Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 7, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Isaiah 43:16-21 ++ Psalm 126 ++ Philippians 3:4b-14 ++John 12:1-8

One day a plain village woman

driven by love for her Lord

recklessly poured out a valuable essence

disregarding the scorn.

And once it was broken and spilled out

a fragrance filled all the room,

lie a pris’ner released from his shackles,

like a spirit set free from the tomb.

Broken and spilled out

just for love of you Jesus.

My most precious treasure

lavished on thee.

Broken and spilled out

and poured at your feet.

In sweet abandon,

let me be spilled out

and used up for thee.[1]

Back in my church musician days, I served a couple of congregations who had a history of using, at least occasionally, contemporary Christian music. While I did not schedule a steady diet of praise choruses and the like, I couldn’t avoid it altogether, either. Most of it was quite forgettable, rather shallow, and without much musical depth (in my opinion), but this song, “Broken and Spilled Out,” performed by Steve Green, has stayed with me through the years, unlike most of the other music. I think it’s because there is some real truth in this song about pouring out our love and our gratitude for Jesus, of being as extravagant with our gifts as God has been with us. Like that father in last week’s parable who threw caution to the wind and welcomed home that ingrate of a son of his with the finest clothing and jewelry and a party that would have been talked about for ages.

In our story this morning, Mary has every reason to be overwhelmed with gratitude to Jesus. In the previous chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus has brought her brother Lazarus back from the dead. Jesus is their friend and companion; he apparently spent as much time as he could with them, certainly every time he came to Jerusalem which is only about a mile and a half away from Bethany, on the far slope of the Mount of Olives, where Mary and Martha and Lazarus lived. This same Jesus wept with sorrow at Lazarus’s tomb before he called him forth from it.

But after the raising of Lazarus, the religious authorities were worried that, if this Jesus could bring someone back from the dead, the people would all flock to him and abandon their carefully constructed temple authority. And for John, the raising of Lazarus is what ultimately gets Jesus killed. The rulers begin plotting for an opportune time, so Jesus goes away into the wilderness for a little while until returning to Jerusalem for the Passover. And stopping in Bethany to stay with his friends provides Mary with a first opportunity to thank Jesus for what he has done for them.

Scholars will tell you that the value and quantity of the oil that Mary used was what would have been used for the anointing of a king. Yet, had she been anointing a king, she would have poured the oil on his head. But to anoint the extremities – the hands and the feet – is an anointing for burial. She knows what is to come. She anoints and washes his feet, just as Jesus will wash the feet of his disciples a few days later and just as the women will return to the tomb to anoint his body on the third day following the crucifixion.

Judas is not interested in any of this beauty or symbolism. He complains that the money spent on the ointment has been wasted and could have been used for the poor. Jesus response that the poor will always be us has confounded communities of faith ever since he uttered those words. Then should we do nothing about the poor if they will always be with us? Many have interpreted it that way, but that’s not what he means at all. Jesus is a rabbi, a teacher. He knows his scriptures, and so he knows the requirements outlined in the 15thchapter of Deuteronomy that every 7 years, debts are to be forgiven and the enslaved freed. Jesus knows who we are, what human nature is, and because he knows that, he knows that there will always be poor among us. He spent his entire ministry trying to model the way for us to always, always care for the poor, the sick, and the needy.

Several years ago, Tim and I went on a pilgrimage to Palestine with a group of fellow travelers connected to Yale Divinity School. I use the word “Palestine,” because the trip had a very specific purpose – to gain some understanding of the plight of Palestinian Christians living under Israeli occupation. The pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, Mitri Raheb, told us how he is often asked how long his family has been Christian, the assumption being that a Palestinian must be a Arab Muslim so must have converted. Mitri always responds with a chuckle that his family has been Christian since the time of Jesus.

One of the places we visited just outside of Bethlehem was the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, established in 1949 following the massive displacement of Palestinians after the establishment of the state of Israel and the ensuing Arab-Israeli war. At the time, the camp, one of 19 on the West Bank, was built to house roughly 3,000 refugees. Now, there are about 15,000 living on about 1/5 of a mile of land, some of whom have no sewer connection, with only one health clinic to serve them all.[2]At this camp, we were welcomed into the home of a family who had lived there since 1949, awaiting the day that a right of return might be granted and their home restored to them.

But in the meantime, out of their poverty, they gave generously. They prepared tea and cakes as if we were honored guests. Palestinian families whose forebears have lived in those lands since the time of Jesus showing hospitality to strangers, giving of what little they have to those of us who already have so much.

The poor will be always with you.

The anointing at Bethany, as this story is called, was not just a thanksgiving to Jesus for raising Lazarus and it was not just an early preparation for burial. Mary was modeling in her action what Jesus would soon be called upon to do, pouring himself out at the hands of the religious authorities and the Romans, absorbing the evil of the world into his very flesh, and taking it with him into the tomb.

As it says in the final refrain of that Steve Green song:

Broken and spilled out

just for love of me Jesus.

God’s own precious treasure

lavished on me.

Broken and spilled out

and poured at my feet.

In sweet abandon,

Lord, you were spilled out

and used up for me.

How do we, how will we, how canwe show gratitude for what Jesus has done for us? What might it mean for usto be broken and spilled out, giving our love and our time and our treasure as extravagantly as was given to us?

[1]Songwriters: Bill George / Gloria Gaither. Broken and Spilled Out lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, Capitol Christian Music Group.


ASEPSermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 7, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas