"Palm Sunday Goodbyes" – Mark 14:1-9
It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’
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. But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her.
But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; 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.’
Today, this Palm Sunday, is a day full of symbols and stories and prospects and possibilities, because it’s all about what is to come in the week ahead. In many churches on Palm Sunday – and at Cross of Grace, most years – we simply hear the Passion narrative of Jesus’ last days and hours, leading up to his crucifixion and death. But there will be time for that, later this week. We’ll gather on Maundy Thursday to hear about Jesus’ Last Supper and his greatest commandment. And we’ll gather on Good Friday to hear about his last steps and last words and last breath, even, on the cross.
So today, we’re just getting started – with the parade into Jerusalem before the big holiday for the Jews and now, even closer to the Passover, we find Jesus having dinner and being anointed with oil by this woman who, in Mark’s version of the Gospel anyway, doesn’t even get a name. But she does seem to know something others have missed…something Jesus understands: which is that his death is right around the corner.
And, who knows why she understands what others don’t? Maybe she was paying attention at that parade, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that donkey and those palm branches and cloaks were laid out before him.
Maybe she knew her scripture enough to recognize, in those shouts of “Hosanna,” that here was, indeed, this one who had come in the name of the Lord.
Maybe, as John’s Gospel tells it, this was Jesus’ good friend, Mary, Martha’s sister and the sister of Lazarus. And maybe she came with the oil because Jesus had told her; given her the inside scoop. Maybe she had a plan to show the others something they hadn’t been able to catch onto yet. Maybe Jesus had even asked her to do just that. Or maybe her moment of anointing was a surprise, even to Jesus, that set his final days on a new course, even in his own heart of hearts.
Whatever the case, the point is clear. Jesus was about to die. This woman knew it. Jesus knew it. And, I think, it was time for the rest of the crew to finally get with the program, and understand the fullness of what was coming.
But that’s hard news to hear, right – that the end is near for those we care about? that death is coming for those we love? It’s easy stuff to deny, isn’t it? We’re inclined to pretend and to live otherwise, as much and for as long as we’re able, don’t you think? We are hangers on, when it comes to dying. We are tooth and nail kind of people, most of the time, when it comes to death and saying our final farewells.
I remember heading up to Michigan to see my grandmother who was sick and, very literally on her death-bed, a few years back. For decades, every time we parted ways with her she acted like it could be the last time. But this was different. She was sick and we all knew the time for last goodbyes was ripe. Friends were making the trip from around town and from around the country, even. My brother flew in from Phoenix. My parents had set up camp in her condo. The nursing staff was on duty around the clock. And before I hit the road, to drive in from Indiana, I ran into Denise Miller here at church who, with more wisdom and love than I was ready for in that moment, wished me luck, gave me a hug, and said, “There’s nothing like walking out that door for the last time.” And isn’t that the truth?
“There’s nothing like walking out that door for the last time.”
And, whether he was ready for it or not, I think that’s the blessing Jesus received from this woman who anoints him today. I think she reminded him – and anyone who was really able to hear it, that “there’s nothing like walking out that door for the last time.” And her anointing becomes a blessing – a teachable moment – he uses to prepare his people for the truth and fullness of what is to come for him.
See, in all of that grumbling about the perfume and about how much it cost and about how much it could have done for the poor, Jesus seems to be unfussed. Because, back in Jesus’ day, this kind of anointing with perfume was done when someone died. They anointed the body with oils as a ritual sort of cleansing, as a spiritual sort of preparation for the afterlife, and, quite practically, I imagine, to keep the smell to a minimum once the bodies were left to decompose in those family tombs that got used from one funeral to the next.
All of that is why Jesus doesn’t bother with the others when they pretend to care that the money from that perfume could have been used to help the poor. He tells them to back off, to leave the woman alone and to let her do with her perfume whatever she wants to do with her perfume. “You’ll always have the poor with you,” he promises. “You will not always have me,” he warns. “You will not always have me.” But I wonder if anyone heard what Jesus had said or if the rest of them understood, finally, just what he was getting at.
“There’s nothing like walking out that door for the last time.”
And I wonder if our lesson for today, if our invitation as we enter into yet another Holy Week, is to imagine more fully the truth and the weight of what it means to walk out the door for the last time. And I wonder how that might change our lives – and change our way in this world – if we let that truth have its way with us more often than we’re inclined, so much of the time.
I mean, if we lived every day like it could be the last… If we lived every day like Jesus’ sacrifice was just around the corner, instead of just one Holy Week out of 52 in every year… wouldn’t things be different for us, as his followers? And then maybe the world would be different, as a result?
Would we be more grateful for what we already have and stop coveting the green grass on the other side of the fence?
Would we give more generously, out of our abundance? Or would we keep on giving from what we have leftover?
Would the extent of our social activism be limited to our Twitter feed? Or might we get out and do more with our hands and with our feet and with our voices and with our votes?
Would our greatest expressions of love and devotion be shared on Facebook? Or might we say more of those things face to face with words and actions that matter? Maybe we wouldn’t save all those “death-bed conversations” for the death-bed, after all.
Would we ask for forgiveness and offer forgiveness more often and with more integrity?
Because there really is nothing like walking out that door for the last time, except when we’re walking the way with Jesus. Because the good news for us as children of God, as followers of Jesus, as the baptized in Christ, headed into this Holy Week, is that his “last time,” his final steps up the hill, are all about closing the door on our sin; all about shutting out our sickness; all about transforming our struggle and letting us live differently because of it, right now, right where we are.
See, the hope and promise of it all is that his “last time…” his final steps… his ending… becomes new life, and with it, our beginning, our second chance, our gift of grace, our holy challenge to live everyday with guts and grace, with love and joy, with peace and hope, like it might be our last – because in God’s eyes we know it never will be.