Monday, March 21, 2005

Sermon for Monday in Holy Week

Homily on Mark 14:3-9
by The Rev’d Timothy M. Matkin, SSC
Given at S. Alban’s Church, Arlington, TX on 21 March 2005

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

You might not have come. There were plenty of other places you could be. Indeed, this may be the first time you have been to church on a Monday. The Church encourages, but does not obligate you to come tonight. There might have even been important things that you might have accomplished otherwise. But, like the woman in today's gospel story, perhaps you sensed that it would be a special time. You sensed that it was important for you to be here tonight. And it is.

It was a very precious moment between Jesus and this woman. She brought in a jar of very costly perfumed oil--worth several hundred dollars--nearly a year’s wages. And she poured it on Jesus’ head. It seems that she truly understood the finality of the moment that they shared. Oil poured on the head is a symbol of messianic anointing; it was done as a sign of honor for rpinces and kings. But Jesus also says that she has anointed him for burial. The others there complained that it was a nice gesture, but such an incredible waste. You see, she not only anointed Jesus, she broke the jar, and used all of the perfume that she had.

They tried to correct her, saying it could have been put to much better use, such as relief for the poor. Jesus was probably hurt by their inability to understand or appreciate what she did—that this was a special time, and a precious gesture. "She has done a beautiful thing," he simply said. You can always give to the poor, Jesus added, but this is a moment that will not last.

The woman is unnamed in Mark's gospel. In John's gospel, a story very similar to this one names the woman as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. What we know about this Mary is that she was a quiet and contemplative person. She was a devout and discerning kind of woman. She was tender and compassionate. If any of Jesus' friends were to share a quite moment with him, we might expect it to be Mary of Bethany. But even Jesus seems genuinely surprised by the outpouring of devotion. St. Mark tells us he was deeply moved.

It was a very expensive gift; it was an extravagant gesture; it was impulsive and reckless. And it could not have been more perfect. When others criticize her as wasteful, Jesus rebuked them. What she has done will be spoken of throughout the world, wherever the gospel is preached, she will be remembered as a model of devotion. To many minds, faith and love and generosity and charity are but a waste. They can show no profits, no results, no material purpose. Their inability to see her act of devotion as an intensely valuable thing reveals their limited understanding of discipleship. Mary has the instinctive spiritual knowledge to understand the worth of pure love in and of itself. Pure devotion is something above and beyond loving service. To lift the dutiful up to the level of the beautiful, and then to let that beauty transform one’s duty in the world, is a mark of true discipleship. Beauty has access to a part of the soul where even reason cannot reach.

It is there that we experience intimacy with God on another level. It is the place where God imparts inner peace. Sorrow may darken inner peace, encroaching on the space of shelter in the soul. It is at the time when darkness and sorrow approaches that pure love and beauty can be most impactful. I know people who have had this kind of loving, beautiful, intimate time shared with a loved one before death, especially those who have been a caregiver for someone dying. We see much the same type of moment in the scene between Jesus and Mary of Bethany. Mary is insightful, and she knows it is her final goodbye, and all she can do is to pour out her soul to say "I love you." It is an opportunity for us to pour out our souls to Jesus during this holy week.

I have not yet had the blessing of nursing a loved one through till death. But I have been touched by two similar passings during seminary. One was Bill Mabry--he was the Director of Christian Education at First Baptist School in Shreveport, Louisiana where I grew up. I remember him telling Bible stories in chapel when I was a child, illustrated with cartoon cutouts on a felt board. He always spoke with tenderness and personal faith. I hardly saw him after first grade, because I started going to public school, and then we moved away after that. My last summer in seminary, my aunt (who had kept up with him over the years) told me that he was dying. He was living in Arkansas--which just happened to be on my route to Wisconsin.

I was more than a little nervous since I hadn't seen him since I was a child. I waited till the end of the summer to call him. Reluctantly, I said I would stop by on the way back to school. After all, what is a mere evening in the big picture? Except for the oxygen mask he wore at times as we talked before dinner, he looked practically the same as I remembered--he had the same encouraging smile, the same quiet manner, the same conviction in his voice, the same strong and nurturing faith. We talked about our vocations to ministry and about life and faith. We must have talked for hours--and it was as if he had been there every day of my life. I didn't have the maturity to be a Mary of Bethany to him that night, but Bill was Christ to me in that moment. A few weeks later, he died, and the world lost a genuinely good man.

It was a only few months later that one of the ladies from my Sunday parish in seminary--Marian Keller from Our Lady of Grace in Sheboygan was dying. She and her husband had always had a special affection for seminarians from Nashotah House. They considered it their ministry to the wider church to help nurture these young men in their calling. She always tried to mentor me in my years there as well. Lung cancer had eventually gotten the best of her. Marian and her husband John went to the Virgin Islands for a final vacation that winter. She lived life to the end. A few weeks into Eastertide, she was living her final days. The last Sunday I saw her, she was lying in bed at home with family and friends all through the house.

The Rector gave her a final sacramental unction. Later, I was asked if I would read the Litany at the Time of Death from the Prayer Book. When they prayers were finished, he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, "I bet you didn't realize this was going to be a part of your training too, did you?" A few days later, I served as the subdeacon at her Requiem Mass. I still miss her, and wish I had taken more advantage of the time I was around her.

I still think about Marian and Bill from time to time, usually in the liturgy--in joining my voice with "all the company of heaven" in worship. I don't know if I was a blessing to them before their deaths or not. But I do know that both were a blessing to me--simply by sharing intimate moments of life and fellowship as death approached.

Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her." The story will be told that we may learn from her example. Covering Jesus with costly fragrance was all she could do to pour out her soul before the Lord to say "I love you." It is an opportunity for us also during this Holy Week to spend some intimate time with Christ before his death, and to break the flasks of our personalities and pour out our souls onto Jesus. I believe that this will be a special time for each of you. I don’t believe that anyone in this church tonight ended up here by accident.

This is going to be a special time between you and Jesus Christ. He is here tonight, and he wants you to share this moment. The very mysteries of our salvation lie close at hand, and this will be your time alone with Christ, as together you begin to look toward that dark hill that lies outside of Jerusalem called Golgotha. Treasure these moments with Christ, before you begin the journey along the way of the cross. Amen.

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