Notes from Samuel Loftin
Sam preached a sermon on John 12:1-8 on March 13th. As our congregation goes through a transition in fall, I was reminded of how much each of us do to contribute to the livelihood of St. Paul. With his permission it is as follows:
John 12:1-8 Common English Bible (CEB)
Mary anoints Jesus’ feet
1Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. 3 Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound,[a] of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. 4 Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, 5 “This perfume was worth a year’s wages![b] Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (6 He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.)
7 Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”
But before we get into the sermon, I would like to tell you about a Southern Baptist minister decided that a visual demonstration would add emphasis to his Sunday sermon. Four worms were placed into four separate jars.
The first worm was put into a jar of alcohol.
The second worm was put into a jar of cigarette smoke.
The third worm was put into a jar of chocolate syrup.
The fourth worm was put into a jar of good clean soil.
At the conclusion of the Sermon, the Minister reported the following results:
The first worm in alcohol – Dead.
The second worm in cigarette smoke – Dead.
Third worm in chocolate syrup – Dead.
Fourth worm in good clean soil – Alive.
So the minister asked the congregation, “What can you learn from this demonstration?” A little old woman in the back quickly raised her hand and said, “As long as you drink, smoke and eat chocolate, you won’t have worms.”
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you don’t learn useful stuff in church.
As we read in the Gospel Scripture reading this morning, Jesus had been in Jerusalem, where he had gone preparing to die. But he had a few days left to live, so he decided to visit his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany, just down the road from Jerusalem.
You probably remember Mary and Martha. Jesus had come to visit them earlier, and Mary had sat at Jesus’ feet, totally absorbed with what Jesus was saying. Martha, on the other hand, busied herself with preparing dinner. At some point Martha’s frustration with Mary boiled over, so she asked Jesus to tell Mary to help her in the kitchen. But Jesus responded by saying, “Mary has chosen the better part” – thus putting on record that he preferred Mary’s listening to Martha’s kitchen work.
I have always imagined that Martha was the older sister – the responsible one – the one that had to, or at least thought she had to, take care of things. The one that had to be in charge. Mary, on the other hand, strikes me as the younger sister, the free spirit, the fun loving one. I don’t have any Biblical basis for this, just my imagining.
Mary may have chosen the better part, but someone has to prepare dinner, don’t they! Martha can’t just ignore her guest. Jesus needs to eat, doesn’t he!
Then again, Jesus did feed five thousand people–fed them until they were full–with just a few small fishes and some bread. If Martha had relaxed and sat at Jesus’ feet with Mary, would they have gone hungry? Maybe not.
But Martha was giving Jesus the best gift she knew how to give–a home-cooked meal. Likewise, Mary was giving Jesus the best gift she knew how to give–her devotion—her undivided attention–her careful listening.
Earlier–shortly before his latest visit to Bethany–Jesus had visited Martha and Mary. Lazarus had been deathly ill, and his sisters had sent for Jesus in the hope that Jesus would heal Lazarus. But Jesus came too late. By the time he arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had already died–and had already been buried in a tomb much like the tomb in which Jesus himself would soon be buried.
Jesus told them to roll the stone away, but they protested that Lazarus had been dead four days–so the smell would be terrible. But Jesus again asked to roll back the stone, and reluctantly they complied. Then Jesus ordered Lazarus to come out of the tomb, and Lazarus did so–wrapped in his grave clothes.
Mary and Martha, of course, were thrilled to have their brother back in the family–alive and well.
That story provides the background for the story this week. Mary and Martha were both exceedingly grateful to Jesus for bringing their brother back to life. Martha showed her gratitude by making Jesus dinner–because that’s what Martha did. Her talent was cooking and serving, so she honored Jesus by fixing him a really nice dinner.
But Mary was not nearly that predictable. You never knew what Mary might do next– but even her closest friends couldn’t have guessed what Mary was about to do. She took a pound of ointment of pure nard, and anointed Jesus’ feet–and wiped his feet with her hair–shocking behavior for that time and place, but behavior that illustrated graphically the depth of her gratitude.
The ointment that Mary used was expensive. It cost as much as a worker might earn in a year. It was a totally extravagant gesture that made it clear how grateful Mary was to Jesus for saving her brother–and it also demonstrated her deep affection for Jesus.
