(Psalm 23, Mark 14:3-9) Delivered March 13, 2016
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “Wherever the Good news is shared throughout the world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
In our scripture story today from the gospel of Mark, a woman comes up to Jesus and anoints him with oil; she pours spikenard oil over his head. The disciples are upset about it, they think it’s a foolish thing that she did. But Jesus says to them, “No, leave her alone.She has done a good thing for me. She has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 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.”
So, my friends, how often when we hear about Jesus, how often wherever we are in the whole world, how often when we hear about the good news of Jesus, when we hear that the God of grace and power is with us, reconciled to us, how often when preachers are stomping around and proclaiming and propounding about the gospel, how often do we actually hear about what she has done, how often is there actually a remembrance of her?
We have not remembered her. We have forgotten. Just as we’ve forgotten, throughout history, important woman who have made history, who’ve done the hard work that makes civilization possible, relegated to back stage, their names left off the bulletin.
We’ve forgotten this important woman in the gospel story even though we’re pretty good at remembering the only other thing that Jesus insisted that his followers remember. Jesus took the bread and blessed it and broke it and said, “This is my body broken for you. Take and eat. Every time you do this, do this in remembrance of me.” We remember that – once a month in this church. We remember him, so how about we remember her.
So, who was she? And what is so important about what she did?
This story is in all four of the gospels. In Mark and Matthew, we’re not told anything about who she is, except that she is a woman. It’s almost dreamlike: she appears, she does this surprising thing, charged with a mysterious meaning, then she disappears, without ever being named. The gospel of Luke adds the detail that she is “A woman in that town who lived a sinful life.” And the gospel of John says that she is none other than Mary Magdalene.
Each of the gospels also tells the story differently, for instance in Mathew, Luke and John she anoints Jesus’ feet, not his head as in Mark. And these differences change the meaning that we’re meant to take away from it. But this morning we’re focusing on Mark, which is the earliest gospel. And in Mark, this story about the unnamed woman is particularly powerful.
The first thing to understand is that in Mark the plot is driven by the big secret, the big secret that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Messiah. No one gets it. It’s a tension that runs throughout Mark. The only person who uses that word for Jesus is the disciple Peter. He says, “Jesus, I think you’re the Anointed One.” Jesus says, “Don’t tell anybody. And furthermore, the thing you gotta understand is that everyone is going to hate me, and I’m going to be executed, but on the third day the Son of Humanity will rise again.” Peter is really upset about this, that’s not what it’s supposed to mean to be the Messiah. What it means to be the Messiah is that you’re going to burst into town on a white horse and save everybody, and everyone will be happy ever after, amen. Peter refuses to believe otherwise.
The woman in our story is the only one – the. only. one.– who shows that she does get it. She sees who Jesus is, and she honors that, and accompanies him through what that really means. She anoints Jesus. She pours sacred oil over his head. Her hands are the hands of God blessing him as the Messiah. He is not anointed Messiah by a king; he is not anointed by a prophet or a priest. He is anointed by a woman, whose name no one even bothers to mention, whom all the men in the room deride as being stupid.
This wise woman anoints Jesus not to conquer and kill and dominate, but to love and to suffer and die. This wise woman honors Jesus, she witnesses his humanity and his divinity, she helps him prepare for the inevitable end. She anoints his body for burial, while he is yet living. This is traditionally women’s work, to tend to the dead, just as it is traditionally women’s work to tend to the sick and the wounded. It is the work of compassion in the face of suffering, of love in the face of violence, it is the work of great strength and great devotion. This is the work that Jesus throws his lot in with. Anointed by God, he joins this work of grace and wholeness in the midst of grim reality.
We can remember this wise woman by honoring those who labor for us in times of sickness and woundedness and loss. But we can also remember this wise woman by joining her in recognizing and honoring suffering in ourselves and in those we care about and those we think we’re supposed to care about. Often when someone shares with us that they’re going through a hard time, they’re in pain, or face something scary, or they’ve lost someone they care about … so often we feel uncomfortable.
I think our culture doesn’t deal well with the reality of suffering, our culture teaches us to ignore suffering or dismiss it or laugh it off. The temptation is to change the subject when it comes up, we run away. Or often we try to say something comforting to make it seem like Oh, it’s all okay after all.
So often the most helpful thing we can do for someone we care about who’s suffering or scared is to Just. Be. Present. To witness and honor what it is that this person is going through. To abide with that person in their suffering.
In chaplaincy we have a saying, “Don’t just do something! Sit there!” Be present and be grounded.
In the last weeks of Jesus’ life, that’s what Jesus asked of his disciples. “Please, stay with me. Witness what I am going through. Don’t run away.” He knows he’s going to face the worst that people can do to each other. So he wants his friends with him, that’s all he asks. But instead they want to pretend that everything is okay. They change the subject whenever they can. They get caught up in competing with each other, trying to score points off each other. Well, by “them,” I mean the men, the male disciples. Peter & James & John & all the rest. All of the women in Jesus’ life, they do the right thing – and we see throughout the passion story. That’s mostly forgotten, as are the names of these female disciples.
This unnamed woman in our gospel story who honors the suffering that Jesus is preparing for, honors his humanity and his divinity, she is the true disciple. She is the one whom we should remember and honor and emulate.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered March 13, 2016 at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)