We are Fragile.
“We Are Fragile”
April 3, 2022 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church - Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Mary Anoints Jesus
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
I bet if you reflect for a moment, you can think of a smell that you identify with love. Maybe a place that you love, or a person you love, or a food that you love.
Maybe it’s the cinnamon rolls your grandmother used to make, or pine needles in the sun under a favorite tree. Maybe it’s the smell of freshly washed laundry or the grill starting up. Maybe it’s the smell of a room full of children right after recess or the smell of grape juice mixed with the scent of bread. But the smell of love doesn’t always have to be a pleasant smell. Perhaps it’s actually the less pleasant smells of life experienced when you were caring for another, or being cared for by another that remind you love. The smell of dirty diapers or the stinky breath of a cat or dog as it licks your face.
What does love smell like? We can all recall something. Smell, they say, is the one sense of all them that has the ability to provoke the most memories for us. You probably agree anytime you happen to smell something that can immediately take you back to particular time and place.
It was a dinner party among friends that had its own set of smells for Jesus and his friends in our scripture reading today. Lazarus, who Jesus had raised from the dead, had invited Jesus to his house for a meal along with his sisters, Mary and Martha, and other friends, too. I like to imagine a festive scene. A table full of delicious-smelling food, cups of fragrant wine and conversation that brought laughter and levity. The scripture tells us this dinner party was taking place a week before Passover and we know now that it was one week before Jesus’ palm parade into Jerusalem, his last entrance into that city where he would be crucified within a matter of days. But when they were laughing around the table with friends and home-cooked food, did they know about the painful things that were lurking in the future? Were they thinking about that during this dinner?
Perhaps at least two people were. Ahead of the dinner, Mary had purchased an expensive and fragrant perfume with a large sum of money… a year’s worth of wages. As the dinner was going on she took the perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet using her hair to dry them. Why did she do it? The scripture doesn’t tell us. But when Judas, another guest at the party accuses Mary of being wasteful with precious resources, Jesus tells him to be quiet and says Mary has bought it for his burial. “The poor will always be with you, I will not.” If no one else besides Mary and Jesus were thinking about his path to the cross at that party, suddenly they all were now. The fragrance from the expensive, decadent perfume rose from the feet of Jesus and filled the entire house. This was a smell they were never going to forget. It would be a smell they would always associate with the memory of a night when joy at what was and sorrow at what was to come sat side by side.
This was a moment of reckoning. Beneath the surface of the dinner party and the festive gathering of friends, Jesus was fragile. Mary could see it when no one else was willing. This was a man who marched ever closer to his own death and Mary knew that the only way to possibly hold on to this moment while she still had him was to make that moment beautiful.
We heard this story from the Gospel of John this morning, but all four gospels tell a version of it. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells those who would criticize Mary, that her extravagant act is “a beautiful thing.” And beautiful things are worthy of remembrance. When those around Jesus protested and argued for pragmatism and duty, in this moment between life and death, in this fragile moment, Jesus honors what is beautiful.
Jesus is showing us how to let sorrow and joy exist side by side. How to capture something small and precious that brings beauty in the midst of grief. Our moments are fleeting. Our lives are fragile. In ways that we hide beneath the surface, we are all closer to a breaking point than what meets the eye. But that does not mean we cannot let moments of beauty break into our pain. Beauty doesn’t necessarily change the outcome, but it reminds us that God is with us in the fragility speaking to us in ways that remind us of our true selves.
Like a beautiful sunset on a day that held too much grief. Or a child’s belly laugh when they are too young to understand the nature of hard things. Or a friend who brings homemade bread to a neighbor who has been too sick to cook. Sorrow and joy can co-exist.
In 1912 in the years leading up to Revolution, an Orthodox Russian man named Pavel Chesnokov composed ten hymns for communion before being ordered to cease composing religious music entirely by the government. The fifth hymn in this set repeats verse 12 of Psalm 74, a psalm entitled, “A Plea for Help in Time of National Humiliation.” Chesnokov set the words of this psalm to a transcendent melody he borrowed from a Kyivian Chant from the Ukrainian church. Although Chesnokov never heard the piece performed and died from complications of starvation like many of his countrymen, the piece was sung in 1931 in Christ the Savior Cathedral shortly before Stalin bombed it in an attempt to silence Christian protestors. The piece has gone on to become an anthem of comfort for people long for peace in the midst of war. One small piece of beauty in the midst of great sorrow that reminds all those who dare to hope that God does not desert the grieving and the sorrowful, but walks with them through the pain. In his own words, Chesnokov said, “They can try to silence our music, but they will never steal our song.”
Beauty saves us at our breaking points and reminds us that God sparks joy in small and unforgettable ways that will always eclipse the worst the world has to offer. In the words of Psalm 74, verse 12:” Salvation is created, in the midst of the earth, O God, O our God, Alleluia.”
Let us listen in prayer as we hear this piece.
Grace and Peace,