"Being Mortal" – John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Several months ago at Cross of Grace, many of us were reading and discussing and theologizing about a book called Being Mortal, written by a practicing surgeon named Atul Gawande. The book challenges what modern medicine has done to the process of aging and to the practice of dying, particularly where the elderly are concerned. At the risk of too drastically simplifying the issue, the point is that we – as a culture – have let the practice of medicine dictate and diminish how well we die, how we let each other die, how we refuse to let our loved ones go, and/or how we deny the place and power and purpose of death among us.
In short, we do all kinds of things to post-pone, to put off, to forestall the inevitability of our own demise – or that of those we love in many cases – for no other reason than to keep our hearts beating and our lungs breathing – even to the point of great suffering, even if there is no possibility of life or joy or purpose for us any longer.
And I thought about Being Mortal as I read about Mary (and Martha and Lazarus and Jesus and even Judas) in today’s Gospel, because I think Mary knew something about Being Mortal that we – and those others at dinner with Jesus that day, maybe – forget, or deny, or dismiss, or fear, too much of the time.
See – because of the way death and dying have been on my mind and in my heart and staring us in the face of our life together around here these last few weeks – this moment between Mary and Jesus raises some poignant questions. If you had the luxury and the blessing of being around and available for the final, holy moments of someone’s life, what would you do? What would you say? If you had – if you were to have – the luxury and the blessing of making choices about the final weeks and days and holy moments of someone’s life, what choices would you make on their behalf?
Would you work for a cure or plan an escape or draw up a will? Is it really enough that the blood is pumping and that the lungs are breathing – if those are the only signs of life? Would you pray for a miracle or start bargaining with God for some better options? Would you try to save them at all costs?
Or would you make them dinner and anoint their feet with oil – like Mary did, that day in Bethany?
Here’s the story:
Jesus returns to Bethany – where he had been before and where he had gotten into trouble for raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. See, when Jesus raised Lazarus and word was out about what he could do – people were starting to follow him and believe in him and wanting to see more of him. And all of this worried the powers that be, so they made plans to kill Jesus because of it. They’d even given orders for anyone who knew where he was to hand him over. So, when Jesus returned to Bethany – the scene of his crime as it were – it seems that trouble was brewing.
Which is what makes Mary’s anointing so remarkable. It’s remarkable because there was important work to be done. Maybe they should have been hiding Jesus away somehow, not calling attention to him by dousing him with perfume. Maybe they needed to devise a scheme to get him out of town or plan his defense. They certainly didn’t need to be wasting their time and money on nard and anointing – which, as they all knew had something to do with burying the dead anyway. So, was Mary just giving up? Admitting defeat? Resigned to Jesus’ fate?
Or was Mary being mortal – was she being human – and letting Jesus be mortal, just the same? I think, maybe.
We may never know all that was running through Jesus’ mind as he readied himself for Calvary and for his own crucifixion. Was it fear or faith? Was it anxiety and exhilaration? Was it doubt or determination? Was it peace, calm, second thoughts, some combination of all of these things?
Whatever it was, it makes me wonder about what he longed for most, in his most mortal, human heart of hearts, in those days before his crucifixion. I imagine he wanted to be with people he loved and with people who loved him back. And I imagine it’s why he appreciated Mary’s anointing, like he did. She wasn’t trying to fix things or postpone the inevitable or make plans or busy herself with distractions. All she wanted to do was honor her teacher… to worship her Lord… to love her friend in a way that was deep and real and as true as could be.
Mary was “being mortal” in a remarkable, faithful, courageous way, it seems, because isn’t what Mary did something like what each of us would choose for ourselves – or for those we love the most – if we are fortunate enough to have the chance for a last hurrah, a final goodbye, or time to think and pray and plan for our final moments with the ones we love?
Yes, we do all we can do to rescue and to save and to plan and to help where we are able to help, don’t get me wrong. And each of us has different ways for determining what that looks like. But the truth for each and every one of us is that our time will come. Each of us is as mortal as the next, and none of us has found a cure for that mortality, as far as I know, which is what Mary and these waning days of our Lenten journey stand to remind us.
So let’s ready ourselves for these last days of Jesus’ life – for his entry into Jerusalem, for his last meal, his last words, his last breath – all of which we will regard through worship in the days ahead. And what if we did all of that by mustering some measure of the same honor, reverence, devotion, and love, that Mary showed? What if we recognize – what if we admit – that the one we call Lord and Savior, Teacher and Messiah, is about to be mercilessly crucified for our sake? And what if we fall to our knees and spare no expense to worship, to offer thanks for and to give honor to the God we know in this Jesus?
Because when we honor God with that kind of devotion, gratitude and humility, it impacts every part of our life – and the world around us. When we live that way – gratefully, humbly, courageously, faithfully – God’s kingdom comes alive among us. No matter what Judas says, poor people get fed, sick people are comforted, skeptics believe, Jesus lives again through each of us and the world is changed by God’s kind of grace.
And I sort of think all of that might be a kind of cure for our mortality – on this side of the grave, anyway.
So what if Mary’s moment with Jesus is an invitation for us to not wait till we can’t wait any longer? What if Mary’s anointing is a call for each of us to start to “live like we were dying” as the country song goes? Let’s face whatever fear and sadness come along with death for us, let’s not pretend we can outrun all of that, but let’s not let it scare us into submission, either. Let’s be more generous. Let’s say thanks more often. Let’s forgive like we mean it and let’s be forgiven like we deserve it.
Let’s share moments of grace with no expectations and no strings attached and I’ll bet you three hundred denarii it will lead to joy. I’ll bet it will lead to peace and hope and all kinds of other good stuff, too. Because I believe that when we share that kind of love and devotion with another, Jesus comes to life among us, and our mortal selves put on immortality, in this life, and we stir up the power of God in our midst and we get a glimpse of the kingdom and of resurrection and of new life, right where we live.