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Palm/Passion Sunday, March 25, 2018 | 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.
Lenten Sermon Series: Following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29
Don’t go from glory to glory and skip the cross, because as Christ’s broken and blessed body you move into this week with only one certainty: that as you enter it, you do so in the company of a self-emptying God who pursues you and saves you with relentless, terrifying love and who ultimately will enter the grave and the very stench of death in order to say, “Even here—even here I will not be without you.” Hosanna in the highest indeed.
This is why they wanted him dead. They—the political leaders who knew the crowds continued to swell around Jesus as the people focused on his message of liberation from oppression; on justice for the poor; on reminding those whose stories of grief and trauma don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, as eleven-year-old Naomi Wadler said yesterday in D.C. (NowThisPolitics: www.bit.ly/2Goss8X), that those folk, too, count in God’s eyes and that God was watching what was happening to them. Because of all that. they—the political leaders—wanted Jesus out of the spotlight permanently.
And they—the corrupt religious leaders who felt this strange threat from the rabbi who came from Nazareth of all places—they wanted Jesus dead too. They knew he objected to the way some of them had managed to use politics and power for their own gain. And they knew that he knew some of them had sold out their prophetic voice to the highest bidder—sold their voice of influence to anyone who could get them a meeting in the Oval Office or an invitation to an inauguration ball or a segment on the evening cable news. They, the corrupt religious leaders, also wanted Jesus out of the picture once and for all.
By this point in Mark’s Gospel, some of the political and religious forces were beginning to coalesce in a dangerous, threatened, and threatening way. That coalescing of force was taking place precisely because of the kinds of protest actions in which Jesus regularly engaged on behalf of the reign of God—large protest actions like the march into Jerusalem and smaller protest actions like the dinner in Bethany.
We will start with the march. As we celebrated in the beginning of worship, Jesus had just come into the city of Jerusalem leading a rather odd parade, a parade intentionally designed to be the counter-opposite of the military parade Caesar had led into Jerusalem on that same exact day. Jesus’ intentionality around timing is why I’ve now come to think of Jesus’ parade more as Jesus’ protest march against Caesar. Jesus is leading “A March for Their Lives,” if you will, a protest that stands in direct contrast to Caesar’s parade. Caesar’s activity was focused only on the empire’s life and the retention of power. Though the protest and the military parade both happened around the same time, they were drastically different.
They began at the opposite ends of the city from one another. In addition to that, Caesar’s annual military parade was purposefully designed to forcefully remind the people under whose power they lived: Rome’s. So he always arrived in Jerusalem riding on top of a war horse, surrounded by armed soldiers in their finest war attire, drums keeping the beat, swords held high (Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week).
Jesus’ protest march, though—also designed to remind the people under whose power they truly lived (hint: not Rome’s)—featured him sitting not on the top of a war horse, but on a colt; not surrounded by soldiers holding up swords or other battle-ready weapons, but surrounded by everyday people holding up branches they then used to create a kind of red carpet for Jesus. As intentional as Caesar was about his military parade, Jesus was just as intentional about his protest against what Caesar was doing. Jesus wanted to get the leaders’ attention. He wanted to let them know he would not be silenced by them; indeed, the people would not be silenced by them. Through this protest, he accomplished those goals quite effectively.
Jesus then followed up that protest, his “march for their lives,” with testy teachings in the temple and by pointing out the hypocrisy of so many in charge. We’ve heard many of those lessons over these past Lenten weeks. But Jesus offered those lessons not simply to teach the people who wanted to be his disciples, but also to teach those in charge that if they were determined to keep using their power as power over rather than as power with or power for, their time would soon be up.
This brings us to the text I just read. Jesus decided yet again to put the corrupt religious and political leaders on notice. He chose to stage another kind of protest, this one around a table. He purposefully went to eat dinner at the house of someone identified outright as Simon the leper. Now this might not sound radical to us, but it was a radical act in Jesus’ day. He went to eat dinner in the house of a person whose dreadful disease had rendered him ritually unclean, someone whose home proper folk would never set foot in.
Take a second to imagine: Who would be a leper for us these days? Whose home or whose space would “proper folk” not dare set foot in? By staging this protest dinner, Jesus is proclaiming loudly and clearly that the place we might not go is exactly where we would find him. Jesus, always the friend of outcasts, intentionally chose to break bread in the home of a leper. It was another embodied protest against the powers—this time against the powers of exclusion.
As we contemplate this meal, let’s first notice what brackets it. Verses 1 to 2 of this chapter focus on the truth that all those leaders we talked about earlier had indeed begun to plot and plan for Jesus’ death. That is the introduction to this dinner. Immediately following the narration of this dinner, we learn that Judas decides to volunteer to help these leaders set their death plan in motion. This meal at Simon the leper’s home, this gentle protest around a table, is bracketed by plans for violence and acts of betrayal, and it is into that narrative setting of terror that this unnamed woman enters with her own kind of protest act—an act of generous kindness and beauty. It is rather startling, if we think about it.
Alyce McKenzie, a seminary professor, reflects that acts of kindness in the midst of a context of cruelty or violence are always rather startling (Alyce McKenzie, “Extravagant Holiness,” www.patheos.com, 26 March 2012: www.bit.ly/2pPWWdx). Think about musicians who gather in the fallout from war’s destruction to play their music as a healing balm. Think about the interfaith groups who will go and have a service of prayer in the precise spot where an act of violence unfolded just hours before. Think about slam poetry festivals like our own Chicago’s “Louder Than a Bomb” when our young people, many of whom are well acquainted with grief and violence, choose to raise their voices of strong beauty and tell their truth out loud. I am sure you have other examples of startling acts of kindness in the midst of a context of cruelty or violence.
