Like Jars of Alabaster (A sermon)

Mark 14:3-9
The Anointing at Bethany
3 While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.4But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. 6But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

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From across a stark wooden table, she looks deep into their eyes. Silent, unmoving. One by one, she drinks them in. And for this, they come. For this, they wait. For this, they weep. For this, they hunger.

For three months, from March to May in 2011, world-famous pioneer performance artist Marina Abramovic carried out a performance art piece called The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. For seven hours a day, six days a week, Abramovic sat in a simple wooden chair at a simple wooden table. She held an almost unchanging posture, did not speak, eat, or get up. Across the table from her sat another wooden chair, and—one at a time—people were invited to come take a seat. People waited in line for hours to see her. Some even camped out over night. They came from all over the world. Celebrities came—Marisa Tomei, James Franco, even Lady Gaga. Some people came multiple times. Some sat with her for only a few minutes, others for hours. Many left with tears still flowing down their cheeks. By the end of her exhibit in May, the piece had become one of the most famous pieces of performance art ever.

What did Marina Abramovic offer that made for such uniquely and profoundly compelling art? She sat in her chair, and opened her eyes when each new visitor was placed before her, and then, for as long as they sat there she would stare at them. Stare deeply into their eyes. She would not move or speak or judge, though sometimes she, too, would weep. For over 700 hours, Abramovic performed the art of being truly fully present to another human being, one person at a time.

Abramovic’s project earned her the adoration of some, the curiosity of many others, and no small amount of scornful eye-rolling. Critics questioned how her piece qualified as art and called her a diva. Skeptics joked that there were surely better uses of her time and the curious wondered about the logistics of it all. And through all of it, Marina sat and she stared. From her unique vantage point as an eccentric and experimental artist, Abramovic seemed to have stumbled on a rather disconcerting reality. In a documentary on the project, she reveals that her piece was a physically and emotionally overwhelming endeavor, but that she had realized that, in the world of today, she could only be fully present to each person if there were nothing else in life to distract her.

And—art or not—the half million people who came to experience this way of “being seen” make it clear that we live in a time when true presence has become a radical idea.

Today marks the first Sunday of Lent—the forty day period that leads up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It is a season of our church year when we prepare our hearts for the gift of God’s grace made known to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a time for us to remember how very much we need that grace, and to acknowledge the brokenness in our lives that separates us from being fully present to and fully able to love God, ourselves, and one another.

This year, at all of our services throughout the season of Lent, we will be focusing on scriptures and sermons that call us to engage with a series of biblical characters who encountered Christ in his final journey to the cross. We will walk alongside Peter and the high priests and even Judas. We will listen to their stories, and learn from their experiences and look for a holy word from God to guide us through this time of repentance and reflection.

In our text today, we encounter a woman who, like Marina Abramovic, seems to think differently from others and who, again like Abramovic, acts in a way that raises questions for us about what it means to be truly present.

We don’t know much about her. In other gospel versions of this story—the woman is Mary, sister of Martha and devoted disciple of Christ, and the scene unfolds in the house of her recently resurrected brother, Lazarus. Here though, the setting is the home of an otherwise unfamiliar leper named Simon and the woman is just an anonymous figure. Seemingly without provocation other than his mere presence, she approaches Jesus with an alabaster jar of expensive perfume, and breaking it open, she pours it over his head. Every single drop.

In other versions of this story, it is Judas who criticizes the woman’s action and complains that the money for the perfume could have been better spent on the poor. In those versions, we know we’re not supposed to agree with Judas because… he’s Judas and because in the very next scene he will go to the Jewish officials and offer to betray his friend and lord for 30 pieces of silver.

But the author of Mark just says “some who were there” were angry about her choice and questioned it. And so I think we can breathe a little easier because aren’t we compelled to question her action too? A friend of mine, at least, was willing to admit as much when I mentioned to her that I was preaching on this scripture. She said “I have trouble with this text because I think I would be in the ‘don’t spend money on luxury items and give money to the poor’ camp.” I see her point.

Haven’t we been taught that our Christian faith calls upon us to care for the poor? Haven’t we been taught not to be wasteful or careless? Isn’t this woman being hasty and foolish in her exuberance? And if her devotion compels her to anoint Jesus, did she have to break open the jar? Couldn’t she just have used a few drops? This is the comfortable—if not entirely easy—flow of Christianity that we’re used to. But this story and this woman—challenge us to wonder if our faith demands something different.

Because however we might question this woman, Jesus praises her action and rebukes those who criticize her. Somehow, the woman in this story seems to understand something about what it means to follow Jesus that the rest of them miss. Translated from the Greek, Jesus’ response to those gathered is, “Indeed, you always have the poor with you and whenever you desire you are able to do good for them, but you do not always have me.” The implication in Jesus’ words seems to be a subtle but effective calling out of his disciples’ true intentions. For they could surely be with the poor if they desired to, but they are not. Instead they are ensconced in the rather more privileged company of one another and debating about the merits of charity.

