so the anointing of hands isn’t part of our ordination. When I asked then-bishop Chilton Knudsen if I could anoint the feet of these soon-to-be deacons as part of our retreat, she said, “Of course!” Deacons are, after all, called to go, to serve in the world. (Here’s an aside: if you look around at our stained glass windows, notice how many of them show Jesus wearing a deacon’s stole, over one shoulder.) Back to the anointing, I think of the quotation: “If you want to know who you are, look at where your feet take you.” The retreatants were headed to ordained ministry; Jesus was headed to the cross.
When Mary anoints Jesus’ feet, it isn’t with a thumbprint of holy oil but with an entire jar of fragrant nard. And while I used towels to dry off the ordinands’ feet, she unbound her hair and used it to spread the precious perfume. Her action is astonishing. Women in that time never unbound their hair in public; women never anointed anyone; only men anointed men, and then it was on the head, not the feet; and no one anointed anyone’s feet except the feet of the dead. So it wasn’t just the cost of the nard that was extravagant – the entire gesture was one of outrageously extravagant love for the One who would soon pour out his very life for us: “this is my Body, given for you.”
And remember it’s less than a week after Mary anoints Jesus’ feet that he in turn stoops down to wash the feet of his disciples. I think here of Psalm 42: “My soul is heavy within me, therefore I will remember you….” As Jesus prepares to face his betrayal, torture, and death, surely heavy-hearted, he remembers Mary, how she anointed his feet for this very moment not only with the nard but with her lavish love, and he in turn washes and thereby blesses the feet of his disciples for the arduous paths that they will face in the days and years ahead.
So what’s the message in this gospel reading? Clearly it’s about more than feet. It seems to me that it’s an invitation to offer Mary’s extravagant hospitality to the one God puts in front of us today – whether out of gratitude or in response to need.
So first, we might consider for whom or to what we feel deep gratitude, as Mary did for Jesus in restoring her brother to her. It needn’t be a miracle that someone has performed for us, but it’s worth pondering how we might repay or pay forward an act of kindness we’ve recently received.
Now in terms of need, I don’t know about you, but I get bombarded with what feels like ten thousand emails, Facebook posts, and letters in my mailbox day after day with legitimate pleas for help – for Ukraine, for equity in vaccine availability, for just causes concerning indigenous rights, environmental destruction, systemic racism, human rights, political funding for — you name it. The poor, the needy, the desperate, the dispossessed—they are all with us, always. Deuteronomy was right. Jesus was right. We are called to be generous and compassionate, but we cannot answer every need, any more than we can repay every act of kindness. Our task is to discern: who has God put in front of me today? Whose feet need anointing? Whose story needs to be heard – or told? What’s one need can I meet with compassion and love? Who or what touches my heart this very day?