There’s Something About Mary

This was my Senior Chapel Sermon at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago preached on Monday March 14, 2016.  The Scripture reading was “The Anointing at Bethany” found in the Gospel of John 12:1-8. 

This sermon is really special to me because I was able to blend both my time studying at LSTC and at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity. It blends my love for the Gospel of John as taught to me by Dean Gail O’Day, with my passion for subversion in the bible, that I learned here at LSTC. 

The words of this sermon are the sole property of the author, unless designated otherwise.

“There’s power in the touch of another person’s hand. We acknowledge it in little ways, all the time. …

“Hands that wrap us in warmth, that hold us close. Hands that guide us to shelter, to comfort, to food. Hands that hold and touch and reassure us through our very first crisis, and guide us into our very first shelter from pain. The first thing we ever learn is that the touch of someone else’s hand can ease pain and make things better.

“That’s power. That’s power so fundamental that most people never even realize it exists.”[1]

I read these words from Jim Butcher’s sci-fi/fantasy novel Skin Game the week classes resumed for the spring semester and was blown away by the truth that they hold. I’ve seen the power of touch played out time and time again throughout my life: A hand on my shoulder as I had my first panic attack over biblical Greek, holding hands with my sister as we processed that my mom was diagnosed with cancer, the supportive embrace of a friend at that precise moment where I didn’t think I had the strength to stand anymore and collapsed into tears after losing yet another loved one in a span of 4 months. Touch. Has. Power. If misused of course, touch has the power to do irrevocable harm, but properly used, touch can be quite powerful. And the thing about that kind of touch is that it most always stems from love.

It is especially poignant to note, during Women’s History Month, that women have pivotal and subversive roles in the Gospel of John. They just seem to “get” Jesus’ ministry in a way that their male counterparts do not. Mary, Jesus’ mother, ignores her adult son’s protests that his hour has not yet come at the Wedding at Cana, and so Jesus’ ministry is launched, whether he was ready or not, with a lavish gift of incredible wine for guests to enjoy. In the 4th chapter of John, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in Sychar, and for the first time, Jesus’ ministry is directed toward a woman, and a Samaritan besides whose place in the social order would have placed her outside Jesus’ inner circle for both her gender, and her race. Her story comes on he heels of a similar encounter with Nicodemus—a man, and a Pharisee—whose encounter with Jesus is fraught with misunderstanding, yet a Samaritan woman recognized him as the Messiah, and believed.

And then Mary of Bethany… Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and anoints them. She sits in the place reserved for disciples, a role which society would have told her she couldn’t embody, and yet through her act she does. Mary’s act of anointing flows from Jewish burial ritual, and illustrates her keen understanding of the true meaning of what the next week will bring for Jesus, something that Jesus hadn’t yet imparted to his own inner circle of disciples. Like the contrast between Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well, Judas Iscariot plays Mary’s counterpart in this narrative. He is the one who bears the title of disciple, but neither understands, nor embodies the role he is meant to assume.

Have you ever broken a bottle of perfume or cologne? My mom tells a story of when her perfume and my dad’s cologne broke in their luggage on the way back from a cruise for their 10th anniversary.

The smell of even a small bottle like this one, was so overpowering, she told me, to the point that she could never use this fragrance again. If a small bottle of perfume has that much power, then how much more would a pound of pure nard have? The fragrance, as Mary anoints Jesus, wafts about the house in seemingly visible curling clouds, engulfing it in its scent. Her gift, which Judas Iscariot tells us, is worth 300 Denarii, the equivalent of a year’s wages. Mary’s gift parallels the superabundant gift of wine that Jesus offers at the wedding at Cana. Mary’s own gift of perfume and touch is characterized by love, the mark of true discipleship. Mary. Understands. Mary understands that discipleship is characterized by giving of oneself in love. She understands that Jesus’ next journey to Jerusalem will not end as triumphally as it begins.

Mary understands all of this without ever being told, and with that understanding she is filled with grace to do something about it.

Dean Gail O’Day, of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, writes of this text, “Discipleship is defined by acts of love and one’s response to Jesus.”[2] The first person to embody that role, the person who provides the example for us to go by is Mary, a woman. By virtue of her gender, Mary should have no claim upon discipleship in her context, and yet she understands Jesus’ life and ministry better than Judas, one of Jesus’ own inner circle. She too is subversive, and takes a societal rule that tells her she has no place as a disciple of the Messiah, looks it square in the eye, and without a word, proves otherwise. And Jesus will soon turn around and embody Mary’s example himself in the foot washing in the next chapter of the Gospel of John. Mary’s. Touch. Has. Power. It has the power to illustrate the role of discipleship not just within her own historical context, but in perpetuity. Her gift of radical hospitality and love opens up the possibility of discipleship, not just to men, but to women too.

As ministers, in whatever form that takes, Our Touch. Our Actions. Our Words. Have Power. But as Winston Churchill said, “where there is great power, there is great responsibility.” We have the responsibility to share God’s superabundant gift of love and grace with all whom we encounter, to share the gospel, to subvert our world’s tragic notion that Christian identity stems out of anything other than that love, when they are so often shown otherwise, where power is wrongfully attained by standing on the shoulders of the marginalized. Like Mary, we have the power to be subversive illustrations of what true discipleship is all about.

To go back to the quote that opened this sermon, “That’s power. That’s power so fundamental that most people never even realize it exists.”[3]

[1] Jim Butcher. Skin Game. New York: ROC. 2014. 38-39.

[2] Gail O’Day. The Gospel of John. Vol. IX, in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, by Leander E. Keck, 699-703. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

[3] Butcher. 39.


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