A S E R M O N F R O M W A S H I N G T O N M E M O R I A L C H A P E L
Sermon preached at all services
by the Reverend Mark Nestlehutt
t was roughly 25 years ago that I stepped into a pulpit to preach my first sermon. And I can tell you that, while it was a very memorable occasion for me, it probably was not very memorable for those in the congregation that Sunday. I was in my first year of seminary and the Rector of my sponsoring parish invited me back to Baltimore to preach. I remember being asked and feeling slightly annoyed that Dr. Culbertson was only giving me seven weeks to write my sermon. It just struck me as too little time. See, something you should know about seminarians (as well as recently ordained clergy) is that we assume that we will spend all our workweek crafting brilliant sermons and amazingly choreographed liturgies. That idealized vision quickly bumps up against the reality of parish ministry, which is more focused on the cure or care of souls—visiting the ill, burying the dead, sitting with parishioners in times of need, attending committee meetings, answering emails, and focusing on stewardship. In effect, tending to the spiritual and physical needs of the parish. I say all this because, while I may always remember my first sermon at Washington Memorial Chapel, you might not.
Now I am well aware that I am arriving at the Chapel well into the season of Lent. And since Lent is a time for confessions, here’s mine. I have given up nothing this year for Lent. I’m still enjoying red meat, red wine, scotch and the occasional dessert. I did, however, take on something new, which is studying French—but do not set your hopes too high for French Alliance Day. I also watched a lot of television this Lent — Modern Family, Speechless, Blackish, The Crown, and Russian Doll. The first four loosely qualify as family time. The last one is purely self-indulgent. Those of you who watch television know that many shows end their season with a cliffhanger that leaves you in limbo until the new season begins. I think this all began with the show Dallas and the burning question, “Who shot J.R.?” But other examples are The West Wing, Friends, Breaking Bad and, of course, Game of Thrones. I point this out, because if the Gospel of John were a television series, then today’s reading would be the penultimate episode—that episode just before the season finale. Because, let’s face it, there is just no better cliffhanger—no better season ending episode—than Palm Sunday and the Passion. Jesus dies on a cross; his body is removed and placed in a tomb; fade to black. Throughout the summer we’d be wondering what’s going to happen next and, in September, the new season would open with the Resurrection.
Today’s gospel reading from John is still setting the stage—a foreshadowing of what is to come. It begins with “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” And we are told that Lazarus’ family, his sisters Mary and Martha give a dinner for him. In the midst of this meal, Mary comes into the dining space with a bottle of expensive oil, the sort that was customarily used to anoint the dead before burial. And she pours this oil onto Jesus’ feet and then wipes his feet with her hair. And we hear that the house was filled with the fragrance of this oil. This is her lavish gift to the man who had raised her brother from the dead. It’s extravagant. And this does not go unnoticed. Judas, who we know will go on to betray Jesus, raises the money question: Why wasn’t this oil sold and the proceeds given to the poor? He even values the oil at 300 denarii—what scholars say might be worth $10,000 or more dollars today? On the surface, it’s a legitimate question. It’s a practical question. It’s a stewardship question. Most vestry members and parishioners might ask the same question today. In earlier passages, even Jesus might have asked the same question. His ministry did, after all, focus on the outcasts, the vulnerable. But in this case Jesus responds by telling Judas to let Mary be. She had bought the oil for Jesus’ burial. Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” In this moment—in this house in Bethany—the humanity of Jesus becomes visible. Mary’s extravagant act of generosity is given to a man who began his earthy life in a stable because there was no room in the inn, and who will ultimately be buried in a borrowed tomb.
We Christians worship a God who is life-giving. That is the image of God that we are given in today’s passage from Isaiah. A God who never forgets. The God who led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. The God who promises to bring the Israelites out of Exile in Babylon and to restore the fortunes of Zion. A God who never gave up on creation and sent a son into this world. That same son whose feet were anointed by Mary of Bethany just a few days before Jesus enters into Jerusalem. We know what comes next. That season ending episode. We know where the story is leading us. And we know the outcome.
We live in a world of earthquakes and disasters. We live in a world of war, famine, floods, and social unrest. And the needs of those around us can seem so overwhelming. As Jesus says, the poor will always be with us. And as we know from our baptismal vows, we are called to attend to their needs. At the same time, Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet points to a different issue. We often think of what Jesus has done, can do, or will do for us. But Mary’s example raises another question: What is it that we can offer Jesus? What is our extravagant gift for this Jesus in these waning days of Lent? That same Jesus who bears our burdens and forgives our sins.b at www.wmchapel.org