We might wonder if Jesus himself felt startled—both by the woman’s courageous entrance and by her protest act of love. He knew the winds of violence and betrayal had begun to blow. He knew his time here was limited. He knew the cost of his protest march for their lives and the cost of his constant challenging of the Way the World Is on behalf of the Way the World Should Be. Yet into the middle of all that comes an unnamed woman choosing to enact something beautiful, something extravagant, something holy. She moves with the same intentionality with which Jesus moved earlier at his protest march. Clearly she had given it some thought.
Unfortunately in Mark’s telling of this story—a story that appears in all four Gospels—the woman remains unnamed and rather unknown. We don’t know if she was wealthy or poor. We do know the alabaster jar and the ointment of nard would have cost around a year’s worth of wages. So perhaps it was left from an inheritance (Elizabeth Nordquist, “The Woman Anointer,” 8 March 2011, www.patheos.com: www.bit.ly/2pSezc5) or perhaps she had been saving up for years. We simply do not know. What we do know, though, is that she, as a woman in that day and time, did not have any power conferred on her. She did not possess the ability to have any effect on the current state of politics or the economy in her day. She probably would not have even been allowed to enter into public conversations about Jesus or his Way (Nordquist, “The Woman Anointer”).
And yet, as writer Elizabeth Nordquist puts it, the woman chooses to begin where she is: “What do I have? What can I do? What risks am I willing to take?” (“The Woman Anointer”). Those are the questions she must have asked herself as she prepared for that moment. As she prepared to get Jesus ready for what was coming. I imagine those questions were similar to the ones Jesus must have constantly asked himself, perhaps even the questions he explored as he prepared for his protest march into Jerusalem: “What do I have? What can I do? What risks am I willing to take?”
For the woman, she decided she had that alabaster jar, and she had that expensive ointment of nard, and she had the opportunity to walk into that dinner party at Simon the leper’s home. She must have also decided that since Jesus was taking so many risks in order to proclaim God’s love and care for all lives, it was the right time for her to stand up and take a risk too. Who knows, perhaps she had been hearing the rumors about the betrayal and violence headed his way. She might have sensed the context of cruelty surrounding Jesus. So she walked in, broke open the jar, and poured out the whole thing onto his head.
Listen to how a writer describes the scene: “The woman with the ointment of nard used her hand to spread the aroma and texture into the hair, scalp, neck, and shoulders of Jesus—for respite from pain, for removal of tension, for blessing in the present moment. Jesus recognized this act as an anointing for his burial . . . [and yet, right then and there] he [was also] able to feel and savor the beauty that [met] him in [his] moment of tension, trepidation, and wondering.” He was able to feel and savor the kindness and the care she was showing him even as the forces of death began to close in.
He must have recognized that her act of extravagant kindness was indeed its own kind of protest—her protest against the cruelty Jesus would soon experience; her protest against the setting of violence and betrayal that was bracketing his life. Set side by side, Jesus’ dinner at Simon the leper’s home was his protest against the forces of exclusion that kept people apart. And her act of anointing him was her protest against the forces of death. “What do I have?” she had asked herself. “What can I do now?” Jesus always wondered. “What risks am I willing to take?” they both prayed.
The moment of beauty and tenderness was fleeting, though, cut short by the angry responses of the other dinner guests. Those who were watching acted like they cared about her decision to use up all of the nard rather than selling it and giving the money to the poor. But Jesus knew that was not really why they were angry. They were angry because they sensed she was up to something. They were angry because she took the spotlight away from them. They were angry because she brazenly staged her own kind of protest and Jesus received it with deep gratitude and love. It was not her place to do such things, they thought. She should have known her place.
But Jesus broke in on her behalf. A paraphrase: “Leave her alone,” he commanded. “She has done a beautiful thing to me. You have every day to ask yourself those three questions: What do I have? What can I do? What risks am I willing to take? You have every day to work for justice and to show kindness on those who are suffering. But you do not have me much longer. She has done what she could. And it will be remembered.”
Wouldn’t you know it, though, in response to her protest, Judas finally decided he had had enough. While the woman made an opportunity to honor Jesus, Judas looked for the opportunity to betray him. After all, Jesus wasn’t who Judas had hoped he would be. From Judas’s perspective, the whole discipleship thing had just been one disappointment after another, and Judas was done with it. He was done with Jesus. So he left the dinner that night and became a part of the “they” who wanted Jesus dead.
“What she has done will be told in remembrance of her,” Jesus declared. It was a startling act of kindness in a context of such cruelty. We wonder . . . a few days later, when the power of violence seemed to have its way and Jesus was hanging amid the pain and agony of his dying, did he remember that night? Was he able to think back and recall that act of kindness and beauty even as he suffered? Did that woman’s act of loving protest, her gift from the alabaster jar, comfort him in some way, reminding him of the love that God had provided for him among the people of the world God gave him to love (“The Woman Anointer”)? I hope so.
What do we have? What can we do? What risks are we willing to take so we, too, can protest the ways of violence, the ways of cruelty, the corruption of a power determined to be used over instead of for or with? What startling acts of kindness and beauty and courage are we willing to engage in to show our love for God and on behalf of all the people of the world God so loves?
Sermon © Fourth Presbyterian Church