This is where the distinction between their idea of faith and the woman’s becomes clear. These disciples, from their space of relative privilege and power, aren’t truly interested in being with the poor—they’re interested in maintaining a faithview that preserves their comfortable distance. For them—those who are suffering are not people to be with but an issue to be dealt with. A line item for their budget. A box to check off on their Jesus-follower to do list. From within the cozy confines of their status quo experience, this is the way that faith is lived out. As a shiny, altruistic haze over their everyday living. And as things grow more uncertain and unstable around them, they cling to these normative understandings ever more tightly. Are we willing to admit, just how familiar that sounds?

But this woman, who is—for whatever reason—associated with this Simon—a leper and therefore social pariah. This woman whose gender further marginalizes her to the point that even when the Son of God himself declared that she should be remembered for her faithful act—her name has been written out of history. This woman from her unique vantage point on the margins sees the call to follow Christ differently. For her, it is not, first and foremost, a matter of doing good and decently ordered priorities. To follow Christ, above all, for her—is to be with Christ. Truly present in radical solidarity.

She lets neither humility nor pride stop her from approaching this Jesus who sits before her. She offers him, in that moment, all that she has—every drop of that costly perfume and any ounce of positive reputation in the eyes of those around her. When she breaks open that alabaster jar and pours that oil on Jesus’ head, she allows herself to be broken open too. She gives herself over fully to Christ. In her action is she is truly present with him not only in that moment, but also in his role as messiah and in his death so soon to come. She is present with him—in radical solidarity with him—in a way that all of these other charitable disciples will—one day soon—fail to be.

And I wonder if, in that moment of anointing, Jesus and this unnamed woman stared into each others’ eyes and really saw each other. I wonder if they wept.

This is not to say that serving others doesn’t matter. That giving money isn’t an act of faith. It doesn’t mean that altruistic intentions have no place in Christian living. Hardly. Money must be given. Others must be served. Unjust paradigms must be overthrown and oppressive systems must be disrupted.

But when we step outside the cozy confines of our comfortable, accessible, manageable faith—when we take this season to step into the margins of our own understanding and see with the eyes of this woman—we are reminded that the first and most fundamental act of faith is being with. True presence. Radical solidarity.

Not because this woman broke open her alabaster jar, but because before any of us ever dared to do anything—before faith was even a thing we could dream of—God became flesh—God emptied God’s ownself utterly to be truly, fully present with us. And Jesus Christ entered into this world and allowed himself to be broken open in radical solidarity with us.

In my conversation with that friend who struggled with this text, I said to her that there is no modern comparison to this story. This isn’t a choice between buying a fancy new communion set for the church or buying food for someone who is hungry. This woman is encountering the living Christ—right in front of her. What wouldn’t we give, if offered such an opportunity?

Wouldn’t we give everything we had?

And what if I was wrong? What if there is a modern parallel? What if, indeed, every person we encounter is an opportunity to be truly present with Christ by being truly present with one another?

Would we give up our comfortable distance? Our hazy sheen of superficial faith? Our privileged arguments about the best way to deal with the “issue” of the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed? Would we reject every force in this world that tries to tear us asunder and every seductive whisper that tells us that other person over there is anything less than a holy gift?

Would we dare to give ourselves over completely to the conviction that the world Jesus Christ came to save—the world we are called to work for—is one where true presence—“being with”—isn’t some wild piece of performance art in a New York museum. It is the way we love each other. It is the way we encounter Christ. It is the first and most fundamental act of faith.

Would we allow ourselves to be broken open like jars of alabaster? Would we dare to stare deep into each other’s eyes and will each other to know with our whole hearts that we are seen, and known, and loved? Not just in the atrium of the MOMA, but in our daily lives, on our street corners, in our church pews?

Let’s try. Let’s step outside the comfort zone of our faith. Turn to your neighbor. Look into each other’s eyes. Don’t be afraid. Just keep looking. Just stay there… present with them.

(hold for ~20 seconds)

…Amen.

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Unsought Lessons (a poem)

Life, too, sometimes begs forgiveness

And living it can be as much
Holding your breath
As breathing.

All things have their passing
Creatures yes
But seasons too
And stages and relationships.
Their hospice, their vigil, their grief.
We should all make each other more casseroles.

And daylight, when it’s not enough to make you smile
Can still drag you out of bed.

Some days we’re all running marathons
With no finish line and achy knees.
Grace is the relays.

Stubborn and hopeful are often synonyms
Sometimes beautiful
And occasionally dangerous.

The Gospel truth doesn’t rely on your faith
For its existence.
It’s the other way around.
(Thank goodness)

And the love of God never leaves you
Even when you want to kick it in the shin.

Especially when you want to kick it in the shin.