Acts of Beauty and Compassion
Acts of Beauty and Compassion
Special thanks to Janet Leadbeater and Carol Anne MacInness for leading the service at the last minute due to Rev. Ellis being unavailable.
Scripture: John 12: 1-8
I want to start with the troubling aspect of this passage. The words of Jesus at the end where he says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” This sentence in John’s gospel spoken by Jesus has been used to normalize people being poor and I don’t believe that’s what Jesus is intending here.
First, poverty was much more widespread in the 1st century than it is now. Poverty was common, Jesus and the disciples were poor, most of the first individuals who would have heard the gospels were poor. The gospels don’t need to point it out, it’s simply understood. One of the strongest undercurrents that exist in the gospels in Jesus advocating for a re-ordering of society and economic justice so that there wouldn’t be such a high level of poverty.
We shouldn’t think with this statement that Jesus was speaking ill of the poor, Jesus was poor.
John’s gospel is harsh on Judas, commentary is included here that isn’t found in the other gospels. We have the implication that Judas was a thief and stole from the common purse. Stole from Jesus and the other disciples. While we might wonder at Judas’ motivations, the greed, the necessity for money. John is painting a picture of Judas as someone whose heart is hard, who only seems to be in it for the personal benefit that he is receiving.
Judas knows that the poor are out there, he wants to benefit himself and elevate his own status. He isn’t alone in the disciples to think this way. James and John argue with Jesus about who will be greatest, who will sit at Jesus’ left and right hand. However, it is only Judas who is focusing on enriching himself to others determent.
The center point of the passage is the perfume and what it represents. Death. And life after death. I think it is reasonable to assume that Mary purchased the perfume to anoint her brothers body. Perhaps she used some of it when he was place in the tomb earlier in John’s gospel and this is what remains.
At this point she no longer needs it for anointing the dead because Jesus has raised Lazarus from death. Instead, she anoints the one who has overcome death and brought her loved one back to life. And of course we know that soon Jesus will face his own death. Her actions are highly symbolic about what is at stake. Death and how we react to it.
This passage is a reminder that Jesus will die. The promise of resurrection is hinted at with the reference to Lazarus, but it is not explicit surrounding Jesus. Mary seems to know what is coming and is acting in the only way she knows how.
Further, “John says that the aroma of the nard filled the room, implicitly communicating how the anointing became a blessing to those who (besides Judas) witnessed it. It is a significant reminder that beauty pervades, expands, spreads, and blesses. The gift of beauty and love goes beyond the bounds of its initial event and recipients. But, as Judas shows, we have to have a heart beating for beauty and love rather than selfish ambition or vain conceit if we want to be able to see and share in it.” (Chelsey Harmon).
How we react to death says much about us.
Death is a funny thing. It’s one of the common things we share about life, yet we each react and prepare for it differently. The season of Lent is a time to reflect on death and what that means as a Christian. To die is to be human. Over the past two years we’ve been made acutely aware of that. As war rages in Ukraine and other places we reflect on the fragility of life. Our passage today is a reminder that within the Christian tradition death is not the final word. Lazarus reminds of that promise. The ointment that Mary wipes on the feet of Jesus tells us of that promise. During Lent we remember that death is not the end, but rather the beginning.
We might reflect on what our death will mean and how it will impact our loved ones. We might reflect on a loved one lost, whether recently or years ago. We might on friends who have gone on before us. My friend Robert died of Covid before there was a vaccine. His final email to me will haunt me I think for some time. He wrote of how difficult it was to breath, that everything was just so hard. I reflect often on my sisters death over 20 years ago. And I know that each of you reflects upon and thinks fondly about those whom you have loved that have passed on before you. And then there are the countless who die daily, people we will never know, life stories we will never hear.
How does the nearness of death affect us? Does it move us towards compassion? Does it motivate us to make a difference in the world? Perhaps to find or offer relief in people’s lives? Does it soften us and allow us to act with grace or does it harden us because we fear the hurt that comes with loss and grief? As Christians, what does the promise of resurrection mean to us as we reflect on life, death and life after death?
On death and resurrection Chelsey Harmon writes, “It seems to me that there is no established protocol for saying thank you for resurrection. Lazarus opens his home to Jesus; Martha does what she does best, serving Jesus and his crew, each sharing with Jesus what they can. For her part, Mary breaks social protocol and anoints Jesus with costly perfume. The aroma of this act fills the space, inviting everyone there to participate in its beauty. Mary’s personal act of worship becomes an experience of blessing for each dinner guest to witness and participate in. Those who are not able to see it are those whose hearts are bent on evil.” (Chelsey Harmon)
This passage helps us prepare for Jesus’ death. It frames the scene and from this humble common room we can see the shadow of the cross. Within this reflection of death is an act of beauty and love the defies societal norms. It reminds all who are present of the fragility of life. Of Lazarus who was only recently dead and of Jesus who will soon hang on the cross.
As we travel in these last few weeks of Lent what acts of beauty can we undertake within the fragility of life that might act as a blessing and a beacon for those who witness them? If only we have the heart, like Mary, to see it. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security.
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