When I hear that story, I think how great it would be to do something so extravagant for Jesus. But that opportunity has come and gone, because Jesus ascended back into heaven more than two thousand years ago. We can’t do what Martha did–serving Jesus a special dinner. And we can’t do what Mary did–anointing Jesus’ feet with precious ointment.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t offer Jesus an over-the-top, generous gift. Christians all over the world are still giving Jesus extravagant gifts–in some cases, at the cost of their lives.
I’m talking about people such as missionaries, who devote their lives to ministry in faraway places–places few of us would choose to live. Some people have been missionaries in really hellish places for over forty years. When friends ask them when they are coming home, they say, “We are home.” In other words, they have no plans to return to the United States. They have been on the mission field for forty years, and anticipate being there for the rest of their lives. Wouldn’t you call that an over-the-top, extravagant gift? Can you think of a better way to honor Jesus than to devote your life to his service?
I’m talking about people such as Dolores Hart, a beautiful actress who played the love interest in the movie King Creole with Elvis Presley. She was also in other movies like Where the Boys Are and Francis of Assisi in the late 50s and early 60s. But God didn’t call Dolores to be an actress. Not long after she appeared in those movies, she quit Hollywood and took vows as a Catholic nun. She has served in that capacity for nearly five decades now, and plans to do so for the rest of her life.
Some people might say, “What a waste!” I’m not sure what that means–but I suspect that they think Dolores would have had a more fulfilling life as a Hollywood actress. But that isn’t what God called her to be. He called her to a monastery, so that’s where she went. In doing so, she blessed all of us by showing us that it is still possible to give Jesus an over-the-top, extravagant gift.
I might also add – people in the motion picture industry are often unhappy and dysfunctional. That is seldom true for people who devote their lives to serving Jesus.
Or consider the Wycliffe Bible Translators. Their goal is to ensure that everyone in the world has access to a Bible in their own language. The task is enormous. I saw an article recently that said that the people in Papua New Guinea speak 820 different languages. Imagine! New Guinea is a large island just north of Australia, and Papua occupies only half of the island–and yet the people of Papua speak 820 different languages. Many of them have no written language. Just imagine how many different languages there must be across the globe.
First, the Wycliffe translators have to go through a training program. Then they go where they are assigned–very often to a primitive tribe far from civilization. In many cases, the tribe has no written language, so the Wycliffe translator has to start by learning the tribal language. That, of course, can take a long time. Then the Wycliffe translator has to start compiling a written version of the tribal language, and that can also take a very long time.
Finally, the Wycliffe translator must translate the Bible into the tribal language, so that the tribal members can have their very own Bible. The total process can take years. In some cases, it can take a lifetime. But the lives of the Wycliffe translators are the extravagant gift that they offer Jesus–in much the same way that Mary gave Jesus her priceless ointment.
But you might say–rightly–that Jesus hasn’t called you to be a missionary. You might say–rightly–that Jesus hasn’t called you to be a Wycliffe translator. You might even say that Jesus has called you to be right where you are–in this community–in this church–doing your part for Jesus right here. I suspect that you would be right.
What we do here isn’t very dramatic, for the most part, compared with my examples. We conduct worship ever week. Notice that I didn’t say, “Carol conducts worship.” Many people contribute to our services—lay speakers, pianists, ushers, people who help to serve communion, liturgists, and others.
Our lunches and potlucks, our Bazaars and progressive dinners give us opportunity to get acquainted with others–and to be Christ’s family in our community. To serve our community and each other the way Martha served Jesus. It takes many hands here and at home to do that.
And it takes volunteers to decorate the tables and to clean up, upstairs and downstairs. To sweep up the dead bugs. Volunteers to take care of the lawn and flower beds, to shovel snow, to fix the sprinkler system or the lights.
And then there’s money. God calls us to give sacrificially–both time and money. Not everyone does that, but most of us do–and that generosity makes it possible for us to bear witness to Christ for the people of our community.
All those things seem simple–ordinary–but they’re not. Our efforts, individually and collectively, are our gift to Jesus. They might not be as dramatic as Mary’s anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment and drying his feet with her hair. But there’s another way of looking at it. Mary’s gift was a one-time thing. Our gift of daily and weekly service often goes on for a lifetime. As I see it, our gift of service, wherever that might be, is every bit as significant as Mary’s dramatic gesture.
It all comes down to this! What has God called us to do–and where has he called us to serve? If we are honoring God’s call, that’s all that is needed. God will provide what else is needed–and will bless us for our faithfulness.