The Good Stuff
Below is a sermon on John 12:1-8 that I gave during my call process to Minerva. This message of letting go of fear is on my heart this Lenten season.
For years, I have held onto tightly to fear in many forms: fear that there is not enough time, anxiety about the lack of money in my bank account, worry that I won’t be able to do anything that matters in my lifetime, fear that something bad will happen and I won’t know what to do, worry that I won’t have what I need or want. Then, this year, the one thing I feared most in the world happened to me. At 27 years old, I found myself burying the love of my life, who died suddenly in February at the age of 32. I am two months into this new season of my life and I have come to know one thing for certain.
What I realized is that fear does nothing to prevent anything from happening and there was certainly no amount of fear or worrying that could ever have prepared me to experience the moment that my loved one died and I was left alone. I evaluated my life and the power that fear had over me and I made some decisions.
This Lenten season, I chose to release my grip on fear. Each day, I chose to try/learn/experience something new. For the past several weeks, this has meant everything from trying new foods to sitting in different chairs to visiting unfamiliar places. Some days, I try only one new thing. Other days, it is a nonstop parade of new experiences. On Thursday, I tasted orange curd for the first time. Yesterday, I got to see the Canton city skyline. Tomorrow, it will be Niagara Falls. What I have found in this spiritual practice is abundance. There is a world of newness and creativity and love and kindness and joy that I had been closed off to because I was too afraid that there wasn’t enough for me.
But we don’t have to fear scarcity because we worship a God who restores. Psalm 126 reminds us of God’s tendency to do so. Verse 4 asks God to restore fortunes like the waters of the Negeb. The desert in Negeb is one that is dry and desolate for many months and then, suddenly is flooded with water during the winter. The springs and from which these floodwaters came were essential for sustained life in the region, so the restoration of the waters of the Negeb is a reminder of the great power of God. Where there once seemed to be nothing, now there can be life.
In the gospel of John, Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume. As noted by Judas, the perfume is expensive and could easily be sold for the price of a whole year’s wages. The Bible doesn’t give us much insight about Mary’s financial status or how she came to possess this costly perfume. Perhaps it was a gift, like those sets of fancy China some of us have in our homes, reserved for us during those special occasions. Maybe she had saved up for this perfume and was saving it for something important. Whatever her intentions were for it, Mary chooses to honor Jesus, to lean into her friendship with him and anoint his feet with perfume that cost a whole year’s wages.
In this act of extravagant love between these two, as Mary pours this expensive perfume over Jesus’s feet, we find many things: the vulnerability of two friends in an intimate moment, gratitude for acts of kindness, joy in the beauty of life, and the reality that this life is made up of these moments in which we have a choice about how to treat other people. What we do not find here is fear. Mary does not fear that there will not be enough perfume or what she may be missing out on by not selling it or saving it. Jesus does not fear the intimacy of his vulnerability with Mary. Neither of them fear the loss of this close friendship.
It is a third character that brings in the fear. Judas, from out of nowhere, cries out that there is a better use for this perfume. “Shouldn’t we sell it and use the money to help the poor?” Commentators suggest that the reason Judas appears so concerned about the cost of the oil is that he kept the community purse and helped himself to the funds at times. With this in mind, it seems that Judas is less concerned about what Mary’s intentions may be and far more concerned of what he could get out of the deal.
Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” as a defense for Mary’s act of extravagant love toward him. It is thought that Jesus is alluding here to his impending crucifixion and scholars debate whether or not Mary knew that Jesus was going to die. Mary’s anointing of Jesus’s feet can be related to the preparation for his death, connected to the accounts of the women who go to the tomb to anoint his body later in the gospel stories. For us now, Jesus’s statement makes sense. Here we are, thousands of years later, and we do indeed still have the poor with us. Jesus’s body is gone and we have his teachings to remember him by. To this end, we have a call to follow those teachings and ministry lessons to help the poor among us.
In the face of my partner’s death, I now have a different angle on this verse. Here is Jesus, aware that his death is coming. It is imminent. He has said and done a lot of things that the powers-that-be do not like and a plot to kill him has been hatched. The gospel story is barreling closer to the cross with every second but here, we pause. “You do not always have me.” For me, Jesus becomes the good stuff and Judas’s mention of the poor becomes the fear, anxiety, and worry that plague our lives every day. You do not always have the good stuff: the sunset only lasts for a few minutes, people are only in your lives for a short time, the fancy china breaks, and the expensive perfume gets old. That fear can return in a moment’s notice and it will always be there waiting to envelope you.
What do we have to do to appreciate the good stuff? How do we release the fear of scarcity and embrace the joy of a moment? The world tells us how to use our time and our relationships and our resources. Buy this, sell that, invest in this, go here, stay there, leave this person, find a new one. We are torn into a million different directions and made to feel guilty about prioritizing our loved ones or our own care. How do we choose between what the world demands of us and what Jesus wants us to do?
We have nothing to fear because we worship a God who serves. We have nothing to fear because we have a God who created us in their own image in order that we may love and be loved. Let us lean away from the fear and into the promise that we are called into that identity as children of God. Let us lean into the teachings of Jesus, living and loving abundantly, so that all may feel what it is like to be known. Let go of the fear that there is not enough and love with abundance. Like Mary and like Jesus, let us live and love extravagantly. Amen.
 Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms 101-150, Allen, p. 232